The Wanderer by Jane Holland

This, according to the blurb, is a ‘controversial reworking’ of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name*. ‘Controversial’ and ‘famous’ are both relative terms here, of course.

Flying in the same direction

I assume the controversy mainly arose because the poem is given a female narrator. To quote the introduction:

I also transformed the male ‘Wanderer’ of the poem’s title into a female figure and focused on that narrator alone, even though the original poem seems occasionally to suggest two distinct speakers. (A point on which some academics disagree.) This rather drastic change was made for two reasons. Firstly, the traditional male-male relationship of the lord and his faithful retainer takes on a strongly homoerotic charge when read with a modern sensibility and, writing as a female poet, this posited relationship lacked authenticity in my early drafts. Secondly, I originally undertook this translation to provide a centrepiece to my third poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, which is itself themed around the concept of a lone female traveller.

I think the change works well. The themes of exile and loss take on a slightly different flavour but work just as well with a female narrator. It makes it a different poem, but it’s not as radical a change as you might imagine.

There are two other notable tweaks to the poem. The first is to strip out the Christian imagery. Holland reads The Wanderer as an essentially secular poem with ‘artificially imposed religious overtones’, which is certainly an entirely plausible reading; others have found it to be deeply infused with a Christian sensibility.

The third change, which I thought was perhaps more striking than either of those, was the inclusion of a few modern references. Not that many of them, but for example in the description of men lost in battle, she writes [every other line is supposed to be indented]:

Some fell there in the line of duty,
caught off-guard in the crossfire; others
were blasted to bits at the roadside
or picked off by snipers

The Wanderer deals with that essential Anglo-Saxon theme of a world in decline, and living among the evidence former glory. Taking that idea and setting it in a modern world gives the poem a remarkable post-apocalyptic feel. I’d never made that connection before, between Anglo-Saxon poetry and, say, Mad Max; but actually it’s surprisingly apt.

Anyway, I’m generally in favour of people doing interesting reinterpretations of the classics, and I think this is completely successful. It does bring something new, but it also captures the gloomy beauty of the original.

* My awful pedantic soul (it’s a terrible affliction) requires me to point out: I’m pretty sure the title is a modern addition, like all the titles we give Anglo-Saxon poems.

» The photo is Flying in the same direction, © Susanne Nilsson and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Voices II: Contemporary Bahraini Short Stories, ed. & trans. Hasan Marhamah
Bras, Boys, and Blunders: Juliet & Romeo in Bahrain by Vidya Samson

I found these two books from Bahrain for the Read The World challenge, and I bought both because I thought they might offer an interesting contrast.

The Gulf states seem like a fascinating part of the world at the moment, but the rule I set myself — that books should ideally be by people who are actually from the relevant countries — are not helping. These are tiny countries with small publishing industries that do not translate a lot into English; and they have some pretty autocratic governments that probably restrict the kinds of things that can be published at all.

Bahrain Cityscape

So if I want to find books that address the full weirdness of the Gulf — the pouring of unimaginable amounts of money into international sport; the way that Dubai manages to be an autocratic Islamic state while also a favoured holiday destination of European playboys; the fact that Qatar has a population of 1.8 million, of whom only 278,000 are citizens; the planned outposts of the Guggenheim and the Louvre; the… ambiguous position of Saudi Arabia in the War on Terror — well, I’m probably going to have to look for something written by an outsider.

Vidya Samson is an outsider, and does provide an interesting perspective, although not the kind of perspective that would offer insight into, say, Qatar’s winning bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Bras, Boys, and Blunders: Juliet & Romeo in Bahrain is a teen romantic comedy about an Indian girl going to a multicultural Catholic school while her parents are working in Bahrain. At the school, white students have automatic cool status while the Indians and Pakistanis are at the bottom of the pecking order, mocked by the Arabs for their accents. Our heroine is a naive, shy girl dealing with boys, flat-chestedness, her parents; it’s fairly standard stuff, apart from the unusual setting. I’m clearly not the target market for this book, but it was likeable enough.

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Hasan Marhamah is apparently Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Bahrain, which surprises me: partly because Voices II: Contemporary Bahraini Short Stories is lacking things like author bios or even publication dates for the stories, which is the kind of thing you might expect an academic to include. But especially because the English isn’t very good. There are quite a few errors of grammar, and more often the language is just clunky and unidiomatic:

As he bulged his eyes on the road, distressing blows recurred as if broiling him on calm fire. In the extreme hectic traffic commotions, and while his feet hesitated to move, a genius idea struck into his head; a difficult idea, but he would execute it. […] Fear choked the depths of his throbbing heart. The road ambience looked like a cemetery waiting for a coffin to carry him. He could not see any more but could hear the caution horns of the angry car drivers as he drew in his mind the picture of death. A rough hand prevented his advancement and a voice in a strong military tone addressed him…

When I was reading the first story, I seriously doubted that I would make it through the whole book, but actually I found if I read it quickly, and tried not to get hung up on individual sentences, it wasn’t too bad. The more straightforward the story, the better it worked; anything too poetic or ambiguous was much more difficult. A badly translated stream of consciousness is hard going.

Still, prose style aside, reading the stories for their content was interesting. For example, love stories are interesting in a culture where contact between men and women is restricted; there are stories about extreme poverty; there were several stories about divorce. Of course I knew that it was very easy for men to divorce their wives under Islamic law, but I’d never really thought about how brutal it could be for the wives and children, that men could just set them aside and move on to new women. Which is a failure of empathy on my part, admittedly.

So I ended up enjoying it more than I expected, at least.

» Bahrain Cityscape is © Mubarak Fahad and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. Protests in Bahrain is © Al Jazeera English and used under a CC by-sa licence. 

Exotic Territory: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Paraguayan Poetry, ed. & trans. Ronald Haladyna

This is my book from Paraguay for the Read The World challenge. I previously bought a copy of I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, but that’s a fat dense modernist novel and it defeated me.

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I always find it frustrating reading poetry in translation. I mean, even with English-language poetry I often find myself uncertain, not knowing what to think; with translations you get the added bonus that you know that something will be missing, but you never know what.

And with a selection of different poets but only one translator, there’s the added worry that the influence of the translator will make them all sound alike.

In other words: nothing here grabbed me the way that poetry sometimes can. But there were certainly things to enjoy. And in fact I’ve been enjoying dipping in and out for this post more than I did on the first read-through.

Much of the poetry is political; Paraguay has been under some variety of dictatorship for most of its history, most notably under Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-89, and there are poems about repression and violence; here’s a short one about Stroessner, by Jacobo Rauskin:

Alfredo Ages

The effigy sustained
by a thousand standard bearers
loses its force and colour.

The years attenuate
the militant rictus
and the great bully
looks old in the sun.

But there is poetry on a variety of themes, including the usuals: poetry, love, death, nature. Rain seems to be a recurrent image. Here’s one by Joaquín Morales, picked semi-randomly because I quite like it and it’s short enough to type out:

Still Life, 1

It’s not the partridges with their eyes
probably bursting out,
nor the bouquet of their legs
mingled with aromatic herbs;
nor the clay vase
that clearly shows
the prints of the fingers that molded it;
not even the dark,
irregular boards of the table,
whose veins and nodules still retain
the aroma of the forest:

not the old theme of appearance and reality,
nor the one of time briefly detained in brush strokes
that memory vivifies and recomposes:

perhaps — though certainty is almost impossible —
perhaps it’s the complete apprehension
of a yellow reflection in a small dark beak.

A bit of a mixed bag, then, which perhaps is what anthologies should be; but certainly quite a lot of things I liked.

» I got the photo from Flickr; it shows the confluence of the Río Paraguay and the Río Paraná. The two rivers mark the border between Argentina (to the south and west) and Paraguay. So the photo is mostly Argentina; but it’s a nice image. It is © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and used under a CC-by licence (although actually I think NASA photos are in the public domain automatically?).

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in Search of Happiness by Amadou Ndiaye

This is my book from Mauritania for the Read The World challenge. It tells the story of Baba, a teenager who risks his life in a crowded refugee boat to start a new life in Spain.

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A geographical aside: the book kept talking about taking a small boat from Mauritania to Spain, which seemed staggering. It eventually became clear that the boats from Mauritania go to the Canary Islands rather than the Spanish mainland: a still-terrifying 500 miles across the Atlantic rather than the 1300 miles I was imagining.

It’s a self-published novel by a Mauritanian student who studied in the US on a Fulbright scholarship. According to the blurb, ‘Amadou is one of the first students from his country to write a fiction novel’. And I hate to be negative about a first novel written in the author’s second language*, but it’s not a good advertisement for self-publishing.

It’s badly in need of a copy-editor, which is mildly annoying but forgivable. More importantly, it’s not well-written.The dialogue, characterisation, plotting… it’s all just clumsy and obvious. Which is a great pity, because this is exactly the kind of subject that is badly underrepresented in fiction; if someone could write a really good novel about the experiences of illegal African immigrants to Europe, I would be thrilled to read it.

I don’t know if Ndiaye would have done better for his first novel to have written about the experiences of a Mauritanian student studying in the Appalachians, which would also be a potentially interesting subject, I would think.

Anyway, despite its weaknesses, I’m glad this book exists; the boom in self-publishing is really helping me with reading around the world.

* Third? Fourth? I’m guessing he would have one of the African languages, plus French and maybe some Arabic?

» The photo is © UNHCR/L.Boldrini.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

It’s citizen science time again. I got thirteen species this year, which is actually about par; my record is nineteen, but I’ve had several years which were much worse.

Carrion Crow × 3
Magpie × 2

Feral Pigeon × 1
Woodpigeon × 1

Blackbird × 1
Robin × 1
Dunnock × 2

Blue Tit × 1
Great Tit × 4
Coal Tit × 1
Long-tailed Tit × 3

Chaffinch × 5
Goldfinch × 1

It’s a rather boring list, even by suburban London standards; no sparrowhawk, nuthatch, woodpecker, siskin, greenfinch, stock dove… but never mind.

The perfidious Kindle

In 2014 I read almost entirely genre fiction, and I blame the Kindle.

Not there’s anything wrong with genre fiction. When it’s well-written, it is the purest kind of reading pleasure; story-telling with no other purpose than to entertain.

It’s a bit like Hollywood blockbusters; a well-made blockbuster is in some ways the apotheosis of cinema. Brash, glossy, sensational entertainment may not be the most interesting or important thing that cinema can do, but it’s something cinema does uniquely well. All too often, though, I find myself sitting in the cinema watching silly, incoherent, predictable twaddle and promising myself that next time, I won’t be suckered in by the marketing, and I’ll go and see some the interesting Eastern European movie or the documentary instead.

Or the kind of junk food you think will be a self-indulgent treat, but you actually regret ordering even before you finish eating it.

And the Kindle just makes it too easy to keep buying more junk food. There’s always something heavily discounted; you can impulse buy and be reading in seconds; and the books don’t even clutter up your house.

And of course, there’s Amazon’s recommendations; they’re always telling you that if you liked X you might enjoy Y. But that doesn’t really work, for me. Because it’s the quality of the writing which matters more than the specific genre. And believe me, it doesn’t matter how much you like Georgette Heyer, other writers of historical romance are almost always disappointing. And just because you enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, it doesn’t mean you should keep buying random books that Amazon classifies as ‘Space Opera’.

So I’ve made a bit of a New Years resolution: more proper books.

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

This is the family history of three generations of Germans. The author’s grandparents were young during WWII; one grandfather fought in the French Resistance, the other seems to have been a lukewarm Fascist, but both ended up being inspired by the promise of the new socialist East Germany that was going to rise out of the ruins of the war. Then his parents grew up as products of the GDR, and he was a young man when the Berlin Wall came down.

GDR Tootsie

He’s got plenty of good material, and it’s well-written*, so if it sounds like the kind of thing you might like, you’ll probably like it.

* Apart from some slightly clunky tense shifts; he opens chapters in the past tense to establish the scene then switches to the present tense for the bulk of the text. Maybe it works better in German.

» The photo, ‘KULTUR, BERLIN GDR 1984’ is © phillygdr and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Bird of the Year 2014

I added eight birds to my life list this year, all in Portugal; including two species of vultures, five eagles, two storks, two bustards, bee-eater, roller, hoopoe, golden oriole, two kinds of shrike, two kinds of swift…

Among the species I’d seen before, highlights included Montagu’s Harrier, which is an elegant, long-winged bird of prey that I had wonderful views of; Southern Grey Shrike, which I’d seen before in Morocco and Spain, but certainly never so well; Black Stork, a species I last saw over twenty years ago on the day I did a bungee jump at Victoria Falls; Pallid Swift, because I had previously ticked it on the basis of a somewhat dodgy sighting, so a really good sighting was a weight off my mind (and also because it was picturesque to see them nesting on cliffs overhanging the sea). Bonelli’s Eagle and Golden Eagle are certainly worth mentioning as well, although neither were particularly good views.

And there are all those Mediterranean species which are always a pleasure to see: Black-winged Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt, Little Owl, Alpine Swift, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Azure-winged Magpie, Crested Tit, Blue Rock Thrush, Crested Lark, Nightingale, Black-eared Wheatear, Serin, Cirl Bunting.

One of the particular attractions of the trip I took was the unusual cliff-nesting storks. These are White Storks, the ones better-known for nesting on chimneys (and bringing babies). Along this particular bit of the Portuguese coast they’ve developed the habit of nesting on rocks just offshore. I think there are probably at least ten or eleven nests in this picture, although admittedly you may have to take my word for it:

storks

You should at least be able to make out the streaks of guano, and the flying white bird with black wingtips in front of the left-hand rock. Here’s a photo, taken through binoculars, of a nest which was unusually close to the cliff:

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Of the eight species I saw which were new, the least interesting was Iberian Chiffchaff: a bird which is effectively identical to the (very common, small, drab) Common Chiffchaff, but with a different song. I didn’t even definitely see one — I saw chiffchaffs that weren’t calling and heard Iberian Chiffchaff singing — but I’m ticking it on the song.

Then there was Western Bonelli’s Warbler, another little greenish bird in the same genus as the chiffchaffs. I have to say, it was a much more attractive bird in person than you would think looking at illustrations; but that’s not saying much.

Black Vulture (or Cinereous Vulture, if you want to avoid confusion with the New World species) is a cracking species — the largest bird of prey apart from the condors, with a wingspan from eight to ten feet — but again, not particularly good views. Spanish Imperial Eagle (or as my Portuguese guide tried to persuade me it was called, Iberian Imperial Eagle) is a majestic species which used to be the rarest eagle in world until good conservation work managed to upgrade it to the second rarest*; there were estimated to be 324 breeding pairs in 2012. Again, though, very distant views.

I also saw some Black-bellied Sandgrouse — the sandgrouse are ground-living desert pigeons, sort of — which was the first sandgrouse I’ve seen in Europe. And quite good views of a pair of Stone Curlew, which is a magnificent, goggle-eyed bird.

But when I booked a birding guide for a day, there were three species I particularly wanted to see: Little Bustard, Great Bustard and European Roller.

The roller is a truly spectacular species, a big electric blue bird the size of a crow with deep, royal blue patches on the wings when it flies. We spent a while watching them, and it would almost certainly be my bird of the year if it hadn’t been my winner for BOTY 2007.

Little Bustard is also a great species, and we saw them reasonably well; but my Bird of the Year 2014 has to be Great Bustard. I believe the world’s heaviest recorded flying bird was a Great Bustard; with the slight caveat that the particular individual may have been too fat to fly. On average it’s the second-heaviest, after Kori Bustard, and it’s a big beast of a thing. Here’s the distant, hazy photo I posted for BOTY:BPiaSR:

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Here it is zoomed into the centre a bit, clearly showing five birds:

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The two in the middle [enhance! enhance!]:

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But what’s so good about bustards is what they do to attract a mate. Stick with this video for at least a couple of minutes to get the full effect:

Amazing. I didn’t get views like that, sadly, but I did see them a bit closer than in my photos, and I did see them displaying, and they are brilliant birds.

*The massive, monkey-eating Philippine Eagle is now the rarest.

Bird of the Year 2014: best performances in a supporting role

Happy New Year, everybody.

Keen followers of the Bird of the Year Awards will notice a change in the categories this year. Butterflies and moths receive a disproportionate amount of my insecty attention, so I think it makes sense to split them out into their own category. Realistically, I could just split all invertebrates into ‘butterflies and moths’ and ‘other’, but I think it’s good to sit back at the end of the year and try to think of an interesting spider or slug or sea urchin or something.

Best Plant

I went on a lovely holiday in Portugal in the spring, and I mainly chose the timing for the flowers. Everyone goes to the Mediterranean at the wrong time of year. It may not be as hot at the end of April as it is in August, but the whole countryside is full of flowers and birdsong.

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So I was walking along the Atlantic coast of Portugal, and the cliffs were covered in drifts of rockroses — pale yellow, strong yellow, white, pink — but there was also French lavender, thrift, big Spanish broom, little compact mounds of broom with pale yellow flowers, maybe eight or nine different orchids, wild gladioli, amazing vivid blue pimpernels. And sometimes I’d put my backpack down and get a great waft of wild thyme.

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But I have to pick one. Among the various orchids, I was pleased to find these plants of a tongue orchid which is normally burgundy red:

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But perhaps perversely, I’m not going to pick a flower; my plant of the year is the cork oak:

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The numbers on the bark are to keep track of when each tree’s bark was last harvested. The combination of the dark naked trunks and greyish bark sleeves is rather charming, I think.

Best Butterfly or Moth

I made an effort to tick off a few more British butterfly species this year, and had four life firsts. But they were very much butterflies for the connoisseur; by which I mean they look… unspectacular. The names give you some idea: Essex Skipper, Small Blue, Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper. The Small Blue is indeed remarkably small, but it’s not very blue; the Essex Skipper is distinguished from the Small Skipper by the colour of the undersides of the antennae; and the other two skippers are grizzled and dingy.

I also saw  green hairstreak for the first time in Britain, which is a genuinely pretty butterfly, with iridescent green underwings; but I have seen them before in France. And a few attractive moths, like Clouded Buff, and this Buff Ermine, seen here on the classic habitat of a railway station toilet door:

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But the winner is again from Portugal, a kind of butterfly I have wanted to see for years because it’s an exotic-looking European species not found in the UK: a Festoon. To be exact, this is a Spanish Festoon:

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It’s rather a worn specimen, and it’s a terrible picture taken with my phone through my binoculars, but it’s my butterfly of the year.

Best Insect (other)

The most exciting non-lepidopteran insects I saw this year in the UK were ruby-tailed wasp (so shiny!) and velvet ant (actually a furry wingless wasp, dontcha know). Although the most photogenic might be this dor beetle:

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But I also saw some good beetles in Portugal, like this spotty hairy chafer which I think is probably Oxythyrea funesta (but usually when I think I’ve identified an insect and I consult an entomologist, they tell me I would need to check its genitalia under a microscope to be sure):

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And there was this grotesque mammoth which, I learned later, is an oil beetle:

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But I’m going for this spiky beetle as my best insect (other) for 2014. According to the coleopterist I consulted on Twitter, it’s probably Sepidium bidentatum:

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Best Invertebrate (other)

So I was walking along in Portugal and thought oh, what’s that pink flower the bumblebee is feeding on…

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As it turns out, the bumblebee was not the one doing the feeding. That is a pink crab spider, possibly Thomisus onustus.

But my invertebrate of the year is the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi. These have been spreading rapidly across the south of England in the last ten years, helped by a combination of global warming and, I learn from Google, new-found genetic diversity after global warming allowed previously isolated populations to interbreed. It may be a sign of the coming apocalypse, but it’s a handsome beastie which I’ve been trying to see for a couple of years:

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Best Reptile

I saw a grass snake trying to eat a frog in the woods at Bookham Common. I did take a couple of pictures of snake belly in thick grass, but they’re not worth sharing.

Best Fish

No, I’ve got nothing.

Best Amphibian

I’ve seen the usual common frogs and toads — lots of tadpoles in the pond this year — but nothing notable.

Best Mammal

An Egyptian Mongoose in Portugal. I just googled this to check, and apparently it was always assumed that these were an introduced species in Iberia — because of a lack of fossil evidence and the distance from the nearest wild African populations — but there are fossils in North Africa, and recent genetic testing suggests the Iberian mongooses are the descendants of some of those North African animals that presumably crossed over at Gibraltar in the Pleistocene, when there was no sea there.

Either way, it was a neat surprise; I didn’t know they were there.

Best Ecosystem

Obviously the Portuguese cliff-tops were great, the pine scrub was a delight, but my choice is the steppes of Alentejo, where I went with a hired bird guide for a great days birdwatching. I imagine in summer they are baked dry, but when I was there it was gently rolling green fields with flowers forming great hazy patches of colour. I only took a couple of pictures and they don’t do it justice, but here’s one I took through a telescope, admittedly with the saturation punched up a bit, that gives you some idea.

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There are actually some birds in that picture, which is why I took it; but they can wait for the main Bird of the Year 2014 post.