Book Review: Few and Far Between, by Charlie Elder

Few and Far

A pair of blue tits nest in the table beneath a fir tree in my back garden every spring; a robin is a permanent resident; most evenings since May magpies have been fighting with crows for proprietorship of the back garden – they swoop over the roof and disappear into the denser woodland by the old railway that runs along the foot of the garden; a colony of rabbits live under the shed; four deer visit regularly every spring. This year, the garden has been busier with wildlife than last year, but not as busy as three years ago. In 2011, the year after the really bad winter, there were few wildlife visitors. I don’t keep a note of these visits, but after reading Charlie Elder’s book on nature conservation, I know I ought to.

Elder’s Few and Far Between: On the trail of Britain’s rarest animals (Bloomsbury) illuminates our understanding of what is lost, what we know we have now, and who is keeping watch on the state of our wildlife. Do we take it for granted that blue tits will always be there? What usefulness do they bring to the ecosystem of our gardens – what do they do for humans? Elder shows that such questions are the wrong way to think about wildlife and conservation. Some creatures exist just because they do – and that should be enough for our concerned watchfulness over their numbers.

I reviewed Few and Far Between in the Times Literary Supplement (29 July 2015)

Charlie Elder’s website is a good starting point for finding out about contemporary conservation issues.

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Book Review: Britannia Obscura, by Joanne Parker

Britannia Obscura

Britannia Obscura: Mapping Hidden Britain by Joanne Parker (Jonathan Cape)

Writing to his commander from Castle Stalker on Loch Laich, in Appin, a month before the Battle of Culloden, Captain Frederick Scott complained, “this Place is not marked on any of our maps”. William Roy’s subsequent maps included detailed surveys of important Roman sites, owing to Roy’s personal interest in antiquities, while swathes of land, settlements, islands, lochs, hills, and glens were unrecorded. When Roy’s surveyors were unable to access areas remote from Wade’s roads, he simply made “informed guesses” on location and topography. Britain’s national mapping agency has its origins in Roy’s 1747 commission to map the Scottish mainland. Nowadays, their slogan is “No-one Knows Great Britain Better”, nonetheless, pace Ordnance Survey, there are many ways of looking at a landscape: the personal as meaningful as social, historical, political or military significance.

Joanne Parker’s slim volume describes five very different maps: the cavers’ maps, the lost canal network, the megalith hunter’s map, ley hunter maps, and aeronautical maps; maps of the imagination and geographical maps. Parker situates each map within its relevant literary and historical context, but also moves away from text-based research and includes magazine-style snippets of interviews with contemporary cartographers in the field, together with references to websites and blogs in her inclusive approach to looking at the landscape through “a variety of lenses”.

For the review in full see this week’s Times Literary Supplement [subscription needed]

Book Review: Central Reservation, Will le Fleming

Central Reservation, by Will le Fleming

256pp. (Xelsion) ISBN 978 0 9569370 0 1

In Central Reservation, thirteen-year-old Holly wants desperately to be freed from the sisterly bonds that tie her to Yvonne, her twin, but she is shocked and guilty when Yvonne is killed in a freak accident involving the school bus.  As she struggles to create a new self apart from her sister and realign her relationship with her widowed mother Belinda, Yvonne’s ghost follows her every move. Holly’s efforts are further complicated by outside forces and internal family conflicts; by a foot-and-mouth epidemic that brings MAFF operatives who prowl the countryside like hired assassins, and by “The Family” who descend on Holly’s isolated farm bringing comfort but trailing with them unresolved and hitherto unspoken “issues”.

Although death stalks the novel, the distant, third person narration holds mawkishness and sentiment at bay. Subtle switches in perspective add tension. At the hospital immediately after the fatal crash Belinda’s deep-seated grief merges with her new sense of loss but self-pity is quickly replaced by suspicion that “[h]er thin fierce child who always wanted to be alone […] had made it happen.” Black comedy undercuts painful emotion, such as in the authentically awkward family scene where Eva, Belinda’s sister-in-law, feels no compunction in suggesting that Holly should wear Yvonne’s clothes to the funeral or that her son should wear the black neck tie once worn by Holly’s father.

The whole is bound up with overt symbolism of renewal, in the greenery surrounding the farm and the Holly/Yvonne (Yew) pairing, contrasted starkly with fracture (of family and farming community) overlaid with deft descriptive passages of flaming pyres that reveal the wanton mass destruction of livestock: “against the last of the light in the sky they could see scraps in the air, tumbling and blowing. For a long second Holly tried to tell herself they were bats”.