Category Archives: British authors

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

The Salt Path

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor Winn has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.


The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

Has Kate Atkinson lost the plot?

When a novel is described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special. 

transcriptionImagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling. 

As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.

Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war.  She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.

Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.

For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities.  Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:

And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?

In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.

It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce.  The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery,  while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.

The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.

Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled.  Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious.  It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.

This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be.  I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new  Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.

 

 

#Classics club spin lands on Evelina

The latest Classics Club spin has landed on number 19.

EvelinaThat number on my spin list is allocated to one of the oldest books on my original Classics Club list: Evelina by Frances Burney. Strictly speaking the book is called Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. 

It was first published as a three volume novel in 1778 but Burney’s authorship became known.

Told in epistolary style, it traces the experiences of an unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat who lives a secluded life in the countryside until she is seventeen.  She gets her guardian’s consent to visit London for a holiday, an adventure which opens her eyes to the perils and pitfalls of  18th-century society. The novel  is a satire on Georgian society.

I included it on my Classics Club because it’s been described as a significant precursor to the work of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth and deals with some of the same issues.  It’s the first – and the best known – of Burney’s published novels.

I’ve found an interesting article by Chloe Wigston Smith on the British Library website which casts light on Burney herself and the origin of the novel. Interesting to discover that she was very anxious to keep her identity a secret because she was worried about the public reaction. She didn’t even tell her father until six months after the novel was issued and she’d received positive reviews.

I was rather hoping to have landed a more recent novel from my spin list since my last venture into eighteenth century literature (via The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith) wasn’t a great success. I hope this one proves more enjoyable.

What’s so funny about loneliness? [review]

The Next Big Thing  by Anita Brookner

 

The Next Big Thing

 

The Next Big Thing is another Anita Brookner novel which provides a penetrating portrait of loneliness.

This time her subject is a 73-year-old man who has led a quiet and unremarkable life.

Julius Fitz fled Berlin with his parents and his brother, settling in London with the aid of a benefactor who provided a home and employment in his music shop. Now the shop has been sold, forcing Julius to retire and contemplate how to make use of this unexpected freedom.

Has this all come too late?

“He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it,” he reflects. And in fact he has nothing in place that will help him.

Though he’s comfortably well off he is alone. He was married once but his wife’s liveliness crumbled under the strain of cramped living conditions and the increasing neediness of Julius’ parents.

He has no friends, no-one to really talk to beyond mundane interactions in shops and on park benches. His only contacts are his solicitor and his ex-wife Josie, both of whom he meets occasionally for lunch and dinner.

Search for purpose

The plot revolves around Julius’ attempts to find some purpose in his life.

He considers various options: he could remarry, he could leave London and move to Paris. He imagines himself as a regular guest on a chat show during which he impresses the audience with his remarkable insights on art.

The plans all fizzle into nothing because Julius is a ditherer. He tries to fill his days but walks, excursions to buy the newspaper and a visit to the local park, don’t amount to much. His present existence he reflects is one “in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen.” 

He does take a brief holiday to Paris, hoping to revisit the places he once enjoyed as a young man. But of course the city has changed, as has Julius, so the trip is not a success. Feeling his age, and a strong sense of disappointment, he returns home earlier than planned.

Not until he receives an appeal for financial help from his cousin Fanny with whom he was once infatuated, does he find anything close to real purpose. He sees himself rushing to her aid.

Uncertainty and doubt

But then Julius, being Julius, having given up his flat and made his travel plans, begins to have doubts. Throughout his life he has adjusted his needs to suit the requirements of others , surrendering in the process “that part of himself that others could not and would not supply, and in so doing had forgone his right to respect.”

A reunion with Fanny he thinks, may be yet another case where he his good nature is in danger of being taken for granted. Her letters are full of self-pity and self-centred, he can’t expect much in the way of empathy. And yet wouldn’t a relationship with Fanny  –– even if only as a companion for whom he has to foot the bill – be preferable to his current existence?

The Next Big Thing is a wholly introspective novel, delivered at a rather slow pace.

Whole chapters elapse between when Julius has an idea and when he puts it into action. It takes him ages to visit a doctor to discuss the ‘funny turn’ he had when at dinner with his solicitor. Even longer to get around to taking the medication he was prescribed.

It was difficult to feel a lot of empathy for him because he is so ponderous. Instead of being sympathetic towards his predicament I just ended up frustrated by his prevarications and passivity. Brookner’s narrative style is so matter of fact, it added even more distance.

The covers of some editions apparently proclaimed this novel to be Anita Brookner’s “funniest yet.”

I suppose they were thinking of a few scenes which show Julius completely misreading a situation. During the appointment with his doctor, for example, he begins pontificating on the similarity of his symptoms and the overwhelming feeling of strangeness  experienced by Freud during a visit to the Acropolis.  The doctor is more of a practical man, rather more keen in addressing problems of high blood pressure than having a philosophical discussion.

On another occasion Julius ogles a young woman  who has moved into an adjacent flat, reaching out and stroking her arm, completely oblivious to the inappropriate nature of his action. In another context maybe – just maybe – one of these could be considered mildly amusing but the second just made me cringe.

The Next Big Thing is unfortunately not one of the best novels Anita Brookner has produced even though the Booker judges thought so highly of it that they included it on the 2002 longlist.

 

Reading Horizons: Episode 16

Reading Horizons: 20 March 2019

What are you currently reading?

The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola

I’m long overdue a return to the world of the Rougon-Macquart families as depicted in Émile Zola’s 20-volume  series. April 1 sees the start of  an annual event of reading all works related to Émile Zola – which has given me the impetus to pick up The Kill. This is the second novel in the series and deals with the lives of the extremely wealthy Nouveau Riche in Paris in the mid nineteenth century, laying bare their lust for power and money.  Zola describes this period as

… a time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds,, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and money.

It’s got off to a terrific start with some lengthy descriptive passages showing the excesses of the Second Empire (middle of the nineteenth century).

What did you recently finish reading? 

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

I’ve seen a number of comments in the blogosphere that Setterfield’s book is rather slow and overly long. That wasn’t my reaction at all. Even though it contained some mythical elements, which usually are a turn off, I thought this was a terrific story.  Review to follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

Dignity

I have an advance copy of the latest novel by Alys Conran that I’d like to read soon (it’s published on April 4). I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her new novel Dignity is a story of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse.

Also vying for attention are two works of non fiction, both of which were Christmas presents: Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming  and The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a memoir of a couple who lose their farm and home when the husband gets a diagnosis of a terminal illness. With nothing left, they make an impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Reading Horizons: Episode 15

Reading Horizons, 27 February 2019

What are you currently reading? 

This is the 2018 Booker Prize winner and for once the judges’ decision was considered to be the right one. It’s a strange novel. None of the characters are named (they just get referred to as ‘third brother’ or ‘almost boyfriend’) and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country. It’s not too difficult to work out however that it’s set in Anna Burns’ native Belfast during the 1970s, a time of sectarian conflict (known as The Troubles). Thought it’s a relatively slim novel, my progress is slow because it requires a lot of concentration to follow the stream of consciousness style.

What did you recently finish reading? 

I enjoyed an earlier novel by Adiga (the Booker prize winning White Tiger) but The Last Man in the Tower didn’t work as well. The plot involves an attempt by Dharmen Shah, the head of a construction company to build two prestigious apartment blocks which will transform the fortunes of a slum area of Mumbai. He offers vastly generous compensation offers to people who occupy some run down towers that stand in the way.  Shah is confident he can win the tenants over. But he hasn’t reckoned with “Masterji”, a former schoolteacher who doesn’t want to move, and doesn’t want Shah’s money. The battle lines are drawn.

What do you think you’ll read next?

16 trees of the sommeGiven the luggage weight allowance I decided to pack just three books for my trip. The only one left to read is Thirteen Trees of The Somme by Lars Mytting. It’s part mystery part family saga set in the Shetland Islands.

My plan was to replenish the stock by visiting some of the book shops in New Zealand and Australia, particularly hoping to get some local authors that are not easy to come by in the UK.

So far I’ve found just one book shop and the prices are far higher than I expected – about double what I’d expect to pay in the UK. So unless I find some second hand shops  I’ll be relying on the stack of e-books I’ve brought with me as back ups.


Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

%d bloggers like this: