Another cracking ride. After so much recent rain, mixed with liberal dashes of sunshine, the English countryside is looking its best. Farmers must be happy………?
It was good to re-connect with the Sunday Club run, though not to ride in the mix just yet. But all in good time……..
And a new member, who seems to have joined in my absence (or maybe we’ve never been out on the same run before) introduced himself as being a former student of mine (and I did remember him!). He told his ‘old’ Spanish teacher that he has continued with his Spanish, listening to podcasts in the car as he drives around the country. As the smile on my face broadens, he also tells me that he’s off with a couple of old classmates to follow the Tour de France through Switzerland……on their bikes, of course.
Learning Spanish and riding bikes…….could it get any better than that?
Ever heard “It never rains but it pours”?
Well, if there’s a 50/50 chance it is going to rain, 9 times out of 10 it will…….
A dozen cyclists turned up at the coffee stop in Cambourne, all of them believing that it would be a rain-free morning, some not even carrying a rain-top (how daring is that?), and we sat outside under the veranda, wrapped up in supplied blankets, soaked to the skin, sipping our coffees and nibbling at toasted teacakes.
Enough to send a shiver up the spine……
Curious that I should latterly come across a book, not only describing a journey that I had completed myself, but almost exactly at the same time as the author. The big difference being that Harry Bucknall spent nearly 100 days walking the route from London/Canterbury to Rome (in true medieval fashion), along the ancient Via Francigena, and I had broken with tradition and used a relatively modern conveyance to get me there in a quarter of the time……the bicycle. Cyclists and walkers usually mix very well on such ancient pilgrimage routes, but secretly the walker will probably look on the cyclist as a fraud, a cheat, absolving them of any right to call themselves a pilgrim (in the medieval sense, of course), whereas the cyclist will look down with pity on the walker as he/she labours slowly along carrying a heavy pack, arrogantly sustained with the belief that even riding a bicycle is still counted as ‘travelling under one’s own steam’. I was encouraged by one such pilgrim to try walking it one day, but I had to confess that I was too addicted to the wind-rush and the adrenalin-rush of travelling at 20-30km per hour.
Like a tramp like a pilgrim is a very worthy read. It may lack the sparkle and relentless humour of a Bill Bryson tome, but that is more than compensated by the fact he is a real traveller bearing the hardships and trials of the road, and his interest in the geography and history of his surroundings sustains the narrative well.
Repaying a kindness frequently broadens horizons and opens up new paths. On my trek through Japan last year, I was hosted by several generous members of the cycling confraternity, one of whom was Taka from Toyama, a large town on the Sea of Japan coastline. On the promised day, I arrived in Toyama not only fighting a ferocious headwind, but also battling with a torrential downpour and, to boot, it was after dark. All the ingredients for getting lost looking for an address amongst the 40,000 inhabitants. Knowing I was somewhere near to where Taka lived, I took refuge in a restaurant, rang him, and he jumped on his bike and came to the rescue. Fifteen minutes later, I found myself entering his extraordinary home, built entirely of wood to an ancient design, and thawing out beneath a steaming shower.
Yesterday, we welcomed Taka to our home in Cambridgeshire, at the beginning of his 5 month tour of five countries in Europe. He had endured several days of unseasonably cold, wet weather, and had to battle a headwind out of London to get here. Like for like, we had each apologised for our respective country’s appalling weather, opened our doors wide to extend a warm welcome to the unfortunate traveller, and provided a evening of friendship and good food to make up for the hardships. In our respective farewells, we had each accompanied the other en route to the next destination. I said farewell to Taka in Geddington, standing in front of the famous Eleanor Cross.
It’s called “fellowship of the road”.
Bryson is at his best when anchored to his research desk, surveying the world and its idiosyncrasies with laboured intent, and crafting his reactions in a precise and detailed way. In the past I have cast aspersions on Bryson the ‘traveller’, in works such as Notes from a Small Island, Down Under and (more recently) The Road to Little Dribbling, but Bryson the forensic historian and linguistician is in a different league.
Made in America is a long detailed cursive look at the development of a country, from the arrival of its First Pilgrim Fathers to the present day. With every generation, and with every advance in industry and technology, the English that was originally exported to the new continent is gradually changed, making the language in its ‘pure form’ as used by the mother country look increasingly static and archaic.
To enjoy this 500 page journey through the development of a language, you have to be fundamentally interested in language itself, but Bryson does have the literary ability to get you interested in almost any topic, and this makes an entertaining and informative read for the general reading public.
…..and right outside my house, I am reminded of the famous ‘sakura’ (Japanese cherry blossom) of last year. Happy memories……
To really get an inside view of someone’s life, though not necessarily entirely objective, read an account by someone who lived with him/her for several years and, in this case, bore his children, drank with him, fought with him, competed with him in the arena of marital infidelities………and the list could go on.
This is no reverential view of a man who has come to be viewed as the national poet of Wales. Not only did Dylan Thomas write with a poetic fluency that belied his lack of sobriety, but his poems touched deep seated nerve points for all humanity, and revealed a tortured personality struggling to ‘align the stars’ of his very existence. His death at the tender age of 39 was sudden and unexpected, but longevity was never really on the cards for a man who could ‘drink for Wales’.
Caitlin, his wife, was an equally tortured character, who spent the best part of 40 years as an unrepentant alcoholic but, in her final 20 years of sobriety (she lived to be 81) was able to reflect on the destructive relationship she had had with Dylan, describing in all its raw and explosive detail the alcoholic self-immolation that both of them submitted to, and couldn’t control. This is the story of two tragic lives, but from it emerged the immortal verse that is now celebrated across the world.
Those who achieve celebrity status through sport have a narrow window of time to make the most of their opportunities in life. In the space of 10-15 years, they have to embark on a precarious road to perfection in their chosen sport, win the titles and trophies available to them, and then tell the world about their experiences through a series of ghost-written autobiographies. In the world of cycling, as in most other sports, there has been a veritable tsunami of publications over the last few years, amongst them a couple covering the fortunes of Bradley Wiggins. This volume, My Time, has a very narrow focus indeed. It is concerned mainly with the key year of his cycling career: 2012.
Although he had experienced success on the track in previous Olympics, his switch to road racing proved to be a challenging change of direction. But it all came together in 2012 when he won a series of early season races (Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie, Dauphiné Liberé), followed by the first ever British win in the Tour de France, then concluded by a truly magnificent performance in the time trial of the London Olympics, where he won a gold medal. 2012 was his golden year, a year where everything went right, and at its conclusion, he was ready to move on……….back to the track for the Rio Olympics.
William Fotheringham, his co-writer, has done a good job of revealing both the talent and character of the man who is known affectionately by his fans as Wiggo.
Ah, Mr Bill Bryson again! His most recent tome is constantly in your face in every bookshop. But I continue to find him, in equal measure, both infuriating and endearing. Now that he has British citizenship (without giving up his American, of course), when he eventually shuffles off this mortal coil (not just yet I hope), he will be lauded as a proverbial ‘national treasure’. Though he has said many bad things about this little country of ours, they have always been pronounced from a podium of love. So, before I spell out some of his many redeeming qualities, justifying his future ennoblement as a ‘national treasure’, let me tip the balance a little.
Infuriatingly, what I struggle to like about Bryson’s travel writing is that he’s not really a traveller at all. He’s a dilettante of the travelling world. His journeys are seldom continuous, self-supported (his wife does most of his bookings) and don’t seem to have any obvious direction that provide any kind of logic to his meanderings. He pretends to be following his own ‘Bryson line’, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, but the only evidence that he actually does this is where he starts from (Bognor Regis) and where he finishes (Cape Wrath). Nowhere on the journey do we suspect he is remotely near the Bryson line. And given that the Scottish leg of the journey is no more than a quick train dash up to the far north west, visiting nowhere en route, I begin to wonder why he bothered in the first place.
I groan interminably when he assesses the worth of places on the strength of the kinds of shops and cafés on the high streets, and anywhere that has a bookshop qualifies it (in his biased opinion) for a 5 star rating. Too often he flits from town to town, has a coffee and a snack (groan-worthy repetition in every chapter), and within an hour or two he has formulated his opinion about the town (for better or worse), before flitting on to the next place. He never actually engages with anyone, apart from waiters and serving staff. He makes observations from afar, from inside his own little Brysonian bubble, and the inhabitants of these places will either be hugely delighted or mortally offended by his judgements. In short, he covers too many places, too superficially, without any evidence of continuity in his journey. His book amounts to a lot of disconnected snapshots, taken over a period of time, to fit in with his many other engagements, and (I suspect) a team of researchers have helped him to fill the gaps with what have become (endearingly) the many Bryson witty observations and capsules of British history.
Endearingly, however, he does have a lot of redeeming qualities, enough (in fact) to earn him a handsome living from the millions of books he has sold. His vantage point of being the ‘foreigner’ on British soil gives him a unique perspective for both lavishing praise and dealing out the dirt. After a few chapters, he has laid bare his personality and temperament so clearly that, if he were to visit your town or village, you reckon you could predict his reaction immediately. But you may not be sure that you would ever want him to pay a visit…….
The two literary devices that make his writings so eminently readable include his skilful use of language (he’s a master of the art of drawing word-pictures) and his sense of humour. The latter is a clever fusion of self-deprecating observations with reputation-destroying gibes and jeers directed at people and groups who need to learn a thing or two. The thing about Bryson is that he manages to criticise others with a smile on his face, making us all feel that he is on our side anyway, and he really loves us.
However, once I have had a dose of Bryson, I’m done for a year or two, thankful that he doesn’t churn out the books in multiples of anything other than one at a time.
Hundreds of ‘misery memoirs’ have been written in the last 20 years by a group of emerging Irish writers who want nothing more than to reveal the details of their miserable childhood. Amongst the earliest and most successful was the late Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, but the offerings on the whole have been poorly written, by people who simply wanted to get something important ‘off their chests’. The themes invariably include poverty, violence, drunkenness, desertion, abusive priests and nuns, cruelty of workhouses and laundries, intolerance, separation of unmarried mothers from their new born child, and the unchecked authoritarianism of the Catholic church.
JP Rodgers is one of this band of writers, writing his first published book in later life, and the child of one such unmarried mother, who was put out for adoption while his mother remained incarcerated in one of the notorious laundries run by nuns. His mother managed to escape (climbing over a wall) after almost 30 years in an institution, and in the fullness of time, along a route fraught with trauma, she eventually re-connected with her son and lived her twilight years with the love and support of family around her.
I applaud JP Rodgers for his efforts. It does fall short in many areas, especially in the re-creation of imagined dialogue and the development of characters, but he attempts to see the world of his mother through her eyes which, given that he was not even born during much of the story, nor had he even made any contact with her until later life, requires a huge shift of the imagination. Most memoirs are classed as ‘creative non-fiction’. The author cannot conceivably know or remember everything, but JP Rodgers does a valiant job of bringing the life story of his mother alive.
When you find a book with an intriguing title on your bookshelf, and you have no memory of how it got there, there’s only one solution: read it.
If you still think of England, or even Britain, as a Christian country, think again. This country may have a long history as a predominantly Christian country, but “the times, they are a’changing”. Walk into most churches in the country, whether in a city centre or a tiny hamlet, and you only have to count the pew-capacity of each church to realise that, in bygone times, many more people attended church than the handful that do today. In fact, if it weren’t for the huge numbers of Christian immigrants coming in from Eastern Europe and Africa, the decline in numbers amongst the indigenous population would have synods and church boards scrambling in search of solutions.
Cole Moreton’s assessment of the state of play runs parallel to a description of his own brushes with the world of faith, moving from a high octane conversion during the Billy Graham rallies in the 1980s, through a more sedate commitment as a Church Times reporter in the 1990s, to the eventual abandonment of his faith during a particularly challenging period in his life. During the flow of his own faith narrative, he looks especially keenly at the narrative of the Anglican Church, the established church of England, with all the associated anachronisms and contradictions it poses in a predominantly non-Christian environment. Will it survive? Apparently not, according to Moreton.
Much more than just a decline in numbers attending and supporting their local churches, the demise of the church is also threatened by internal disintegration caused by issues such as gay marriage and gay bishops, women priests and bishops, and a monarchy that pretends to represent a majority religious view amongst the country’s citizens. According to Moreton, if the Church can’t move with the times and disconnect itself from antiquated beliefs and expectations, it will degenerate into a minority cult……..and may even disappear.
I’ve read enough early life autobiographies of elite cyclists to be able to predict the format and style of the writing. The success of these books in the marketplace depends on the ‘merchandising’ of a household name, the ‘big book’ format of the hardback edition, and the easy journalistic style of writing employed by the vast majority of ghost writers. To say these books are written by the authors themselves is to overestimate their literary skills. Most such authors probably haven’t read a single book since they left school, let alone written one, so they sit with their chosen ghost writer for a few days being interviewed, and the transcript of the interview will be painstakingly fashioned into the final volume.
Having said that, this volume by Rob Hayles is a worthy read. Not the household name like his latter day successors in the cycling world, Hayles, nevertheless, featured strongly on the track in the years leading up to the mighty explosion of team GB onto the scene. His palmares include gold, silver and bronze medals in the Olympics, as well as successes in the World Championships, and he even partnered a youthful Brad Wiggins and Mark Cavendish in the early days of their respective careers.
Unlike most such autobiographies, this has been written at the end of his cycling career, so there is an air of historical narrative about the style, which lends a little more to its gravity and worthiness.
A disturbing picture of the early years of the Franco regime in Spain, and the brutal relationship between the ruling classes and the peasants who serve their needs.
Delibes wrote this book in the early 1980s, the final episode of his rural trilogy, but his style has changed. His handling of character, the description of the landscapes, his use of language and dialogue have moved on from his earlier novels. With the democratising of Spain and the new-found freedoms of expression, Delibes has been able to expand his vision and dig deeper into the grittiness of life in the 1940s.
Los Santos Inocentes is the story of the relationship between an impoverished family that serves the needs of the local wealthy landowner, and el Señorito Iván himself. It is an abusive relationship. He exploits them to serve his own needs, neglecting the health and welfare of people who have desperate needs of their own.
The story is never going to have a happy ending, but do we feel a certain catharsis at the retributive ending? If you don’t read Spanish, seek out an English translation (The Holy Innocents), or find a sub-titled copy of the award-winning film made in 1984.
In the second volume of his rural trilogy, Delibes returns to themes that preoccupy the impoverished village communities in the north of Spain in the post-civil war years of the 1940s. The central character is a young lad called El Nini, who lives with his ‘uncle’ in a cave on the outskirts of the village. The story mixes a huge amount of rural wisdom, through the aphorisms of an old man thought to be 100 years old, through references to saints’ days that mark out the farming calendar according to the weather and seasons, and the knowledge of locals who have battled with nature over the decades.
El Nini is a child whose parentage is shrouded in mystery. He has more grandparents than genetically possible, and El Ratero is known as his ‘uncle’, but we are left in some doubt about that. The local authorities want to evacuate El Ratero and El Nini from their cave, to smarten up the image of the community and attract tourists, but they refuse to leave. They live on nothing but the few reales made from hunting rats, which they sell for food (tastes better than chicken, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, they say).
The story is another attempt by Delibes to champion the rights of the poor to maintain the way of life that they love, even though they choose to be condemned to lifelong poverty.
One of the greatest disappointments for English readers is the almost total lack of English translations of most of the Spanish classics. Apart from the still-living Javier Marías, the world imagined that Spanish literature died when García Lorca was murdered during the Spanish Civil War. It is true that authors during the Franco regime had to be circumspect about their topics, given the intrusiveness of state censorship, but such conditions can generate a brand of writing that betrays all kinds of subtleties missing from normal liberally-written literature.
One of the greatest of post-civil war literary giants, Miguel Delibes was a newspaper editor and prolific writer, and amongst his many offerings is a rural trilogy, including El Camino (The Way). The other two volumes are Los santos inocentes (The holy innocents) and Las Ratas (The rats). All three novels are set in the years of deprivation of the 1940s and 1950s, when the Spanish nation toiled to drag itself up from the disaster of civil war. In El Camino, we follow the early years of childhood of Daniel, el Mochuelo who lives in a northern Spanish town near the coast. Daniel is torn between the driving ambition of his father (a humble cheesemaker), who has saved all his life to send his son to a private school in the city, and Daniel’s own wish to stay in the village, with his friends, with all the things that he is familiar with. As an 11 year old, happy with the prospect of becoming a cheesemaker like his father, he fails to understand why his father has made them all suffer, depriving the family of basic comforts in life, just to send Daniel to the city to be educated like a gentleman.
Through Daniel, Delibes cleverly gets us to reassess our own ambitions and tendencies in life, and see them for they really are.