Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Norman Collins - London Belongs To Me

London 1938 - war hangs like a shadow over the heads of every inhabitant of the town. But London doesn't stop. In his beautiful preface to this, Norman Collin's most famous novel, the author introduces the "Real Londoners" who star in his novel.

These Real Londoners "sleep the night in London as well as work the day there", and of these, some are "in love, some in debt, some committing murders, some adultery, some trying to get on in the world, some looking forward to a pension, some getting drunk, some losing their jobs, some dying, and some holding up the new baby."

Each of the characters in Collin's book are perfectly crafted. None of them are perfect, they are ordinary working-class folk (though some pretend otherwise), often struggling to survive living ordinary lives. As with all people, ordinary lives are full of drama and excitement, love and hate, passion and fear. And London on the eve of war, is a city that forms the back drop to their stories.

First we meet Mr. Josser, fiercly proud of his job, at the moment of his retirement,struggling with a bag of memories and an ornate clock as he tries to get home to Dulcimer Street to spend Christmas with his family. As he arrives, we met both his family and the other characters who live in the house they share with their landlady, Mrs. Vizzard who seems to be waiting for the end of her life.

To tell more about the story would ruin the book. But beware, if you base your knowledge of this story on the famous film, the novel is more complex with a longer ending.

But what struck me as fascinating, as someone who lived in London for almost 7 years, is how contemporary the novel reads. The streets are crowded and the tube over-full. People work different hours, but still laugh and joke as any officer worker does in the run up to Christmas. The pubs are full and people watch their pennies, calculating how much they can afford to drink, and everyone dreams of getting out. I was surprised at how often extra-marital sex is mentioned (or hinted at!), so that's accurate too!

It's a great novel, funny and exciting and a window on a strange moment of history, when war was on the horizon and London was on the target list.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Barry Lopez – Arctic Dreams


Subtitled “Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape”, this is a strange tome indeed. The first chapters read very much like a somewhat florid natural history book. The arctic is often described and imagined as a desolate landscape of snow, ice and few living things. Barry Lopez explains why this isn’t the case.

Lopez explains how the peculiar nature of the arctic makes the things that live there very special. Take for instance his explanation of soil. Soil is, he says “a living system”, a combination of dirt and decaying organic matter. “It draws in oxygen like an animal through myriad tunnel built by ants, rodents ad worms”. However the further north you go, the less living this is. Because of the cold, there are less animals and plants to help the material decay and aerate the ground. Eventually you get to a situation where dead material will take years, perhaps decades to decay.

It’s this understanding of the arctic places as being a continuation of other areas and a break that makes Lopez’s writing so interesting. It’s not simply that the Eskimo people are human’s adapted to the cold regions, it’s that there has been a gradual transition as people moved into the arctic and changed their lifestyles to suit the conditions. Lopez describes how Eskimo’s can survive with almost no possessions rebuilding their lives if everything they own is destroyed, but he doesn’t pretend that they are somehow super humans, capable of doing the impossible.

For this author, the arctic is a perfect example of how nature is interlocking. The Polar Bears depend on the seals, the seals are dependent on other animals to eat, other animals depend upon the tides and weather freezing the water in particular ways, to encourage or discourage the formation of microscopic plants and animals. All of this is subject to change (sudden and gradual) and all of it is affected by the presence and actions of man.

In fact it is when it comes to man that Barry’s writing really comes into its own. The last few chapters dealing with the history of man’s conquest of the arctic – in search of financial gain in the most part, is a breathtaking story of voyage, exploration, accident and bravery. Imagine being trapped in the ice with several hundred sailors for over a year, but it’s precisely this that happened to many who braved the icy lands.

This is not to say that the natural writing isn’t as interesting – the chapters on the Narwhal and Polar Bears are particularly fascinating….. I liked the explanation of why the Narwhal’s tusk is covered in a spiral pattern for instance.

Ultimately, even if Barry Lopez’s florid writing gets on the readers nerves occasionally, this is nothing less than a wonderful explanation of how natural systems, depend upon each other in such a delicate way. It’s also a terrifying portrayal of just what we have to loose if any part of those systems are destroyed or displaced.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Christina Hardyment - Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk


One of the hardest things about loving the novels by Arthur Ransome as a child, was not being able to sail, or even having access to a boat, apart from the occasional rowing trip on the pond in the local park. Novels like "Swallows and Amazons", "Peter Duck" and "We Didn't mean to Go to Sea" were books to stimulate the imagination and let a young reader dream about sailing across the oceans.

There is no doubt that Ransome would have wanted that - it's clear from the biographical details in this book that he loved children as well as boats and fishing. His novels, we discover are populated with friends and family either as exact duplicates or amalgamations. The fascination of discovering that there really was someone who inspired the Swallows and the Amazons is only tempered by the excitement at the knowledge that Wild Cat island and similar places are real places.

Ransome of course would have enjoyed the fact that the boats and ships that inspired, Swallow, Amazon and Captain Flint's houseboat still exist and in the case of the later, still ply the Lake Coniston.

Christina Hardyment has written a book that is nothing less than her Odyssey to find the places that inspired Arthur Ransome. He comes across as a larger than life character, a journalist prepared to suffer for his craft, but one to whom the good things in life are very important. While in Russia during the revolution, he found time to fall in love (and eventually marry) Trotsky's secretary and play chess with Lenin. He got a boat built and sailed it back to England, with adventures along the way. While expressing sympathies with the Russian Revolution, his friends and family clearly came from the well-off members of those that England sent abroad to manage her Empire, and the letters sent to him are full of fascinating details written by those who missed mucking about on boats in the Lake District.

For those who loved the novels Ransome wrote, there is much here to supplement them. Including, for instance, the missing chapter of Peter Duck that explains why the adventure doesn't really fit with the "reality" of the children's lives. The pictures illuminate Ransome's creative process - photos of people mimicking the poses needed to illustrate the books, and I liked the detail that Ransome went to, to ensure that the stories were accurate.

Finally back in print after many years, this is well worth grabbing, particularly if you hope to visit Swallows and Amazon country.