Saturday, 13 July 2019

Nothing to lose, everything to walk for

The Salt Path What would you do if you lost your home and your source of income, then your partner of 30 years was diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative disease? In Raynor Winn's case, she decided to walk the South West Coast Path to give her and husband Moth a couple of months to consider their options.

The couple survived on benefits income of 48 GBP a week, living in a tent, eating packet-noodles. In spite of the hardship, "a wet sleeping bag in a wet tent on a windy headland," Winn says "I was grateful that I wasn't on a piece of cardboard behind the bins in a back alley."

The Salt Path shows how Raynor and Moth, both in their 50s, survive the complete breakdown of the life they had built for themselves. But it is more than that. It holds a mirror to how society treats homeless people: the unwarranted fear and vindictiveness of some and the unstinting generosity of others.

Ray Winn talks frankly about what the knowledge of being homeless does to a person, and how it can affect relationships with friends and family. The couple were "intensely grateful" to one friend who offered them free accommodation in a shed in return for converting it into a holiday rental. However the arrangement leaves Winn "hollow inside," where "days had no meaning, just a repetition of toil with no purpose for us, other than to keep warm and dry. I was alone among friends. Homelessness had taught me that however much people think they want to help you, when you enter their home, you quickly become a cuckoo in their nest, a guest that outstays their welcome. Or their usefulness."

It was interesting to have read this journey immediately after finishing Josie Dew's Slow Coast Home. Josie, a successful writer with her own business, chooses to cycle around England, wild camping when necessary, and occasionally making free use of camp sites when the pitch fees are over-priced. Ray and Moth do exactly the same. Does one have the same opinion of Josie and Ray? They both pitch their tents "illegally", but are we more accepting of one than the other? This was what I really liked about the book, that it challenges one's own assumptions about those who are on the street: they might be homeless, might be refugees from poverty or conflict, down on their luck, travellers searching for a better life.

In conclusion, The Salt Path is an uplifting book about self-determination, fortitude, hope and love. Here's how Ray describes it:
"We could have stopped, but we had nothing to lose and everything to walk for. We were free here, battered by the elements, hungry, tired, cold, but free. Free to walk on or not, to stop or not. Not camping out with friends or family, being a burden, becoming an irritation, wearing friendship away to just tolerance. Here we were still in control of our life, of our own outcomes, our own destiny. The water ran from our rucksacks as we put them on our back. We chose to walk and seized the freedom that came with that choice."

Sunday, 7 July 2019

The perfect date to start a bike ride

Slow Coast Home Reading Josie Dew's Slow Coast Home is very much like cycling: plenty of ups and downs, and a few diversions.

Josie says she "never planned to cycle around the coast of the British Isles. It just happened that way," which is a very pithy description of the book. I didn't really believe she had done no planning, but when 40% of the way in she had only got as far as Plymouth, a mere 185 miles from home, it seemed more likely that she had been telling the truth.

Some of the experiences were uplifting, such as a ride over Exmoor when the weather was "cruel and painful and penetratingly cold, but it all combined to add to the acute intensity and elation of the ride." Others were appalling, as when she relates that one of four lads in a car "leant out of a back window and gobbed me full in the face." Josie's humour is sometimes ponderous, and sometimes wonderfully mischievous with puns: after being forced to perform certain functions SAS-style in her tent, she professed herself, "light in spirit, and even lighter in buttock, with that rewarding feeling of a job well done." My favourite bit was Chapter 16, in which she discusses the problems of travelling with a bike on a train, something which I used to do a lot around about when Josie's first book, The Wind in My Wheels, was published.

Much as I admire Josie, I found the book a frustrating read. Up to half way through there had been so many detours that I really didn't think it was going anywhere. She went out of her way to holiday with friends, was called back home to publicise her books and cater for parties, and was twice forced to abandon the adventure due to health problems. That's not counting the number of stops to buy bananas and eat bananas. I just wanted her to get on with the journey.

One final note: I must call Josie out on her claim that "there was nothing special" about the day she sets out from home, Wednesday, 25th April. To give her the benefit of the doubt, I have never read anything that mentions what her favourite movies are, so she's probably not aware that April 25th, according to Miss Rhode Island, is the perfect date.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Expertise with agricultural implements

Mort (Discworld, #4, Death, #1) I really wanted to like Terry Pratchett's Discworld fantasy series, which many friends have raved about. A brief survey identified Mort as "the best", and since it's only the fourth in the series, I didn't think it would be difficult to get to grips with the peculiarities of Pratchett's imaginary world.

When we first meet the eponymous character, he's "tall, red-haired and freckled with the sort of body that seems to be only marginally under its owner's control; it appeared to have been built out of knees." Nonetheless, the lad is taken on as an apprentice by Death. It's a sort coming-of-age story for Mort, but the book's star character is really Death.

The premise was interesting: what happens if someone interferes with fate in a world where the moment and method of one's death is fixed. And up to about half way through, I was enjoying it, but it just sort of tailed off and became tedious. Apart from Death, in the second half of the book I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters, Mort included.

Pratchett's humour and descriptions kept me reading tho': "the sort of smile that lies on sandbanks waiting for incautious swimmers", the flooding of the river "brought to the region prosperity, security and chronic arthritis", "porridge, which led a private life of its own in the depths of its saucepan and ate spoons", "shoulders hunched like vulture's wings", and Death's consideration of his own particular skill, "a certain amount of expertise with agricultural implements."

But it wasn't enough to raise my curiosity for exploring Discworld further.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Water, shelter, clothes and olive oil: the primitive necessities of life

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles: a family, 2029-2047 mostly takes place in the near future of 2029, when the collapse of the US economy leads to the collapse of society. Set primarily in the suburbs of New York, it relates how four generations of one family, many of whom think of "the primitive necessities of life as fresh water, shelter, clothing, and extra-virgin olive oil", deal with sudden and utter destitution.

This was the premise that interested me, but it took at least a third of the book to get to it. Before that, there was lot of rather tedious dialogue, which was unfortunately necessary to explain the economics behind the plot. With such a large family and so many characters, it was occasionally confusing working out who was speaking.

Perhaps the most important characters are Nollie, the expat author who returns to live with her niece Florence, and Florence's son Willing. I liked the feisty septuagenarian Nollie, but preferred the teenage Willing, who quietly observed what was happening, and sensibly prepared for the future. I also felt a certain affinity with Florence, her frugality and humanity.

In addition to the theme of societal breakdown, Shriver had plenty to say about how the expectation of a tidy inheritance can skew familial relationships and lead to stupid actions. There's plenty of dark humour too, nothing laugh-out-loud, but when "real poverty is about doing what you have to do as opposed to what you want", you probably need to have a sense of humour to cope.

Overall, although I appreciated The Mandibles, I think that Lionel Shriver probably found a lot more enjoyment in the writing of it than I found in its reading.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

For the librarians

People of the Book How could I not enjoy Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book, when her dedication states "for the librarians"?

The story is about Hannah, an Australian book conservationist who has been asked to restore a treasured Hebrew codex (based on the real Sarajevo Haggadah). Brooks takes us back through time from 1996 to 1480, revealing a fictional creator of the haggadah in Seville and its various protectors on its journey through Tarragona, Venice, Vienna and Sarajevo. Interspersed with the backwards tale, is the story of Hannah's life, her research and relationships. Some reviewers have said they disliked Hannah, but I found her appealing, and enjoyed the strange relationship she had with her mother.

I bought the book because it's partly set in Tarragona and I had a trip planned in that part of Spain. Knowing very little of 15th century Spanish history, I found descriptions of the Spanish Inquisition methods gruesome and was shocked by the way in which the Jews were expelled. It certainly coloured my viewing of an exhibition of 15th century religious art whilst on holiday.

On the whole, the ending was too contrived for my taste, but I take issue with the many comments that compare the book with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which I've also read. People of the Book is not at all like Dan Brown's thriller which, if memory serves me, was based on rather dodgy "history". Its "surprise" revelation was easily guessed if you'd read Holy Blood, Holy Grail The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail. In contrast, Brooks's story is anchored in the intriguing origin and survival of a real thing, based on proper research and benefiting from a foreign correspondent's journalistic knowledge. I also preferred Brooks's theme that, "to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox."


After visiting Valencia I made my way to Tarragona and visited the Maricel Museum in nearby Sitges. There was a dreadful dissonance between the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the loving message of Christianity and its gorgeous religious art.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Valencia holiday preparation

The Mayflower; A Tale of the Valencian Seashore Flor de Mayo (Mayflower) is the story of a family living in the late 19th century Valencian fishing community. It begins when Tona is widowed by the death at sea of her husband, "the most thrifty saver of all savers," "a fisherman in winter and a smuggler in summer." The resourceful Tona opens a tavern on the beach, using the upturned wreck of her husband's boat as her home and workplace. She raises her two fatherless sons alone, until she falls for Martinez, a handsome Andalusian and a cad.

The book relates what happens to Tona and her family, their fortunes, misfortunes and adventures.

Vicente Blasco Ibanez paints a vivid picture of the small fishing community where everyone knows everyone else's business. His description of the fish wives and their antics at the market are especially enjoyable, and he dramatically evokes the terrifying, destructive violence of storms at sea. The style is unsentimental and non-moralizing, and the English translation is fine, if a little old-fashioned.

Flor de Mayo is one of four Blasco Ibanez books that depict rural life around Valencia and it's a great read if you're planning a trip to that region of Spain. Although the story is set over a century ago, I'm looking forward to seeing many of the buildings, districts and towns mentioned in the text.


I had a great holiday in Valencia, taking in a celebration of the city football team's victory in the 2018-19 Copa del Rey and a exhibition of images by 19th century photographer Jean Laurent. His photos brought to life many of the scenes described in The Mayflower, including this one of the oxen that beached and launched the fishing boats.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

It's not about Mormonism

Educated "This story is not about Mormonism," states Tara Westover in the Introduction to her memoir, Educated. As such, you won't find much in the book that is critical of the author's fundamentalist upbringing. Plenty of bad things happen, often due to wilful negligence, but no blame is attributed.

So what is the story about? If it's not about how religious beliefs can twist logic, maybe it's about how toxic patriarchy within families prevents women from living their lives as they choose. But again, there's no criticism of this in the book. The fact that wives and daughters are in danger of being abused seems to raise no emotion. Who will look out for Tara's sister-in-law and her children? Does anyone care? The message seems to be that it's up to the woman to sort herself out, just as Tara did. It's no-one else's problem.

Educated then, is about just one woman's desire to learn, and the conflict that that desire produced, both within herself and her family. It's about taking individual responsibility for your life. All very inspiring, but for this reader, ultimately self-centred and unsatisfying.