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Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain’s Hidden Landscapes, Joanne Parker (Vintage 2014)

An excellent and unpretentious guide to a subject that can go sadly awry in the wrong hands: psychogeography. Whether she’s writing about stone-circles or ley-lines, Joanne Parker keeps an open mind but never allows her brains to fall out. Her message is: “Here’s what people have thought and done – now make up your own mind.” Or maybe that should be: “Now go and see for yourself.” This book is both a guide and a goad, because after reading it you’ll want to look at what it talks about.

But stone-circles, in chapter two, and ley-lines, in chapter four, are esoteric excursions amid earthly or aerial realities. Chapters one and two are devoted to caves and canals. Then the book takes to the air for a look at flight-paths in the fifth and final chapter. Parker must have planned that journey from the underground to the aerial, from the subterranean to the celestial. The themes of the book are firmly established in that first chapter: there’s much more out there than readers may have supposed.

In fact, there’s a whole new world beneath your feet. Caves are fascinating places both physically and psychologically. Merely knowing about them alters the way you view a landscape. When you enter and explore them, another landscape changes – your own mind. But caving isn’t just about exploration: it can also involve excavation. Cave-systems can be extended or brought together by digging. It’s tough and dirty work and the cavers who undertake it are running risks like those faced by their mining fathers and grandfathers before them.

But one big difference is that they aren’t being paid for the risks they run. One of the genetic legacies of agriculture may be a propensity to enjoy activity for its own sake, because a farmer’s work is never done. Hobbies are a kind of work and our conscious motives for them may be no more than rationalizations for urges that literally uncoil from our DNA. But the urge to compete must be older than anything agricultural:

When Nixon discovered Titan, reducing Gaping Gill to the second largest cave in Britain, he was, he confesses, “delighted to steal the crown, as it were” from Yorkshire. While sprawling underground passages may stretch underground like colossal sleeping dragons, with a prehistoric disregard for county borders and human rivalries, one spur to diggers is certainly local pride. […] The connection of Lancashire’s Ireby Fell caverns to Rift Pot in Yorkshire was celebrated proudly with Eccles cake, Lancashire cheese, Black Sheep beer and Yorkshire teacakes, as the Three Counties system took its penultimate step towards deposing Ogof Draenen. And for many other cavers, making their local caverns deeper, longer or more complex than caverns further afield becomes a challenge akin to the race between medieval parishes to build church spires ever closer to the heavens. (ch. 1, “Underground, Overground: The Caver’s Map of Britain”, pg. 26)

So that chapter delves deep into the earth; the next delves deep into history as it looks at “Prehistoric Patterns: The Megalithic Shape of Britain”. But the caving chapter has prepared the way, because caves were among the first places occupied in prehistory: “The Torquay cave also boasts a human jawbone, dated between 38,000 and 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest fossils from modern man ever to have been found in Europe” (pg. 16). No stone-circle is as old as that and maybe human beings weren’t capable of creating them so long ago. In some cases, matching a stone-circle would be a big challenge even today, with the full resources of our technological age. The architectural expertise and astronomical alignments of sites like Avebury and Stonehenge should stir the stolidest mind.

So could the subject of chapter three, the “Hidden Highways” that form “The Lost Map of Britain’s Inland Navigators”. In other words: canals. They were the veins and arteries of the Industrial Revolution. Then thrombosis and gangrene set in, because advancing technology made roads and railways more economical, so the canal network is much smaller than it used to be. Economics expanded it, then choked and contracted it.

But canals had become part of psychogeography, so their decline hasn’t been irreversible. Water has always been an esoteric element, as John Buchan conveyed in one of his best short-stories, but canals were a new variation on an ancient them: they were river-like, but they didn’t flow and they didn’t swing or swerve. Sometimes they dove straight through hills. The strangeness and romance of canals are well-summed up for me in the fact that Robert Aickman, one of England’s greatest macabre writers, was the founder and early vice-president of the Inland Waters Association. And people who love canals don’t like to see them disappear:

The Wey and Arun Canal Trust are working piecemeal on the canal, in the hope that some day its full length might be revived. Many other canals around the country are, similarly, waiting for their second coming, trusting to the undiminished enthusiasm of optimistic volunteers – to the successors of men like the late David Hutchings, who, after his groundbreaking restoration of the Stratford Canal in 1958, proclaimed simply, “Fortunately none of us were experts, or we should all have known that it was impossible.” (ch. 3, pg. 89)

Hobbies can be hard work. For some people, they wouldn’t be fun if they weren’t. But the ley-hunting of chapter four is usually more leisurely than caving or canal-recreation. Ley-lines are earthbound, but they capture the imagination in a special way. The man who introduced them to the world, Alfred Watkins, had the right name: earthy and English. And he chose the right string of monosyllables for the title of the book he published about ley-lines in 1925: The Old Straight Track. His theory was the British landscape still bore the signposts used by ancient traders in salt, flint, furs and other necessities of prehistoric life. By using hill-tops, stone-circles and churches built on ancient sites, he mapped what he called ley-lines, or the routes used in ancient times to travel in the most direct way across the landscape.

But there’s one of the difficulties with his theory right away: the most direct way across a landscape is rarely the easiest or most convenient. Why climb up and down a hill or wade through a marsh when it’s quicker to go around it? And are the alignments that Watkins identified really deliberate? In some ways it didn’t matter: ley-lines captured the imagination of countless people and have inspired countless expeditions. And adaptations of his theory have slipped the surly bonds of ergonomics: some people say that ley-lines are about earth-currents, not economics. There’s a lot of speculation, insubstantiality and even UFOlogy to ley-lines today. I don’t know what Joanne Parker herself thinks. She presents all sides of the arguments and chapter four becomes part of the camera obscura offering an overview of the wildness, weirdness and wackiness of British psychogeography.

Then, after the UFO flight-paths of chapter four, the book takes to the wing for the real flight-paths of chapter five. Except that the earliest human aeronauts in Britain weren’t on the wing: they were under the basket. Balloons were the first stage of man’s conquest of the air. They’ve never gone away: like canals, although they’re obsolete in strictly practical terms, there’s something special about them that invites and sustains serious devotees. But the planes that replaced balloons, like the trains that replaced canal-boats, have more devotees. Maybe Parker should have included a chapter on trains and their tracks, but I don’t think the book misses them. This is Britannia Obscura and trains aren’t obscure. I like them, but I can read about them elsewhere.

I’ve never read about Britain’s “Flight Paths and Regions” before. Air has always been an emblem of fluidity, but there’s a lot of rigidity up there now:

The practical problem with so much free airspace being gobbled up [by commercial aviation] is that it makes routes across the country more and more difficult for general aviation. “Where I live in the south-east,” Brian Hope says, “you can fly between airports at the moment to get north or west. But if Farnborough and Southend airports both get controlled airspace, that would block those routes.” It’s a little like a gated community suddenly being built in the middle of the Pennine Way or halfway round the South West Coast Path. And it’s not just close to London that these problems exist. The controlled airspace around Birmingham and Manchester is also notoriously difficult to avoid, and Bristol’s controlled airspace has recently joined up with Cardiff’s to create a vast impasse in the west. (ch. 5, “Highways in the Air: The Map of Britain’s Skies”, pg. 151)

I hadn’t thought about any of that before, but I hadn’t thought about a lot of the things in this book before. It’s been a mind-expander and an eye-opener, teaching me a lot and prompting me to look for more information elsewhere on everything from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, “one of the seven wonders of the canal world” (pg. 70), to the Belinus Line, a ley that stretches the entire length of the British Isles and seems to connect Inverhope, Inverness, Carlisle, Birmingham, Winchester and Lee-on-Solent.

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The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, Leif Bersweden (Short Books 2017)

Was this book inspired by Patrick Barkham’s excellent The Butterfly Isles (2010), in which the author sets out to see all native species of British butterfly in a single year? I assume so. It has a similar premise — “52 species of wild British orchid… one summer to find them all” — and contains a similar mixture of natural history and autobiography. But The Orchid Hunter is a good book in its own right and maybe Barkham was inspired by a find-against-time book I don’t know about.

Either way, if you read both books they’ll enrich and illuminate each other. Butterflies and orchids are both eye-catching, but orchids are much stranger in their subtler, stiller, photosynthetic way. One of the chapter headings here is a quote from the great orchidologist Jocelyn Brooke: “There is, about all orchids, something rather perverse and ambiguous, something even a trifle sinister.” (ch. 10, “The Curse of the Coralroot”, pg. 179) You can see that particularly well in an orchid that doesn’t, in fact, photosynthesize:

The Bird’s-nest Orchid is one of the weirdest plants I’ve ever seen. Completely brown, it appears at first glance to be dead, but a closer examination proves otherwise. Each flower is velvety caramel and has two feet that look as if they’ve been drawn by children: big, clumsy and sticking out sideways. Some plants are still in bud, looking like bizarre trees covered in peanuts. This orchid never produces chlorophyll – the green pigment used in photosynthesis to help produce sugars […] (“Swords of the Hampshire Hangers”, pg. 110)

Instead, Bird’s-nest Orchids, Neottia nidus-avis, parasitize an underground fungus that’s a symbiont of beeches and other trees: “One end of the fungus is attached to the tree, receiving carbon produced by photosynthesis; the other end is attached to the orchid, which is siphoning off this carbon.” Leif Bersweden calls the orchids “outlaws, sneaky thieves who execute their criminality with perfection.” But you could say that the original thief is the tree, whose branches and leaves steal the sun from the sky of smaller plants that try to grow beneath it. Because the Bird’s-nest Orchid isn’t dependent on sunlight, it can grow in the deepest shade.

So can the Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which is a fungus-feeding sciophile that’s even stranger than its relative. But it’s called the Ghost Orchid not just because it’s pale and haunts the shadows, but also because it’s elusive, short-lived and “seldom reappears in the same spot” (pg. 308). Bersweden went “Ghost Hunting”, as he puts it in the title of chapter 18, but the Ghost Orchid got away. He doesn’t succeed in finding one and Epipogium aphyllum is missing from the “Gallery of Gotchas” in the photo section. If it had been there, it still might not have been the strangest orchid on display. It certainly wouldn’t have been the most salacious:

Early Spider Orchids are one of the four species of the genus Ophrys that can regularly be found growing in Britain, the others being Bee, Fly and Late Spider. Their flowers are remarkably insect-like and have a fascinating, yet diabolical sex life. While most plants attract pollinators with the promise of nectar, these orchids lure them in with the promise of bee sex. This deception is accomplished by imitating the scent, appearance and texture of virgin female bees. (“Shakespeare’s Long Purples”, pp. 34-5)

You could say that the Ophrys orchids manufacture floral sex-dolls. Male bees are drawn in by the “alluring female scents”, fooled by the appearance and feel of the flower, and attempt “to mate with the ‘female’, often vigorously and for long periods.” In the process, the male bee acquires “two tiny, sticky pollen sacs”, which he’ll carry off to another Ophrys sex-doll when he gets tired of humping his present partner. At least, that’s what the Ophrys intends. Not that intention is the right word: this botanic deception was created blindly and slowly by natural selection. But nervous systems were definitely involved. And perhaps consciousness was too. The male bees have to smell, see and feel the floral sex-doll, which must have been fine-tuned over evolutionary history to become a better and better mimic of a buxom mate.

The nervous systems of insects and other animals have had a decisive influence on the evolution of mindless plants. Most flowers use shape, scent and colour not to fool insects, but to invite them to a draught of nectar or munch of pollen: “Within minutes of the sun dropping below the horizon, the orchids release an overpowering fragrance into the warm evening air that moths find irresistible” (“Finding the Fragrants”, pg. 201) That’s the Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which grows on “calcareous soils” in the south of England.

Each species of orchid has its own preferences of light, moisture and soil chemistry. Sometimes they’re very particular preferences. This book is almost as much about geology and meteorology as it is about botany. When the cover says “52 species of wild British orchid”, it really does mean “British”. Bersweden visits all five nations of the British Isles, travelling as far south as the Isle of Wight, as far north as the Outer Hebrides to find and photograph orchids, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where he searches for Early Purple Orchids, Orchis mascula, on the Burren, a “barren sea of pale limestone” rising “lunar and desolate, in the north of County Clare.”

At least, it looks barren and desolate from afar. Appearances are deceptive, as one of the best passages in the book reveals. I think it’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal not just of botany but of natural history in general:

There were plants everywhere. Every crack in the limestone was sprouting green. Common bird’s-foot trefoil, rue-leaved saxifrage, heath dog-violets, milkworts and hawthorn. The snowy-white flowers of mountain everlasting sprang from the pavement, spring gentians bejewelled the grass with an electric blue, and I was left speechless by the sheer number of Early Purple orchids. There were thousands of them, speckling the slope.

Lying down on my stomach, I gazed greedily into a deep crevice and encountered a miniature jungle. Hundreds of plants thronged every crack and root-hold. There were plantains, crane’s-bills, ferns, trefoils and saxifrages. Mosses and liverworts encased the smooth limestone, tiny sporophytic stalks peering upwards like periscopes. They grew over and under one other, making it difficult to distinguish one plant from the next. This was chaotic, unadulterated wilderness. (“Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”, pg. 52)

You can almost see the plants and feel the limestone beneath your feet. And the plant-names, common and scientific, are almost as rich and strange as the reality. Biology is about nomenclature, not just about nature. As the sub-title of this book reveals, Bersweden is still a “Young Botanist”, so he’s still training his eyes and other senses to make the sometimes minute distinctions between one species and other. In chapter two, he’s “Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”. But in chapter nine, he’s after an orchid that’s instantly recognizable even to a complete amateur: Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady’s Slipper. It’s the Empress of British orchids, once thought to have been driven into extinction by collectors, then re-discovered in 1930 by the Jarman brothers, two cotton-weavers who worked at a factory in the Yorkshire town of Silsden.

The precise location of their discovery, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, has been kept secret ever since. And the original orchid is still alive, guarded by fences and an on-site warden. Other specimens have been re-introduced to the wild, propagated from domesticated Lady Slippers, and Bersweden visits one of these in the “Gait Burrow Nature Reserve on the Lancashire-Cumbria border”. He’d never seen one in the flesh before:

It’s difficult to describe the emotional impact. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about [these] orchids and ogled hundreds of photos of their unmistakeable flowers, but nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of the fragile, jaw-dropping beauty of the Lady’s Slipper. (ch. 9, “The Lady’s Slipper, pg. 169)

But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to find the only known truly wild specimen in its secret, security-ringed location. “It might be futile,” he says, “but I had to try. […] Somewhere out there, hidden in the secluded folds of the Dales, the Lady’s Slipper was waiting.” He succeeds in his quest – “Suddenly I saw it: a flash of gold between two hazels” – but as he stands “gawking” over the fence at an orchid he “could only just see”, he’s joined by the watchful warden, who regretfully declines to allow him any closer. “Defeated”, he retreats, dreaming of other truly wild specimens that may still lie undiscovered somewhere in the Dales.

Orchids attract obsessive people and Leif Bersweden is definitely one of those: he snatches time during his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to tick the Burnt Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, off his list (ch. 8, “Butterflies and Burnt Tips”, pp. 143-157). Obsession makes for good scientists, but doesn’t necessarily make for good writers. In this case it does: The Orchid Hunter is one of the best natural history books I’ve ever read. It’s also an excellent introduction to what its author calls “the furtive, capricious, enigmatic world of orchids” (pg. 255). That’s in chapter 14, entitled “Queen of the Cotswolds” and devoted to the Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra. But if you want to know exactly what Helleborines are, you have to read the book or look elsewhere: The Orchid Hunter doesn’t, alas, have an index. That’s a big flaw in what is otherwise a very good book.

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’Vile Vibes

In Plain Sight The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan DaviesIn Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, Dan Davies (Quercus 2014)

’Seventies nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Britain has reeled again and again at revelations about the sex-crimes committed by famous entertainers from that ever-more discredited decade. Gary Glitter, Jonathan King and Stuart Hall have all gone to jail. Rolf Harris will probably die there. But the biggest nonce of the lot got clean away:

Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, OBE; Knight of Malta, Knight of the Vatican, ‘Special’ Friend of Israel; Honorary Royal Marines Green Beret, Honorary Doctor of Law and Honorary Assistant Entertainment Officer at Broadmoor maximum security psychiatric hospital; miner, scrap metal merchant, inventor of the disco; racing cyclist, wrestler and marathon runner; pop Svengali, radio DJ and Top of the Pops presenter; charity fund-raiser, highly paid business consultant, hospital administrator; confidant of prime ministers and princes. (ch. 2, “Frisk Him”, pp. 18-9)

Savile got a lot done in his eighty-four years, but the public didn’t know the half of it. He was born poor and sickly in Leeds in 1926 and died in the same city in 2011, rich, famous and laden with honours. I didn’t live in the UK at the height of his fame, but I saw some episodes of his famous children’s programme Jim’ll Fix It, on which he made dreams come true for a lucky few of the many thousands of children who wrote to him every week: some “got to fly with the Red Arrows, blow up water towers or sing with The Osmonds” (ch. 2, pg. 13). I didn’t like Savile or his programme, but I always reasoned that he couldn’t be a paedo because he looked and acted so much like one.

That was Savile’s bluff: as Davies puts it, he was hiding in plain sight. After his death it gradually emerged that he had committed sex-attacks on children for decades, relying on his fame, cunning and peripatetic life to keep himself out of jail. He had narrow escapes and was even interviewed by the police, but he got to the end of his life unscathed. That’s why his highly expensive grave in Scarborough bore the jeering epitaph: “It Was Good While It Lasted”. Not that the jeer was immediately apparent: Savile was buried with honour and acclaim. But Davies opens this biography by describing what happened to the grave when the toxic truth got out:

The three 18-inch thick slabs of dark granite it had taken eight months to craft and to polish and to inscribe had been taken to a yard in Leeds where the fourteen hundred letters were ground down and the black granite smashed into tiny pieces for landfill. Nothing was to be left of the headstone and nothing was to be left to mark the spot where the coffin was buried beneath the earth. It was good while it lasted. (ch. 1, “Apocalypse Now Then”, pg. 8)

The title of that first chapter, “Apocalypse Now Then”, is a good example of what you’ll find in the rest of the book: black humour and bathos. There’s also a series of impossible-to-answer questions. What made Savile tick? How did he fool so many people for so long? You could ask the same questions about Tony Blair, a criminal on a much bigger scale, but there are two big differences between Savile and Blair. Unlike Blair, Savile was highly intelligent and a self-made man. Blair got to the top by serving powerful interests; Savile got to the top under his own steam. I’d also say that while Blair is a narcissist, Savile was an exhibitionist.

Long before Savile’s death, Davies saw through the exhibitionism and glimpsed the depravity beneath. At the age of nine, he attended the recording of an episode of Jim’ll Fix It “at a television studio in Shepherd’s Bush, west London” (ch. 2, pg 13). After watching Savile’s performance as a zany, dream-fulfilling jester, he came away with an uncomfortable feeling that “there was something remote and cold and untouchable beyond the façade”. Later, he read Savile’s autobiography, As It Happens (1974), and was disturbed again:

As a child of the Seventies and Eighties, I had heard all the playground rumours about Britain’s favourite uncle; we all had. Jimmy Savile was a weirdo and possibly worse; a poofter, a necrophiliac or a child molester. [When I was an adult] Friends thought I was joking when I spoke of my ‘Jimmy Savile’ dossier and how I was going to use it to bring him down one day. (ch. 2, pg. 15)

The rumours may have been completely true. Savile was a Charlie Chester who preferred girls but also molested boys. And he spent a lot of time with corpses during his unpaid stints as a “celebrity porter” in various hospitals. Davies didn’t get to bring him down, but his uneasy fascination with Savile never went away. After he grew up and became a journalist, he conducted some lengthy interviews with his “bogeyman” for a magazine called Jack (ch. 2, pg. 17). He never got to the truth: Savile was too clever for that. But his uneasiness grew and the interviews are the basis of this book. Savile speaks at length, relishing the battle of wits with Davies and revelling, no doubt, in the thought that his words would acquire their full feral-and-fetid meaning only after his death.

I was struck by the strangeness of his language. This is how he described a narrow escape from death in a plane:

“It was all a bit of fun. You’re gonna die, you didn’t die, very good. I had plenty of time to think about it because I was up in the air when we ran out of fuel. It didn’t bother me because I’m a bit odd. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re not.” (ch. 15, “Didn’t Die, Very Good”, pg. 117)

That’s English, but it’s “a bit odd”. If you know Savile’s voice, you can hear him speaking as you read. There’s something unsettling about the words and syntax he uses, not just the tone and manner that must have gone with them. I can’t point to exactly what it is, but I wonder if his language was influenced by brain damage or some other neurological abnormality. There was certainly something very odd about Savile’s brain, whether he was born that way or suffered a brain injury later, perhaps when he was hit by a collapsing roof during his time as a coal-miner (ch. 8, “The Power of Oddness”, pp. 65-6).

He claimed that he was “concussed”, but Davies couldn’t verify any details of the accident, not even the year it happened or whether it happened at all. Savile lied and distorted constantly, so nothing is certain about long stretches of his life. But something that suggests to me that he was brain-damaged later in life is the early photo of him that opens the book. He’s standing with his family as a boy, smiling happily and candidly at the camera. He’s the least odd-looking person in the photo. In fact he doesn’t look odd at all: just an ordinary, cheerful kid, albeit a clever-looking one.

In his photos as an adult, he definitely looks odd. The photo that opens Part Four is chilling: he’s sitting alone in a camper-van, dressed in dungarees and peering out of the window at a busy street with a blank, calculating expression on his face. You can’t put your finger on exactly why the photo is chilling, but it is. It screams “Nonce!” And many people besides Dan Davies were suspicious of Savile during his decades of fame. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t one of them, but it took her a long time to give him a knighthood, because her civil servants kept saying no: “Under the headings Benefactions, we have again considered the name of Mr Jimmy Savile, whom you have of course considered on previous occasions. We have concluded that he should not be recommended.” (ch. 53, “I am the boss – it’s as simple as that”, pg. 404)

The civil servants were right, Thatcher was wrong. But she had more excuse than the police and the BBC, who both come out of this book very badly. They missed numerous opportunities to stop Savile’s crimes and the BBC tried to maintain a cover-up as long as it could. Nevertheless, Savile was indeed a master manipulator, committing sex-crimes for decades against both sexes and all ages in TV studios, schools and hospitals up and down the country. He secured powerful friends and even managed to get an important position and unsupervised access at Broadmoor, the country’s most notorious psychiatric hospital. It was through Savile that Princess Diana seems to have got access to Broadmoor too. Diana was another fascinating fake who combined ostentatious charity-work with ghoulish interests, but she wasn’t a sex-criminal or a self-made woman and she didn’t achieve a fraction of what Savile did.

So how did he get away with it and fool so many for so long? His high intelligence was undoubtedly part of it, but so was his extraordinary energy: he lived like a blue-arsed fly, never staying long in any town or city, making and raising millions of pounds for himself and for charity while recording TV and radio shows, courting or fending off the media, and running dozens of marathons. Like Thatcher, he doesn’t seem to have needed much sleep or time for recuperation.

And like Thatcher, he is very interesting from the point of view of HBD, or human bio-diversity. What were the physiological and genetic bases of his intelligence, energy, will-power and dominance? What was his precise ancestry? We should be able to answer those questions one day. Other questions about Savile may never be answered, but Dan Davies does an excellent job of capturing the black comedy, bathos and chutzpah of his strange, sordid and sinister life. If you want to be right repulsively entertained, In Plain Sight will fix it for you.

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