non-fiction

A Tomb With A View – Peter Ross

Title – A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Author – Peter Ross

Published – 2020

Genre – Non-Fiction

It’s unusual for me to read a non-fiction book but this is one of two I’ve read so far in 2021 – strange times indeed!

I heard about this book purely through social media although I’m sure the cover would have been enough to seal the deal if I’d been able to browse in a bookshop. It went on my Christmas list and duly appeared under the tree.

I’m quite the taphophile as it happens and already have plenty of reading material about graves and graveyards. This book is a little different to most of those because it’s packed with unusual facts, interesting anecdotes and conversations with those intimately involved in the featured locations. Some of the stories were very personal and touched on aspects surrounding death and burial that aren’t normally talked about.

The short chapters cover the length and breadth of the country and even beyond and a range of cultures and faiths. Those whose graves feature include the well-known, the forgotten, the celebrated and the unknown.

The writing style made this an easy book to read (not something I always feel about non-fiction) and the author captured the sense of place, bringing to life the diverse locations that were featured. He has a deft turn of phrase and treated those sharing their personal stories with great respect – giving an insight into what is still very much a taboo subject.  The people who shared their stories were just as important to the book as the stones.

I do have some quibbles with the book. My first is that there are some notable gaps, it’s surprising not to see Brookwood (London Necropolis) get more than a passing mention – the largest cemetery in the UK, destination of the London Necropolis Railway and the site of the first crematorium in Britain (amongst other notable facts). For me the other omission was a mention of Lutyens – one of three principal architects for the Imperial War Graves Commission, who designed 140 cemeteries in the countryside of Flanders and northern France for soldiers killed in the First World War, whose best know memorials are the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the Thiepval Memorial.

I was also felt that there was more about the political divisions in Northern Ireland than was appropriate – but I have learned something, so perhaps it wasn’t there in vain.

An unusual book and a great choice for anyone who has paused in a graveyard to read an inscription.

Now to find a space on my shelf.

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Spectacles – Sue Perkins

Title – Spectacles

Author – Sue Perkins

Published – 2015

Genre – Memoir

This is one of a few books I’ve read recently which falls outside my normal crime fiction reading. This was a book I had particularly fancied reading as I have a fondness for Sue (and Mel) and although I watch the ‘new’ Bakeoff I still miss their ability to lighten the tense and tearful moments for the contestants. She always appears to be one of those genuinely nice and positive people and having read Spectacles I can’t see anything to cast doubt on this.

Although it’s ‘A Memoir’ Sue manages the reader’s expectations from the start by offering a disclaimer that she has taken some liberties with the narrative to increase the comedy and “I have amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me.”. Which probably makes for a more entertaining read – and in places it really is laugh out loud funny.

The book charts the time from her upbringing in Croydon to 2012 and her participation in World’s Most Dangerous Roads, with Liza Tarbuck, driving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – something I must have missed at the time and now feel the need to find and watch.

As well as being funny, and gently humorous the book also has some very touching parts including her father’s diagnosis with cancer. And if you are in a public place you should skip over ‘A letter to Pickle’ until you are somewhere away from other people and have a box of tissues to hand…

Of course, as the book charts Sue’s childhood, time at Cambridge and career progression and there are less traumatic highs and lows – not all her decisions are good ones but that’s the benefit of hindsight. What I found slightly odd was the things that weren’t mentioned. I’m not sure if there was something self-effacing about this (others would have made more of being Footlights President) and more serious issues that are glossed over (an accident to an eye as a child) but it did feel a little odd.

Nevertheless, for all the liberties that the author took I do feel as if I was reading about the person I though I knew from her TV appearances, even though she is someone who tends to keep out of the spotlight rather than seek it.

18th October sees the publication of the next ‘instalment’ East of Croydon – I’ll definitely be adding a copy to my Christmas wishlist.

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Names for the Sea – Sarah Moss

41KqgPxPF9LTitle – Names for the Sea

Author – Sarah Moss

Published – 2012

Genre – Non-fiction/travel

It isn’t unusual for me to buy a book based purely on its cover, but I can’t recall buying a book before after seeing someone on the tube reading it. I guess that may partly be because I try to avoid the tube as much as possible but on this occasion the woman opposite was reading ‘Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland’. I have an interest in Iceland and I thought the book looked intriguing, so without any real clue what it was about (and some issues trying to remember what it was called) I ordered it from the internet.

I was surprised, and am still fascinated, by the cover when I saw it in the flesh – I thought the pinky spots were small flowers – but look closely! This has got be one of the most amazing photographs I’ve seen on a book cover. You can find the cover designer, Anna Green on twitter @SiulenDesign and the photographer is Sandro Santioli – also on twitter @santioli and there is a gallery of his stunning work on sandrosantioli.com.

So to the author and the book! Sarah Moss studied English at Oxford and developed research interests in the literature of the far north and in food and material culture in fiction, specializing in the Romantic and early Victorian periods. She lectured at the University of Kent during which time her first novel was published. She’d visited Iceland with a friend when she was 19 with the intention of returning and then ‘real life’ got in the way, but when a vacancy at the University of Iceland coincided with some events in her life that meant her husband and two young sons were amenable to a move, the perfect opportunity was too good to miss.

The book is the story of Sarah (and her family’s) time in Iceland. Her interview was in November 2008 and their move to Reykjavik began in July 2009. Anyone who has even a passing interest in the news will recognise that this is the height of the financial crisis that gripped Iceland and had consequences around the world. At the time they begin their stay the crisis had halted construction of blocks of flats in Garðabær, a wealthy suburb of Reykjavik but word of mouth finds them an apartment to use, although they are the only ones to occupy the block.

Garðabær

There are two main aspects to the book – one is Sarah’s own experience of her time and being an ‘immigrant’ and the other reflects her own interests and natural curiosity as she tries to find out more about the people and history of the country. Initially the issues are completely practical – where on earth do you get fresh fruit and veg from, what do Icelanders eat? How to get about when you don’t have a car and don’t speak enough of the language to by a bus ticket? Where can you buy second hand things for kids? What is the protocol for getting changed at a swimming pool?

The mix of practical issues and her inability to see the effect of the crash (kreppa) – how can there be no market for secondhand goods in a country in financial crisis? prompt her to find out more about an issue that most Icelanders seem unwilling to acknowledge or discuss but she does persevere to find those who are really suffering.

She shows a journalist’s knack for finding the right people to talk to and finds Icelanders who tell her about the wool and knitting industry (who knew ‘traditional’ Icelandis jumpers were a relatively new thing??), the surprising truth about Iceland’s (apparently low) crime rate, what it was like in Iceland in the mid part of the twentieth century – and of course the hidden people!

House buried by lava at Heimaey by jkbrooks85 on Flickr

Not all of the writing is investigative – the family want to make the most of their time and manage to travel to some of the popular and lesser knows sites, including a visit to Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands) and the village of Heimaey where houses were buried under the ash during a volcanic eruption 1973 (and which features in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s book Ashes to Dust).

One aspect that it would be impossible to ignore is the environment; the climate, the landscape and the seasons which have such a dramatic impact on the length of the days. So how does a stranger survive and make this their home?

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Iceland twice and appreciate that I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to see and experience but in such a small city there were bound to be places Sarah described with which I was familiar and one of the earliest ones in the book was the Nordic House – home to Iceland Noir! It was fascinating to see the place described through someone else’s eyes.

This is a fascinating insight into the country and its people as well as a (timely) exploration of what it’s like to be an immigrant who doesn’t fully appreciate all the cultural norms of their new home. I should also add that Sarah’s background as a lecturer in Creative Writing and as a novelist means that the book is beautifully written, humorous and absorbing. Whether you’ve only ever dreamed of going to Iceland or have already experienced its pleasures for yourself, this is a great read which I highly recommend.

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