Monday, 26 March 2018

Review: 'The Lost Words' by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane

This book really doesn't need any help from me. It's already a classic. But I wanted to review it because I love it.

I wanted to read it from the moment I first heard how it was inspired:-- during one of the regular revisions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, it was decided to exclude certain words, which modern children no longer looked up or needed-- words such as 'bluebell', 'heron,' and 'conker'-- in order to make room for words such as 'broadband' and 'wi'fi'.

The book's wonderful artist, Jackie Morris, was incensed by this. She tells about how the book came about here. (The beautiful picture at the top of this blog is from Jackie's site.)

Many other writers and artists were aghast when they heard about these words being dropped. There is a theory of language that says that when you lose the word for something, you also lose the ability to think about it or consider it important. It becomes something nameless-- and if people haven't even bothered to name something, it can't be important, can it?

Theory apart, how the hell can you dispense with the word 'bluebell'? Every year I go to view the miles of bluebells in the woods on the Clent hills. Somehow, it wouldn't be the same if I walked there thinking, "What a lot of blue flowers."

Rather, when I look down a slope covered with blue and see the blue spreading and filtering through the trees, it adds a lot to know that these are bluebells, wild hyacinths and that such masses of them indicate 'undisturbed ancient woodland.'

But how can  'heron' ever  be considered a word that isn't  necessary in  a children's dictionary? Or dandelion? Dandelion, for god's sake. Dandelion piss-the-bed: dandelion clocks-- how do you even be a child without knowing the word dandelion and what it represents? As well get rid of 'daisy' or 'buttercup.'

I had been trying to work out how to get my paws on a copy of the book, since its beautiful production makes it expensive... While I was still wondering, I saw a tweet from Jackie Morris herself, commenting in surprise that the third Sterkarm book, A Sterkarm Tryst, was in print.

I have a slight aquaintance with Ms. Morris-- I wouldn't presume to claim it to be anything more. So I tweeted back with a suggestion that we do swapsies. I would send her a copy of Tryst (wot I wrote) if she would send me one of The Lost Words.
A Sterkarm Tryst

I think I got the better end of the deal. The book arrived in the post some weeks ago and I have kept it to hand and dipped into it frequently ever since.

It's a much larger book than you might guess from the picture above. And it isn't a book of poems with illustrations. The artist and poet are equals here-- the initial idea came from Jackie Morris and she tells us how writer and artist influenced each other.

Robert Macfarlane, a prize winning poet and writer, has written 'a book of spells'-- the intention being to spell the lost words back into our memories and useage.

Each spell is introduced by a double-page spread where letters blow and tumble among grasses or fern or trees-- as if the lost words were being broken and scattered. Or, perhaps are being called back, spelled back together.

The poems are acrostics, so the word in danger of being lost is spelled, not only in the title, but in the reading and writing of the spell. And the poems are beautiful. The more often you read them--spelling back those lost words-- the more beauty you find in them.

Facing each poem is one of Jackie Morris' rightly celebrated paintings. And then, over the page, a double spread painting-- paintings of acorns, brambles, owls, bluebells, magpies...

 I love the whole book, but I think my favourite part is Bluebell. The beautiful poem is followed by a breathtaking double page showing an owl fleeting and a fox slinking through the dusk of a bluebell wood.

But otters, ravens, newts, willow, adders-- you'll find them all here. Magpies too. I love the magpies who 'gossip, bicker, yak and snicker' in my garden. Love their flying dinosaur shapes, their long tails and petrol blue sheen. Currently they are pulling my hedge to bits for nesting material and flying off towing long streamers of dried grass behind them.

"A proportion of the royalties from each copy of The Lost Words will be donated to Action for Conservation, a charity dedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the natural world...."

In Scotland, Jane Beaton has raised £25,000 to give the book to all 2,681 schools in Scotland-- for more about this story, follow this link.


Susan Price is the author not only of A Sterkarm Tryst, but also of The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss-- as well as about 60 other books. You can find out more about them on her website, here.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

This blog is going to be a bit off-topic.
     I'm in the middle of planning for several school visits and my mind is like an over-excited and untrained collie racing round a field, barking furiously and scaring away the sheep it's trying to round up.
     In an attempt to exhaust the over-excited collie, I went to the gym on Tuesday morning. And That Bloke was there again. The one that makes my jaw drop.

     Before you start conjuring up some tall, blond, muscled Adonis, stop and think again. He is nothing whatsoever like that.
     He is Asian and probably no taller than me, though he's certainly much slimmer. And stronger and fitter.
     He doesn't strut around in a skin tight vest with all his tattoos on oiled display. Instead, he dresses anonymously, in a loose t-shirt and knee-length baggy shorts. The most 'don't-look-at-me' gear you could imagine. I haven't seen him talk to anyone, and he does nothing at all to draw attention to himself. Apart from the astonishing stuff he does-- which he performs in an abstracted, absorbed manner with not even the quickest glance round to see if anyone's watching.

      At the centre of the gym floor is a complicated structure of vertical steel bars, with some cross bars. Various platforms can be hooked onto this structure at different heights. There's a punch-bag hanging at one side, and straps with hoops on them, with which some brave people do press-up and what-not.
      The first time I noticed That Bloke, I happened to be on a cycle near this central structure. Absorbed in my own work-out, I barely registered That Bloke when he strolled over and seized hold of one of the vertical bars. I assumed he was going to do some chin-ups, which is a common enough sight. Even the men do them, sometimes.
     Then I realised that That Bloke wasn't hanging down from the upper cross-bars... No, he was standing out horizontally from one of the vertical bars. He had taken hold of a vertical bar at about head-height -- and then raised his whole body, legs and all, so that he stood out, rigidly, horizontally from it. Arms straight out, legs straight out. And there he stayed. Perfectly still. For what seemed like an age. While my jaw slowly dropped lower and lower with every ticking second.
Like this. Honest.

     The core-strength required to hold your body in that position for even a second is, well, considerable. Without even talking about the arm and shoulder strength. Pole-dancers can do this, I know, as part of their routine -- but they don't hold it the position for so long.
     For all the expression That Bloke showed, he might have been standing at a bus-stop.
     Then he dropped to his feet and went off quietly to shake the big heavy ropes.

     He was there again on Tuesday morning. He started off by fixing a plastic platform to the steel frame, at about hip height. Then he stepped up onto it, first with his left leg, then with his right. That is, he lifted one foot onto a platform at hip height -- and then used that one leg to step him up onto the platform. Like climbing a stair where every step is at hip-level. He repeated this stunt several times.
     I thought this was mad enough. But he followed it up by putting both hands flat on this platform -- his feet were on the floor, remember. He then raised his legs in a straight line behind him.
     Picture the scene. His hands are palm down on this hip-height platform. He balances on them while he raises the rest of his body, and his legs, in a straight line behind him. His heels are slightly higher than his head. The palms of his hands are his only contact with anything solid.

      Let me be clear. His feet aren't resting on anything. There is nothing supporting his body except his hands. He is holding his entire body at that sloping angle in empty air.
     Then he did press-ups. While balancing on his hands and holding the whole weight of his body in the air, in a horizontal line, he did several press-ups. I was there. I watched him do it. I wouldn't have believed it otherwise. I didn't even know the human body was capable of that.
     After four or five press-ups, he dropped down, had a drink of water and wandered out of the gym.

    Washboard abs? -- With that kind of core strength, the man must have abs like the steel cable that holds up the Forth Bridge. Somewhere under his loose, baggy t-shirt.
     You wouldn't give him a glance if he passed you in the street. He wasn't tall.  He wasn't 'built.' What could be seen of his arms and legs seemed quite slim and normal, and not noteably muscular. He seemed unremarkable in every way -- until he started turning himself into a human shelf-bracket or angle-poise lamp.

When I told Davy about That Bloke, Davy said, "He must be a gymnast. Only a gymnast would want to do that."
        The gym, I should say, is a well-attended but unspectacular 'lifestyle centre' run by the local authority (or, at least, out-sourced by them.) It's not expensive or in any way glitzy. Its clientele spans the local population, from the young and fit to the old and unfit (like me) to people in wheelchairs and people who come along with guide-dogs or carers. And in the middle of us all, this quiet bloke quietly doing astonishing things. And then wandering off. To where? To do what? Leap tall buildings with a single bound?

What I have are been mostly doing, when not gawping at the gym, is sorting out my website, which badly needed it. It had somehow got into such a fankle that not even I could find anything on it.
     It's a work still in progress, but I think a lot of progress has been made. At least you can find your way round it now.
     It's here.
And on it, you can find out more about these.