Posts Tagged ‘Book reviews’

Walking the South West Coast Path

A Companion Guide

by Simon Butler & Philip Carter  (Pixz, £9.99)

Walking the SWCP book cover

A COMMON refrain that runs through my head when I’m out walking and I notice an interesting building or geographical feature is ‘I wish I knew something about that’.

I vow to look it up when I get home – and invariably forget.

For walkers on the South West Coast Path, myself included, there is now no excuse to remain in ignorance, thanks to a book that reveals secrets and fascinating facts about so much that can been seen along the 630-mile route, between Minehead, on the Somerset coast, and South Haven Point, on the southern edge of Poole Harbour.

Who knew, for example, that Durlston Castle, the curious sort of wedding cake atop the cliffs near Swanage and a pathside landmark that would certainly pique a walker’s interest, was originally built as a restaurant in 1890?

Thanks to this endlessly fascinating book, I can show off my wisdom to allcomers, wherever I might encounter them as I walk the path. I can tell them that Tintagel was the home of F.T. Glasscock, a man who made his fortune from custard, and that a hotel at Mount Batten, where the path heads east of Plymouth, used to be a guano processing plant.

Less arcane are the facts about the many churches and features of industrial archaeology that are encountered on the route. History and legend, folklore and irrefutable fact all have their place, too (even if the many exclamation marks do not).

The Companion Guide is based on Exploring the South West Coast Path, written by Philip Carter, a founder member of the original South West Way Association in 1973. Sadly, Philip died in 2011, after 40 years of passing on his enthusiasm for the path and helping to secure its use for generations of fortunate walkers.

In this volume, which reproduces the original foreword that Philip wrote for his book, Simon Butler has sourced illustrations that enable the walker to compare views of landscapes, towns and villages as they are now with how they looked in bygone days.

Aerial photographs are especially compelling and many show the path itself winding sinuously around headlands and coves as it takes its walkers along some of the most beautiful coastal countryside in Britain.

Whether your journey along the SWCP is the whole thing or just a few miles, this book will enrich the experience no end. Its format does not lend itself to being popped into a daypack or rucksack: it is too chunky for that. Better, perhaps, to read it before you pull on your boots and commit what you can to memory.

However you choose to use it, it will most certainly reward you.


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MICHAEL Bearcroft, a passionate reader and collector of books, bought half-a-dozen paperbacks to take with him on a Mediterranean cruise.

After a few days he’d finished the first two, but had not enjoyed either. He complained to his wife, Sue, about how disappointing he’d found them.

“Write your own, then,” she countered. “You’re always saying you want to write a novel, so now’s your chance to do it.”

Michael, 67, of Park Road, Henstridge, recalls how he bought up every notebook on the ship and wrote happily all the way back to port. The writing continued long after the holiday, as the tale he’d been yearning to tell poured itself out on to page after page, in unruly longhand.

Sue converted the chaos into a tidy, typed, manuscript and Michael contacted a literary agent. He barely expected a response, let alone a positive one.

“I was stunned when the agent said he thought the book could make it,” Michael says.

Two years after that first sentence of Dangerous Score was written in the middle of the Med, the thriller – a tale told through 100 tumultuous days of a soccer player’s life – has been published. With the subtitle ‘Murder, intrigue and the beautiful game’, the book also shines a light into the dark and troubling world of human trafficking.

Advance copies have attracted an enthusiastic response from readers of both sexes and from football fans and those with no interest in the game, so both the author and the publisher, Dynasty Press, are confident it will find its way on to the bookshelves of all lovers of a gripping, pacy, page-turner.

Michael’s own life story makes a cracking read, too, his interests and skills having led him into a variety of roles that no careers teacher could ever have predicted for him.

Brought up in Sheffield and a mustard-keen footballer, he was talent-spotted as a lad by a Sheffield United scout and played with club’s youth teams through his teenage years. The Blades let him go at 17 – “I wasted my opportunity,” he recalls. “I messed around and didn’t take it seriously enough.” However, that footballing experience was to stand him in good stead in later years when he became chairman of Corby Town FC. Along the way, he made many friends and contacts in the higher echelons of the game.

Michael continued to enjoy playing football as a semi-pro in south Yorkshire while an aptitude for sales led him into a successful career in marketing and management. At the age of 50 he took a bold leap into acting, using the same agent as his wife, who was a dancer at the London Palladium and major UK theatres, as well as television and commercials.

A keen Western rider, Michael took roles in a variety of TV dramas, including Peak Practice, Casualty, Dangerfield and The Bill, before training as a theatre director and director of musicals.

In 2008 he was named best director in the south-west region by the National Operatic and Dramatic Association, an accolade that confirmed how far he’d come from the world of soccer.

After touring a successful murder mystery production company called Murderous Liaisons, Michael franchised it and then sold it to help fund the launch of the musical stage show he created, Back to Broadway, whose tour of UK venues has included The Exchange at Sturminster Newton, where it was a sell-out.

With Sue, Michael now runs summer musical theatre schools at venues all over the country.

Since their move in 2010 to the Somerset-Dorset border, where Michael says they are “extremely happy in such a lovely village”, life has taken a bumpy turn. Ill-health has brought Michael into close touch with the NHS at Salisbury, Bristol and Yeovil hospitals, all of whom earn his praise for superb care.

Now recovering from a triple bypass, following a heart attack in August, Michael is turning his thoughts to a sequel to Dangerous Score. “I have some other books in my head at the moment, too,” he admits, “but I think the sequel must come first.”

In the meantime, Dangerous Score was formally launched at GoodisonPark, Everton Football Club’s ground at an event attended by many of soccer’s big names.

Royalties from sales of the book, through Amazon, bookshops including Waterstones and other outlets such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s, will be shared with the Hillsborough Family Support Group, a cause close to the hearts of so many, especially anyone who cares about football and human rights – two of the dominant themes of Dangerous Score.

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SAY the words ‘war poet’ and the names of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and their First World War contemporaries come instantly to mind.

But what of the Second World War? Who were the writers who gave us a poetic legacy from that tumultuous period of our history, but who, curiously, seem to have been consigned to the shadows?

Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, who were both killed in 1944, are probably the best-known, but there is a third, John Jarmain, who has remained largely unsung but who could well be worthy of a place in the top rank.

He too was killed in 1944, aged 33, in Normandy, after a long campaign in North Africa – he fought at El Alamein – and further action in the invasion of Sicily.

Jarmain, who taught Italian and Maths at Millfield School, wrote more than 150 letters home to his wife in Dorset, many of them containing his poems written by the light of the moon.

Not long after his death, a slim volume of his poems, which, with their gentle, understated nature, are in many ways untypical of war poetry, was published. Also published posthumously was his only novel, Priddy Barrows, about a boys’ school in the Mendips. Both books were widely acclaimed and Jarmain’s talents lauded. Vita Sackville-West wrote, in 1946: “Among the poets lost to us by the war, John Jarmain must take a considerable place. A real loss.”

He was also referred to as “One of the truly great but neglected poets of the Second World War” in the anthology, Oasis into Italy (pub. Salamander Oasis Trust, 1983).

That first collection of Jarmain’s poems, the one that was published in 1945, has now been republished in a beautiful hardback edition, complete with critical essays, historical notes and Imperial War Museum photographs, setting his words and work in admirably detailed context.

‘Flowers in the Minefields’ (Flagon Press, £14.99), has been edited and researched by James Crowden, the Somerset-based writer and poet. Appropriately, he launched it on Remembrance Sunday, 11th November, at Sladers Yard in Bridport as part of the town’s annual literary festival, where his guest, Ptolemy Dean, the architect, son of Jarmain’s friend and battery commander Joe Dean, will read an essay written by his father in celebration of the poet’s life and work.

A second launch was held on 24th November at The Dorset Bookshop, East Street, Blandford.

James Crowden is currently engaged in writing Jarmain’s biography, which he aims to publish next year.

Crucial to both projects relating to John Jarmain has been the input from Jarmain’s daughter Janet Coward, who lives in Queens Road, Blandford. The elder daughter from the poet’s second marriage, to Beryl Butler, of Broadstone, near Poole, Janet was born in 1942, just before the Battle of Alamein, and can only recollect her father through the written memories of his contemporaries, the body of work he left behind him, and, remarkably, a cache of love letters he wrote to Beryl. These Janet discovered after her mother had been killed in a road accident near Swanage in 1990, but it was to be 10 years before she summoned the emotional courage to read them.

Subsequently, a chance meeting with James Crowden gave her the opportunity to mention the existence of the letters, and now they have helped bring Jarmain to literary notice again.

Beryl Jarmain, with whom the poet had fallen in love after his first marriage foundered, was seven months’ pregnant with twins when her husband was killed. The little boy was to die later, aged 10, while the girl twin, Diana, became a Buddhist nun and lives in a community on the Holy Isle, off the west coast of Scotland.

Jarmain had two other children, Mark and Joanna, from his first marriage, to a talented artist, Eve Houghton. Only Joanna survives and she lives on Vancouver Island where she is a published writer of prose and poetry. Her book of poems, A Summer Father, is a poignant portrait of her absent father and her own childhood, marred by her war. She was six years old when her father was killed.

A facility with words may have been passed down from their father, Janet Coward says, but she claims it didn’t settle on her. She is now retired after a career in teaching Latin and English at Millfield, where she was employed by the same head, Jack Meyer, who had taken on her father, and at schools in Sherborne and Swanage.

Janet Coward acknowledges her father’s poetic brilliance and is pleased by this fresh awakening of interest in his work, sparked by the imminent book-launch and by the interest in the Battle of Alamein in this 70th anniversary year.

She says: “He was very talented, gifted even, and was always an emotional poet.”

His great love of the natural world, of bird life in particular, is evident in many of his poems. “I know he and my mother used to love bird-watching and they would spend whatever time they could out walking together,” Janet says.

She adds: “I now find that the poems have greater meaning for me because I am looking for the man behind the poet – and I find glimpses of him. Those that in some small way relate to my mother and their relationship are particularly poignant.”

Here she refers specifically to the final two lines of a poem written on board SS Duchess of Richmond, the troopship that in 1942 carried John Jarmain, his battery and 5,000 troops of the Highland Division from Liverpool via Cape Town to Port Tewfik in Egypt.


I lie and look at the stars that rock and sway

In a swinging arc beyond the pointer mast

And stiff black spars; I hear from far away

The quiver of the engines’ humming song.

And nearer the wave of the white wash hissing past.

Warm as your breath, and fresh, and blowing strong,

The smooth wind fans my eyelids and my hair

And faintly flaps the blankets of my bed.

How still it is! O, my heart has need of you here,

And the hollow of your arm to lay my head.

James Crowden hopes that ‘Flowers in the Minefields’ will go some way towards belatedly shedding light on the talents of Second World War poets.

Comparing them with the First World War poets, he says: “They fought a very different but just as bitter war, and many of the poets in the WesternDesert were killed.

“We can still learn so much from those that were embroiled in such major conflicts of conscience, bravery and hardship. Jarmain’s poems were shaped by solitude and the desert. As one of his lines says: ‘And the desert will live within us when war is ended’.”

Tim Kendall, Professor of English at ExeterUniversity, says that John Jarmain’s “small number of significant poems belong among the finest of the war”. He considers this one, written at Mareth, Tunisia, in March 1943 and containing the line from which the newly published book takes its title, to be his masterpiece:


There are flowers now, they say, at Alamein;

Yes, flowers in the minefields now.

So those that come to view that vacant scene,

Where death remains and agony has been

Will find the lilies grow –

Flowers, and nothing that we know.


So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,

Bells which we could not hear:

And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,

That name of loss and pride, El Alamein?

– Not the murk and harm of war,

But their hope, their own warm prayer.


It will become a staid historic name,

That crazy sea of sand!

Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame

Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,

On us a fleck of glory to the end:

And there our dead will keep their holy ground.


But this is not the place that we recall,

The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,

The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,

The grey-faced men, sand powdered over all;

The tanks, the guns, the trucks,

The black, dark-smoking wrecks.


So be it: none but us has known that land:

El Alamein will still be only ours

And those ten days of chaos in the sand.

Others will come who cannot understand,

Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires

And find there – flowers.

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(Published April 2012)

 Rosie Staal meets John Were, innovator, entrepreneur and owner of an independent publishing house

BOOKS mean different things to different people. To some, they are for transient ownership, for distraction on a plane or train, for relaxing with on a deckchair, never mind if suncream and sand decorate the pages. For others, they are objects of desire and delight, to cherish, to excite the senses of sight, touch and smell, and, best of all, to be entertained by and to learn from.

To John Were, a graduate of English literature (Trinity College, Cambridge, 2000) books mean all of those things – but they also mean words in digital format, as eBooks, on Kindles and other e-readers. For much of his life, but especially for the past year, books both physical and digital have been John’s consuming and fabulous passion.

This is thanks to a life-changing move out of London to a rural home near Yeovil with his wife, Amelia, a GP in the town, which triggered a latent entrepreneurial streak. He has become that rare thing nowadays, an independent publisher. But because this is the 21st century, his company, Xelsion Publishing, has a twin focus – traditional book format side-by-side with innovative digital publishing.

There’s a twin focus to his working life, too, as the publishing venture is an offshoot of Xelsion (www.xelsion.com), his digital media company.

What to publish first was a decision that came easily: it was to be a manuscript written by a friend from university days, Will le Fleming.

“Will kept on almost getting published, but would fail at the final hurdle for some reason,” John says. “It was a shame because everyone who’d read this particular manuscript really rated it.”

There followed a long and very busy period through 2011 that could best be described as a roller-coaster ride of discovery as John learnt everything he could about the publishing industry, from front cover to back. Author Will played an important role, too, researching typefaces, coming up with cover designs and pitching in with ideas and support as the venture moved slowly forward.

Will also influenced the decision on whether the book should be a hardback or a paperback. “Books furnish a room,” he told John, firmly, and so Xelsion Publishing’s first book, and Will le Fleming’s first published novel, Central Reservation, is a hardback volume of impeccable standards with a high-quality feel about it.

John recognises his business venture was born partly out of what he calls “a naïve optimism,” but adds: “Without it we’d starve little and sleep better – but learn less.”

Now there’s another whole new world that he’s had to get grips with, because receiving the first consignment of books from the printers was only the start. There’s marketing, pushing for reviews in influential literary publications, the big launch in London, negotiating with Amazon, persuading booksellers to stock it (come on, Waterstones), making that critical decision about a repeat print run, getting the message out to book groups that they can have a discount – all those things and many, many more occupy John as the campaign goes on to get Central Reservation into more readers’ hands.

At the same time, John is busy expanding into e-publishing, using the internet for communicating with enthusiastic writers and readers, making the creation of a book a collaborative process whereby signed-up supporters on Will’s website (www.willlefleming.com) influence the way they’d like a plot or a character to develop between each instalment.

There’s serialisation of fiction, too, something that chimes so well with people’s bite-sized take on life nowadays. Serial-sized chunks of everything hold great appeal for people with time constraints and shorter attention spans.

To mark the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth, Xelsion started on his birthday, February 7, publishing Great Expectations in its original serial format, but this time in a blog. Alongside the text each instalment has a brief synopsis of the story so far. Chapters are available to download as a Kindle blog. (Go to www.charlesdickens.xelsion.com to find out more.) The blog also has a piece by Will le Fleming on how Dickens has influenced his writing.

It is both interesting and remarkable that John has an interest in both sides of the current hot debate about the future of books and whether e-Books are taking over.

On one hand he’s an advocate of ‘furnishing rooms’ with real live books with all their expressive physical qualities, and on the other he’s happy to evangelise about e-ventures and the ease and comparative low cost of e-reading.

While the war of words continues, he’s content to push forward with both, his business head ensuring a measured progress. To this end, he’s already negotiated an option to publish Will le Fleming’s second novel, Perpetual Motion.

John’s willingness to take brave steps into the world of innovation and originality is perhaps not surprising, given his family background.

His father, as a new graduate, embarked confidently on a career in software programming as long ago as 1980 because he could see that business would become more reliant on computers. His prescience, of course, proved correct, and the rest is history.

But it is John’s grandfather who takes the prize as the family’s most unusual yet most dazzlingly unsuccessful entrepreneur.

John, who regrets never having met him, explains. “He had this idea to turn a couple of decommissioned World War II torpedo boats into cross-Channel craft. They could do 50 knots – it was quite mad.

“But it didn’t matter because it didn’t work, unsurprisingly, and he lost a lot of money. At this point he took the family, including my father, who can still remember it, on the Queen Mary to start a new life in Canada. They travelled out first-class and three months later they came back, second-class.”

As entrepreneurs go, John’s grandfather simply didn’t. He ended up selling ice-creams from a van at the foot of Haytor, on Dartmoor. But that desire to try and do something different and an insistence on taking entrepreneurial strides life from the left field has obviously influenced John – not least in his choice of location for his marriage proposal to Amelia. It was, of course, Haytor.

Summarising his attitude to business life, John says: “There is always a smarter way of doing things and constant effort should be made to get smarter every step of the way. It takes a lot of time, but the idea is if you do it long enough you start moving slightly faster than everyone else – and if you keep doing it you stay ahead.”

A good read on many levels

AUTHOR Will le Fleming’s first book is a lot of things: a ghost story, a tale of emotions stripped raw, a commentary on rural life as it is exposed to the barest bones of survival. But first and foremost it is a great read quite beautifully written by someone clearly at ease with words and the complexities of language and its rules.

In such safe hands, no reader could fail to be beguiled by such superbly skilful story-telling.

Central Reservation is set during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 when rural communities suffered so terribly and the gap between town and country widened to a chasm. Within this context, 13-year-old Holly must come to terms with a future without her twin sister, growing up on her mother’s farm where the stench of death lingers and where nothing can ever be the same again.

Will le Fleming knows about the countryside, having been brought up on a farm in the West Country. Although only in his mid-30s, he has led a colourful life so far, working as a stringer in Ecuador, a croupier in New Zealand and a sword-fighter at the Tower of London. He has also shot arrows and wrestled for money, and worked as a paid impersonator of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He’s now settled in London, writing and teaching English.


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A Boot Up Mid Dorset – 10 Leisure Walks of Discovery, by Rodney Legg (PiXZ Books, £4.99)

HOW reassuring to have such a good, clear, well-designed and intuitively helpful walking companion as this latest book in the inelegantly named ‘A Boot Up’ series by prolific local author Rodney Legg.

How delightfully appropriate too, that he should write about walks – best foot forward and all that, Mr Legg.

The illustrations – scores of photographs of the treasures that lie in wait, and maps to guide those with a less-than-perfect compass-reading technique – are, sadly, not credited to a Mr Ankle or a Ms Instep. That would be too much to hope for. In fact they are the author’s, so huge credit to him for that, too.

This is the perfect book, and quite possibly the only book one would ever need, to pop into the jacket pocket or daypack when setting off to explore and enjoy this sensationally lovely part of Dorset. It covers a shallow band between the Blackmore Vale and the Dorset Downs, bounded by Batcomber and Up Sydling to the west and Winterborne Stickland and Winterborne Houghton to the east. Spectacular walking country indeed.

There are 10 walks, carefully explained from first step to last, with just the sort of information you need: length (they vary from three miles to nine miles), degree of difficulty, type of terrain, where to park, availability of public transport, the postcode of the start point and any associated websites that could enrich the experience. With photos of many of the landmarks and snippets of local history too, the book packs in a mighty amount of information considering it’s only a tiddler in size.

At £4.99 it’s a snip and if it introduces you to only one of the lovely corners of central Dorset, then it has to be money well spent. R.S.

(Published 2011)

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WALKING in Dorset is a great pleasure at any time of the year, but when the countryside is looking its absolute best, it is doubly pleasurable.

You only have to step out along a woodland path that’s flanked by a carpet of bluebells, or cross a meadow dressed with frilly cowslips to appreciate the rewards.

But it’s a matter of getting the timing right. Miss the bluebells by a week, and the droopy heads take the spring out of your step.

For help with what’s flowering where and when, and how to get the maximum pleasure from your walk, turn to the experts – and with Peter and Margaret Cramb you couldn’t be in better hands.

Their ‘Shorter Wild Flower Walks in Dorset’ is the sequel to their very successful ‘Wild Flower Walks in Dorset’ (2006) and results from requests from people wanting shorter walks to enjoy with families.

So the Crambs have put together this really lovely volume, illustrating it with their own paintings and photographs, offering 10 walks ranging in length from about two to three-and-a-half miles.

All the walks are in wild flower habitats the length and breadth of the county – including Jurassic coast, chalk downland, river, woodland, meadow and heathland – and between them they produce an impressive 300 different flower species.

Each walk is described with a detailed route, a map, and flower and landscape photographs, as well as a list of the flowers that are likely to be seen. The authors recommend the time of year, between early April and early September, when the flowers tend to be at their best at each location.

Peter Cramb works on botanical projects as a volunteer at Dorset County Museum, and his and Margaret’s main recreation is walking in the Dorset countryside, so it can be with great confidence that anyone wishing to walk the county’s byways and paths takes this book as their companion. RS

Shorter Wild Flower Walks, £7.95, available from booksellers, Tourist Information Centres and other outlets in Dorset.

(Published 2009)

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• ‘The Quiet Watcher – A Diary of a Naturalist’ by Anthony Clare Lees, published by The Galleybird Press, £15.95.


HOW many of us, when out in the countryside, spot something interesting or unusual and vow to make a note of it as soon as we get home – and then promptly forget?

Thank goodness, therefore, for those people who not only don’t forget but who also take the trouble to record the details properly for posterity.

One of these committed and methodical people is Anthony Clare Lees, who has kept nature diaries for more than 30 years. Now he is sharing his fascinating and knowledgeable observations in an attractive hard-back volume called ‘The Quiet Watcher – A Diary of a Naturalist’ which he has illustrated with his own excellent photographs.

Quite a lot of Anthony’s ‘standing and staring’ has been done in the Westcountry – in the Vale of Pewsey in Wiltshire, where he lived for 10 years, and in Somerset, in the Wincanton area and the Quantocks, where he has lived for 20 years. He has also travelled into Devon and Cornwall, further afield in England, including Worcestershire and Derbyshire, and to Normandy, all the while diligently noting the sights and sounds around him.

Thus he is able to detect that there has been a noticeable change in weather patterns in the past 30 years. For example, where once there would have been a couple of big snowfalls in Wiltshire, winters now are mild with constant strong winds.

Each season’s distinct characteristics have changed, and so nature’s calendar is no longer as predictable as it was. The once-reliable arrival of migrant birds, for instance, now varies hugely and some, like the turtle dove, don’t even bother to make the journey at all to some areas.

So as the times change, the climate changes – and the wildlife and its habitat too.

As Anthony notes wistfully in his introduction to the book: “The journal represents incidents captured during quiet moments in the countryside, much of which has now disappeared but can still be found by those who seek it.”

Interesting, though, to note that on a walk on the coast path near Kimmeridge in August, 1983, he recorded seeing just one painted lady butterfly. This summer, it’s quite possible he’d have been walking through clouds of them.

But this book is not in any way a lament for the way we were: it is much more an exuberant, glowing portrait of the countryside and all the joys that lie within it, which are ours for the sharing. RS

(Published September 2009)

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