My Year in Non-Fiction - Non-Fiction November: Week One
I’d never heard of Non-Fiction November before last week – but it sounded a lot easier than NaNoWriMo, so I thought I’d give it a try.
The first week’s (1-5 November) topic is Your Year in Non-Fiction. I didn’t think I’d read many books that would qualify – I’m much more of a fiction reader – but when I looked back I found I’d read four, of which three were excellent, so here goes:
This is a biography of the famous cookery writer – and later,
shop owner – Elizabeth David. As a child I remember the Elizabeth David shop in
Pimlico (not that we ever went inside, it was way beyond our budget, and indeed
our aspirations – we were probably just the sort of people of whom David would
Mrs David was a beautiful woman and she led a colourful life. She lived in many countries, had lots of lovers, and could, by all accounts, be extremely difficult. But numerous modern day cooks, from Nigella Lawson to Nigel Slater, cite her as one of their greatest influences, and she is frequently credited with revolutionising the parlous state of British post-war cooking.
While I remain dubious about this latter statement – she really
only changed the eating habits of the urban intelligentsia, and made no
difference whatsoever to the rest of the population – her writing lives on, and her cookery books are of the kind that make great reads, even when you have no
intention of using a single recipe. She was primarily a journalist, a very good
writer who can summon up a location, a climate, and of course a food or drink,
like few others.
Artemis Cooper has done her research, and although I’m not sure I’d have liked to meet David, Writing at the Kitchen Table is a very good book, and one which I enjoyed greatly. My full review is here.
Nature Cure by Richard Mabey
This is an extremely popular book, but I have to say I found it disappointing. (I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author.)
Mabey grew up in the Chilterns. For various family reasons
he suffered a nervous breakdown and sank into a severe and long-lasting
depression. He eventually moved to stay in a friend’s house in Norfolk, where
he met his partner, Poppy, and gradually recovered his equilibrium. The book is
well written, and there’s plenty about nature, but I felt that it didn’t ever really
explain the connection between nature and recovery.
I know this may well be unfair, but I also felt that Mabey’s recovery had been made easier by the fact that he had money, and a lot of connections to people who just happened to have a spare house, etc. I was also slightly bothered by learning that, when he left the Chilterns, he simply put the woodlands he then owned on the open market – though he was of course fortunate to have two friends who were able to set up a trust to buy and preserve them.
Richard Mabey is well known for his contributions to nature conservancy, and his books have won, or been nominated for, many awards. Nature Cure simply wasn’t for me.
The interviews were originally broadcast on RTE Radio in 1985, and as the author of the introduction, none other than Seamus Heany, points out, people are far less restrained and ordered when talking than in a written memoir. They sound chatty and relaxed, and their stories are full of small, illuminating details.
'When they talk about their childhoods, writers come close to the centre of the mystery they are to themselves....the invention of a narrative for one's childhood is therefore to some extent a creative discovery of the self.'
I’m not sure if this book is still available, but I recently came across a copy in a charity shop, so it’s out there somewhere. My review is here.
John Burns is one of my favourite outdoor writers. He moved
from England to Inverness many years ago, and has published several books about
his life spent walking and climbing in the Highlands, the Lake District, and
overseas, in Europe and further afield. The Last Hillwalker is an often hilarious
account of his youth on Merseyside, his first (school) trip to the Lakes, and
his subsequent adventures with his two equally unprepared friends, Martin and Joe. It goes on to describe subsequent expeditions
– by now rather better equipped – and his concerns about what he perceives to
be the decline in interest in hill walking.
Wild Winter was intended to be John’s investigations into the wildlife of Scotland’s remote places – animals and birds that he had seen on his numerous trips into the mountains, but in which, until now, he had taken only a passing interest. He wanted to find out about mountain hares, otters, eagles, beavers, seals and wildcats.
|Mountain Hare (c) James Roddie|
Life had other ideas though, and just a few weeks after he started his research trips the UK was in lockdown.
For some time he was a prisoner in his small city
centre flat; the only walks available were strictly urban. Burns learned to
make the best of this – the birds at his window, the otter he saw swimming in
the Ness as it flowed through the city (this after he had singularly failed to
see one in the wild places he thought they’d favour.) As lockdown eased he was
able to meet with experts working in the field, from acclaimed wildlife
photographer James Roddie to Ben Ross, manager of the Knapdale Beaver
reintroduction Project. And despite his initial pessimism about the historic and in some places ongoing exploitation and poor management of the Highlands, he eventually sees glimmers
of hope. Landowners – or at least some of them – are embracing ecology, rewilding
and sustainability. New generations are demanding change.
'I breathe in the smell of the wind and the wild, and I am free at last.'
My review of Wild Winter is here.
Of these four books I think my favourite is Wild Winter. John Burns is such an accessible writer. Things go wrong for him all the time. He falls face down into sheep poo. He gets 0 out of 10 in a wildlife quiz. He goes on a whale watching trip and never sees a whale. It could happen to you.
The book I’ve recommended most is,
however, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, as it gives us so many great
insights into the childhoods of such brilliant women, and also into ways of
life now long gone. For a book of less than 150 pages it has had a profound
impact on me; I reread it often, and always with pleasure.
You can find out more about Non-Fiction November here.
Next week: Doing Dewey, or book pairing (non-fiction + fiction)