Review — “The White Cliffs” — Alice Duer Miller

The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very short and easy-to-read verse novella. A reviewer at Goodreads complained that the poem was doggerel. I didn’t think the entire poem was doggerel — there are various forms in the complete poem, some more “simple” than others. But the novella is in a sense a propaganda piece, so it makes sense, I think, that the beginning of the poem should have the kind of rhymes and rhythms that would draw the average reader in, the type of reader whose normal reading fare is perhaps not poetry.

The poem has the same feel to it as Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death – a conversation between Britain and America about why England/Britain/the United Kingdom should be helped by the United States in its fight against Fascism — the protagonist’s father fills much the same role as the adversarial advocate in that film’s heavenly court. (In fact, as I write this, I wonder how much of an influence The White Cliffs had on the film).

As in the film Mrs Miniver[1], which was also intended to persuade, the novella is set in a certain class of British society — there are children with nannies, husbands who think that first children should always be named a certain way, people who think that primogeniture is very good thing, people who live in the countryside in big houses. It conveys a stereotypical view of England (we’ll call it that) that reflects the mores of, say, the upper middle-class, and believes that those people, those mores, define England. For that reason the poem feels very located in a particular time and place, and doesn’t speak to a wider or modern audience. Yet, it wasn’t really written for a “wider” audience, certainly on this side of the pond. It was written to inspire an American audience to agitate to save a stereotypical Britain.

And, after all, stereotypes can be powerful. This poem was apparently successful in speaking to the American public about the perils Britain faced. The battered old copy I read was a 15th edition, so “doggerel” in part it might have been, but that doggerel struck a chord with readers in a way that more “elevated” or “sophisticated” poetry might not. And as I mentioned earlier, the poem is not doggerel throughout; there are some nice structures and lines later in the poem that indicate that simplicity of form might have been an intent. (Caveat: I do not know enough about Alice Duer Miller’s other poetry to be sure that this is so.).

It has historical interest, certainly, and also has pertinence to cultural studies. It has some interesting lines and some nice turns of phrase. So: A short read, that some might find irritating for a variety of reasons, but others might find inspiring for a variety of reasons.

[1] I like “Mrs Miniver”… That bomb shelter scene!

Review — “One Green Field” — Edward Thomas

One Green Field (English Journeys)One Green Field by Edward Thomas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve liked many of Thomas’s poems (when forced to learn “Adlestrope” when I was fourteen, I took against him, but learned the error of my ways later in life), and have often wondered what his famous nature writing was like. So, I dipped my toe in the luxuriant waters with this short collection of essays published by Penguin in their English Journeys series.

Now, I found in this book what I feared most. I’ve always been wary of nature writing, and the recent increasing interest in it has brought to my attention snippets in magazines and papers, writing that I’ve tended to find a little over-wrought, a tad repetitive, and just a touch rich. And it was the same with the essays in this book. I think I like my writing… with slightly less cream and sugar, let us say, a little less piping across the marzipan.

I can’t count the number of times a moorhen appeared, or a pond. Whether it was the same pond or the same moorhen, I’m not completely sure, but there was often a pond, and often a moorhen. I also began to lose my way in lists of flowers, and trees and routes, colours, sounds, leaves everywhere, the textures of bricks and stones and tiles, and it was definitely too much; it all tumbled down in a cascade of adjectives and nouns.

For me, the best essay was “The Village” — I think because it had the feel of a narrative, that there was a little life writing, some biography in it. Of course, there were passages of loveliness in many of the essays, but, as I say, after a while it all became a bit too much. Still, many people greatly admire Thomas’ essays, and find the richness a pleasure. But I think I’ve learned that I prefer the spare fictions of a Maugham, Greene or Rendell. And one idea returned to me again and again as I read through the essays: that I preferred the compression and discipline of the poems; that, for me, Thomas had said everything he needed to say about his love of nature and his connection to the countryside in Tall Nettles.

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Genial: The Love Song of Simon and Julie

In July I published the latest in the Dereham Nodes, Genial: The Love Song of Simon and Julie. Genial is the next novel in my Dereham series of novels. I don’t like to think of it as a series, really. The novels are stylistically and generically different. The novels are simply interconnected. They are set in the same town, and that is where the interconnections occur.

Genial is Node 4.5. Why Node 4.5, you might wonder. There is a reason, naturellement. This node is more a novella than a novel, as it is only about fifty thousand words. The story is also, in terms of genre, quite different to the other novels. It’s a love story, as the subtitle indicates. It doesn’t really involve spies, UFOs, the paranormal, crazy people, or any of that stuff. It does involve friendship, which, I realise, is quite a theme of the later novels in this series. It also takes place in the background to everything that is happening in Raven of Dispersion (Node 4), while Simon later becomes a major character in The Ethical Hitman (Node 5). So, to me, it felt like a novel that was in the same network, but slightly off the main routes.

So, what is Genial about? It’s about the summer of 1976 — the dazzling summer, the long hot summer, the summer when the sun shone always, and would shine always and forever — and young old friends Simon and Julie drift through the glorious lazy holiday that stretches before them, wondering what they should do about the loves they somehow left behind, before the sun came out. As they share time together under the blue skies, in the sultry heat, with their friends — the friend who loves his car, the friend who loves fixing cars, the friend whose boyfriend loves his drink, the friend who loves all the boys, the friend who loves somebody else’s girlfriend — they wonder who it is they should love. Out on the hills, out in the fields, and riding in cars with the wind in their hair, Simon and Julie become languorously entangled. Can this entanglement last longer than sunshine? Or is it only a creation of this magical summer? Their story is episodic, picaresque, sentimental, romantic. And most genial.

Various characters from other novels appear, and Simon and Julie themselves re-appear in later novels in the series. The novel also holds another secret or ludic notion, a notion at which the blurb on the back of the book hints.

I had a break from writing after finishing Genial. It’s been a pretty intense 15 years of writing and editing (especially when you consider that my day-to-day job is technical  writing!), including five novels and three non-fiction books. However, this year will see me get back into the groove as I work with sometime co-author Kevin on Node 0, and start writing Node 6. And I will be chasing a publisher/agent again.

Review — “Judgement Day” — Penelope Lively

Judgement DayJudgement Day by Penelope Lively

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my first Penelope Lively novel. Her name on spines has followed me around bookshops for the best part of my reading life. But in my drive to read more women authors, I found a couple of Lively’s second-hand, and thought I’d give them a go. She is a prolific author, and the first two purchases were pretty much pot-luck. Turns out that Moon Tiger, the first of the two I bought, was a Booker prize winner. However, I began my Lively journey with the slightly slimmer Judgement Day.

Judgement Day is story set around a church. That might make it sound like some kind of story about religion or belief, but it’s not really about that, although those topics are touched on. We meet the people involved in the church, but not all of them are religious. They are the members of a fund-raising committee — the old church is in need of repair. It is through this committee that various inhabitants of the town meet. There are also other characters who are not part of the committee and not interested in the church who nonetheless interact with the central characters and add colour and motivation to the plot.

The central characters are, for me at least, Ruth, the atheist with an interest in church architecture; the ineffectual and doubting vicar, George; the church Warden and veteran of World War 2, Sydney; and Martin, the troubled child of warring parents who lives next door to Sydney.

The story is told from various viewpoints, first one character and then another. Lively chops the viewpoints around quite quickly, with perhaps half a page devoted to one voice, then a page or two to another. Changes in viewpoint are clearly signposted, so the story is easy to follow, and each voice is distinct enough, because of their internal dialog or concerns, to keep the characters straight.

The novel follows the characters as they interact – through the fund-raising committee, or because they are neighbours, or because their children play together. Even though what happens might be considered mundane, still I wanted to know what was happening, what the result of these relationships would be. Because it is a novel, of limited duration, you know there will be a pay-off, a crisis. But how? And what? Why the title? What is, when is, judgement day? To reveal that would be to write a spoiler.

Suffice to say that a novel I thought would be about one relationship was very much about another. And ultimately, it is very sad book. You begin to see a glimmer of hope, changes occurring, a blossoming, perhaps. But that is cut short. And you can see and feel sad lives stretching out beyond the end of the book.

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2017 — My Year in Photographs

I was going to create this blog post back in January. But I became so involved in editing one of my books, trying to get it ready for July, that I never did get around to writing this. Until now. I can hardly believe it’s September already.

Back in January, I thought it might be interesting to look at the photographs I’d taken during 2017, and select my favourite from each month. I did that at the time, and I’ve since reviewed them again while writing this post. Turns out, only two have been replaced in my affections.


In January, I had to pick my son up from Grateley station, in Hampshire. I arrived early, so thought I’d take some shots of the station platform and lights. I also caught a very bright Venus.

Grateley Station

Grateley Station — Sony RX10


In February, Lizzie and I went on one of our bi-monthly trips away. This time, we went back to one of our favourite places, the East Devon coast. Seaton, in particular, is liked by us. This photo was taken in the early evening, and catches two young people gossiping on the pebbly beach. There’s a cool winter feel to this shot I really like.

Seaton Beach

Seaton Beach — Sony RX10


March. The evenings were drawing out, the weather was beginning to warm, the farmers were harrowing and ploughing. Although not very wet, the tail-end of winter and the beginning of spring were damp, with many cloudy days. This particular cloudy day, however, looked fine with the stand of trees and the sheep. This photo was taken with an odd old lens, a Kaligar 52mm medium-format lens, which was mounted on a Sony A55 using a Fujita 66 to Pentax adaptor and a Sony/Pentax adaptor… The effect of the various crop factors was to make the Kaligar somewhere around 50-60mm on the A55. I had bought the lens on a whim for a mere £24. I sold it for a few bob more a few months later.

Large Copse with Sheep, Sony A55, Kaligar 52mm

Large Copse with Sheep — Sony A55, Kaligar 52mm


Halfway through spring. The nights are noticeably longer. The sunshine is feeling warm at last. This photo was taken on the way home from work one evening. I was aware that there was a traffic jam in Marlborough, so took a shortcut through Savernake Forest. I noted that the track was dusty, and that the sun was setting behind the trees. So I drove up and down the track before taking the photograph, to create a little hazy atmosphere…

Sun Through Savernake Dust

Sun Through Savernake Dust — Sony RX10


Spring is about to tumble into summer! Sunshine, long evenings and warmth. One thing I find fascinating is the routes of old roads. Salisbury Plain is crisscrossed by old roads, prehistoric, modern, early modern… probably medieval as well. One of these roads, the old Salisbury-Devises turnpike road, still exists, although its route across the Plain is maintained by the Ministry of Defence now, and is a gravel track right across The Black Heath. This heath is a high point of the central Plain and the road follows a ridge across it. The photo shows the old road as it enters onto The Black Heath. The building is an observation point for the military.

The Entrance to the Black Heath,

The Entrance to the Black Heath — Sony A99, Sigma 24-70 EX DG


In June, we took another of our bi-monthly trips, this time to Hele on the north Devon coast. This area — around Westward Ho!, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin,  Lynmouth, and Exmoor, is another favourite.  As we drove around some backroads near Combe Martin, we arrived at the top of a high down. The light was intriguing, so we stopped to take photos. I could see this interesting sea of green, a field  among trees, distant from where I was standing, so used the far reaches of the zoom to snip this shot from the wider landscape.

Near Combe Martin

Near Combe Martin — Sony A99, Tamron 150-600mm


In July I took a trip down to North Hampshire — in fact, what would have been South Wiltshire at one time — to visit a friend in Martin. We went for a walk on Martin Down. This was full of wild flowers at the time, including one I don’t recall seeing on Salisbury Plain, the rather lovely round-headed rampion.

Round-headed rampion

Round-headed Rampion — Sony A99, Minolta 50mm macro


By August, the weather had been dry for a while. The tracks across Salisbury Plain are a mixture of chalk (unimproved) and gravel (improved for use by the MoD).  The eastern Plain in particular has a lot of gravel tracks. When these tracks are dry, vehicles kick up a lot of dust as they travel along them. This can be very photogenic. In the photo below, two off-roaders were travelling along the track. I photographed the second of them through the hazy dust, capturing also the dust trail they had both left behind them.

Suzi Kicking up a Dust Storm

Suzi Kicking up a Dust Storm — Sony A99, Tamron 150-600


Back to the centre of Salisbury Plain again for September’s favourite. This is on The Black Heath, at the junction of two old turnpike roads. To the south, the road heads towards Salisbury; to the north a road heads towards Devizes, across The Black Heath; and a road heads north-west towards Market Lavington. The fingerpost in the photograph had only recently had its fingers reinstalled. For at least four years, only the post had stood here.

This day had been very stormy, with thundery showers and thunderstorms all around — in fact, I had chased a storm across Wiltshire, and you can see one of the photos from this chase at the head of this post.

Track Towards the Cloud

Track Towards the Cloud — Sony A99, Sigma 24-70 f2.8


As you’ll have noticed by now, a lot of my photos are taken on Salisbury Plain. You might also have noted references to chalk and gravel tracks. Some of these tracks do get quite tricky to traverse by mid-winter, and an off-roader becomes useful — even necessary.

For my needs, any off-roader has to fulfil three functions. It has to be small enough for Lizzie to drive — she is very wee; it has to be cheap, because we use our off-roaders as photography platforms, so we happily climb all over the bonnet and roof for better angles; and, it has to be decent off-road  — not Land Rover or Unimog proficient, just decent. A Honda HRV ticks all the boxes. This has slightly over-sized tyres for extra ground clearance, although I know which ruts not to drive in, despite the tyres — I usually know a way around.

When I was taking photos one afternoon, I turned around and noticed the cool evening light on the battered old Honda, and thought it looked pleasing. I knew that the Sigma would take a nice photo of it.

Old HRV - My Transport Over the Plain

Old HRV – My Transport Over the Plain — Sigma DP2 Merrill


Autumn. Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees. I prefer bare trees to trees in leaf. This group of trees, one of the Charlton Clumps, is one of my favourite subjects. You will find many interpretations of this clump on my Flickr pages. This photograph was taken in the late afternoon — the light was nice, and the clouds all fluffy and lovely.

The lens was an old M42 mount 135mm lens, made or distributed by Cimako.  It only cost £5 and was actually very nice. I don’t know why I sold it on. (Well, I do really — an abundance of M42 135mm lenses in my bag).

Autumnal Charlton Clump

Autumnal Charlton Clump — Sony A99, Cimako 135mm M42


Into the final month of the year. Salisbury Plain attracts several species of rare or scarce birds. The wide open spaces, the relative peace and isolation (if you discount the odd passing tank or explosion), the tracts of treeless grassland, are enticing to certain birds. During the summer months, Montagu’s harriers and stone-curlews nest here. In the winter, hen harriers follow their prey south and quarter the grasses, hunting for meadow pipits and skylarks.

This female hen harrier favoured me with a relatively close approach in lovely late afternoon sunlight.

Winter Plain Harrier

Winter Plain Harrier — Sony A99, Tamron 150-600

And that is the story of my photographic year, 2017. What will this year bring?

(And here are my favourites from 2016)


Review — “Discrimination And Popular Culture” — Denys Thompson (ed.)

Discrimination And Popular CultureDiscrimination And Popular Culture by Denys Thompson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Discrimination And Popular Culture is an early entry into the study of popular culture, so is not beset by theory or post-modernism, and thus is an easy-enough read. It is a collection of relatively non-academic essays, published in 1964. Given the publication date, the essays reflect the popular culture of the early 1960s or even the late 1950s. Even The Beatles are so new they are only mentioned in a footnote. The essays have, therefore, little connection with cultural topics that would fascinate and inform subsequent studies of popular culture.

Youth culture is mentioned in a few of the the essays, yet isn’t given the prominence it would have in later books about culture. The essays seemed to grope for a structure or framework that would enable criticism of that culture. Youth culture pops up, unsurprisingly, mostly in reference to popular music and magazines. The swinging sixties, rock music, 60s film and fashion are notably absent. No David Bailey or Mary Quant here. For modern readers, the absence of photography and fashion as topics would be the most obvious omissions.

As the title suggests, the essays seek to address how consumers should discriminate between what is good and bad in popular culture, or between what is true or false. So, we have essays on advertising, film, radio and television, the press, magazines, recorded music, and design. The last essay in the book, on design, is a surprising inclusion, and feels like an odd-man-out; the essay doesn’t have the same emphasis on discrimination.

Discrimination is the underlying theme of the book. It is the method that enables popular culture to be analysed (and perhaps dismissed as frivolous folly). Discrimination is a matter of education, and this education should should start early. Discrimination between the “bad” and the “good” in newspapers, television, cinema, and so on, can be taught at school, it is suggested. And there’s a sense in which this indeed would be helpful, and the teaching of critical thinking at school is a topic for educationalists even today.

Critical thinking or good judgement as tools for discrimination can be useful for approaching newspapers, news magazines, or news and comment on television or radio. However, for more subjective areas, such as popular music, articles in say, teenage and music magazines, responses to movies, and so on, the use of discrimination sails perilously close to being simply a method to elevate high and denigrate low culture. For example, the essay on film discusses at length what is wrong with the movies The Guns of Navarone and Summer Holiday, while extolling the virtues of L’Atalante and L’Age d’Or — and while I’m sure the last two films are fine films, they are most certainly not “popular culture”. The medium might be popular, but the medium must be distinguished from artefacts of that medium. There are artefacts of the medium that are popular — Summer Holiday — and artefacts that are assuredly not, and are, indeed “high culture”.

Despite its age, the book can sometimes feel contemporary. This is partly because it talks about discrimination and education. Often, nothing seems to have changed. Newspapers mislead, or should be considered entertainment rather than news; television is banal; to make money, movies appeal to a wide audience rather than being the best art they can be; magazines for teenage girls concentrate on fashion and sexualise their readers too early; and so on. Plus ca change plus la meme chose. Replace some of the media discussed instead with the Web, phones and streaming, and the plaints sound familiar even now.

So – the two star review is not because the book is tedious or unreadable. It is, indeed, fine, it is okay. And because of the time at which it was written, you might find yourself gently smiling at such quaint turns of phrase as:

… this very same music, played at maximum volume in a youth club, would encourage a lively jiving session and a general atmosphere of exuberant vitality.

The essays are, however, unlikely to cause you to reappraise your views on popular culture, and for many readers with an interest in popular culture, will appear theoretically outmoded. Still, it is books like this that provide the underpinnings of cultural studies in Britain, and so has historical interest.

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Review — “The Green Roads of England” — R Hippisley Cox

The Green Roads of EnglandThe Green Roads of England

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable little book, made more interesting by describing  areas local to me. Because I am local, I think I enjoyed the book a little more than a reader with no local knowledge might. I note this as the last couple of chapters — where the roads discussed were in Berkshire, Hertfordshire and east, and in Gloucester and north — weren’t quite as interesting to me as the early chapters, which centered around Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset — the Wessex Ridgeway is closer to my interests than the roads to the east. If you don’t know any of the areas discussed in the book, you might find it all a bit overwhelming, as names of towns and villages and roads and hill forts tumble in succession — especially as there are few detailed maps within the text to act as a guide.

I feel maps are what the book sorely lacked. Yes, there are a few summary maps at the end of the book, but these aren’t large enough in scale to highlight details discussed in the book. The text is illustrated with pencil sketches of local countryside and plans of hill forts, but these felt superfluous. Yes, the hill forts might be important in helping assess the route of the old roads, but in a book that was short of maps, the sketches and plans seemed an unnecessary frivolity that diverted from useful cartography, no matter how basic.

I haven’t been able to find much about Hippisley Cox on the Web, so I don’t know his standing as an expert on roads, trackways or archeology; and a comment in the last chapter leads me to think he was an enthusiastic amateur. The interesting hypothetical tidbits he tosses into early chapters might, therefore, be entirely unfounded — however, they are, nonetheless, intriguing, and accord with some recent thoughts of my own.

If you are intrigued by roads, byways, and tracks, there’s much of interest in this book, particularly if you’re a native of, or a regular visitor, to the areas which Hippisley Cox describes. Was Avebury the hub of the southern, prehistoric road network? I’m still unsure, but it was fun to retrace some old routes.

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