When Robert Macfarlane got the New York Review of Books to re-issue J.A.Baker’s ‘forgotten’ classic, The Peregrine in 2005, readers wanted to know who the mysterious author was – purportedly a small-town librarian in Essex – and in what hallucinatory state of mind he had been in when he wrote about his obsession with this once endangered falcon. The unequalled lyricism of The Peregrine sent enthusiasts to second-hand bookshops looking for Baker’s only other work, The Hill of Summer (1969), long out of print, and equally mesmerising. Now there is this marvellous edition of all Baker’s publishable writings in one volume – The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer & Dairies (Collins, 2010) – with a fine introduction by Mark Cocker, fulfilling a completionist’s dream. Essex will never be the same again after reading this collection, written by a quiet man who combined the imagination of Blake with the incantatory language of Ted Hughes.
I’ve just started Alone In Berlin, by Hans Fallada. Originally in German and written immediately after the war, this translation has been around for a couple of years and made quite a splash, but a splash unnoticed by me until recently. The book is set in wartime Berlin, and as far as I’ve got is primarily following the intertwining lives of several inhabitants of an apartment block – the Jewish keeping their heads down, low lives out to make a dodgy buck in the chaos, the devout Hitler Youth family on the first floor, and most thrillingly a working couple disillusioned to the point of underground resistance following the death of their son at the front.
I’m enjoying everything about this book – the insight into what city life would have been like under the Nazis, the plot lines that feel as though they’re going to explode at any moment, the tangible empowerment that resistance brings. Even the usually unappetising exclamation marks that liberally pepper the dialogue add to the atmosphere. Really good stuff.
Had just finished Simon Wells‘ brilliant Charles Manson biography, Coming Down Fast when Ken Kesey came to mind, so have been re-reading Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test which I am finding a bit over written and of its time. Very soon will leap onto Jeremy Reed’s biog of the great John Stephen entitled The King Of Carnaby St. whilst early morning, James Allen’s ‘As A Man Thinketh’ is the perfect set me up for the day.
‘It was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first’ – so begins captivatingly chapter one of Precious Bane, one of the finest creations of English literature. I make no apologies this summer for eschewing brand new works fiction/non-fiction and instead re-reading for the umpteenth time Shropshire lass Mary Webb’s ravishingly exquisite novels, beginning with this, her most celebrated work. Precious Bane was adapted into a TV drama back in the 1980’s which is when I first discovered the woman who was to have such a profound affect on my feelings and relationship with the English countryside. Like all of Mary Webb’s novels, it is fair to say that every sentence in Precious Bane oozes with a lyrical intensity matched by no other writer past or present. It tells the story of Prudence Sarn, a country girl with an angelic soul who is none-the-less disfigured by a ‘hare-shotten’ lip, pursued by the enigmatic Kester Woodseaves. The story is set within a framework of wonderful unforgettable characters who inhabit a lost world ,as mysterious as it is magical – the natural beauty both earthy and unearthy that was the remote countryside of the north Shropshire meres and the Severn lowlands in the nineteen twenties. Yet Mary Webb’s glorious lyrical gifts were not just confined to describing the natural world and country ways and customs into which she had been born and bred. She lived in a real world of poverty and hardship among country people, haunted as they often were by fears and superstitions that blighted their otherwise colourful lives. Precious Bane is the masterpiece of Mary Webb’s brilliant legacy and as such will be the perfect accompaniment to my summer reading days.