“After Man” by Dougal Dixon (1981)

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“During the period immediately before and during the Age of Man the principal large-scale grazers and browsers were the ungulates, the hoofed mammals.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for prehistoric creatures. The dinosaurs are amazingly interesting, the evolution of birds and mammals is fascinating, and it’s always cool to see all the weird twists and turns nature took to get us to where we are today. A lot of people seem to treat what exists now as the end point, apparently under the illusion that evolution stops here, and what we have will carry on for the rest of time. Dougal Dixon is not one of those people.

In his breathtaking book After Man, he envisions a world fifty million years after our own, where humanity has died out, taking with it most of the large mammals and familiar creatures of the time. In this new world, where tectonic plates have shifted the continents into unrecognisable forms, animals have done much the same. Gone are the animals we know, but they’ve been replaced by a variety of newcomers, each descended from something we’re used to.

Rabbits have evolved and diversified into the rabbucks; deer-like creatures that now inhabit every major biome. They’ve been followed throughout by the predator rats, who have taken on the roles of the great carnivores of our age. Elsewhere, squirrels have become long and slender, some bats have entirely atrophied their eyes in favour of more impressive sonar, and the large herbivores have been replaced by the genus of gigantelopes, elephantine antelope-descendants with unusual and complex horned structures on their heads.

In the seas, the whales and dolphins are long gone, but fully aquatic and enormous descendants of penguins now fill those roles. Baboon relatives now stalk the plains of, what was, Africa, hunting and scavenging for meat. Rainforest pigs have developed trunks, one of the last cats, the striger, swings from tree branches like our gibbons, when a species of ant evolved to make its nests underwater, the anteater went aquatic and followed them. As usual, on isolated islands, evolution has particularly gone insane, in particular on the islands of Batavia, recently risen from the seas due to volcanic activity and now populated by bats who have evolved to fill every niche, from coastal waters and high branches, and also produced the terrifying night stalker, a one and a half metre tall predator with a curious arrangement of limbs.

The book is nothing, however, without the incredible intricate illustrations, that show the future animals in action, as well as in some more technical, scientific positions. Like all good nature works, we get to see them as real beings, not just stock images. Of course, these aren’t real animals. Not yet, at least. While we cannot predict with any certainty what creatures will survive us and how they will be further shaped, all of Dixon’s suggestions are based on a solid scientific grounding and while it’s not probable any of them will occur, it’s not impossible. He used this knowledge again in the wonderful TV series The Future is Wild, which took a similar premise of future evolution and is well worth a watch if you can find it.

All in all, a fascinating, fun and thought-provoking experiment in evolution.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Being A Beast” by Charles Foster (2016)

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“I am a human.”

Humans have a confusing relationship with every other animal species on the planet. There’s nothing else quite like us, which is either a good or bad thing. Some other animals we’ve domesticated, others we watch with awe, and quite often we anthropomorphise them and give them tweed jackets and a knowledge and society they can’t possibly possess. Charles Foster has decided he wants to get to know animals better and so begins a mission to become something else, as best he can. This book documents his attempts.

To achieve this, Foster must try to think like other species. This is easier said than done, as other animals experience the world in ways we cannot imagine. Some have better noses than us, some are faster, and while the base urges are the same, they differ enough in their methods of completion to make it all a bit futile. Nonetheless, Foster gives it a go, taking on the roles of five different animals.

He digs a hole in the side of a hill and eats earthworms to mimic a badger. He swims through Devon rivers at night catching fish with his teeth to get to know otters better. He raids the bins of East London for leftovers to become a fox. He allows hunters to chase him down across the Scottish highlands to know how a red deer feels, and finally he makes an attempt to become a swift, eventually tracking them all the way to Africa.

As nature writing goes, it’s a very unique piece and there’s no getting away from that, but my primary thought throughout is, “What sort of breakdown is this man having, and why is no one coming to his aid?” Sleeping in bushes and shitting on riversides is one thing, but swallowing mouthfuls of insects from the tops of trees just because he’s seen birds do it, and leaping at voles whenever he sees a tiny hint of movement is not, in my opinion, the behaviour of a man with all his faculties in tact. I don’t think we ever really needed to know in so much detail what worms taste like.

Unfortunately, while I like the concept of the book, I don’t find Foster particularly likeable. Most of this stems from the fact that, for many years, he was a hunter and while he’s now obviously changed his mind on the subject, in the long passage where he’s describing what it’s like to track and kill a deer, there’s a barely-disguised glee regarding the whole thing. I’m not exactly a pacifist, and I’m certainly not a vegetarian, but I’m against killing wild animals for “sport”, and I can find no entertainment in it. Foster must also have a very understanding wife, as occasionally his children join him on his jaunts. One of his sons lives with him in their badger sett, and he also tells all his children that, when they need the toilet, to go and do it on the river banks like an otter would. At one point he doesn’t shave, cut his hair or trim his toenails for months so he can feel more like a deer with matted, mud-filled hair and overgrown hooves.

There are some interesting facts up for grabs about these animals though, and while Foster attempts to refrain from giving them personalities and emotions, some still slip through. However, he’s more objective than many nature writers, and we get a lot of facts and figures about how animals may experience their environments. Much of it, of course, is theory – we can’t really know what happens inside a fox’s brain when it smells a particular scent, or quite how swifts cope living at speeds we cannot imagine.

All in all, I find that a good piece of exploratory non-fiction should come to a fascinating conclusion and teach us something new. Foster basically ends by saying that trying to be an animal is fruitless and we can never know what it’s like to be another species. Which, frankly, seemed obvious from the start and made me wonder what part I played in his mental breakdown by buying the book. Definitely an intriguing concept for nature writing, but worryingly handled.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

Vintage Minis: “Drinking” and “Swimming”

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If you’ve been in a bookstore recently you may have noticed the collection of Vintage Minis. These are twenty tiny books that take selected highlights on full-length memoirs and novels to give you a sample of the writing. All human life is here, and some of the names behind them are particularly notable. Themes include “Home”, “Desire”, “Death”, “Calm”, and “Work”, with writers including Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison giving their insights into their area of expertise. Intrigued by the concept, I bought the two that best fitted with my favourite activities. I read the first one a couple of months ago, but I present them both to you here now.

Drinking by John Cheever

“It was Sunday afternoon, and from her bedroom Amy could hear the Beardens coming in, followed a little while later by the Farquarsons and the Parminters.”

Taken from the anthology Collected Stories by John Cheever, this book gathers together all the excerpts that focus on alcohol and what it does to us. In “The Sorrows of Gin”, a young girl steals alcohol from her parents cabinets and lets the staff take the blame.  In “Goodbye, My Brother”, a family gather together and old wounds are reopened, and family is also present in “Reunion”, where a man goes out with his alcoholic, abrasive father for the last time. In “The Scarlet Moving Van” we see how dangerous alcoholism can be, and how it tears families and friends apart when it takes hold.

The pieces are wonderfully moving, and often drinking doesn’t even play a major part in the story, perhaps showing how insidious the habit of reaching for the liquor bottle has become in much of society. Drinking seems to be one of the ties that bind us all together as humans, and a number of us have on more than one occasion, tried and failed to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.

One of the stories, “The Swimmer”, in fact inspired…

Swimming by Roger Deakin

“The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”

The excepts from Swimming are taken from Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog. In this, the only book he published in his lifetime, he decides to explore the British landscape by swimming through it. Thus begins a journey through rivers, streams, lakes, lochs and around the coast to experience the island through its’ remarkable waterways.

We are treated to several great excerpts here, such as his dip into the Atlantic Ocean off the Scilly Isles and discussion about what the locals do with shipwrecked cargo, his argument with locals in Winchester who feel the rivers should be off-limits to people not willing to pay for their use, meeting an otter in Suffolk, and a dip in the North Sea on Christmas Day. He has a beautiful way of writing and showing us the true beauty of our countryside. It makes you appreciate our waters and shows the island from a new angle, bringing to the fore some of the most wonderful denizens of the water, including salmon, water voles and even porpoises. It’s actually compelling enough that I’m tempted to buy the full version, proving that these books seem to be doing what they were made to do – get us excited about literature.

Hopefully these quick summaries will inspire you to pick up a Vintage Mini and dive into a topic you’re passionate about. I doubt these are the last ones I read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

FILM: “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them”

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fantasticbeastsposter“Witches live among us.”

J. K. Rowling didn’t know what she unleashed when she gave us the Harry Potter books. His story is grand enough, sure, but I’m a sucker for a well-built world, and Rowling builds worlds with the best of them. So much is dropped into the Potter books that makes you want to know more about the wider world, and during those books and since she has teased us with fascinating and exciting information about the world that Harry was born into. But it’s not all about Harry, and so we find ourselves in the same world, but in an entirely different time and place.

It’s 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander has just arrived in New York. It’s meant to be a short visit, but when a Niffler escapes from his case, he sets about trying to get it back, although while doing so he accidentally reveals his wizarding status to Jacob, a baker and a No-Maj (American word for Muggle). He is arrested by Tina Goldstein, who works for the magical government for breaching the Statute of Secrecy, and then things go from bad to worse when he realises that he’s misplaced his suitcase. This would be bad enough anywhere, but it’s full of magical beasts, and the American wizarding community is even more secretive than the British one, and they don’t take kindly to a menagerie of magical animals running around New York.

However, there’s some dark magic afoot in the city and it’s believed to be caused by Gellert Grindelwald and his supporters. There’s also the issue of a group called the Second Salemers led by Mary Lou Barebone, a woman who beats her children, including adopted son Credence, and believes that witches are hidden among ordinary people and are causing all the strange events of recent times. Newt must get all his beasts back into his suitcase without causing too much of a disruption, but that’s going to be far easier said than done.

I went to the cinema trying to not have high hopes, but failing miserably. The trailers had looked good, all the reviews had been positive, and the few people I knew who’d already seen it reported back great things. There’s nothing worse than hoping something it going to be great only to then have it stink. Fortunately, this is a piece of sheer cinematic magic. With no original book for us to spend the film going, “But that didn’t happen!” you are able to focus entirely on the story. The new characters all burst with magnetism. Queenie is an amazing young woman who I really loved, and Tina is a fine example of a woman who won’t stand by when she sees injustice, despite being slightly awkward and at times uncertain. Jacob, the token Muggle (I can’t get on board with No-Maj as a term), is an interesting device to be used in the story and serves as the audience surrogate to introduce us to this new world. Eddie Redmayne gives an amazing performance as Newt, a geeky, awkward, eccentric collector who by his own admission annoys people and will stop at nothing to protect animals.

And while they’re all stellar performances, it is the animals that steal the show. If you’ve read the companion book, you’ll recognise everything that turns up here, and the film delights in showing us these amazing new creatures. The Niffler, Bowtruckle and Demiguise are all great and good fun (and also, let’s be honest, an excuse to sell cute merchandise) but for me it’s the Occamy and the Erumpent, my favourite animal from the book, that really shine.

The film is different enough from the Harry Potter stories to ensure we’re not retreading old ground, but similar enough to make them feel like home. It opens with a short burst from Hedwig’s Theme, which is surely the anthem of the Potter generation. A chill ran down my spine upon hearing it. It’s loaded with references to the original books, some more obvious than others, and opens up many more questions about the world. New aspects of the lore are added and work seamlessly, which is more than can be said for parts of the “eighth book“. It seems that the series – for there are planned to be five of these films – will focus almost more on the Wizarding War that culminated in Grindelwald’s downfall as much as if not more than the magical beasts and Newt’s career with them.

Roll on part two – something magical is happening here again, and I’m once again back and raring to go.

“Antidote To Venom” by Freeman Wills Croft (1938)

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antidote“George Surridge entered his study shortly before seven on a cold night in mid October.”

Let’s just dive right in, shall we? In Antidote to Venom, Freeman Wills Crofts treats us to a crime novel with a difference. This is a murder mystery unlike any other I’ve read, given that it shows the other side of the story. Here, there is no question of “whodunnit” – we know, immediately. But Crofts is far more wily than that, and his story takes you along routes you never thought possible.

George Surridge is the director of Birmington Zoo, one of the most successful zoos in the UK, but he’s finding things difficult of late. He and his wife are barely speaking, there’s a disease bringing down many of the monkeys, and his lack of money is becoming increasingly problematic. Plus, he’s just started an affair with Nancy, a woman he meets at the zoo one day and is instantly besotted with. George will come into money when his aunt dies, since he is the sole remaining family member, but while his aunt is in ill health, she seems set to hang around. George begins to wonder if he could help hurry things along.

When the aunt is dead, however, the money is not forthcoming. It turns out that the solicitor of the estate, David Capper, has gambled it all away on the stocks. But he in turn is due a large inheritance from his uncle Mr Burnaby, another elderly figure still holding on. Burnaby has long been studying the snakes of Birmington Zoo, but recent events have conspired to mean George has taken away the scientist’s access to the reptiles. Capper, though, has a plan, and if George is willing to help him, they can commit a foul crime and soon be rolling in money. All George has to do is steal one of his own snakes…

The book can roughly be divided into two halves. In the first half, we hear the story from George’s point of view. As I said, there is no doubt that he is the criminal that in any ordinary murder mystery would be revealed at the end. Having it this way round, however, means we get to witness his true motives, and perhaps even develop a sympathy for him. The second half of the book follows the police as they try to work out how Burnaby died. It appears to have been a snake bite, but how did he get hold of a snake?

This “inverted” mystery makes for a hugely compelling read. As George spirals into a form of madness, obsessing over money and his new mistress, we are kept feeling tense as the noose tightens and a plan that at first seemed watertight might now be leaking. George, however, is a sympathetic character, and despite what he does, you can’t help but be rooting for him, if only a little. It’s also fascinating to see the police reach the conclusions that we already know. In your average Christie, we only find out the details in the final chapter. Here, we’ve already seen them. It’s a whole different kind of tension. The question is one more of “how” than “who”.

I’d never heard of Crofts before, and his is another book published in the British Library Crime Classics series. They seem to be specialising in authors whose work has long-since disappeared. Indeed, this is the first reprint of this book in several decades. I’ve read one from this line already, and there’s another on my shelf, but they’re all proof that the ‘Golden Age of murder’ was more than just Christie and Marsh. This is one of the smartest and most interesting books I’ve read all year, and a total must-read for anyone who enjoys a murder but is looking for something a bit different.

“Where Do Camels Belong?” by Ken Thompson (2014)

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camels“Species are born, and then they die.”

Because of my tendency to read pretty much anything, it does mean that I occasionally read something that’s incredibly niche and won’t be of much interest to many of my readers. I find myself at that position again, but it’s my duty to review as much as possible so here we go with a tale of ecology, biodiversity and Japanese knotweed – Where Do Camels Belong?

Though I’d forgotten his name, turns out I read another book by Ken Thompson five years ago, that one called Do We Need Pandas? He is an ecologist who seems to has written a few books on biodiversity and overlooked aspects of the natural world – one of his books is a study of weeds – but has an informative, accessible style, meaning he’s a great introduction to some of these topics that the layman (such as myself) might not know much about.

It opens with the titular question, discussing where we would expect to find camels. The answer isn’t quite as easy as it first seems. Most people probably associate camels with the Middle East and northern Africa, but Bactrian camels live in Central Asia, the camel evolved in North America, retains it’s greatest diversity in South America, and the dromedary is only found wild in Australia. So which is really its home?

Thompson then launches into a study of invasive species and how animals and plants traverse the world, adapting to new environments and, often in the eyes of humans, doing a lot of damage. There are discussions as to how long something has to live somewhere before it’s considered native, and how that opinion can change depending on how cute it is. For example, rabbits aren’t native to Britain, but we used to have wolves and no one wants to reintroduce them much. Which has the greater right to live here? Do we have the right to make that choice? Humans are, of course, perhaps the most invasive species of all, responsible for many of the particularly bad invaders.

But Thompson argues that, actually, aliens aren’t bad things at all – at least, not all of them. Scientists, helped along by the media, pick and choose the species they want to deem alien and invasive, and ignore some of the facts. Zebra mussels, for example, clog pipes and attach themselves to ships, but they make the water they live in cleaner and increase food stocks for crabs and fish. Tamarisk is a plant that supposedly takes up too much water and dries out river beds, but those rivers are already being over managed by humanity who have the right to more water than even flows in them.

As usual with science, there are a lot of “we just don’t know” moments here, and this leaves us with many questions. Would Britain have been any better if the Romans hadn’t brought along most familiar vegetable species? Should we introduce Iberian lynx to Britain, since they’re dying out where they “belong”, and would help solve the rabbit problem? Why is bracken not considered an annoyance, even though it’s more invasive than most aliens? And how much loss has there really been to Hawaii’s ecosystem?

It’s a really interesting look at an often misunderstood aspect of the natural world, and makes us look at ourselves. We are, once again, asking the wrong questions and seem to have considered ourselves above and outside of nature, which is perhaps one of the most dangerous ideas we’ve ever come up with. Food for thought, at least.

“The Wind In The Willows” by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

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wind“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”

I was trawling the shelves last week for a new book to read, and became interested in my top shelf, which is mostly stocked liberally with humour books, trivia books, a few things from my childhood. However, my attention was grabbed by The Wind In The Willows, which I plucked down, blew dust from and immediately decided that it needed to be read. I didn’t even know I owned it, sat up there sandwiched between Black Beauty and The Swiss Family Robinson, both of which were also something of a surprise. Where the books came from is anyone’s guess, but I may have inherited them down from my mother. My copy of Willows is from 1981 and apparently cost 95p on release. Ah, inflation.

Having seen a few adaptations of the novel, I realised that I’ve never actually read the original book, a fact that needed rectifying post haste. This is the story of four animal friends – Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger – and the adventures they get up to in their forest and on the riverbank. It begins with kind and sensible Mole getting tired of his spring cleaning and heading out into the wider world. He stumbles upon the river for the first time and there he meets Ratty, a dreamer who wants nothing more than to please his friends and spend his days “simply messing about in boats”. He loves the river and his life, and soon he and Mole are spending every day together. Ratty introduces Mole to his friend Toad, a very wealthy amphibian who lives in Toad Hall, a huge, decadent mansion and, while he’s smart and very friendly, he’s also arrogant in the extreme and prone to getting obsessions that consume him fully.

The final member of the main quartet is Badger, a wise old mammal who dislikes Society and will only come find you if he wants to speak to you. He appears to run the Wild Woods with an iron paw, but he’s quite soft at heart where his friends are concerned. The main crux of the story involves Toad developing an obsession with motor cars and, after stealing one and joyriding it around the countryside, he is taken to prison, from where he must escape.

What surprised me most about the book is that it reads far more like a series of short stories. There is a central plot, certainly, but there are a couple of chapters that don’t do anything to drive the story on. That’s not to say I disliked them, but they’re a slow-paced addition to the novel. One involves Ratty (actually a Water Vole) meeting a seafaring rat who tries to convince him that the best way to live is to travel the world. In another, Ratty and Mole go to find Otter’s son, only to have something of a religious experience on the way. The book is also wonderfully illustrated, the drawings provided by E. H. Shepard, who also provided the famous illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh.

The novel is certainly of its time, and there’s nothing particularly offensive about it. There are villains, but they come into play late and aren’t much of a threat, and the four main characters are all certainly able to be described as “nice”. They do have flaws – Toad is conceited, Mole is stubborn, Badger is prone to grumpiness – but above all they want to keep one another happy. This is most surprising of Toad, who in adaptations seems to become someone that prompts questions as to why the others would bother to be friends with him. Here in the original text, Toad is shown to be generous, gregarious and intelligent, and you can understand why the others put up with him.

The strangest thing about the book is simply that the anthropomorphism is so wonky! It’s not a complaint, because it’s actually quite funny, but it does seem odd that Mole lives in a burrow (although in some human comfort) and Ratty implies that some of the animals eat one another, but Toad lives in a mansion, drives cars, is tried via human courts and is apparently big enough to disguise himself as a human. On a couple of occasions as well, Grahame mentions Toad’s hair, which … well, I still don’t know what to do with that one. You just go with it all because to question it would be to ruin the charm.

It’s a wonderful tale in a pastoral England that seems almost heavenly. Upon finishing, Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad all feel like real friends, and I will not forget in a hurry the time I have spent with them.

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