books

The Gathering Tide

Gathering Tide cover

It was a freezing night in February and 24 undocumented Chinese workers had been sent by their gangmaster to pick cockles from the sands of Morecambe Bay. By morning all of them were dead, swept away by a fast-moving tide.

For Karen Lloyd, the disaster in 2004 was the moment that Morecambe Bay and its treacherous sands were put ‘firmly on the global map’. It was also the point at which she realised that even as a local she tended to ignore the coastline and head instead for the more celebrated fells and valleys of the Lake District.

The Gathering Tide is the story of a year spent walking the edgelands of the bay in an attempt to build a different picture of the area, something to counter what she experienced as ‘the collective feelings of despondency and responsibility that many local people felt following the disaster’.

To say that the cockling tragedy haunts The Gathering Tide is to make it sound like a melancholy book. It is not. To walk round the bay with Karen is to learn about art, history, wildlife, geology and more. You meet Cedric, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, and the redoubtable Peggy Braithwaite, Britain’s only principle female lighthouse keeper, who moved to Walney Island as a child, crammed into a boat with her grandmother and the family piano. You visit a Neolithic axe factory, the grave of Sambo the slave boy and an island that some people say doesn’t exist.

At the same time, the elements that produced the tragedy pervade the narrative. This is a book about living on the edge, about blurred margins and the unreliability of memory. It’s about not trusting surfaces and being prepared for sudden shifts of perspective. Everything is unpredictable: the ebbing tide rushes back in; channels change course without warning; sands sink. There are huge skies with shape-shifting clouds; the reflections come and go: you never see the same thing twice.

It’s also a book of exquisite nature writing. The birds in particular stand out. Two crows fly ahead of Karen ‘like Gothic tour guides’. A flock of chaffinches take flight from a hedge ‘like a handful of pink and grey leaves snatched away by the wind’.

Karen Lloyd can write lyrical prose with arresting images but she’s also full of common sense and dry humour. Like her acknowledged mentor Kathleen Jamie, she refuses to over-wild her landscapes: her boys are there with Molly the collie and she never lets us forget she’s a real person out for a walk, eyes watering with the cold, checking her watch to make sure she gets back in time to cook.

By the end you want to go there to see for yourself. You realise the shifting landscape will yield different perspectives for each person who visits. You sense that despite Karen’s acute and detailed observations, there is much, much more to uncover. You realise, as Karen did, that the bay might spark surprising memories, a new perspective on yourself.

The Gathering Tide: a journey around the edgelands of Morecambe Bay by Karen Lloyd. Published by Saraband in January 2016.

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What you might not see in winter

It’s like a bereavement, the state of our planet. Not just the fact of loss – I’ll get to that later – but the way it smacks you in the face when you’re not looking, or leaps up in the midst of the everyday, shocking you all over again when you thought you were safe.

I bought a nostalgic treat the other day, a copy of the Ladybird book What to Look for in Winter. I could justify it, almost, as ‘research’ for my MA but really I pressed the button on eBay because I had the book as a child and seeing the cover again made it irresistible.

cover

It’s a beautiful cover. What to Look for in Winter, published in 1959, is part of a series of Ladybird nature books illustrated by the renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe. Muted greys and ochres evoke a wintry chill and the sparse beauty of a frozen landscape.

Most striking of all, though, is the sheer quantity of birds on the lake: herons, mallards, widgeon, tufted duck, and a snipe skulking where mud meets ice.  Above, a flock of whooper swans is coming in to land; you can almost hear the ‘wonderful whirring of their wings’, as the author E. L. Grant Watson puts it.

The abundance of birds and other wildlife is repeated throughout the book. Another lake picture shows at least fifteen pairs of coots and, in the bare-branched tree above, a flock of redpolls and siskins.

lake cropped

You can only see part of the thorn tree beside a Dutch barn, but there are seventeen birds in it: greenfinches, bramblings, yellowhammers and chaffinches.

barn cropped

On other pages, fieldfares crowd into a holly tree, golden plovers throng the bank of a lake and a huge flock of lapwings circles above a farmer ploughing a field.

My nostalgic indulgence suddenly turned into a sickening sense of loss.

Perhaps it’s because I live in quite a built-up area that empty or almost-empty, trees have become the norm for me. An occasional flock of long-tailed tits in the silver birch outside our house is something I treasure for days.

Things are a little better on the allotment, where there are often small flocks of goldfinches in the summer, and a colony of rooks in the nearby woods. Sometimes we see large gatherings of lapwings, geese and swifts around the nearby reservoirs.

But the blurb on the inside cover says this book will ‘add considerably to the pleasure of a winter walk’. There’s an implication that the kinds of wildlife pictured are accessible to ordinary readers, and that the abundance is normal. It doesn’t suggest you need to go to a special, out of the way place to experience it.

Was Tunnicliffe exaggerating? I doubt it: as a wildlife artist, his attention to detail was meticulous. What’s more, the book as a whole is instructional in tone: the point of it is to enable children to identify plants, birds and animals.

In 1959, children could learn, from one page of a pocket-money priced book, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In 1959, children could learn, from one double-page spread in a small, affordable hardback, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In any case, the evidence of loss is there in the statistics, if we can bear to look at them. In the last 40 years, humans have killed half of all the animals on earth. The current extinction rate may be 100 times higher than normal.

I don’t know how we reverse this but I do know we can’t care about things we have never seen. You can’t miss flocks of siskins, skeins of geese or a whirring whiteness of migrating swans if they have never been part of your life.

When I was writing the book about Incredible Edible Todmorden, I learnt that looking too hard at the big picture can be paralysing. Confronted with loss on this scale, it’s easy to despair.

Conversely, even very small actions can be energising and lead to bigger things. Going outside and paying attention would be a start. Trying to learn more, and in the learning to care more.

Why not go on a walk today and try to identify a new species? Take a Ladybird nature book with you if necessary. It’ll help you with the identification. It’ll also remind you what we’re up against.

When I was researching this post, I came across a lovely article by the award-winning author Helen Macdonald, on what this book meant to here as a nature-obsessed child. Well worth a read. 

What to Eat

What to Eat is a risky title for a book. People can get very defensive about diet – hardly surprising, given the number of confusing and judgemental messages out there. Writers who tackle food-related issues run the risk of sounding either unbearably preachy or so full of doom that the reader is driven screaming towards the nearest doughnut.

Only a first-rate writer with a deep understanding of the issues could write successfully about how to eat in ways that are ethical, inexpensive and good for you. Fortunately, Joanna Blythman is just such a writer. She easily achieves the goal she sets out in her introduction of helping people ‘recognise and locate food that’s good in the broadest sense of that word – food that’s healthy, affordable, doesn’t trash the environment, exploit producers or cause unnecessary animal suffering, and, last but not least, tastes great’.

The book is divided into sections, each devoted to a particular food group, such as vegetable, meat and dairy products. Within each section she lists a range of foods and gives tips on how to prepare them, along with information about price, seasonality and health benefits. Although I’ve been interested in food for years, I learnt a lot from this. Did you know for example that grapes can contain residues of up to eleven different pesticides? An argument for buying the organic variety if ever I heard one.

Blythman also gives information about how our food is produced, along with an indication of the impact of that production on the environment, and whether people or animals are exploited in the process. Some of this is genuinely horrifying. In Costa Rica, for example, pineapple plants are drenched in so much pesticide that the workers who put them in the ground often end up with deformed fingernails. I was also shocked to learn that half the UK’s pear orchards have disappeared in the last 30 years, and that several of our native breeds of pig are classified as endangered species.

My only criticism of the book is the puzzling lack of an index. It’s the kind of resource you want to return to again and again, and it would be far easier to use if you could look up individual foods by name. Otherwise, though, this was well worth the money and I came away from it with a new enthusiasm for eating well and at the same time using my power as a consumer responsibly.

In praise of Wovember

Fleece on wire fence, Isle of Skye

Oh this is so exciting! Two of my very favourite bloggers, Felix and Kate, are collaborating on a fabulous project that celebrates all things woollen – Wovember. The website is an absolute joy for anyone who has the slightest interest in wool or sheep.

Just like Kate and Felix’s blogs, the website is full of stunning photographs and interesting facts. There’s also a petition which should be signed by anyone who is remotely concerned about issues such as ethical trading, supporting local economies or truthfulness in advertising.

Newborn lambs, Derbyshire

I used to do quite a lot of knitting, but studying and reading have rather taken over of late. So along with the woolly pictures I have included here, I would like my contribution to Wovember to be this passage from Rose Tremain’s marvellous novel Music and Silence. I love the way she manages to convey a real sense of the pleasure of knitting, along with a humorous dig at the type of men who find ‘women’s pastimes’ threatening.

They say that Queen Sofie, when she was young and before she had begun her habit of scolding and cursing and hoarding money, loved to be rowed in a little boat to this island and there sit in the sunshine and indulge in secret her passion for knitting. This activity had been proscribed throughout the land as tending to induce in women an idle trance of mind, in which their proper thoughts would fly away and be replaced by fancy. Men called this state ‘wool gathering’. That the wool itself could be fashioned into useful articles of haberdashery such as stockings or night bonnets made them no less superstitiously afraid of the knitting craze. They believed that any knitted night bonnet might contain among its million stitches the longings of their wives that they could never satisfy and which in consequence would give them nightmares of the darkest kind. The knitted stocking they feared yet more completely as the probable instrument of their own enfeeblement. They imagined their feet becoming swollen and all the muscles of their legs beginning to grow weak.

‘Queen Sofie had, from the very first, transgressed the anti-knitting edict. Yarn was shipped to her from England in boxes labelled ‘goose down’. At the back of her ebony armoire lay concealed a growing quantity of soft garments of many colours for which she knew that one day she would find a use. Only her maid Elizabeth knew her secret and she had been told she would pay with her life if it was revealed.

‘On the morning of the twelfth of April 1577, a day of pale sunlight and a tender blue sky, Queen Sofie, eight and a half months pregnant with her third child, set out at nine o’clock with Elizabeth to cross the lake and spend the morning knitting. Her chosen spot was a clearing in the woods, a little shaded by some hazel bushes and rose briars, where she would set down her cushions on the mossy grass. Here she was sitting putting the finishing touches to a pair of underdrawers while Elizabeth worked upon a sock, with the coils of yarn unravelling moment by moment between them, when the Queen felt a troublesome thirst come upon her. They had brought no provisions, only the secret knitting in a wooden box, and so Queen Sofie asked Elizabeth if she would row back across the lake to the castle and return with a flagon of beer … (get the book to find out what happens next!)

Happy Wovember!

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Cron

The first thing to say is that this book is much, much better than its title. I’m guessing the publishers had a bit of trouble deciding what to call something that refuses to be squashed into any conventional genre.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me is a memoir of a miserable childhood that is often hilarious and never sentimental.

It’s a book about Jesus that is completely unpredictable.

It’s got the CIA in it but the biggest mystery is nothing to do with espionage – it’s why they would employ Cron’s father when he was usually too drunk to function.

Given the subject matter, it’s appropriate for the book to defy expectations like this. It tells a story of growing up with that most unpredictable of people, an alcoholic parent. Interwoven with that is a tortuous journey of faith to a God who, as Cron puts it, ‘often comes to us incognito’.

In one of the most memorable scenes of the book, Cron’s mother takes him on a rollercoaster ride not once but three times in succession. That’s a bit how I felt when I finished this story. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking by turn; it takes you from the excruciating depths of childhood despair to an experience of grace that is full of hope and compassion, with numerous highs and lows in between.

‘Home is where we start, and whether we like it or not, our life is a race against time to come to terms with what it was or wasn’t,’ says Cron near the start of his story. I’d recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how we make sense of our past, whether you share Cron’s faith or not. Just don’t come to it with any preconceptions.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com bloggers programme. I was not required to write a positive review.

landscape and story

When we went to Skye I had a vague expectation of finding somewhere wild and beautiful. And there was certainly plenty of beauty, especially in the water, the way the lochs are constantly changing their colour and texture, from pearl grey one minute to granite the next and then to millions of diamonds as the sun breaks through.

About the wildness, though, I was wrong. I am sure it exists in the magnificent Cuillin mountains, but the north-west peninsula where we were staying has a different nature altogether. When I went for my first walk around our cottage, the word that kept coming to mind was inhospitable. The grass is short and tough, ranging from ochre to a yellowy green in colour, and almost entirely devoid of trees. Houses are sprinkled across it, rather than gathered round obvious centres.It did not take me long to discover why. And when I found out, I began to see how important it is to learn to read a landscape in order to understand something of the past stories that have shaped it.

From James Hunter’s book Skye: The Island, I discovered that this bleak outlook is the direct result of one of the most appalling and shameful episodes in British history: the Highland clearances. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their homes in order that the land might be turned over to the increasingly profitable business of sheep farming.

A blog post is not the place to tell this story. Hunter’s book, and John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances, both provide a clear account. What I learnt though, was how a story can come to permeate the landscape.

Once I knew about the clearances, there was evidence everywhere. Take this view from our cottage, for example. Those ripples of green in the background are in fact evidence of ‘lazybeds’. 

Picture by Julian Dobson

Hunter describes how the inaptly named lazybeds were painstakingly dug out by crofters who heaped up earth in a bid to improve drainage and grow food on land that would otherwise have been barren. As the landlords cleared more and more villages, they forced the crofters into smaller and smaller spaces and it is probable that these little flattened ridges kept many families alive.

Then there are the sheep, which are everywhere. Personally I am rather fond of them – I am a knitter after all – but they are the reason for the lack of trees. Once, Skye was densely wooded but since the clearances any tree shoot has been devoured by the endless munching of innumerable ovine teeth.

On one glorious day towards the end of our stay I walked around Waterstein Head.

It was the kind of walk that makes your heart sing, with stunning views across the island and out to sea. It finished, however, in Ramasaig, once a thriving settlement but cleared in the nineteenth century. For miles around there is the  bleak, treeless landscape broken only by heaps of stones that were once the homes and farms of people who kept cattle and horses as well as sheep, and grew enough produce to enable them to live off the land. Like thousands of others they were forced from their homes, and a way of life that had endured for centuries was abruptly ended in the name of profit and progress.

I had hoped to find wildness in Skye but this was not it. Without a knowledge of the story behind this landscape, I might have imagined it was. But wildness seems to me to carry the idea of somewhere being unspoiled, and this is far from the case in Ramasaig. Robert Macfarlane sums it up in his fascinating book The Wild Places – it is not an empty landscape but an emptied one.

What good is God?

When I planned this post, I was simply going to review a book by one of my favourite authors, Philip Yancey. I had never heard of Anders Behring Breivik. Nor did I know that by the time I came to write the post, a four-year-old girl from our church would be lying in intensive care after seven hours of brain surgery.

The book, What Good is God?, is a collection of talks Yancey has given in places undergoing extreme suffering like those two situations I have referred to above. He spoke at Virginia Tech just days after a lone gunman had killed 32 students. A talk planned in Mumbai, India had to be hastily rearranged when terrorists  unleashed a marathon of horror, killing more than 150 people in a series of bombing and shooting attacks across the city.

What is refreshing about Yancey’s writing is his refusal to turn away from the hard questions of faith. His books have titles like Church: Why Bother? and Disappointment with God. He is not afraid to be highly critical of the Bible college where he studied as a teenager; neither does he hesitate to say that he does not have all the answers. This kind of humility is uncommon.

At the same time, he does not shrink from challenging his audiences to trust ‘a God who can redeem what now seems irredeemable’ (chapter 1). This challenge came sharply into focus when I met with other members of our church to pray for the family whose seaside holiday has turned into a long bedside vigil for their little daughter.

The meeting had been arranged hastily of course. We heard the news by text, or on Facebook. People arrived in tears, in shock, scooping up children or leaving their workplaces for an early lunch break. Our co-pastor, who has three young children of his own and is moving house on Friday, had already driven a couple of hundred miles so he could stand alongside the family, sharing their harrowing wait at a distant hospital.

‘Where is God when it hurts?’ Yancey asks the survivors of the Virginia tech massacre, supplying the answer ‘Where God’s people are. Where misery is, there is the Messiah, and now on earth the Messiah takes form in the shape of the Church.’

The Church comes in for a lot of flak and often that is justified. But what most people don’t see is the local church in action. My father in law died recently; my mother has been suffering from a mystery illness for weeks. In both cases, their churches have been alongside, offering emotional and practical support, providing a strength that is in short supply elsewhere.

Of course not all local churches do the job they should. Indeed, Yancey spends one chapter of his book explaining why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous often do it better. But yesterday, when I looked at the pictures of Breivik’s victims, most of them around the same age as my own kids, I was thankful to have a place I can go when life gets too hard for easy answers.