Book review · Garden · Non-fiction

Book review: “Peaceful gardens” by Stephanie Donaldson

When I finished reading ‘Peaceful gardens’ I felt a sense of disappointment. I turned the page thinking there was more to come, only to find I had reached the end. I got this book out of the library, but have enjoyed it so much I’d like to buy a copy to read again.

‘Peaceful gardens’ is what might be described as a coffee table book, full of lovely photos with detailed captions, interspersed with more general text about gardening. Although the front cover is not terribly appealing, the illustrations inside are quite the reverse.

peaceful gardens
‘Peaceful gardens’ by Stephanie Donaldson (2003)

The author, Stephanie Donaldson, was Gardens Editor for Country Living magazine for many years, and has written a number of other gardening books. Although clearly a knowledgeable gardener, her writing style is easily accessible to novice gardeners like myself. I’ve often been put off gardening books by too much jargon and technical detail; ‘Peaceful gardens’, by contrast, introduces ideas and tips about gardening almost without the reader noticing they’re being instructed. That’s my sort of gardening lesson.

The book is divided into three main sections: ‘peaceful shapes and spaces’, ‘tranquillity for the senses’ and ‘scent and sound’, all beautifully illustrated with photographs giving clear examples of what’s being described in the text. There are ideas and suggestions for rural and urban gardens, although the book struck me as being more heavily weighted towards rural or semi-rural gardens that might have space for a variety of features in versatile areas. The text is well worth reading, and nicely written, but even if all you did was look at the pictures you could easily find inspiration and joy in its contents.

Each year, at the start of spring, I have an urge to do something in the garden. I want to see things growing after the long winter months, but my enthusiasm often wanes rather quickly when tasks seem too daunting or the weather’s not conducive to pottering around outside. Perhaps this year ‘Peaceful gardens’ will provide the impetus I need to fulfil some of my gardening dreams in the months to come.

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Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Flight MH370: the mystery” by Nigel Cawthorne

Four years go, on 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport bound for Beijing. Fifty minutes into the flight, the aeroplane lost contact with air traffic control. After another 40 minutes, the plane was spotted by Malaysian military radar flying over the island of Penang, a good deal west of its scheduled route. The plane was still out of contact with the ground.

Several hours later, in Beijing, relatives and friends of those onboard were waiting in the airport for the flight to land when an announcement was made that the plane had been delayed. An hour later, a message appeared on the Malaysia Airlines Facebook page, stating that the plane was missing. This was the beginning of a long and tortuous wait for the family and friends, as the fate of Flight MH370 became headline news across the world.

This book caught my eye in the library, because I remembered very well watching the news coverage in the days and weeks following the plane’s disappearance. Curious to know how someone could write an entire book about a missing plane, I picked up the book and took it home with me.

flight mh370
‘Flight MH370: the mystery’ by Nigel Cawthorne (2014)

Somewhat to my surprise (I was half expecting a catalogue of detailed and outlandish conspiracy theories) it proved to be a well-researched history of what went on in the days following the plane’s disappearance, interspersed with numerous alarming examples of other flights that have crashed over the years. (I wouldn’t recommend it as reading material for a long-haul flight.)

The Malaysian government was heavily criticised at the time for withholding facts, and for giving out misleading and often contradictory information. They frequently denied this during press conferences, but watching the news it seemed obvious that the investigation was being conducted in a decidedly chaotic manner. As the days ticked by, with relatives waiting desperately for news, several sightings of possible debris were spotted by planes, ships and satellites, only to be discounted when investigated further.

One of the major problems with the investigation was that it seemed nobody knew exactly where to search. Although it was common knowledge that the plane had changed direction during the flight, it wasn’t known how long it may have continued to fly for and where it might have ended up. At one point, the search area extended over land and sea to cover an area one tenth of the Earth’s surface, an area so vast that an effective search seemed an almost impossibly challenging task.

Despite the daunting prospect of trying to find what was often deemed a needle in a haystack, more and more countries gradually joined the search. Towards the end of March 2014, 26 countries were involved in trying to locate signs of the missing plane.

During the weeks following the disappearance new information kept coming to light, but there were so many dead ends and false leads that the relatives became angry and disillusioned. Nearly three weeks after the plane disappeared, the Chinese government allowed a public protest – a very rare event in the country – when families were permitted to march on the Malaysian Embassy, displaying banners and demanding the truth from the Malaysian government.

The book concludes with the author’s own chilling proposition that the plane may have been shot down by accident during joint military manoeuvres in the South China Sea, a long distance away from the search area being targeted. If one of the participating nations (which included both Malaysia and China) had indeed accidentally shot down the plane, there would be good reason for keeping it quiet and misdirecting the search to focus on the South Indian Ocean, a region of deep water and rough seas so hostile as to make any discovery extremely difficult.

Towards the end of the book, which contains details of the underwater search using AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), I was reminded of just how difficult it can be to obtain and correctly identify objects in deep water. Looking on Wikipeida, I found several articles related to the missing plane, including one dedicated to the search operation (which ran into hundreds of millions of dollars and became the most expensive search ever undertaken for a missing plane). I was interested to see that one of the ships involved in the search was one I had been on in my seagoing days. I was never involved in searching for a missing plane, but I do remember seeing sonar images of aeroplane debris lying on the sea floor during my training, and feeling a shiver of horror at the thought of such a watery grave.

The official search was suspended on 17 January 2017, but a year later private company Ocean Infinity resumed it. They are currently surveying a narrowed search area of 25,000km2, believed to be the most likely crash site, and expect to finish their work at the end of April this year. So far, they have found nothing of significance and the mystery of what happened to flight MH370 appears as perplexing as ever.

 

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”.

Fiction · Non-fiction · Photography · Writing

Resolutions

New Year’s Day is one of my favourite days of the year. I like the feeling of making a fresh start, leaving behind the old year and marching on into new territory.

Every January I enjoy reading fellow blogger Darlene’s end of year report and her resolutions for the coming year.  It’s some years since I last posted my new year’s resolutions on a blog, and I think it’s time I did it again, in an attempt to hold myself more accountable.

Last year I was aiming to read 100 books, but I dropped that total to 90 when 100 seemed unlikely. As of last night I had read 89, but if I had known I was going to report my reading achievements online I might have made more of an effort to finish the one I’m currently reading (“A room with a view” by E M Forster, which I’m finding more of a slog than I thought I would).

My resolutions for 2018 are as follows:

1.  Read 100 books, at least 35 of which are non-fiction, and at least one of which concerns Greek history/mythology.

2.  Write (and post on this blog) at least 12 book reviews.

3.  Visit the McManus Galleries in Dundee (a museum and art gallery I’ve been meaning to visit for years).

4.  Finish writing the novel I started last month (over the past few years I’ve started several stories I thought might turn into novels, only to have them dwindle away to nothing).

5.  Edit the novel mentioned above and submit it to 5 publishers.

Of the above resolutions, numbers 4 and 5 are the two that seem most likely to fail. I’m nervous about making them public because I’ve been in this position before with my writing, and I know how easily I fall by the wayside. Hopefully, by declaring my intentions online I might find the motivation I need to achieve them.

A very Happy New Year to you, and I hope 2018 brings many interesting experiences.

boxing day walk
Enjoying a walk on Boxing Day with my dad, my mum and my sister. This would have been my Friday photo last week if I’d remembered to post it.
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 · 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.