Sunday, 30 May 2021

The Essex Serpent: A book review


The Essex Serpent is a novel by Sarah Perry. It was published a couple of years ago. The cover, which is in a style I would classify as decorative medieval tapestry, was an early example of a look which is now common. The story is a multi-layered tale that explores the aftermath of grief, the making and breaking of friendships, the mysterious nature of human attraction and the fragility of life.

It is firmly rooted in time and space and evokes both effortlessly whilst at the same time achieving transcendence from both. Set in the late Victorian era, it has trains, but not cars, letters, but not phones, whilst the Essex coast is still far enough from London to still be a separate world of its own. A particular feature of the novel is the pairing of opposites. The sense of time gives us one such; tradition vs modernity. There is a definite sense that tradition is fighting a losing battle.

Sarah Perry, like me, is a child of the East coast. Her evocation of an Essex estuary, with its mudflats, east wind and fog banks felt like home to me. She captures the sense of a world apart both through physical descriptions and the exposure of the locals state of mind and beliefs. Geography matters, with the action ( and it is sometimes is genuinely exciting and disturbing) unfolding in London, the hamlet of Aldwinter and the intermediate town of Colchester. Aldwinter and London are another pairing of opposites, in size, social make-up and culture, with Colchester a half-way house where characters meet.

Talking of characters, it’s time to meet them. The central character in the story is Cora Seaborne, recently widowed, a woman of means with an interest in science, especially geology and paleontology. Cora is an unconventional woman living in a time when the opposite is expected of a woman of her station. An outsider herself, she attracts, and is attracted by, other outsiders.

Her son Francis clearly has traits of ASD and OCD. Her companion Martha, originally employed as his nanny, is a fierce advocate for social justice. Her friend Luke is a doctor with modern radical ideas of treatment that his medical colleagues look sideways at. Another friend, Spencer, is a social dilettante in search of a purpose, whilst Charles Ambrose and his wife, though part of the rich establishment, are happy to mix beyond their narrow layer of society.

Luke, who first met Cora when treating her husband during his terminal illness, is struck by her physical appearance:

“She was dressed in grey, and simply, but her skirt’s fabric shimmered like a pigeon’s  neck.”

Martha is aware of the changefulness of Cora’s persona:

“Infuriated and entranced, Martha found that no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge”

One way and another, Cora holds them all in thrall.

This London-based cast of characters are brought into contact with the inhabitants of Aldwinter, an edge of the world sort of place, by Cora. She has heard tell of the Essex Serpent, a persistent myth that the locals see as a judgement from God, or possibly a pagan monster from the past. Cora, given her interests, is hopeful of a pre-historic survival, a plesiosaur or something like it- a rational explanation that would nonetheless contain its own kind of wonder.

On her way to the village, walking the last stretch, Cora encounters a man she takes for an agricultural worker, but who, it transpires, is the local vicar. Their friendship and growing relationship provides the arc of the main part of the story. Cora Seaborne and the Reverend William Ransome are another pair of opposites, the one a scientific rationalist, the other a religious believer in providence. Their friendship is often spiky and argumentative, yet underlying it is an attraction that they initially refuse to admit, to themselves or each other.

That’s as much plot as I can give away with spoiling the story. As it unfolds, the delight of this novel comes from the vivid earthy descriptions, the subtle changes of character and the subtle interplays between people. Another device that increases the immediacy of the story is the way it moves between tenses. Sometimes events are described in the past tense, but then it switches to the present, which makes the reader a witness of events unfolding, as in this passge from the opening phase of the book:

“But something alters in a turn of the tide or a change of the air: the estuary surface shift- seems (he steps forward) to pulse and throb, then grow slick and still; then soon after to convulse, as if flinching at a touch”.

I read this book slowly, in no particular hurry to finish it. Its that kind of book, not a page turner but a thought provoker. Are the mores of metropolitan London superior or inferior to those of rural Aldwinter. Is attraction worth the pain it brings? Is science really just another set of beliefs, a form of religion?

At its heart, the book is a celebration of the fact that whether you live in a mega-city like London or a Hamlet like Aldwinter, what really matters to you is the circle of family, friends  and acquaintances in your immediate orbit.

My final observation is a comment on the magnificent literary creation that is Cora Seaborne. She is by turns inspiring in her independence, infuriating in her selfishness and fascinating to the reader as much as to the characters that revolve around her. But don’t take my word for it- read it yourself.

Saturday, 15 May 2021

The river still flows past Fotheringhay, but the currents of history have moved on.


The north-east corner of Northamptonshire is a rural backwater which has barely acknowledged the 20th century, let alone the 21st. A cluster of villages and small towns largely comprised of stone buildings nestle in a landscape of fields, through which the river Nene meanders towards Peterborough. Many of those houses are still owned by local estates such as Elton and Barnwell, although there has been some new development at Thrapston. There is a time capsule element to the area which is valued by many local people.

This state of affairs may seem to be natural, but it could have turned out differently. In amongst these villages is one, built on the river, barely ten miles from Peterborough, that six  centuries ago was at the centre of the political life of England; Fotheringhay.

Today, Fotheringhay is a hamlet with a population of less then two hundred people. It has an Inn, the Falcon, best described as a Gastro pub, quite close to its historic church and around forty houses. As you approach it you cross the river over an ancient stone bridge; looking to the right there is a mound.

This is the site of Fotheringhay castle, a Norman creation shortly after the conquest. At the beginning of the fifteenth century this was a family home for the Dukes of York. The first Duke, Edmund Langley, was the fourth son of King Edward the third. One of his sons died at Agincourt, the other, Richard, was executed before King Henry V left for France, for plotting to replace him with Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. His son, also called Richard, was a key player in the early rounds of the wars of the Roses.

Fotheringhay castle was therefore a significant locus for one of the factions and would have been visited by Yorkist supporters. Richard married Cecily Neville. Her family was a powerful one, especially in the North of England. She was the mother of two sons who would go on to be king. The second son, Richard, was born at Fotheringhay. His brother Edward reigned as Edward IV, supported by Richard. But when Edward died, his sons were pushed aside by their uncle, who became King Richard the third.

Fotheringhay might have developed into a significant town. Connected by the River Nene to Peterborough, a city that ranked with Norwich and Lincoln in importance during Medieval times, as well as Northampton to the west, there was no reason why it shouldn’t have expanded into a river port and trading town. The Great North Road (now the A1) ran north to Newark, Lincoln and York and south to London and lay less than ten miles to the east. History had other ideas, however. Two years after taking the throne, Richard died at the battle of Bosworth, fifty miles to the west of Fotheringhay. The castle now became suspect, a possession of the losing side. When Elizabeth the first visited, she found the tombs of Cecily Neville and other family members in a state of disrepair in the church.

The castle’s last act on the national stage was a tragic one. Elizabeth had her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, imprisoned there. The choice of prison was no doubt influenced by the fact that although a “royal” residence, it was remote enough and by then obscure enough to house a troublesome hostage. When Elizabeth decided Mary had to die, the execution took place “out of sight” at Fotheringhay, rather than in London. Mary’s death, ordered reluctantly by Elizabeth, further damaged the reputation of the place and hastened its demise. In 1632, the castle, by then partly ruinous, was demolished. Some of its stones, in a major act of recycling, went to Oundle to be used to construct the Talbot Hotel.

Since then, although the Nene still flows past the site, the currents of history have abandoned Fotheringhay. But if you stand on the Mound you see what a great location for a castle it was, dominating a bend of the river. For those who live there, it is no doubt just home, who appreciate the peace and quiet. For those with imagination or a romantic turn of mind, there is just a hint, if you allow your mind to wander, of the significance of the place in the national story. Fotheringhay in its current incarnation is obscure, yet the fame of the name lives on.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

'The first ever seen and recognised' - reflections on Spring.


Reflections on Spring 

The equinox has come and gone and suddenly, it seems, Spring is here. During the last week the tightly furled buds on previously bare branches have burst into life, blossom is everywhere and ploughed fields display a hint of green. We get excited about it still, despite our urbanisation, our artificial surroundings and our post-seasonal lifestyles. 

 The line at the top of this piece comes from the lecture notes of a talk given by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien at the University of St Andrews in 1938. The lecture was on Fairy Stories, a subject close to his heart. At this point, he was writing what eventually became the Lord of the Rings; although his audience could not have known it, Tolkien was speaking aloud about his doubts concerning the value of his writings. To address these he used a quintessentially Tolkien metaphor- the Tree of Tales, 'with which the forest of days is carpeted'. Musing that so many stories have already been written, the leaves of the tree, he wondered why he was attempting yet another one; 'it seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from Spring to Autumn, were all discovered by men long ago'.

Yet having posed this question, at a time when, by all accounts, his story had stalled, he gave an answer that amounted to a manifesto of his beliefs: 

'Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events, never from worlds beginning to worlds end the same event. Each leaf, of oak, ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognised, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men'.

Although he was speaking metaphorically of stories, he was speaking literally too. Tolkien had a deep love of nature and was very alert to the natural world around him. This comes through in his stories, where there are detailed descriptions of the plants and landscape at every turn. When Frodo and Sam are walking through Ithilien, they are a long way South of the Shire, their home, and all around them are signs of spring: 

'Here Spring was already busy about them; fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fngered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.'

As humans, we are programmed to be alert to the changing seasons, not just the length of days and the changing temperatures, but the cycle of life displayed by plants and animals. As we reach the end of winter, we feel the change of season and our hearts lift in response. Have you ever found yourself smiling at the sight of a blossom-laden tree, or the song of the birds? As we go through life of course, the danger is that our enjoyment becomes blunted- we've seen this all before. In his lecture, Tolkien was keen to say that we must endeavour to still see things the way we did as children, as worthy of wonder: 

'We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red.'

Last spring, the evidence of new growth was a consolation in the face of the lockdown, this year, it is a promise of recovery. In the light of loss, both of time and, for many us, of loved ones, we should look with a new intensity at the manifestations of Spring, appreciating that we are here to see it whilst remembering those who didn't make it. Tolkien had something to say about that too, through his character Bilbo Baggins: 

'I sit beside the fire and think, of how the world  will be, when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.'

So, if you can, take time to look at the perfection of an unfurling leaf, the delicate structure of blossom, and to hear the birdsong. This Spring is unique. For my three year old grandchild, if this is not the first ever seen and witnessed, it may well be the first experienced and remembered. For me, it is overlaid with memories of previous ones, but I am endeavouring to experience it here and now, marvelling anew at the miracle. 

Sunday, 7 March 2021

A is for Asimov Part Two: Can Asimov help us navigate the Post-COVID world?

 A is for Asimov Part two

In a previous post I explored how our modern world of data and algorithms was prefigured in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, written back in the 1940’s. In this post I return to Asimov to see whether he has anything to tell us about our society in the post-COVID era.


When this country, and others, went into lock-down in March 2019 it came as a shock, partly because we moved so quickly from ‘it’s something happening the other side of the world’ to having to close our society right down. At the same time few of us had any idea how long it was going to last. A ten week lock-down followed by a return to normal would not have had a long-term effect on society; we would have quickly gone back to our old lives.

But that is not what happened. Instead, after a false dawn in July and August, the virus came roaring back and hospitalisations and deaths massively topped the previous peak. As it subsides again the vaccine promises a way out. But a whole twelve months have passed since that initial shock. That is a long enough period of time for us to acquire ingrained habits that won’t just disappear overnight. These include; wearing masks in public, frequent hand-washing and sanitising and thinking twice before getting close to another person. As society opens up again those behaviours will, I feel, still persist.

The Robots of Dawn

But what has that to do with Isaac Asimov? One of his strengths as a writer was to describe his imagined future societies in details about everyday activities that enabled the reader to picture them. The Foundation series famously described characters using pocket calculators and looking at VDU screens, long before such things became part of our everyday lives. Asimov also wrote a series of novels that described human society at the beginnings of its push out to colonise deep space. At this point Earth was heavily populated and people lived in huge underground cities; ‘the caves of steel’. People had to live cheek by jowl. Privacy was limited and crowded public spaces were the norm.

But Earth people had also begun to colonise other planets. These colonies were known as the Spacer worlds. In many cases the planets were adapted to suit humans; terraformed, as Asimov put it. The settlers, by definition, were people who had to be individual, self-reliant and able to cope with living in small numbers. Spacer societies had room to spread out, and for various reasons, Spacer life expectancies became much longer than those of earth people. They began to see Earth as potentially disease-ridden and unhealthy; with more to lose from illness and death they took more trouble to avoid infections.

Eventually they began to impose hygiene restrictions on Earth people. A visitor to a Spacer world arriving from Earth would be subjected to all sorts of indignities before being allowed to proceed on their way. All this is well described in the novel ‘The Robots of Dawn’. A police detective from Earth is invited to the planet Aurora to investigate a suspected crime, in the face of disapproval from many Aurorans.

Elijah Baley enters the Spacer ship;

“he knew exactly what was coming and removed his clothes without hesitation…..he would receive no other clothes until he had been thoroughly bathed, examined, dosed and injected.”

He also becomes aware that the clothes they give are designed to stop him being an infection risk:

“The sleeves of his blouse hugged his wrists and his hands were covered by thin, transparent gloves…..He was being so covered, not for his own comfort, he knew, but to reduce his danger to the Spacers”.

Later, whilst being welcomed into the home of an Auroran citizen, Baley wonders how they deal with disinfecting things once he has left:

“what did they do with the chairs he sat in while in their establishments, the dishes he ate from, the towels he used? Were there special sterilising procedures? Would they discard and replace everything?”

Relevance to our lived experience now

This obsession with hygiene on the part of the Spacers is extreme. But, in the wake of the pandemic, we are suddenly much more aware of how infection can be spread and begin to question things we previously gave no thought to. In the brief inter-regnum when we could visit shops I was in a store with several floors. Riding the escalator I was about to grip the handrail, but stopped myself. Should I be touching the rail now, or would that be infectious? The next time you are somewhere with a bowl of peanuts on the bar, would you be happy to dip your hand in? Do you hesitate before you grasp any door handle, or pick up an item in the shop?

Another recent experience; we were in the supermarket waiting to get to a packet of ham, waiting for the lady in front of us to move on. Whilst we stood there she rifled through all the different packets, picking some up and replacing them, going back and forwards on the shelves before finally choosing a packet to go in her trolley. At his point I was thinking, ‘do I really want any of those packets?’

The pandemic has turned us all into Spacers now. We are willing to go to great lengths to avoid infection and view our fellow human beings as potential sources of it. Even when we get the all clear to hug each other again, I guarantee we will all hesitate before doing so. I suspect we will remain physically distant to some degree for some time to come.

After some time on Aurora, Elijah Baley admits to himself that when he returns to Earth he may react like a Spacer and find Earth crowded and dirty. He has acclimatised to the clean and hygienic feel of Aurora, as well as its spaced out society. Earth makes a virtue of its crowded nature; politicians talk of the ‘hum of humanity’ and the ‘buzz of brotherhood’ that defines Earth. Sampling Spacer life, Baley begins to realise there are other ways of doing things.

We have been here before of course. Victorian cities were dirty, crowded, unhygienic breeding grounds for disease. Once we began to appreciate the dangers we did something about it where we could and society views and values changed. Cleanliness became next to godliness, an expression of collective public spiritedness. As we come out of the pandemic, shifts in attitudes are becoming apparent. Wearing a mask, sanitising frequently, having the vaccine, all these are our modern outward signs of public-spiritedness.

There are dangers here. The well-off of Victorian cities, who could afford clean spacious and ventilated houses with gardens attached, could all too easily begin to decry and fear those who could not. Lack of hygiene became a sign not of poverty but of lack of virtue. This allowed one group of people to look down on another. We need to be careful that we do not go down the same road and demonise those who cannot be as distanced or as pristine as the rich.

 In Asimov’s story,  Baley encounters Keldren Amadiro, who is an Auroran Nationalist. He sees Spacers as superior to Earth people and Aurorans as superior to other Spacers.

“Individualists Mr Baley. Individualists!”

“Our society is founded on that. Every direction in which the Spacer worlds have developed further emphasises our individuality. We are proudly human on Aurora, rather than being huddled sheep on Earth”.

Amadiro is an example of those who define themselves by looking down on others, a trap we would do well not to fall into. As we come out of lockdown and start to meet each other again, we will all have to navigate the re-establishment of contact with others, but it doesn’t have to be at the cost of our basic humanity.

Despite being invited into the home of Santorix Gremionis, an Auroran who he hopes may be relevant to the case he is investigating, Baley is aware of a distance between them:

“Baley noted that Gremionis kept a certain distance. There seemed to be a repulsion field- unseen, unfelt, unsensed in any way- around Baley that kept these Spacers from approaching too closely, that sent them into a gentle curve of avoidance when they passed him.”

I don’t know about you but that seems like an accurate description of what happens when I go for a walk at the moment. When people, or two groups of people, approach each other, there is a delicate ballet of movement that keeps the two parties apart. So are we going to stay that way from now on? That is one of the interesting questions that we will have to grapple with. The arc of the story tells how the Earthman gains an appreciation of Spacer sensibilities whilst the Aurorans re-evaluate their prejudices about Earth people. At the beginning of the book, when Baley meets Han Fastolfe, the scientist who has invited him to the planet, he proffers his hand to shake, a common enough gesture on Earth but awkward for Fastolfe:

“With calculated suddenness, he thrust out his hand at Fastolfe. Fastofle hesitated perceptibly. Then he took Baley’s hand, holding it gingerly-and not for long- and said, ‘I shall assume you are not a walking sack of Infection, Mr Baley”.

Asimov continues to speak to us

That little scene, intended to highlight the way Auroran’s view Earth people, seems, in the light of the pandemic, to be a perfect description of our own interactions in the near future. In this, as in many other things, Isaac Asimov, though ostensibly writing Science-Fiction, is seen to be a chronicler of human beings first and foremost. As such, I believe he repays the effort of reading him by shining a light on our present just as much as our future. Of course, OUR present was the future when the books were written, which is also food for thought!