An Astronomer’s Tale

fildesOn my own travels I’ve seen skies above the Libyan desert.  One night, sleeping among the dunes and rock outcrops of the Jebel Akakus, I woke up and was staring straight into the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. You get a shiver in your spine, you feel like you’re falling upwards into infinity. Your eyes range around the sky looking for patterns, to make meaning of it all.  A few years ago I spent a few days observing and photographing at the dark sky site in Galloway.  The star fields have to be seen to be truly appreciated. Until the last 150 years – really since the coming of artificial light, gas lamps then electric light – everywhere in the world was a dark sky site.  These stunning views were there for everyone.

The Kielder Forest in Northumberland is Europe’s largest protected Dark Sky park, and in the heart of it is the elegant work of art and science combined that is the Kielder Observatory. Its founder and lead astronomer, Gary Fildes, has written this really engaging and passionate book, which is now released in paperback, about the observatory, the sky and his life.

Gary grew up in Sunderland, left school at sixteen into the void left by the closing of the shipyards, and became a brickie by trade. But his heart has always been in the stars. The book is an interleaved mix of Gary’s life story and a seasonal guide to the sky. The seasonal guide bits are well written, clear, exciting and informative – you put down the chapter and want to go out there straight away to look. You can see that the exposition of the sky is something Gary has down to a fine art now, through his work at Kielder.

It’s the narrative of Gary’s life and the founding of the Kielder observatory that really made the book work for me. Gary’s life hasn’t always been perfect – he writes with honesty about his involvement with the fighting and hooliganism that dogged football in the 1980s. But even through those times –  and being a young father of four he soon got the wake-up call that he had to change – he never lost his fascination with astronomy, even though admitting it to his mates at the time might have got his head kicked in.

The revival of serious observing starts again for Gary in 1996, when he connects with a neighbour with a telescope. The dream of the Kielder observatory started properly in 2002, and finally reached fruition in 2008, with the help of dozens of people who shared the dream and no small help from the skills of his own trade. Kielder is now receiving upwards of 20,000 visitors a year and has ambitions to become the world’s biggest public observatory.  During the book Gary speaks with great affection for his father, and how he wishes he were here to see what he’s achieved at Kielder. He also reminds us that this is his passion long before his profession – he’s not a professional scientist, never took a degree. Well, so what – you’re in the company of Patrick Moore there Gary!

Anyway, Kielder is now on my ‘must visit’ list for when the dark nights return – and if I get chance Gary, I’ll buy you a drink. Thanks for this super book.

An Astronomer’s Tale – A Bricklayer’s Guide to the Galaxy, Gary Fildes, Century Publishing, 298pp

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Bee Quest – Dave Goulson

It seems I’m on a roll with nature writing at the moment – after Chris Packham’s memoir (with almost poetic reflections on the wildlife he encountered) I dived straight in to Dave Goulson’s third book on bees (and other creepy-crawlies) . I’m not sure why I haven’t read the other two (apart from the usual #somanybookstoolittletime) because I did spend quite a lot of time in the last ten years or so campaigning for Friends of the Earth in general (and bees in particular). After all that I thought I knew quite a lot about the subject but, compared to Goulson, I knew much less than I thought. What I particularly loved about this book is the way that I learned so much almost effortlessly!

bee questI learned a lot, particularly, about conservation which is a rather counter-intuitive field. I would never have considered, for example, that green-field sites often contain much less biodiversity than brown-field ones. Or that the few animals whose presence can delay developments (bats and great crested newts) are actually much less rare or endangered than many of our native invertebrates. It is, it seems, easier to gain sympathy for creatures with backbones than for those without (no matter how beautiful, scare or economically useful in terms of pest control or pollination). I’m certainly going to be much kinder to the bugs in my own garden (leaving some of it wild and unkempt is already second nature, or possibly laziness…)

Goulson is a man who is, self-admittedly, stuck in his 10 year-old ‘bug phase’ and who has used his love of invertebrates in general to carve out a career as a university biology lecturer. I would hope his students do very well as his way of imparting information seems to be both thorough and entertaining – he obviously not only knows his stuff but is hugely passionate about it. In particular he is very eloquent on the subject of conservation – not just for bees and other animals but also for our own benefit. His closing words are a hope that children, in the future, will still have the chance to get out into nature: to explore green spaces and muddy puddles, to get dirty and to meet our wildlife face to face. I’m of an age with Goulson and was lucky enough to have that kind of childhood (rarely indoors during daylight in decent weather, frequently filthy and with a wide range of pets which included a fish-tank full of woodlice). I can really heartily recommend it!

Jane

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – Chris Packham

How remarkable. I have just had my view of someone changed by a segment on the One Show. This is not usual behaviour for me (or, probably, for the One Show) but watching Chris Packham on the programme earlier this week clarified impressions which I had gained from reading Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – a memoir of his childhood and his relationship with the natural world – so that the penny, which had been half-way down, finally dropped. I had always considered Packham to be an excellent naturalist and an enthusiastic advocate for the animal kingdom. I thought him outspoken on the subject but passionate in his beliefs – like most people I assumed this was mostly an honest manifestation of his character but partly a tv persona. But reading this unusual memoir I gradually began to feel that there was more to Packham than met the eye. And when, during his interview, he began to refer to autism and Asperger’s I realised that this was the aspect I’d been missing.

41WQQ7Ip9NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This isn’t necessarily an easy memoir to read – the focus moves around through Packham’s childhood, the late 1960s to the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s, and drifts back and forth over that period; the language is unusually poetic, with some passages I had to read twice over to get the meaning; but it is certainly worth persisting with.  He is obviously an unhappy child, bullied at school, uncommunicative; he enjoys many of the normal hobbies of boys his age, airfix models, subbuteo and sneaky peeks at pornography, but the only thing that seems to give him peace is immersion in the natural world. His early experiments in the biological sciences are not always successful (it turns out a sunny window-sill is not the best place for a jam-jar full of tadpoles) but his fascination with animals and birds is all-consuming.

What made the complexity of his descriptions worthwhile to me was the reminder that these were the words Packham uses to explain how nature grounds him. He is a complicated human being (as so many of us are) but an interesting one (unlike some…). If you take the effort to hear what he has to say he can tell us a lot about what it is like not to fit in and how it can be possible to carve out a place in the world that works for you.

Jane

The Giant Jumperee – Julia Donaldson & Helen Oxenbury

We do like to appoint people as the King or Queen of whatever. In baking Mary Berry is our reigning monarch, Kylie is the Princess of Pop (with Michael Jackson still the prince) and Elvis is, and possibly always will be, the King of Rock and Roll. In books for very young children Julia Donaldson has established herself as a very longstanding ruler. A Squash and Squeeze was published in 1993 and, in 1999, she cemented her place in the heart of every 5 year-old ever since, by creating the Gruffalo. Both of these books, like many of her best beloved stories, were produced in collaboration with illustrator Axel Scheffler but she has also worked with many others. Nick Sharratt, Lydia Monks and David Roberts have worked with Donaldson on a number of titles  but The Giant Jumperee is the first book done with the equally wonderful Helen Oxenbury.  Oxenbury’s illustrations are adorable whether they are for her own books or for classics like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt or Alice – obviously the latter is a favourite of mine, her Alice is such a wonderfully real child, more of a real likeness than just an illustration.

9780141363820I think I would recommend the Giant Jumperee to younger children, mainly under fives, because it is rather gentler and more old-fashioned than much of Donaldson’s other work. I adore the Gruffalo but it is possibly a bit too exciting and scary for some toddlers. I’ve learnt, from experience, that it is not an ideal book to read at bedtime (especially not with the voices and everything) as it isn’t particularly soothing. This book has a similar storyline to the Gruffalo – many large animals are scared by the words of a much smaller one – and, to the possible relief of storytellers everywhere, it is a much shorter story. Ever with all the voices and the obligatory six repetitions, you should be able to get away with about a 15 minute bedtime routine with this one.*

Jane

*Unless the child involved wants a second story/a glass of water/needs to know where the moon comes from/to hear what that word was that Daddy said when he dropped that cake on the floor/to have a baby brother and/or puppy, now. You know the drill…

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain – Ian Mortimer

Sometimes I’m a total fool to myself. Case in point: I love reading history books but I have painted myself into a metaphorical corner which means I hardly ever read any actual history any more. Here is my problem – see what you think.  I like to post reviews of as many books as I can – I’ve often been given access to books for free by publishers and authors, the least I can do is feedback what I think. I aim to post reviews here once or twice a week and if I don’t post here I do review on Netgalley, Waterstones.com or Goodreads. I didn’t used to interact with Goodreads much but, at the beginning of this year my eye was caught by their ‘reading challenge’ where contributors were saying how many books they planned to read in a year. Many were pledging to read 30 or 40 books and, if you work, have children or other responsibilities, this is an impressive target: but I don’t have any kids and I work 4 days a week in a bookshop so I thought I’d go a bit higher. And because I’m daft I decided that one book a week wasn’t enough – my target is 126 books in 2017. Two books a week. And, because a really good history book can take me a week or so to fully appreciate, I thought I’d have to miss out on all the fabulous publishing on the subject coming out this year. Sad face. However, I managed to get myself two or three books ahead of schedule, so I decided to treat myself to an author whose history books I have previously enjoyed (and found very easily readable). My 2017 history duck has been broken!

17thThe first Ian Mortimer book I read was his Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and I loved the way that it covered all the aspects of history which are often overlooked. I used to enjoy a bit of light Live Role Playing – which mostly involved being a medieval-style peasant for a weekend – so it was great to be able to read about the food, clothes and toilet facilities I was role-playing. I have never dressed up and pretended to be a Restoration lady (apart from the odd bit of corsetry, but that’s another story) but I think this book would give me some excellent pointers on how to do it. This is a history of all the people – the Kings (and their many hangers-on, wives, and mistresses), the rich and the poor – and it is the history of their whole lives – what they eat, wear, do for fun and where they…well…poo. Mortimer is convincing about why the late 17th century is a period of revolution: not just in terms of Royal succession or religious tolerance but also in the realms of science, literature, the belief in reason as a higher priority than religion in many areas, and also just in attitudes to life. Women are still very much second-class citizens, the property of some man or other, but some of them become the earliest female actors, authors, painters, and travel writers.

The world Mortimer describes is often ( as 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said) ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It is full of things we find unfair, ridiculous or even barbaric; it is very smelly, unhealthy and downright dangerous but it is also exciting, full of change and development and contains some brilliant writing (note to self: read some Pepys). It is also starting to become more and more like the world we know today.

Jane

The Djinn Falls in Love – Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin eds.

Retellings of fairy-tales, folk stories and myths are huge at the moment (and have been for a while). Authors like Angela Carter, Philip Pullman and Joanne Harris have explored many of the stories which are hugely familiar to us all and made us think very differently about them. There doesn’t seem to be a fairy-tale character who doesn’t now star in their very own YA franchise and my favourite, Alice in Wonderland, crops up everywhere. The universal themes of stories which we have heard from our childhoods help to give us a sense of familiarity (which the best authors then undermine like mad). But of course not every culture tells the same stories so I was interested to read this collection of tales based on the tales of djinns (or jinns or genies) which we only know in the West from Disney films.

djinnContrary to everything I thought I knew (and which most people raised in cultures where these beings are as well-known as elves and gnomes are to us could have told me) most djinn don’t live in bottles. They don’t necessarily spend all their time granting wishes and they don’t all speak like Robin Williams – these djinn are much more interesting and diverse. These djinn are people. Interestingly the biggest named author in the book (the incomparable Neil Gaiman) wrote one of the stories I liked least – although, to be fair, it was a chapter from American Gods and maybe I could tell that, while complete in itself, it wasn’t a whole story. The rest of the stories cover a multitude of genres and time periods: I particularly enjoyed some of the more sci-fi/dystopian ones (Saad Hossain’s Bring Your Own Spoon, for example), but most of them had some elements of speculative fiction in there. The one which may stick with me longest, however, was chillingly real – REAP by Sami Shah – and featured a blend of magical beings and realistic drone warfare.

A really interesting collection and, like the best short story anthologies, it will lead you towards lots of brilliant new authors.

Jane

Arrowood – Mick Finlay

I was brought up in the days when you had to like one thing or the other. It started with the choice between the Bay City Rollers and David Cassidy, moved on to Wham vs Duran Duran and reached its peak in the Britpop era. Obviously, I’m awkward. I spent the seventies quite liking all the big names in pop but saving my actual fandom for the Wombles (I was 7 – surely I was meant to like kids bands rather than wasting my time wanting to marry Donny Osmond…), in the eighties I was still listening to everything but developing my teen love of Prog Rock (played Yes and Genesis at my wedding, there’s nothing like a twelve-minute long first dance…) and in the nineties, alongside Blur and Oasis, I’d discovered folk-rock and Nick Drake. Let’s face it, if I see a crowd all looking in the same direction I’ll have a quick glance and then a good look round to see what they’re missing. In the late Victorian London of Mick Finlay’s novel I’m the kind of person who would have read all about Sherlock Holmes in the paper and then wondered about all the cases he didn’t take. Which is how most people seem to discover Arrowood…

9780008203184William Arrowood is a detective and he’s, frankly, got no time for Sherlock Holmes. Which is a shame because most of the rest of London have got such a crush on him it’s almost as if Benedict Cumberbatch were already in the role – there is a great running joke throughout the book that whenever Arrowood and his assistant Barnett meet anyone new they start to enthuse about the great Sherlock, much to Arrowood’s disgust. Our heroes, however, take on the cases of people who are too poor to afford Baker Street rates and they delve into cases which seem much more sordid than anything Dr Watson would care to describe. In this book they are searching for a missing young Frenchman but soon become involved with the criminal underworld (in the form of a gang who have London sown up and would like to move onto stitching up Arrowood and Barnett), the fight for Irish independence, human trafficking and prostitution. The plot is rather nicely complicated and I really liked some of the characters. It looks as though this book ends poised to begin a whole series – in which case I look forward to hearing more about Neddy, the obligatory urchin, and Arrowood’s indefatigable sister.

Jane