Apr 30, 2021
Turning vegan ... a series of investigations, presented with humour and humility, into our contradictory relationships with pets, livestock and wildlife
While researching this book, Henry Mance worked briefly in an abattoir, or “a disassembly line”, as he aptly terms it. As he watched sheep being stunned, their throats slit and then hung up, still twitching, from metal hooks on a motorised track, Mance asked himself: “How did humans come to this?”
His book is an attempt to answer that question, as well as an exploration of how our attitudes to pets, livestock and wild animals have changed through history: “I wanted to know whether my love for animals was reflected in how I behaved, or whether – like my love for arthouse films – it was mainly theoretical.” Continue reading...
Mar 05, 2021
An illustrated record begun in the ‘strangest spring’ of 2020 celebrates the enduring beauty and culture of birdlife
In spring 2020, as Covid-19 spread fear and infection around the globe, seismologists were able to track “a wave of silence passing over the earth, its course exactly following that of the virus”. According to Steven Lovatt, silence descended on Britain, perhaps for the first time since the Industrial Revolution: “Finally, the earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was song.”
The pandemic struck in the northern hemisphere just at the moment when birdsong was resuming after the bleak winter months. That “strangest spring” will be remembered not just for the new virus, but as the time when the nation became aware of birdsong. Silent streets and gardens were filled with “a rising choir of chirps, trills and warbles”. People shared recordings made on their phones of “the woozy fluting of blackbirds” and “the deep purring of wood pigeons”. Continue reading...
Feb 12, 2021
From Nanjing roast duck to ‘barbarian pepper’ and dim sum ... a splendid introduction to the complex history of China, via cooking
Jonathan Clements grew up in Southend-on-Sea. In the 1970s, his father played drums in a local Chinese restaurant, the Garden of China, “an odd mixture of industrial chic and orientalist kitsch”. As children they ate there regularly (“my brother cut his teeth gnawing spare ribs”) and Chinese food has been “a constant pleasure and addiction” for Clements ever since, propelling him into a career studying east Asian history and culture.
The Emperor’s Feast tells the story of Chinese food, starting 3,000 years ago with the Book of Rites (Liji), attributed to Confucius, which described meals as the thing that “separated savagery from civilisation – the raw from the cooked”. But Clements also cleverly uses food – the part of Chinese culture with which many western people are most familiar – as a way of charting the complex history of China, a vast country made up of many peoples, cultures and cuisines. Continue reading...
Dec 18, 2020
An evocative and uplifting study of cemeteries, where every headstone has a story to tell
On 20 March 2014, two women were walking through Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin after visiting the grave of a family friend when they found the body of Shane MacThomáis, who had written books about the city and its cemetery. He was 46 and had been struggling with depression for some time. He was also, as Peter Ross says, “the best-known guide at the most-famous cemetery in Ireland”, visited by 200,000 people a year.
MacThomáis once said of Glasnevin: “The place is so vast you could tell the whole history of Ireland ten times over.” It is a city within a city; its 124 acres hold 1.5m graves, more than Dublin’s current population. “I don’t think he saw it as a place where dead people were laid to rest,” said his daughter. “I think he saw it as so much information stored around him. It was like a library.” MacThomáis’s knowledge of Irish history was so vast, Ross writes, “that his suicide was likened to a library burning down”. He was buried alongside his father in the cemetery that had meant so much to him. Continue reading...
Dec 05, 2020
The round-the-world cycle ride that turned into an internet sensation – with the help of a feline companion
When Dean Nicholson left his hometown of Dunbar on the eastern coast of Scotland in September 2018, he had just turned 30 and was planning to cycle around the world. This wasn’t only a test of physical endurance, it was also an attempt to escape the daily routine and to find fresh purpose in his life: “I hit the road to find a road.” What he didn’t expect, however, was that “a scrawny, grey-and-white kitten” would show him the way.
At the beginning of December he was in the mountains of southern Bosnia, making for the border with Montenegro, when he heard a meowing behind the bike. Scampering along the road was “a scrappy wee thing” that fitted into the palm of his hand, with “sharply pointing ears, spindly legs and a thick tail”. She also had beautiful big green eyes. Continue reading...
Oct 10, 2020
The compelling story of tracking down the secrets of a ‘desk murderer’ and confronting his family with his crimes
In 2011, having just completed research on the experiences of Jews in Vichy France, Daniel Lee met a Dutch student who told him a remarkable story. Her mother had taken a chair to be reupholstered in Amsterdam. When she returned to collect it, the man angrily told her that he did not work for Nazis or their families. He then presented her with a bundle of old documents covered in swastikas that he had found sewn into the chair’s cushion. She was astonished and had no idea how the documents came to be there. Born in Czechoslovakia, she had bought the chair while studying in Prague in 1968.
Both the mother and the daughter were keen to know more about the mysterious man whose documents were hidden inside their chair and Lee agreed to take a look. They turned out to belong to Robert Griesinger, a German lawyer who was sent to Nazi-occupied Prague in 1943 as a senior civil servant. His passport photo showed a handsome man “with slicked-back hair and a strong, distinctive face”. He had a scar on his left cheek which, as Lee later discovered, dated from his time in a rightwing student duelling fraternity in Tübingen. Ranging from 1933 to 1945, the documents included his proof of identity and profession. But why had he hidden them in the chair? Continue reading...
Jul 25, 2020
The plight of a much maligned predator is investigated in this plea to respect the life in our oceans
America’s fear of sharks began in the summer of 1916. During a 10-day period four people were killed in the sea off New Jersey and one seriously injured. According to the conservationist and film-maker William McKeever, “the events triggered mass hysteria and the first extensive shark hunt in history”. The idea of a “deranged, man-eating great white on the loose” had been planted in the American psyche and it would eventually inspire Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws – which has sold 20m copies – and Steven Spielberg’s famous film.
The fallacy that “sharks as a species are nothing more than bloodthirsty man-eaters, apex predators with no other purpose than to kill” is widely believed. The reality is different. In 2018, there were four deaths attributed to a shark attack. The US, which is the country with the most attacks, had one that year. Ants kill 30 people a year there, and bees 478. Continue reading...
Jul 10, 2020
What should happen during the summer holidays? Evocative memories of roaming out of parental reach
In 1966, John Mullan begged his parents for a foreign holiday after a school friend went, with his family, to Majorca for the summer: “My mother shook her head and said: ‘Darling, going abroad is vulgar.’” Instead, they went to shingly Suffolk. Three years later, Harry Ritchie from Kirkcaldy travelled to Majorca on his first foreign holiday. It was a revelation: “Being able to take clothes off for a holiday, rather than having to put more on: that was wonderful in itself.”
While researching her delightful oral history of school summer holidays, Ysenda Maxtone Graham found that many people didn’t go abroad until they were adults. Indeed, “going-away type holidays” to faraway places are only a part of the story Maxtone Graham tells. Summers were, she finds, “more a matter of stasis than travel”. Continue reading...
Jul 09, 2020
Listen to the dawn chorus, find a giant moth ... suggestions to enrich your life
In CS Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy reads out a spell for revealing hidden things. Inspired by this idea, nature writer Simon Barnes offers 23 “spells” for making nature visible, from “Magic Trousers” (waterproofs) and “the Snake-Charming Spell” to “How to turn into a swan” (by canoeing). Each chapter sets out new techniques and equipment to open our eyes to the mammals, birds, butterflies and reptiles living largely unnoticed all around us. These spells also reawaken primeval parts of our consciousness, long dormant in our urban lives: “We are hunter-gatherers in suits and dresses and jeans and T-shirts.”
With practical tips on how to identify animal traces such as otter slides and badgers’ snuffle-pits, and how to find an elephant hawk moth the size of your palm, Barnes describes the wonders of nature with an infectious enthusiasm. How many people get up to hear the dawn chorus? It is “the single biggest wildlife miracle that we have in Britain”. Puffins, eagles, dolphins – Barnes has suggestions for finding all these “magical beasts”. By making space in our lives for nature, “you do something to your brain”. And according to Barnes, “the wilder you are, the more amazing life is”. Continue reading...
Jun 13, 2020
This regal butterfly has a short lifespan but is ‘a mighty metaphor for our relationship with beauty, and with nature’
It all begins with an egg half the size of a pinhead. After it hatches, the caterpillar spends 10 months on a willow, followed by three weeks pupating upside down. Out of this emerges a giant butterfly like no other in the UK.
The female purple emperor (Apatura iris) is “bold, brown and brazen”, while the male is “stunningly beautiful, with shimmering wings of iridescent blues, purples and violets”. With a wing span of about 8cm, the males are immensely powerful and will defend their treetop territories against all comers, including birds and even drones. Mysterious, elusive and enthralling, the beauty of this tropical looking butterfly is fleeting; it lives a mere 10 days. But in this time “it transports us into a world that is very different from the one we know”. Continue reading...
May 06, 2020
A life-affirming study of the pleasures of tending a plot or garden, and soothing your mind
Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, has a unique view of gardening: “I have come to understand that deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden.” For her, a garden – such as her own at Serge Hill, Hertfordshire – is far more than just a much loved physical space. It is also a mental space, one that “gives you quiet, so you can hear your thoughts”. When you work with your hands in the garden, weeding or clipping, you free your mind to work through feelings and problems.. By tending your plants, you are also gardening your inner space and, over time, a garden is woven into your sense of identity, becoming a place to “buffer us when the going gets tough”.
It was Wordsworth who said that to walk through a garden is to be “in the midst of the realities of things”, to be immersed in the primal awareness not just of nature’s beauty, but the eternal cycle of the seasons, of life, death and rebirth. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed modern technological life had alienated us from the “dark maternal, earthy ground of our being”. He grew his own vegetables and argued that “every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts can come to life again”. Continue reading...
Apr 29, 2020
From baobabs to London planes, the unique characteristics of the Earth’s trees and their role in human lives
There’s a whole world in every tree, says Jonathan Drori. Travelling eastwards from his London home, he chooses 80 trees from the 60,000 or so species on the planet. He starts with the London Plane, “a tree of pomp and circumstance”, first planted in Berkeley Square, Mayfair, in 1789. A hybrid of the American sycamore and the Oriental plane, they have set an example to urban planners around the world.
The smooth bark of the beech has long been associated with writing: beech boards once enclosed vellum books and in many languages the words for this tree and for the written word are similar. Continue reading...
Apr 24, 2020
Some households don’t have one, many don’t want one … a fascinating insight into how addresses affect ordinary people around the world
According to Deirdre Mask, “most households in the world don’t have street addresses”. That includes many parts of rural America. When Mask took a trip to West Virginia to find an acquaintance who doesn’t have an address, she got lost: “For generations, people had navigated West Virginia in creative ways. Directions are delivered in paragraphs.” The lack of an address can be a matter of life and death if you need an ambulance. Some drivers have resorted to asking people to listen out for the siren and to guide them by phone: “Getting hotter? Getting closer?”
But giving people a street address is not simple. For a start, many don’t want one. One farmer was outraged that his street was to be named after the banker who refused his grandfather a loan during the Great Depression. Workers setting up signs have been greeted by men with shotguns. Continue reading...
Mar 27, 2020
From a tent in a field to Winston Churchill’s Chartwell, a rich and eclectic collection of essays, edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee
In the 1980s, my father wrote a guide, Writers in Sussex, for which I took the photographs. During our research we visited the former homes of 40 or so writers. They included William Blake’s flint cottage in Felpham (“the sweetest spot on earth”, according to Blake); Rudyard Kipling’s imposing stone manor house, Bateman’s, at Burwash; Hilaire Belloc’s home, King’s Land, at Shipley, which was originally a tithe barn built by monks; and the cottage Mervyn Peake lived in while writing Titus Groan, within sight of the massive grey walls of Arundel Castle – an inspiration, perhaps, for Gormenghast. Peake is buried nearby, his gravestone inscribed with a moving line from one of his poems: “To live at all is miracle enough.”
Sadly some of the houses have now gone. One of those is Asheham House, near Beddingham, which Virginia and Leonard Woolf rented in 1912, before they bought Monk’s House, in nearby Rodmell, in 1919. Leonard aptly described it as “romantic, gentle, melancholy, lovely”. When we visited in the autumn, the trees around this remote and austerely beautiful house, with its elegant Gothic windows, were bare and echoing with the raucous calls of rooks. Locals had told Virginia that Asheham was haunted and it became the subject of her story “The Haunted House”. Continue reading...