Book reviews: March 2010
HALCYON RIVER DIARIES, Philippa Forrester and Charlie Hamilton James
Preface Publishing Hardback £20
Husband and wife Philippa and Charlie live by the riverside in the West Country with their three young boys. Philippa works in television (this book ties in to a BBC1 series) and Charlie is an absolutely brilliant lifelong wildlife photographer. Share with them here the delights of getting back to nature as an antidote to the perceived ‘beauty’ for sale in the shops we’re surrounded by. This story of the inhabitants of river and river bank – otters, dippers, voles and many more – is a revelation. Just looking at the amazing photograph of a 'streak' of kingfisher blue spurs one to discover more about this amazing and much-loved bird's life cycle. Few children could be as privileged as Philippa’s and Charlie's – do any of the children you know have live otter footage beamed directly on to to their bedroom telly? – but we can certainly be inspired by this family’s experience and pick up some tips of our own for a more satisfying life, not least by trying out the tempting recipes included for honey cookies and wild garlic pesto.
LONDON CALLING, A Countercultural History of London Since 1945, Barry Miles
Atlantic Books, Hardback £25
A large part of why London is such an attractive place to be is the culture of permissive artistic licence that gives the streets we walk and the way we choose to live that extra oomph. Concentrating on the rise of 'alternative' culture from the end of the Second World War, Barry Miles’s book brings to life the smoky, drugged and drunken dens of iniquity in Notting Hill and Soho and shows us how the talents of Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Mary Quant led to the development of more recent 'bad boy' aritsts – The Sex Pistols, Damien Hirst – and everyone in between. As the man who ran the Indica Gallery, where John Lennon met Yoko Ono, Miles has ‘lived through’ the entire phenomenon and gives the lowdown behind the iconic events that have shaped our city's culture. Reading about what actually happened when Mick Jagger holed up in Notting Hill to play the dissolute lead in Nicolas Roeg's Performance makes the stuff of Big Brother look very tame, and will make you wonder all over again whether the Mars Bar story is an urban myth after all...
THE EQUALITY ILLUSION, Kat Banyard
Faber and Faber, Paperback £12.99
What’s happened to Feminism? Rabid exhortations to burn your bra and wear dungarees seem like a long-forgotten historical blip by now, watered down into strident Cherie Blair-style ‘careers for women’ agendas, which leave women afraid to describe themselves as ‘only’ wives and mothers. But the issue of equality between the sexes and fair pay for the same amount of work is an argument that's not so much gone away as simply been forgotten. Kat Banyard is the new voice that women need, the founder of UK Feminista and the organizer of a national series of conferences to raise anew the issues that still need to be addressed. If you think that it's a subject best forgotten, then chew on the fact that women working full time are paid 17% less than men for the same work, and that one in three women worldwide has been beaten or forced into sex. And thinking ahead to the General Election, how many female MPs will there be this time? It's currently only 20% of the total number in Parliament – hardly surprising their voices aren't heard so loudly.
BALTHAZAR JONES AND THE TOWER OF LONDON ZOO, Julia Stuart
Harper Press, Paperback, £7.99
Did you know that there used to be a zoo at the Tower of London? Unlikely, but true, and Balthazar Jones is just the sort of person who could have run it if it still existed today. Being the Beefeater in charge of the Royal Menagerie in this novel means that Balthazar and Mrs Jones must live in the Tower, with all its charms and shortcomings, while Mrs Jones also has her own job being in charge of all lost property on the London Underground – an undertaking in itself. Especially enchanting amongst the formidable cast of supporting characters is Ruby Dore of the Tower’s 'in-house' pub, The Rack and Ruin!, but there is also an underlying theme of loss: their child, Milo, has died, giving the Jones's tale another dimension. Combining the mystical aura of this centuries-old building with a few modern truths makes for a highly original novel that throws some light on the charms of living in the realms of fantasy, thus escaping the ennui of modern life with its rules and regulations, and, much worse, atmosphere of sheer apathy.
STONES INTO SCHOOLS, Greg Mortenson
Viking, Paperback £8.99
Greg Mortenson is that rare thing: somebody who actually gets on with things and changes lives. Working in some of the harshest conditions in the world, this American is bringing education to Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of his guiding principles is to take some of the most difficult – some would say impossible – scenarios and make them work. Following this maxim, he has managed to open a school on the 'rooftop of the world’, K2, and has negotiated with the Mujahadeen to build his ‘Great Wall of literacy’ from one end of Afghanistan to the other. Nor does he dodge prickly issues, being prepared to publicly denounce international interventionist methods whilst simultaneously refusing to appease the local Afghan conservatives who want to deny women an education. As he says: ‘When you educate a boy, you educate an individual, when you educate a girl, you educate a whole community.’ Joggling over impossible terrain for weeks on end in a rusty Landrover and existing on a diet of little more than industrial quantities of painkillers, this sensible, middle-aged family man is a truly inspiring action hero for our times.
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