The Marches by Rory Stewart

Marches

Vintage|September 2017|368 pages|Paperback|4*

I enjoyed reading The Marches: Border Walks With My Father by Rory Stewart. He’s been in the news here recently, having stood for leadership of the Conservative Party, and has now formally stood down from Parliament to run as an independent candidate for Mayor of London.

But none of that has anything to do with why I wanted to read his book. It’s because of the subject – walking in the borderlands between England and Scotland, in the place where I live. And it’s not just about walking – he also muses on history, memory and landscape, all topics that interest me immensely.

Blurb:

His father Brian taught Rory Stewart how to walk, and walked with him on journeys from Iran to Malaysia. Now they have chosen to do their final walk together along ‘the Marches’ – the frontier that divides their two countries, Scotland and England.

On their six-hundred-mile, thirty-day journey – with Rory on foot, and his father ‘ambushing’ him by car – the pair relive Scottish dances, reflect on Burmese honey-bears, and on the loss of human presence in the British landscape.
Travelling across mountain ridges and through housing estates they uncover a forgotten country crushed between England and Scotland: the Middleland. They discover unsettling modern lives, lodged in an ancient place, as their odyssey develops into a history of the British nationhood, a chronicle of contemporary Britain and an exuberant encounter between a father and a son.

And as the journey deepens, and the end approaches, Brian and Rory fight to match, step by step, modern voices, nationalisms and contemporary settlements to the natural beauty of the Marches, and a fierce absorption in tradition in their own unconventional lives.

My thoughts:

This is a book of three parts – Book One: The Wall about Rory Stewart’s walk along Hadrian’s Wall in 2011, with his father, then aged 89 – his father walking for the first hour or so each day. They had intended to walk the full length of the Wall, from east to west, but after they reached the fort at Bewcastle they decided to abandon their plan (his father having reached his limits) and drive back to his father’s house, Broich, near Crieff in Perthshire. He writes about the Wall, the Roman occupation of the area, his father’s career, about nationality and clans, and reminisces about his childhood and his time in Afghanistan.

Book Two: Middleland, in which he describes his walk from coast to coast, a distance of about 400 miles, taking him 26 days, walking alone from his cottage in Cumbria to the Solway Firth, then crossing and re-crossing the modern border (established in the 13th century) to Berwick-upon-Tweed and then back to Broich.

I got a bit lost in his descriptions of the route, not knowing some the places along the way. But there are maps of his route that helped me follow where he went. He describes the landscape, the geology, sheep farming and land use, the people he met, their history  and language and much, much more.

Book Three: The General Danced on the Lawn about his father, who died at the age of 93, before this book was finished. The whole book is permeated with his love and respect for his father, but this last section is all about Brian Stewart.

At the end of the Marches is a Chronology which I found very interesting, defining The Middleland before AD100 up to the present days. The Middleland is a term invented by Brian Stewart:

The geographical centre of the island of Britain. An upland landscape, whose core is the Lake District, the Peninnes, the Cheviots and the Scottish Borders, but whose fringes extend to the Humber in the south and the firths of Forth and Clyde in the north. A land naturally unified by geography and culture for two thousand years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers. (page 339)

Six Degrees of Separation: from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Strong Poison

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Alice Carroll

This month the chain begins with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll– a book I read as a child and loved. 

I was tempted to make my first link to Through the Looking Glass, Carroll’s follow-up book, or another of the books I loved as a child, but instead I chose:

Malice in wonderland

Malice in Wonderland by Nicholas Blake. In this Golden Age mystery Wonderland is a holiday camp, set on a cliff top overlooking the sea and there are several allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The train to Wonderland plunges into a tunnel, just as Alice falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in Wonderland. And there is a prankster in the camp, the self-styled ‘Mad Hatter’, who is playing nasty and cruel practical jokes on the holiday makers. One of the visitors is Paul Perry, a young man who calls himself a scientist, who is there taking notes for the Mass Observation project.

Our Longest days

Mass Observation is my second link.  In August 1939, with war approaching, the Organisation asked its panel to keep diaries to record their daily lives and selections from fifteen of these diaries are included in Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War edited by Sandra Koa Wing.  

Testament of youth

Diaries provide the next link – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain is based on her diaries, telling of her life up to 1925, concentrating on the World War One years. Vera was a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) during the war, nursing casualties both in Britain and France.

AC Autobiography

Agatha Christie was also a VAD member during World War One. In 1917 she worked in a hospital dispensary in Torquay and studied to take her Apothecaries Hall examination so she could dispense for a medical officer or a chemist. In her Autobiography she wrote that it was whilst she was working in the dispensary that she first thought of writing a detective story. Surrounded by poisons she decided it should be about a murder by poisoning.

Mysterious Affair at Styles

So my fifth link is to the first detective story she wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It is set during the First World War I at Styles Court, a country house in Essex, owned by the very wealthy Mrs Inglethorp, who dies from strychnine poisoning. Captain Hastings enlists the help of Poirot, who is living in the village of Styles St Mary with other Belgian refugees, to investigate the matter.

Strong Poison

And my final link is Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers. Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic amateur detective, and Harriet Vane, a crime fiction writer, first met in this murder mystery. Harriet is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes, who died from arsenic poisoning. Wimsey, attending the trial, is convinced she is innocent and sets out to prove it … and falls in love with her. 

My chain is linked by books about Wonderland, the Mass Observation project, diaries VADs and poison. It passes from fantasy land through the World War One years, and back into the world of fiction. It includes crime fiction and non-fiction.

Next month (December 7, 2019), we’ll begin with Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscript, Sanditon.

First Chapter First Paragraph: Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Every Tuesday First Chapter, First Paragraph/Intros is hosted by Vicky of I’d Rather Be at the Beach sharing the first paragraph or two of a book she’s reading or plans to read soon.

Christine Falls

This week I’m featuring Christine Falls by Benjamin Black. Although I’m in the middle of other books right now I like to think about what to read next, often changing my mind before settling down to read the next one. Browsing my bookshelves recently (physical not virtual) this book caught my eye. I think I’ll read it soon.

She was glad it was the evening mailboat she was taking for she did not think she could have faced a morning departure. At the party the night before one of the medical students had found a flask of raw alcohol and mixed it with orange crush and she had drunk two glasses of it, and the inside of her mouth was still raw and there was something like a drum beating behind her forehead. She had stayed in bed all morning, still tipsy, unable to sleep and crying half the time, a hankie crushed to her mouth to stifle the sobs. She was frightened at the thought of what she had to do today, of what she had to undertake. Yes, she was frightened.

Blurb 

Quirke’s pathology department, set deep beneath the city, is his own gloomy realm: always quiet, always night, and always under his control. Until late one evening after a party he stumbles across a body that should not be there – and his brother-in-law falsifying the corpse’s cause of death.

This is the first time Quirke has encountered Christine Falls, but the investigation he decides to lead into the way she lived and died uncovers a dark secret at the heart of Dublin’s high Catholic network; one with the power to shake his own family and everything he holds dear.

~~~

Benjamin Black is a pseudonym used by John Banville (an author whose books I’ve enjoyed before). This is the first of his Quirke Mysteries. They are set in Ireland in the 1950s. I’ve read the fifth book, Vengeance, which I enjoyed, so when I saw this in a bookshop I bought it.

If you’ve read it I’d love to know what you thought of it. If you haven’t, does it tempt you too?

My Friday Post: Boris by Andrew Gimson

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Boris

I’ve been thinking for a while of reading Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson by Andrew Gimson, published in 2012. I bought it secondhand several years ago after Boris had been elected as Mayor of London and it is an updated version of his earlier biography to include Boris’s record in power as the Mayor of London.  I see that Gimson has since brought out  another updated edition, subtitled The Adventures of Boris Johnson, after the Brexit Referendum in 2016.  

It begins with an Introduction explaining why Gimson thought of writing a life of Boris Johnson.

In the summer of 2004, Boris’s star shone with amazing brightness. Reputable judges predicted he would be the next Conservative Prime Minister, and that June morning he was all over the newspapers, which were enthralled by a scoop he had gathered while waiting on his bike at a traffic light.

Well, he wasn’t the next Prime Minister – for that he had to wait until this year.

Then Chapter I begins:

Boris was born to British parents in New York City on 19 June 1964. His mother Charlotte, who was only twenty-two years old, relates that at his birth he had the thick yellow hair for which he was later to become so celebrated: ‘We didn’t cut it, so it turned into ringlets.

And in the photos there is one of Boris, aged one with his mother celebrating at the end of her Oxford exams and Boris is determined to have some of her champagne – his hair a mop of curls.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Pages 57:

At a time when many of us are still in a state of utter confusion, Boris knew where he wanted to go. A close friend said of him: ‘At the age of eighteen he set himself the target that he was going to be in the Cabinet by the age of thirty-five.’

He didn’t make that target until later in his life – and he went on to become Prime Minister in July.  But will he still be PM by the end of this year … ?

Who knows??

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

 I’ve enjoyed all of Tracy Chevalier‘s books that I’ve read so far, so it was no surprise to me. to find that I loved her latest book, A Single Thread

A single thread

This is historical fiction, a mix of fact and fiction, set mainly in Winchester in the 1930s. It is a a simple straightforward story, beautifully written, with the emphasis on everyday life. The main character is Violet Speedwell, a single woman of 38, regarded by society as a ‘surplus woman’ unlikely to marry  because her fiancé, Laurence was killed in the First World War. The 1921 census revealed that there were 1.75 million more women than men in the UK.  Surplus women were patronised and were expected to stay at home looking after their elderly relatives, but at the age of 38 in 1932 Violet decides to leave her overbearing mother and move on her own to Winchester. There is a lot of information about embroidering cushions and kneelers for the the Choir stalls and Presbytery seats in the Cathedral and about bell-ringing, both of which formed integral parts of the book.

Violet knew nobody in Winchester, but whilst looking round the Cathedral she came across a group of women, calling themselves the Winchester Cathedral Broderers, dedicated to embroidering hassocks and cushions for the seats and benches. She joins the group, led by Miss Louisa Pesel (a real person) and the stern Mrs Biggins and as well as learning to embroider, she makes new friends. One of these friends is Gilda, who introduces her to two of the bell-ringers, Arthur, a older married man and a younger, unmarried man, called Keith.

She is determined to be independent, not relying on her mother or her brother to support her. So she finds a job as a typist and takes a room in house shared with two other women and her landlady, Mrs Harvey, who discourages male visitors other than family. The difficulties of being independent are brought home to Violet as she struggles on her wages to pay for her lodgings, laundry and coal, let alone feed herself. And then her mother is admitted to hospital and she has to decide whether to return home to look after her.

The characters are drawn with fine detail and the descriptions of the settings, particularly in the Cathedral are so clear that I could easily visualise both the building and its interior. I particularly liked the details about the embroidery and the stitches used. As the Nazi Party and Hitler rise to power in Germany, the use of fylfots in the embroidery designs are mistaken for swastikas which are ancient symbols of light and life and good fortune.

The book gives an detailed look at life between the two World Wars. It has a slow gentle pace following Violet’s new life, but there is a sense of change on the horizon as her relationship with Arthur develops.  It gives a lively picture of the difficulties of life for unmarried women, including Gilda and Dorothy’s unconventional relationship that they have to keep secret to avoid the prejudice this would attract. And there is an indication of the sense of unease in society as the threat of another war loomed. 

It is obvious throughout the book that Tracy Chevalier has meticulously carried out her research and in the acknowledgements she lists a number of the many resources she has used, including details of Louisa Pesel’s embroidery work as well as the history of Winchester Cathedral, bell-ringing, 1930s women and life in Britain in the 1930s .

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1382 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0008153817
  • Publisher: The Borough Press (5 Sept. 2019)
  • Source: Review copy from the publishers via NetGalley
  • My Rating: 4*

Top Ten Tuesday: Extraordinary Book Titles

top-ten-tuesday-new

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog.

This week’s topic: Extraordinary Book Titles. My list is of titles that I think are odd, or quirky or that tell you nothing about the books.

The first five are crime fiction:

Books by Fred Vargas are good examples – Dog Will Have His Day a mystery surrounding a tiny fragment of human bone found in a pile of dog poo.

Whereas Seeking Whom He May Devour a Commissaire Jean- Baptiste Adamsberg mystery in which sheep are found with their throats torn out. The vet says it is the work of a very large wolf, but people suspect it is a werewolf.

And Christopher Brookmyre’s titles are intriguing – Quite Ugly One MorningAttack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, and Boiling a Frog, all dark, satirical thrillers involving investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane.

The next five are a mix of genres:

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka – two feuding sisters, Vera and Nadezhda, who join forces against their father’s new, gold-digging girlfriend.

Ink in the Blood by Hilary Mantel, a short memoir about her surgery in 2010 to remove an intestinal obstruction that ended up in a marathon operation, followed by intense pain, nightmares and hallucinations.

Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky, an intense story of life and death, love and burning passion – a gem of a book.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novel based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 – 70. I loved this book.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham, another book I loved, a deeply personal and honest memoir about his childhood and early teenage years..

My Friday Post: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Agony & Ecstasy

 

My old, tatty copy of The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone has been sitting on my desk for months now, whilst I’ve been wondering about reading it. I bought for 50p more 20 years ago (no idea exactly when or where I bought it). It was old when I first bought it and it’s falling to pieces now, the pages are brown and the font is so small, which is why I’m not reading it. So I think I’ll have to get a new edition.

It’s a biographical novel of Michelangelo.

 

He sat before the mirror of the second-floor bedroom sketching his lean cheeks with their high bone ridges, the flat broad forehead, and ears too far back on the head, the dark hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-coloured eyes wide set but heavy-lidded.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Michelangelo went into the yard and sat in the baking sun with his chin resting on his chest. He had made a nuisance of himself.

Have read this book? What did you think about it? And if you haven’t, would you keep on reading?