The Swim of all Swims

One-hour slots. Five team mates. Thirteen to eighteen hours. Twenty-one miles. A Channel relay sounds doable and nearly impossible at the same time. I know I’m fast but the arthritis can bite hard even after just a forty-minute swim – when it lets me do it at all. When I first find out about the Aspire charity relay, and then that there is one spot left for 2019, fears snap at me: Your body can’t handle it. You can’t risk it. You’ll be letting everyone down if you have to back out.

But I am tired of being afraid.

I meet my team, the Tigers, at Parliament Hill Lido when the water is nine degrees Celsius. We scream together, and afterwards we fight palsy-like shivers to get mugs of tea to our lips. This is the best thing about the relay, apart from the swimming: a new gang of friends.

Training really kicks off with the first Dover weekend organised by Aspire, a charity providing vital support for people with spinal injuries. They’ve been running the relays for a decade. It’s early May and the sea still clings to winter. Watching the videos and thinking yeah, I could handle that is different to standing on the pebbles watching other people shriek as they go in, while the hoodie-wrapped Aspire crew chivy you not to dawdle. There are three weekends in all, May, June, July, and even though the mercury does inch up, entering the water never gets easier.

Always it’s the same: the dreaded first few steps. The shrieking (and swearing). The reluctant immersion to the shoulders. A bit of breast-stroke to delay the inevitable plunge of your face into water as you switch to front crawl. The merciful bloom of heat in your chest which makes everything feel good for about three minutes. The arcing route along the big yellow buoys to the far harbour wall that stinks of boat oil and fish on the turn, before a long slog back to the beach by way of a Premier Inn that always seems to take an infinity to pass. Mouthfuls of salt water that leave your tongue burned for days after.

What most surprises me about those training swims is the companionship. Thirty-six or so of us in our bright green hats pile into the water and with people ahead, behind, beside me, I feel the faintest inkling of what it must be to be a dolphin. In June we have to do the Qualifier: the two-hour swim in sub-sixteen degrees Celsius, a prerequisite for Channel relays. The sea is grumpier than it’s ever been, all grey slappy waves, and the water is a generous fourteen degrees. For every minute of it, I want it to be over. Only my teammates get me through.

Them and Jelly Babies.

Then the training weekends are done, and the first Aspire team is already off doing their relay – the Panthers, including my friend Jamie who told me about the relay in the first place. I itch to go, knowing I have another two months to wait. In the meantime, I put as much swimming as I can under my belt – the Henley mile (gorgeous freshwater, a gorgeous twenty degrees Celsius) and long swims in my local indoor pool (way too hot). It seems impossible, but my arthritis hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared it would be. I’ve hit on a secret: it hurts the same amount whether I swim for twenty minutes or whether I swim for an hour, whether I swim once a week or three times in one day as we do on the final training weekend. The pain is a bargain in return for my growing muscles and my growing stamina. Swimming non-stop front crawl for three kilometres becomes my new normal. I ask; my body answers.

On Saturday 7 September, the call finally comes: get to Dover for 14:30 on Sunday. We Are Go.

When I head down on the train, I find that my hands are trembling. There’s an ink-drop of dread in my excitement. I think of how lonely the swims will be, how much cooler the air temperature is now compared to earlier in the summer. The hours and hours of being on a smallish boat in the Channel.

We leave the marina at 16:00, a little disappointed not to have seen the Channel 4 celebrity team whose boat was moored next to ours, being loaded up with cameras. With the sun out it feels windy but warm. First in the water is Calvin, who has to jump off Anastasia and swim to the beach, and then plunge in for real.

The clock starts at 16:17.

Calvin starts strong. Next in after him is Dave. More clouds creep into the sky. I go below-deck to change into my swimsuit.

18:17. Matt the observer unclips the chain at the back of the boat and I go down the metal ladder. I stand on the platform above the propellers, and the water that sloshes over my feet is not as warm as I’d hoped for. In a voice that forbids any dawdling, Matt yells for Dave to come back in and when he’s close enough to the ladder, he shouts at me: ‘Go go!’

Water thunders around my ears before I pop up and swim around to put the forty-foot hull of Anastasia on my right. It’s cold, and then it’s not so cold, and I fall into my stroke. Below me everything is grey-green, although with my prescription goggles, I’m sure I can see darker patches. I am not entirely happy about this. The theme from Deep Blue Sea plays in my head (fantastic film score, so under-recognised). I snap at myself that no Channel swimmer has ever, ever been attacked by a shark and my brain replies: ‘Yeah, but.’

And all the while I am reaching with my arms, spinning, breathing on every third turn. Sometimes my team mates stand at the railing and clap or shout, but with the hat it’s impossible to hear anything unless you slow down and cock your head and there is no time, no time.

Okay, I’m cold again. I am really, really cold. It must have been forty-five minutes by now, right? Did I miss the sign? Let’s concentrate on how pretty the sunset colours are. All those pink clouds.

Yes, there it is, Alaine – our peerless team leader – is holding up the yellow laminated card.

‘Finally!’ I waste breath shouting. Only fifteen minutes to go. One potato two potato three potato…

It feels a lot longer than fifteen minutes by the time Mel is on the platform and Matt shouts, ever-serious: ‘Okay in you come!’

Towel-down, dry robe on, chocolate cake in mouth. The sun is newly sunken. I wish I’d swum harder but it can’t be helped. Those of us who have been in already are in good spirits, while Des and Craig must be chafing for their turns – even if all their swims will be in darkness.

There’s a luxurious five hours until my next swim. With  layers and layers of clothing on, it’s comfortable up top, even though the waves make us stagger drunkenly between our seats and our snack bags. Nightfall. Amid the reefs of cloud, stars glint bright.

We enter the shipping lane. From where I’m sitting, I can hear the captain’s radio in the cabin: ‘Be advised there are cross-Channel swimmers out tonight, please give them a wide berth.’

And the ships are vast. Blocks of black with bridges lit up gold and orange as if mobile towns are gliding silently by. While they all keep their distance, their wakes come again and again to send Anastasia see-sawing.

My next swim is getting closer. Dave looks exhausted down in the water, and it sounds like he’s really feeling the cold. I watch for Matt to come out of the cabin with all the despair of someone awaiting their executioner. Three minutes. Two minutes. One minute. Less than a minute left of being warm and dry. Matt comes on deck.

There is nothing I want to do less than to go down that ladder. But time is pulling me on.

00:17 – the swim that turns out to be, mentally, the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life.

I’m back in the water. Oh. It’s not as cold as I expected.

But it is a lot rougher than I expected.

I’ve never swum in a sea like this. I swallow throatfuls of salt. Between the swell and the waves and the glaring spotlight the entire boat seems to blink in and out of existence and I keep losing it. I know I can’t stray far from the light, and I can’t go so near the boat I touch it – if I do either then Matt will call the whole relay off. I’m not bothered about the cold or what might be below me anymore. I’m not swimming fast, no way near it. I’m just fighting to keep with the boat, to breathe. The waves are coming from everywhere. My arms dip into thin air instead of water. I am lifted and dropped as if I’m no more than a feather.

I’m in awe of the pilot’s ability to steer so delicately with a swimmer beside them, but surely they’re going to call the swim off. Any minute now. This is impossible. Is this dangerous?

I write about it in my head while it’s happening, my usual coping strategy. In the novel I’m working on, one of my main characters will be swept out to sea, and the ten per cent of my brain that isn’t focused on the Channel is thinking, f**k yeah, this is good research.

But the other ninety per cent wants this to be over, more than anything. I have to wait for the sign. If I can even see the sign when it comes up.

Though I’ve tried not to, I break. ‘How much longer?!’

‘Sixteen minutes!’ Alaine calls back.

But Alaine was, shall we say, economical with the truth when Dave had asked the same question with the same desperation.

ARE YOU SURE?’ I yell between waves.

I can’t believe it when I get the three-minute call, then two minutes, and then Matt – beautiful, beneficent Matt – is summoning me back and poor Mel is going in.

On board, I shiver and stagger into dry clothes before clambering onto one of the bunks. With a damp towel for a pillow, I doze for three hours. When I hear Alaine call Calvin up, I know I’ve got to get some more food in me. Cup-a-Soup, chocolate, Haribo Tangfastics.

The east is paling as Dave takes over. Mercifully, the inshore water is far calmer than the shipping lane in the night. France is no longer hazy, though I find it impossible to tell how close we are exactly. It occurs that I might be the one to land us. I haven’t allowed myself to hope for it until now; it’s always been a one in six chance, after all.

I feel ready. I’m not tired at all.

About two minutes before my turn, Eddie the pilot comes out on deck, which he’s not done before.

‘The tide’s slack at the moment but it’s about to turn. Now you’ve got to swim fast, or the tide is going to take us further along and it’s going to take us another hour, another hour and a half.’

At his words I feel a new weight of responsibility. And doubt. That thin grey beach really does look far away.

07:17.

Only when I start attacking the water do I realise how tired I actually am. But the pilot’s warning might as well be a shark at my toes. Oxygen-hungry, I switch to breathing on every spin to the right. Now all my teammates are gathered at the railing. Hang on, they’re looking beyond me.

I switch my breathing to the left side so I can raise my head to see and oh – the sun. The sun has come up, a perfect yellow disc. I snatch a few more glances of it before I go back to right-side breathing. I mustn’t wander from Anastasia, not when she’s pointing the way.

A ghostly blob in the water to the side. Is that a jellyfish? Maybe just some bubbles from the downward sweep of my hand.

Oh, okay, yes, there is definitely a jellyfish under me. A small barrel one. You guys just stay down there. Just not in the face, please not in the face.

As my left arm reaches its full extent, the palm of my hand lands on something in the water – smooth, curved, solid, slightly warm. I flinch away, surge on. It must have been a buoy (spoiler: it wasn’t*).

The bit of land I can see if I crane my head seems to be getting no nearer. How can I reach it in my hour? Is the tide already taking me away?

Then a joyful sight – one of the crew is getting the tender ready. We are reaching the point where Anastasia can go no further.

A few more minutes and then the tender is circling around.

‘Follow me now!’ the crewman calls.

Breathe. Reach. Kick. Reach. Kick. Breathe. Reach. Kick.

I spend precious seconds checking where the land is. Even with Anastasia and my teammates left behind**, I don’t think I’m going to get there.

The tender draws nearer. ‘You see the slipway? We’re aiming for that!’

I’ve always been terrible at swimming in a straight line.

And yet, I’m beginning to see ripples of sand and seams of weed beneath me. The seabed.

Now I can see that the slipway leads from the beach to a building perched on the rock above. It’s getting closer, it really is. Oh my god, I’m actually going to reach it.

I try to make every stroke count. The tender’s fallen back. The seabed rises to meet me.

And then the moment when it’s too shallow to do a full sweep of my arm. I put my feet to the muddy bottom and stand. Stagger through a morass of floating weed.

The sand is grey, the beach is tiny, the building above is shuttered***.

But I am here. Though the rest of my team can’t be at my side, I’m only here because of them.

The clock stops at 08:03. Fourteen hours and forty-six minutes.

I spend all of twenty seconds on French soil (well, sand) before swimming to the tender. When I’m back on Anastasia and we’re underway to Dover, the champagne comes out. Alaine starts her tiger-themed playlist (Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor, I Am The Tiger by Abba…). In the rough sea we brace and laugh and sing together, and I want to catch the moment forever.

When I wake the next day, the relay feels unreal.

I quite fancy doing it all over again.

(There’s still time to donate if you want to – though honestly it seems like every one of my friends already has, you guys are amazing – https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?pageId=1012986)

Postscripts

* No one on the boat saw me touch a buoy. Possibly it was the dome of a really big barrel jellyfish.

** Later, I saw a photo – my team had all been sitting on the front of the boat, looking as intent and serious as if they were watching an Apollo launch. Ah, my dear team.

*** The building, I found out afterwards, is the Restaurant la Sirène, just off Cap Gris Nez – if a solo or relay swimmer emerges from the Channel during open hours, a waiter comes down with a glass of champagne for them (absolutely devastating, to land before they opened for the day).

Aspire and the Channel relays

If you want to sign up to one of the best things you’ll ever do in your life, here’s the information to get started: https://www.aspire.org.uk/event/relay-channel-swim

Aspire works with people with spinal cord injury to create opportunity, choice and independence – providing invaluable services including housing, equipment, exercise facilities, and financial advice. Aspire is dedicated to achieving a world where people with spinal cord injury have an equal place in society by removing physical obstacles, economic barriers and social prejudice that divide disabled and non-disabled people.

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To the birch tree outside my window

I barely noticed you at first
in this new home, new street, yet
with each glance through the window
your presence grows deeper
into the brain.
A yearly clock my ancestors lived to,
it astonishes me
how much I need to see
the green fireworks of your new leaves
which –
I have to say –
always know when I’m not looking
to burst into full wing.
Their dying against a blue sky
is a tart ache,
your winter and early-spring bareness
makes me almost turn away, and yet
you keep the power
to summon goldfinches to your branches
a windfall I do not deserve
with my carbon-making
Google searches
flights to rainforest eco-lodges
coffee beans from Kenya
cotton, viscose and polyester.

Daily, I fear your demise
at the bumper of a souped-up car
or simple surrender
to a city venomous
with fine particles
concrete, and
carelessness.

I look at you now with eyes upon eyes
of memories, and words
like tree internet
that send me groundward, wondering
if you are lonely, incomplete
talking into a
pavement tomb
still and empty
with the memory
of earthworms.
It seems not impossible
that you know there must be more, much more
to air
than the sulphate, nitrate,
black carbon
that has pierced you (and I) since birth.

Each year I need your solace more.
I think
you could save us
if only we gave you
the space to breath
for us all.

 

Birch

Tide – a poem from the virtual depths

I stumbled on an old folder of writing the other day with stuff dating back to around 2006. Most of it can never be seen by outside eyes, but I did stumble on a poem I wrote in 2014 that, quite frankly, I’ve fallen back in love with.

I don’t remember writing it, but I do know exactly where I must have been sitting when I wrote it: at the desk in front of the window of the room I stay in when I visit my parents’ house in Chichester, looking out onto a low tide.

* * *

Raw skin bared
glistening, drying
gully-veins flowing,
deltas weeping.

Clouds brush selves
on fractured glass
dappled green by
algae islands
holding breath
until moon-turn.

Sea slides back,
mirrors rivers
dark hulls lift
seaweed praises
seal slips in
mud awakens.

 

 

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Visited

I walk to the sink for a glass of water.

The world outside twitches.

I stop the tap and look out into the panorama of the garden.

They are scattered here and there, like a rain of blessings: great tits, dark-eyed, puff-balled. They twitter to each other in the language of family.

How do they decide who goes to this bush, to that one?

Nearest to the window, one bird plies around last year’s rosehips. Its life makes the long stems wave and tremble. It moves, as they always do, in stop-motion. A grace machines will never have.

Then they all depart. Twigs and branches echo with their feet.

To the next garden, and the next. A swarm of beauty.

I raise the glass to my lips and drink.

The End of Our World

“No human has ever lived on a planet as hot as this one; it will get hotter.”

In a nutshell, The Uninhabitable Earth – the follow-up book to the New York Magazine article of the same name – is a compendium of all the climate-induced horrors awaiting our species. Wallace-Wells, the author, only spends a few pages on each, but that these together make a whole book is hint enough of just how badly things are going to go.

Climate change is happening. We are making it happen. We have an avalanche of science telling us this (and none of these scientists want to be right; none of them are in it for the money or they’d be doing studies on the behalf of the deep-deep-pocketed oil lobby). Now researchers are asking: what will happen next? If we act now? If we take another one, two, three, or more decades to act? If the temperature rises by two degrees Celsius, by three, by four?

The answers are, many of them, worse than I once thought – almost beyond my ability to comprehend, in fact. Whole bands of the planet will become uninhabitable simply because it will be too hot for humans to function (the Hajj will probably become impossible for Muslims within the next few decades). Rising heat elsewhere will impede our cognition and increase rates of murder and rape. Rising sea levels coupled with other climate effects will batter and devour islands and coastlines and, beyond this loss of home and life, will reduce the amount of arable land which of course will also be reduced by rising temperatures. Food will not just be scarcer, it will be less nutritious; increased carbon dioxide has been found to decrease the content of protein, calcium, iron and other nutrients in crops like rice (a trend already happening outside labs). Wildfires will beget wildfires, our forests becoming carbon producers instead of carbon sinks. Malaria will move into the north. And more, and more.

Perhaps the NHS should start giving this book out as a contraceptive.

The second half of the book is more speculative in its consideration of the range of ways in which society and governments might respond to the calamities of climate change. In all honesty, I started to get a little lost here; Wallace-Wells is fond of tongue-tying sentences and highbrow cultural comment. The TLDR summary is “we might sort shit out, probs won’t tho”.

Still, he keeps on with the memorable lines:

“Instead we assign the task to future generations, to dreams of magical technologies…”

“… the world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin.”

“… warming at the level necessary to fully melt Arctic glaciers and elevate sea level by several hundred feet promises to initiate rolling, radically transformative changes on a timescale measured not in decades or centuries or even millenia, but in the millions of years.”

The book does strike some jarring tones. Wallace-Wells goes to great pains to emphasise that he doesn’t care all that much about the natural world (apparently, arguing for ape rights is “offensive” to civil rights and feminist movements – um, okay) and is motivated simply by fear for his own species. Will this overt distancing from much of the “environmental Left” help win over more dubious readers? Only the reviews will tell. But what saddens me most is his rejection of individual agency. There are two inherent contradictions in his arguments:

  1. Collectively our consumption has created climate change, but individual behaviour change makes no difference.
  2. Individual behaviour change cannot make a difference if our political and industrial systems do not change commensurately.

Wallace-Wells tells us we should we vote instead of going vegan. But I fail to see how these two acts don’t operate on the same principle. There is as much econo-cracy as democracy in our modern world; the power of the ballot box and the power of the purse. My favourite example of this is Quorn Foods recently opening a massive new factory in the UK to cater for the rising popularity of flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets. (And you can read about various examples of successful ethical boycotts here.)

Secondly: governments and companies are made up of people. I’ve always been fascinated and disappointed by the black-boxing of these entities. It’s as if, as soon as an organised group of people reaches a certain mass, They become an It, an utterly alien being. These people have the same eyes and ears to witness the gathering effects of climate change. They have children. My point is: we need to generate Mexican waves of behaviour change in consumer habits, ones that envelope the higher strata of society too. Campaigns and boycotts must continue, of course; it must all happen at the same time, individual acts illuminating possibilities, a top-down and bottom-up assail on reticence and denial. Is it naive to imagine that if a whole board of directors were convinced of the need to change their own habits, were changing their own habits, they would choose to alter the course of their company?

I leave you with the final line of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas:

“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”

 

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Chantal’s Best Ever Books

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I read about 90 books per year. Thus, I like to think that I have a pretty good overview of the book world. I even read Moby Dick a few years back (review: good first line. Rest of the book is a whole lot of nope). This is my Best Ever list, of course, but I hope you’ll trust in my taste. My criteria for Best Ever is simple: Do I want to read it again? Do I still think about it in day to day life? Has it influenced my own writing? And so, in the order that I discovered them…

Firebringer, David Clement-Davies
This book, and the next one on this list, are woven into my writing DNA. Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of stories from the points of view of deer and wolves in my past thanks to Firebringer and its sequel The Sight.

Firebringer is for all ages. I first read it when I was 10 years old, though there is an awful lot of antler-goring in it. It’s compared to Watership Down (but with red deer), and it’s got a touch of The Lion King too, now that I think about it. It is a superb blend of nature writing and fantasy. A fawn is born bearing the mark foretold in a prophecy, and he lives to fulfil that prophecy. David Clement-Davies conjures the Scotland of old, bristling with forest, just around the time that the Danes reached our shores.

Wild Magic, Tamora Pierce
No book has influenced my writing style more than this one, the first in the Wild Magic quartet.

I have also written a not insignificant amount of fanfiction featuring the sexy sorcerer Numair, who will always have a place in my figurative heart as my first character crush. Long before Bella and Edward, long before Hermione and Ha–sorry, Ron, there was Daine and Numair.

Tamora Pierce was writing the rulebook for YA fantasy for young women years before the YA wave really took off. All of the books I’ve read of hers are based in the fantasy world of Tortall. Wild Magic was the first series I read, though it began with The Lioness Quartet, about a girl who pretends to be a boy to train as a knight (this before Disney’s Mulan).

So. Sexy sorcerer. Fantasy world. And the third, deal-making ingredient, the ability to shapeshift into other animals! The Animorphs books definitely set me up to fall in love with this one. It also helps that there are plenty of mythological creatures, most of all DRAGONS (more on that later).

Pierce’s prose has a vivid simplicity. Her characters have fun. Her characters die. I feast on her imagination.

White Fang, Jack London
Jack London is best known for The Call of the Wild. White Fang is its mirror image; a part-dog part-wolf born wild, who journeys into domesticity. Ignore the live-action Disney film in which the plot was completely changed. This book drops you in a brutal Yukon. But it remains one of the most empathic books I have ever read. London imagines White Fang’s infancy as if he meditated for weeks on what it would be like to be a baby wolf meeting the world. Let me remind you that London was born in 1876, long before it became commonplace to imagine other animals as thinking, feeling beings.

He extends this empathy to his human characters too. There are two prominent “villains” in the book, and yet, he takes you, the reader, aside in the narrative to tell you about the characters’ back stories, the reasons they act the way they do. Again, this strikes me as incredibly ahead of its time.

It’s also, simply, a thumping good read.

(Interestingly, Netflix has released its own animated adaptation, and from the trailer it looks a little more faithful to the source material.)

Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong (real name Lü Jiamin)
Got a bit of a wolf theme going on here, huh?

One of the most heart-breaking books I’ve ever read, partly because it’s part-real. I still don’t know the line between its fact and its fiction – I do know that, like the protagonist, the author was sent to the Inner Mongolia Plateau during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to work alongside the Mongolian sheep and horse herders.

In the book, student Chen Zhen decides to catch and raise a wolf pup (spoiler alert: there is no happy ending). It’s been criticised for being didactic in style, but I don’t care; it’s compelling eco-didacticism. It’s also been criticised for being untruthful, for exaggerating the wolf’s place in Mongolian culture. Perhaps these criticisms are sound. But the core message – that we cannot live if we destroy all other life around us – remains as important and as damning as ever. China is a country in which countless people starved to death because of the mindless persecution of sparrows (among other evil stupidities engineered by Mao Zedong). A country now besieged by dust storms because of the catastrophic farming policies in the Inner Mongolia Plateau. A country ripe for apocalypse.

The book was adapted for film a few years, though sadly, it’s not very good. Great soundtrack by James Horner though (R.I.P.).

Dark Matter, Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver wrote a popular children’s prehistoric fantasy series about a wolf and a boy. She wrote Dark Matter afterwards, and she definitely did not write it for children.

This is a ghost story. An artfully done ghost story, set in the Arctic darkness. I will give no more away.

Is it scary? Let me put it this way: it’s the only book to ever make me wake in the middle of night, paralysed with terror.

Temeraire, Naomi Novik
This is a brilliantly inventive, heart-warming, and very fun fantasy. It’s set during the Napoleonic Wars. But with ADDED DRAGONS. I read it about once a year.

We begin with an up and coming captain of the Royal Navy, Laurence. Thanks to a twist of fate he swaps a ship for a baby dragon, Temeraire, fast-growing and intelligent. Because in this version of British history, war is fought with dragons as well as navies.

One of the things that makes this book so damn fun is the Georgian period style of the narration and, of course, the characters’ dialogue and sensibilities. Temeraire is undoubtedly the politest dragon in all fiction, though also the cause of many social embarrassments for his captain Laurence over the course of the story. But it always remains dignified, too, and the stakes are real.

This is the start of a fairly long series, though sadly, Novik’s energy diminishes badly over the course of it. The last book in the series that I read was genuinely one of the most dreadful books I’ve ever read. But I still happily read Temeraire again and again, and one of her more recent works, Uprooted, rightly deserved all the book prizes it’s won.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor has the most beautiful prose in YA fantasy (even if she does go over the top sometimes). She’s the strongest influence on the book I’m currently writing.

Described as a blend of His Dark Materials and Pan’s Labyrinth, this story is one of worlds and doorways between them, monsters and angels, love and death… you get the picture.

There are beautiful and cool characters, with beautiful and cool names. Karou. Brimstone. Akiva. There are fiery wings and magical tattoos. This is unashamed YA, and I unashamedly love it.

See also: Strange the Dreamer (set in the same multiverse).

Common Ground, Rob Cowen
At last, we emerge from the fantasy hinterlands.

I have by now read a fair bit of nature-writing, and this book remains my true love in that genre. When Rob Cowen moved to Yorkshire, near Harrogate, he began to visit the “edgelands” near his home again and again, becoming intimately acquainted with its geography and its denizens. Sometimes he was himself, sometimes he was another creature such as a fox, sometimes he was another human. There’s a bit of mischievous blending with fiction, but mostly it’s truth. I like to dog-ear pages in books containing lines that I adore. And there are a lot of dog-ears in my copy of this book.

Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Back to sci-fi/fantasy (soz).

So, I haven’t read nearly as much sci-fi as fantasy. But of them, this one is my favourite by far.

It’s also perhaps the most inventive book I have ever read. Essentially: in the future, on a faraway terraformed planet, a bunch of spiders and other invertebrates get infected by a virus designed to super-drive evolution, and the end result is new civilisations with new cultures and new technologies. There are Homo sapiens too, but the spiders are the show-stealers. The author is a zoologist by training (and also a practicing lawyer, don’t ask me how the fuq he wrote all these books at the same time, massively depressing).

The story’s got plenty of heart, too, and with a sequel due next year, I am very much looking forward to returning to that universe.

The Overstory, Richard Powers
The most recent book I’ve read on this list, and also the most recently-published. Man Booker shortlist-ee (don’t let that put you off).
Set in the present day, The Overstory is both tender and blistering as we follow characters whose fates have become inexorably entwined with those of the last remaining virgin stands of forest in America. People who know that apocalypse is coming.

Powers has done his scientific research, that’s for sure. And he blends that knowledge into exquisite prose. Time and time again I came across lines or passages that I had to read out loud to myself, repeatedly.

I admit that it is a doorstopper of a book. It is not fun to read on the Tube when all the seats are taken. But the aching was worth it.

“The fires will come, despite all efforts, the blight and windthrow and floods. Then the Earth will become another thing, and people will learn it all over again.”

Thanks for reading.

The Only Way to Travel

Of all the modes of mechanical transport,
The railway has the manners.
Motorways, A-roads, B-roads
All spread themselves like dissected snakes
Shoving aside
Trees, fields, oxygen, us,
And howling as they go.
The railway cuts,
But cuts small,
A stitch in the fabric so barely there
That we allow it
In.
My ghost-horse – what others call the train –
Takes me through gardens and football games,
Wetlands with unruffled swans,
The under-green of woods.
Any glimpse out the window is the reading of a book spine;
My paperback lies lonely.
There is one more beautiful thing
About the railway –
How the railway ends.
Haven’t we all seen
A set of forgotten tracks,
Decaying from the maps,
Giving itself to the buddleia and the butterfly.
Honouring the lease.

Railway

Chantal’s favourite book of the year, probably

Clicks and chatter disturb the cathedral hush. The air is so twilight-green she feels like she’s underwater. It rains particles – spore clouds, broken webs and mammal dander, skeletonized mites, bits of insect frass and bird feather… Everything climbs over everything else fighting for scraps of light. If she holds still too long, vines will overrun her.

I only say “probably” because the year isn’t done yet.

The Overstory by Richard Powers made this year’s Booker longlist. I suspect it won’t even make the shortlist, for the simple fact that I loved it, that the prose didn’t feel like limousine-tinted glass. There are no meanings hidden in here that only MA Lit alumni can tease out. From the first page, the intent is made plain. This is a book about trees. Every symbol is about trees. And isn’t the tree the earliest symbol there is, the mother-symbol?

Let me just bookmark my rapture a moment. Here’s a 502-page hardback that begins with eight different (human) lives. All but one of them wrapped themselves around me, and even the outsider brought me to tears on page 449.

The writing is clear and beautiful. The science is laudable. One character, a botanist (and my favourite of them all), writes a book that mirrors – in part – this world’s The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The trees invented internet long before we did. They learn. They are altruistic.

It’s a book about trees, and people who fall in love with trees, and people who die for trees, and people who kill trees. Heart-sundering. A feast of words and knowledge and story. A preemptive eulogy. Printed on dead tree, of course, haha (the botanist thought that was ironic too).

I borrowed it from the library, but I’m going to have to buy it – I will come back.

The fires will come, despite all efforts, the blight and windthrow and floods. Then the Earth will become another thing, and people will learn it all over again.

Tree

Selkie

When the doctor tells her, she doesn’t hear. She’s still thinking about the text she got in the waiting room, from her now ex-boyfriend.

The diagnosis has to be repeated to her and even then, she’s confused more than anything else. She thinks of clawed hands and walking sticks. Her grandma sucking air in between her teeth.

She is dispatched from the surgery with a referral to a specialist, and a leaflet for a support group. At the bus stop she Googles the condition. Google is a terrible pessimist. When she reads the word “wheelchair”, she begins to feel afraid.

Back at the flat, her running trainers are still by the door, flaking dried mud. She kicks them across the room.

For weeks, while her trainers gather dust under the sofa, she learns about her condition. What time of day to take her medication, the daily exercises she needs to do. She meets the specialist, who turns her into a series of measurements. Spinal flexion and rotation. Pain scale.

She feels her body growing softer, forgetting the miles it’s run. The shame finally drives her into the local swimming pool. She has to stop for a break after every few lengths, her breathing and her limbs all out of sync with each other. But slowly, slowly, with every micro-tear in her muscles, she reshapes herself.

The water’s surface becomes the skin of another world. At the moment of breaking it, she leaves gravity and friction behind. It makes her think of the folk stories her Orcadian father told her, about the selkies. Seals who shed their skin to walk as humans on land. She likes to imagine herself doing the reverse, in this pool, though she can’t imagine a seal tolerating the chlorine, the breast-strokers clogging up the lanes.

Fed up, she goes back to Google, who is more helpful this time. It sends her on a 6am bus to the beach, to a group of strangers in wetsuits doing important-looking stretches. An older woman scolds her for not coming with a wetsuit too; it’s not like the south coast, up here.

But she hears the waves hissing on the pebbles, and she is resolute. She’ll see how long she can last this first time. When she says as much, and limps after the others, a man about her age catches her eye and winks.

Like the public pool, the sea below the surface is another world – but this one is merciless, hostile to human flesh. Her skin is bathed in cold fire.

Point taken. Next time, she comes with a wetsuit. She joins the others for post-swim coffee and gets talking to the man who’d winked at her before. His name’s Sam, and she likes the way his eyes crinkle at the edges when he smiles. He nods his head slowly in understanding when she explains what’s brought her here, the reason she can’t walk right. He gives her one more reason to keep coming back to the sea at dawn.

The sea cannot break her heart. The sea can only make her stronger. When she finds out Sam already has a girlfriend, she feels a cold stone of disappointment, but the waves and the cold scour it away, as they do the pain. The wetsuit fuses with her skin, her fingers spread as they drive the water behind her. Only her need for breath reminds her she is human.

Every time she has to step back out onto the beach, gravity and pain reclaim her body. She can slow time down but she can’t stop it. She sees people at the clinic twisted over by their treacherous spines, or glued to wheelchairs.

She throws herself into the sea again and again. The swimming group sticks too close to the beach. She wants, needs, to go further. Stay out longer. The deeps call out in a silent voice.

After one too many disapproving comments from other members of the group about her repeated straying, she starts going on her own instead, as many days a week as she can, more than once turning up at the office late with damp salty hair. The unreliable bus journeys grind her down. She calls up Sam, who has his own car. She’s relieved at how keen he sounds to join her for an extra swim or two a week. She doesn’t feel a spark of hope that he might want more than just friendship. She’s stopped caring. She smiles at his stories in the car, but she already feels the sea around her, muffling his voice.

A storm rolls in one Sunday morning. They get to the car park by the beach and Sam shakes his head at the white-capped waves. Looks too dangerous out there. Coffee instead? he asks. Sure, she replies. He ambles off to the roadside café.

She moves faster than she can think. She goes onto the beach, strips off her coat and trousers, her wetsuit ready underneath. The waves claw at the shore, but she isn’t scared. She’s hungry. She plunges in.

As she’s front-crawling away towards the horizon, she hears a distant yell. Sam. She swims on.

The waves grow bigger. They want to push her under. So she dives.

Her held breath lasts, and lasts. The white of her hands turns dark grey, merges into the sleeves of her wetsuit, which is no longer a suit but skin. The webbing of her fingers broadens. Her body becomes sinuous. Underwater light fills her eyes, showing her rock and kelp and fish.

And other creatures like her.

She hears a thrashing in the water somewhere behind her. A person, flailing. She has forgotten his name. But she remembers something. He can’t swim as well as her, never has. And he’s scared, he’s panicking.

She hangs in the in-between, feeling the beating of the waves above, and the deep dark stillness below.

She spins around. She surges towards the surface with a tearing agony.

When her head breaks the surface, the human freezes for a moment as he beholds her. Then she feels her hair swirling around her neck, and he blinks.

Rose! He cries.

She takes hold of him, and pulls them back towards the shore.

Selkie

 

 

Moments from a heatwave

This field is blue-black with a crop of solar panels; then the colour of parchment returns. Cows languish in clumps and, though I’ve travelled this line so many times, even they seem whiter, bleached by the sun.

Train, car, boat. West Wittering Beach – where a lion bought from Harrods was once taken to play – is an ants’ nest of people. Only when we’re beyond the harbour mouth and the speed limit does the heat give us over to the wind.

This bay is quieter than the one next door. The water stops being cold after ten seconds, becomes bliss, albeit a seaweed-tangled bliss. We fish out a torn plastic bag pretending to be a jellyfish. The real ones here are kind enough not to sting.

Evening. New kayak, magic carpet to a plane of reality that sits just above the water. The quiet of oars. The terns and the oyster catchers still take offence. I see what I have never seen before – the tide-bared banks are bright green with samphire. I will bring scissors next time.

I think it is a buoy at first, until the snout revolves around. Head glistening coal-black. Down it goes. I paddle on. Up it comes again, closer. I’m unable to stop myself making a kissing noise at it, the same one I make to get my cats’ attention. It whips its head around and, slowly, sinks away.

A seal’s a good thing to be, a summer like this, I think.

Chichester