I loved the film. I died for the costumes. I was delighted with the actors, the cinematography, the sound, the script. Janelle Monae killed it playing an engineer in NASA’s obligatory high heels, though she did not convince me as a mother or wife. Taraji P Henson was stupendous as Katherine Goble, then Johnson, and nearly convinced me as a mathematician. Octavia Spencer just glowed, especially when she stole so righteously from the library. I also liked the book that sparked the film, now posting on Vulpes Libris. You might too.
I haven’t seen Arrival, but I wanted to read the book because the story as told to me by someone who had seen the film interested me greatly. I spotted the book in the bookshop because of the Amy-Adams-in-a-spacesuit cover, and was surprised to see that a whole film had been based on a short story. I’d heard of Ted Chiang, but only vaguely. I’ve finished all the stories in that collection now. Oh my.
Ted Chiang appears to be a polymath. ‘Towers of Babylon’ (a Nebula Award winner) is about Bronze Age architecture that can build a tower to Heaven. ‘Understand’ is about accumulating intelligence and quantitative cognition. ‘Division by Zero’ is about maths, really intimidatingly high-level maths. ‘Story of your life’ (the story the film was made from, and the winner of three awards including a Nebula) is about linguistic theory. ‘Seventy-two letters’ (a Sidewise Award winner) is about two (not one but TWO, darn it) invented pseudo-sciences in an alternative Victorian England. ‘The evolution of human science’ is a three-page short short about how humans can continue to work on science when metahuman science has long since outstripped human understanding. ‘Hell is the absence of God’ relies a little bit on OT theology but is otherwise fairly ground-level sf. It won four awards, including a Nebula and a Hugo: it’s the story I liked least. Hmm. ‘Liking what you see: A documentary’ hauls us right back to the hard stuff by theorising about gnosias that prevent our brains’ perceptions of beauty, and other human things.
Stories of Your Life and Others (the original title of the collection known as Arrival) will expand your mind relentlessly. The knowledge is only part of it: you don’t have to be a computer scientist to be pulled along by the scientific dilemma in ‘Understand’ because it is utterly human. All the stories are about being human, and dealing with the extraordinary. ‘Story of your life’ is the highlight for me; a perfect, beautiful story, beautiful in how the structure reflects the evolution of the story and what we learn from it as we read (the as-we-read bit is important, because this story is about the accumulative process). ‘Tower of Babylon’ was strange and deeply satisfying, and ‘The evolution of human science’ is a pocket firework.
I have some grumbles. ‘Tower of Babylon’ ignores the economic perspective: if a society is building a tower to reach to heaven, so high that the work continues not for weeks or years but generations, who pays for it? And why is that society, which will presumably be weakened by this constant and unproductive drain on its economy, left unmolested and uninvaded by its neighbours over the years that the building continues? ‘Understand’ ends with a titanic battle between two men: WHY? Why does every opposition have to end in conflict?
However, I was most irritated by the immensely long ‘Seventy-two letters’, which is really a novella, rather than a short story. It is set in Victorian England, and we quickly learn that it is an alt universe Victorian England, in which Robert Stratton learns to reprogram his toy golems to see how rewriting their names will affect their behaviour and refine their design. So far, so very steampunk. He becomes a nomenclator, designing new names to create new functions, and his radical new thinking on automaton design enrages the sculptors who make them by its threats to their livelihoods. Meet the Luddites at the Industrial Revolution. Stratton is asked to join a secret science project which is accelerating the development of homunculi from spermatozoa. This is the second pseudo-science of the story, a form of IVF that combines with the faux-genome mapping of the nomenclators to create a superb milieu of steampunk science without the explosions.
The invented sciences are marvellous and slightly chilling, treading closely on the boundaries of dystopia. But I am annoyed that no-one told Chiang that he can’t write British English dialogue. Both the third-person narrative voice and the ‘English’ characters make blooper after blooper, despite Chiang’s exceptionally good reconstruction of Victorian England. The story might have worked better if he had set it in New York, because then the Americanisms would have been appropriate. But to create an English society so faithfully, and not even posit that it was somehow American-English, and then drop clangers in phrasing, social usage and syntax, is just not good enough. No-one in England, now or 150 years ago, ever talks of a ‘steer’ when they mean a cow. Maybe the narrative voice is supposed to be American (but why?), which would explain why ‘Lionel had Robert wait outside’: no English voice would say that, not now or in the nineteenth century. No school-teacher scientist would address a peer without adding ‘my lord’ at the end of his request. No Victorian peer would drink ‘whiskey’, and he certainly wouldn’t pour it himself.
There are many more maddening small errors, and I’m not including the American spellings. It’s annoying to see detectable mistakes in otherwise brilliant work. If you’re going to recreate England AS England, why not do the job properly, or get someone to check it? But apart from that, I love these stories (most of them) and have joined the legions of Chiang admirers.
The Historical Fictions Research Network is holding its second conference this weekend in Greenwich, home of the Meridian and steeped in English history. I will be there, celebrating the launch of the first issue of the Network’s scholarly journal, the Journal of Historical Fictions, which I edit, and giving a talk on the relationship between counter-factual fiction and science fiction. So this is a good time to wheel out another Really Like This Book podcast script, on a highly satisfying historical novel about alchemy and witchcraft, set in the seventeenth century, by Una L Silberrad. It’s called Keren of Lowbole, from 1913, and as far as I know only a handful of people now living have ever read it. These are either the handful of Silberrad scholars (me and my German colleagues), or Una Silberrad’s great-nephews and nieces who revere their Aunt Una with affection. Una L Silberrad is such a good novelist, yet totally forgotten, so I’ve been working on her for years.
You can find her novels in print-on-demand editions, and sometimes the genuine second-hand article, and in older public libraries that haven’t yet thrown their less borrowed books into the bin to make room for more computers. Her first novel was published in 1899, and her last in 1944. She was prolific, producing forty novels and short story collections in just over forty years, of the type that would be asked for in libraries between the war as ‘a nice book’. But they’re rare: she was never a top of the range best-seller, and in the Second World War, the bombing raid on London in 1940 that destroyed Paternoster Row and the heart of the book trade also burned all her publisher’s stock. Because of that her books are simply very hard to get hold of. I managed to republish one, The Affairs of John Bolsover, in a scholarly edition because it’s a great unknown example of the Edwardian feminist future novel. I’ve also shepherded her best novel, The Good Comrade, into publication with the independent publisher Victorian Secrets. But Keren of Lowbole is unlikely to be republished in paper form any time soon: its best hope is to be published in an e-version when Silberrad comes out of copyright, and that won’t be until 2026.
Una Silberrad wrote romance with adventurous happenings. Her novels usually involve someone escaping or running away from danger or another kind of trouble, and there are always tremendous independent heroines. Silberrad was an early feminist writing very conventional fiction with a twist. Her female characters are repressed scientists, or illegitimate aristocratic book-keepers, or antiques experts, or mining financiers, or detectives: they are never just nice girls who just want to get married and have a better life. They do, of course, want the better life, and their romances are realistic, believable and highly satisfying. Silberrad was more interested in writing about women with minds of their own, and brains to help them on their way in life. She wrote about women and science, or women and business. She set her novels in two periods: the present day and the late seventeenth century. Her late seventeenth-century novels have the additional unusual dimension of being populated by Quakers and Dissenters, because she was interested in throwing theology into her plots, to reinforce the importance of religious law and morality as part of everyday life.
In Keren of Lowbole, there is a wandering Dissenter called Tobiah. He’s a lively character, very willing to have an argument about Scripture that might last for days, and has a strong sense of responsibility towards anyone who appears to be behaving in ungodly ways. In effect he’s a freelance spiritual policeman, and is a moral signpost for good and righteousness. In the seventeenth century it’s no bad thing to have a person like that on your side, especially if he isn’t afraid of anything, which Tobiah is not. Una Silberrad’s nephew John said that apparently Aunt Una referred to Keren of Lowbole as the First Book of Tobiah: a pun on the names of Biblical books, because several of her short story collections and at least one other novel, have Tobiah stalking throughout the pages, laying down the spiritual law and getting people out of trouble.
But he is a relatively minor character in this novel, which is about a girl called Keren Ashe, who lives with her father, Dr Ashe the alchemist, in the Forest, south of Colchester in Essex. He is a descendant of Dr Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s alchemist, and Keren’s mother was a gypsy from Bohemia, so Keren has a strange and distinguished bloodline. She works as her father’s lab assistant, and seems perfectly content to do this for the rest of her life, until well-meaning Tobiah mentions to Betsy Shipp in Colchester one day that there is a 17-year old girl growing up wild in the Forest, with no older woman to instruct her on household duties or to see that she does not stray into temptation. Betsy is Dr Ashe’s distant cousin, so she takes Keren to live with her in the town, which seems to be a good plan for all. Dr Ashe disappears shortly afterwards on a secret journey.
Colchester in the later 1600s is a fun place to live. Keren makes friends with her girl cousins, she is praised for her impeccable housewifery (only a man could think that a girl growing up running her father’s house would need extra lessons), she goes to weddings, and she can shop. She’s already fallen in love, and fallen out of it again when she realises that the man is simply unworthy, and also that he loves a married lady. She put a stop to this unworthy man’s designs on the beautiful but long-suffering Lady Belton, who has been kind to Keren, by switching the love potion that her father would have supplied for a harmless bottle of coloured water. She has an easy friendship with Zachary Ward, a highly skilled glass-blower and lab technician whom her father values, but she doesn’t realise that Zachary is the prodigal son of Wythes Hall, with a wicked stepmother determined to do him out of his legal rights to the estate. Keren has a suspicion about her father’s long absences, and wonders where he has sent the last glass phial of the mysterious Ultio, which is usually kept out of danger and harm’s way on a high shelf. Dr Ashe had been very concerned when the other Ultio bottles fell off the shelf in an explosion. He wouldn’t let Keren or Zachary touch any of the glass except with tongs, and made them burn everything that had come into contact with it. Keren doesn’t know the terrible death of her mother in far-off Flanders, nor does she realise how long her father has waited to take his revenge. When Sir James Belton returns in a bad temper from his mission to Flanders, he reports that his opportunity to gain glory by taking the town for King Charles by force was thwarted by an unexpected outbreak of the plague, just after he got there. It’s probably much safer for Keren if she stays in Colchester, but in Colchester there are religious rivalries breeding trouble too.
Tobiah seems to be the head preacher for all the Dissenting sects, those troublesome Protestants who broke with the Church of England and insist on splitting theological hairs in defining their own religious beliefs, until there are almost more sects than believers. When Tobiah is out of town, Samuel Calderbeck sneaks back in, an ignorant man with a mania about demonic possession and witchcraft. When Betsy goes to London to see her married daughter and the new grandchild, her fussy husband installs his sister, Rachel Shipp, in the house to keep an eye on the maids. Rachel is a Calderbeck enthusiast, and very strong on the girls attending all possible religious services. At one, Keren forgets to kneel down for prayers, because her mind is elsewhere, so after a stern interrogation by Calderbeck and Rachel, it is suspected that she must be possessed. This is not a good time for Keren to be under suspicion of witchcraft, because her sneaky cousin Kate already has a downer on her. Keren can see easily through Kate’s hypochondrical ways, and Kate is very good at being devout when it will do her good. Keren has also been making lapis lazuli, a straightforward alchemical experiment that she has never managed to work accurately before, so when this too is discovered (it was a present for her nice cousin Betty) she is sent straight to her room and locked in, awaiting judgement in the morning.
Naturally, she gets out. What happens to her, and to Zachery’s claim on his father’s estate, and to Tobiah when he is miscalled a drunken vagabond, and to Dr Ashe’s secret journey, and the discovery of the missing will, will all be yours to discover when you read the book. I do hope you can find a copy.
Keren of Lowbole is a fine example of a historical novel untainted by modern preoccupations, language or style. I don’t think Silberrad uses any words that would not have been used in the seventeenth century, no do her characters do things that are out of period: that’s something that many modern historical novelists would do well to learn from. The narration is calm and restrained, the plot is meticulously structured, and the main characters are instantly memorable, and are consistent to the end. Keren is not an anachronistic feminist but she is a gypsy in her independence and cleverness with objects and natural creatures. It’s a timeless novel that could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, and deserves to be much better known.
So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
I love it when Jim Al-Khalili communicates science. He’s a physicist, a BBC Radio 4 presenter of science programmes (The Life Scientific is a great podcast, btw) and he’s written, among other books, a fine work on the history of medieval Arabic science. (I have no idea about his academic publications because I can’t read the first sentence of an abstract in Nature without gibbering.) Give me his popular science books, and I am happy.
I am even more happy when science is applied to science fiction, and Aliens does this excellently. Al-Khalili took the premise that if there are aliens out there, in the vastness of space, what will they look like, and how could we detect them? He asked twenty scientists with a foot in the field to speculate – in a nicely moderated popular style – how their specialisms could illuminate what might happen. He starts with Astronomer-Royal Sir Martin Rees, and moves from astrophysics to microbiology to psychology and neuroscience. In about half the essays, the alien extremes that we already know about on Earth are explored for what they might tell us about the possibilities for life Out There. I already knew about deep-sea thermal communities of bacteria that thrive in conditions that would slaughter most other life-forms, but did you know that communities of chasmoendoliths live inside rock?
I was most struck by Rees’ remark that our first contact will not be biological, but artificial, since that’s what we are doing already. Mars already has alien visitors: our AI vehicles and exploratory equipment are already out there, dropping Earth particles into its peculiar atmosphere. The limitations of space travel (time, energy and mass) make missions operated by AIs much more likely than sending humans out in deep sleep conditions. And then there are the places we could look at: since solar winds strip atmospheres from orbiting bodies unless their gravity is strong enough, only those orbiting bodies with the right geophysical parameters are likely to hold the conditions for life. These begin with water (or another substrate fluid for nutrient exchange and solvents: several of the contributors differ about including methane in this list), and the most common chemical elements that have created life as we know it. Most of the potential life talked about is microbial, and while it’s difficult to get excited, let alone alarmed, at the thought of a mat of proteins living between silicate layers only a few cells thick, it’s that scale, and level of strangeness, that we should be open to if we’re serious about finding life Out There.
The essays are short and snappy, and include excellent round-ups of science-fiction films and novels about alien contact that should be read or seen, or avoided. There is inevitable duplication of explanation – almost everyone carefully defines how H2O is essential – but there are also good links across chapters (evidence of a good editing hand). The consensus seems to be that Europa, Titan and Enceladus are the bodies most likely to harbour life in our own system, but my word, getting to that life will take many of our lifetimes. Even if the SETI search can detect suitable planets, identifying and contacting life on them is one of the longest-term projects we have. Assuming we’re still here on Earth when contact is made by the AIs we send out on missions lasting hundreds of years. My only complaint is that no-one, absolutely no-one, mentions the NASA press conference of a few years ago which announced with hysterical excitement that they’d found evidence of arsenic-based life on Mars. That debacle was hushed up so quickly: I really wanted to read more about the mistakes scientists make when they think they’ve found alien life, and what we learn from those mistakes.
Jim Al-Khalili (ed.) Aliens. Science Asks, Is Anyone Out There? (Profile Books, 2016), ISBN 9781781256817, £8.99
Roger Deakin’s classic of wild swimming is the subject of this Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up: Waterlog. He began his project swimming up and down the moat in his garden, with the thought that he really wanted to swim around Britain, but would settle for sample swims in places where swimming ought to be done. He is a very charismatic writer, or rather was. When reading this book I was so enthused by his personality that I looked him up, and found that he died in 2006, to my great sorrow. He’s one of the few modern writers I really would have liked to have met. The personality on the page may be fun to read, but may not be quite as much fun to watch and listen to in the flesh. Roger Deakin would, I think, have been great fun, as well as a nice, normal, friendly man, a good bloke to spend a day with pottering about on the hills. He was an environmental campaigner and a writer and film-maker, who lived in an old farmhouse in Suffolk, the county north of London on the east coast. When Waterlog was published it apparently changed public opinion about public access to natural swimming places in Britain. I’m not about to join them in the sea or in the freezing cold rivers of the Yorkshire Dales, but I’m all for more public access to common land and open air.
His farmhouse moat was a strip of water rather than a ring, in which Deakin routinely swam a mile in all weathers, every day, except when the moat was actually frozen over. During the course of the book he returns there regularly to swim there for comfort, to check up on things at home, and to think things through after disturbing times or after too much exhilaration. His swimming is of course not just swimming: it’s meditation, it’s exercise, it’s nature observation, it’s amusement and wonder and excitement, and it’s the simple pleasure of moving around in water. Deakin keeps saying that he’s no more than an average swimmer with reasonable endurance over distance, but swimming in the cold, and in waves, and in pondweed, and among the pike is very different from safe chlorinated municipal pool swimming. We need to plunge in.
Waterlog is also about what lives in the water, from bacteria and pollutants, right up to swans and otters. Deakin has a couple of exciting swims trespassing on fishing beats where he joins the trout to swim up or downstream past fishermen, who don’t notice him at all, whereas all the frogs do. He has a couple of good arguments with water bailiffs who object to him using public access paths to the water because they’ve decided to close off the banks. But he also takes pains not to be a nuisance to those who are worried about his safety: one time when he was enjoying a swim in the sea, he noticed a couple of workmen rushing down to his abandoned pile of clothes on the beach, thinking that he’d done a Reggie Perrin, so he swam back to shore to apologise and thank them. Outwitting the authorities where he sees no good reason for overbearing rules and regulations, are what makes this book an invigorating read, and an inspiration in how to circumvent bureaucracy politely. Deakin knows the law, he knows his pollution chemistry, he was a founder of Common Ground: he knows his stuff. He definitely doesn’t like the way that statistics are used to mislead the public and keep them out of the water. He finds it unreasonable that fishermen pay money to secure their private use of natural resources that should be available to all.
The first swim out of the moat is in the Scilly Isles, south west of Cornwall. Deakin plunges into Atlantic Gulf Stream waters, and immediately rushes out again to get his wetsuit on. Such unabashed practicality is very endearing: who could enjoy swimming with frozen legs and feet? It’s not just the bracing British cold waters that the wetsuit helps with, it’s also the seaweed, the mud, the jellyfish, the bashes and bruises from rocks as Deakin is tumbled down waterfalls and through gorges in which neoprene protects the fragile human. He does seem drawn to unusual aquatic environments: in the Scillies he observes from above, with mask and snorkel, the remains of drowned prehistoric farmland.
In the Fens in eastern England he goes swimming in seventeenth-century drainage ditches and in the Great Ouse River. He swims with the fishes in Hampshire trout streams and in the New Forest. He takes his tent into the Welsh mountains for a really long hunt for pools to splash around in, and finds tarns in the Peak District full of ice cold water to fling himself into. He has a terrifying baptismal slither through a near-underground gorge where he was swept downstream and further away from daylight, from pool to pool by the force of the water. His greatest challenge was to swim the Gulf of Corryvreckan off the island of Jura, where George Orwell used to live, but, thankfully, the waves were high and the whirlpool was too dangerous that day, so Deakin retired with humility in the face of really frightening swimming conditions. He’s not a lunatic risk-taker, but certainly likes to look long and hard at risks before deciding what to do about them.
Not all his swims are so unnerving: my absolute favourite is the communal family swimming hole at Fladbury, where generations of an extended family use a mill and its mill-race as their aquatic summer home, frequently flooded, always in wellingtons, and every day in the water, for all ages. What could be more civilised? I was charmed to discover the history of the Farleigh Hungerford swimming club, because that’s the part of the world my parents grew up in. Moving out of the river and into manmade swimming pools, Deakin is invited to swim as a guest in several terribly posh and impressively venerable private outdoor and indoor pools, the grandest of which has got to be the Royal Automobile Club premises on Piccadilly. The outdoor pool at Hathersage even has a bandstand. He goes to Droitwich Brine Baths for an out of body swimming experience where he bobs up and down like a duck in the salt spa water. Reading about the wave of outdoor pools built around Britain in the 1930s brought back my own childhood memories of swimming in Portishead outdoor pool when staying with my granny. This is a beautiful art deco construction on the edge of a cliff. I was also a bit sad that Deakin didn’t make it any further into Scotland than Jura, because he would have enjoyed Stonehaven’s outdoor pool, also art deco, filled up nice and warm with heated seawater.
With sea-bathing goes sunbathing. Deakin made me laugh out loud with his description of the nervous language used on official noticeboards to warn the British public of the presence of naturists. The British have never been comfortable with taking their clothes off, which is why we make so many jokes about nudity. Nudists on British beaches are very suspect, so Deakin’s account of tiptoeing past a nudist beach on his way to the sea is perceptive and funny at the same time. You’d think they were as dangerous, and as unBritish, as an unexploded bomb. Indoor nakedness, in a public steam room, for example, is quite different.
Another unBritish aspect of swimming is the history of the front crawl. Apparently this was brought to Britain in the nineteenth century by a Mr Trudgen, who had learned the style from South American natives, and caused a sensation in a swimming race in 1873, which he won with a combination of overarm strokes and frog-kicking legs.
Pure enjoyment is what keeps Deakin going, because he simply loves swimming: the process of it, the rhythms of it, and the feeling of water around and underneath him. When he tries longer distances he takes along a friend in a rowing boat to keep an eye out for jellyfish, and to while away the hours with chat. He admires the annual children’s swimming competition across the harbour in Polruan in Cornwall, where the ten and eleven year olds swim across the harbour, well greased up against the cold. Most of them can swim a mile in open water. He swims along an aqueduct in Norfolk, simply because he’d never done it before. He invents a new way of swimming when he finds an ox-bow river, a loop in the river that has almost become joined at its closest points. This lets him leave his clothes on the bank, plunge in for an enjoyable boomerang whoosh round the bend, and end up on the bank right beside his clothes again, downstream, but where upstream is only a hop across the grass.
The extra bonus with this book is the accounts of the wildlife Deakin meets nose to nose in the water. He has great crested newts in his moat, who don’t always stay there. Like the toads, they appear in the kitchen, temporarily dried up among the potatoes. He tells stories of fish rage, where the fish bite back, even quite small ones, and describes the lifecycle of the leech. This book is sheer animal pleasure from beginning to end.
Oliver Rackham is the subject of this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up. He wrote a lovely and really rather long History of the Countryside, which came out in 1986. I gobbled it down with great enthusiasm when I first read it, because then I was working in archaeology, and was very much into exploring the lumps and bumps in the British landscape. Rackham’s book is a detailed explanation of what the lumps and bumps are under our feet as we walk through the British Isles, how plants and animals have improved and altered them for their purposes, and why. Rackham is a historical ecologist, studying how the natural world worked and works: not just plants and animals, but also geology, weather and time. Rackham’s sense of time is a little more elastic than ours. At one moment in this book he will be considering geological time, in the formation of pingos and other landscape hollows over hundreds or thousands of years. In the next moment, he will be angrily showing us how the short-sighted practices of only a few years have permanently destroyed a landscape, or the chances of a tree or butterfly to regenerate. Rackham is absolutely not afraid to disagree with current conservation practice: one of the reviews of a recent book of his on trees calls him a slightly grumpy high druid. The History of the Countryside ends with a scathing concluding section called ‘conservation’, which really ought to have been printed in the colour of irony, since Rackham considers that ‘conservation’ is doing it all wrong. When he does give praise, it’s generous, but he didn’t find much to give in 1986, or 1994, when he reissued the book in an illustrated format, with updated arguments. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and doesn’t spare any of the land authorities who got it wrong.
The History of the Countryside starts small, and goes wide-scale and large-scale, moving from animals and plants, through woods, fields and trees, to grasslands, moors, ponds and the sea. But before all that, we have a master-class on how to spot things to look for in the landscape. This is where we learn to become amateur historians, looking at place-names, the written records, and parish boundaries. If you live in a place with a Norse name, the chances are that it was founded by Viking migrants in the middle centuries of the first millennium. If the field at the back of your house is called Beech Field, it’s likely that it was the only beech tree around for miles, and was a landmark, rather than a landscape full of beeches. If the local wood is called Beare Wood, it’s probably over a thousand years old, because of its Anglo-Saxon name. Rackham is very strong on looking at the real landscape, getting away from the computer screen to stand in the mud of the real thing. If you’re looking at your parish boundary on a map or on the ground, and can see a lot of very odd zig-zag angles, this would be a sign that the parish was established on ground that had already been divided up into strips of fields, which means the settlement was old, and that parish administration was a piece of modern interference.
Plants are important for telling you about the ages of things. Every plant can be used as a way to measure the passage of time. If you find oxlip in a wood, that wood is over a hundred years old. Lichen are excellent indicators of how polluted the air has become. Animals that we think are native, like rabbits and squirrels, might be naturalised, or introduced, and the reason for their introduction is worth investigating.
I think it’s on trees that Rackham is most eloquent: trees and hedges and what you can do with trees to harvest them, over the centuries. There are no trees mentioned in Domesday Book, which does not, of course, mean that Norman England had no trees, but that they were so common, and so normal, that they weren’t worth recording. Trees can be odd. Did you know, for instance, than an elm tree is very likely to be a clone of all its elmish neighbours? (If you are lucky enough to know of an elm that escaped the Elm Disease that devastated British elms in the 1970s.) If you’re standing in a patch of woodland that has a lot of elms in it, you’re actually looking at one single organism. It’s a rather unnerving thought, when you think about the suckers and root systems all connecting to each other, under your feet, but think also about what this structure does for their susceptibility to disease.
A fallen tree is not necessarily a dead tree, and horizontal trees live comfortably and usefully for centuries in a prone position. Even a dead tree is still useful and beautiful: it’s a home for insects and very small mammals; it’s an excellent playground for less small mammals; it lets other plants grow up around it by removing the leaf canopy above, and it looks terrifically dramatic in photographs.Techniques for managing trees and using them sensibly include coppicing and pollarding. Coppicing is when you cut the tree off at the ground, leaving the root to sprout again and produce a ring of younger trees from the same rootstock. Not all trees like this treatment. Pollarding is the same principle applied higher up the trunk, to keep the young trees out of the reach of browsing deer.
With his section on boundaries and hedges, Rackham moves away from how people have farmed the natural resources, to how they reorganise the land. Medieval field systems are extraordinarily complicated, but they make so much sense if you think of them as a perpetual cycle of land use, in different stages and places. Hedges are terribly complex, and also very simple: each species of plant living in a one hundred-metre stretch of hedge represents a century of the hedge’s age.
Roads run alongside hedges, and walls, and can be older than human habitation: deer and rabbits made the tracks that we still follow today. Prehistoric roads often have two versions, one for summer, on the lower ground, and one for winter, on a ridge, to get away from the mud in the valley bottom. Roman roads can be distinguished between those built in a hurry, on the march to relieve or attack another area, because these paid no attention to natural obstacles or existing landownership, and just pushed steadily through on a straight line for hundreds of miles. The other kind of Roman road, built with a little more leisure, changes direction slightly at each high point on the route, when the surveyor decided on the new day’s direction.
Old roads needed old bridges: did you know that the Anglo-Saxons built a ten-span wooden bridge over the Medway, the wide tidal river south of London and the Thames? We know almost nothing about Anglo-Saxon wooden structures because wood rots, and so nothing is left, unlike the stone bridges built a few hundred years later by the Normans, many still in use today. Roads to bring animals over the hills to market were long and curved. Roads that run between settlements in wooded farming country get deeper and deeper until they’re practically underground, hidden under an overhang of massive tree roots. Roads over empty rain-soaked moorland that were abandoned centuries ago might still have their original Roman flagstones, a centimetre or so beneath the mud.
Moorland is another Rackham passion. It is so apparently empty that it’s commonly assumed to be worth nothing, to contain nothing, and to be a good place to put things, like roads and houses and trees. If that happens, there’ll be no more moorland, no more habitat, no more hidden archaeology, and no more untouched wild space. Britain is such a small European country, compared to the vastness of France or Germany, and is an insignificant speck compared to Russia’s acreage. The surviving areas of open land in Britain are perpetually threatened by being eaten up with bracken or pine plantations, or dug up for fuel or garden compost, as well as being built on by roads and new housing. Rackham gets very angry indeed about the destruction of moorland by tree-planting because it was, in the 1908s, so clumsily done, and ill thought-through.
My favourite section of the book is about the holes in the ground: the ponds and dells and pingos and marl pits, mainly because they’re so mysterious. Geology forms them, people use them, animals fall into them, and plants silt them up; all that information can to be untangled, and still nobody really knows why they’re there, and how. I love the idea of meres that fill up with water during a drought, and empty in times of great rain: what mechanism causes that? I‘ve been down into the prehistoric flint mines at Grimes Graves in Norfolk, and they are truly as weird and beautiful as they look in the photos. Fish ponds and moats are familiar, but did you ever hear of a duck decoy before? It’s a pond with arms to chase ducks into, and then catch them at the closed end, for market or for the pot.
The History of the Countryside ends with the fenlands and the sea, which is nibbling away at the British coastline with increasing vigour. Cliff-top buildings are falling into the sea all along the east coast, and villages are sliding, very slowly, underneath the waves. Before the whole island gets washed into the North Sea, we need to go and look at it, and Rackham thoughtfully gives us 8 guided walks, with maps, photos and explanations, so we can see the things he’s telling us about. We have a Cambridgeshire walk (obviously his own stamping ground), a Highland walk in Aberdeenshire, a walk through Queen Elizabeth’s favourite forest in Essex, a walk through Swaledale in North Yorkshire, a look at the Lizard Peninsula in far south-west Cornwall, a robust walk in south Wales, a nice decorous Home Counties walk past Guildford, and a bracing seaside walk in North Norfolk. I think there’s something for everyone there.
If you enjoy a more scientific text, read Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside (1986). If you need the photos and maps to understand what he means by a braided river or a pollarded lime, look for Oliver Rackham, The Illustrated History of the Countryside (1994).