Tag Archives: Kathleen Jamie

Six Degrees of Separation – from Picnic at Hanging Rock to A Vindication of the Rights of Women #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month’s starting point is Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock chosen by Brona. I’m pretty sure I’ve read the book but what really sticks in my mind is Peter Weir’s mesmeric film adaptation which I must have seen at least four times. Those inappropriately clad young ladies, all white muslin dresses and black boots, climbing Hanging Rock in blistering heat then disappearing without trace made a striking image on the big screen. It’s rare for me to think that a film adaptation either matches or eclipses the book but very occasionally it does happen which leads me to my second book.

I’m not a huge fan of Virginia Woolf but I have read and enjoyed Orlando, although not as many times as I’ve seen Sally Potter’s sumptuous film adaptation which *whisper it* I prefer. In the book the eponymous protagonist begins as a young nobleman in Elizabethan England and ends as a young woman in 1928, the year women were enfranchised; the movie takes her up to the 1990s. Archly comic, the film is full of gorgeous tableaux with Tilda Swinton as a fabulous Orlando, charmingly gauche and suitably androgynous, seamlessly changing gender after a century or so.

One of Woolf’s best known novels follows a day in the life of an upper-class woman in post-First World War England which leads me to John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips who puts on his suit, packs his briefcase and leaves his South London house one warm July Monday morning. He’s worked as an accountant for over thirty years and has been made redundant but can’t quite bring himself to tell Mrs Phillips. So begins a day on which Mr Phillips will chat with a pornographer, visit the Tate Gallery and become caught up in one of the biggest dramas of his life. Strewn with coincidences, this take on Mrs Dalloway gets under the skin of middle-aged suburbia in a funny yet poignant portrayal of a man a little lost in the world.

John Lanchester wrote a post-financial crash novel called Capital, dramatized for TV last year, as did Alex Preston. This Bleeding City is about a hedge fund trader, freshly graduated, who becomes distracted by a beautiful woman and a non-stop, drug-fuelled culture of excess. I have to confess that although I’ve read this I had to sneak a quick look at Goodreads to remind myself of it. What did stay with me was the knowledge that Preston’s previous career was as a City trader. Presumably he’s a changed man as  he’s recently collaborated with Neil Gower on what looks like a gorgeously illustrated book about nature, due to be published soon, called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Which takes me to Kathleen Jamie one of my favourite nature writers. In Findings she tracks the elusive corncrake on the island of Coll, contemplates salmon jumping on a Highland river and experiences the joy of a rare and strange sighting of a crane flying in the Scottish sky. Her writing is both beautiful and down to earth. Hard to resist a writer who starts her chapter: ‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with my penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started’. It was already dead, by the way.

Jamie is an acclaimed poet as was the late Helen Dunmore one of my favourite authors and much mourned. Her last novel, Birdcage Walk, is the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. Much of the action in Birdcage Walk takes place in 1792, the French Revolution a worrying spectre across the channel, which takes me to my next book.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Dunmore set her novel in the year that Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal work A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published. The book is a powerful critique both of women’s education and the assumptions surrounding marriage and family life, and was very much a product of Wollstonecraft’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution, tempered by her disappointment at the failure to take up the cause of women’s rights. It’s at once optimistic, passionate and angry.

So ends my second Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from the mysterious disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls to a passionate argument for women’s rights. I think I’m hooked on this now. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or perhaps even join in.

Findings and the new nature writing

Cover imageThis post was prompted by my finishing Kathleen Jamie’s Findings which seems to me to be a perfect example of what I’ve been calling in my head the ‘new nature writing’. Jamie is an acclaimed poet and it shows in her wonderfully pared back descriptions of tracking the elusive corncrake on the island of Coll, contemplating salmon jumping on a Highland river and the joy of a rare and strange sighting of a crane flying in the Scottish sky. Her writing is both beautiful and down to earth. Hard to resist a writer who starts her chapter: ‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with my penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started’. It was already dead, by the way.

I’m not entirely sure that there is a new nature writing but in my years as a book reviews editor I noticed more of it being published by the likes of Granta, Sort of Books, Faber and Penguin and found myself drawn to it, starting with Roger Deakin’s beautifully evocative Wildwood which led me to Notes from Walnut Tree Farm and Waterlog. Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country took me all over the UK in search of wild otters while naturalist Stephen Moss’s Wild Hares and Humming Birds brought me back home to Somerset. Moss moved his family from London to the village of Mark in the Levels and his book is made up of a year’s observations of the surrounding natural world. One of its most heartening aspects is the joy and enthusiasm with which his children embrace nature. There’s much more to explore here, I know – I’ve already added Jamie’s Sightlines to my list  – but one writer I have read and will not be revisiting is Robert Macfarlane, a bit too self-consciously literary for me. While Kathleen Jamie is a fine example of a poet writing about nature letting its qualities shine out, uncluttered by ornamentation, Macfarlane can never seem to resist over-egging the pudding. If you’ve come across any Jamie-like gems I’d love to hear about them.