Book review · Non-fiction · Scotland

Book review: ‘The great horizon’ by Jo Woolf

Fellow blogger and editor of The Hazel Tree, Jo Woolf is also Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS). During her investigations into the society’s archives, she came across a wealth of fascinating material relating to explorers and adventurers, some of which has ended up in her wonderful book, ‘The great horizon’.

The Great Horizon by Jo Woolf
‘The great horizon’ by Jo Woolf (2017)

The book, meticulously researched and extremely well written, contains 50 biographies of remarkable people associated in some way with the RSGS, dating from the society’s inception in 1884 to the present day. Many of those featured received medals from the society for outstanding contributions to geography, and all of them have inspirational stories to tell.

The 50 individuals are organised under five category headings: Ice, Voyagers, Heaven and Earth, Missionaries and Mavericks and Visions for Change. Each category contains ten personalities, a mixture of the well known and not so widely recognised. Famous names such as Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong, David Livingstone, Thor Heyerdahl, Ranulph Fiennes and David Attenborough sit comfortably alongside people I hadn’t heard of such as Børge Ousland, Sven Hedin, Robert Ballard, Joseph Thomson and Marion Newbigin.

The world of exploration was dominated by men in the Victorian era, but there were notable women whose adventures were just as astonishing; women such as Isabella Bird, who was born in 1831 and became the first female Fellow of the RSGS. Having trekked through remote mountain ranges and travelled through hostile foreign territory, at a time when such behaviour must have seemed scandalous for a well-bred western woman, her story particularly stood out for me. Having said that, each of the biographies is unique and noteworthy and I would find it impossible to pick a favourite.

Although many of the explorers detailed in the book displayed amazing feats of endurance, determination and courage while conducting their daredevil adventures, they must have been quite difficult to live with at home. As Jo describes, it’s easy to imagine them struggling to accept a mundane daily existence that failed to provide sufficient challenges for their restless spirits. This side of the adventurer’s character came to mind quite a few times as I read through the book.

Every generation needs its mavericks and heroes, and despite the lack of ‘big firsts’ left to achieve on terra firma, there are plenty of modern day adventurers desperate to push the limits of what’s achievable. In some ways the world has become a smaller place since the 1880s, but there’s still a great deal to discover, both on Earth and beyond. I like to think the Royal Scottish Geographical Society will still be here in another 130 years, encouraging new generations of geographers, and providing inspiring and uplifting tales of adventure to fill future editions of ‘The great horizon’.

Advertisements
Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘And then there were none’ by Agatha Christie

Even by Agatha Christie’s extremely high standards, this novel contains a truly ingenious plot. By her own admission, the book took an enormous amount of planning, and it’s only in an epilogue that the brilliant solution to the problem is revealed.

And then there were none
‘And then there were none’ by Agatha Christie (1939)

The mystery begins when ten people from a variety of backgrounds are invited to Soldier Island. The island, which lies off the Devon coast, has recently been sold to an unknown buyer and there has been much discussion in the newspapers about who may have bought it.

Each of the ten invited to the island have been lured there on different pretexts, including a young woman who believes she has been engaged as a secretary, a doctor who has been sent no details about his invitation but has received a large fee for attending, and an elderly General who expects to be meeting up with old army chums.

A local boatman takes the guests to the island, where they find a married couple acting as butler and housekeeper. The butler and his wife are two of the ten who have come to the island at the request of the owner, a Mr Owen.

When word arrives that Mr Owen has been held up and will not be joining the party immediately, the guests begin to discuss who this mysterious man might be. None of them have met him or have any idea who he is. Even the butler and housekeeper are in the dark, having taken up their positions on the island just days before the guests arrived.

In each of the bedrooms there is a printed nursery rhyme about ten little soldier boys. The rhyme begins ‘Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.’ As the verses go on, a soldier boy dies in each one, until the poem concludes with the words ‘And then there were none.’ In the dining room the guests notice ten small china soldier figures, which appear to represent the soldiers in the poem.

As the guests sit enjoying coffee after dinner on their first evening on the island, a disembodied voice suddenly fills the dining room. The voice details the names of each of the ten people staying in the house along with an accusation of murder committed on a certain date. The guests listen in astonishment as each of them is accused of a dreadful crime.

Not long after that, one of the guests chokes to death, and that night the housekeeper dies in her sleep. The butler is disturbed when he notices two of the little china figures have disappeared from the dining room. When the General is murdered by an unknown hand the following day and another china soldier disappears, it’s obvious that something decidedly sinister is going on. A search of the island reveals no possible hiding place for an eleventh person, and no sign of there being anyone else present.

The story carries on with rising tension as each of the original ten people meet their end by one means or another. When they are all dead the mystery remains: who killed them?

I quite often read Agatha Christie at bedtime, but I would recommend keeping this particular novel for daytime pleasure. From a reasonably innocuous beginning, a sense of menace increases as the book goes on. The tension builds once the killings start, and from then on there’s no let up until the culmination of the book.

There’s an author’s note at the beginning of the edition I have, taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she explains that she wrote the story because it was so difficult to do that the idea fascinated her. ‘The murder of Roger Ackroyd’ is often hailed her most brilliant novel, and it is indeed a superb creation, but this one is a real class act and has one of the cleverest plots of any novel I’ve read.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “Arctic summer” by Damon Galgut

Although this is a fictional book, it’s almost a biography of the writer, E M Forster (perhaps most famous for his novel ‘A passage to India’).

Drawing on Forster’s own writing, including his personal diaries, as well as biographies written by other authors, Damon Galgut has produced a beautifully written story of Forster’s triumphs and tragedies.

arctic-summer.jpg
‘Arctic summer’ by Damon Galgut (2014)

Novels fall into various categories, one of which is literary fiction. It’s not always easy to know what does and doesn’t count as literary fiction, but it struck me as I read this book that it fitted easily into this genre. There was something refined and stately about the writing style, and the precision with which the book had been crafted.

Edward Morgan Forster was born in 1879 and grew up in London, later attending Cambridge University. During most of his life, homosexuality was illegal in Britain. From an early age Forster knew he wasn’t attracted to women, but he found it impossible to establish a fulfilling relationship with a man. Damon Galgut’s book introduces this issue in the first chapter and much of the story relates to this aspect of Forster’s character.

Having read ‘A passage to India’ many years ago, and enjoyed film versions of ‘Howard’s End’ and ‘A room with a view’ (based on novels by E M Forster), I was interested to learn more about the writer behind the tales. I had no idea his life had been so varied, or so challenging from a personal perspective. Damon Galgut tells Forster’s story sympathetically but without sentimentalising the facts. The writing is fluid and finely honed, and gave me a vivid sense of the complicated person E M Forster must have been.

Finishing this book left me feeling I would like to re-read ‘A passage to India’, which I suspect will take on a new dimension now that I know how Forster struggled to complete the story. It was the last, and most celebrated, novel he published, although he went on to write plays, short stories and non-fiction. I would also be interested to read some of Damon Galgut’s other novels, two of which were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Pole to pole” by Michael Palin.

I remember watching and very much enjoying the travel documentary series, ‘Pole to Pole’, on television many years ago. While browsing in a second-hand shop recently I found a copy of the book that accompanied the series, for the remarkable price of 25 new pence. I was more than happy to hand over my pennies for this gem of a publication.

pole to pole
“Pole to pole” by Michael Palin (1992)

As with other books accompanying Michael Palin’s television travel documentaries, this one is laid out in a diary format, detailed by day number rather than date.

The original idea for the programme was to travel from the north pole to the south pole, along the 30 degree East line of longitude. Using this line as a guide meant the journey would cover the largest amount of land possible between the two poles. In fact, although the journey did weave west and east of the 30 degree East meridian, it rarely stuck to the line, owing to geography and transport restrictions.

The full journey would take an exhausting 141 days, and began on a Saturday afternoon in the high Arctic. The only feasible way to get to the north pole was by small plane, and filming time was very limited after landing. Unlike the landmass of Antarctica which is thousands of feet thick in places, the Arctic is an ocean covered with only a feet feet of ice. By Michael’s account, landing near the north pole was a fairly nerve-wracking experience, the first of many throughout the trip.

From the north pole he flew to Greenland and on to the Svalbard Islands, before boarding a supply ship for Norway. I particularly enjoyed the section on Svalbard, although I don’t know how I would cope with sleeping on the floor of a wooden hut in the middle of an icy wasteland with nothing but the snow outside to wash in. This is the joy of armchair travel: imagining the horrors of different environments without actually having to endure them.

South of northern Europe, the journey took him through the old USSR which, in the early 1990s was going through a period of enormous political changes. I remember the Gorbachev era (I was in my late teens then) and was interested to read Michael Palin’s notes and thoughts on how Russia was changing.

After leaving the USSR, and travelling south through Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, Michael and his film crew arrived – on day 52 – in Africa. His first port of call was Egypt, another section of the book that particularly captured my imagination. His descriptions of Luxor and Aswan transported me to the heat and mystery of the Nile valley, an area I felt perfectly content to experience from the the comfort of my own home.

Africa produced some of the most challenging and memorable parts of the whole journey, from some seriously unsanitary conditions to the incredible wildlife, beautiful scenery and diverse peoples and cultures he encountered. While travelling through Africa, as he’d done in the USSR, Michael kept abreast of local politics. Some of the names of political leaders he mentioned rang bells with me, but others I had never heard of and it struck me how little I know about many of the African countries.

The original plan for the trip involved joining a survey vessel sailing out of Cape Town to the Antarctic, but some time before arriving in South Africa the team learned there were no spaces available for them on the ship. There being very few ways of getting to Antarctica, and no alternative ships they could join, they had to rethink their plans. They had two options: go way off the 30 degree meridian by flying to South America and into Antarctica from there, or fail to complete their epic journey to the south pole. The latter was unthinkable after the 130 days of travel they’d already undergone since leaving the north pole, so South America it had to be. Even when they reached Santiago in Chile, they were still at 33 degrees South, the same latitude as Cape Town in South Africa. It was, to coin a phrase, a long way round for a short cut.

On day 138, they finally arrived in Antarctica. Two days later, they flew into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, run by the United States National Science Foundation and housed under a 150-foot wide geodesic dome. It must have been a bizarre experience, to have travelled all that way through so many different countries and climates and arrive at the south pole to find a little bit of America built into the ice. It was made clear to the team that although they were welcome at the base, the US National Science Foundation were unable to supply material assistance to visitors. The poor travellers were invited in for coffee, but taunted with the smell of hamburgers and chips from the canteen. It was perhaps understandable not to have been offered food, given how difficult and costly it must be to get supplies into such a remote place, but I felt sorry for Michael and his crew having to resist such temptations after such a long and enervating journey.

The book ends with Michael and his team standing together at the geographic south pole, the position marked by a small bronze post stuck into the ice. I was left wondering what it must have felt like to stand there at the pole after completing such a mammoth trip, travelling all the way from the frozen north to the frozen south, through some of the hottest countries on Earth. Thanks to Michael Palin’s vivid descriptions, I felt I’d been through some remarkable experiences while reading this book. I take my hat off to him.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “A capital union” by Victoria Hendry

“A capital union” takes place in Edinburgh in the 1940s, and for that reason alone (as one born and bred there) it was of interest to me. Although the colours and design of the cover didn’t initially appeal to me, the Edinburgh landmarks were familiar and I was intrigued to know what might lie inside.

a-capital-union.jpg

The story follows the challenges faced by Agnes Thorne, 17 years old and newly married to Jeff McCaffrey. As part of his work on a new Scots dictionary, Jeff has been interviewing native speakers from across Scotland. When he comes across Agnes at her home in Ayrshire, he falls for her dialect and beauty and persuades her to marry him and set up home with him in Edinburgh.

Agnes’s troubles begin shortly after her arrival in the city, when she discovers the pitfalls of being married to a man who refuses to sign up for military service during the Second World War. As well as being a conscientious objector, Jeff is a staunch supporter of the Scottish independence movement and believes the British government has no right to enforce conscription on Scottish nationals.

As Jeff becomes more involved with nationalist politics and his views on independence become more extreme, Agnes feels a chasm growing between them. While this is going on, a German airman called Hannes, who has survived being shot down over Edinburgh, finds sanctuary in the empty flat above them. Initially, he’s helped by Mrs MacDougall, a cantankerous neighbour of Agnes’s, but Mrs MacDougall is keen to get Agnes to take over the responsibility of looking after Hannes. Agnes does her best to look after him, without admitting to her husband that she’s aiding the enemy.

The secret of Hannes is revealed, however, when he bursts into the McCaffreys’ flat after hearing Agnes scream. Jeff has been attempting to rape his wife and only Hannes’s timely intervention saves her. For Agnes, this behaviour by her husband is the final nail in the coffin of their marriage, but it isn’t until Jeff is jailed for refusing to sign up for military service that husband and wife are physically separated. Left alone, Agnes has to find a new life for herself, and vows to do whatever she can to help Hannes escape.

After all the foregoing drama, the novel could easily have fallen flat at this point in the story, but Victoria Hendry did a top notch job of keeping my attention and gripping me to the final page. She made me care about what happened to Agnes, and I found her characterisations strong throughout the book.

An unusual feature of this novel, and something I initially thought might irritate me, was the number of Scots words included in the dialogue. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the mixture of English and Scots, and interested that some of the Scots words were words I’ve only ever heard spoken, never seen written down. There are also quite a few German words and phrases, and I would have understood more of the conversations involving Hannes if I’d realised at the beginning that every Scots and German word used is translated at the back of the book. The German translations were helpful for me and I daresay the Scots translations would be much appreciated by non-Scottish readers.

Rating this book in my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20, with extra credit for what I call ‘poetry‘.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “A life without limits” by Chrissie Wellington

I picked up this book in the library, attracted by the title. I hadn’t heard of Chrissie Wellington and it wasn’t obvious from the front cover what she was a world champion in.

A life without limits by Chrissie Wellington
‘A life without limits’ by Chrissie Wellington with Michael Alywin (2012)

I soon discovered that her specialism was Ironman, a punishing endurance triathlon event consisting of a swim of 2.4 miles, followed by a bicycle ride of 112 miles, finishing off with a marathon-length (26.2 miles) run. These three components are undertaken straight after each other with no break, and the entire event is a race against other endurance athletes. The fact that anyone can do this is staggering to me, and Chrissie’s story is awe-inspiring.

Always a sporty child, Chrissie swam competitively at school and then at university, but it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that she first tried triathlon. She immediately took to it, but despite her proven ability in the water, swimming proved to be her weakest component, which gives an indication of how good she was at cycling and running.

Even before turning professional as an athlete at the age of 30, Chrissie had achieved a great deal. After graduating from Birmingham University with a first class honours degree in geography, she travelled the world for two years before returning to the UK to do an MA in development studies at Manchester University where she graduated with distinction.

Following her studies she got a government job with DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Although she enjoyed the work, she became disillusioned with the bureaucracy, and took a sabbatical to do development work in Nepal. Nepal provided her with the opportunity to hone her cycling skills, with regular long, steep cycle rides up mountains – perfect training for the tough endurance events she would enter in later years.

After leaving Nepal she travelled to several other countries, including New Zealand where she took part in an event consisting of running, cycling and kayaking. To her astonishment, she came in second after a gruelling race of more than 13 hours. From there she went to Argentina, where she took part in a duathlon event of running and cycling. Much to everyone’s amazement, she beat off all the competition, which included renowned professional athletes, to win the race. By this time it had become clear to her that working at DEFRA was not how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. She returned to the UK and quit her job to become a professional triathlete.

Her professional sports career was nothing short of remarkable. The Ironman World Championships are held each year in Hawaii, and Chrissie won the competition four times. Her last World Championship win was in 2011, coming hot on the heels of an accident that should have kept her out of the race altogether. Alongside an undoubted talent for endurance racing, she constantly demonstrated incredible determination to overcome obstacles and maintained a strong belief in her own abilities.

In the Epilogue, she sums up her career with some inspirational words. For each of us, she says, our limits are often not be where we think they are. Even if we achieve our ultimate goals we often find we’re capable of more than we’d have believed possible. Many different things are required to make a world champion, but refusing to put limits on your abilities is clearly an essential key to success. Chrissie Wellington’s inspirational story is testament to that.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Lion” by Saroo Brierley

This book tells the astonishing true story of a young Indian boy who got lost after boarding a train on his own when he was only five years old. He ended up in Calcutta (Kolkata, as it now is), hundreds of miles from home, with no idea of how to get back to his family again.

For weeks he lived in and around the train station in Calcutta, foraging for food, sleeping on the streets wherever he could find shelter, and trying to find a way to get back home. He wasn’t sure of the name of his home town, and only had the word ‘Ginestlay’ to offer to anyone who tried to help him. This meant nothing to any of the people he spoke to, and the only other place name he had a vague recollection of was a common-sounding name that could have been anywhere in India.

Lion by Saroo Brierley

“Lion” by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose (2013)

During the course of his time wandering around Calcutta, the young Saroo met people who helped him as well as those who meant him harm. He quickly learned to question people’s motives and developed the ability to judge whether or not he could trust them.

One day, a teenage boy befriended him on the street and took him home with him. The house offered a place of safety and Saroo stayed there for several days. The teenager then took Saroo to the police station. This frightened Saroo, but he trusted his friend enough to allow the police to take responsibility for him. They asked him lots of questions, but when they were unable to discover where he had come from, they took him to a children’s home full of hundreds of other lost or abandoned children.

Although the home gave him shelter and food to eat, it was over-crowded and Saroo often had to share a bed or sleep on the floor. He was bullied by older boys and disturbed by the distressing behaviour of some of the other children. After a month of living in the home he was handed over to an orphanage. The orphanage contained fewer children, most of whom were of a similar age to Saroo, and he felt much happier there.

Despite their best efforts to try and locate Saroo’s family, the people at the orphanage ran up against a brick wall. The best they could do, they told him, was to find him another family to live with. A few weeks later, a willing couple was identified. They were Australian and lived in Tasmania. He was shown photographs of the house he would live in, and the car his new family owned, realities that seemed unbelievable to him. With little idea of what his future held, he agreed to go to Tasmania.

At Melbourne Airport he met his new parents for the first time. He was shy and didn’t speak English, and they didn’t speak Hindi. It must have been very unsettling to be in a strange country, about to start a new life with complete strangers, but his ability to judge character no doubt helped him at this point. From the first time he saw them, he knew he could trust his new parents and immediately felt safe in their care.

It would be 25 years before he would stand on Indian soil again, as a 30-year-old Australian citizen attempting to find his birth mother. The story of how he traced his home town – using Google Earth to look for the few landmarks he could remember from his youth – is astonishing in its own right. I found his utter determination never to give up quite awe-inspiring.

His entire story is remarkable and I’m not surprised it’s now been made into a film. I haven’t seen the film, but it received six Oscar nominations and won two BAFTA awards.