“Holloway” by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards; a review



A Holloway (hollow way) is a path worn deep into the bedrock, an ‘old way’ as previously described by Robert Macfarlane.

This short book is a travel narrative, a work of naturalism infused by the spiritual, a prose- poem, and a memorial tribute to Roger Deakin, fellow traveler and writer with Macfarlane of the Holloways.

In 2005 Macfarlane and Deakin set out to explore holloways in South Dorset.  There they found a hidden world that shades, patterns and throws back time as it does light.  Sunken, over-grown paths that sheltered fugitive Catholics back in the days of the persecution. The writers take with them a 1939 novel called ‘Rogue Male’ about a fugitive hiding out in the Holloway.

In 2011, after Deakin’s untimely death, Macfarlane returns with artist Stanley Donwood and writer Dan Richards to remember their friend and to trace again the holloways.

This is exhilarating, sensual writing where you breathe deep the scents of earth, leaf and wood and feel the textures under feet and scratching hands and skin.  As the travelers sleep and wake in a holloway you can hear with them an immediate and encompassing dawn chorus, wonder and fear at oceans of mist, feel a primal fear as they bolt from torch-lights after a night at the pub.

Donwood’s illustrations also convey well the deep enclosed mystery of these grooves of history, these greened and worn tunnels into the past.

This is a short book that leaves a long, evening shadow of an impression. 



“Doctor Who and the Daleks” by David Whitaker: a review

This novelisation by David Whitaker, of the second ever Doctor Who tv adventure, is something of a curiosity and a gem.

It was the first ever Doctor Who story to be published as a novel, and as such had to give a beginning for those who had never seen the original tv stories.

It wanted to go straight in to the Dalek adventure without first visiting the junkyard revealed in “The Unearthly Child” or the quick swing back to prehistory in the adventure that immediately led to.  But it also had backstory to give to launch new readers into the world of Who.

And so it created an alternative beginning, where Ina Chesterton, on his way back from a job interview in Reigate, chances on a fatal road accident featuring a dead soldier, an injured woman (Barbara) and a lost girl (Susan), with the Doctor appearing looking for both of them.  To those familiar with the Who’s origins this is disorientating and exciting.  It’s like finding a new release of one of your favourite films with an alternative opening restored to the cut, and one that works.

This is darker than the original, with the presence of death, and the Doctor himself even more of an unknowable presence, a cranky old man with a malicious twinkle in his eye.

The group repair back to the Tardis and from then on the story begins to segue back into the outlines of the original, but there are continuing creative differences, including a burgeoning romance between Ian and Barbara, and a glass ‘Emperor’ Dalek at the end.

For those of you who don’t know the original, it’s a story that uses familiar 60’s SF tropes including an irradiated war torn planet, a pacifist race being hunted to extinction by an aggressive warlike race, robotic dehumanisation, allegories to fascism, and a debate on the limits of pacifism.  Well, not a debate, pacifism is simply shown not to work, with the Doctor and his friends’ basic message to the peace loving Thals being, “sometimes you just gotta FIGHT!”

It’s the uniqueness of the Doctor and the famous Daleks that lift this above the level of cliché.  Even in this simpler form (they can’t move off metal floors as they need magnetic propulsion) they remain a chilling representation of deliberate, implacable hate, with the shrivelled creatures inside seeming to represent their shrivelled souls.

The writing is clear and it barrels quickly along, as you would expect from a novel written for the younger end of the market, but it has been and will continue to be enjoyed by all ages.  It’s fascinating to see the original illustrations, simple black and white drawings that nevertheless are supremely evocative of the original tv story.  There’s an introduction by Neil Gaiman (who recently joined the ranks of Dr Who writers with a Cyberman story for Matt Smith) who tells what the book meant to him.  He underscores that this was an age when everything was much more vulnerable and subject to loss in terms of film.  If you missed a story you may have been forgiven in thinking that it would never be repeated and you would never see it again, which is the case for a lot of the ‘lost’ adventures.  So, novelisations were a vital bridge back to the original.

At the end there are “between the lines” extras on the history of the story and background on the writers and scriptwriters, and a good analysis of the differences between the novelisation and the tv original.

A genuinely enjoyable read.

“Just Send Me Word” by Orlando Figes: a review

In this astonishing, book, historian Orlando Figes reveals an unprecedented discovery of an intact correspondence from a Gulag inmate, Lev, and the woman he loves on the outside, Svetlana.

It’s unprecedented because letters didn’t usually survive the Gulag system, the chaos and censorship. Hell, human relationships and human life itself did well to survive the camps.  But what has been pieced together is detailed and revealing, as well as being a inspirational narrative on physical and spiritual endurance.  ‘Love conquers all’ may be a fatuous cliché, but here it actually breaks through into reality.

The other cliché it makes real is that truth outshines fiction. The early part of the narrative, where Lev, serving as a soldier in WW2, cheats death and escapes capture repeatedly, would test the patience of a reader in terms of contrivance if this was fiction.  Given that this is what happened, though, it is shockingly amazing.

Lev is eventually captured and navigates life as a POW. Then there is another incredible escape.  This time Lev makes it home to Moscow, but then has to run the deadly gauntlet of Stalin’s regime of terror and paranoia.  His status as a survivor of Allied POW camps and the fact that he helped as a translator is enough to convict him to a ten year sentence in the Gulag.

Running parallel to this early part of the narrative is the story of Lev and Svet’s early relationship and courtship. This is rich in detail about Soviet life in the period, what it was like to work and study as a scientist and researcher, the rituals of courtship, (including long walks and references to Russian poetry), family, social and economic life and other mechanics of survival in the Soviet regime.

The correspondence between Lev and Svet during Lev’s time as a Gulag inmate gives a rich picture both of life in the Gulag system, and life in Moscow in the last decade of Stalin’s regime. In the Gulag, everyone was Sisyphus.  Lev is appointed to the wood combine in the camp in Pechora, and must join his fellow prisoners in labouring hard in freezing and wet conditions with very poor provisions, facing repeated frustrations from camp administration incompetence and corruption.  

For her part Svet works as a scientist and researcher with all the other duties required of a loyal Soviet citizen. She also needs to look after increasingly frail parents.

Svet and Lev’s relationships survives through their correspondence and also Svet manages to visit Lev a handful of times, actually smuggling herself onto camp, with the help of a sympathetic network of Lev’s Gulag peers. This event, where Svet sneaks into the Gulag system to spend a night with Lev, would again be a contrivance that would make you snap the book shut if fiction, or walk out of the cinema if a movie.  That it happened is wonderful and incredible.

The narrative reflects the daily grind for both Lev and Svet, with the details and mechanics of daily survival laid out in fascinating historical detail. They use a code system so as not to offend the censor when talking of the camp or Soviet life.  And their aching longing for each other burns beneath the most mundane detail.  Every now and then emotion breaks through.  And every now and then, through reduction and confinement, the miracle of daily existence is laid bare.  There’s a transcendent and poetic quality to a letter where Lev is driven to wonder by looking up at the sky, and seeing the stars, or watching a sunset break through the clouds and illuminating the trees.  Surrounded by the ruin and desolation of a camp system in decline, Lev can still lift his eyes and spirit.

Lev and Svet’s relationship also kindles into life a support network, as Svet sends Lev items necessary not only for his but also his Gulag fellow’s survival, including medicines. This is reciprocal as these inmates then help with the subterfuge of Svet’s more clandestine camp visits, and helping accommodate her in neutral zones near the camp.  This support network survives the camp, as Svet helps not only Lev but his fellows resettle and re-accommodate near Mosow by giving them temporary lodging at her home.

In our present age here in the West of material and technological affluence, where we can satisfy immediate cravings by swiping our fingers across a screen, here is a world where oppressive and paranoid tyranny, corruption, depredation and incarceration do not necessarily bring despair but a fierce determination to do what is right in human relationships; to soul mates and to family, friends and those in need, to look after their physical and spiritual needs, and to value the daily miracles of existence when life is boiled down to the essentials of survival.

This is an important and accessible historical work and a beautiful and haunting story of how Good with a capital ‘G’ we can be in the direst of times. It’s a rebuke to the cynicism and confusion of principle our present and more affluent age can bring.