Horatio Clare has been out on the water again. His last book for adults, Down to the Sea in Ships, a lyrical account of the tough trade of container shipping, was the 2015 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. For his next, Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North, he joins the crew of the Finnish icebreaker Otso in the Bay of Bothnia, between Finland and Sweden, as they open up lanes, tow merchant ships and dislodge them from the ice. The book is due to be published by Chatto & Windus on November 9; Clare will be talking about it at Stanfords, the travel bookshop, in London, on November 16.
One of the strengths of Neil Hegarty’s debut novel, Inch Levels (Head of Zeus), a story of family secrets and the damage they can do, lies in its evocation of place — in this case the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. The book, short-listed for the £15,000 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, is currently being explored by the book club of The Irish Times. In the paper today, Danielle McLaughlin, who knows the area well, writes on how Hegarty captures “the hint of savagery that exists alongside the loveliness”.
In a piece in the travel section of The Guardian on Saturday, the novelist Christopher Nicholson told how he has been captivated since boyhood by the Cairngorms, and touched briefly on the survival there in summer of snow. It’s a subject he explores at slightly greater length (159 pages) in his latest book, Among the Summer Snows (September Publishing); a book he began 10 years ago, abandoned when his wife fell ill and returned to after her death. “Snow,” he admits, “has no quantifiable value; if you hold a piece in your hands it soon tells you what it’s worth by turning to water and running away.” But for him, the survival of snow in summer, its rareness and improbability, has become a singular passion. The book chronicles walks on which he seeks it out under cliffs and crags, in clefts and corries, and ponders its meaning:
There are times when I imagine the snowbeds as shrines and chapels, scattered in the mountains, the relics of a disappearing religion, and there are other times when they fill me with ideas about beauty and death. Death robs life of meaning, beauty infuses life with meaning. Death and beauty are aspects of the polar divide: on the one side weight and matter and inertia, on the other light and spirit and the airy zones. Summer snow is a bridge that stretches across the divide.
It’s a book of close looking and close thinking, attentive not just to the snow but also to the plants and to the mosses and lichens forming mini-landscapes at the author’s feet as he makes his way to the snowbeds. A glorious little book, beautifully produced, with the author’s photographs, by the independent imprint September Publishing.
Jan Morris was right. Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are (Nicholas Brealey) which he launched last night, is an exuberant, invigorating blast of a book. I’ll say more in a review in print in the next week or so.
For an episode of Open Country on Radio 4, the folk singer Eliza Carthy explores her home town of Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Yorkshire coast, famed for fossils, shipwrecks and smugglers. The smugglers used a series of tunnels and interconnected cottages, she is told, and hid their contraband in their clothing, “the ladies in their long Victorian dresses… and some would look pregnant but they weren’t.” To which Carthy responds: “She was about to give birth to a nice 12-year-old single malt.”
I was reminded this morning, by a piece in The Irish Times, that I ought to be ashamed of myself. Ashamed because, although I grew up on the Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland, I’ve never been out to Rathlin Island. It was here, they say, that Robert the Bruce, hiding in a cave, learnt perseverance from the efforts of a web-making spider. It was here, too, that Guglielmo Marconi’s right-hand man, George Kemp, conducted an early experiment with wireless telegraphy, between Rathlin and Ballycastle, on the mainland. In The Irish Times, Bernie McGill tells how her new novel, The Watch House (Tinder Press), was inspired by that pioneering work:
Both Kemp and Marconi appear fleetingly in The Watch House. All the other characters are completely fictional. What I have tried to stay true to is the island itself. For a number of years, the Ordnance Survey map of Rathlin and Ballycastle has hung above my writing desk. I have recited the litany of the island’s place names like a poem or a prayer: Sloaknacalliagh, the chasm of the old women; Kilvoruan, the church of Saint Ruan; Crocknascreidlin, the hill of the screaming; Lagavistevoir, the hollow of the great defeat. Every name tells a story of its own. Each time a character has moved to make a journey, on foot, by boat, by cart, I have plotted their progress across the map as they navigated those dark histories.
Rathlin features, too, in Islander: A Journey Around Our Island Archipelago by Patrick Barkham, which Granta is due to publish in October. Among those Barkham spends time with is Liam McFaul, a native of the island, who is an organic farmer, a fisherman, a member of the Fire Service and station officer in charge of the coastguard rescue team. He is also the RSPB warden on Rathlin. A warden from the mainland, says Barkham, would struggle with a survey of Rathlin’s six peregrine nests, which are hidden on its vast and inaccessible cliffs. “Liam has known exactly where to find them since he was a boy; a peregrine nest is island intelligence as easily held as who makes the best cup of tea.”