February 10, 2016
Hardback, Harvard University Press, £22.95, out now
This very readable history of London fog was a surprise hit this winter. Beautifully illustrated, with colour pictures well integrated into the text, Corton provides not only a good summary of why fogs happened and why they stopped but also gives an erudite account of how they affected people’s lives (and deaths).
Cultural responses to the phenomenon are explored in detail. It’s no surprise to find Whistler, Turner and Dickens here, but I was delighted to be introduced to Rose Maynard Barton and Yoshio Markino.
The book is stuffed with good London anecdotes and unusual images, which make it an excellent London gift. One of my favourites is the photo of a goalie struggling to see the pitch – let alone the ball – at a Spurs match in 1945, when opponents Moscow Dynamo were accused of fielding 12 men while the visibility was poor. They had also chosen the referee, apparently, and he refused to stop the match…
If you are already thinking about climate change, and how human behaviour can influence weather for the good or bad, this is a useful and not too heavy addition to your reading list. It is one of the several excellent new books on weather and nature this year (for more examples, come and see our display table on the top floor – we particularly like Thunder and Lightning too).
Review by Bethan
May 24, 2015
Imagine Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, turned into a novel. British nature features in At Hawthorn Time as a character, as London does for Dickens. Disappearing and forgotten paths weave through the book, and those who remember or sense them often seem to be out of time. Opening with the aftermath of a terrible car crash on a country lane, At Hawthorn Time braids several narratives that give us space to think about the countryside and the natural world. How do we see our countryside now? What is it, and what might it be?
Jack wishes “just to be able to go where I like… Just to live how I see fit. I don’t do any harm, God knows…”. Repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy and other things, we join him walking out of London, away from his hostel, and towards the village of Lodeshill where he hopes to find farm work. Howard and Kitty, retirees from London following Kitty’s dream of countryside life, are recent incomers to Lodeshill. The difference in their views of the countryside is just one of their problems. Their young neighbour Jamie has his own difficulties, with an ailing grandfather, and his unsatisfactory job as a picker and packer at a giant warehouse.
Each chapter starts with brief nature notes from Jack’s journal. We may admire or envy his total attunement to nature, as the current popularity of nature writing and television shows suggests. But this does not translate into society tolerating his unconventional way of living. Increasing legislation and surveillance restrict his choices, and his situation makes us wonder what we might be prepared to do to regain the freedoms we have lost. At a time when street homelessness seems to be everywhere – I have people living in my local park – it is worth thinking about who is allowed to be where, and when, and who enforces this. A timely and compelling read.
Review by Bethan
August 10, 2013
“Winter is coming,” as the Starks say in A Game of Thrones. It may not be uppermost in our minds during this balmy August, but New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s wonderful, wide-ranging meditation on winter will prepare you for the diminishing December days by stirring an appreciation of our 19th century taming of the season, which went from “being seen as bleak and bitter to sweet and sublime”. Raised in Canada, the essayist knows what a real winter means; his subject is also an excuse to introduce us to ice hockey – a “dross of brutal messiness” in John Updike’s phrase – and its emergence in Montreal.
Gopnik glides through a variety of aspects of the season with all the grace of Goethe on his ice skates (an engraving shows the German poet looking smug on the ice in the 1850s, when the pastime became “essentially social and overtly sexual” according to Gopnik). And while Germans such as the artist Friedrich are credited with transforming winter in our imagination through a “Romantic resistance to the Enlightenment idea of reason”, it’s heartening to see that the British played a part in everything from early ice skating (Pepys writes of this “very pretty art” in 1662) and fashionable Alpine holidays to stiff-upper-lip polar expeditions and, in the 1830s, even central heating. “North Americans who have spent a winter in England and who, clutching teacups and shivering in shaggy sweaters, wonder if they will ever be warm again, may find it hard to believe that this was the first warm modern place,” writes Gopnik.
He’s also good on the “ambiguous festival” that is the Dickensian Christmas and the clamour for the festive season to be less commercial, which is nothing new: US newspapers have been calling for Christmas to be “dematerialized” since the 1880s.
November 5, 2012
If you devoured the works of Dickens with an eye on the seasons, you wouldn’t necessarily single out a festive theme. The Old Curiosity Shop opens with the narrator describing early morning summer roaming through fields and lanes; the journey that begins The Pickwick Papers starts quite specifically at sunrise on 13 May; Dickens’s Night Walks describe his insomnia-induced roaming of London in damp March.
Yet it is Christmas that has partly defined Dickens, not least because many believe he invented our modern idea of the festive season, whether depicting the gleaming shop windows, piles of food and notions of charity and goodwill, or inflicting a ghostly tale on readers on a wintry night.
This handsome Vintage Classics edition (price £15.00) is a perfect festive treat, including ‘The Christmas Books’ – A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain – as well as several other seasonal tales. It begins with The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, a magical, creepy tale originally published as part of The Pickwick Papers in serial form.