This blog outlines my life, seen through the lens of the books I have read.
At the end of summer in 1984 I headed north to join Capernwray Hall, a Christian conference centre and college on the edge of the Lake District. I spent two years there, looking after their trees but also responsible for the gardens. So, I read and learnt about grass and flowers and roses so I could do that job.
At the Capernwray bookshop, I sought out any cheap books by Oswald Chambers. The only novel that comes to mind when I think of this time is ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, which I read as I sped through Holland, Friesland (where a lot of the book is set) and Denmark on holiday in 1985. The music I was listening to was Phil Collins, Genesis, Bryan Adams and Def Leppard. It wasn’t everybody’s choice, but it helped forge a friendship between Jane and me that led to us getting married.
I left Capernwray in September 1986, with no money and one wife, to start a university course in Aberdeen. For the first year I was testing myself to see if I could cope with a degree course, and by the time of the exams I could feel my brain was bubbling. There was so much information to hold on to. I really enjoyed studying with a small group of motivated students over the next three years, testing and challenging each other and all determined to make the most of that special time.
At the Aberdeen Library, I borrowed a lot of Rafael Sabatini novels. They are short and full of adventure with an upright hero and a deserving heroine. I learnt of Sabatini from watching films like ‘The Black Swan’ and ‘Captain Blood’ with my Dad when I was small and wanted to reconnect with those stories. They were great fun but tended to follow a predictable pattern.
Also, around this time I read Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy stories. These were laugh-out-loud, imaginative, side-swipes at society, and I loved them.
As I was aiming to work as a forester in Africa after university I thought I’d read a few books set there. I discovered the Courtney series of novels by Wilbur Smith and then some of the other series, the Ballantynes come to mind, and then the farther-back historical novels set in ancient Egypt. Some of these I read while working on my dissertation in Ethiopia in 1989. I had the fantastic opportunity to spend nine weeks in Addis Ababa, visiting forestry projects and learning about the amazing Ethiopians. While reading I listened to Vaughan-Williams folk song music. The stories were full of a love for Africa and very atmospheric. I remember two hunters in the bush camping; one had been bitten by a dog and they thought he had rabies, so they stayed away from people just in case. After a while the infected hunter got better and things seemed to relax. But shortly after, he entered the last stage of the disease and broke his back from arching it so far backwards. The remaining hunter put him out of his misery, buried him, then headed into town.
In another book I found the sections dealing with the struggles between the native Africans and the incomers riveting. One squad of Shona tribesmen could tell a campfire was from a SADF (South African Defence Force) team because they could smell toothpaste. A fascinating snippet of the writer’s art. I loved these stories but, again, I saw a pattern and this took away part of the enjoyment. I have read a couple of his historical novels set in the Tudor or early Stuart times since and still think they are great stories. Time has dulled the sense of seeing a predictable or typical pattern.
At Aberdeen I took the helm of the annual journal of the Forestry Society, editing two editions of Arbor. That was fun. I wrote a few interesting articles, but the most fun bit (and the most frustrating) was coaxing articles out of everybody else. I kept an eye and an ear open for anyone with a story to tell or an opinion to share. We rejuvenated the journal and in my first editorial I said we had something for everyone, except for crossword lovers. It worked! By next year’s edition, someone had submitted a crossword.