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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13 Journeys Through Space And Time – Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution


The first recollection I have of one of my all time heroes – the astronomer Carl Sagan – was when he undertook, for the Royal Institution, the Christmas lecture series at the end of 1977. As a fascinated 11-year-old I absorbed it all and I still remember his demonstrations of lunar cratering with the aid of marbles “except you don’t find marbles down craters”, as well as his talk around the still-new Viking Mars missions and the just-launched Voyager mission with the interstellar record of music and messages to be a present for any future aliens who might find it.

A precis of Sagan’s lecture is just one of the thirteen summarised in this lovely little book – a great present for Christmas – which brings back historic lectures, aimed at young audiences, on the subject of space and time, ranging from  1881 to 2015. The book is a fascinating mixture of lecture history, science, RI archive content such as handwritten letters, and photographs and transcripts. The book explores what we thought we knew then and what has been discovered since. The emphasis of the lecture series has always been ‘don’t just tell – show’ – which is brought out well in the book with drawings and photographs of how children from the audience, from decade to decade, have been invited down to get involved in experiments in the Faraday Lecture Theatre.

The earlier ones – Robert Stalwell Ball of 1881, Herbert Hall Turner of 1913 are lovely period pieces, indeed Ball’s own full lecture notes – available in his book “Star-land” – are full of the more poetic language of the age.  Compiler Colin Stuart compares what was believed then, with what is known now – for example the common belief in 1881 that the lunar craters were volcanic in origin, and the Martian Canals controversy – active from the late 19th to the early 20th century – was a common theme returned to in the earlier lectures.

Classic lectures by the giants of the mid-20th-century follow by James Jeans, Harold Spencer-Jones and a team led by Bernard Lovell, and as we move into the space age proper the latest lectures by Monica Grady and Kevin Fong continue to find ways of showing cutting-edge science to a young audience. In the final lecture Kevin Fong introduces British astronaut Tim Peake via video screen to talk to the audience – live- from orbit in the International Space Station, a sight that Robert Ball would no doubt have loved to have witnessed.

This is a great and unusual little book for all ages to enjoy.


13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution by Colin Stuart, with a foreword from British ESA astronaut Tim Peake. 224pp, Michael O’Mara publishing

The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson, The Pie at Night – Stuart Maconie

The Road To Little Dribbling

Bill Bryson returns to these shores. In 1994, Notes From a Small Island of course was a huge hit. A travelogue around Britain, written by an American, which meant his observations on the character of our people were as sharp and witty as his observations about the places he visited. I loved the book when it came out – his impassioned rant about Oxford architecture, his elegy for Morecambe, and his curry-precipitated U-turn of opinion on Bradford.

In the Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson – 20 years older too – returns to the theme to see how Britain has changed. Coming across as a genial, erudite ‘grumpy old man’, what I like about Bryson is that he’s not just a travel writer, he researches deeply to teach us obscure stuff we never knew and is not shy to call out injustices as he sees them. Did I know the Settle-Carlisle rail line was engineered by an unsung hero called Charles Sharland, who died at 25, never to see the line completed? No I did not, but there should be a statue of him. As in his previous book, Bryson’s focus is in three areas – architecture, and our total bodging failure to appreciate it and invest in the long-term to preserve the treasures we have, service without a smile (watch batteries in Torquay, anyone?), but fundamentally our beautiful, endlessly explorable countryside.

Bryson is careful not to retrace the exact same steps geographically. He frames the book round a route from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath – of course, quite a wild and wobbly route meaning he can go where he wants! It’s a strange and disappointing thing that of the 26 chapters, 16 are gone before he reaches the Midlands, one chapter covers Wales (but a lovely write-up of Tenby and St Davids by the way), and as for the whole of Scotland? Guess. You might argue that this reflects the population density, but even so, it’s tough treatment for that great nation. Having said that, Bryson is as ever a funny, perceptive and wonderfully opinionated travel writer and long may he remain so.
The Pie At NightIt might seem strange to combine this review with The Pie at Night – but this is my review and I’ll do what I like!  I first heard Stuart Maconie as a music journo, guesting on the Mark Radcliffe show along with Andrew Collins back in the 90s, with acerbic and bitingly funny music reviews. Now, he is for my money among the best homegrown travel writers around. Only nine years younger than Bryson, he feels and writes like a different generation. I’ve previously read and loved Pies and Prejudice, and Adventures on the High Teas, and now Maconie goes in search of what Northern England does for leisure. Be that football, the races, drinking, dancing or the more artful worlds of books, art and music.

Maconie, roots firmly in his native Wigan, describes himself as a romantic about the north’s industrial past, but a hard-headed one. He holds no illusions about a lost golden age of happiness – the reality of industry was back-breaking hard work. But work it was, and in return on precious holidays, those northern workers played hard too, and that is I think what Maconie’s getting at – laiking aht in the north, in whatever form, comes from a communal thing, an intensely shared culture that exists to this day.

And you get Maconie’s deep-rooted love for his North coming through in waves. In contrast to Bryson, his focus is more on characters and people, and he observes and seeks them out in a way that Bryson – more recognisable in the street – probably now cannot. Unashamedly political, Maconie’s writing is rich and lovely and often poignant to read as he travels though Stockport, Blackpool, Todmorden, Halifax, Great Gable and past High Force in Teesdale to name only a few places.

So is The Pie at Night only of interest to northerners then? Would southern people read this as a bit of pious ‘rootsier-than-thou’? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Jane… but I loved it.

The Road to Little Dribbling – More Notes from a Small Island
Bill Bryson

The Pie at Night – In Search of the North at Play
Stuart Maconie


Eat, Sleep, Cycle – Anna Hughes – and One Man and his Bike – Mike Carter

mike_carter anna_hughesEarlier this year, I got on my bike and for the first time, attempted and completed a multi-day cycle trip. For me, it was the 171-mile Way of the Roses, a coast-to-coast ride from Morecambe in the west to Bridlington in the east. Each day I got up, ate a (pretty hearty) breakfast, packed my panniers and got on the bike, rode through beautiful scenery on – usually – peaceful roads, and in the evening ate an even heartier meal and slept – for just four days it was a lovely routine and a bit of time out of life, out of the daily grind.

The book I took with me in the front bar-bag was Anna Hughes’ Eat, Sleep, Cycle. In 2011 Anna decided to attempt a ride that dwarfs my little achievement – not the standard Land-End-to-John-O-Groats run either, but a 4,000 mile circuit round the entire coast of Britain, starting and ending in London.

A book I considered but didn’t take with me is Mike Carter’s One Man and his Bike – on the face of it, a similar book – again, in 2008, Mike took time out of the rat-race, got on his bike and rode round Britain’s coast – but the books are sufficiently different in style that a ‘compare and contrast’ review is worth it.

Firstly – Anna’s book is closer to my own experience as a cyclist. Straightforward, authentic and cleanly written (despite her admission of being a first time author), Anna takes a nature-focussed, descriptive view as she passes through the counties. Her sparse and often quite poetic descriptions give a lovely feel for the geography, the weather and the day to day experience – her own low points included, when she barely found the will to carry on. Anna is clearly sustained by a love of fish and chips! It was a real pleasure for me after each day of my own ride, to read a few chapters of Anna’s book as a prelude to a very sound sleep.

Although she frequently rode accompanied, Anna’s focus is self-discovery, but not in a fey chakra-balancing way, you simply get the feeling that the solitude and time to think out her life is something she needed, the reward for her endeavour. I finished the book feeling like I’d ridden with her and liking her immensely.

Mike starts his book, clearly adrift – a 45-year old freelance journalist at the Guardian, but tired and demoralised, contemplating going to South America, fed up of the broken-Britain selfishness that was all around, worried about the economic crash which was unwinding in 2008. One day he just didn’t cycle to work and started to ride the coast instead.

Mike’s book is much more densely written and event-filled, with a lot more human encounter and dialogue. During the journey he proves to himself that Britain is anything but ‘broken’, that the spirit and yes, the gorgeous eccentricity of our people can carry us through anything. Mike’s character is intelligent and likeable, his prose is sharply observed and often funny and I particularly loved his encounter with the obnoxious Dutch cyclist on Mull! Mike seems to have the journalists’ knack of finding the story, or often the story finding him, and made for a rich and rewarding read, in many ways more true ‘travel’ writing, although a few other reviewers have commented that he seems to rush through the final leg of the journey.

So which is better? Well, I don’t like to make the comparison. Both books convey the highs, the lows, the pain and exhaustion, the adrenalin and joy that is cycling. Mike’s is, I would say, better writing, but Anna – not a professional writer – somehow spoke to my own experience more. The two books appeal to different parts of my head and there’s nothing to lose by reading both. I know Anna herself has read Mike’s book and enjoyed it. As ever, your own mileage may vary!

Eat, Sleep, Cycle – A Bike Ride Around the Coast of Britain, Anna Hughes, Summersdale, 319pp.

One Man and his Bike – A life-changing journey all the way around the coast of Britain, Mike Carter, Ebury, 343pp.
One Man and His Bike

Ramble On – Sinclair McKay

Ramble On

I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler, from Manchester way.
I get all my pleasures the hard moorland way.
I may be a wage-slave on Mondays, but I am a free man on Sundays
. – Ewan McColl

I was brought up as a walker. My parents were not churchgoers on Sunday and so my childhood memories are of being placed on the trig-point of Penyghent aged around nine, by my dad, of summitting Ingleborough for the first time the following year – of reaching the top of Kinder Scout and gazing across at the wild moorland. It’s never left me. Hiking was and is my worship.

Ramble On is part history of the rambling movement, from its early beginnings in the romantic era, through the anti-establishment mass trespasses that formed the stamp of the Rambler’s Association and the gradual opening up of what was private land to everyone with boots and a love of nature. It’s also part travelogue, with Sinclair McKay as an engaging and warm-hearted guide as he ranges over the classic routes like the Ridgeway, the Lake District, Bronte Country and many many others, telling us the tales as he goes.

When it comes to the great clash of private land ownership and ‘No Trespassing’ signs with the dreams of the Victorian and Edwardian walking groups, it’s clear where McKay’s sympathies lie and the book covers all of these developments in a very accessible way, starting with the time of Jane Austen’s characters strolling over Box Hill.  McKay devotes chapters to the great walking evangelists Tom Stephenson and Alf Wainwright, and overall is a lovely, poetically written and windswept love letter to our open spaces, and to the struggles of the past that means we can all now enjoy them. This is a super book for anyone who loves walking and rambling, to read round our peculiar hobby from an author who truly understands how much it means to us.

Ramble On – The Story of our love for Walking Britain, Fourth Estate 292pp.

Turning Forty – Mike Gayle

Turning Forty

You probably didn’t expect me to be reviewing a chick-lit (or more properly, lad-lit) book, but there you have it. Mike Gayle is my guilty pleasure. Mike writes a class of books that are generally relationship-based, from the man’s point of view. His first book, My Legendary Girlfriend, was a hit with me as I knew someone in almost exactly the same torch-carrying situation (no, it wasn’t me).

Turning Forty is the sequel to Gayle’s 2000 novel Turning Thirty, and features Matt Beckford, a Birmingham-born chap who starts the book as a high-flier in the IT world, married and generally doing well in life. Of course, the book starts when this all goes wrong and Matt’s life undergoes a whirly revolution involving briefly moving back with his parents, hooking back up with old flames, hooking up with new flames, meeting and falling out with old mates, charity shops and beers with his schoolday pop idol.

Mike Gayle books are the literary equivalent of bubblegum pop crossed with Chinese take out – you can read it in a day, they slip very easily into the brain and you feel like another one straight after. But you know what? They’re great fun and you can’t help liking Matt Beckford, even though he is clearly nothing like me, falls head-over heels at the drop of a hat, has a self-centred streak and seems to act entirely on impulse without thinking anything through for five minutes first. These are the kind of things that happen to Matt Beckford :

I go to a party! A gorgeous girl talks to me! Whoo – I’m in love! We move in together on a whim – why not! Let’s give up our jobs and travel the world! We fall out – I hate her! Never speaking to her again! I go for a beer to drown my sorrows. At the pub I meet a gorgeous girl! Whoo – I’m in love! We move… (cont. p94)

Maybe I’m just unlucky and a bit jealous that none of these things ever seemed to happen to Rob Glover. In the meantime, this is a really fun summer read and I look forward to the day Mike Gayle decides to write Turning Fifty.

The Martian – Andy Weir

The Martian

Mark Watney is alone and stranded, with a limited and diminishing supply of food and water, no communications, and everyone believes he is dead. But that’s not the bad news. The bad news is he’s not even on Earth – he’s stranded at the landing site of the manned mission Ares 3, on Acidalia Planitia, planet Mars. An emergency mission abort caused by a violent dust storm, a big stroke of bad luck, and the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) has ascended with the rest of the crew… but without him.

Andy Weir’s first book, initially self-published on his website and now a major publishing release, is the Martian Robinson Crusoe – a hard sci-fi narrative which follows in the great tradition of Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust, and the real life Apollo 13 – it’s a story of survival, overcoming the odds, and ingenuity.

Meticulously researched, Watney’s story comes across as entirely believable – you come away sure this could really happen, that it really would be like this. The engineering is based on real world mission profiles, and because much of the narrative is in the form of Watney’s diary, you’re in on his day to day thoughts as he figures out how to stay alive, works the numbers, and plans ways for his own rescue. His training as a botanist at least gives him a head start in farming! In another parallel to Apollo 13, the narrative switches to and fro well between the stranded astronaut, and NASA Mission Controllers on Earth. The mission control characters are less well developed, but that’s not a bad thing as the focus is truly on Watney.

I really enjoyed the book, and certainly read it quickly as it’s hard to put down once you’re inside. To me there were a couple of flaws which stop it being a great book (who was it said that those who can, do, and those who can’t, criticise? Anyway)…

One of my other favourite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy, is a master of description and scene painting. Sometimes – as in his book 2312 as well as in sections of Green and Blue Mars – the description can drag on in place of plot development. In Weir’s The Martian, the reverse is the case – the plot motors along, quite literally with Watney driving hundreds of miles across Mars in his rover, but any sense of imagery and power of place was missing for me. Here is a man driving over the billion-year-old landscape of another planet, with dunes, rock formations, escarpments, dry river valleys, craters – every vista never before seen by human eyes, and it’s described so sparsely he might as well be travelling across a parking lot.

Some reviews have criticised Watney’s character as lacking dimensions – a criticism similarly levelled at A Fall Of Moondust as it happens – but that doesn’t bother me, in fact it makes it accurate. He’s a highly trained professional with a can-do attitude and irrepressible humour, and in such a situation – again, like the real life Apollo 13 – the astronaut is well adjusted and focussed at all times on the job in hand. A couple of times the mask slips with despairing entries into the diary, but that’s it. I’d be more irritated if the author had stuffed him with neuroses and hang-ups (didn’t they screen astronauts for long-duration mission suitability, I would have been shouting?).

The Martian is a worthy first novel for Andy Weir and I will look forward to his next journey.