Book review – Adam Nicolson – “The Sea is Not Made of Water”


Adam Nicolson - The Sea is Not Made of Water - image of hardback book on a yellow duvet cover, there is a drawing of a prawn across the white dust jacket.

Our latest Emma and Liz Reads book (if you want to find them all, click here or on the category in the category cloud), and we started it in January, finishing last night. Chapters were quite long so we did some in two parts. I originally acquired this in September 2021 and I’m pleased to say that I’ve read all the books I reference in my round-up post here including the charity shop splurge I link to in that post, as I’ve also just finished Nova Reid’s book “The Good Ally” which is also in that list. I’ve enjoyed Adam Nicolson’s books for a long time and was excited to pick up this one; it was a partial (majority, I think) success, although not exactly what we were expecting.

Adam Nicolson – “The Sea is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides”

(2 September 2021)

These oscillations are patches in time, just as the patches on the rock are oscillations in space. Micro-tides flood and ebb across every dimension of their world. Their micro-catastrophes and micro-blooming are the guarantee of calm. Life is unsealed. There is no distinction between flux and stillness; they are one. The core of being is interplay, and is give-and-take of quick and still is the animation of life (p. 321)

This book takes a very close look at a patch of coastline in Scotland, and using the remit “Life Between the Tides” to cover, it turns out, flora and fauna, history and people, geology and the tides themselves. We had expected it to be more of a nature book and to be fair, the text on the flap makes it clear it takes in a zone “where the philosopher, scientist and poet can meet and find meaning”.

Emma and I both loved the straightforward nature bits, and learned some fascinating things about winkles, prawns, starfish and sea anemones and sea urchins (I was amazed to discover the sea urchin is related to the starfish and those five lines running up them are the fused remnants of the “legs” that starfish have. Another interesting thing we learned was the plural for the prehistoric proto-cow, the aurochs: aurochsen. Nicolson spends a lot of time digging and creating two rock pools, then a final one in the conclusion, and studying what colonises there and how the creatures interact and that was fascinating.

There was a lot of philosophy in the book, and I can see that this was written during the early days of lockdown, as this was mentioned in the conclusion when he made a pool then couldn’t visit it – I imagine Nicolson then curled up with some books and we had Iris Murdoch and attention, goodness and unselfing, which I could just about deal with having spent a lot of time absorbing stuff on IM over the years, and then on to Heidegger et al., which flummoxed both of us. He does come to the conclusion, I think I’ve understood, that being-with is the thing, sitting in communion with nature, history and the tides rather than imposing meaning or purpose. I think.

There was also a lot of history in places – social and political, which was OK, but also a long history of all the previous incorrect theory of the tides, which we sat there in our respective armchairs trying to understand before realising we only really needed to understand what actually happens (and we we much aided in this by me having happened to have just read Katherine May’s “Enchantment“, which had the best and simplest explanation of the tides I have ever found, which helped us grasp the explanation in this book). I enjoyed the sections on geology, having always been interested in it, and we both found the myths and legends of the sea and this area interesting although also a bit horrific in places. In summary, I think we both agree we enjoyed this book more than we struggled with it, on balance; that it wasn’t quite what we’d expected; and that we learned some new things.

I should mention the illustrations: animals and people by Kate Boxer and maps and figures by Rosie Nicolson, with photographs by the author. The colour plates were in both our hardback and paperback copies and explained a lot of the descriptions of life in the rock pools and aquaria. Halfman, Halfbook reviewed this very well last year and gave a good overview of the structure which I might have missed a bit in the episodic way we read it.

In an interesting note, Emma’s paperback had a different title and subtitle: “Life Between the Tides: In Search of Rockpools and Other Adventures Along the Shore” although still a pretty cover with a nice prawn on it.

Our next book is Deborah Frances-White’s “The Guilty Feminist” for a bit of a change from the nature of the last two books.

Book review – Jini Reddy – “Wanderland”


Another of the Emma and Liz Reads books (if you want to find them all, click here or on the category in the category cloud), much shorter than “Square Haunting” so it only took us a couple of months to get through, a chapter or two at a time. I acquired this as part of my June 2021 Christmas and Birthday Book Token Splurge (on as the Heath Bookshop didn’t exist to splurge in then); I did save it as it was our Read Together List, and I’m pleased to say that I have now read and reviewed all the books pictured here (part-way down the post) bought at the same time.

Jini Reddy – “Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape”

(24 June 2021, book token splurge)

I wanted to invoke something – for some life force to make its presence known to me – and the wanting of it felt like a kind of lovesickness.

Had I been a die-hard conservationist or scientist or maybe grown up on a farm, I’d have likely laughed myself silly at such notions. But those things hadn’t been a part of my life. Instead, what I’d had was Hinduism and atheism by osmosis and then ordinary-growing-up secularism but with a yen for magical things. Call me sentimental but I wanted something more than to walk through an alluring landscape and admire its beauty. I wanted somehow to be more porous. I didn’t want to be burdened by needing to know the name of every bird, creature, tree and petal. No, I wanted something else, something a bit Other and a bit mystical even – the seeking of it was what truly excited me. (pp. 11-12)

In this early quote, travel writer and seeker Reddy lays out what she thinks she wants and really encapsulates the book that lies ahead: she’s seeking something but she’s not sure what, it’s not in her traditions and she doesn’t want naming conventions and conventional knowledge, and she’s going to get the most out of the act of seeking. To be fair, this is quite an honest portrayal of the book.

Reddy, a person of Indian heritage via South Africa, who was born in Britain but lived in Canada for a big chunk of her life, looks at Britain through Othered eyes, and searches for something, she’s not sure what, all the time aware of her Otherness. Quite a few reviewers on Amazon were bothered by her finding racism all over the place: I didn’t feel that was something to disbelieve or criticise – who am I to undermine someone’s lived experience, for a start? – and there was some powerful stuff about needing to have all the right kit when exploring the deep countryside while inhabiting a Brown skin so as not to be patronised or insulted, which reminded me forcefully of the issues the Muslim hikers’ groups have had in the Lake District.

The problem Emma and I had with the narrative was more that she was so very impatient, expecting to have a mystical, special experience, to bond with her guide, to find the hidden location of a well or tree, immediately, and getting what can only be described as grumpy when that didn’t happen. There’s a really uncomfortable chapter late on in the book where she takes a friend to Lindisfarne and they fall out – said friend being someone going through cancer treatment at the time and perhaps deserving of a bit more understanding.

Also, and I do take the point that I might be being defensive about my own culture, she was really dismissive of British traditional culture like religious iconography, even the most basic, in churches or old country habits and beliefs. To be fair, she seemed not very rooted in any cultural or religious traditions, not just those, describing herself as a “citizen of nowhere” with no deep-rooted traditions to follow, but it felt quite dismissive, while expecting the reader to be interested in her yearnings towards some kind of unformed mysticism. But then she wasn’t keen on the Glastonbury Zodiac or ley lines, either (I got quite excited about the Zodiac and lines, taking me back to old mystical readings of my own and my ancestral lands of the West Country, which I think surprised Emma a little!).

There were some lovely descriptions, humility and clarity and interesting places and land art, and Reddy frequently describes well her feelings of being isolated from all the groups who usually experience – and write about – nature:

I often felt too conventional for the pagans, too esoteric for the hardcore wildlife tribe, not deep enough for the deep ecologists, not logical enough for the scientists, not ‘listy’ enough for the birder types, not enough of a ‘green thumb’ for the gardeners. (p. 13)

although both we and she eventually thought she might be better off relaxing and doing her thing (I call myself a birdwatcher though I am by no means ‘listy’, for example).

As we travel through the book with her, she does “learn to listen” and by explaining her quest to different people, refines and defines it. She finds places where she feels serenity, and I have to stress as a final point that it is just great to have travel and nature books coming out that are by non-traditional travel and nature writers, i.e. a (self-described) Brown woman with multiple heritages behind her, exploring Britain in her way and asking questions. More power to her for that, even if the book wasn’t perfect.

We did agree on these main points, so enjoyed agreeing, discussing and wishing her a happier time. Our next book is Adam Nicolson’s “The Sea is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides”. Do let me know if you’ve read and reviewed this one, though!

Book review – Francesca Wade – “Square Haunting”


Another of the Emma and Liz Reads books, following on from Sabeena Akhtar’s “Cut from the Same Cloth” (if you want to find them all, click on the link there or click on the category in the category cloud), which has taken us since July to read, half a main chapter at a time on Thursday nights. Ali kindly passed me this hardback, which I think she had as a review copy: it’s quite a hefty tome, though I think Emma had the paperback version as she acquired it more recently.

I know a few of the bloggers I follow have read this already and I’m a bit late to the party: do share your reviews in the comments if you’d like to!

Francesca Wade – “Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars”

(13 June 2020, from Ali)

For all of them, in different ways, their time in the square was formative. They all agreed that the structures which had long kept women subordinate were illusory and mutable: in their writing and their lifestyles they wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women. In Mecklenburgh Square, each dedicated herself to establishing a way of life that would let her fulfil her potential, to finding relationships that would support her work and a domestic set-up that would enable it. But it was not always easy. Their lives in the square demonstrate the challenges, personal and professional, that met – and continue to meet – women who want to make their voices heard. (p. 8)

The modernist poet H.D. the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, the historian and pacifist Eileen Power and the writer Virginia Woolf all lived at one point in their lives in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, some of them in the same building or even flat, at different times. Some of them interacted with each other; several of them interacted with the same other people, and this superb group biography looks at their similarities and differences, preserving and amplifying the general theme of their exploration of freedom and also the nature of marriage and relationships.

The level of scholarship and research that went into this book was amazing. Wade both differentiates the women and draws conclusions about their links while keeping it readable and moving onwards briskly. We’d both heard of H.D., Sayers and of course Woolf, but really enjoyed the other chapters, too, particularly the one on Eileen Power, who we both liked tremendously.

The first chapter, “In the Square”, sets the scene and looks at how biography is written and the state of women between the wars. Then we have a longish chapter per woman, looking at their individual lives before and during their time in the square, their domestic arrangements, work and relationships, sharing original sources and photographs of the women. After that, a chapter draws their lives to a close after their lives in the square, again showing the parallels between them, and notes the changes to the architecture itself, with the side they lived on being subsumed into an educational establishment but a lovely little detail at the end which made us both well up slightly.

Each chapter shows very nicely the friendships that sustain the five women, as well as their work and relationships. Understanding and kind people rescue or support them, sing their praises and have fun at dinner parties. Their reactions to living there are shown as mirroring their lives: while Virginia Woolf felt oppressed by running two households in London and the countryside,

To H.D., more insecure and anxious by nature, the boarding house had signified the dissolution of all domestic structures, mirroring the collapse of her marriage, to Sayers, happily unmarried, it meant independence. (p. 106)

(However, Wade does note that everyone employed some kind of “nice woman” to “do” for them).

Wade is particularly good at finding out when and how the women overlapped, met or corresponded with one another; she says in a note she could have written about several more but found connections between these and enough materials to make it work, although some of them suppressed their own notes and archives or had them suppressed (Eileen Powers’ sister burned her personal papers, for example).

A wonderful, readable book about five memorable and admirable women; none of them given more room or time than any others, even though a couple are more well-known. It’s definitely inspired us to read Sayer’s “Gaudy Night” (though not as a readalong as we’ll forget what happens in the weeks in between) and made us think but wasn’t too hard or impenetrable, so an ideal Read Together book.

Emma and I both thoroughly enjoyed this book, even if we got a little lost in the screeds of names at times (but then some returned in several chapters). We’re going to go on a pilgrimage to Mecklenburgh Square next time I’m in London.

Book review – Sabeena Akhtar (ed.) – “Cut from the Same Cloth: Muslim Women on Life in Britain”


This is an Unbound book that I subscribed to back in May 2020 and which arrived with me in May 2021. I’m very proud to see the variety of names in the back, testament to the wide variety of people from different backgrounds who supported the book. I’ve got really bad at reading my Unbound books as soon as they arrive, however hopefully that will change soon, plus this is one of my Emma and Liz Reads books, so necessarily took a while to get through (if you want to find them all, click on the link there or click on the category in the category cloud). We finished “The Wild Silence” near the end of April, so this one has taken us about 10 weeks. We read one or two essays per week, usually on a Thursday evening.

Sabeena Akhtar (ed.) – “Cut from the Same Cloth: Muslim Women on Life in Britain”

(24 May 2021)

As a Muslim, writing and making art isn’t separate to the act of living, and living cannot be separated from the act of worship; the intention is the same. (p. 292, Sumaya Kassim, “Riot, Write, Rest: On Writing as a Muslimah)

This is a collection that was put together in order to give “visibly Muslim” (i.e. hijab-wearing) women a space where they could speak freely about their lives and interests. It ranges widely, from the purely political to the more purely personal, from angry to funny (often in the same piece), from theoretical to practical, from knotty and tangled to clear and easy to read. Each piece had its value and we had lots to talk about when we were reading.

It was a bit challenging to find a fairly sociological-sounding and tough piece at the beginning to start off with, and we both felt a bit disheartened that we were going to have to think hard all the way through and read and re-read, unpick and check we’d got it (we have no need for easy books but we do this to relax and enjoy and the first one was HARD). However, there were fewer of this kind of essay and more of the approachable kind as we went through, and of course each style has its place and the lack was in us!

We learned a lot. Emma was very careful to look stuff up, terms and names (some writers explained more than others; there is also a useful glossary at the back as there were quite a lot of religious terms here), I tended to coast a little more, getting a general understanding (this is how we tend to do our Reading!). We both enjoyed the deep dive into the life of spiritual, religious Muslim women like those we see daily in our neighbourhoods. We were shocked, but not surprised (worn down, maybe) by the daily toxic environment all the women live in but some chose to write about, and were both previously unaware of the anti-Black sentiments among the Muslim community, certainly in the UK, that many of them wrote about, with Nigerian, Somali and mixed heritages women speaking about colourism and prejudice from the communities they should feel safe in.

The pieces that detailed women’s daily lives were fascinating to us and a good learning opportunity. Khadijah Elshayyal’s “Covid-19 and Recalibrating my Ramadhan Reality” was a good example of what happens when men run the show and don’t think about what women might have to deal with, and showed resourceful women sorting things out but also being honest about their struggles, and a few pieces looked at life at school or work. There’s a theme around whether things have really changed since writers’ mothers came to the UK a couple of decades ago which is interesting and sad. The religious theme strung through the whole book was often beautiful and sometimes jagged and challenging, especially when women’s writing came up against the patriarchy, as in the last piece quoted at the beginning of this review.

Emma and I agreed we were glad we read this book, even if some pieces were challenging intellectually or emotionally (the Grenfell chapter was hard to read, but necessary). It was good to see the women included able to share and be honest about their experiences and their experiences of being asked to relive or suppress those experiences. I’m glad it got to Unbound and was published, and I recommend it: there really is something for everyone here.

Book review – Raynor Winn – “The Wild Silence”


Emma and I have finished another of our Reading Together books – we read a chapter or two of the same book every Thursday evening, chatting about it on Messenger as we go, and have done since the start of lockdown. We take a while to get through a book this way but that’s OK and we often find we benefit from this slow read. Here we are, reading this author’s first book, “The Salt Path” – and you can see all the books we’ve read together here. My friend Verity kindly sent me this one after we’d read “The Salt Path”, which she also gave me.

Raynor Winn – “The Wild Silence”

(07 January 2021 – from Verity)

As surely as removing heavy human interference from the land was allowing the wildlife to return to the farm, so Moth was surviving by returning to a more natural state of existence. Life re-forming and reshaping, not with man’s intervention but without it. (p. 273)

We were both keen to read this follow-up to “The Salt Path” – I think we both had the impression there was going to be more travel in it and I knew they went to Iceland, which attracted me even further to it. We were also worried that this would see the last days of Winn’s husband, Moth, and I think we might have Googled to check he was still around.

We found it a slightly disjointed book. There was quite a lot about Winn’s childhood and then the horror of her mother’s death; knowing that she would go through this eventually with her husband was even worse, but it was a very detailed memoir and quite difficult to read in its medical detail (but it’s important to have this kind of thing recorded, of course). Then we have Raynor and Moth’s time living in a converted chapel in Cornwall, followed by the amazing offer to renovate and caretake a farm they already knew and had walked past from an absent owner. Interspersed among these sections were details of the writing, publication and reception of “The Salt Path” and this was certainly the most successful and interesting part of the book for me; Emma, too, I think. It was particularly lovely to read about the walker they meet who has read an article about them and emulated their walk, also finding solace in nature.

Later in the book, they go to Iceland with friends and walk a pretty terrifying walk in the south of the island which, incidentally, I “ran” as one of those virtual runs you can do where you are shown where on a route you would have been, had you been terrifying yourself in Iceland rather than running around suburban Birmingham streets (it had a good medal, though). There’s no way I would have attempted that walk-and-camp, and I was impressed they managed; they find it hard but get through with grit and observing the other walkers (we got very invested in one particular walker’s story and had to read on one week to find out what happened to her!).

So Moth was helped by hard work and physical exertion: Winn does research and finds that there are certain chemicals emitted by trees and plants which are shown to aid healing and physical health in humans (although I’m not sure how that translated when they were in the barren landscapes of lava and moss in Iceland’s interior). It was positive to read about this slowing of the decline caused by Moth’s neurological condition, and while Winn certainly doesn’t press the idea that this could help everyone, it did worry both of us that people in a similar situation might draw (false?) hope from this. The other massive positive from this book is seeing how by writing the first book after undergoing bankruptcy and homelessness, Winn has given them financial stability.

Definitely worth reading and really interesting, if a bit traumatic at the beginning. Winn’s writing is lovely, descriptive and authentic, and I will continue to look out for her work.

Em and I seem to alternate nature/travel books with ones on social equity, race and society, and so we’ve chosen “Cut from the Same Cloth? Muslim Women on Life in Britain” edited by Sabeena Akhtar for our next read. It was an Unbound book which I supported and looks fascinating.

Book review – Afua Hirsch – “Brit(ish)”


Aha – see the plethora of post-it notes in this book back at the beginning of the month! This is my latest readalong with my best friend, Emma – we’ve been reading it since October, and I have now created a category so I can find all the books we’ve read together easily (of course I now can’t remember what they all are). Anyway, we enjoyed this look at Hirsch’s discussion of her dual-heritage experience and her call for open discussion on race and heritage; published in 2018, I had been aware of it since then but only bought it in July 2020 (it went unavailable for a bit when all the Black Lives Matter booklists came out) – I’m happy to say I have read and reviewed all the books I bought in that batch!

Afua Hirsch – “Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging”

(20 July 2020)

Perhaps Sam is right – I have no idea what it’s like to be a dark-skinned black man. And perhaps he’s also right that it’s a strange thing to do, to write a book about being black. But I’ve written from this perspective only because it is my perspective, not because I think my identity is more important than anyone else’s, or that people from my background have more to say than those from any other. It’s just my experience. But I do believe that, as an example of an intense, unrelenting search for a kind of Britishness I can belong to, my experience may offer an insight into where we are headed as a nation. (p. 23)

This provocative and personal book opens with Hirsch gathering with a group of friends, having just returned from a couple of years living in Africa, having gone there to “begin the journey into my new, African identity” (p. 3) but, like herself and her friends in the UK, not quite finding herself fitting in. Her boyfriend Sam, who grew up in Tottenham, is shocked by her privately educated, Oxbridge friend circle, not taking the opportunities his friends would have grasped to generate wealth: “He sees musing about belonging and identity as a luxury for someone who is pruivileged enough to not worry about where their next meal is coming from” (p. 6) whereas she sees him as having the luxury of a solid heritage behind him, of knowing who he is. Interesting stuff that prefaces what is to come.

I have to say here that the gulf Emma and I felt between ourselves and Hirsch wasn’t one of race particularly, but of education and background. We’ve found it easier somehow to read about working or middle-class people than someone who will go off to Ghana and immediately run into someone she knows from Oxford who is running an NGO (both of us went to university in London, although we come from solid middle-class backgrounds; I can only think this dislocation is a product of the class-ridden nature of the UK and Hirsch writes in depth about the intersection of race and class here).

Anyway, she goes on to discuss lots of different aspects of British culture while outlining her own experiences in Africa and the UK and her family background (we both got a bit confused by all her grandparents and their stories, possibly because we read it in half-chapters over an extended period of time). She covers the history of black people in the UK, the relationship between Empire and now (although making the point that none of her ancestors were related to enslaved people in Africa or the Caribbean, when talking about reparations), the unpleasant history of racial stereotyping and putting people in actual exhibitions, the fetishisation of black women’s bodies, the racism of feminism, colourism, claims of colour-blindness and post-racism, the actual segregation we claim didn’t happen, and socioeconomic aspects around race in Britain among other topics. She also interviews Tommy Robinson of the EDL, to get balance, which we found faintly shocking.

She does dart around topics and returns to family issues, which gives a very dense (but very valuable) book that uses her journalistic skill and passion about the topic to show points clearly and deeply. And what can we actually do? At the end, she does call for “addressing the root causes of prejudice and the unfairness at the heart of our national identity” (p. 316) rather than simply “tinkering” with quotas and projects. She asks us to begin a conversation to start that process, and of course this book acted as a gateway to many of the others that have been written and published since. I thought this book was going to give me a mirror to Akala’s “Natives” in terms of gender; it also gives a contrast in class, and it’s important to read several of these memoir/analysis books from different authors to remind us that race is not monolithic.

Book review – Raynor Winn – “The Salt Path”


Emma and I have done really well with our latest Reading Together read, as we only started it at the beginning of August and we finished it on 30 September! Raynor Winn’s “The Salt Path” is quite a short and easy read, though – definitely easier than our last book – although it was a bit more sad and a bit less uplifting than I’d imagined (Em trusted me on this one and was just attracted by the cover, however she did say she enjoyed it overall, phew!). I did wait to read this until I knew there was a sequel, and then Verity very kindly gave me this copy for Christmas.

Raynor Winn – “The Salt Path”

(25 December 2020, from Verity)

Excited, afraid, homeless, fat, dying, but at least if we made that first step we had somewhere to go, we had a purpose. And we really didn’t have anything better to do at half past three on a Thursday afternoon than to start a 630-mile walk. (p. 43)

This is one of those books (again!) that pretty well everyone has read and/or knows about. Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, become homeless in their early 50s as a result of a a business arrangement gone wrong. In a long relationship they’ve gone from students to farmers, building up their lives and family, but now it’s all gone – and now Moth’s had a devastating diagnosis of a degenerative disease.

So things aren’t great and indeed Em and I wept our way through the first section. Then they get onto the South-West coast path, having decided to walk that and wild camp as something positive to do. At first, Moth is really creaky and in pain but things improve and, while they never achieve the speed of the man who wrote their guidebook, they work their way around from North Somerset to South Cornwall.

It was lovely reading about places I know, and we both enjoyed the nature and travel aspect. Amusingly, until half-way around they are unwittingly tracking Simon Armitage (who is writing his journey up for “Walking Away”) which causes all sorts of mix-ups. Less positive was people’s attitude to finding out they’re homeless, which is quite shocking, assuming they’re addicts and backing away or being cruel. They do experience kindness, as well – the kindness of strangers being a theme through this and my last review.

Emma, who has children, was very affected by the effect on theirs, having to turn into sensible adults when they’re barely into their 20s, worrying about their parents but having to stand on their own two feet. This was poignant of course, as was so much of the book, but we both drew from it a sense of the capacity humans have for endurance and strength. And the book does end with a degree of hope, Moth has been all the better for regular exercise but they need to work out how to sustain that. Look out for the tortoise, too!

Emma and I have decided on our next tranche of books and I’m going to note them here so we have them recorded to look up. AND we’ve actually met up in person, the other weekend, after not having seen each other since late February 2020, the longest we’ve gone without seeing each other in our 28-year friendship!

Afua Hirsch – “Brit(ish)” – this is the next one we’ll start and is part memoir of growing up with mixed heritage in Britain, part an exploration of racism and colonialism

Francesca Wade – “Square Haunting” – about Meckelburgh Square and five overlapping residents

Sabeena Akhtar (ed.) – “Cut from the Same Cloth” – stories from British women who wear the hijab

Jini Reddy – “Wanderland” – a London woman with multicultural roots goes looking for the magical in the British landscape

Adam Nicolson – “The Sea is Not Made of Water” – rock pool and beach life between the British tides

Raynor Winn – “The Wild Silence” – homelessness and travels after “The Salt Path” and yes we’re aware people don’t rate it as highly as the first book, but we were curious

Those should keep us going for a good while: I’m so glad we’re keeping our Thursday Evening Reading going even as the lockdowns (hopefully) diminish and we can actually see each other again a bit more regularly.

Book review – Iain Sinclair – “London Overground”


I really need to get a new shot of Emma and me reading, as this was probably our first Lockdown Read and we both have different hair now. Anyway, even though we can go out and about now, I’m so happy that we’ve continued our Reading Time (usually on a Thursday evening, sometimes at the weekend) and we’ve enjoyed some really interesting books. We were pretty excited about this one, as we like a fact-finding walk (see our Birmingham Jewellery Quarter walk here) and thought this walk around the London Overground line might be fun to walk when we can get together again. Still might be fun … reading the book wasn’t the most fun we’ve ever had.

Iain Sinclair – London Overground: A Day’s Walk around the Ginger Line

(09 September 2020)

I think we’d probably both agree that we might not have got through this on our own – either of us. As it was, we could only manage a chapter per session, and that involved a lot of Looking Up. We’ve both read his “London Orbital” (I apparently did so before I started blogging!) and I have to admit I found his John Clare book a bit heavy going, but this was just very challenging.

Two problems: the amount and density of information, both blinding lists of artists and writers and obsessions with Clare, with JG Ballard was a bit bewildering. We were VERY glad when we got to a bit about Angela Carter, who we understand. Sometimes we looked it all up, sometimes we didn’t. But the references felt A Bit Much and, to be honest, we both felt a bit dim a lot of the time (and neither of us IS dim; we’re both well-educated and well-read, but the cultural references were off ours). Oh, there was a LOT about Freud and what I’ll politely call his final illness here, described in excruciating detail. And then he goes on little detours in order to sneer about various things in well-off areas.

Secondly, he had his mate Andrew Kotting with him. Now, Sinclair likes the liminal and the icky – he starts the book with a pile of dead birds and ends with a road accident (not his) and jolly photo of a big scar. OK, psychogeography is pretty dark at times, and that’s fine. But Kotting has a habit of peeing up walls and talking about his manky feet. And he just takes over a lot of the time. Obviously we were glad Sinclair had a friend with him, but what a friend.

There are funny moments, lighter moments – a wry smile at psychogeographers rushing in when access gets denied, a view of Boris Johnson opening some event then cycling away (how far?) echoing the fact Sinclair was on the first train when Johnson opened the line.

So, we’re glad we read it (I think!) because we’d have been intrigued by it anyway. It was fun to moan about Kotting and share info we looked up. It’s always lovely to have a read together. But it wasn’t the best book we’ve read together.

We’ve moved on to our next book now: Raynor Winn’s “The Salt Path”. Hooray, we could understand the sentences! However, although I knew it was about an older couple, the husband gets a scary diagnosis, they become homeless and go for a walk around the South-West Coast Path (no spoilers: that’s the thing everyone knows about it), and I had had to wait until I could see there was a sequel, a) I hadn’t realised Raynor is 50, around Em’s and my age, and b) I suppose we should have realised we’d have the hard bit before the nice walk. So we were in floods of tears at the end of chapter 2 and had to read on! But it does look good …

Book review – Isabella Tree – “Wilding”


This is the third book my best friend Emma and I have read together – we tend to do our Reading on a Thursday night, but it sometimes slips to the next Saturday if we have something we need to do. And we will be continuing this even after lockdown finishes, as we really enjoy it. We read “Rewild Yourself” first and followed it with “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” and for the last few months we’ve been working our way through this one, a chapter at a time, and very much enjoying it.

I bought this book at the Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance the last time we went down to Cornwall – I always buy a few books there when I’m down, usually local or nature-y ones.

Isabella Tree – “Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm”

(05 October 2019)

Somehow, nature had found us, homing in on our tiny patch of land from unseen distances, the momnet these few acres had become hospitable again. (p. 44)

This is the story of how Tree and her husband Charlie finally give up trying to farm his family property, Knepp, profitably, and decide to “Rewild” it instead. I read all about the theory of rewilding in a book fairly recently (review here) and now we have the detail of the practice. There is quite a lot of detail in this book and a lot of biology, so you learn about the way trees’ roots join them up underground and protect trees from danger, and about the way different plants colonise empty spaces, about giant herbivores and how they’re the most useful thing to reintroduce and the economics of farming and setaside subsidies. But the detail is broken up by very direct descriptions of their experiences (sometimes a little red in tooth and claw, but you can’t gloss over the icky bits of course) and lovely sections about the animals and plants that recolonise their little corner of Sussex.

After a timeline and an introduction that sets a positive tone for the book, we’re straight into measuring oak trees and not tidying them up, meeting one in a long succession of experts who help them to understand their land and what they’re doing. It’s not an easy process – some of the things they so are met with scorn and complaints by their neighbours, and some (allowing “weeds” to grow right to their boundaries and letting large animals die off and be left there to be used) are unconscionable and simply not possible. There are also hoops to jump through with the authorities – fencing off this land to keep animals in, etc., doesn’t come cheap and support should be available …

Having started with roots in the soil, we return to soil for the end of the book, showing how enriched everything is and the astounding number of animal, bird, insect and plant species that have re-established themselves. The final chapter is a call to “land sparing”, allowing the land to rest and water to clear, and not setting people in opposition to one another. A positive but practical and clear-eyed book which was a joy to read slowly.

One for Bookish Beck’s synchronicities: of course there are loads of overlaps with other wilding / rewilding books but I noted that both this, finished last Thursday, and Mike Pitt’s “Digging up Britain”, which I’ve been reading and reviewing for Shiny New Books, and which is about archaeology, mention the fact that 99% of human history has been spent as hunter-gatherers.

Have you tried doing a readalong with a friend – offline, not a blogging challenge? Would you consider it? Em and I think it’s great fun and a lovely connection – we chat about the book on messenger as we go but it’s mainly knowing the other one is sat there, too, having a Nice Read!

Book review – Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” #DiverseDecember


This is such an important book, on all those diversity lists that have been coming out of course; I had had it on my wishlist for a while and bought it with a voucher early on in lockdown when my photo group were doing a lot of lovely pay it forward gifts and I received one for a bookshop. I then didn’t read it for a while, but I’m glad I had the delay, because what I ended up doing was reading it alongside my best friend Emma from early October to early December. We have been having Reading Night on a Thursday through lockdown, reading a chapter of a book in our separate cities but at the same time, with a Facebook Messenger conversation going on. We started with “Rewild Yourself” and we took our time, sometimes having a video chat if we really wanted to talk, sometimes not managing to slot it in. But reading the book slowly like this really allowed me time to think about what I’d been reading and its relevance to my life and circles and what I could maybe do about things.

Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”

(28 April 2020 – bought with voucher for Topping & Company from Helen)

Lots of people have read this, of course, and a few people have talked about feeling defensive about what they read, so I tried to read it with an open mind and an attitude of learning and acceptance, rather than, “Yes, but, yes, but”. This came across most about the chapter on feminism, and while I was never part of the “movement”, having fallen between two stools (or perhaps waves!) due to my age, I could see there that work I’ve done with a feminist lens had some major sins of omission. I’m not going to lambast myself for my actions, but merely try to learn, and I was relieved to work out that my sins have indeed been of omission rather than commission. I was also very pleased to find some positive suggestions for action, something I’ve been searching for and hadn’t really expected to find here, listed so clearly.

Of course the book comes from that famous blog post where Eddo-Lodge laid out the idea that she was so sick of people talking over her, denying their and others’ racism, denying institutional racism, that she was just giving up speaking to White people about race at all. She does qualify this in the Preface:

I’m not talking to white people about race unless I absolutely have to. If there’s something like a media or conference appearance that means that someone might hear what I’m saying and feel less alone, then I’ll participate. But I’m no longer dealing with people who don’t want to hear it, wish to ridicule it, and, frankly, don’t deserve it. (p. xii)

The reaction she got to the original blog post inspired her to write a book picking up various themes and strands – and this new paperback edition also has an Aftermarth section which talks optimistically of the “renaissance of black critical thought and culture” and also in a British context, rather than having to “[rely] heavily on the American narrative as a tool to find ourselves” (both p. 235). This book was published and the new edition came out way before George Floyd’s murder and the huge increase in Black Lives Matter narratives and purchases by well-meaning allies: it is useful to be reminded that many of those books on those many lists were out there, waiting for us, when we went searching them out, and so many more have been written and published and promoted since. Now it’s our job to read those books and share about them.

This book is just so useful. First we are given a background to the racism of today with the Histories chapter, reminding us of the American slave trade and Britain’s role in it, leading into Eddo-Lodge’s own search for more information on Black people in Britain after slavery, which leads into her looking into Black History Month, how it was set up and how it differs from the US version. There’s lots of this positive information and it’s interesting to consider that I knew quite a lot about the bad stuff (the 1919 race riots, the systematic setting up of an atmosphere of discrimination for those who sought to move here quite legitimately, etc.) but not about the establishment of Black History Month or Dr Moody of Peckham who founded the first campaigning organisation for Black people, the League of Coloured Peoples, in 1931. She looks into perspectives on riots (or uprisings) and how the racism inherent in our society

does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s at the very core of how the state is set up. It’s not external. It’s in the system. (p. 56}

A quick pause to say this is not the book I thought it was. I thought it was one long, well-argued polemic from a personal perspective. But it’s a lot more than that: a survey of history and sociology, heavily referenced and based on lots of different sources. I have purchased and read all sorts of different books and just thought this was what it was not (not surprised a Black writer writes in this way of course, in case anyone has read that into that).

The chapter on the system looks deeply at Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the institutional racism and corruption that led to the huge delays in getting him justice. I knew quite a lot about this, but there was still a lot I didn’t know about, and it’s so important to have this example after looking at the historical context. Here, the personal does jump in and shock us – Eddo-Lodge notes that she was 3 when Stephen Lawrence died and 22 when two of his killers were jailed. The wider context is looked at and shamed and shares information about Black children’s chances (or lack of) in education and then work, a condensed version of what I also read recently in “Slay in Your Lane” but is worth repeating for different audiences. Eddo-Lodge also shares her own journey from being suspicious of positive discrimination to accepting the need for it – a brave thing to include, and good evidence of people’s ability to change their mind. This chapter ends with a powerful call to action:

In order to dismantle unjust, racist structures, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by negative stereotypes about their race, and two who power and privilege is bestowed upon – earned or not – because of their race, their class, and their gender. (p. 85)

I can’t really go on to describe the whole rest of the book in detail as this will be the longest post ever. Eddo-Lodge explains white privilege, while honestly sharing where she is an insider, for example only realising about barriers to people living with mobility issues or parents/guardians with buggies when she tried to take a bicycle on public transport. I did love this honesty and humility that shone through the book (as I’d expect from any writer). This bravery extends when she seeks to offer a balanced view by contacting the vile right-winger, Nick Griffin to ask him questions about his “Fear of a Black planet” as she puts it, in an effort to understand where these views come from.

The famous chapter on feminism and its rejection of intersectionality was shocking to read, and I wish I had been involved in the actual movement – although would I have done anything? I am uncomfortably aware that I am pretty sure my research for my postgrad on sources of information for women experiencing domestic violence, which had a feminist lens, did not take account of race as it should have. Hopefully as I say below, sharing and discussing texts that do have an intersectional element (i.e. look at the intersecting issues when someone is living with two or more characteristics that make them more vulnerable to prejudice and institutional harm, such as being Black and working class, working class and disabled, Asian and female, etc.) will hopefully help to start to redress that. Again, I salute Eddo-Lodge for her personal and political honesty and for the call to action for feminism to embrace intersectionality. Talking of class, I (and Emma) got a bit lost in the new research on the classes of Britain, not being able to locate ourselves, there, but the chapter on race and class wasn’t there for us, but to show that intersection, too.

As I mentioned above, I was surprised and cheered to find a section on what White people can do to be anti-racist and allies – a list of positive, clear, visible things, such as taking on administrative or financial assistance to groups doing vital work while leaving their running to the people actually affected, intervening in bystander situations and talking to other White people about racism issues (which Em and I did a lot while reading this book together, very revealingly and interestingly, and which I’m trying to do by continuing to showcase books like this with detailed reviews on this blog – I don’t of course know the demographics of my readership, but I know a lot of my commenters are of a similar demographic to me and I hope they find something of interest, while readers of colour might see some practices of allyship, something where we who seek to be allies should always be seeking to develop and learn.

The Aftermath chapter as I said above gives a lot of home: Eddo-Lodge has seen readers of colour feel supported by it and White people reflecting on how race has shaped their own lives – as we did as we read it. And no, it’s not controversial, as people have suggested: it’s all there in the sources, it’s sensible and thorough, honest and detailed, and something people can definitely use to educate themselves.

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