November 29, 2019


by Brian Garfield
192 pages, Mysterious Press

Review by Pat Black

Or, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nasty Things.

Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ll know about the Death Wish movie.

Charles Bronson, droopy moustache, feet braced, Saturday Night Special… Michael Winner! Blam!

It tells the story of a middle-class architect living in 1970s New York who decides to execute every street punk he encounters after his wife and daughter are attacked.

Brian Garfield’s original novel tells the same story, in a different way. But only slightly.

In it, Paul Benjamin is an accountant, a liberal (in the sense we used to understand it) in New York City in the same time period. He’s good at his job in the world of finance and sees no apparent irony as he takes on lots of crunchy causes in tandem with his role as a sharp cog in the pitiless capitalist machine.

Liberal guilt, I think they call it; organising fundraisers for softball teams in underprivileged areas, that kind of thing. If he was around today, Benjamin would be the sort of person who might criticise you for drinking from a plastic bottle of water – someone with firm convictions and a strong moral compass, but also a bit of a twat.

His house is raided by a teenage gang, with his wife and daughter inside. There are tragic consequences. This event takes place off-the-page and does not feature any sexual assault. This differs from Winner’s exploitative cinema vision, which spared you few details.

After this terrible shock, Benjamin slowly transforms into a vigilante who stalks the Big Apple’s seamier streets with a handgun, and in the process becomes something of a cause celebre.

“Is that a gun in your pocket, or… ? Oh, it is a gun, and you’re not pleased to see me.”

Justice isn’t exactly blind, but it is indiscriminate in Death Wish. Benjamin never levels the score with the criminals who destroyed his life – he doesn’t really look for them. Anyone committing or attempting to commit a violent crime is fair game for this unlikely avenger.

Garfield didn’t like the movie version of his story, which is a puzzler as it follows the novel’s plot, and its politics, to the letter. It is more cerebral than the movie series would have you believe, but that’s not difficult. At heart, Death Wish is a novel about grief – internalised, corrosive, manifesting itself in other symptoms, and finally exploding. But you’d be foolish to ignore the anger and the retribution, and the catharsis that follows.

In the same way, you could say Jaws is about an honourable man tackling endemic corruption in the face of a public health crisis - and you’d be right. But you’d be ignoring the shark.

For “shark”, read “guns”, here.

Benjamin grinds his teeth at the well-intended efforts of his work colleagues as they pat him on the back in the wake of personal disaster. He occasionally loses his temper with his granola-grating son-in-law, an idealist who accepts the terrible hand he has been dealt with an unnerving equanimity. The man even calls him “Pops”. For god’s sake – get mad, mate! Scream! Swear! You’re on Benjamin’s side in these parts.

This grief odyssey takes several strange paths, including one digression involving a woman our lonely hero picks up in a bar. I liked this illustration of Benjamin’s melancholic state, the devastation of a man with a home and a family and a purpose in life, suddenly set adrift. This is a moment of calm, if not peace, before he gets down to business.

The pivotal moment comes when Benjamin is sent to the South to look after a big account. He sees a gun shop and realises he can just stroll in and buy a firearm if he feels like it.
He does. And he feels empowered. No other word for it.

This is after Benjamin has experimented with taking down a teenage mugger, using a sock loaded with coins for a cosh. I have always wondered at the effectiveness of this DIY weaponry, given the state of some of the ancient socks I’ve got. If I tried that, I’d most likely see my loose change roll away across the street before a blow was struck. Then having to explain myself to the young man I’d just interrupted.

Maybe it’s a status symbol among gangsters – high-quality socks, for use in punishment beatings.

“What you packing?”

(solemn intonation) “Doubled-up Pringle.”

“Yeah? Look at what I got.”

(gasp) “Granpaw’s hiking socks!”

Benjamin’s longed-for confrontations arrive quite close to the end of this novel. They are not played for the sake of gore – I admit, this material would have been far worse in my hands – but they are disturbing. He walks into unsafe areas after dark, literally looking for trouble. If anyone tries to mug Benjamin or is spotted committing any kind of serious crime anywhere near him, they’re going to grow some holes.

How easy it is. Point and shoot. Down they go.

I’m maybe not the best person to criticise here, as I’ve just published a book about a person taking revenge. But Death Wish’s themes felt current.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t trust anyone who says they didn’t in some way empathise with Benjamin’s rage. If you play by the rules, then at some point you will be crossed by someone who doesn’t, and that can be very disturbing. Most liberal consciences would struggle to remain completely intact after any major trauma as a result of crime. It takes incredible strength and virtue not to give in to anger in the face of random, violent events carried out by unpleasant people.

They say you should hate the game and not the player, but this is difficult if the player is someone who has stripped your house of anything valuable before crapping on your favourite rug. There are many time-worn arguments against revenge and retribution. Some are as old as the written word, and most are valid. But few of them address the joy of striking back. A dish best served cold? I don’t know about that.  

Lots of our novels, movies, TV shows and plays know this instinctively. It’s a button they know how to press, even as they appear to tell you something different. It’s a fundamental flaw. It’s deeper than storytelling. It seems like a trace memory, folklore, something in the genome. Get them back. An eye for an eye.

Like the Big Explanation scene which serves as a coda in Psycho, Death Wish offers a built-in analysis of its troubled hero. Benjamin picks up a magazine in the toilet at a house party and reads a psychologist’s assessment of the vigilante whose killings electrify the city. The shrink’s insight is spot-on, and Benjamin begins to worry for the first time that he might get caught.

The book suggests that many people are on his side – including the police. Death Wish examines its hero’s conscience and paints him as a man undergoing a mental breakdown. But there’s no doubt that his behaviour is tweaking something primal in us. That revolver is about taking back control.

We hear that phrase a lot, these days.

Revenge as a driver of plot is as old as storytelling itself. But consider that familiar figure, the lone man with a gun, the reluctant avenger, forced to act for the sake of justice. This is often characterised as “individualism” and is a staple in stories of tough guys doing tough things, particularly in the mythology of the old West in the American tradition.

But zapping people arbitrarily and believing you’re doing the right thing is the work of a demagogue, and worse. “It’s right, because I say it is.”

There’s a lot of that about, these days.

How many damaged people around the world, but particularly in the United States, have pictured themselves as the man with the gun who had a legitimate grievance they’ve seen in the movies? The school shooters, the mosque invaders, the guys at work with a grudge, the people who suddenly open fire in malls and nightclubs.

Often, their issues are phantoms of the mind. But whatever their problem, they thought they could resolve things by ventilating people. They’ve seen it done quite a lot in the movies, after all.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that fictional content causes crime – if that was the case, I’d be a great big criminal. I’ve read about the studies examining violent video games, and that troublesome statistic about other countries who enjoy this kind of entertainment – with little or no gun crime. However, there’s no denying that stories on the page or the screen do model destructive, vindictive behaviour. Watch enough films where problems are resolved with a shoot-out, or a fight, and – if you had certain mental health conditions or a serious personality disorder - you might start to forget it’s abnormal in an ordered, peaceful society; that we have mechanisms like manners and polity and laws so that we can avoid these things happening, as far as possible.

Have you ever met someone who wanted to be a gangster in real life? Have you ever noticed that they really like gangster movies? There’s a reason for that.

But make no mistake. The main ingredient isn’t movies, or gunfights in the movies, or first-person perspective shooting games. It’s easy access to deadly weapons. Add some laws which provide for that, and maybe a dash of entitlement, and you have a disaster at all levels of society.

Making yourself judge, jury and executioner isn’t a good thing. No one person should have the right. It’s taken thousands of years for human society to arrive at that conclusion, and for many even in the bosom of the so-called free world, it isn’t quite clear yet.

I am reminded of an old stand-up routine: if Bruce Wayne really wanted to stem the tide of crime in Gotham, he could use his billions to fund community projects or open a factory in a deprived area, instead of dressing up as a furry and battering poor people, addicts, or the mentally ill.

Death Wish is about a person who doesn’t follow the rules. As a piece of fiction, it’s a great conversation starter, among people you should probably avoid at parties. In real life though, that decision to transgress is a disaster for all of us, as rules in the form of laws – deeply flawed as they can be – are sometimes the only thing keeping us from total chaos.

At times we need rule-breakers, certainly. Some conventions and ordinances deserve to go in the bin. To take one example, imagine if Rosa Parks had meekly surrendered her seat and gone to the back of the bus. But “it’s bad to shoot someone because you feel like it” is not one of them.

When it comes to being able to go about your life and livelihood peacefully, and also – key point - being treated equally and fairly by authorities who have to toe the line the same way as you, then these rules are essential.

Losing a rules-based system would be like having your back door open out onto the Stone Age. Crumbling rules and wobbling democratic systems can be seen all over the world. Even in places where you didn’t think it would happen: specifically, the United States and the United Kingdom.

If you’re not worried yet, you’re not paying attention. At least on this side of the pond, the guns are under control. But who knows where we’re going, politically?

If there’s an analogy for the mythology of the Wild West in modern life, then surely it lies in global finance and information technology. We shouldn’t be surprised when the same cut-throat, merciless practices manifest themselves elsewhere in life.

Another question that’s been bothering me: in a time when we can watch movies or TV shows which feature violent incidents involving firearms as normalised, why haven’t there been any dramas about mass shootings, whether fictional or adapted from real events? It hasn’t been tackled in a big, serious, well-funded mainstream movie yet, with the notable exception of Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine documentary.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is the closest match I can think of, but Lionel Shriver sidestepped the entire guns debate by having that book’s psychopathic title character use a bow and arrow rather than a Smith & Wesson. Also, both book and movie adaptation pulled away from directly showing us what happened.

Gus Van Sant addressed Columbine in another thoughtful piece, Elephant, but without showing us the actual massacre. That’s as close as you get from Hollywood. The only other dramatisations I can see are well-meaning TV movies, or small-scale dramas which weren’t given mass publicity or a widespread release. Not even in the same galaxy as the latest Avengers or Fast And Furious movie, at any rate.

You could argue on taste and decency grounds here – but this doesn’t seem apply to other types of murder. Just this year we had another series of Mindhunter, and we also saw a former teen musical idol become Ted Bundy on the big screen. We’re open to the idea of dissecting the behaviour of sex killers and military dictators responsible for thousands of deaths, but not the horribly prosaic world of the lone gunman.

Why the shyness about the reality of gun crime? What’s the purpose of art, if not to reflect reality in some way?

Surely we should be shown the utter horror of these situations. We should have make-up geniuses or digital artists show us, as realistically as possible, precisely what happens when a round from an AR-15 assault rifle hits a child in the face. A few filmmakers have had a go at 9/11, the ultimate millennial true-life horror, so surely they can apply this industry to a gun massacre – something which becomes horribly real, and horribly current, on a regular basis. We should see the panic, hear the screaming, experience the tears and pleading, people losing control of bladders and bowels. Give people their pornography, as lexicographers understand the term. The grim, unbearable reality. Without a shred of glamour.

Do we need a movie tough guy to play the gunman? Someone comfortably masculine enough for us? Why not? They so often play gunmen. Let’s have it. Let’s see it. Make it real for people. Who has the nerve?

Back on-topic. I’ll say this about Death Wish: even allowing for its brevity, in an age when books can lie on my bedside table for months before I reach the end, I read it in the space of a day or two.

It’s wrong on many levels, but I couldn’t wait to get to the shootings. Tension, and release. Zap, zap, zap, down they go. I have to accept and admit to this duality. You like Space Invaders? I like Space Invaders. You just line up the shot and squeeze the trigger. Easy as that. Disintegrate the dehumanised. Has anyone ever completed Space Invaders? Is it even possible?

Like I say, this feeling doesn’t make me a criminal – it doesn’t even make me a bad person. But there’s a line to be drawn, like it or not, between these confected fantasies and true-life end points almost too horrific for words.

I will repeat: I’ve written a book about revenge. My heroine breaks the rules and feels justified. Everyone does, in taking revenge. Right and wrong isn’t part of that picture. She’s no better than Paul Benjamin, really. Mea culpa.

But surely a sensitive, intelligent person would realise that Paul Benjamin’s way is not the answer.

NB: This review was written before the recent tragedies in California, Texas and Ohio. I’ve held it back for a while.

November 24, 2019


Country Matters on Booksquawk

Potters’ and Planters’ Almanac, part two

The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd (160 pages, Canongate. Audio version read by Tilda Swinton)

Review by Pat Black

During her lifetime, Nan Shepherd achieved a degree of success thanks to her modernist novels. But her literary legacy has arguably been secured almost four decades after her death by a non-fiction book about her beloved mountains which she almost didn’t publish at all.

The Living Mountain has become a classic of its kind, a touchstone of modern nature writing. Since a modest first printing from Aberdeen University Press in 1977, it has acquired a quiet power and permanence which she would never have imagined when she wrote it, in the years after the second world war.

The Living Mountain refers to the Cairngorms, the type of mountain range in the Highlands of Scotland that demands to be placed on a postcard, or framed above a grandmother’s mantelpiece. As the title suggests, Shepherd sees the hills, peaks, lochs, wildlife and foliage as a constantly shifting, mutable thing, formed by the movement of glaciers during the Ice Age, and prone to the immense changes in geography and climate over time that render our lifetimes insignificant.

She speaks of the shifting colours with every season – the reds, browns and yellows of autumn, the stark white and black of the snowbound winters. And then there’s the sublime summers, when Scotland enjoys more light than many other places, edging towards the short Arctic nights when the sun plays up, refusing to go to bed, the skies dancing with the Northern Lights.

There’s plenty of rain, of course. You won’t read much about that on the Scottish tourism websites. Two good Scottish words for you learn, if you’re planning a trip there: drookit and dreich.

Water features prominently in this book; particularly how it forms the land and continues to have an effect on its topography, especially when transmuted into snow and ice. And she doesn’t half like swimming in it. When Nan Shepherd goes for a dip in the bitter waters of a remote loch, she reveals the sudden thrill, if that’s the right word, of seeing the rocky shelf at her feet drop away into untold depths. She might be a forebear of today’s wild swimmers, though she would have chuckled, as most of us do, at the sight of people in neoprene.

I am glad Robert Macfarlane picked up on the sensual thread that runs through The Living Mountain; I would have been a little bit embarrassed to talk about it here, otherwise. I’d say it runs beyond the sensual and edges into the erotic, at times. The thrill of cold water running over her body; the mention of companions alongside her, without ever identifying them in any way; even the bite of the wind, is all rendered in unmistakeably charged terms. Ekstasis is a good old Greek word to learn if you’re planning a trip through this book.  

There’s death on the living mountain. Shepherd details scary incidents involving mountain rescuers, who are sometimes sent out into appalling conditions with little hope of finding the lost. Sometimes the bodies are found within hours; sometimes you have to wait for the thaw. Shepherd highlights the case of two young lads, and their excited jottings in a communal logbook just before they set out to walk in snowy conditions. At time of writing, they had just hours to live. Confused and hypothermic, they got into trouble on the hills. Their bodies bore scrapes and abrasions which revealed they had been crawling on their hands and knees at one point. You could see their excited chatter as a ghastly joke from fate’s filthy mouth. I prefer to see it as a tribute to their destroyed, and yet curiously preserved innocence.

There is plenty of wreckage on the living mountain. During wartime, the Highlands were a training ground for air crews and commando units, and one plane crashed into the mountainside with no survivors. Shepherd details the work of the mountain rescuers in locating the wreck and retrieving the bodies. The work, the grim work, is often highlighted over the leisure by this author.

Shepherd has a bit of a sharp tongue for young people who arrive ill-prepared for the hills, or who subscribe to a more away-with-the-fairies view of this beautiful, but deadly place. She’s a tad unkind – surely Nan Shepherd used to be one of those young people, craving adventure and romance in remote, gorgeous places? This harkens back to a distinctly Presbyterian attitude we see in Scotland and Scottish writing which we struggle to throw off to this very day. In his afterword, Robert Macfarlane notes Shepherd’s references to the hard work involved in climbing the hills and the actual graft of people who earn a living off it.

It can be hard work at times, to be sure, but I would never relate the pleasure in climbing hills and mountains to anything as degrading as work. It’s been a while since I climbed any mountains, and I feel horror when I realise I might not climb another one. By the time my kids are old enough to take into the mountains, hillwalking might be the last thing I want to do.

Of course, Shepherd takes note of the creatures who scurry across the bleak hillsides - and the things that hunt them. There’s encounters with stags, with mountain hares whose whitewashed coats are life during the frigid months, but death should there be a mild winter or a sudden thaw. She has a keen eye for the birds of prey, in particular the awesome golden eagles. Shepherd is amused to note that some observers confuse these wheeling bringers of death up in the sky with planes and gliders. What’s my favourite animal? It’s got to be up there, Les. Top five answer for sure.

Where she is particularly strong is in describing the plants, trees and animals which thrive in seemingly inhospitable places. She notes that some of these flowers were proven to have actually survived the Ice Age.

Like JA Baker’s The Peregrine, this is a short book, but shot through with a profundity and a clarity that most books would kill for. Certainly it doesn’t hurt matters to have Tilda Swinton narrating the audiobook, a case of the poet and her figures being matched to lethal effect much as Odysseus might string his bow. Whether piped into your ears or sweeping across a page in your lap, this has become an essential book, and one you really have to experience if you’re a fan of nature writing. Or maybe just writing.

What of our author? She’s an enigma. I guess she liked it that way. Wikipedia tells us she was “unmarried”, which tells us nothing. If you go to that page, you’ll see an extraordinary photo of her, with a brooch fixed to what appears to be a bandanna wrapped around her head (it’s actually a length of photographic film – apparently she just took a notion). It’s an image the Royal Bank of Scotland saw fit to put on its £5 notes, which you might struggle to spend south of the border if you are faced with a particular kind of idiot behind a counter. She wouldn’t have taken kindly to that, I feel sure.

Considering her today, she looks like something from fantasy artwork and literature – not a figure of male lust from Frank Frazetta or Robert E Howard, but utterly formidable, someone not to mess with. A queen, or a mighty warrior. She was both of these things.

July 12, 2019


Country Matters on Booksquawk

Planters’ and Potters’ Almanac, Part One

by Pat Black

Here’s a nice fresh bunch of the tulips I’ve been tip-toeing through this past while.

by John Lewis-Stempel
304 pages, Doubleday

I’d happily read JLS’s diaries every year. Well, not his secret diaries. That would be weird. I mean his nature diaries, which he cunningly disguises as books.

Thankfully, his publisher sees fit to release them on a yearly schedule. The books usually have a distinctive underlying theme, but the format is pretty much the same each year, and I’m happy with that.

Still Water is framed as a look at the life of ponds, particularly in Britain. Beloved of those Victorians who had a bit of garden space, these plashy holes in the ground are a haven for creatures such as frogs, toads, ducks, dragonflies, water boatmen, moorhens, coots, pond skaters and sticklebacks. And not forgetting a creature beloved of conservationists but perhaps less so of town planners and construction companies - the great crested newt, Britain’s funkiest animal. If anyone finds one of these amphibians on a building site, then you ain’t building no buildings, folks.

JLS’s pleasant, meandering style skims over the history of ponds and references to them in other literature (we learn that the word pescatorian was an insult in days of yore). It perfectly sums up the tranquillity of sitting in his own English garden, waiting for the sun.

We jump between a pond in Argenteuil, France, and the author’s own backyard in Herefordshire, but there are also entirely pond-free digressions. One of these takes in JLS’s interest in the First World War, and a walk he undertakes in the Lakes in memory of the men killed at the front more than 100 years ago. You won’t mind a bit.

The First World War is one of the author’s common themes, and he returns to it and several others in this book. Sometimes I read bits and pieces that I’m sure I’ve heard about before, whether in Meadowland, The Running Hare or The Wood. I’m sure JLS has previously mentioned his first memory: being bitten in the face by a dog. New information is the fight he gets into as a kid, and his father’s refusal to stop the scrap, plus the bloody steak he is given as a reward for putting on a good show. Fathers are such strange creatures. He also mentions his parents’ divorce, which I don’t think he did before, either. Similarly, we learn that the author was desperate to join the navy, like his hero, Sir Peter Scott, but this was ruled out owing to a lack of facility with numbers. I feel his pain.

In the present day, JLS channels Roger Deakin by trying some wild swimming in a pond. He gets covered in muck and beasties, and is perfectly happy with it - until he encounters a leech. Cue a digression about leeches, and the staggering observation that the leech quacks of olden times might have been onto something.

These personal reminiscences and digressions bring colour and comedy to an already rich meal. And if the author leans a little too hard on John Clare and Edward Thomas references… Well, most of us come back to our favourite things, whether in life or in writing. Hence, this review.

by JA Baker
224 pages, Collins

This one has been referenced in many of the modern era’s great nature books. It’s a slow-burner in publishing terms, written by a fiercely private man who tracked and recorded the movements of peregrine falcons through the flat countryside of his native Essex in the 1950s and 60s.

JA Baker’s slight volume is a condensed version of 10 years’ worth of journals. Championed by Robert Macfarlane and others after being out of print for a long time, The Peregrine could be described as a work of poetry rather than a conventional narrative. Taking a diary format, Baker’s masterwork underlines his remarkable gift for describing the exact same things in several different, but equally enthralling ways.

He can’t get enough of the peregrine’s stoop (or swoop, as muggles would call it), as the world’s fastest bird descends, tyrannosaur claws agape, to snatch other birds and mammals and then tear them to pieces. The language is sparkling, a visceral, immediate delight best consumed quickly. Like the bird itself, it’s all lean muscle.

Baker’s tone is curious. This book is as romantic as they come in terms of language, but there is not a shred of sentiment involved - and anthropomorphism is out of the question. The predator is brutal, and yet described as a thing of beauty. While Baker deplores humanity’s revelry in killing, he cannot help but luxuriate in it himself. The author asks us something like: ‘Blood red’ – was there ever a more useless description? What else could red look like that could match it better than the colour of blood?

He sees predation as a dirty business - all the more on humans’ behalf, because we have the luxury of being able to consider whether or not to kill, before doing it anyway. Even so, Baker has a kind of rapture when describing the falcon turning its prey into gore, strewn guts and feathers.

The author is not quite so keen on his own species. In light of his various disabilities and painful health problems, not least his myopia, you wonder if Baker gained a sense of freedom from watching the falcons on the wing. Perhaps he discovered the true meaning of ecstasy, or ekstasis, as Robert Macfarlane points out: being taken outside of ourselves.

There are signs of the environmental rage which has become close to the norm these days. The Peregrine was written in a time when the birds were being poisoned through the use of pesticides, after they had been shot as pests themselves during wartime. Baker deplores the use of chemicals, wholesale culling and other industrial horrors. Were he still alive, he would have been dismayed at our continued descent into the gargantuan act of self-harm that is the Anthropocene era, although not greatly surprised.

Going by Mark Cocker’s introduction, The Peregrine still attracts controversy. Some descriptions of the creature in the title do not tally with common observations by seasoned bird watchers. The amount of kills the raptor makes by Baker’s reckoning are under dispute, as is his observation of one of them eating worms. There is also a suggestion that Baker might have gotten confused with a kestrel, in noting hovering behaviour – something the peregrine apparently doesn’t do.

Countering this, Cocker asserts that it hardly seems likely that a person so deeply ingrained in the appearance and habits of his quarry would make such fundamental mistakes over details – or indeed fabricate them, as many have suggested. Perhaps it was just as he described it, at one particular time, with one particular bird?

Either way, if you’re a lover of gorgeous descriptive prose, I’d say these small details don’t matter too much. Baker is one of those writers with a great gift for making any scene, thought or image sparkly with unique light. If the price of making a true story gorgeous is Doubting Thomases getting sniffy about it, then it’s one he would have paid, no question.

by Roger Deakin
320 pages, Penguin

We were robbed of Roger. He might still have been merrily turning books out, as he might fashion a table and chairs from driftwood in his workshop. Even better, he would have been all over BBC4, any given weeknight. Fate had other ideas.

He might have turned his ire over pollution and corporate slovenliness into a fulminating masterpiece fit for 2019. I feel sure he’d have been involved in the Extinction Rebellion protests.

It’s nice to wonder about this. But we can only make do with what we’ve got.

Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is Deakin’s third and final book, edited together posthumously by his partner Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker from journals written in his last six years. It follows a diary format from January to December, although it meanders back and forth in time, with one date sometimes having more than one entry. So it’s kind of a “greatest hits” of Roger’s diaries.

Apart from some seasonal framing, the author has a free hand. I think this style suited him.

We get reminiscences about his childhood, recollections of his adventures both close to home and far away, and impressions of the farm in the title, a semi-wild Suffolk retreat he called home for the closing decades of his life. That’s the place with the moat, the one he swum around every morning in Waterlog. What a life!

We get Roger’s thoughts on sleeping in his little shed in all weathers, fixing the house up, and looking after any human or animal that passes through his front door. He details all the little creatures he loves, and their readily accepted invasions of his home, from the birds in the attic, to the cats prowling the yard, and the spiders stringing silk across his furniture. He’s the type of guy who would become anxious at the idea of crushing ants as he steps onto the path outside his front door every morning – in fact there’s a moment involving a tiny creature on the loose in his study that shows a childlike empathy with all creatures great and small.

Countering this, there’s his disdain for human agency and petty rules affecting his beloved Common. Gentrification also annoys him. If you’d won the lottery and bought a big country pile down the road from Roger, I suspect it might have taken him a long time to like you.

This might be my favourite of Roger’s books. And yet, I’m struggling to give you an overview of what it’s like. The best example I can give is one entry on the joys of what he calls jotting - writing freeform, and letting your observations, memories, fears, ecstasies and personal mysteries tumble out onto the page any way they choose.

Roger was a wanderer, a freebooter with a bit of a gypsy heart - and yet also an ardent conservationist, with a strong sense of home. More conservative, you suspect, than he liked to admit, but no lover of fences or the inequalities they contain, and certainly a detester of chauvinism and disrespect for nature. He was every inch the English radical, with tones that remind me of Orwell at his best. His influence is still strong among writers, readers and lovers of British natural history, part of a pantheon that grows year on year.

In particular, the 20 years since Waterlog came out have seen an explosion of interest in wild swimming. He definitely had a hand in this.

Going by the esteem he enjoys from his proteges and contemporaries, it’s safe to say Roger Deakin’s legacy is secure. Many have reported an odd sense of familiarity with the author through his work that they don’t quite get with other scribes. He feels like someone we know and like; that rare friend you might feel compelled to actually pick up a telephone and talk to.

In part two, we’ll check out Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Kate Humble and Kate Bradbury. Although I suspect we might have to wait out the summer before I get there…

June 10, 2019


In which we check out the books everyone else did years ago

944 pages, Bantam
Audiobook narrated by Tom Sellwood

Review by Pat Black

A bit like with Wolf Hall, you might to avoid Wikipedia if you want to go through this book unspoiled.

I still think of Dan Simmons as an up n’ comer, hailed in banner quotes by Clive Barker and Stephen King as the next big name in horror. Then I realise that this happened 30 years ago.

In fact, Simmons is probably better known for his SF output, particularly the Hyperion series which has now attained classic status. Unexpectedly, The Terror marked a horror comeback for him, a bestseller that was turned into a well-received TV series. Its success, and that of its adaptation, must have been a lovely surprise. It is rare for a horror book not written by Stephen King to make such an impact; in fact I’d be tempted to call it a throwback to the horror boom of the 1980s, which spawned Simmons in the first place.

The Terror of the title is HMS Terror, one of two real-life British ships dispatched to find the north-west passage in the Arctic in the 1840s. But this is a strictly fictionalised account of that genuine story of hardship and tragedy in the tundra.

That’s because The Terror also refers to a monster - an immense predator, bigger and fiercer than a polar bear, which picks off the men aboard the ship after it becomes stuck fast in the ice.

The other ship in the expedition, HMS Erebus, is the lead vessel in the journey, commanded by Sir John Franklin. At the helm of its sister ship the Terror is Captain Francis Crozier, an experienced hand from a modest Irish background who gained his commission the hard way. He has to help Sir John keep command of all those men on board both icebound ships, with the big freeze showing no sign of relenting, their precious stores of food and coal slowly diminishing, and a monster stalking and demolishing them.

Taken purely as a historical novel, The Terror is beautifully detailed. There’s not one nook or cranny of the ships and life aboard them that goes unexplored. As a result this is a long, long book, the longest I’ve read in ages - but I suppose it had to be. It did drag in places. This is no fault of the author’s, just mine as a slovenly reader who is pressed for time these days. There are a lot of men’s deaths to be described, and it would do a disservice to hurry over their lives and temperaments before we get to their flesh and bones.

Personal conflicts and resentments build during the ship’s miserable years stuck fast. About halfway through, when Captain Crozier finally gives the men the order to abandon ship, these animosities turn deadly, as sour elements look to usurp his command.

The ill health and squalor of the men as they succumb to scurvy and starve to death is gone into in some detail. That alone is not for the squeamish; the bleeding orifices, the fallen teeth, the lost hair, the discharge, the grim bodily functions… man the sick buckets, lads! And of course, there are the awful effects of sub-zero temperatures: frostbite, lost limbs, gangrene, and the unforgettable detail of exposed teeth exploding in the ultra-frigid air.

What sets The Terror apart from any other novel of survival in one of the planet’s harshest environments is, of course, its creature. At first it is mistaken for an immense polar bear, but the men come to realise that it’s much bigger, much smarter, and much more aggressive than regular specimens of ursus maritimus. Bullets do not seem to harm the monster, and any attempts to ambush it or entrap it in a killing zone are easily thwarted.

It doesn’t take long for the men to become superstitious about their predator – and with good reason, because it is a supernatural being. This is a detail I didn’t like. I’d have preferred it to have been a natural enemy for the men to contend with, something that they might be able to kill. But this weird element is consistent with the lore of the Inuit population the sailors encounter, particularly that of the most problematic character in the book: the only woman on board HMS Terror, Lady Silence.

She is given this name owing to the fact she has lost her tongue at some point in life. A hunting party brings her on board after they mistakenly open fire on her and an Inuit man - possibly her father, possibly her husband. She takes refuge aboard the ship, and is given her own quarters by Crozier, for obvious reasons. It soon becomes apparent she can steal away and come back on board as she pleases, mystifying the captain and one or two interested suitors.

Of course, a big bunch of men crammed aboard an icelocked ship would take a very close interest in Lady Silence. So does the author. This brings us to an uncomfortable point.

For a book chiefly concerning men trying to survive in the Arctic, The Terror’s early section is cram-packed with nudie women. Not just Lady Silence, who has the habit of wearing nothing beneath her furs (which she often removes as cross-eyed sailors pass by a crack in the door). There are also love affairs recalled in flashback by the men, particular Captain Crozier, whose heart was broken before his mission to the Arctic. There are one or two other recollections, too, which help keep the boys warm at night.

The level of detail here does have the potential to disturb. It’s not quite at the level of “she boobed boobily down the stairs, boobs akimbo”, but I have to say it’s uncomfortably close. Simmons describes the women’s bodies, particularly their breasts, in almost microscopic detail. It’s closer to an anatomical textbook than a page-turning chiller.

If these descriptions were visual art, then they’d be macro photography. Skin would be shot at so great a magnification it would no longer be identifiable as such, like the surface of a barren alien planet, stretched and pitted beyond recognition. Individual strands of pubic hair would be rendered as the length, girth and texture of a tree from the Cretaceous period. Outcroppings of areolae would be indistinguishable from ancient battlements worn smooth by time and the elements, or the crumbling peaks of a mountain on Mars.

“Areolae” is a key word, in fact. It’s a signal. Whenever it appears in fiction, it’s probably more detail than you need - unless you’re reading an honest one-hander.

Maybe I’m being disingenuous. This is, after all, the male gaze; this is what many men want to look at, and this is their feelings when they do so. Perhaps to turn away from that, or to pretend it doesn’t exist, is fundamentally dishonest, whether in fiction or in life. There is a point where it causes harm, though. That point can sometimes be charted in the troublesome waters between the law of the land and personal tolerance.

It all depends on the reader. Some might see this exhaustive, obsessive rendering of male lust and objectification as an example of much that is wrong with the world. Others might see it as no big deal, even perfectly normal. I would say that after the third or fourth densely detailed description of a woman’s naked body, I was cringing. “Here we go again.”

Back to less problematic content, now: violence. The creature’s rampages take me right back to the books I read as a lad – honest-to-goodness monster mashing of the first order. I even detected a bit of Guy N Smith in there, as the white-furred behemoth flicks heads off shoulders the way you might launch a loose pea off a dinner table.

It’s soon established that the creature isn’t merely ripping the men apart for food. It seems to be doing so out of malice, taking particular pleasure in lopping off heads and leaving them on display for the search parties to pick out with their lanterns. One section, in which the men attempt to cheer themselves up on New Year’s Eve by setting up a masked carnival in a special marquee on the ice, is clearly set up for the creature to intervene - and it does. From this section onwards, the hopes of the expedition crumble.
Simmons grapples with one or two issues relevant to modern times. First of all, there’s snobbery. Crozier is a competent, tough, canny man, but owing to his Irish background he will never be accepted as a gentleman in British society. We might wonder how much has changed in the 170-odd years since.

Then there’s a very Melville-esque attitude to organised religion – questioning who or what we worship, and why. An epigram at the start of the book draws a clear line between Simmons’ monster and Melville’s white whale. Lady Silence and the creature seem to have a kind of spiritual symbiosis, one the master and one the servant. And the men, who readily take part in Christian observance on the decks of both ships at first, develop an atavistic worship of polar bears, believing it might offer protection from the creature. Even Captain Crozier, who cracks down hard on this, can’t seem the resist deviating from the norm himself, quoting from the “Book of Leviathan” in his sermons to the men, rather than the bible.

Things become more brutal once the men are out on the ice, dragging supplies, injured shipmates and boats on sleds, looking for the leads that will take them to open water and a chance of survival. All the while, something hunts them.

Of course, cannibalism isn’t far away. In one delicious section, the ship’s surgeon Dr Goodsir attempts to put the men off any idea of carving up their colleagues for supper by describing in great detail what must be done in order to split a man’s bones down to the juicy marrow. Even as he speaks, he is shocked to find that he is drooling.

It’s disturbing to find that the two main human villains of the book are gay – “MORE PROBLEMATIC MATERIAL TO STARBOARD, CAP’N” – but Simmons balances this later on, clumsily, by having a “good” gay couple.

In fairness, Simmons is only telling it like it was - the 1840s were not enlightened times when it came to sexuality, and any men caught having sex with each other on board one of her majesty’s ships could face dire punishments, possibly even death. Something else for the poor blokes to worry about, as they spend years shut up in a ship in the Arctic with only other men to cuddle.

There are several well-executed shock deaths, particularly near the end as the survivors mutiny and seek to return to Terror camp, against their captain’s orders. But for me, among the most dreadful things about the men’s plight were the missed chances of salvation.

Hey, there’s some of the indigenous population - let’s make friends, they might give us some food and show us the way to go! Oh…

Hey, there’s some open water, let’s get back to camp and tell the rest of the guys about it! Oh…

It’s an irony too far - as if Captain Scott bid his men farewell, stepped out of his tent, tripped over a sign reading “Rescue This Way” and fell through a hole in the ice… just as a ship appeared on the horizon.

There is a very strange ending to this book. I can’t spoil it of course, but it took us into unusual territory, changing from a story of grim military survival into one more akin to Robinson Crusoe, augmented by the myths, legends and spirituality of the Inuit people. The ending was satisfying, but I wonder if more brutal editors might have cut it by roughly 80 pages.

By the time The Terror reached its conclusion, I felt a bit exhausted (though not quite so malnourished). I’d had it on in the car since the start of last winter. The irony was particularly grim as I drove through the howling wind and sleet of January while I listened to a story about a bunch of blokes stuck in the freezing cold. We’re getting into summer now, and it’s only just done. Thanks to my commute now being reduced, it took me a lot longer to get through the 28 and a half hours’ listening than I’d have liked.

Great credit must go to Tom Sellwood for his vocal performance on the audio version, particularly his note-perfect take on the myriad British accents aboard ship. Because of this, we never once lose the place where the many characters are concerned.

A special mention must be made of his game attempt at singing Inuit songs, in falsetto as a woman. That’s dedication.

Time spent on board The Terror was never time wasted, and I always looked forward to returning to find out what happened. It’s a good, big, meaty novel - like the defrosted thigh of a caulker’s mate - and much like a good dinner, I missed it when it was gone.