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

@kielder_obs on Twitter


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!


Scientific Romance – Brian Stableford (ed)

I have one slight confusion over this book – the title. And it isn’t for the usual reasons since the book itself explains the origins of the phrase ‘scientific romance’ very clearly. No, I’m just confused that when I searched for it on various websites it didn’t appear under that title but had been expanded out to ‘Under The Moons of Mars: a Collection of Scientific Romance’. I do understand that changes are often made after proofs (or e-proofs) are made but this seems a little bit like a focus group somewhere decided the original was too difficult to understand…*sigh*. Also, very few of these stories are set on Mars.

9ac3279ce001f88a84e462b5d537d502.jpgI really enjoyed the stories in this book even though I’m not usually a big fan of ‘hard’ sci-fi. But these tales, published between 1835 and 1924, are more Victorian (and Edwardian) explorations of the scientific advances which thrilled the society of the day. Their authors range from the incredibly well-known, like Conan Doyle, to unknowns and they hail from France and America as well as the UK. They are, in fact, something like the originals of steampunk itself! There are stories of automata, intelligent machines who, since they are given a social conscience, come to the conclusion that the workers would be better off without machines taking their jobs: one where Scotland becomes a nature reserve and historical theme park (with the help of a device which can control the weather) and one which explores the human costs of ‘perfect’ societies (eugenics and the fact that cultural/religious norms hold more sway than natural emotional responses). My favourites (probably no surprises here) are a tale which explores climate change caused by humankind’s over-use of fossil fuels and one which turns evolution on its head in a lecture given by a gorilla professor on whether apes were descended from humans.

I saw these stories as proof that sci-fi isn’t all about space battles and explosions (as good as Rogue One was…). It doesn’t even have to involve space – science has enough mysteries to keep us going even today.


P.S. As a bonus it turns out that the editor of this collection, Brian Stableford, was born in Shipley. Which is nice…

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 Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

I am from Essex. I’m proud to be from Essex and love my home county – many of the people I love are there and I have many, many happy memories of my youth spent scrabbling around in the woods and seashore of the county. The fact that I don’t live there any more is partly economic, partly chance and a teeny bit of TOWIE. Fact: I’m rubbish at wearing high heels, don’t tan and can’t drive any car let alone a MK 2 Cortina. But, hey, it should be more widely known that us Essex girls come in all shapes, sizes and skin-tones.

methode_times_prod_web_bin_3802deb2-21d5-11e6-8644-041f71209e1fSome of my best-beloved fellow Essex girls live in the parts of Essex which are so wonderfully described in Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent. They are the parts which are often forgotten – rather than flashy urban and suburban bits like Romford and, my hometown, Basildon this book depicts the beautiful, and sometimes dramatic, north Essex coastline. Not brightly lit Southend but windswept and wonderful Mersea, St Osyths and Tollesbury sprang to my mind as I was reading.

The story concerns Cora, an unusual woman in the late Victorian era, who moves from society London to a village in the wilds of Essex when her husband dies. Set forty years after Darwin published Origin of Species the novel explores how some people’s thinking about nature, science and religion by this new way of thinking. The rise of socialism is also covered as Cora’s companion Martha is an active campaigner for improved London housing. These new ideas are contrasted with both the traditional beliefs of the villagers of Aldwinter and the faith of their vicar, Will Ransom. Will and Cora’s friendship also develops to a point which challenges Victorian morality – in fact most of the relationships in the book are straining towards becoming ‘modern’ rather than ‘Victorian’.

I really enjoyed the plot – Aldwinter is thought to be being terrorised by the Essex Serpent of the title, a malevolent sea creature blamed for every lost child, dead sheep or drowning – which blended folk tale and myth in with the science of the day and the characters were wonderful. All the people we meet are believable and well-rounded so you end up caring about them all (although not everyone makes it through the book unscathed) – I was particularly drawn to Martha, a free-willed and pragmatic woman who probably ends the book in the most satisfactory position, and Cora’s son Frankie, who seems to be even more damaged than Cora by her recently deceased husband. What really made this book for me though was, unusually, the language. I generally read for plot – I can appreciate good use of language and a clever turn of phrase but tend to remember the story more than the words used to tell it. Perry, however, has such a great capacity for description that I think her words may stick with me for some time.



The Vanishing Futurist – Charlotte Hobson

I’m not very good at air travel and tend to use trains for most of my holidays (I’ve just come back from a trip to Florence via Zürich and Turin all done by train). Obviously some of this is down to not being a very good passenger on planes but some is also down to environmental concerns – and of course the longer, slightly slower journey is (usually) much more relaxing and gives me lots of time to read. I think you know me well enough by now to know which of these things is most important to me? Of course, this does mean that I am slightly limited to the nearer bits of Europe, unless I take much longer holidays, but again I don’t have a problem with that. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy have all done me proud on food, drink and art and I don’t ask for much more than that in life. There are other places I would like to visit – including Russia (but I suspect more for art and history than for the food and drink: I don’t like vodka…) and more of Scandinavia (to see if they are all as quirky as their novels suggest!).

12628000_476612229206050_332870725_nOne of the appeals of Russia would be the art – from the architecture of the cathedrals, through the glittering icons and the contents of the Hermitage and, particularly, the art produced after the 1917 revolution. And it is this avant-garde art which features so strongly in Charlotte Hobson’s novel. The story centres around Gerty Freely, a young Englishwoman who travels to Moscow to escape her family and to work as a governess in the months just before the outbreak of the Great War. She is welcomed into the Kobelev family, who seem warm, modern and intellectual – you soon see that they are the family Gerty wants rather than her own dictatorial father and dismissive mother. Of course war soon makes itself felt, but not so much for the relatively wealthy and well-connected Kobelevs, and then the revolution. This is a far more sweeping event and the horrors of those early years, the hunger, fear and panic, are well described. The other key character is the vanishing futurist of the title – Nikita Slavkin – who combines the avant-garde with new discoveries in physics.

This is a love story but also, it seems, a fairly accurate historical description of what it could have been like to live in those dangerous days. I was certainly left contemplating the differences between Communism (which seems to me to make absolute equality its key factor) and more modern Socialism (which for me is mainly concerned with fairness rather than mere equality) – but it is a very interesting book which draws you in with the story but leaves you with a head buzzing with art, philosophy and political thought. Even if I don’t make it Russia I am going to be investigating the art produced there in the early years of the 20th century.



A whole parcel of bookish goodness

It’s been a long hard month since I last posted a review on here. An error on the broadband front meant that I have been without the internet at home for four weeks – it was rather like living in 1994 – which meant I had limited access to WordPress (as my smartphone is somewhat smarter than I am……). The downside is that I haven’t been keeping up with my reviews: the upside is I did have plenty of time to catch up on my reading. So, on with the backlog….

Hodder are a venerable publishing house – they’ve been around since the 1840s – and have published titles from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to the Teach Yourself series. They have given us authors like Stephen King, David Niven and Chris Cleave and, I am happy to say, they also seem to be all round good guys. Recently, as part of a regular feature on our intranet at work, they offered reading copies of a number of new books for booksellers to review. I emailed back and, rather cheekily, told them I was having trouble choosing between four titles and asked them to surprise me. They certainly did – they sent all four!

Michael Rosen – Good Ideas

Michael Rosen is a former Children’s Laureate and poet – his best-loved book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. This is a man who clearly understands children (and the adults they become) so this title, which is subtitled How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher, really does make learning fun. In it he explains that adults know a lot of stuff, that children would love to know more about the stuff that adults know but that, unfortunately, adults often end up explaining things in ways which can make even dinosaurs sound dull. I’m not sure how this happens – dinosaurs have to be one of the most interesting things ever – but Rosen has some great ideas about how we can prevent this. It is not full of facts to learn (which could end up making it as boring for the adults as for the kids) but full of suggestions for ways to find answers to children’s questions with them rather than for them. An essential skill for any parent, educator or, indeed, bookseller!

Miranda Hart – The Best of Miranda

Miranda Hart is not everyone’s cup of tea. But she is mine. Sometimes I like sophisticated humour or the surreal wordplay of an Eddie Izzard but, after a long day at work, I am often in the mood for Miranda’s lighter and more slapstick brand of comedy. Hey, it takes all sorts….

This book is a selection of scripts from the three series of ‘Miranda’. I am pleased to say that they feature the relationship between Miranda and Gary quite heavily and include many of my favourite scenes. I’m always ready for the episode where Miranda and her ‘what I call Mother’ spend the whole episode with a therapist….There is plenty of the usual slightly arch asides and general silliness but also quite a lot of insight into the process of creating a sitcom. So it is ‘such fun’ but also a reminder of what a clever and hardworking woman Miranda Hart is.

Randall Munroe – what if?

Randall Munroe may not be a name you are familiar with but you may well have heard of the webcomic he created at This book has come out of the many odd things his fans have asked him – the questions are amusingly absurd but the answers are proper science. With research and everything. Although he may have had some explaining to do about some of the research…..If you know xkcd you will love this book. If not you may end up being very startled by the sheer oddness of some of the questions asked! From my point of view this is a step up from most humour titles – which are funny but often don’t bear re-reading – and has earned a long-term place on the bookshelf in the bathroom.

Nick Drake Remembered For A While

For me this book was the best of the lot but, in an odd way, the one I was most worried about reading. I have been listening to and loving the music of Nick Drake for the past 25 years and I may, possibly, have an even earlier connection to him. When I was quite young – maybe 9 or 10 – I visited my Dad in London and I think I recall him telling me that a friend of his had a brother who had recently killed himself. In my mind I’m convinced the name Gabrielle was mentioned…..Dad isn’t around to ask anymore but I do like to think that I knew Nick Drake at third hand (even if I can’t quite make it to Kevin Bacon).

This book is described as being ‘not a biography’. Instead it is a collection of recollections of the life and music of Nick Drake, a folk inclined singer/songwriter in the very late 60s/early 70s. Nowadays every pop star worth their salt has at least one (auto)biography out before they are old enough to vote it seems. Drake died at 26 (never one to join in he bowed out before he was eligible for the 27 club) and his first biography was published, in Danish, twelve years later. It seems oddly fitting to me that he was part of a more old-fashioned and polite age.

It certainly seems, from the memories shared here, that he was a product of his age in very many ways. He was a post-war baby, brought up in a nice, middle-class, but fairly bohemian family and music was always a part of his life. He was fairly sporty, clever and popular according to his childhood friends and family – aside from his musical talent he seems to have been a perfectly normal boy. His late teens, however, fell in the late 60s and, as a true product of that era, Drake began using drugs – mainly marijuana and LSD. I don’t believe that drugs killed Nick Drake: but I do think that they were instrumental in leading to his depression, his reticence and his difficulties with live performance.

Despite not being a biography this book did what the best of that genre should do in my opinion. I was reminded of all that I already knew of the subject – his talent, the outline of his life-story, how much he is loved by musicians and fans alike – and I was given new insights which will enhance my continued enjoyment of his work. In fact, I may just pop Five Leaves Left on now – I’m in the mood to listen to a voice like a cello….


So, in all, a big thank you to the lovely folk at Hodder. A couple of these books may end up being passed on to family members (one niece is training to be a teacher – her brother and sister are Miranda fans) but at least two are keepers which I will be treasuring for years to come.