Tuesday, 15 September 2009

'The revenge of Gaia' by James Lovelock

Gaia is the Greek Goddess of the earth, and is the name used to describe the complex, inter-related system by which our planet has sustained life for over 3,000 million years. The description of this self-regulating system was first published by the eminent British scientist, James Lovelock, in 1979. He has thereby strongly influenced scientific thinking, though he has not convinced all. His contribution has been valuable in getting scientists to think outside the silo of their specialisations, and has helped the world understand climate change better, since it requires linkages

This book is relatively short, but full of punchy facts and opinions. It is a judicious mix of science and clear, passionate explanation. It is a little quirky, but I think the personal element he includes improves the appeal of the book (as with Al Gore’s ‘An inconvenient truth’). However this book is dark and full of dire warnings. He argues, convincingly, that climate change is real, happening now and bound to accelerate. This is not a benign process (as some commentators jokingly refer to better weather in Britain etc). It threatens the existence of the present forms of life of earth. Gaia has no attachment to any particular form of life. Humans numbers will be drastically reduced by climate change. Some of us may survive in a primitive, brutal world, but our civilization will be lost.

Lovelock clearly explains the mechanisms and causes of climate change, mainly caused by human-created greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide and methane). Most frightening are the number of positive feedback loops which will speed the process, once a tipping point is reached. That tipping point may have been passed. Those positive feedback effects include the following: the reduction of ice cover at the poles reduces albedo, reflecting less heat back into space; the thawing of the tundra causes the frozen vegetation to rot, releasing huge amounts of methane; even small increases in heat will probably reduce tropical jungle cover, removing a major contributor to global cooling; small increases in sea temperature will expand the blue, desert ocean waters where no algae grow to absorb carbon dioxide and generate white cloud cover…

The dire consequences for mankind centre on the loss of food and water resources to sustain our massive population. Widespread starvation and warfare are the probably outcome, and a rapid fall in population. In Lovelock’s thesis forms of life that do not contribute to the wellbeing of Gaia will be eliminated, or drastically curtailed – hence the ‘revenge’ of Gaia, directed against Homo Sapiens.

In reviewing what to do, he summarises the choices for energy sources. He points out the weakness of most proposed solution, as is especially scathing about wind power. He argues for Nuclear power as the obvious and urgent solution to keep civilization running. I reached the same conclusion myself when I did some research on this topic 2/3 years ago. Since this view remains a minority view, it will not happen in the next couple of decades. When the need for it is realised, it may be too late, and our countryside covered with eternally noisy, thrumming windmills.

In this chapter I learned the particularly malign effects of natural gas. Although burnt gas leaves no noxious carbon dioxide residue, un-burnt gas (i.e. methane) is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Inevitably gas escapes from pipes and even from our kitchen gas rings. If only 2% escapes (as many engineers estimate) it is producing a huge greenhouse effect.

Apart from the prescription of switching to nuclear power, his other major recommendation is an immediate cessation of destroying natural landscapes, particularly tropical jungle, for farming. Tropical forests are the most effective land-based cooling systems for the world climate. Cutting and burning the jungles, as happens on a massive scale in Brazil, Indonesia and other countries, contributes up to 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions every year. Since this process is patently not stopping, I suspect we are on the road to disaster.

I read this book from the shelves of my father, whilst on holiday in Cape Town. My father is passionately interested in this topic and other issues connected with climate change, energy and economics. Ironically, I encountered many examples of the effects of climate change during my short holiday. Scientists are highly confident that the Fynbos vegetation of the Cape will drastically shrink in the next 50 years, losing biodiversity and ground cover. Long term trends for rainfall show a decline in that region, and long term water supplies are becoming scarce (whilst the population in the city continues to expand rapidly, requiring more food, water, energy and destruction of natural vegetation). Many fish stocks have declined precipitously and the only fish available in the local ‘sushi’ shop is imported farmed salmon!

Flying home, I looked out the window of my jet. I saw the hot streams of air racing out of the four jet engines, burning more fossil fuels and depositing carbon dioxide in the sensitive stratosphere. I looked down at the Namibian and Saharan deserts, which stretched beneath as far as the eye could see. The desert is fascinating and beautiful, but I had a vision of it encroaching on the whole world in the next two hundred years. For the first time, the desert seemed sinister and threatening and loathsome. When we finally came over the greenery of Europe I realised that the desert is only fascinating and beautiful when we can return home to a cold beer and a bath. The greenery below, scattered with roads, buildings and whole cities seemed fragile and ephemeral. We approached Heathrow and I envisaged it under fifty feet of water, as will happen if the polar ice melts.

'Durdle Door to Dartmoor' by Llewelyn Powys

Llewelyn Powys, a brother of the possibly better known John Cowper Powys, published a number of short essays on the landscape and features of Dorset and Somerset in a variety of books and newspapers. Sundial press have gathered twenty six of these in a delightful little book, giving us a guided tour of one of the most historic and beautiful parts of England. Strictly speaking, it is from Studland to Dartmoor, but that would spoil the alliteration of the title.

Powys demonstrates a joy in nature and history, and has a poetic writing style (that occasionally goes over the top). The essays are unfortunately too short to develop any sustained deep thought, but there are many nuggets of wisdom and vivid description to take away. I read this book mainly on grim commuting trains in London, and was imaginatively carried into an almost idyllic world I would love to explore. If I went on a tour of ‘Wessex’, I would surely take this book as a guide to the interesting places he describes. However I may suffer some disappointment, since these pieces were written in the 1930s, and in them he often harks back another twenty to fifty years. So much of what he describes may have been steamrollered to oblivion by modernity.

There are many treasures in this collection, but one of my favourites is ‘On the other side of the Quantocks’. He describes these individualistic hills based on a journey to visit a grave. “I set out on my expedition proposing to spend my first night at Crowcombe, a small village which lies at the foot of the Quantocks, and from there to walk over the moors to Watchet.” One realises, with a shock, that he walked there for two days (and presumably walked back). He had the thoughtfulness and leisure to walk to four days to commune at the grave of a dead friend. How many of us would today spare that time?!

Then I realised that ‘sparing the time’ is hardly the right phrase. This is time well spent! Walking over the English countryside, thinking, observing, feeling and enjoying. Permeating the essays therefore is a view of life we could well benefit from, if we would only emulate it even slightly. Powys sits in the parlour of the Carew Arms by a “wide old-fashioned fireplace” and eats “whortleberry jam and Devonshire cream”. After his meal he walks up Crowcombe lane with “periwinkles out on the crumbling walls and everywhere primroses”. This is not an invented idyll. It is the world of his beloved England in which he lived in the 1930’s, evidently savouring every moment. Inspirational!

'Memoirs of Hadrian' by Margaret Yourcenar

Is this possibly one of the greatest books ever written? It might be hard to convince others of this view, but somehow I have a nagging huge respect for this book and its author. I remember the powerful effect of first reading ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ over 15 years ago, with a copy lent me by a good friend, Tony Head. By chance I came across it in a charity shop this year, and snatched it up with eager anticipation, even though the years had erased nearly all detail of the book in my memory, except that feeling of awed respect. On this re-reading, I was even more impressed. A book which improves and magnifies its impact on subsequent reading is a rare achievement.

The writing of this book was virtually a life’s work for the author. It was first written in French, but she participated in the translation with Grace Frick to produce an equally precious artwork in English. The measured and lapidary nature of the French language comes through in elegant and significant English sentences. One needs to read the book slowly, for virtually every sentence carries weight. It is deeply philosophical, using the life of the Emperor Hadrian to meditate on matters of love, loyalty, politics, religion, death, decay, memory, futility, betrayal, Godhood, ecstasy, poetry, architecture, self-discipline, courage, nature and on and on with admirable judiciousness and balance. The fictional Hadrian achieved great wisdom from his long, varied and sad life, but it all comes out of the head and heart of its remarkable author.

So this is a profound and deeply moving book. It is infused with melancholy, yet intensely interested to convey thought and explore life. It has real weight, transcending the fictitious historical memoir of a great Roman Emperor, to address universal issues of human life in a perplexing universe.

In such a wide-ranging book, it is difficult to select a passage to convey an impression of this magnificent work. After much thumbing back through the pages, I have selected this elegant paragraph. Enjoy.

“Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me. Water drunk more reverently still, from the hands or from the spring itself, diffuses within us the most secret salts of the earth and the rain of heaven. But even water is a delight which, sick man that I am, I may now consume only with strict restraint. No matter: in death’s agony itself, and mingled with the bitterness of the last potions, I shall try still to taste on my lips its fresh simplicity.”

'The Celts' by Barry Cunliffe

I purchased this book at the visitors’ centre at Newgrange in Ireland. Newgrange is an astonishing reconstructed Neolithic site that pre-dates the Celts by up to 3,000 years. The book attempts to give a balanced and factual study of who the Celts really were, and untangle the many myths that have accreted around them. It educated me, and was particularly illuminating about how the eighteenth and nineteenth century built up a largely false romantic image of the Celts which is still used for political and secessionist reasons.

The book describes itself as “A very short introduction” and at 145 pages, in small format paper sizes, it is certainly short. Maybe I would prefer a more thorough coverage, but I think I have had enough of the Celts. Somehow Cunliffe manages to repeat himself several times in such a short book, and I sometimes felt that the short space was being wasted.

As a quick primer the book has its uses, and it certainly gave me an objective and factual survey of the subject. I did not emerge with a clear idea of who the Celts were, though that may simply reflect the sparse historical information about them. They were very diverse, ranging from the ‘Lusitanian’ Celts in Portugal to the ‘Lepontic’ Celts in Italy to the ‘Goidelic’ Celts in Ireland and Scotland. The biggest block of Celts were the Gauls, who inhabited large areas of France and Germany before the Roman empire expanded and later was invaded by Eastern tribes, such as the Huns and Franks. The genocide conducted by Julius Caesar against the Gauls was a revelation.

'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks

The title ‘Birdsong’ is and echo in my mind of a Siegfried Sassoon poem. It holds out some ultimate hope from the horror of the First World War. The book forms an interesting comparison with ‘Regeneration’ on which I have commented previously. It is invidious to judge one better than the other; both contribute to our increasingly rich literature of war.

The descriptions of the Somme and the tunnelling are framed by a romantic / erotic adulterous episode before the war, and by a female descendant who investigates her grandfather’s history and has an adulterous romance of her own. The hope is in continuity and life continuing, despite the constrictions of society.

The ultimate constrictions of society are to be involved in war, hemmed in by duty, patriotism, military law and an iron necessity to survive by killing. The particularly interesting aspect of the book for me is the extensive exploration and descriptions of the tunnelling activity to set mines below the enemy’s positions. The First World War was particularly static on the Western front, and hence both sides engaged in ever more extensive tunnelling activity. The claustrophobia, darkness, danger and airlessness of the tunnels is vividly conveyed. One of the climaxes of the book involves being buried alive in a collapsed tunnel.

One of the memorable and attractive aspects of the book is the wide range of scenes and atmospheres. We swing from the dreamlike idyll of a boat trip on the Somme river with the protagonist’s lover before the war to the mass slaughter in the mud in the very same location some 15 year’s later. The book has an epic quality, finding the space, with narrative skill, to revolve around several times. The pre-war lover re-appears. The protagonist almost literally come back from the dead more than once. The modern granddaughter echoes the same passions and mistakes of her predecessors.

I would strongly recommend this book, principally on the strength of its vivid descriptions and emotionally strong atmosphere.

'The First World War' by AJP Taylor

This is an excellent illustrated history of the First World War, published in the 1960’s by a popularist historian. The text itself is relatively brief and pithy, and could be read of an afternoon. However the book is greatly enhanced by a 221 top-quality black-and-white photographs. There are pictures on virtually every page, often two. This breaks up the text and the placing of the photos is closely correlated with the story.

The picture captions are delightfully amusing at times, threaded through with deep cynicism, almost as if they came out of ‘Punch’. For instance “83 French generals suffering from undernourishment” – where you can clearly see their pot bellies. Another instance: “89 Sir Douglas Haig sells an offensive to Lloyd George, Joffre underwriting, Albert Thomas not buying” – of a picture of the generals engaging the British Prime Minister in fierce debate. Another instance: “116: The Lord thanked once more: Field Marshall Mackensen leaves church at Bucharest”. It is not clear whether Taylor himself wrote the captions, or some brilliant sub-editor at Penguin Books.

The book is redolent of the spirit of the Sixties. It takes a blunt and satirical angle on the massive blunders and pointlessness of this war. This, however, is wholly appropriate. Taylor does not denigrate or laugh at the suffering of soldiers and civilians, but emphasises the terrible experiences they were forced to undergo by the crass stupidity of the statesmen and generals. He was revolutionary in this time to baldly state the futility of the fighting, going against the official line of heroics, the war to end all wars and fighting for democracy and self-determination. He is not afraid to show the hypocrisy, contradictions and muddle of the war aims of each side.

Taylor is very opinionated, which is refreshing and helps one understand where he is coming from. Sometimes his assertions seem weak on evidence, but the number of insights he gives us makes the book a central historical text which all Europeans should read. Although bold in statement and opinionated, his arguments are usually cogent and persuasive. He is certainly not biased against the Germans and the other central powers. If anything, he reveals the German point of view with sympathy, and saves his most acid comments for the allies.

He does not condemn out of hand, brilliantly demonstrating how there was an inevitability and unstoppable momentum about events. The system, the railway timetables, the dusty military plans had a force of their own that overrode individual decisions and common sense in several key moments.

As an example of his balance, Taylor points out that the Allied landing of troops at Salonika in neutral Greece was as great a violation of a small country’s rights as the German invasion of Belgium.

I picked this book off my shelves for a third reading in my life having read the chapters on the battle of the Somme in ‘Birdsong’. The facts in both books accorded well. The total stupidity and tragedy of that battle is brilliantly conveyed in both books, in their different ways.

The last chapter of the book about the aftermath of the war left me somewhat disappointed. It was somewhat cavalier and deserved greater analysis. Here some of the opinions and assertions did not quite gel for me, though other insights were valuable and fresh. I suppose that was consistent with the fast, summarising and contentious nature of the whole book. For a thorough recording of historical events, you will have to turn to other books on the First World War. For a stimulating overview, this can hardly be bettered.

'Thatcher' by Clare Beckett

This is one of a series profiling the 20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century. It is a short book (merely 130 pages of text), further padded with notes, a chronology and further reading. It is a competent little summary, and manages to be fairly neutral; an unusual achievement for writers about Thatcher who seems to inspire strong contrary reactions. The book in quite sympathetic and revealing about her upbringing, though most of it is lifted from Thatcher’s first volume of autobiography “The path to power”. It paints Thatcher’s career as ending in failure, and it is true that her abrupt end was hurtful and brutal. As someone once remarked, all political careers end in failure.

The book is too insubstantial for my taste, and not able to explore the intricacies of some of her most difficult decisions, and the far reaching changes she achieved in the commercial / entrepreneurial life of our country. Personally, I am a great Thatcher fan, so I could not be satisfied that the book did justice to her achievements. The book is written without any real passion, and is not ultimately very satisfying. So I don’t extend a recommendation to read it.

'Intellectuals' by Paul Johnson


Paul Johnson is an erudite man, bordering on a Renaissance genius in the scope of his interests. In this book he aims to undermine our respect for the integrity of the intellect and personal morality of several leading thinkers who have influenced history. It is a series of essays on prominent individual intellectuals. His attacks on Rousseau, Shelley, Marx and Sartre are particularly substantial and effective.

One realises that many people have been fooled and mesmerised by several figures, such as these, who have successfully promoted themselves and their ideas, whilst being hypocritical and living lives deeply contradictory to their teachings. Johnston convincingly paints Rousseau as a selfish and capricious bundle of contradictions. He demonstrates how Shelley heartlessly preyed on women. He reveals how Marx was lazy, disorganised and dishonest, and abominably cruel to his family, friends and servants. He argues that Sartre had an incoherent world view and also treated women as doormats.

Johnston is brilliant at coming up with telling details that undermine the intellectuals’ supposed message. For instance, Rousseau who claimed to be able to teach the world about bringing up children callously left his own babies to the foundling hospital in Paris. Marx never earned an honest penny in his life, but lived on financial support from his factory-owning friend Engels and fathered an unacknowledged son on his enslaved servant.

Johnston is brilliant at coming up with startlingly original views on history and literature, and this is yet another. He wants to wrench our gaze away from charlatan and Rasputin-like figures who have misled the thinking of the modern world. He succeeds to a large degree in this book. His ‘History of the Twentieth Century’ had already done that for major figures such as Stalin, Lenin, Suharto and even Gandhi. He does not pull his punches.

'Tristram Shandy' by Laurence Sterne

Tristram Shandy is a classic of English Literature, published serially 1759-67, but very few people have read it. I was forced to read it for my ‘A’ level syllabus at school between 1974 and 1976. My paperback copy still has the school sticker inside it with the English master’s signature issuing it to me. It was never returned, and I have treasured this battered copy ever since. This is an example of the good effects of forcing young people to do ‘worthy’ things, which they would never be motivated to do themselves. I loved the book, and it has formed part of my mind, or world view.

I picked it up again at Oxford, as part of my course on English literature, and wrote one of my best essays ever on it. During the first reading at school I read it from cover to cover, and found it tedious in places, but appreciated the humour and quirkiness. At university I appreciated better the brilliance of the narration and the profundity of its statement.

Now, so many years later, I have returned to it, via references to the mysterious Hermes Trismegistus in Edgar Wind’s ‘Pagan mysteries’ (see earlier review). Walter Shandy (the father of the fictional author) is most interested in ancient philosophy and talks at length about Trismegistus (the thrice greater magus). He wants his new-born son to be christened after this great philosopher. Walter thinks that names are extremely important in determining the fortunes of a man, so to name his son after Trismegistus would be the apogee of felicity, in his view. Walter also inveighs at length against unlucky names, such as Tristram, which originates from the French word for sad.

It is typical of the world of the book that he tells the maid to tell the parson the name he wants, but it gets forgotten and muddled by the maid and the parson, and the baby is irrevocably christened Tristram. The father is devastated, and Tristram has yet another blow of bad fortune.

The book is about the muddles and misfortunes of human life, especially those arising from the difficulties of communication. Without question, Sterne has Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ in mind throughout the writing of this book. He has a parson named Yorick, and when he dies, his epitaph is “Alas poor Yorick!”. Sterne then has two totally black pages printed in his book to denote mourning. A sea of ink conveys more sorrow (though ironic) than all the words he could think of.

Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ is partly about purposes being diverted and delayed. As Hamlet himself says in his famous soliloquy:
“This conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.”

This is an apposite description of ‘Tristram Shandy’, in my mind. Sterne discusses conscience several times – such as the sermon which Corporal Trim reads out in the parlour about conscience not being a reliable guide to morality. All the characters in the book suffer from obsessions (‘Hobby-horses’ as Sterne calls them), that lead them astray from their purposes. Walter is always thinking too much about books and philosophy, and never gets down to anything practical, such as mending the parlour door. Uncle Toby is always thinking about battles and fortifications, from his experiences in the wars in Flanders. The author himself, however, suffers the most from the burden of conscience, since he feels compelled to describe and explain everything in immense detail, and so the telling of his life and opinions turns awry and is never completed; in fact, it never gets really started.

Many readers may be put off by the requirement to read nigh on 600 pages and never get into a consistent or complete story, and to be denied the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy. I would urge you to go with the flow. Flow with Sterne and enjoy his shining sense of humour and immense intelligence. Although the book tells us far more about Walter and Toby Shandy (father and uncle respectively), indirectly we receive a profound insight into Tristram Shandy himself. We may not learn much about his adult life, but we understand his mind and opinions better than you can derive from any book (until ‘Ulysses’).

The author is Sterne, but he is pretending to be Tristram Shandy. So the decisions by the author as to what tells us, and how he tells it, reflects the cast of mind of Tristram, who is bursting to tell us everything. There is a joy in life, in reading and writing itself that oozes from the pages, so that we feel elevated and frustrated at the same time. The narrator has such a gift of the gab (maybe influenced by being born in Ireland in 1713) that he can happily and engagingly waffle on about anything, whether it is sleep, button-holes, midwives, names, fortifications, painting, death, noses, hobby-horses, memory or sexual impotence.

Do not be mislead. Although the book is (seemingly) chaotic, and has no conventional story to bind it together, it is full of stories. All these subsidiary stories (which the author is conscience-driven to tell us) nudge out the purported biography of Tristram Shandy. If we go with the flow, we can engage in delightful miniature stories.

For instances:

We are told why the Parson Yorick rides round on ‘a meek-spirited jade of a broken-winded horse’ and why he sponsors a widow to become the local midwife (the two are linked) – and this parson is the one who mis-christens Tristram, and the midwife is the one who incompetently attends upon his birth.

We are told how Uncle Toby receives a wound in his groin during a siege, and how this leads him into digging up the bowling green to play battle games (the two are linked), and how, in turn, this leads him into a massive misunderstanding with the Widow Wadman who wants to marry him.

The book itself starts with a famous (or infamous) chapter about Tristram being conceived, and his father’s ejaculations of sperm being interrupted by his mother asking whether the clock has been wound up! Quite logically, where else would an author start the story of his life except to describe the circumstances of his conception. This involves us from the start in a complicated explanation of the link between the clock and his parents having sex, and why he was born in Yorkshire rather than London and so forth.

The biggest digression concerns the sudden appearance of Death at the author’s door, and his escape to France. So a whole volume (of the nine volumes) is devoted to a journey around France.

The literary tradition of digressions and learning run mad was already long and distinguished by Sterne’s time, and he took it to its revolutionary extreme. His precursors include Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ and Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’. Stern carries on the tradition of satire, humour, obsession and extravagance, raising it to one of the highest levels in the English language.

The book explores the acts of writing and reading themselves in a profound way that has excited modern critics. The author frequently addresses the reader (as was common in Eighteenth Century literature), but takes it into a dialogue, and an admission of inadequacy, appealing for assistance; there is none of the omniscient, magisterial author here. The author is a character in his own novel. For instance he writes “Now in order to clear up the mist which hangs upon these three pages, I must endeavour to be as clear as possible myself. Rub your hands thrice across your foreheads – blow your noses – cleanse your emunctories – sneeze, my good people! – God bless you – Now give me all the help you can.”

So, you see, the reader becomes an active participant in the book too. Or are we being tricked and played upon. Here the author is being bossy and over-familiar. It is an illusion to be told we can help him. We can only read on, frustrated and intrigued at the same time. The sliding away from the story, the exploration of side-alleys of fusty learning, the backward shifts in time – all these frustrations become the book itself. We end the book with a sense of real life and the existentialist dilemmas of man far stronger than the artificial world of a neatly ordered novel.

'The Blackthorn Winter' by Philippa Powys

This book needs to be considered on its own merits, separated from the context of the rest of the large, talented Powys family. This was the only book published by the author, in 1930. It was out of print until re-published by the Sundial Press in 2007.

It is a relatively short novel, of less than 200 pages. The style is direct and focused, which I find powerful. Philippa Powys tells us the essentials, as she sees them, and does not meander in the story, nor philosophise. She does not consider it necessary to give us any background to the heroine, Nancy, except that she is a dairy-maid, ‘walking out’ with the Blacksmith’s son.

However the author considers it important to embed the story in the English countryside, with frequent lyrical and poetic descriptions of natural phenomena. She describes skies, rain, hedgerows, trees, cattle and horses. These have a vividness that could only have come with deep personal experience.

The story concerns her encounter with a handsome young gypsy, which happens in the very first chapter of the book. I wondered in the first few chapters if this was a ‘Mills and Boon’ type romantic novel. But I have never read ‘Mills and Boon’ books, so I have no standard of comparison. Whatever they may be, I believe this rises to a level of literature.

The book stands in a the shadow of Thomas Hardy, and is undeniably influenced by his Wessex novels. The style and ethos remind me of Hardy frequently, but the author creates her own territory.

The other influence seems to be DH Lawrence, with the emphasis on irrational passion and internal mental conflicts. Having read some Lawrence in recent years, I would boldly claim that Philippa Powys comes out well in a direct comparison. She gets to the point, and pares her narrative down severely, while Lawrence is often frustratingly vague and indigestible.

There is a Victorian modesty about sex, and the modern reader must wonder if various encounters in haylofts and woods involve just kisses, or full penetration. In a way, it is good to leave it to the imagination, and avoid the full-frontal starkness of a ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. In another way, the story is incomplete without conveying the physical ecstasy of sexual feelings that can override prudence and societal morality.

Instead we are given brilliant objective correlatives in the weather, animals, trees and such. Thunder crashes, a cow licks a still-born calf, a horse lies dead on the ground with foam in its mouth and an Elm tree is split by lightening – all conveying the intensity and directions of human emotions. Her psychological descriptions are brief, sometimes unconvincing and often non-existent. These are substituted by the objective correlatives in a poetic way, so that we appreciate dramatic mood changes, tenderness, despair and guilt.

Interestingly there is no divine dimension. The world of the book is without religious reference. We are in a Godless world. Fate drives Nancy downwards, but we are not encouraged to think about meaning or philosophy. There is an astonishing purity and focus in the book, as if the author is slightly dislocated from the world.

I particularly appreciated the West-Country and Gypsy dialogue and diction for its realism and colour. To me it seemed genuine, though I am no linguistic expert: “I’s naught. I’s only ‘ee.” “Ain’t ‘ee got no biving for a fellow? And starving at that.” “’Twere somewhat I thought thee’d like. Mother gave it I. ‘Twere her mother’s afore her.” “Law! How you harp on them gypsies. Think they’d a kissed you by the way you keep on.”…

This is a book worth reading. It will not require a large investment of time, and it may set you thinking how many minor novelists remain in the thickets of English literature to be (re)discovered. Sundial Press have done us a great service here, and may they persist in their endeavours. It is also a joy to own and display on one’s shelves such a beautifully produced physical object, with well-chosen jacket design.