2020 Reading Year

Living with a fervent bibliophile who kindly keeps my to-read stack topped up means I usually manage to read a good few books in a year. This year I got through 76, a list still dwarfed by the pile of books I would like to read but haven’t got round to yet, but considerably more than the 50 or 60 I usually manage. A rare pandemic silver lining. Based on my instant reaction – a star rating out of 5 in Goodreads – these were the top three books that I read this year, all receiving a full 5 stars:

What they all have in common is being wholly satisfying reads. I read most of Benjamin Myers’s The Offing in our garden as April turned to May in, if I remember correctly, a blaze of spring sunshine. A refreshingly uncomplicated novel with a small cast – just the two central characters – leaving space for evocative descriptions of food and a bygone but not over-idealised or quaint countryside. As for the Palin, I didn’t set out to like Erebus as much as I did, but I am happy to report that its place in my top three has nothing to do with the relative fame of the author. A great story told with buckets of easy-going charm and above all just so very readable. And if books aren’t for reading, what are they for? Lastly Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in Mantel’s trilogy based on the career of Thomas Cromwell was every bit as good as I had been led to believe and works well as a standalone. However, based on the sage advice of Bookish Beck (and looking at the length of them), I am unlikely to bother with the other two.

Next up are three more top picks from this year’s reading that rewarded more time and thought:  

I read Tim Dee’s deservedly lauded Greenery over a fairly long period. His writing is unquestionably beautiful and intense, packed with unusual metaphors. I tended to read a few pages at a time and then let them sit. The passages about migrant birds in the Sahara stood out for me as particularly vivid, in part because they cover places I am never likely to go, but also as they best show off Dee’s eye for scale. He expertly places an individual warbler’s struggle for survival at an oasis into the great flow of spring across continents, without losing hold of either. Illuminating.

Bruce Cockburn is a legendary guitarist, songwriter and humanitarian whose music I only discovered almost half a century into his career, perhaps because, despite his legendary status, he’s not exactly a household name outside his native Canada. In his introspective and thoughtful 2014 memoir, he comes across as a thoroughly decent and grounded human being; no rock-star braggadocio here. I enjoyed reading about the experiences that sparked many of his best-known songs, as well as others I was yet to discover, his reflections on religion and spirituality, and tales of travelling in Central America during the Reagan years – which served as a timely reminder that American governments have been up to no good long before the time of Trump.

Bruce Cockburn at St Pancras church in London, November 2018. Live music! Imagine that.

Soil and Soul, by Alastair McIntosh, is an extraordinary book that combines theology, ecology and activism into a spellbinding whole that has much to say about our lives as individuals and in community. Despite the depth, it isn’t heavy going at all but instead infused with the quiet joy that for me is the hallmark of good writing about spirituality.

Some more of the books discussed below – those I had immediately to hand, not all are pictured (it is still Christmas so I’m still lazy!)

Fiction

Rounding up some more fiction, another memorable read this year was Octavia E. Butler’s powerful 1979 novel Kindred.It’s an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of slavery in the 19th century, seen through the eyes of a young African American woman from the present who unwillingly ends up travelling back in time. The time-travelling mechanism is not fully explained, which stops it feeling contrived; instead, you instantly accept it and get pulled into the story.

The Bearkeeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw is more conventional historical fiction, set in sixth-century Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire. Supporting a plot full of high adventure and political intrigue, Bradshaw’s recreation of the period is again totally believable, although I can’t claim to know anything about Byzantine history!

More jumping around in time with T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth, which flits back and forth between different stages in the lives of two eco-warriors. Boyle often incorporates conservation or ecology themes, but through characters who are deeply flawed and all too human. Written in 2000, the ‘future’ segments of the novel are set in a post-apocalyptic 2025. With only five years to go, things aren’t quite as bad as he imagined yet, thankfully, but sometimes it feels uncomfortably close.  

Speaking of the future, I also read more sci-fi this year. Highlights included The Martian (Andy Weir), which was terrific: gripping and witty (I’ve not seen the film). H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man is a perfectly paced page-turner that feels much more modern than its 123 years.

Lastly, we both reread Mark Dunn’s irresistible comic novel Ella Minnow Pea this year. It is, as the subtitle says, a “progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable”: fiendishly clever and consistently funny.

Nature

I’m including Watership Down (which I don’t actually remember reading as a child at all) in the nature section because what struck me most about it was Richard Adams’s descriptions of a slice of southern England, through Berkshire into Hampshire, that I know pretty well – it is as much a book about the countryside as it is about talking rabbits. In May we took the book along for a walk up to Sandleford Warren, the location from which the rabbits originally flee – and which is, ironically, threatened by a housing development in real life. The most recent planning application was rejected by West Berkshire Council in October, but will be the subject of an appeal sometime next year.  

Less on the nature theme but sticking with the local connection is Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England. In a conversational, fact-rich narrative, Shrubsole packs an impressive amount of information into relatively short chapters. As a Lib Dem who has joined in with ‘The Land Song’ at party conference (and wishes we would reclaim the mantle of reformist radicalism), I was primed to be a receptive audience for the book, but wondered if the sometimes overtly partisan tone might decrease the potential to convert some of the very powers being railed against to the cause of land reform.

Partly by accident and partly by design, much of my ‘nature’ reading this year was broadly about the relationship between people and wildlife. Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside remains strikingly relevant and, considering his age when it was published, the writing is remarkably assured. In The Accidental Countryside, Stephen Moss shows how some of those ‘unofficial’ wildlife hotspots are managed and protected today, often through the vision and dedication of conservationists who stumbled on these special places, much as Mabey did in the 1970s on his ramblings round the London fringe. In Into the Tangled Bank,Lev Parikian – whose easygoing, humorous writing is always good company – takes us to some more special places for wildlife in Britain. In this case they’re all connected with notable naturalists and conservationists who have influenced how we interact with nature. Some, like Darwin’s Down House in Kent, and Peter Scott’s house at Slimbridge, I have visited myself and heartily recommend; others are now be on my ‘to visit’ list for the future. Veteran naturalist Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust considers the history of a particular tribe of nature lovers, butterfly enthusiasts, while in An Indifference of Birds Richard Smyth puts us firmly in our place by taking a refreshing bird’s-eye view of our role in their history.

I caught up with two more nature writing classics this year with Arctic Dreams and The Living Mountain. Arctic Dreams is a masterly survey of the ecology and anthropology of the Artic andthe only book by the late Barry Lopez I’ve read. Another long, detail-packed read, it also features some seriously beautiful passages. By contrast, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain concerns itself with a smaller patch, the Cairngorms, and is consequently a much slenderer book. However, it makes a comparably grand survey of what is the closest thing we have to an Arctic landscape in Britain. Finally, in a year of considerable astronomical excitement, from comets to conjunctions, Under the Stars seemed a very appropriate read. Matt Gaw’s second book, like his first, is distinctive by simple virtue of not being from the usual nature writer’s perspective of walking around in the daytime. His writing is fresh and unpretentious, and I look forward to seeing where he takes us next.

Did you read anything good in 2020? What’s on your to-read pile for 2021?

May 8th

Spring arrived this year on a wave of cloudless days and early heat. Sunshine records smashed; lockdown days marked by eerily blue skies and equally unnatural quiet. Most people relish a clear blue day, but as one of my fellow meteorology undergraduates used to complain, they’re quite dull if you are interested in weather. I tend to agree – give me some drama. In a marked improvement, today is one of those warm, humid days with banks of thin cloud aloft and towers of cumulus frothing up from below, giant mimics of the hawthorn blossom heaped beside the canal. The sky is alive and, as if in response, our garden thrums, too. It is verdant, vibrant, but in a hurry to get somewhere – some way from the bedded-in, satisfied but slightly exhausted air of summer.

Kites and buzzards, drifting in on the thermals, are given short notice to vacate by the pair of crows nesting at the far end of the garden. I watched one kite pursued by a crow, itself tailed by a jackdaw – a comic chase by birds of diminishing size. The crows themselves, but more especially the magpies, get plenty of stick in turn from the blackbirds, whose noisy chack of alarm is familiar background noise in the garden. The other constant in our spring soundscape is a cuckoo, which has hardly stopped calling today. The first time each spring it is thrilling – we’re fortunate to live within earshot of cuckoo habitat and I fear one year the magic will wear off. After a few weeks it gets almost monotonous, though I feel moderately heretical for even thinking that.

When banks of heavy cloud roll through on a warm evening like this, swifts can be seen riding the wave, picking off insects that are caught in the rising air. The architectural presence of clouds reminds us that for many animals the world has another dimension; movement and migration can be vertical as well as horizontal. The first swifts I saw this year were feeding on an evening flight of insects; there is also an equivalent but lesser known ‘dawn flight’. Both would show up on vertical radar as a haze of life gracefully ascending and descending, like the breath of the earth.

Mud (11th January)

The river level has dropped but the floods remain. The field I wrote about last week has since hosted five wigeon, in addition to the gadwall and gulls that are still present, and a growing number of little egrets, 10 at my last count on Saturday. A fine thing to see, yet still I had already begun to find the bird-mania of my last post subside as the busy-ness of a new university term took its place. So, later that day, instead of tearing off after more birds, I took a short but more focused walk around our garden, with a mind to finding my first ground beetle of the year. I inherited the mantle of ‘recording scheme organiser’ for this group last year, so I figured it was time I started generating some records of my own again to set a good example!

For about the first two years we lived here I maintained several pitfall traps in the garden, to help build up a list of the species that inhabit the place we’re responsible for looking after. The traps are just plastic cups buried in the ground with a few bits of leaf litter or moss in the bottom as cover for whatever falls in. The most successful of them was in what I grandly like to call the ‘woodland’ at the far end of the garden, close to the K&A canal, in the shade of a large ash tree. In a week or so it invariably caught at least a few rove beetles or ground beetles, among the springtails, spiders and increasingly ubiquitous landhoppers, even in the middle of winter. As with any mode of trapping, it was like a mini entomological Christmas every time I checked the traps; I never quite knew what would turn up.

A species I enjoyed seeing regularly was Asaphidion curtum, a small (4–5 mm) beetle with a bronze-gold metallic sheen. It is said to prefer heavier, moist soils. Well, the soil in that part of the garden is certainly that now, sitting as it does under several inches of water. Luckily, I haven’t set the traps in over a year, so no beetles will have been drowned by my recording efforts at least, but it does raise questions about the impact of floods on invertebrate life. Many species of damp places must be able to escape or cope with inundation, or at least have populations resilient enough to bounce back after local losses. Where my local Asaphidion population resides at the moment, I’m not sure.

I did check under an old bin lid close to the limits of the groundwater flood in the garden. No Asaphidion, which I think would prefer to be among leaf litter, but immediately on lifting it I noticed two beetles sculling off into wet mud the consistency of thick icing. I plucked one out of the ooze, holding it between thumb and forefinger. A square-headed, blunt-jawed bruiser of a beetle, revealed as the mud sloughed off to have a bright orange thorax as well as a distinctive orange pattern on its wing cases. I had my first ground beetle of the year. Badister bullatus is a common species but no less beautiful for it, and apparently one that, like Flanders and Swans’ hippopotamus, is most happy when wallowing in glorious mud. Or, at least, it can survive those conditions if it must – lucky beetles: if the rain continues in this vein, mud will be all that is left of our garden.