The Offing by Benjamin Myers

The book

Yes, the cover attracted me and then I remembered I’d read Ben Myers’ novel The Gallows Pole. That breakthrough novel is to be filmed by Shane Meadows later this year and I’m very much looking forward to it.

The Offing is Myers’ latest and is beautiful in its descriptive language, simplicity and understanding and capture of nature.

It’s set in Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, immediately after the Second World War. Robert is a young lad from Durham who, realising he’s not cut out for following his forebears down the pit, sets off south to explore.

He reaches Yorkshire and the novel beautifully contrasts the coast blighted by coal and industry further north with the fishing and minor tourism of Yorkshire.

Robert is hungry and meets Dulcie, an eccentric character who has dined with DH Lawrence and others and introduces the young man to poems, rich food and the opportunity for sea swimming. He does odd jobs for food and a bed beneath a lean-to in the fields.

The book is gentle but rewarding and there are beautiful passages such as when Robert rambles down the dark, subterranean clefts from the moors towards the sea. He traces the ‘claw-marked calligraphy’ of the badgers. He touches kissing gates whose tops were worn ‘skull-smooth by the clammy palms of several centuries of passing land workers and hill wanderers.’

Robert learns a great deal from Dulcie and this chance encounter changes his life. There is a sadness behind Dulcie’s fascinating and well travelled exterior but you’ll need to read to learn what it is. You could read this book for the descriptions of nature, the endless possibilities in life….or you might wonder what chance can throw up and learn how new-found friendships can change everything for the better. Roll the dice like Robert.

The Terror

I’m enjoying watching The Terror on BBC iplayer. Ciaran Hinds, Jared Harris and Ian Hart are always great to watch and it’s incredibly tense and atmospheric.

Conflict is key for drama and being stuck fast in the ice, hunted by a beast, with food supplies toxic and dwindling certainly makes for tension.

I’m fortunate in that I picked up this book pre-lockdown from our brilliant local Oxfam. It’s fascinating reading and chronicles Erebus’s two ambitious naval expeditions – the first being a voyage further south on the planet than anyone had been before.

The second being the expedition to find the North West Passage. This is the basis for The Terror- the name of Erebus’s sister ship.

Michael Palin’s writing is full of interesting facts with plenty of humour. Those who hate horseradish with their Sunday roast would learn they’d eat an awful lot of wild cabbage (tasting of horseradish) to avoid scurvy. There’s plenty on Hobart nightlife, flying fish, discipline and the vastness of the Antarctic… ice plateau the size of France.

I’ll review in a little more detail later. But it’s hard to imagine the hardships these men tried to withstand.

The Fatal Shore

I’ve recently begun to read this and 100 pages in we’ve just landed in New South Wales such is the scope and detail of this work. I’ll return to discuss again on these pages but I’m struck by the level of research and delighted it took in Stafford’s wonderful William Salt library.

Indeed a Stafford man was among the first poor souls to be transported…

Among the first fleet was one Thomas Hawell, a labourer, sentenced to 7 yrs transportation at Stafford Assizes for stealing a live hen and a dead hen to the value 4d.

Let me eat cake – a review

I was always going to enjoy a book with chapter headings such as ‘Battenberg’ ‘Yule Log’ and ‘Tarte Citron.’

Let Me Eat Cake – A Life Lived Sweetly – is Paul Arnott’s memoir of a life spent adoring the sweeter things in life, mainly puddings and cakes. Where Nigel Slater anchored his life growing up in Wolverhampton around food in general, Arnott has a sweet tooth to rival any.

Part of the joy of a memoir is the relatable moments and the book is full of these. I’ve been working on an 80s memoir for some time and it’s encouraging to see that travel sweets, the cherries, oranges and lemons in sherbet, are a cultural reference point for Arnott too.

He’s excellent on description and his accounts of eating apple strudel in Switzerland and enjoying tarte citron and chocolat chaud in France made me ravenous. His weight and waist size don’t seem problematic to me as he refers to thirteen stone and a 34″ trouser. Clearly he hangs around with waifish twigs in Soho and not the pubs and working men’s clubs of my youth. He loves sugar though and is hooked from a young age.

He is frequently hungry, as I was, and he resorts to stealing money to pay for sweets. (I resorted to eating doggie chocolate). Hunger is a problem when you’re not getting what you need. His school lunches start well on Mondays with roast beef but by Wednesday it’s Bovril and cucumber with Mother’s Pride. ‘Unfortunately, the way the white bread absorbed the cucumber’s moisture during the morning made it fit only as rolled bread pellets for the birds by lunchtime..’

Arnott also reflects on society’s attitudes to food. It is such a treat, so enjoyable, so wonderful, yet weighed down by such guilt.

I’m grateful to my mate Keith for sending me this book. An early chapter is an echo of his own south London upbringing and many others across Britain – Sunday teas with a huge family with names like Arthur, Vi, Queenie, Muriel and Harold.

The Life and Death of St. Kilda

High St., St Kilda, 1886 (National Trust Scotland)

How did a population, never exceeding 200 in its history, exist on a distant rock, far off the west of Scotland, for 2,000 years? That is the question at the heart of Tom Steel’s fascinating ‘The Life and Death of St Kilda.’ I read the book a few months ago after picking it up at the Museum of Scotland and I’ve needed to reflect on it. Perhaps our lockdown during the Covid-19 outbreak has added another dimension to this incredible history of a hardy, resilient people.

Tom Steel’s ‘The Life and Death of St Kilda’

In August 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants of this archipelago were evacuated. It is ultimately a sad tale as the islanders had few and pitiful possessions to take with them, but were heartbroken nonetheless. Dogs were left to roam or drowned, and sheep gathered to be sold.

So, how did they support themselves for centuries?

Gannets, fulmars and puffins formed the diet of the St Kildans, who could not have existed without the seabird colonies. The boys climbed, steep, vertiginous cliffs from a young age, becoming nimble, agile climbers. Incredibly, this shaped their bone structure with St Kildan men having unusually thick ankles, half as thick again as mainlanders and with toes set further apart and almost prehensile (able to grasp). In the 18th century an estimated 20,000 gannets were harvested each year on the islands, but this declined throughout the habitation. The St Kildans sold sheep and cattle and also feathers from the seabirds. Tragically, their isolation – they were 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland – made them prone to disease and they succumbed to cholera and tetanus. They had little natural resistance to diseases common on the mainland and the common cold could, and indeed did, kill St Kildans. This became a particular issue when faster steam ships brought tourists. The North Atlantic weather was wild too. Storms caused the sea to lash the steep cliffs so hard that the boom frequently deafened islanders for days at a time. St Kildans were also prone to pirate raids and an assault by a German navy submarine.

Perhaps inevitably the move to the mainland was daunting for many of the islanders. They were given jobs in the Forestry Commission in Argyllshire, but had grown up on an island without trees. They didn’t keep time well as they were accustomed to doing jobs that their survival depended on, rather than earning money. Many became sick too. The women became lonely as they would not see their husbands all day, whereas jobs had been shared on the island. A year after the exodus, and without man to coexist with, the St Kildan house mouse was extinct. St Kilda is populated still, but by Ministry of Defence staff and researchers.

There are many sad stories of St Kildans who left and were unable to adjust to living elsewhere. Many felt compelled to leave by hardship and starvation but pined for their unique homeland. They were trapped in a void, unable to live away from the island, but struggling to eke out a living if they stayed. In 1875, John Sands, wrote: ‘All beyond their little rock home is darkness, doubt and dread – incomprehensible to us.’

In the end, nature defeated the St Kildans, as did their fellow man. As Steel writes in his introduction: ‘It is not easy to imagine the lonely life led by the St Kildans. It is difficult for us to accept that they had more in common with the people of Tristan Da Cunha than they ever had with the city dwellers of Edinburgh or Glasgow.’