Category Archives: Bookshelf

Dispatches on Survival and Resistance

books john berger barbara kingsolver gary snyder martin shaw trump reading writing annie dillard anxietyDispatches on Survival and Resistance

Information has been weaponised and is being used against us by those who stand to gain from mass confusion. The question is, how are we going to defend ourselves?

Imagine truth has been deliberately buried under a great pile of rubble by a group of people so distracted by greed they are willing to sacrifice the viability of life on earth for the sake of a few extra golf clubs on the (rapidly disappearing) Florida coast.

The rubble is made of tabloid propaganda, fake news, misinformation, half-truths, spin doctors, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Katie Hopkins, most of the internet. The pile of rubble is as vast as a mountain range. Navigating a path through the rubble without falling off the mountain is one of the great challenges of our time.

T S Eliot famously wrote that ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality‘. This is presumably why the Daily Mail is so popular. It’s also where drugs come in. But now is no time for getting wasted. Our overheating, war-torn planet needs us. It is us. As the late, great John Berger wrote: ‘Reality is all we have to love. There’s nothing else.’

The only information that can’t be weaponised and used against us is the truth that comes from direct personal experience. Digging for truth among the rubble of lies can be a lonely business. This is where books come in.

Books cut through the loneliness. Books take no notice of time, distance or borders, even the ones that exist between life and death. As the author Johnathan Safran Foer wrote in a recent article for The Guardian ‘A book is the opposite of Facebook.’

If virtual reality is a space owned and managed by mass-murdering corporations, who act as gatekeepers and tax collectors, books represent the open-access land of the imagination. You can pitch a tent anywhere in literature and make it yours. There is no ongoing subscription, no data handed over and sold behind your back, no passwords, nuisance emails and expensive updates, no space for advertising. No up-to-the-minute technology, at eye-watering prices. Just some old trees sliced into pages to make a container for a story, or a poem, or an essay.

I have a friend who is younger than me. She gets anxious. It’s one of the reasons I like her. Frankly, if you’re not anxious right now then you’re not paying attention. Late one night we were drinking gin and talking about anxiety and I was rambling on about books and how they help me and my friend asked me to write a list of books I thought might help her.

The following five books constitute the first installment of this list. They are all books of essays. Essays, being short and full of arguments, are a good way back into reading if you’ve re-wired your brain for the benefit of mass-murdering corporations. Think of these essays as ammunition. Use them when the gin wears off and the money runs out and you find yourself embroiled in a difficult chat with someone who thinks the Daily Mail is a newspaper. Use them for love, comfort, truth and solidarity.

1 / Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard (Harper Perennial, first published 1982)

This small book deals with all sorts of big subjects, from polar exploration to weasels (‘We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place’) but the subjects don’t matter. Annie Dillard could write about the inside of my filing cabinet and it would be spellbinding, for ‘We are down here in time, where beauty grows.’

Annie Dillard is the reason I hardly ever publish anything on this blog. I have her words taped to my desk: ‘What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?’

Not much, as it goes.

2 / The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder (Counterpoint, first published 1990)

This was my bible when I was alone and terrified in the High Pyrenees. I read these essays – on walking, language, wilderness, change – over and over again, lying in my tent while thunderstorms crashed around the mountains. Gary Snyder became my excuse for being lost: ‘There are paths that can be followed and there are paths that cannot. It is not a path. It is the wilderness.’

Gary Snyder was the inspiration for Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. While the rest of the Beat Generation mostly drank themselves to death, Snyder dedicated his life to thinking, writing and ‘constantly walking.’

It was Snyder who wrote that ‘In western civilisation our elders are books’.

This book is one of my elders.

3 / Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber, first published 2002)

The title ‘Small Wonder’ refers to the sad inevitability of the attack on the twin towers in the context of American foreign policy, and to the miracle of life and all the small wonders of nature (which we are in the process of destroying).

Barbara Kingsolver’s novels achieve a rare thing, balancing story and polemic, taking difficult subjects (McCarthysim, the execution of Trotsky, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, climate change) and turning them into fat novels you can’t put down. Her standing within the literary world and politics is such that she was invited to lunch with Obama shortly after Trump’s inauguration.

In this book of essays she reminds us to keep digging for truth, precisely because the mass-murdering nature-bashing corporations would rather we gave ourselves up to confusion: ‘What is new is that we know so much about the world, or at least the part of it that is most picturesquely exploding on any given day, that we’re left with a desperate sense that all of it is exploding, all the time. As far as I can tell, that is the intent and purpose of television news. We see so much, understand so little, and are simultaneously told so much about What We Think, as a populace polled minute by minute, that it begins to feel like an extraneous effort to listen at all to our hearts.’

But we must, and reading Barbara Kingsolver helps.

I wish she was my granny.

4 / Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, by John Berger (Verso, first published 2007)

If I had to pick a favourite out of all the hundreds of writers I love, it would be John Berger. I love his sparse and painterly style. I love his courage and sense of adventure. I love his unflinching gaze. I love his endless optimism: ‘The multitudes have answers to questions which have not been posed, and they have the capacity to outlive the walls.’

This is a book about despair in the age of Iraq and George W Bush: ‘HOW MUCH LONGER GLOBAL POWER IN D NUMB HAND OF DOSE WHO KNOW NUTHIN?’

But it’s also a guidebook for survival, articulating the questions we’re all asking, in our various  languages, with ever-increasing urgency: ‘People everywhere – under very different conditions – are asking themselves – where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision for the future?’

He shows us what resistance looks like, and what giving in looks like: ‘Nihilism is resignation before the contention that Price is all. It is the most current form of human cowardice.’

John Berger died on 2nd January, 2017. His last words were published in a small book of ‘notes’ called Confabulations: ‘We will learn how to wait in solidarity. Just as we will continue indefinitely to praise, to swear and to curse in every language we know.’

5 / A Branch from the Lightning Tree by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, first published 2011)

Martin Shaw is a mythologist, and this is not so much a book of essays as an introduction to myth and how we need it in our lives. It was written after Shaw spent four years living in a tent on the side of a mountain in Snowdonia; it’s for anyone who gets anxious wandering the barren desert of work-sleep-telly-buy-consume, everyone who yearns for something different: ‘If you don’t want to be Crazy Horse, Boudicca, or Pablo Neruda, stop reading now. It’s probably best we nip this relationship in the bud. This is a book about teasing out the mischievous, solitude-loving, flamboyant, sorcerous, arms-extended-into-the-inky-blackness singing songs of the lost-highwayman aspect of your nature.’

I loved the stories: ‘After more treacherous journeying, Anga came to a towering mountain, so high your eyes would strain and go blind if you tried to see the top of it.’

I loved the commentaries: ‘One hit of DMT will blow the castle doors open in seconds and precipitate a chemically engineered free-fall into a Persian garden. As we congratulate ourselves on having plunged straight into Ceridwen’s cauldron, we would do well to remember our fathers turning to the whiskey cabinet and gazing at sunsets through the castle gates.’

It gave me a new way of looking at old problems: ‘Another larger interpretation is that the planet itself may be trying to awaken us from the thing that Eats and Consumes All. In this case the listener by the door is a tsunami, a flooded New Orleans – something that in the cold light of day says, “For Christ’s sake; don’t you hear the sobbing of your beloved?”

In 2016 I was lucky enough to have the chance to hear Martin Shaw tell a story and talk about his work. Times are dark and troubled, he said. And when times are dark and troubled there’s only one thing to do: make beauty.

And if you’re wondering what I’ve been making, search for Andy Mac on NTS radio, play the mix and wait for the owls.

Elena Ferrante on Brexit

chickensElena Ferrante, best-selling Italian author who has (just) managed to hang onto her anonymity, eschewing all interviews and never being seen dead on social media, has spoken out about Brexit.



I am making mad connections between entirely unconnected things because it suits my argument.

I’m upset about Brexit. I could fill a post with all the reasons why I’m upset about Brexit, from the most self-centred and practical (loss of right to live and work in 27 countries in which trains and houses are actually affordable and the sun actually shines) to the most outward-looking and existential (the rise and rise of the far-right and what this means for world peace). But I’m not going to talk about Brexit. Not while we’ve all still got a hangover. I’m going to talk about stories.

Because I have finally reached a conclusion: Leave won not because voters were stupid, misguided, hoodwinked, or vicious (some probably were, but most probably weren’t). Leave won because the perpetrators of Leave told the most coherent story, and in times of unfathomable complexity, such as now, a coherent story is like a pork pie on the side of a freezing mountain. You know its wrong, but you’ll eat it anyway.

The connection between Brexit and Elena Ferrante, apart from the fact that Elena Ferrante distracted me from the mad ravings of Trump for the whole of December with her utterly fabulous Neapolitan quartet, is that right at the end of the last book ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ she has one of her characters explain something about bad fiction, which reminded me of Nigel Farage:

‘Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are likeable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.’

The problem with Nigel Farage, apart from all the other problems with Nigel Farage, is that his consoling stories are made of pork pies. Truth doesn’t come in slogans. Truth is nuanced and subtle, quiet and contradictory, a fine balance of probabilities, a line drawn in snow, an instinct for kindness, a desire for justice. Truth, dammit, is always collapsing into awkward puddles of conflicting points of view, both of which are equally valid. Truth is too complex to be represented on the side of a bus. Truth surfaces in strange places. Truth has even been spotted on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, although not very often.

Which brings me to my final point. I have been struggling for a long time to explain to myself why I hate promoting myself on social media. Someone told me it was because I was lazy. I am lazy, so that had the ring of truth, but it wasn’t the truth. The truth, as ever, was more complicated. Social media relies on a two dimensional world of constructed selves, with all the difficult bits left out. Novels, on the other hand, or books of any kind, are only as good as they have managed to scrape away the constructs to reveal the messy and often embarrassing and yet deeply human and therefore unifying truth underneath. There’s a deep conflict between the goals of good writing and the goals of social media.

Therefore I have decided that 2017 will be the year of rejecting coherent narratives, listening instead of ranting (ranting is so Nigel Farage), resisting the temptation to construct a cooler, slicker and more successful version of myself on social media, and instead engaging with the yin-yang complexity of existence whilst eating chocolate-covered coffee beans, although not last thing at night.

I like dark chocolate, are you with me or against me?

Except that sometimes I like milk chocolate and sometimes I even like white chocolate. Sometimes I don’t even like coffee.

Who the fuck am I?

I am both.

Two fingers to Nigel Farage and his bad novels made of pork pies. I am British and European and Welsh and a citizen of the World and totally sure and totally confused and happy and sad and lazy and mad and sane and educated and underemployed and worn-out with working and indebted and human and real and ordinary. 

Just like you.

Just like the characters in the novels of Elena Ferrante, which is why they’re so damn good.

And finally, if, like me, you happen to find complexity comforting, rather than threatening, then I’d urge you to spend an evening watching Adam Curtis documentaries on Youtube.  Whilst eating chocolate-covered coffee beans. Dark, milk, white, whatever….

Cheers. Here’s to a grown-up and heavily nuanced 2017.



Bookshelf #2 Paul Kingsnorth

wake 1

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month (or six months…) I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. This month it is the turn of Paul Kingsnorth, whose first novel, The Wake, is easily the best book I have read this year.

when will i be free saes the cilde to the stag

and the stag saes thu will nefer be free

then when will angland be free

angland will nefer be free

then what can be done

naht can be done

then how moste i lif

thu moste be triewe that is all there is

be triewe

be triewe

At university we had to do a paper on ‘Englishness’. I found it very difficult. While I could talk about Wales or Cornwall with a semblance of pride and love and dignity, I was lost for words when it came to England. The England I knew was a place of clone towns and creeping suburbs. The England I read about was responsible for slavery and colonialism and class. I could not identify with England. Was this because there was so little of England left?

When physical landscapes are desecrated, our sense of who we are, both individually and collectively, is weakened

for man tacs on the ways of the place he is in

The hostile takeover of England’s cultural landscape is familiar territory for Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Real England; The Battle against the Bland (2008) is essential reading for anyone who weeps at the sight of a vast new supermarket on the outskirts of their hometown.

In his latest book, which was crowd-funded on Unbound and then longlisted for the Booker prize, Paul Kingsnorth goes back to the roots of his obsession, confronting the original hostile takeover of England’s physical landscapes. In 1066 a marauding army arrived on our shores, raping and murdering and burning villages, turning locals into slaves and forcing people to pay for access to their own land, a norm that has persisted ever since

a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years

Hung carefully on the little-known facts of a doomed guerilla uprising that took root in the years following the Norman Conquest, The Wake is narrated by Buccmaster of Holland in a ‘shadow tongue’ loosely based on Old English. The language takes a bit of getting used to, but the purpose of it is clear – this is Buccmaster’s story, and his meanings are framed in his language, as all meanings must be. To impose our own tongue on Buccmaster would be to saddle him with our own meanings, and therefore miss his triewthe.

What emerges, however, and all the stronger for it, is that Buccmaster’s triewthe is very much our truth. His deeply emotional responses and psychological complexity are as modern as they come, and the strangeness of the language only serves to emphasise that this is as much a book about what it means to be human as it is about specific historical events. The past illuminates the present. The connection between landscape and identity, the desire for autonomy, the need for privacy, the aftermath of war and the nature of freedom are themes that dominate Buccmaster’s reality and our headlines. As all good art should, The Wake forced me to look at the familiar through an unfamiliar lens, encouraging a re-assessment of my assumptions.

Buccmaster is no hero. A deeply flawed and unreliable narrator, he says ‘fucc’ and ‘cunt’ a lot, beats his wife, talks to trees, considers himself a ‘ceosen’ one, looks down on his inferiors and frequently runs away from battles, yet his difficult relationship with his father and subsequent egoistic insecurity reverberate down the centuries. He makes total sense. His complete identification with the land he belongs to, his overwhelming sense of ownership and place, his hatred of being controlled, his love of freedom, all rang true. His story felt like my story. For both of us (I suspect for all of us, if we were lucky enough to have access to the outdoors as children) the land that brings us up becomes a kind of parent-substitute, and the loss of it is akin to the loss of our parents. Not something you recover from easily, if ever.

Buccmaster’s trust in the ‘auld gods’ of the trees and the fens brings him shame and ridicule in the context of recently-imported Christianity. As readers we are invited to examine what we know deep down to be true, and notice the ways in which our own truth conflicts with what we are told to be true by those who are occupying not just our physical landscapes but also our cultural landscapes.

With the loss of our land it becomes hard to hear ourselves think. Our sense of self is weakened, we become vulnerable to occupation

in the tuns all is so great and blaec and there is so micel sound that no man can be free or triewe

All very handy for market fundamentalism, England’s current despotic ‘cyng’.

As the title suggests, The Wake does not have a happy ending. And yet I felt uplifted and hopeful when I reached the end. Like a postcard from a long-lost love, the only one who ever understood me, arriving just in time, just before I jumped. For

a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years

and England is still weeping.

But still, and it is good to be reminded,

thu moste be triewe.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry. The Wake is his first novel. He is a founder member of – a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.

Bookshelf #1 Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month. I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. I’m kicking off with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last Thursday, aged 87.


The first Gabriel Garcia Marquez book I ever read was not a masterwork of magical realism, or a profound meditation on the human capacity for romantic love (these would come later) but a slim and little-known travel book called Clandestine in Chile.

This hundred-page paperback tells the true story of Miguel Littin, a Chilean film director who was exiled after the 1973 military coup and then returned in disguise, risking everything to “bring the world a truer picture of life under Pinochet.” Littin told his story to Marquez, who re-told it in the first person, using eighteen hours of taped interviews.

The blurb on the back of my well-travelled copy provides hard evidence of the truth in it:

“On 28 November 1986, in Valparaiso, the Chilean authorities impounded and burned 15 000 copies of this book.”

When I visited Valparaiso myself, twenty years after Littin’s clandestine journey and thirty years after the coup, the foreign city was delivered to me full of meaning. Thanks to Marquez, I had already been there in my imagination. Thanks to the fact of my humanity, my imagination is every bit as real as my reality.

When I later came to read Love in the Time of Cholera I found even more truth, and it was a truth that felt heightened, rather than diminished, by the quantities of magic in it.

The older I get, the more complicated the relationship between reality, imagination and truth seems to become. Reality is so subjective – having to be funnelled first through our senses and then through our various languages – that I can’t help suspecting that there is no such thing. Truth, on the other hand, is everywhere. We feel it, see it, imagine it and know it – even when we can’t talk about it. Which is where stories come in, and why great storytellers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez are mourned with nothing less than the heartfelt love of perfect strangers.

It is through stories – film, television, books – that we get to share our actual experience of truth (as opposed to reality as presented by various news media) and therefore feel less alone.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez made me feel less alone when I was sitting on the concrete floor of a South American bus station and navigating a tidal wave of sadness associated with my latest break-up. I was reassured to learn “that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

I felt less alone after finally meeting Jose Arcadio Buendia, the protagonist of One Hundred Years of Solitude, an inventor whose magic-inspired inventions lead him further and further from his ordinary life, into all kinds of chaos, and yet “even those convinced of his madness left work and family to follow him.”

Perhaps one of the side effects of progress in science and technology, of staking everything on the illusion of empiricism, is forgetting the value of magic. Another ancient woodland is cut down to make room for a motorway service station. We are left staring into “the abyss of disenchantment.”

But perhaps good stories can rescue us, helping us to understand that we do not understand. Putting us in our place.

“The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.”

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude this year, one border crossing from Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. I found it difficult at first, in the same way that strange countries can be difficult at first. There were so many characters, and they were so fantastic. They said things people don’t say, they lived according to strange rules and kept the oddest of habits, they waged unwinnable wars and their thoughts were pure poetry. It was only after I had been with these people for several hundred pages that I finally began to accept the truth of them, which was accompanied by a feeling of relief, because I was also accepting the truth of me – which is that my grip on ‘reality’ is tenuous, and it is the poetry of my imagination – my existential solitude – that makes me who I am.

As Salman Rushdie said of Marquez in a recent essay in the New York Times

“He was a dreamer who believed in the truth of dreams.”

Becky and I both read One Hundred Years of Solitude, one after the other, in various Central American jungles, while young men rode past at dawn on horseback, listening to pop music on their ipods. We both struggled with it, wrestled with it, woke each other up with the most poetic bits of it, were desperate to understand the truth of it, and eventually loved it with an inexplicable, unreasonable, tearful love.

Just like life.

To quote Salman Rushdie again;

“For such magnificence, our only possible reaction is gratitude.”

I will be singing about my book ‘The Ribbons Are For Fearlessness’ on 29th April at 6.30 in the Falmouth Bookseller.