Jim DeFede’s book has rather a long title (above), but for the ten thousand people of the town of Gander, Newfoundland, it really did seem like the whole world had arrived on their doorstep in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy in New York.
When the second plane hit the twin towers and the American Government ordered the closing of all American airspace, the planes that were already over half way from their take off point and heading for the USA had to land somewhere. For almost 40 passenger aircraft and a few private planes, that didn’t have enough fuel on board to be able to turn around and head back to their origin airport, Gander was their designated emergency airport. The question was, what happens when a town of ten thousand suddenly has to accommodate a further six and a half thousand people? It was a logistical nightmare that would have tested a city, never mind a small town in the middle of nowhere.
DeFede’s story was taken from interviews with hundreds of people who were affected by this sudden influx of people….this tide of humanity…. washing up on their doorstep. He interviewed the residents of Gander, the passengers and flight crews and has come up with a true story of heart-warming humanity which came about as a result of the terrible terrorist action of the eleventh of September 2001.
The people of the town of Gander were more than up to the challenge in front of them. Everyone pitched in to help the people on the planes as best as they could. Even striking bus drivers left the picket lines to provide transport from the airport to many varied places of accommodation. Because the flight crews and support staff had to be ready and refreshed to fly out at a moments notice, they got the priority accommodation at the motels and hotels available both in Gander and nearby towns. The passengers were accommodated in various church halls, schools, sports clubs and residents homes for the few days that they were stranded.
It was a true league of nations with a multitude of nationalities, religions and languages to be attended to and cared for. Food, clothing, bedding and many more personal items were all donated by the residents and stores in Gander without a thought as to personal cost. They took in these strangers not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because they simply wanted to help their fellow human beings. And help them they did, by opening up their homes and their hearts. Volunteers arrived at the various halls where beds had been set up for the stranded passengers offering to drive them where ever they wanted to go…or to take them home to use their shower facilities, or simply sit and chat over a cup of tea.
Among the stranded were millionaires, company chief executives even movie stars families – they were all given the same level of care as everyone else, and it must be noted that although some of the high flyers (excuse the pun) were offered to be sent certain luxuries to make their stay easier…or even a flight out on a company jet, they refused, saying it wouldn’t be fair on the other passengers and they would see it out in solidarity with the rest of the group.
Various bits of blurb on the cover of the book tell it all….An inspiring true story that spotlights acts of kindness in a world shocked and saddened by unimagined violence. And When you read this book, I predict tears in your eyes almost from the beginning, but they will not be tears of sadness or grief. They will be tears of joy and pride for the citizens of the little town of Gander, Newfoundland, who bravely stood up and said to the world, “Today we are all Americans.”
It is quite a lovely story, all the better for being true and DeFede does a wonderful job of weaving so many personal accounts together into one big act of humanity, of love and caring for our fellow human beings. It is not without its tragedy though and your heart will bleed and the tears will sting the back of your eyelids as you read about certain personal losses.
On the plus side, once it was all over and the stranded passengers were flown out to their various destinations, many of the people who had been helped by the selfless generosity of the town folk of Gander, donated money into funds to help the people and the institutions who had helped them.
When tragedy strikes, humanity steps in. It’s how it should be and it’s how it was in Gander.
A book well worth a read.
Thank you for reading this post. Can you recommend any other true stories of acts of unconditional love and kindness?
For some strange reason I don’t read a lot of female writers. It’s not something that I’ve made a conscious decision about, it just happens to be that the majority of books that I have read are by male writers. However, I do read women writers from time to time and the books that I have read, with the odd exception, have been very good.
I forget where I saw it, but somewhere I was looking through a list of dystopian novels and on that list I saw the name Daphne Du Maurier and the book Rule Britannia – so I thought why not give it a try.
Shortly after I’d seen the book listed as dystopian, I was at a book sale of second hand books and found a 1973 copy of Rule Britannia and it’s been sitting on my to be read shelf ever since. Once started though, it’s a difficult book to put down. I don’t want to insult the writer but, based on this one story, I would sort of put her along side Enid Blyton….not because she’s writing for the under 12’s like Blyton, but because of her go to whoa style of writing. There’s no real sub plot, no intricate back stories, just a linear one plot story that introduces the characters to us and then rips along from start to finish. I liked it. A simple read.
It’s about a young lady called Emma who lives with her grandmother – who is an actress of old, now retired and in her 80th year – and six adopted boys of varying ages. They live in a big old house somewhere in Cornwall in the south west of England. Emma’s mother died and she was taken in by her grandmother. Her father is some sort of merchant banker and adviser of the wealthy, but he lives in London….when he’s not in Switzerland or Brazil.
The story is set in the early to mid 1970’s and was written in 1972. It tells a story of a financially bankrupt United Kingdom who have just pulled out of the European Community and appear to have struck some sort of deal with the USA.
The household awaken one morning to find that there is no mail delivery, the radio and TV are dead and there is a warship in the bay, disembarking American Troops, who soon arrive at their door. Theoretically there is meant to be an equal partnership in the newly named USUK, but to Emma and many others it looks more like a takeover bid.
Du Maurier is concerned not only with what would happen to her country – England – under what is virtually occupation, but also with the effect on human relationships. In Emma we are given a view of the occupation through clear young eyes. She can see both sides of the argument, but comes down squarely on the side of Cornwall and England. Lines are drawn between the American occupying forces and those who will benefit financially as a result of them being on British soil on one side and what Du Maurier describes as true Cornishmen on the other.
It’s an interesting concept and Britain’s bankruptcy comes about because the bigger finance becomes, the more complicated, more risky it also becomes. Britain as part of the European Community have to have a certain amount of trade with the member states and eventually depended too much on foreign trade, so after they withdrew from the EU, they were already under pressure. When the occupying forces took control of the shipping lanes and transport links, food, water and fuel are scarce and rationing begins.
It’s quite interesting to read the book and to see how many of the locals and farmers come together as a united front to supply one another with their basic needs. One of the adopted boys, Joe, has learning difficulties and can neither read, nor write. His forte is manual work such as cutting firewood and tending to the vegetable gardens, but even he can see how ridiculous it is for a country such as England, which had been forced to be virtually self sufficient during world war 2, to now be so dependent on foreign trade to supply its basic needs. He says more than 3/4 of the way through the story, after he had just traded a load of logs with a local farmer for milk and pork – “You see, it does work, community living. Our neighbours support us, we support them. We don’t need any money, we can live without it. If everyone did this, throughout the country, there wouldn’t be any need to trade outside. We wouldn’t get rich but we’d be happy, we’d be free….”
And that’s it in a nutshell really. Humans love to make simple things complicated. Tariffs, quotas, trade wars, economic sanctions….all these go away if we’re self sufficient.
There are a number of interesting characters in the book – Emma of course, her rather eccentric ex star of the stage grandmother – known to all as Madame…..but known to Emma as Mad, the six adopted boys who’s ages range from 3 to 19, display assorted strengths and weaknesses – all play off one another quite well, Emma’s father – who is more like a caricature than a real person, in a world of his own, Doctor Bevil Summers – who comes to the family’s rescue more than once, as does their neighbour a farmer called Trembath and the rather mysterious Mr Willis, aka Taffy – who can turn his hand to anything and has rather more tricks up his sleeve than anyone else around. I was sorry that the story had to end and I shall miss a number of the characters.
It’s the only book I have read of Du Maurier’s so I can’t say if it’s one of her best, or worse, or even typical of her work. I guess I need to read more of her novels. It’s not a brilliant book, it’s not something that you’re going to rave about and it’s uncomplicated, it’s not going to tax your brain – but its a good, easy, entertaining read and makes one wonder how life would be under occupation of the forces of another country – whether they were there at the invitation of your government or not.
Once again, thank you for reading and I welcome any comments, likes, shares. Happy reading folks.
Firstly a quick apology for not posting for the last 3 weeks. It’s a been a hectic lead up to Christmas and I’ve been busy renovating our hallway – new ceiling, repairs, plaster and painting plus the hanging of a number of my black and white photos to turn the hallway into a photo gallery. So now Christmas is finally just a few hours away Id like to take the opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous new year…….and please buy someone a book from a real bricks and mortar book store.
What does Christmas mean to me? It’s a good question. I’m not particularly religious, nor do I believe in Santa (shock horror!). I don’t even follow the Pagan festivals….so why do I bother to celebrate Christmas? Here’s a little poem to help me get my thinking straight about what Christmas is all about…for me.
When I was a child living in Yorkshire I owned a mug, for drinking tea, with a little picture on the front of a child with its father watering flowers in a garden, using watering cans. A big watering can for the Dad and a small one for the son. Under the picture was the phrase “Helping Daddy”. It’s funny what we remember from our childhood isn’t it? But, like the child on the front of that mug, I used to help my dad in his garden once I was big enough to be of help.
As well as our gardens at home, front and back of the house, which were always a riot of colour, full of flowers and small shrubs, dad also had a huge vegetable garden just a few minute walk away….through the edge of the woods and down a back lane….where his widowed cousin Dora lived. Dora lost her husband in WW2 and lived alone in a house with a huge garden that she couldn’t manage on her own. The garden was divided in two by a path that ran from the front door down to the front gate. The old stone house stood at the very back of the section so all the gardens were visible to the front of the house. The path was the dividing line between Dora’s flower garden – mainly roses – and dad’s veggie garden.
So, from being about 8 or 9 years old I was kind of “volunteered” to help dad in the veggie garden. To begin with this mainly involved tedious things such as weeding, tidying, or fetching and carrying things for dad. As I got bigger I was given heavier work such as digging trenches for manuring/composting and using the wheelbarrow to fetch leaf mold from the woods to add to our compost pile, or other such barrow duties. I wasn’t particularly keen on the tasks, but enjoyed spending time with my dad. It amazed me how much he could grow in his garden and how well he (and I) kept it. Row after straight row of vegetables – Tomatoes, Beans, Peas, Carrots, Onions, Cabbage, Turnips, Spring Onions, Cauliflower, Beetroot, Potatoes, Lettuce and best of all, in a small garden to the side of the house was a very crowded strawberry bed. This garden was sheltered by the house on one side and walls on two other sides, providing a sunny warm area for the strawberries to thrive. Oh how I remember the taste of those succulent deep red strawberries – juicy and sweet.
At the time, I didn’t really appreciate the cycle of creation in front of me in that garden. Or of the life within the soil and how we helped to keep that cycle of healthy soil, healthy food going. The preparing and manuring of the soil in readiness for the planting of the seeds, the emergence of the first shoots of the plants, their continued growth to maturity and their ultimate harvest….interspersed with lots and lots of weeding and watering. Food on our table, and food for the family, friends and neighbours.
What I also remember is Dora bringing out sweet cups of tea for dad and I to drink and take a break from our toils, along with a plate of slices of cake or iced (frosted) buns – which always seemed to be slightly stale, but not so far gone that we wouldn’t risk eating them. You know, as a child I had no idea of the age of adults. Everyone who had finished school and started work seemed ancient to me, so one day when Dora asked me how old I thought she was I took a stab at 60….Oops. She was in her mid 40’s at the time so for a while after that she refused to talk to me.
I was fascinated by the worms in the soil – my main concern was how on earth they could breath underground. But I learned how vital they were to the health of the soil, just as I learned how vital bees were (and still are) to the wellbeing of the strawberries. I would sit and watch for ages as the bees went around their business of calling on each strawberry flower before moving on to the next, pollinating as they buzzed here and there. Not that nature asked for our help, but we did what we could as we added compost and mulch to help keep the soil protected and healthy.
One of the worse most odious and rank tasks (literally), that dad gave me was taking a wheelbarrow up the hill to the butchers yards to collect fresh animal manure. The butcher, Clifford, slaughtered animals on the premises in a yard at the back of the shop. Animals, I guess, are like humans in respect of their reaction to their forthcoming slaughter – shit scared doesn’t even begin to describe it. Let’s just say that there was always lots of manure and straw to transport from the butcher’s yard back down the hill to the garden. A funny thing about my journey’s up and down the hill to the yard and back. On the way up the hill, with a clean wheelbarrow, I would not see anyone I knew on the streets. On the way back, wheelbarrow full of stinking shit, a liberal amount of which I always seemed to manage to get over myself, (the smell of which seemed to linger for days regardless of how much soap I used, or how raw I scrubbed my hands and arms), surrounded by flies, and I would see lots of people who knew me, including at least one pretty girl from school. The manure patrol did little to enhance my reputation with the opposite sex, but worked wonders in the garden.
I write this, some fifty years later after moving to the opposite side of the world and have now become the keen gardener that my dad once was. I am sitting on my terrace, overlooking the garden at the front of my own home. Poppies swaying in the breeze, next to one of a half dozen stands of raspberry canes. The bees from our own hive, buzzing among the plants, work their magic. The canes heavy in both flowers and fruit, some fruit still green, but others turning a pale pink on their way to succulent scarlet ripeness. Another week should do it. In the garden to my left tomato plants are thriving and already bearing small green tomatoes. I was just having a wander around the garden – gin and tonic in hand – counting up the tomato plants. Last year we had around 70. This year we’re up to 80 at current count, with more (perhaps another 50) in seed trays and plant pots to be planted out in the coming days. Everything that we don’t either eat or give away to family and neighbours will be preserved either as tomato sauce or whole, in jars, for later use.
Oh well, it’s been another hot, late spring, day here in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand – my home for the last 30 years. Time to end this post and give my plants a good watering.
As usual thank you for reading this. Any comments or questions will be responded to as soon as possible. Likes and shares most appreciated.
The answer is at the foot of the page…..but meantime the quotes.
Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.
To my mind, the only possible pet is a cow. Cows love you. They will listen to your problems and never ask a thing in return. They will be your friends forever. And when you get tired of them, you can kill and eat them. Perfect.
What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties.
Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.
Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.
The taipan is the one to watch out for. It is the most poisonous snake on Earth, with a lunge so swift and a venom so potent that your last mortal utterance is likely to be: “I say, is that a sn—“
But don’t worry,” she continued. “Most snakes don’t want to hurt you. If you’re out in the bush and a snake comes along, just stop dead and let it slide over your shoes.” This, I decided, was the least-likely-to-be-followed advice I have ever been given.
Here’s a bit of a clue….or a couple of clues….All the above quotes are by the same person and he is very well travelled.
Another clue? He’s just brought out a new book called “The Body – A guide for Occupants”.
He’s my favourite travel writer and has me in fits of laughter when he sticks to the topic that made him a household name – TRAVEL…..although some of his later books such as “At Home”, and “A short History of Nearly Everything” were a task to read. They were informative, witty in places….but not in enough places. Given the choice of one or the other, I prefer to have him entertain me rather than educate me. His travel books thankfully entertain and educate…a win/win.
Yes all quotes above were by Bill Bryson.
If you’ve not read any of his travel books, please give them a try, he is a funny guy when he wants to be.
Just over three years ago both me and my wife were working full time. I worked 40 hours per week, and she was working 37.5 hours per week. We were not in high paying jobs, but the money was good, and payment was regular and reliable. Then in mid 2016 we both quit our jobs and fulfilled a long term dream of travelling around the UK and Europe for 6 months, on a strictly limited budget. It meant that we couldn’t do everything that tourists usually do, but there was always something either free, or reasonably priced to do where ever we went. We had a wonderful time, met lots of interesting people, saw some of the sights, experienced a lot.
Some of the people we met lived – I don’t want to use the word unusual or strange, because they weren’t, but shall we just say – lived in ways that are not these days considered to be mainstream. Some had pretty much turned their backs on modern gadgets. Others were very much into self sufficiency and making things rather than relying on the stores and supermarkets. There seemed to be a connection with nature and more sense of community, just like when it was when I was growing up in Yorkshire in the 1960’s. Back in the 60’s, I not only knew my neighbours, but also knew by name everyone in our street – men, women and children. I even knew a lot of people in other streets nearby. If anyone had a problem or a task that they needed help with, someone on the street would be there to help out.
Kids played in the street together, and in the local woods and parks – without adult supervision, without rubberised mats to fall down onto, without having to phone or text home every 10 minutes to report where they were, who they were with and what they were doing. When we went out to play our mothers would say “be home before dark”. That was the only stipulation. We were kids and loved to play, but we also had common sense and strength in numbers. If anyone was stupid enough to try to do anything illegal or immoral with one of us, the rest were there as back up. Never any problems.
Mothers used to stand at the gates of the houses and chat over a cup of tea (and in many cases, a cigarette). But of course that was then…..and now we are so much “better connected” with the internet, twitter, Facebook, Instagram, on line games, virtual reality communities and so much more to waste our time and isolate us from the real world. We can blob out on our couches and never move all day as we watch and “like” other peoples lives….see what they had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Isn’t modern technology wonderful? Where ever we go we can have internet access. We can be contacted by smart phone…or smart watches even in some of the more remote places. Isn’t it marvelous to be at everyone’s beck and call every minute of every day? Things like peace, isolation, quiet, are a thing of the past…as is going for a brisk walk over the moors or through the woods… as we become addicted to our digital devices.
But I’m getting carried away, my apologies. What I am trying to say is, that by living with limited things and on a tight budget for 6 months, and managing to live very comfortably, we wondered what we could do when we returned home to simplify our lives, work less hours and have more time for us – to do what we enjoy. We had already decided that we didn’t want to work full time jobs any more and would only be looking for part time work when we returned home.
The answer was to dig up our useless lawns and turn them into vegetable gardens, with fruit and nut trees planted here and there. In the end we have over 20 trees and lots of small gardens covering what was our lawn. Except for the middle of winter, we are pretty much self sufficient in fruit and veg. We had increased our mortgage payments before quitting our jobs and had managed to pay it off, so that left the usual expenses to pay for things like the rest of our food bill, electricity, insurance, local council rates and taxes, internet, and all that is involved in keeping a vehicle on the road. In the end, we are getting by on only my wife working part time, while I look after the house and gardens and to help make ends meet we have rented out a spare bedroom through Airbnb. It is not occupied all that often, but the money it brings in pays for our little luxuries. We have more time….some of it is spent keeping the garden up and running, but since I enjoy doing that, it’s not really a hardship. We can take up hobbies, go out for the day, enjoy walks and bike rides, commune with nature, write a blog (this one) or nestle into a comfortable chair with a good book….and coffee (or wine). Oh yes I also make my own wine, jams and chutneys. We preserve any extra fruit, tomatoes, peppers etc to help to see us through the leaner months. And after 3 years – almost – things are working well. We’re living the good life.
Last year we planted around 70 tomato plants and we preserved lost of them and made sauces with others. We still have jars of tomatoes and bottles of sauce stacked on our storage shelves. This year, so far I have planted around 50 tomato plants, but have seed trays with another 40 or 50 that I am still waiting to grow big enough to plant out. And that’s only a start. Encouraged by what we have read by several authors who have simplified their lives even more than we have and gone completely off grid, we have decided that in the new year, 2020, we will start looking seriously into selling our home here on the edge of the city and buying a smaller house, but with more land out in the countryside. This will allow us to expand our gardens, raise chickens for eggs (and possibly for meat), maybe we’ll also have a couple of goats for milking to make cheese. We’ll also put in a wood lot for continuous firewood supplies, harvest rain water, put in solar panels to provide us with electricity for lights at night and other basics, but mostly we’ll be going “old school” with hand operated appliances, a root cellar to keep food fresh and attempt to be off grid and as free of “the system” as possible. It could also mean that my wife can cut back on her working hours even further….or completely if we can make our self sufficiency profitable.
Time will tell. Meantime we have renovations to do on our existing home to ready it for sale. I’ve just replaced the hallway ceiling, so still have to plaster and paint that. And we’ve had a couple of weeks now of very dry, hot weather (we’re coming into New Zealand’s late spring/early summer and it’s already hit 31C/88F) so I have to keep up on the watering. Our strawberries are producing well – we have around 200 plants, and our 200 or more raspberry canes have lots of flowers, buds and unripe green fruit forming. It looks like being a wonderful season for berry fruit. After they finish fruiting it will be time for the peaches to be harvested. I love summer fruit!
Please note…I have put a link below to the blog I used to write last year (that I should probably update) about gardening and self sufficiency. Lots of photos there of the garden and produce. Meantime, many thanks for reading the blog. Comments, likes and shares are most appreciated and if you have any questions please do ask.
Since Remembrance Day is almost here (11th November), I thought I would try to pen a poem about the Poppy as a tribute to the fallen of World War One…Known as “The Great War” and also as “The War to End All Wars”. Of course, history shows that this “Great War” did not, unfortunately, end all wars, and whether you agree with armed conflict or not, it should not diminish the bravery of the men who fought….and the many who died….in the hope of protecting the freedom of those they left behind in their homelands.
The War to end All Wars, they said
They called it that, but they were wrong
This poem is for the millions dead
And for the flowers that they fought among.
The poppies grew on Flanders Field
Red petals match the red blood spilled
Those brave young men refused to yield
And on those muddy fields were killed.
We wear the poppy to remember them
And the reasons that they died
Through our button-hole we place the stem
The red poppy, worn with pride.
On a personal note, both of my grandfathers, along with their brothers, fought in WW1. Thankfully my grandfathers came home safely. My father and uncles fought in WW2 – again came home safely, although one uncle lost an arm in the conflict. I am thankful that so far, me, my brother and my sons have been spared the horror of having to fight in WW3. I remain hopeful that this fragile peace, in which we currently live, continues.
That phrase “Variety is the spice of life“, is something that I’ve heard many times during my lifetime, but I’ve never really thought about what it means. Recently I came across Mark Boyle’s book – Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi and he pretty much explained it in a simple paragraph….but since I don’t want to get stung for copyright infringement I’ll try to paraphrase him.
He was talking about how the industrial age, or as he calls it The Machine, has taken us over, making specialists of us, pigeon-holing us into strictly limited roles, making us no more than a cog in the machine. There’s no diversity. Meantime we play our part, as a part of the system, by consuming products and services. He reminds us that it didn’t used to be that way. We used to fully participate in life, in community – rather than distancing ourselves from it. We foraged, grew, produced and cooked our own food. Made our own entertainment, played music, made up songs, poems and stories to share around a communal fire. We made the things we needed, be it a wooden spoon or a woven fabric. Made our own wines, beers, mead, cheeses, butter, jam and preserves to share with our family and neighbours, as part of a living, breathing village. Our lives were rich with diversity with the freedom to express ourselves in a variety of ways. We could be a hunter one day, a farmer the next, a furniture maker, artist, poet. Life was interesting and fluid. Variety was the spice of life. These days for the sake of “maximum efficiency” we are reduced to rigid conformity, a cog in the wheel of industry, doing the same repetitive thing over and over again.
Don’t you think it’s time to take back our lives? To make them varied and interesting again?
We have come to rely too much on the system, on the Machine and what it delivers. Sooner or later, (I fear it will be sooner rather than later, the way that the world is heading) the system will break down and our specialist pigeon-holed existence will be our downfall. We won’t have the individual skills to survive, because we’ve lost that variety in our lives. We tend to know how to do one thing, a narrow field of view. We’ve become an expert, skilled in one thing and lost the ability to perform a hundred other tasks. We will not be prepared….thanks in the most part to what we have viewed as “progress”.
For anyone interested in Mark’s book, I’ve pasted the link to the goodread’s page for the book Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi below. I will probably be making further posts about the contents of this and others of Boyles books later on. I’m less than half way through the book and have learned so much already. As usual many thanks for reading and your comments etc are most appreciated.
This is the second part of my (former) post of reviews of what was to be 5 books of essays….3 by writers now dead (already covered in an earlier post) and this is a review of the remaining 2 books by writers still very much alive – plus another live writer thrown in for good measure.
OK, so now I have managed to confuse you….the books being covered are TEJU COLE – Known and Strange Things, PAUL KINGSNORTH – Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and other essays, and REBECCA SOLNIT – The Faraway Nearby. I’ll work my way from left to right on the photo.
Teju Cole’s book Known and Strange Things….To be perfectly honest with you, despite the endorsement on the cover of this book, by fellow essayist Rebecca Solnit, I struggled initially to connect with Teju Cole’s writing. That was until I found the essay titled Shadows in Sao Paulo, which is about the writers attempt to locate the exact spot that Magnum photographer Rene Burri took his famous photo of “Men on a Rooftop”.
It’s a black and white photo of 4 men on a rooftop of one of the many skyscrapers in Sao Paulo, casting long shadows as they walk toward the camera. To the left of them and far down below the street scene unfolds….the cars and trams also throwing long shadows down the street. The tram lines adding to the series of straight lines provided by the street, the walls of the buildings, the lines created by the many windows, and the edges of the rooftop. The photo taken in 1960 is from a higher vantage point and it’s this building that Teju Cole tries to locate. Being as I am, a huge fan of most, if not all, of the photographers who have worked for the Magnum Photo Agency – this essay is the one in which Cole and I hit on common ground, a common interest. From here on in I was able to enjoy his writing more (strange as it may seem).
The essays in this book were originally published mainly in the New Yorker, and elsewhere and, once I got connected with Cole via the Rene Burri essay I quite enjoyed the majority of his essays. However the “white saviour industrial complex” essay left a kind of nasty taste in my mouth….if that’s possible from reading something? It just seemed to be much of a rant rather than a serious piece of writing. I guess reading essays, just like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…..what suits me may not suit you, your reaction may not be the same as mine.
Petina Gappah of the Guardian newspaper – obviously a fan of Cole’s – writes… He ranges over his interests with voracious keenness, laser-sharp prose, an open heart and a clear eye. His subjects are diverse and disparate. Readers are certain to find a personal favourite: I loved Always Returning, an affecting meditation on the death of WG Sebald in which Cole wanders through the cemetery of St Andrew’s in Framingham Earl, Norfolk, looking for Sebald’s grave and trying, at the same time, to have a coherent conversation about his pilgrimage with Jason, the taxi driver who got him there. The interplay between the externals of conversations with Jason and the deep interiority of Cole’s response to seeing Sebald’s grave is masterfully written, with Cole straining to act as a mediator between the worlds inhabited by these two very different men.
By contrast I found Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist to be a very easy, entertaining and interesting read. Kingsnorth was one of those crazy environmentalists (and I use crazy by way of admiration rather than criticism), who used to chain himself to bulldozers and other machinery to try to stop developers from levelling another of natures hilly places – to put a motorway through….or wiping out old growth forest, so that Ikea and similar businesses can make more kitset furniture. I say WAS because now he’s taken a step back physically, if not spiritually from the “war against environmental destruction”. He sees the entire environmental movement as having been hijacked and watered down by factions of the Green movement, who in a bid to communicate natures value to society have now put a dollar value on it. Of course the problem with that, as Kingsnorth points out, is that once nature is given a dollar value, a businessman will justify buying and destroying it based on that valuation.
The essays in this book first appeared in various newspapers and on the website co-founded by Kingsnorth, called The Dark Mountain Project. Each one will provide an insight to the problems the world faces daily as our natural world shrinks past crisis point and consumerist growth economies grow and grow to unsustainable size, until their inevitable collapse and chaos that are surely just around the corner.
Although Kingsnorth has pulled back from being a placard waving demonstrator, his passion for nature and his attempts to convince us, the readers, that nature is worth fighting for…..even if we may be already too late to save it….is as strong as ever. He and his family have retreated to a smallholding in the west of Ireland where they practice what they preach and are as gentle with nature as possible in an attempt to become part of nature again…as mankind used to be….and to help the natural world regenerate. It’s a book that I believe should be mandatory reading in all schools AND for all politicians.
In the book Kingsnorth rejoices in the small wins that the family achieve in their bid to help nature fight back….and in helping his children to understand the magical natural world….how everything is inter-dependent, so that he knows that the next generation will be there on natures side.
In the essay A Short History of Loss, Kingsnorth looks at the problem that beekeepers are having with colony collapse and how a Harvard study linked the death of bees to certain insecticides used on farms – then continues to say that another Harvard group of scientists are working on designing robotic bees. A typical science response – rather than stop using insecticide and saving the lives of real bees, we’ll just make artificial bees and try to program them to act like real bees. It’s like the idea of colonising Mars because we’re destroying the environment here on Earth. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to stop the destruction here?
Kingsnorth then goes on to say that mankind…(or is it more PC these days to call it Humankind?) has experienced a Fall – just like the Bible story of Adam and Eve’s experience of a fall in their eviction from the Garden of Eden. He then tries to identify where the Fall happened….where and when… giving several possible examples. It makes interesting and thought provoking reading.
Another very down to earth and slightly stinky essay about composting human manure in Learning What to Make of It – is a more hands on approach to conserving the environment. It’s a fact that we, as humans, produce waste….so what’s the best way of dealing with it? We can’t continue to pour raw sewage into the rivers, lakes and oceans. So what’s the answer? Read this essay to find out.
Another essay The Barcode Moment – touches on conspiracy theory and the possible future of the monetary system. That at some point we may end up wearing a barcode on the skin, (or possibly a chip under the skin…in my own opinion), to use when making purchases, rather than a bank card or actual money. Thought provoking again.
In other essays he tells us about writers who’s works have formed him as a writer, revolutionaries and the ethics involved in fighting for what we believe in.
I’ll finish with a couple of quotes from the back cover of the book, and to urge you all to please read this book and try to understand where we are in the race against time.
Paul Kingsnorth reads carefully from the book of nature, and also from the great literature of the natural world; they give him, and the reader, one path out of the despair that comes from knowing a bit too much about our condition. – Bill McKibben
…as the environmental movement began to focus on “sustainability” rather than the defence of wild places for their own sake, and as global conditions worsened, he grew disenchanted with the movement that he once embraced. He gave up what he saw as false hope that the residents of the first world would ever make the kind of sacrifices that might avert the severe consequences of climate change…..Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist gathers the wave-making essays that have charted the change in Kingsnorth’s thinking. In them he articulates a new vision, one that stands firmly in opposition to the belief that technology can save us, and he argues for a renewed balance between the human and the non-human worlds.
And so to the final of the three books – Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby – published in 2013.
I’ll jump straight to the back cover blurb to begin with….Gifts come in many guises. One summer Rebecca Solnit was given a box of ripening apricots, fruit from a neglected tree that her mother, gradually succumbing to memory loss, could no longer tend to. From this unexpected inheritance Solnit weaves together memoir, fairytales and the lives of others into a meditation of the art of storytelling. Encompassing explorers and monsters, the Marquis de Sade and Mary Shelley, a library of water in Iceland and the depths of the Grand Canyon, the result is a literary treasure trove from a writer of limitless talent and imagination.
Wow….some build up. Lets hope the book lives up to it. Back soon….
I may end up writing this piecemeal – as I find essays that I connect with, that resonate with me. The first of which is the first essay in the book…essay 1 titled Apricots. In this essay Solnit becomes the owner of a huge box of apricots….from her mothers tree, after her mother who is suffering from dementia, can’t cope with them. She writes about the trials and tribulations, sadness and confusion of having a parent who is losing their faculties. It’s a heartfelt piece and something that I am more than familiar with having lost my own mother to Alzheimer’s over 4 years ago and my dad 6 months earlier who had another dementia related illness. She writes very well about the various stages of confusion and frustration that her mother went through as she slowly but surely lost her mind and her identity. In reading Apricots, it opened up some old wounds that I thought were forgotten. Which I guess shows what a good writer Solnit is. I’m now wondering if writing my own essay as another blog post about my experience with my own parents would help to heal those freshly opened wounds? I’ll think on it. If I do, I’ll call it “An evil Bastard called Al” (as in AL-zheimers), as it is an evil and vicious illness. Meantime, back to the next essay from the book.
In my younger years I used to love watching the old black and white “Hammer House of Horror” movies on TV. The classic stories were the best….the ones about the Wolf-man, or Dracula…or Frankenstein. So Solnit’s 3rd essay in the book, entitled simplyIceis my next port of call. This essay is for the most part about Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, the writing of the book, and her life and marriage to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley….Solnit also touches on the life of Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to her daughter. As one would expect of Solnit’s writing, it’s a well researched and well crafted piece. Quite fascinating to read. I don’t want to say anymore…please read it yourself.
The 5th Essay titled Breath begins briefly about the Marquis de Sade, but is about life and death, degeneration and regeneration and how everything is in a constant state of change. It brings together The Marquis de Sade, Zen Buddhism, the god Apollo and even the joys of cooking. Art as life, life as art, artists and philosophers, travel and cancer detection…and of course life as a journey from birth to death and everything in between.. are all woven into an intricate, almost spellbinding essay.
I could summarise every essay, as they are all well worth reading, but we’d be here all day so I’ll slide along to the end of the book instead. The final, and 13th essay of the book is titled Apricots (as was essay number 1) and we come full circle as Solnit compares the apricots and the things she made from them, thus preserving them, to life and a number of incidents either in her life or the lives of others. She includes many stories – one particular story about a young girl who fell into and became trapped down a well, deep underground, and had to be rescued by drilling a parallel tunnel and lowering a man, face down, down the tunnel to free the girl. It was a long and dangerous mission. Happily she lived and the publicity her rescue generated brought in donations of over a million dollars to give her and her parents an easier life than they would have otherwise had. Her rescuer became famous. BUT there are two sides to every coin and where a story brings good news, it can also bring bad. The man who rescued her, was so traumatised by the experience that he later took his own life. In effect trading his life for hers. The Grim Reaper’s way of balancing the books perhaps? Thus emphasizing how both fame and life are transitory. Life is an adventure and an unpredictable adventure at that. It tosses you a ball to hit out of the park one day and throws you a curve ball, that hit’s you right on the bridge of the nose, the next. One of Solnit’s mantras is “Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason”. If you have to have a mantra I reckon that’s a pretty good one to have.
I have said in an earlier post that I am an admirer of Solnit’s work, having bought one of her books on a visit to San Francisco earlier this year. This book of essays goes a long way in confirming my earlier opinion.
And that brings to an end my round up of books by three living essayists to counter balance my earlier post about the three dead ones. Again, thank you for reading and I am always grateful for any likes, shares, comments, or recommendations of other essayists worth reading.