Friday, 1 June 2018

A Handful Of Books

I haven't posted much in the last couple of weeks; the weather's been cloudy, humid and with a threat of thunderstorms; my brother needed a bit of help with his garden; I've been on birdwatching trips to Wicken Fen, Fowlmere, Fen Drayton Lakes and Lakenheath Fen where I've been royally entertained by Marsh Harriers and Hobbies but, apart from a fuzzy picture of a Bittern in reeds, these trips didn't yield many photos - and I've been doing some reading.

Doing a bit of research before going to the Glaven valley back in April I turned up the name of John Craske - one of his paintings has been preserved in the Shell Museum at Glandford. I'd never heard of him but there's a book....

Threads: The Delicate Life Of John Craske - Julia Blackburn  

John Craske took to painting after becoming ill at the age of 36. Much of the rest of his life was spent in a "stuporous state", only surfacing from time to time to paint and later, when he was confined to bed, to embroider. 

Before his sickness he'd been a fisherman and it was scenes of the sea and ships that formed much of his work. He was not a trained artist of course and not taken seriously by the establishment, though he was championed by several people such as the poet John Betjeman  and the singer Peter Peers.

Julia Blackburn pieces together the few precious facts about Craske's lfe - and they are very few indeed - but also lets us in on the process of the writing such a book. We wander off down all kinds of sidetracks - conversations with old fishermen - Einstein on the Norfolk coast - prisoners who do embroidery - Robert Hales, the Norfolk giant. All these episodes throw some kind of oblique side light on to Craske's life, but the man remains as elusive as ever.

Augustus John: The New Biography - Michael Holroyd

Most artists are like Craske to some extent; they spend most of their lives in front of a canvas with all the action taking place inside their heads. Critics sometimes try to explain the artists motivations and decisions, but there's not much action for a writer to get their teeth into. No such accusations can be made about Augustus Edwin John OM RA!

I'd known something about John for most of my life: in the early years of the twentieth century he lived for a few weeks on Grantchester Meadows (near where I lived later in that century). He had a gypsy caravan, two "wives", several raggedy children and got into fights in the pubs of Cambridge.

Michael Holroyd chronicles (over 700 pages) the rest of Augustus John's eventful life, which turns out to be no less colourful. One would have liked to have been a peripheral character in his circle, able to observe his erratic, fizzing progress. But you wouldn't want to be too closely involved! 

The Eagle Tree - Ned Hayes

For those of you who don't know, I spent the last twenty-odd years of my working life looking after very vulnerable young people, many of whom were considered "autistic". At first this was hard going but in time I got to appreciate and enjoy their company and friendship. So it won't surprise you to learn that I enjoyed this story of an autistic boy who's obsessed with climbing trees and who attempts to save a tree from being felled.

Just because someone sees the world differently from most people, it doesn't always mean that they're wrong.

The Running Hare - John Lewis-Stempel

In an earlier book John Lewis-Stempel wrote about the wildlife of a meadow over the year, this time he turns his attention to a small arable field.

Like many of us he is horrified by the lack of wildlife on the huge fields of a modern arable farm but, instead of just moaning about it, he sets about cultivating his little plot as near to the traditional way as possible.

The writing covers history, farming, wildlife, landscape, country lore, science....but through it all runs the author's beautifully poetic turn of phrase.

Springtime In Britain - Edwin Way Teale

This is an old paperback that has lived on the little bookshelf near my bed for many years and has been pulled out at regular intervals, sometimes read right through but more often just dipped into for a bit of reading before sleep arrives.

Not that it's a boring book in any way, but it is calm and restful. The American author sets out to follow Spring's progress through Britain, from Land's End up to John O'Groats.

Although it was written in 1970 it already seems to speak of a much earlier time - how much things change without our realising.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Take care.


  1. It is always good to reconnect with books. I cannot imagine living without them.

  2. I like John Lewis-Stempel's writing. The Eagle Tree sounds like a very interesting read, as does Springtime in Britain.

  3. I like the sounds of the book about John Craske. Augustus John I find fascinating but his sister Gwen even more so, she is one of my favourite artists. I must read 'The Running Hare' as I enjoyed 'Meadowland' by the same author:)

  4. These books sound interesting and like good reads. A fine way to spend time in the cloudy, thunder storm days of spring.

  5. I have the running hare book John and love it.
    I have now put the Augustus John book at the top of my 'want' list - I love his work and that of his sister and am fascinated (envious???) of his colourful life style!

  6. Mr. John sounds (and looks) like a character. Would have been fun to know him, but as you say, from a safe distance!

  7. Interesting selection, John. It's a joy to have more time (in retirement) to read. I just finished Jon McGregor 'If no-one speaks of remarkable things'. An extraordinary book, with a faint hint of 'Under Milk Wood' about it.

  8. Wonderful selection for the nature lover!

  9. A few years ago I read a book ( The Spark by Kristine Barnett) about Jacob Barnett, an autistic (Asperger) boy. It's written by his mother. Interesting how she nurtured and encouraged him. I saw him give a Ted talk on some of his scientific studies and he was funny and bright. I know a few people on the high end of the spectrum but never anyone who was severely disabled. I can imagine it would be challenging to learn how to make good connections with, say, a non-verbal person.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).