Book No 7 (2021) : The Last Wilderness

With this choice, I don’t want to give the misleading impression that I spend my weekends tramping through the wilderness with my backpack, self sufficient and unafraid. In actual fact, whilst I do like to be out in the countryside, I’m still a nature tourist rather than a traveller. I don’t like to be too far from the nearest Costa or the relative safety of shelter. With this disclaimer though, Scotland is my favourite place in the whole word and I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring it over the years.

Neil Ansell writes about the Rough Bounds of Scotland, details of separate visits he makes throughout the course of a year. He makes his trips alone, reflecting often on his preference for solo expeditions – something with which I have great sympathy, as I often prefer to walk alone. As he traverses the countryside, the author intersperses his observations about landscape, weather and wildlife with facts. Having been interested in the natural world since he was a youngster, his knowledge is wide and really added to my enjoyment of the book.

There is an under-current in the book though, as Neil is losing his hearing. Initially this has affected only sounds within certain ranges, but is slowly becoming more profound. The effect of this is that he is no longer able to hear some birdsong and animal calls, losses which might threaten to break part of his connection with the natural world. For someone who derives enormous solace from the adventures of camping alone (midges nothwithstanding!), walking and exploring, this is a huge threat to the author’s wellbeing. His eventual acceptance is poignant and profoundly moving.

Reading this book made me realise something about myself; although I look at wildlife and nature, I don’t see very much. The author doesn’t just spot birds, he understands their movements, flight patterns, calls. He can follow tracks and understands what might have caused a change in vegetation, weather or animal behaviour, The author describes sitting watching the waves, which are roughly the same size, until the rhythm is broken by one very large wave. Out at sea, there is a pod of pilot whales. Watching them, Neil figures out that the creatures have systematically surrounded a shoal of herring to hunt. I would probably have seen the whales and been very excited, but not figured out what they were doing. I’ve spotted sea eagles, eagles, deer (never an otter, sadly), seals and have good enough binoculars to be able to bring them closer, but am not observant in my looking. This book gave me a much greater appreciation of what I might be able to actually see, with more time and patience.

Book No 6 (2021) : Close to Where The Heart Gives Out

Another Scottish island experience, this time of a GP who moves from his Glasgow city practice with his wife and children to Eday, one of the Orkney islands. Written retrospectively, the book recounts Dr Alexander’s time on the island.

At the time of starting work on Eday, Malcolm and his wife, Maggie (also a doctor) have four young children, all boys. As you’d expect, life is a bit crazy as everyone adapts to the new lifestyle with wild and windy weather, a slightly rundown cottage and dramatically different lifestyle. The GP’s surgery attached to the cottage isn’t well equipped and takes a while to get organised. Supplies come by boat, weather permitting.

The islanders leave the new arrivals alone for a while, not wanting to bother the doctor while he settles in. Gradually though, the new GP gets to know his patients, consulting in the surgery and visiting them in their homes. The recollections of these home visits allow the reader to learn about Eday life – cottages with no running water, peat fires, hard working islanders – straight talking, uncomplaining and stoic. Doctor quickly earns the respect of the locals and is asked to step up as a preacher, teacher and vet: very few people have only one job!

What I loved about this book is that it has heart. This isn’t a medical journal or textbook. Dr Malcolm Alexander seems genuinely modest and he treats people, not ‘cases’ or symptoms. His writing is reflective and insightful – about his own part in his marriage difficulties, being a good dad, serving his community and where he seeks fulfilment as a medic. When Maggie encounters difficulties in her fifth pregnancy, her husband’s anguish rises from the pages, as all the while he cares for the boys and his patients.

As you’d expect, the book is also shot through with observations about the landscape and wildlife on Eday; wind and sky, otters, owls and gulls. Tempered with the author’s gentle philosophy about the sanctity of life and his duty to do no harm, embracing the pace of island life instead of resisting it, I found this book enchanting.

The irony of me reviewing a book called ‘Close to Where The Heart Gives Out‘ when my partner has died of a heart attack, is not lost on me! Hearts do give out between these pages, and death itself isn’t euphemised, as you would expect from a doctor. But I was touched by the author’s refutation of the view that as death is commonplace for medics, it becomes almost meaningless to them, part of the job. ‘Patients sometimes think they are just one among many but they aren’t. Each life stays with us.’ I imagine this is why Eday took Dr Alexander to their own hearts. How lucky they were.

Malcolm now lives on Bute, having spent a while working in Stromness before leaving the Orkneys. I’ve started following him on Twitter, where he continues to offer comment on landscape, home comforts, vaccines and duck eggs. In the meantime, I’ve added Eday to my list of places to visit.

Book No 5 (2021): A House by the Shore

This slim volume has been on my bookshelf for many years, I can’t even recall how I came across my copy, which was secondhand when I got it! Despite there being so many new books and never enough time, this (along with Judy Fairbairns’ ‘Island Wife‘) is one I have returned to and re-read several times.

Scarista House is still a highly successful hotel, well known for its shoreside location and gourmet food. However, it wasn’t always as polished! Alison Johnson and her husband were working as teachers when they decided to relocate to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, where they renovate an old manse and turn it into a guest house.

Far from being DIY experts, the young couple, although practical, have taken on a huge project. Many of the rooms are uninhabitable, there are not enough bathrooms. Floors and windows have rotted, everything needs re-wiring. Alison herself spends a lot of time outside, digging trenches for the various pipes, drainage and services. It isn’t glamorous at all!

The renovation begins in 1974, so there is no internet to ease the communications involved in ordering, finding expertise, seeking advice. Battling with the difficulties of being in such a remote location and the inherent problems of getting supplies, combined with the frequently awful weather, Alison and Andrew persevere. With an immense amount of hard graft, lots of mistakes but a little bit of good luck, they are eventually able to welcome guests. There are several Fawlty Towers moments, with a big discrepancy between what is happening front of house in the dining room and Alison’s frantic scrabblings in the kitchen. Let’s just say it’s probably a good job this all took place before ‘elf and safety was A Big Thing.

A gentle read, with lots of comical moments, the opening of Scarista House is testament to how Alison and Andrew adapted to life in the Outer Hebrides and made it their own. I return to this book because it contains my dream; to move to a Scottish island. I relinquished the dream years ago; there has never been the right time and the opportunities to start again have passed. However, part of me still hankers after it so I live the experience vicariously. Although the Johnsons have moved on, the hotel is still there – I’m going to visit next time I’m in that neck of the woods. Hopefully the plumbing is no longer dodgy!

Book No 4 (2021): The Binding

Emmett Farmer hasn’t been feeling too well. What he doesn’t know is that he has been suffering from bookbinder’s fever. When Seredith, an elderly bookbinder who lives alone out on the marshes, chooses Emmett to be her apprentice, the truth about his calling is revealed.

If you want to forget, the binder will take your memory and encase it forever in the pages of a book. Seredith’s shelves are full of carefully stored volumes, beautifully crafted books which bind the memories of those who seek her help. Emmett is settling down to his new life when Seredith dies unexpectedly and his term of apprenticeship has to continue with her son, Mr de Havilland. Emmett hasn’t been at de Havilland’s workshop for long before he is sent to bind his first customer, a maid at the house of a Mr Darnay. The young apprentice is reluctant, as Mr Darnay’s son, Lucian, had once been a visitor at Seredith’s bindery, an encounter which left Emmett feeling inexplicably afraid.

This brings the reader to the end of the first of three parts of the book. Slowly, slowly, the book begins to turn on its axis, so that the fulcrum of the story becomes something totally different. The focus changes from the process of the binding, to the memories it captures. About how the process can be abused, the effects it might have. I was totally enthralled. This was one of those books which I inhabited until it ended. The characters are carefully drawn, the author has a captivating sense of place. She also has an authentic way of describing an often chaotic and distressed state of mind.

Sometimes the pain of grief and despair can feel too much to bear. So what if there was a way to make it all disappear, so you had no recollection of what happened, or of the pain? It sounds very tempting. But a binding isn’t selective, you can’t choose to keep just the happy memories, the good times – you lose the good along with the bad. Would I rather keep the pain and all the memories, or lose the whole lot? And what if someone else could read my binding, or I could read theirs?

I know ‘The Binding‘ is a story, but ever since I read the book, this whole concept has sparked many an internal debate and several real-time conversations. Any book which provokes that kind of reaction has to be worth a read, surely?! I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Book No 3 (2021) : The Diary of a Bookseller

Like most people, I didn’t have a good year in 2020. Although I didn’t feel up to blogging and reviewing books, I found a great deal of comfort in the distraction of reading. I was extremely grateful to everyone who recommended, lent and bought me books. As we start a New Year I’ve decided to clear my backlog of reviews and so count from where I left off in 2020.

First up, a chance find when I went on a bit of a spree in Waterstones, Brighton and was trawling for non-fiction especially. The diarist in question is Shaun Bythell, owner and manager of the Book Shop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway. Wigtown is to Scotland what Sedbergh is to England and Hay-on-Wye to Wales i.e. the National Book Town.

Through his daily diary entries over the course of a year in 2014, the author brings to life a colourful and varied cast of bookshop staff and customers, as well as the atmosphere of the famous annual Book Festival. From the rude to the slightly batty, the bewildering to the belligerent, the intriguing to the indignant (which sometimes includes Mr Bythell himself), the diary paints a picture of the bookseller’s lot. With a dry, sardonic wit, Shaun bemoans the rise of Amazon, despairs at the antics of his staff (‘Nicky’ in particular) and tells us about the visitors to his home and the Festival. This is all set against the backdrop of a planned wind farm and a leaky shop.

I know it is really annoying when someone you love keeps reading random clips out of a book because it made them laugh, but I couldn’t help myself! It really is very, very funny – laugh out loud funny. The combination of the diarist’s observations, together with some slightly absurd situations just made me smile. I also learned quite a lot about how second-hand books are bought and sold, both online and over the counter.

Shaun Bythell has a partner throughout the book, known by the pseudonym ‘Anna’ but who is actually Jessica Fox, an author who recounts her side of the Wigtown Book Shop experience in Three Things You Should Know About Rockets (Shaun is ‘Ewan’ in her book). I will be reading that soon, along with the sequels to the original diary, Confessions of a Bookseller and Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.

I’m not sure I’ll ever dare to visit The Book Shop in case I behave appallingly and end up immortalised in the next diary. Nevertheless, I’m excited to have discovered these books. Mainly because I’ve just got myself a new job. In a secondhand bookshop! Mr Bythell has certainly taught me a thing or two about what to expect. There was a strange guy in the shop last week……