They Ploughed the Fields & Scattered

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Don’t impress me with peasant virtues, said Chekhov, I have peasant blood in my veins. Patrick Joyce has the blood too. His people won a living from the hard lands of Dúiche Seoighe, or Joyce Country, which stretch from Loughs Corrib and Mask to the Atlantic Ocean and straddle the border of County Mayo and County Galway. Although his father

Park Life

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Over the course of the Covid-19 lockdowns in London, the anthropologist Emma Tarlo befriended two men living outdoors in Regent’s Park. That’s the simplest way of describing the lifestyle of Nick and Pascal, who slept on the ground without a tent, did not beg or busk, and rejected all offers of hostel accommodation. ‘I’m not […]

In Search of Lost Climes

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Fiona Stafford is the author of two previous nature books, the acclaimed The Long, Long Life of Trees and its sequel, The Brief Life of Flowers. Each of the books’ chapters takes a particular subject and briskly examines it through a series of lenses: nature, history, literature, folklore, art. An oak, say, or a rose […]

From Chechnya with Love

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

One of the lures of travel writing is the possibility of vicariously experiencing places without cost or risk; the downside is that the narrator is a travelling companion you cannot fully escape. Some writers, such as Colin Thubron, try to efface themselves, while others, of the Bill Bryson variety, make themselves the centre of the […]

Troubles No More

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I love Belfast. I can’t articulate exactly what it is I like about the place, though most of it is down to familiarity. It’s where people can pronounce my name and laugh at my jokes. Yet the Belfast I live in now is different from the Belfast I grew up in. My experience of the […]

Where Gainsbourg Meets Garibaldi

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Living for a year in Paris grudgingly led me to appreciate the virtues of the dirty and confusing Metro. It runs frequently and tickets are cheap, but it also has character and soul, embodied in the strapontin flip-up seats, the pathetic accordionist buskers, the notices indicating places réservés aux mutilés de guerre and the five […]

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In Symphony with Modernity

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Leonard Bernstein was no stranger to broadsides. Although he conducted plenty of English music, he couldn’t resist filing it under ‘too much organ voluntary in Lincoln Cathedral, too much coronation in Westminster Abbey, too much lark ascending, too much clodhopping on the fucking village green’. Referring to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s most cherished work, Bernstein was […]

O Clouds Unfold!

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In a landmark essay on the Englishness of Elgar, published in 1986, Jeremy Crump asked that before we transport ourselves from our high-tech suburban sound systems into the Malvern Hills ‘in the golden glow of a late imperial afternoon’, we might spend a moment reflecting on ‘how it is that a complex series of sound patterns has so specific and literary a

From Mont Blanc to Magaluf

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Tourism’ is a slippery word. For at least 250 years it has been applied without stigma to travelling away from home territory for pleasure, interest and cultural exploration rather than work or duty. The grand tour, centred on Italy, that the wealthy British began to undertake in the 17th century provided a pattern that is still in essence followed by many today – think specialised cruises. Yet surprisingly early, another image began to intrude on this high-minded scene. In the summer of 1815, when Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was making continental Europe once again accessible to the British, Lady Caroline Lamb reported that ‘the great amusement … is to make

Land of Rune Yodelling

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Natural historian, physician, antiquary and professor of Greek, Ole Worm was a 17th-century intellectual magpie. This engaging Danish polymath had a very particular fixation. He assembled every rock fragment, every specimen, every antiquity he could get his hands on from the ‘north’. The resulting collection, the highlights of which included a ‘unicorn’ horn (which Worm […]

Where Estate Agents Fear to Tread

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In the current climate of anxiety about the future and its possible effects on our familiar habitats, what could be more appropriate than this energetic study of lost places in Britain that were once thriving communities? Many have heard of Dunwich on the east coast, the most famous of several one-time populous towns, the churches, religious houses and burghers’ dwellings of which have been slowly swallowed by the sea. But how many readers will know that on the Welsh borders there was once a similarly bustling settlement, a

On the Origin of a Scientist

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Today, such is the veneration for all things Darwin, it might seem surprising that at its first offering in 1866 Charles Darwin’s childhood home, The Mount in Shrewsbury, didn’t sell and had to be auctioned the following year. By 1866 On the Origin of Species (1859) was in its fourth edition and further books on […]

Journey to the End of the World

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

That the best anecdotes come from friends of friends is a truism. In Nick Hunt’s case, the task of tale-telling falls to his hiking pal Dougie, who, while they are huddled together in a bothy high in the Cairngorms, recalls an acquaintance who slipped when climbing. Untethered, the poor man hurtled down the mountain, only […]

Et in Orcadia Ego

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘Art, considered as the expression of any people as a whole, is the response they make in various mediums to the impact that the totality of their experience makes upon them, and there is no sort of experience that works so constantly and subtly upon man as his regional environment,’ wrote Mary Austin in The English Journal in 1932.  ‘It orders and determines all the direct, practical ways of his getting up and lying down, of staying in and going out, of housing and

Hunger, Thirst & Anti-Rash Underwear

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘I was born to bust the balls of half humanity,’ wrote Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1837. For the Italian patriot, surveying the peninsula’s patchwork of duchies and kingdoms in the 1840s, many dominated by foreign powers, there were plenty of balls to bust: ‘Papal balls, French balls, Bourbon balls, above all Austrian balls’, the translator, novelist and […]

These Dark Satanic Hills

Posted on by Tom Fleming

A curious patchwork of autobiography, cultural history and nature writing, novelist Edward Parnell’s first non-fictional work, Ghostland, explores the haunted places of the British Isles as he processes the deaths of those closest to him. Parnell begins, fittingly, with the landscapes of East Anglia, the setting for many of the ghost stories penned by the […]

What Lesmahagow Did for Us

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Many of us, as we approach our seventies, finally get round to a bit of ancestor hunting. Some turn their family stories into books. Andrew Scott has gone one further and used his ancestral village in Lanarkshire as the basis for an ambitious study. Its unpronounceable name is Lesmahagow, and it happens to be the […]

In the Yew Tree’s Shade

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘I can remember my life by the graveyards I have known,’ writes the poet Jean Sprackland in the preface to this, her second work of nonfiction (following the deservedly successful Strands). Graveyards for her have always been ‘the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world’. She finds their mute appeal irresistible: ‘At the […]

Hanging with the Hunky Punks

Posted on by Tom Fleming

A stiff-leaf capital is a distinctive English style of carving from the early 13th century, a decorative flourish of foliage to top off a column. But although it originated in a specific time and place, its curling fronds reveal a whole history of cultural exchange and influence. Classical acanthus leaves come to symbolise both the Christian promise of

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