Reading a Robert MacFarlane book is like going on a long walk with an excessively talkative companion.
You knew what he was like, yet you invited him to accompany you and now the bugger won't shut up. And yet- he is so interesting...does it matter that the landscape becomes a backdrop to his thoughts? It was the landscape that started this, after all. When he notices things, he certainly has a lyrical way with him. That description of the Heron, for instance, was so right, definitely poetic.
And, yes, I have to admit, I have learnt much from him and discovered many new writers. I thought I was well-read, but the guy opened up some new areas of reading and study for me, books I would never have thought to look at.
So, the landscape...yes, he acknowledges it, but the land is really there to lay his thoughts over. He riffs on poems, people and stories, all loosely conflated into a written mixtape, titled "Silt" or "Chalk". He has clever friends who become woven in to the tape, brilliant specialists, fascinating drop-outs, artists and sailors, most of whom I am the richer for having been acquainted with, on paper at least.
People have criticised him for being too middle class, for being a Latte sipping dilletante, producing books for the chattering folk, who recount passages from his books at their tedious dinner parties. I hope they do. His "The Old Ways" was a runaway best seller, and I'll bet most were purchased by a certain demographic. So what? I'm not one of those, and the book was recommended to me by a friend, a stravaiging photographer who thought I might get something out of it. And I did.
Yes, he is a bit up himself, and his hero-worship of folk gets a bit tedious at times, but it didn't stop me from reading the book in a couple of nights and then going back and starting again. Then buying his" The Wild Places". Then I put his books down, because he had introduced me to so many authors and artists that I had a lot of reading to catch up on.
I should say that MacFarlane gave me some new insights on artists I already knew well, like Eric Ravilious or Samuel Palmer. I still can't quite understand why he thinks Edward Thomas is such a great poet, but that is probably symptomatic of my own failings. But I owe him a debt of thanks for introducing me to Ann Shepherd's writing and for broadening the sweep of my studies. I also enjoyed accompanying him on these travels, immensely. Just don't get hung up on wanting an itinerary or a list of places ticked off and tidily described, or you will be disappointed. Let him wander and tag along with an open mind. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you encounter.
At one level, this is an immensely readable volume written by someone I felt I would like to know more about. He has a deep knowledge and familiarity with the hills and writes in a very intelligent and readable style which borders on the lyrical in places.
So, we have a book that is a collection of essays from various periods by Jim Perrin, joined together by the thread of the Welsh Mountains in the title. They are grouped roughly geographically and, unlike other reviewers, I didn't feel the need for a map, although it would have been nice to see one in the endpapers.
However, the more I read the book, my sense of it being more like a work of fiction increased. Some of the anecdotal encounters seem more like wish-fulfillment fantasies than actual events, particularly the encounter with the member of the mountain rescue team who questions why he was destroying the tops of the cairns designed to aid walkers in his area. He comes across as arrogant sometimes, although perhaps that could be forgiven, if Perrin's account of his childhood is to be believed. He says he was an underpriviledged kid from a Manchester scheme who would dodge fares on the train to Wales in order to go climbing and get away from his disinterested parents.
So far, so good. But in trying to find out more on the man, I have come across some rather troubling revelations that seem to suggest...well, have a look for yourself: the "To Hatch a Crow" blog, for instance, or the Jacssisters blog.
He certainly appears to have "reinvented" himself more than a few times. But then many artists and writers have done so...the great Bob Dylan, for instance, who also wrote several autobiographies, all of which were more fiction than fact. I don't know what to say...I still love Bob Dylan's work, and I did enjoy this book...a lot. Passages from it have stayed with me, or appeared in my head while I am walking in the hills. Yet I can only shake my head and wonder if I can separate the lyrical writer who brings the hills alive with his prose from the alleged inconsistencies within the man.
I knew from the cover that I was going to enjoy this book, but I hadn't realised just how much. At one level, it's a lament for our lost extractive industries- the quarries and mines that once prospered in almost every area of Britain. However, this is combined with a witty and erudite look under the carpet with some interesting insights into geology, industry ...and ourselves.
But the aspect of Nield's writing that I enjoyed the most was a underlying thread of deeply personal, honest and sometimes hilarious family history that he weaves into the book. At times he goes off in a whirl of geological time travel sparked by some experience of his youth, as when we are told about the joined-up memories of his father, himself and his own son at Happy Valley in Llandudno, photographed on a rock in what I hadn't realised was an old stone quarry. The history of his village in South Wales and all the stories and geological insights that spin off these motifs are also included in the story and are all the richer for it.
And he's right. We don't quarry much stone anymore. Children in schools don't know where bricks and rock come from, because our raw materials are sourced from countries where the labour is cheap and working conditions dangerous. Where worker's rights are unknown. The stone is then loaded on a polluting container ship and brought thousands of miles to this country.
He also tells the story of Aberdeen's Rubislaw Quarry, at one time the deepest hole in Europe, the first sight of which, lurking behind some innocent suburban bungalows, he tells us "troubled my sleep for days". The story of the Aberfan disaster from the geological perspective is also a chilling revelation.
The book is an insightful message from the depths of geology under our feet...well worth a read.
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Granta Books (7 May 2015)
Currently (2017) £9.99
This book is an amazing achievement. I am staggered by how many locations Richards has been to, or knows enough about to describe for our delectation. The descriptions are often the deciding factor on whether we are going to explore or not. As a keen amateur Industrial archaeologist, it is one of the most referred to and thumbed books in my library. It reviews every site, from small scratchings on a hillside, to in-depth descriptions of huge sites like Dinorwig.
As other reviewers have said, the maps are not very useful. The book would have benefited from a thorough proof-read, the many spelling and grammatical mistakes are often annoying. More annoying still are the very occasional errors with grid references or descriptions of quarries. But Alun Richards regularly updates from his own web-site which has a list of up-to-date addenda. Books like this from small publishers are becoming rare and we are lucky to have them. So, I would still wholeheartedly recommend this book for the sheer breadth of coverage; it proves itself useful time after time. I am now on to my third copy, having worn the first two out!
Publisher: Llygad Gwalch Cyf (1974)
Price at 2017: £12.83
The most important aspect of this book are the photographs of slate mines by J.C.Burrow, a pioneer of underground photography. His first publication "Mongst Mines and Miners" in early 1893 resulted in his being invited to illustrate the report of the "Departmental Committee upon the Slate Mines of Meirioneth" at the end of 1893. His photos were eye-openers. Nobody had seen inside a slate mine before then, least of all the miners themselves, whose world was illuminated by a candle stuck to their hat. Sadly, many of Burrow's large format glass negatives were used to make a greenhouse in the first World War!
This book makes up for the loss with reprints (from somewhere) of the best Burrow shots. The book does not say how these photographs were sourced, so I can only surmise they are the property of Greaves, the owners of Llechwedd slate quarry, whose hand shadows this book fairly heavily.
The rest of the book, interspersed with many fine illustrations, consists of a series of essays by the author, on his speciality, which is paliamentary journalism. There are chapters on Tea Drinking and the dietary habits of miners as reported to a commons committee, the Welsh language and the social aspects of miner's lives. All very interesting, fascinating reading in fact.
Then we have a couple of chapters about Electric power, which features Llechwedd almost exclusively, followed by another two chapters on the Llechwedd slate mines and the modern Llechwedd caverns. These chapters all had an air of being an advertising feature by the author, who not surprisingly, turns out to be a director of the company. Despite this, there is still much of interest to be gleaned.
A very fine section of the book then concentrates on various aspects of the mining process, illustrated mostly by excellent photographs- Mills, Surface, Porthmadog, Rolling Stock, Railways and Equipment.
Finally a chapter on a 19th century Japanese link to Llechwedd, featuring information about Richard Greaves helping the US navy with his engineering skills in 1883. Just what it is included for is unclear until one considers the rather congratulatory tone of the whole book towards Llechwedd. Another amusing feature is the inclusion of a photograph of a nude female model with some embarrassed looking miners. The next photograph is of Helen Morgan (clothed), Miss World in 1977 who, it is stated, is "a friend of the author". Good, but why? Well apparently she is celebrating the first millionth visitor to the Llechwedd Victorian Heritage site.
I know, I have been a little harsh, when this excellent and significant book has such wonderful photographs. I just wish it had been a little less smug and self-congratulatory about it and concentrated on the history, which Greaves & Sons did play a large part in any case.
In conclusion, buy it, and make your own mind up, you won't be sorry, because the photographs are wonderful!
Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Landmark Publishing Ltd; First Edition edition (28 Feb. 2003)
Cost: £15.95 in 2017.
by Michael Brown
A weighty and very thorough book on the fascinating mines of Dylife. This is a fully researched volume on the Dylife area and has been produced with help and major contributions from David James and Simon Hughes.
I enjoyed it; the book is written in a very engaging and immediate style and is full of very interesting photographs, plans and sketches. I found that the social and industrial history are particularly well described. There has, literally, been no stone left unturned. For mine explorers, there are extremely useful grid references and descriptions of the workings. Michael has spent much of his life exploring the mines and the area; his connection and obvious love of the place comes through in the writing. There are chapters at the end which are interesting- a series of walks around the area, and reminiscences of life on a small hill farm, which at first I thought to be spurious-until I started reading. Like the rest of the book, it was engaging and charming. Some have crisicised the chapter "explorers notes" but then some folk need to lighten up a little.
A rarely mentioned aspect of this book is that it is self-published, which can sometimes mean a self-indulgent, rambling and badly designed end product, printed on poor paper to save costs. This book is none of those things and has high production values throughout. It also contains writing which I suspect a publisher would have pruned to the detriment of the whole. So I must say that I have no hesitation in recommending this book. If you have not been there, you will want to after reading Michael's book.
Cost £19.95 in 2017