Friday 24 May 2024

Creative Writing Student Showcase 2024: The Recording

 


As many of you will know, during this year's amazing Literary Leicester Festival, we ran our third annual Creative Writing Student Showcase on the evening of Wednesday 20 March 2024. It was a wonderful event, featuring brilliant readings from BA, MA, PhD Creative Writing students and graduates, including Beth Gaylard, Grace Klemperer, Hannah Mitchell, Lisa Williams, Kathy Hoyle, Jack Peachey, Laurie Cusack, Daneil Hibberd, Tracey Foster, Rob Reeves, Isobel Copley, Alexander Osani, Oleksandra Korshunova and Laura Besley. Thank you to everyone involved: the speakers, the organisers and the fantastically supportive audience. 

You can now listen to a recording of the Creative Writing Student Showcase event on Literary Leicester's podcast channel here



Thursday 16 May 2024

Some Useful Online Resources for Creative Writers

By Jonathan Taylor



Recently, I've given a couple of short talks - one as a guest at Loughborough University, one as part of our own MA Creative Writing Dissertation Day - introducing online resources that might be useful for Creative Writing students. So I thought I might also share some of the main links here. 

There are, of course, huge numbers of useful websites on writing, publishing, and opportunities in the arts sector. What follows are just a few key starting-points. They include sites which feature listings of writing opportunities, sites which have useful electronic newsletters, and sites which list jobs in the arts sector. There are many more out there. It's worth noting that some of these sites are time-specific, so may well change in the (near-)future. 

Useful online resources for writers: a selection

Everybody's Reviewing, our very own review site, is always looking for book and event reviews.

Creative Writing at Leicester has a dedicated strand about writing in professional contexts, with lots of articles on the subject. 

Creative Writing at Leicester University Facebook group is constantly updated with news, opportunities, calls for submissions and job opportunities. 

NAWE Writers' Compass is an excellent listing site for writing opportunities, submission calls, events and jobs. 

Writing East Midlands is the public writers' agency for the region. They produce a newsletter, give advice, provide mentoring and training services, and run lots of events and competitions.

Leicester Writers' Club is a vibrant community of writers in and around Leicester. 

Arts Council England provide funding to arts organisations, as well as individual writers. You can apply for an individual grant to develop your work via the "Developing Your Creative Practice" scheme. Details of the DYCP scheme are here

Arts Jobs is run by Arts Council England, and lists job opportunities in the arts sector across the UK. 

Jobs.ac.uk is the central resource for all jobs in Higher Education, including postgraduate opportunities. 

BBC Careers is the central hub for all job opportunities and work experience in the BBC. 

BBC Writersroom is the first port of call for writers interested in writing for the BBC. The site includes lots of resources, information and opportunities. 

The Bookseller has listings of job opportunities in publishing. 

The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, both online and in hardcopy form, includes lots of advice alongside listings of publishers and literary agents. 

The Dots lists lots of current freelance writing opportunities. (Thanks to MA Creative Writing student Ayan Artan for this suggestion). 

Sian Meades-Williams provides a useful weekly freelance writing newsletter, including jobs and opportunities across the UK. (Thanks to MA Creative Writing student Kristy Diaz for this suggestion). 

Wordbox blog has monthly listings of writing opportunities, and lots of other information about publishing. 

Published to Death is an excellent resource which includes listings of agents, publishers and magazines looking for submissions. 

Short Stops website is no longer being updated, but includes excellent listings of literary magazines and other resources. 

Neon Magazine also has an excellent list of literary magazines in the UK and beyond. 

CLMP has a big directory of (primarily US) publishers. 


Saturday 11 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 5

Over five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability, was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we've been publishing one of these winning entries. Today, you can read one the two winning stories, "Flood" by Sophie Sparham. 

Sophie Sparham is a writer from Derby. She has written commissions for BBC Radio 4, The V&A and The People’s History Museum. Sophie co-hosts the poetry night "Word Wise" which won Best Spoken Word Night at the 2019 Saboteur Awards.



Flood

It came and went as Kingfishers always do, a vibrant flash of blue, gone in an instant. I was at work when I got the call: drive my car through young torrents and leave it at the top of the valley. There, at the dulling edge of twilight, I parked by a pub, trudged down fields thick with new mud, cow and sheep shit. The fields below were gone, in their place a sky had been cut into the landscape, wavering in the breeze. Eons of deep blue stretching beyond the borders of the farms. The track leading to the house had disappeared, in its place, a river. I lowered myself in, the water climbing my jeans, veins of wanting. Blue on blue, backwards waterfall, weighing down my clothes. My legged pressed against the current; a different kind of gravity, a moving landscape, dragging at my sides.  

It arrived uninvited, lapping against the front door as we sat in the cool of the dining room, the air thick with laughter and the steam of freshly cooked stew. The paint, eroding slowly like a cliff edge, flaked from the walls, as we served pumpkins and sweet chestnuts, all grown and foraged from our land. No one mentioned the dirt under our nails, the ache in our backs from lugging thick sandbags across gravel. No one cried out about faith or science. The sheep had been herded to high ground, the motorbikes ridden in wellies to a place where the land-locked tide could not touch them. The cooker, fridge and sofa balanced on industrial bricks, black as coal. And we sat and drank tea and waited. 

I thought of my childhood home, my father brushing away the water that dared approach our house. The way my parents removed the swallow’s nest from above their door and poisoned the mice that had the nerve to enter the garage. They taught me nature was something to be pushed away, something other. But here, I’d learnt to live with the seasons. To let go of winter’s leaves, to study patterns of frost and fell trees into fire. Here, I let the evergreen needles fall and witnessed the arrivals of catkins, ash keys and buds. Here, I listened for the call of the chiffchaff in April, the cry of the buzzard, the croak of the raven. I walked in bluebells and wildflowers and the precise silence only beech woods can hold. I welcomed the family of bees who moved into the slates of my roof, to let them live. Each night, I’d hear them beating their wings in unison, metres away from my head. I used to fear bees, but night after night, I'd listen eagerly, amazed until they hummed me to sleep. Why should the flood be any different? Like autumn in all its golds, this too is a miracle. The way water can reclaim a landscape in liquid pause. The way it holds us still.    

We left the dishes in the sink and ventured outside to stand in the garden. The grass danced differently underwater, the strands bending in slow motion beneath the light of headtorches. The green reminded me of spring, when everything felt new born. The neon leaves of woodlands, the way their colour yelled at bark and soil. Owls screeched as we smoked fags down to the filter and discussed where constellations might be behind maps of obscuring cloud. There was a calmness, listening to the rain against the corrugated roof while the rising tide baptised our floor. Some of us stayed awake, as water climbed gurling up their drains, meeting it with rags and mops. You and I slept, tangled like pond weed, dreamt of oceans, the deluge kissing the kitchen tiles below. 

The following day, you penned a mark on the wall, added a date to the height. I remarked at how much it had grown; each year a few inches taller. My friend left the same marks on her kitchen wall to measure her growing toddler. Each time I visited the house, he would show me his progress and smile. Years ago, it had reached the first floor. I wondered if anyone was else was thinking about this as we paddled through the vegetable patch and watched plant pots float into the distance. Waders called to one another. I could see them, two swans and a great egret, in the field beyond the drystone wall. Curious bullocks tried to approach their new neighbours, as a kingfisher dived for newly displaced fish. When I sat inside, and stared out beyond the large glass window, it made me feel like I was on a boat, journeying downstream. Part of me wanted to stay, to live in a world dictated by new streams and seas. To walk sky after sky, flying as the fish did between countries redrawn. 

By lunch, it was gone from the buildings, leaving only silt and patterns of dirt behind. We emptied the house to its slick bones, blasted music from tinny speakers and bathed it like a child; slowly, tender, in warm, soapy water. I watched the bubbles wash over my skin, the colour slowly changing to beige then chocolate and finally deep brown. When my bucket was more dirt than water, I threw it into the undergrowth, watched by an onlooking robin, then returned to the shower, which I'd been using as my filling station. The water severed us from the world, and would do for a few more days. I didn’t mind. I soon forgot about my phone, the emails I had to write. Now there was only me and this sponge, thoughts unbroken by tomorrow. I cleaned each drawer separately, christened the living room table, praised the bags of oats and lentils. I mopped the floor three times, removing layer upon layer of river, peeling back the months of dirt that the passage of life had created. 

I knew a poet who was scared of the countryside. He told me everything here was so uncertain, that there were too many things that could go wrong. He said that I lived in Mary Oliver country. To me, the city is far more unpredictable, its rhythms of chaos and charge, its edges so sure of themselves.

My friends often ask why I live where I live. We know the waters will come again; that the river will leave the implied safety of its banks and dance with the dirt. They talk about it as though it’s the cause of the problem. As though we haven’t pulled up the trees, or created miles upon miles of agricultural landscape. Rivers are migratory creatures; it’s us who pretend we have tamed them into stillness, who have sculpted the world to our needs and expected no consequences. 

There are days when we go out onto the field with coffee and sit beneath the collapsing canopy in the dew. You point out the sparrowhawk as the mist rises. The hay bales we bought for summer are sprouting now, green shoots bursting through mustard yellow. Once, on one of our circular navigations around the field, we saw a pile of bright colours in the distance. I cursed beneath my breath, thinking of the teenagers with the tiny motorcross bike the night before; the way they had marveled at my Royal Enfield. They’d asked me if was ok to stay on our land and I had told them yes, shooing away the police. Now I felt my judgement to be misguided, looking at the mess that had been left behind, the remains of a party which I hadn’t been part of. As we approached the mound, I saw the bright white of a PVA bottle, the red and yellow Kodak logo, brown glass stripped of its label, a wide hole in the grass. This had nothing to do with wayward youth; it was the start of a new badger set, burrowed into the landfill that hides beneath these fields. The only reason we were able to buy this land was due to its toxicity, the abandoned relics, untarnished by time. It amazes me how quickly it can all change. In the summer, this field is a flurry of butterflies, crickets and bees. Now, the trees are golden and circles of mushrooms glisten in circles below boots. I like to stand beneath the copper beech and try and catch the falling bronze, stare at the canoe full of rain water and know that we didn’t have to use it. Not this time. 

Sometimes, on calmer days, it is our turn to visit the river. We take off our clothes, jump into freezing currents and scream as feet brush against fallen trees claimed by the rushing gloom. When the sky was cloudless, we blew up the blue mattress and paddled downstream with oars. You told me you couldn’t swim, that you were scared of fish, and I laughed at how ridiculous it all was. It’s hard to explain this world. The joy it brings.  

My friends tell me the water is coming and all I can say is, thank god, thank god.


Friday 10 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 4

Over five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability, was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we're publishing one of these winning entries. Today, you can read one of the two winning stories, "The Fog Harvesters," by Lee Wright.

Lee Wright is a naturalist and cinephile. He is currently working towards a PhD researching memoir and film’s relationship to reality. 



The Fog Harvesters

Bekele and his wife Kidist spend their nights in the forest, high in the mountains of central Kenya. They collect water from the trees, carry the yellow plastic jerrycans to their home, put empty ones back out. Bekele looks at Kidist, shadowed by a towering tree as she pins a plastic sheet made from discarded packaging to the bark. Together they wait for the fog to come and the water to form on the tree. Bekele can almost hear the moisture as it slowly rolls down the trunk, onto the plastic and into the jerrycan. The night cools and Bekele pulls on his wool hat, zips up his old fleece. Kidist gives the jerrycan a little kick with the toe of her rubber boot, ‘We need the trees to cry,’ she says.

It was Kidist who taught Bekele about the fog, how the forest heats up during the day, causing the moisture to evaporate into the air, and how the moisture condenses in the cool night. She puts a finger to the bark and wets her lips with a water droplet.

‘We must have tears,’ she says.

As a boy, Bekele watched his mother and father struggle to bring enough water to their home. The rainy season often failed them. Kidist tests the plastic sheet and moves on to the next tree. Bekele has seen the rivers drying up, remembers the feeling of his mother’s dried lips when she kissed him goodnight. The droughts have followed him into adulthood. It is a curse that Kidist is trying to lift. Drought is the war they both fight. Collecting the fog and dew has been handed down through Kidist’s family for generations, her parents would use banana leaves and metal pots. Bekele’s arms are shaky from carrying the jerrycans, which seem to sprout from the trees like roots. Nothing exists without water. The fog keeps Bekele, Kidist and their cow alive. In their small house, Kidist will boil the water and give her husband a cup and they will wearily toast another successful night of harvesting, while batting away the insects, sending them reeling.  Sometimes they wash one another in the tears from the trees. Bekele pours a jug over his wife’s shoulders and kisses her skin.

From the house, Bekele often watches Kidist whisper into the ear of their cow she named Nuru, after the daughter they lost. Their one and only child. His wife will take a break each day to whisper something to Nuru. He never asks what it is she whispers. Perhaps she is promising more water? Nuru recognises Kidist every time. Once a week Kidist will go to their daughter’s resting place and not return from the small grave until it is time to harvest the fog. When his wife is sad, Bekele feels like a chained-up dog, unable to do anything good for her. 

Kidist says the best sound is that of the water sloshing back and forth as they carry the jerrycans and she is right. The best feeling is when she wriggles her toes in the water when they have enough of it to bathe in. Before Bekele harnessed the fog from the trees, he would walk three miles along the dirt roads with his mother to a school where there was a water tap. Bekele would close his eyes and run his hand over the corrugated steel of the school’s structure as they waited their turn at the tap. Inside the school was a bird in a metal cage. He noticed the way the bird would watch as the people stood in line. His mother would say that his deceased grandmother was the bird. Look, Bekele, she is watching you, she is watching, and she hears when you complain. She is grinning away at her grandchild. See the movement of her head? And Bekele would stand, his feet in a dust cloud. He wondered if the bird ever sang, would it be a sorrow song? He never thought it was just a lie. He thinks of that bird when the fog is moved by the wind. He will never forget how his family would spend entire days thirsty, how his father sometimes writhed with agony. His father always ached. He wishes that his mother was here. He would say, listen how the night is full of crying trees. He would show her how the fog comes and wipes away their thirst.

‘There are places in this world where you can stand and be totally at peace,’ Kidist says.

Above her, the branches bend towards and away from each other. Bekele looks at his cracked knuckles – his father’s knuckles. The trees follow one another. In the village, some of the people sleep. Kidist has her eye on the damp bark. The jerrycans gradually fill, a good night for fog, but there is no applause. Bekele moves between the trees, his head going down a little with tiredness. No one, he thinks, will be able to find them amongst these trees, too tall to see over. As the fog crawls, he feels restored, taken out of himself. He counts the trees like he counts his blessings. As far as Bekele is concerned, they have no choice. Harvest the fog or die, and he has never much fancied dying. The trees seem to grow taller every night. It makes him feel almost safe. Almost. In the fog, Bekele’s breathing becomes calm. The water is on its way. Bekele rubs at his thin chest as he walks through the dark. Kidist shouts at him to come, two jerrycans are ready. Bekele takes hold, one in each hand.

‘You go,’ Kidist says.

Bekele can hear the rhythmic slosh of the water as he heads for home. He is fulfilling his mother’s destiny. He forgets the discomfort, thinks of nothing but endless water. Tomorrow he will wash. It will be good to feel clean. At the house he investigates the piece of mirror Kidist keeps bedside their mattress. Bekele feels sure he will see the face of his father. He hopes to meet his parents again in the afterlife, where he will tell them about the fog and the trees. He looks at his dirty fleece. Twelve years he has had this one fleece. He stares hard at himself. At the narrow scar on his throat. He cannot help wishing he was rich. Somewhere nearby a child is wailing. He can’t remember the sound Nuru made when she cried. He takes a drop of un-boiled water from a jerrycan, hears again the wailing child. Bekele wants to sit down and close his eyes, but he rolls up both sleeves and walks back to the forest. Kidist is hoping the fog will be heavy tonight. There is no way of knowing now if the fog will be enough. They move together, checking jerrycan after jerrycan. Kidist has never been frightened of the forest at night. She sometimes mocks Bekele for his fear. There is only one thing that frightens his wife and that is not having enough water.

‘You’re quiet,’ she says.

‘I am remembering my mother,’ Bekele says.

Kidist considers this for a second. She moves close to her husband, puts her hand in his. He kisses her on the head, and she stands back, nods. He can see her kindness. He also sees the possibility of a waterless future for them. He is trying to piece together what might happen if the fog one night vanishes and never returns. To think they will have to again walk so far just for water. On some nights, the fog is nothing. Bekele and Kidist flit from shadow to shadow, touching the bark. Some trees have bark like sharp teeth, though the trees have never drawn blood from Kidist or Bekele. Their eyes got used to the darkness long ago, but they still move carefully, giddy for the mist. Bekele imagines what it would be like to leap into the ocean. He would be foolish at first. Go in too deep and stay in too long until the water had softened his skin. He will never see so much water. They collect the moisture to help not just themselves, but those who cannot make it to the forest and whose mouths are dry. Kidist watches the plastic sheets attentively. Bekele can see her eyes. Her hands move to the tree, several times she taps the bark, nodding her head. All they can do now is wait. Bekele clears his throat. Long stretches of waiting.

‘I should have been born a tree,’ Kidist says.

Bekele keeps his hands by his sides.

‘Then you would live a long time,’ he says.

The moonlight cools Bekele’s face. It sits on his heart. Ignites his lungs. The trees are giants, who stand great and still. The forest, Bekele, and Kidist are determined to live and live and live.

‘The fog will come,’ she tells him, ‘It will come. All we have to do is wait.’


Thursday 9 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 3

Over five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we're publishing one of these winning entries. Today, you can read the specially commended story "Before the Grasses," by Alice Newitt.

Alice Newitt is a Physics graduate who currently works for the University of Leicester's careers service. She has a passion for hopeful and imaginative literature.



Before the Grasses

or the musings of an immortal being waiting for the world to end

Before the grasses, there were ferns. They would brush against my legs as I walked across the plains, moss squidgy beneath my toes. When I came across a cliff edge or a great basin waiting to be filled, I would do like one of the living creatures and creep around the edge, as if I wasn’t a friend of Death but instead afraid of her.

The others used to laugh. 

‘What do you even do?’ they would ask me. ‘You aren’t the sun or the moon. You don’t reroute rivers or hang the stars. You don’t create life or take it away - you just wander through these valleys and hills, getting in everybody’s way.’

But they never could understand. I was here long before they were, I was here at the start and I am still here at the end, and so I turned away from them and turned towards the world. 

*

Like the Earth, I was forged in fire. I watched as the moon was formed from the ring of rocks surrounding the Earth, and at first it was so close that I could reach out and touch it, my arms stretching out for tens of thousands of miles just to feel the touch of another celestial body. The Earth itself was spinning so fast that I would straddle it and shriek in delight for millennia. One time, I stretched right out and touched the sun, just for fun. The plasma dripped off my finger like dew. I spent a thousand years letting meteorites prickle my back, the ground beneath me hardening like plaster, water starting to pool around my feet. I let the moon drag me across the seas on its tides. 

As the Earth’s rotation slowed, I took refuge on an island, lava warming my thighs. A meteorite landed in my hair. I picked it out and licked it. I ran across cooling rocks so quickly that I could scarcely feel them at all, and then I dived into the newly pooling ocean and let the water soak through my pores.

This was all thousands of millions of years ago.

*

I’d first noticed the emergence of life when I’d taken a gulp out of my favourite sea and noticed that it had a new taste.

‘That will have been the oxygen,’ Life would tell me later once he had finally crawled out of the ocean. ‘It is what allows all of this to be.’ 

That was Life all over – by ‘all of this,’ he meant only the breathing things, not the rocks or the fire or the ocean, as if only life is alive, as if the Earth’s surface had never ripped apart and continents never spread like syrup. I was there when he first climbed out of the primordial soup, all gloopy and gunky and even then, he had thought that he had known everything about everything, telling me what I was and what I wasn’t, as if I’d been waiting for him all this time. 

But I still loved him. Together, we rode tectonic plates until we grew dizzy, and the days were long, so long, sometimes twenty-two hours or more. I would show him things that he would never think to notice and in return he would show me his creations – spongy archaeocyathids, trilobites crawling over my waist, algae caking the seafloor. The sea levels rose and the summers were balmy and I used to stretch my hands out and cry out in delight at it all. 

‘What do you call this?’ I asked him. 

‘The Cambrian explosion,’ he told me. 

*

Time only goes forward, and as the Earth spun ever more quickly, Life pontificated and life proliferated: great trees soaring upwards; ferns spreading outwards and then the grasses, and the creatures: a hominid standing erect, a dolphin plunging through the waves. 

And then it was a morning late in the Holocene, some four billion years since Life had first come along, and, for some decades, we had been sitting on a hillside watching the settlement in the valley down below us crawl and sprawl. I lifted a hand to allow the hominids to install a cable car tower beside us. I watched Life gaze numbly at the scars in the forest and saw that it would soon be time for him to leave. 

‘Stay a little longer,’ I asked him. 

‘It’s not my choice,’ he said, and I believed him. The humans were barely in their adolescence and the dark side of the globe sparkled like starlight. He would have stayed if he could. There was glacial meltwater rushing down the mountainsides and the air was growing ashy. There was a fire coming, and there was little left for he and I to do. 

*

For a century and an afternoon, I stayed in the valley. Life drifted between me and the world, but I mostly just lay there, watching the smoke-filled sky, and thought of a time long ago, back before Life left the ocean, back to when the Earth was covered in ice, the whole planet white. I would try and outrun the encroaching night, snow crunching beneath my feet as I chased across the Earth’s surface. I hadn’t known that there was anything to miss. 

The others had laughed. 

‘And so it has been decided, Earth,’ they told me. ‘You shall end in ice.’ 

‘I am not Earth,’ I reminded them.  ‘I am the witness, and I shall watch the Earth, whether it ends in fire or ice or those things in-between. I was here when the Earth was created and I will be here when it ends, and I know that no matter what, I shall always be here. Amongst them.’ 

They listened to me, and then laughed and turned away again, and I knew that it was no good. They never would understand. 

*

The forest was still burning; I witnessed it as I was lying there in that burning valley. I observed it and I did nothing. I just lay there and felt the heat of the fire and the spray of the water and tried to imagine that I was still skating on Snowball Earth, or else amongst the ferns of the late Devonian, so green and so verdant. 

‘Excuse me, ma’am.’ 

There was a hominid looking down at me. He was one of the ones here to put out the fire - I could tell by the hat and boots. He’d never succeed, and, as I glanced down at his ruined torso, I saw that in fact he had already lost. I looked at his outstretched hand. 

‘She’ll be along soon,’ I told him, meaning Death. ‘She’s just busy someplace else.’ 

‘You can’t stay here,’ he told me. 

‘It won’t burn me. I was forged in fire.’

But he didn’t move, just stayed standing there, with his hand outstretched. How could they not know me, I wondered as I looked up at this one. How could they not know me after all this time?

‘This isn’t the first mass extinction event that I’ve seen.’ I told him. ‘It’s nothing personal - I didn’t save any of the others either, not even the wattieza trees or psaronius ferns. I watched as they died and I did nothing at all.’ 

He continued to stand there.

‘I’d get moving if I were you,’ I said. ‘Maybe if you go quickly, Death won’t find you. Perhaps if you run, you could outrun her, outrun the Earth, but it wouldn’t make much difference. You’ll all be gone soon, making space for whatever comes next.’ Will there be anything next, I wondered, once Life is gone? And then I almost smiled to myself, because that was a Life-like way of thinking – to be unable to imagine a future without itself. But I didn’t smile, I just lay there and gazed up at this hominid’s outstretched hand. It made no difference. I had let all of the others die.

‘I’m not who you are looking for,’ I told him. ‘I cannot save you.’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m here to save you.’ 

I listened to his words, and then watched as he died. Oh, Life. You knew everything and you knew nothing at all. 

*

I saw out the remainder of Earth’s time alone, a million years at a time, and now finally I sit here, alone on this hillside, waiting for the sun to go out and extinguish a world that I have seen die over and over. 

Nobody likes a witness, that was something that I had discovered early on. No one likes the one who watches, nobody cares for the bystander who sees it all and lets it happen. But as I look at the Earth now, I understand why it needed me. All its inhabitants’ lives were so short. They could scarcely comprehend the rise and fall of their own civilisations, never mind the rise and fall of their species. I have been here to watch the Earth through all its triumphs and disasters. I was put here to see all of it, for what would be the point of it, if there were nobody to observe it? And so I watch it still, waiting for the end, and think of all the lifeforms that have lived and died, of the ice and snow, the leafy Devonian, of the hominids and their creations, of the fires before and after. 

‘You can’t feel sadness,’ Life had told me, the day that I saw the last tree fall.

‘I know,’ I told him, but sometimes I felt as if I did. Sometimes I felt that I could drown the Earth. 

The sky is turning red, and now black, here in this final second in which the Earth exists, before the second in which it will not.

‘What will happen, do you think?’ Life had once asked me. ‘Once all of this is done?’

‘I don’t know what will come after,’ I said. ‘But I know how it will end. You will be one of the first to go: created over millions of years, blown out in an afternoon. The others will leave not long after, until at the end, it will be only me. Maybe, when this planet turns back to fire and dust, so will I. Or maybe I’ll be thrown far away, to some distant place, where I’ll fall to the ground and watch as the stars go out, one by one.’

‘How can you bear it?’ Life had asked, cowering from the bleakness of my vision.

‘Well, who knows?’ I told him, wanting, despite everything, to give him hope. And perhaps, in that moment, I needed hope too. ‘Maybe it won’t happen like that. Maybe the sun will burn forever. Maybe you will never leave. Maybe I am right, when I say that things will never go back to how they once were. But who knows: when all of this is done, when the Earth is gone and the sky is dark, maybe then, we will all go round again.’ 


Wednesday 8 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 2

Over five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability, was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we're publishing one of these winning entries. Today, you can read the story "Cetiosaurus," by one of two runners-up, Sam Dawson.

Sam Dawson is a writer with a Creative Writing MA from the University of Leicester. His work has been published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies.



Cetiosaurus 

It started with the New Walk Museum and Cetiosaurus. He couldn’t get over Cetiosaurus having once lived in Leicestershire. 

*

‘Cetiosaurus was one of the tallest dinosaurs living in Leicester. Other dinosaurs lived in Leicester too. Like Iguanodon. And big bad ones like Megalosaurus.’ 

‘That’s cool. But you know this was prehistoric times, right? Cetiosaurus wasn’t hanging around the clocktower or shopping in the Highcross.’

*
 
We stayed by that display for twenty minutes, the long skeletal neck of Cetiosaurus looming down as if to greet its newest fan. 

When he got home, he googled Cetiosaurus on his tablet. He didn’t like that Cetiosaurus had died in such a brutal way – obliterated by a meteor or starved in a wasteland or frozen in a great ice age. 

Extinction became the latest word in his vocabulary. Each time he went to say it, he took a 
long time sounding out the syllables, but he never pronounced the word correctly. ‘X-stin-shun,’ he said. ‘All the dinosaurs died in an X-stin-shun.’ 

Drawings appeared taped to his bedroom wall – comets trailing tails of red and orange, crayon glacial landscapes of light blue and grey. And always Cetiosaurus. Dot eyes drawn to the sky, an up-turned letter U for its terrified last expression. 


‘Dad, did you know that every day one-hundred and fifty animals go X-tinc?’

‘Is that right? Terrible stuff.’ 

‘Yep. And the world has had five mass X-stin-shuns. They were all in dinosaur times though.’ 

‘Right. Wow. Glum.’ 


From the extinction of the dinosaurs to extinctions of the modern day. He’d sit on the sofa, tablet leant on his lap, spitting out facts in an amusingly childlike way – the world is running out of rhinos; humans keep killing animals; the world is changing and it’s destroying their homes. 

Obsessive, macabre, but his research was purely academic. What kind of father would I have been if I took the tablet from his hands, told him: ‘No, bad child. Stop learning about the natural world.’

So he kept learning. Became an expert on X-stin-shun.


RE: Your Son 
From: Mrs. Patel <spatel@stmschool.org.uk>
To: Me <jp123@googlemail.com>

Dear Parent, 

I’m writing regarding your son’s recent fascination with turtles, particularly one ‘black softshell turtle.’ He talks about them an awful lot, and I fear it’s beginning to be a distraction for him and others in the classroom. Perhaps we could have a brief chat about this after school sometime. How about the next time you come to pick him up? 

Kind Regards, 
Mrs. Patel 
Year 2, Class B 


‘Your teacher tells me you’re really interested in this turtle. Wanna tell me about it?’ 

‘Yeah! Did you know black softshell turtles went X-stinc because humans kept polluting their water? Another animal that went X-stinc because of water pollution is the wyoming toad. Loads of other fish and frogs died too. Did you know that orangutans are nearly X-stinc? Humans burn down their homes in the jungle. Did you know it’s so they can put cows there so we can eat the cows, and then the cows fart, and that pollutes the air too?’ 

‘I… Wow… Hmmm.’


I didn’t know. Or I vaguely knew and chose not to care. So I jumped on my laptop and did some research, to learn how to talk with him. I started to see human beings as blind little termites. We began in an overgrown garden but somehow found our way into the foundations of a house. We got to work, building ourselves a home, mounds of dirt and soil, an incy wincy apartment complex built into the house’s support beams. We made a veritable termite kingdom, with termite roads and termite skyscrapers - blind little termites everywhere, not knowing we had built our mounds just a bit too high and chewed through the wooden support beams just a bit too much, and soon the house would come crashing down on top of us. 
Termites. An invasion. That was us.

*

‘Dad, did you know that the sea is getting so hot that all the ice is melting?’

‘Did you know that the global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over the last 2000 years?’

‘Did you know that the sea is rising? It’s like water in a bathtub, Dad.’ 

‘Did you know, Son, that the global average sea level has risen at least 21 centimetres since 1880?’ 

‘Is that a lot?’ 

‘Oh, yes.’

‘… whoa.’ 


His mother contacted me via WhatsApp. She told me our son had been boasting about the conversations he had with me, whenever he visited hers on alternate weekends. He wanted to talk about similar things with her, but she didn’t know how.

She told me not to encourage him.  

I asked why not. 

She said because it’s weird. 

It is weird, I agreed. But the stuff he’s talking about – someone should talk about. The stuff he’s talking about, it’s happening

She told me to cut it out anyway. She told me it wasn’t healthy for him to think about these things. 

She didn’t understand.


I brought him to Beacon Hill on my next weekend with him. Figured it’d be fun. Thought we could imagine dinosaurs stomping about - if he was even still into dinosaurs, that is. We studied the jutting, craggy rock formations, the huddles of beige mushrooms, the crows hopping in the tall grass, listened out for the high-pitched whistling and twittering of the goldfinches in the trees. I told him birds used to be dinosaurs. He was more interested in the cows. 

Keeping cows caused greenhouse gases, he told me, staring at the shaggy horned bulls beyond the wooden fence. Keeping cows takes up so much land, land that we could instead grow vegetables on. 

Mostly, the cows grazed. One bull stared forwards, eyes so human, so similar, boring into me, as if insisting I pay attention. Learn.

I’d never thought of it that way, I told my son. Thanks. And I brought him to the playground area instead, the cow watching us all the way.


RE: School Dinners 
From: Mrs Patel <spatel@stmschool.org.uk>
To: Me <jp123@googlemail.com>

Dear Parent, 

I’m writing regarding your son. For a number of weeks now, he has not been eating his school meals. Are you aware of this? Is this something we should arrange to discuss? Is something happening at home that may be putting him off his food? Let’s chat again, after school. 

Kind Regards, 
Mrs Patel 
Year 2, Class B 


‘I do eat my school meals. Peas and mashed potato and broccoli. But I don’t want to eat my chicken nuggets. Or when they give me pork chops.’ 

‘But it’s beef, it’s cows, that are impacting the environment. You can eat chicken.’ 

‘No. Keeping chickens also makes rivers dirty. It’s called run-off. And there are so many of them, it takes so much land to feed them. And they destroy the soil. It’s bad, Dad. It’s real bad.’ 


So I did more research, and we ended up eating vegan three times a week. The meals were delicious. Garlicky teriyaki stir-fry with cornflour-fried extra-firm tofu, creamy chickpea curry with ground almonds and baby spinach, cherry tomato rigatoni. 

We switched to oat milk too. In a coffee, you can’t even tell the difference. 

His mother was not happy about it. The messages began on WhatsApp. She couldn’t cook those kinds of meals, what was I thinking? Why was he even thinking about this kind of stuff? It wasn’t proper. Sort yourself out. Be normal. 

All I could do was respond with the truth. Hey, this kid is wiser than you give him credit for. Listen to him once in a while. 


Top Nature, Environment and Sustainability tips from my son. 
  1. Farmed animals are responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture also accounts for at least half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Eat less meat, dairy, and eggs. It’s kinder to those poor, mistreated animals too.
  2. Do the little things! Take the bus or walk. Turn off your lights, and that running tap. Recycle, don’t just chuck your plastic away. Personal action is public action when we all put in a shift.
  3. Lastly (and his wisest advice, in my opinion), get out there, get into nature, and breathe. Exist. Find a shady spot underneath a big oak tree and have a lie-down. Find a fern-covered hill in the middle of some woods and trek up it. Stand on the cliff edge and smell that ocean salt spray dancing in the air. It’s fun out there. Go and enjoy it! 

He ran into my bedroom one evening. He should have been asleep. His tablet was with him. He pushed the screen into my face. There was an article by The Guardian. I gasped.

The black softshell turtle was no longer extinct. He bounced on the bed next to me in celebration, hooting and squeaking, a proper little Ewok.

I read on. The black softshell turtle had been found to exist in the pond of a temple called the Hayagriva Madhava Temple located in Assam, India. A small population had also been found in Kalyan Sagar Lake, in Tripura. Efforts had been made to reintroduce the turtles to the wild, and environmental biologists were working hard to preserve the species and their natural habitat.

My son watched me read, his face, my little boy’s face, saying: Dad! Dad! They’re doing things! People are doing things!

That they are, I felt like saying.

I ruffled his hair. For some stupid reason, I felt like crying.

And we are too.

He grabbed the tablet from my hands and rushed out of the room. I’d have to get him to sleep soon enough, but that could come later. For now, instead, my thoughts turned to Cetiosaurus. Cetiosaurus: long, tall, proud. Cetiosaurus living in Britain for thousands and thousands of years, sixty-eight million years ago. Cetiosaurus starving, suffocating, freezing. Cetiosaurus with the dot eyes turned towards the sky, an upside-down U because Cetiosaurus was so sad to be extinct. My son was so sad they were extinct.

Sorry, Cetiosaurus. Too late for you, Cetiosaurus. But not too late full stop.

No, Cetiosaurus. Have faith. Not too late full stop.

Not by a long shot.

Tuesday 7 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 1

Over the next five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we'll publish one of these winning entries. Today, you can read the story "If a forest," by one of two runners-up, Carol Rowntree Jones.

Carol Rowntree Jones writes poetry, essays and creative non-fiction, and is currently working on writing inspired by the National Forest. She is based in south Nottinghamshire.



If a forest

Once upon a time, there were seven men and one woman who worked at long tables in two rooms in a big house: each table had a wired telephone, and in the corner of each room was a fax machine and a kettle. 

Other people at other tables wrote of trees planted in the far north, planted to earn money in angular blocks with hard edges, in wet places drained to suit trees that did not like wet places. The seven men and one woman read of this and spread stiff paper maps over their large tables, smoothing them out with the edge of their hands. They dreamt of creating a forest where the trees would mean something to the people who planted them, where they would grow near and among the daily lives of these people. Their documents were labelled IF: what IF it were possible? what IF it happened? Over coffee they played with Scrabble tiles to find a name.

The heart of the country was known to contain many people and few trees. The seven men and the woman sent out notices throughout this vast band of ‘The Midlands,’ announcing their intention to create a forest, an invitation to compete for a forest ‘where you live.’ 

In these modern times, jousting for favour (and funding) had become campaigning, signing petitions, newspapers championing causes, local parishioners writing to MPs. Enthusiastic schoolteachers set up class projects entitled ‘What if a forest came to live here?’ Children drew pictures of round-topped trees and set brown and bright colourful birds on the branches where green leaves shimmered, the sun shone in the sky, and a happy squirrel scampered on the ground.

Few would envisage that the success of this forest would be so great that the corporeal descendants of this imagined squirrel would be severely ‘managed’ for loving the trees too much. In an ecstasy of sap, they would strip the young trees of their bark, wounding and opening them to disease, causing many to die.

An anonymous area between four famous cities, shaped as if a rectangular cloth was thrown down on the map and lay ruffled at the edges, began to draw the attention of the seven men and one woman. Here were hardly any trees. Here were many people. This was a landscape damaged by coal mines and clay pits that had worked these communities for more than two centuries. It was the end of these industries here, in this country, and many people were out of work. Even when they found new employment, the men would talk with regret and fondness of the camaraderie, the physical danger, how the light above was brighter when you’d been down the pit all day, how you had to account for the bullet the day you’d had to put the pit pony out of its pain when a stumble, or loose wagon, had broken its leg.

The women would tell you that the work might have been secure and lucrative, but they had 300 years’ worth of mining trauma in their family and they were glad no grandson of theirs would be going down the pit. They’d say how the washing on the line would be black before it was dry. How their husbands would have to stop the car to clean the windscreen after driving down the road by the big pit and the belt carrying the coal to be sorted. “When you’re in it you don’t really notice, but it was filthy. Grey dust, mud everywhere. And you’d never know when the shout would come; someone’s man injured.” 

So as the last pits were closing the women opened their hearts to the notion of forest. They wrote letters of support and sought out materials for the school projects. The local newspaper ran headlines, conducted interviews and polls, and wrote editorials putting the case This Area Needs The Forest Most.

And it probably did. 

It spoke to the core of what the team of eight dreamt of: a peopled landscape where trees would lead a magnificent transformation. Children would play in the shade of trees planted at their school, men and women would learn to plant, prune, forage, how to use a saw and a lathe, but mainly they would all be living in the breath of trees. The young trees would take up carbon as they grew and in maturity hold back water in heavy rain. Insects would creep in the bark and woodpeckers drill for them, small mammals would nest in the shelter of the woodland, and owls would scout them out. This forest would show how trees could heal both the scars in the land and the rift that had grown between people and nature.  

And it won. 

Everyone wanted to plant the first tree, any tree, in this brand-new forest. The local newspaper was not short of forest-related stories. A school has started to collect acorns to grow on windowsills. Women’s Institutes take on a quilting project to welcome the forthcoming woodlands. Money was allocated in special pots for people who owned land to say what they could offer this new forest: “See my plans! I will plant ten thousand trees, they will be native oak and ash, with rowan and hawthorn at the edges.” Of course, these were the days before the disaster of ash dieback had arrived in these lands. Because the intention was always to plant mixed woodlands there were few broad stands of ash as a singular species, to leave a stark scar of stricken naked stems when they died. The ash would quietly fail, and the oak, birch and thorn drop their seed and move into the space.

A landowner would say: “My new woodland will be threaded with silver birch and I will name it after my granddaughter. Children from her school will come and plant the first trees in the far field. Grant me the money and I will allow local people to come and walk over my land, they can learn about the birds that will live among the new trees – I will learn about the birds – and they can picnic and play and enjoy the views.”

The map makers had to find a new shade of green for land that was opened up to the people in this way and it swept over their maps in swathes. In later years there were occasional but regular disputes when the local people came with their dogs and with friends with their dogs. They would catch up and be chatting so much that they might not notice their dogs sniffing in the long grass, disturbing the nests on the ground, or shitting on the edge of the path where later that day a child might step. The tension this could create between people saying: “I’m only walking here," and the landowner saying: “Please don’t mistreat the land and the agreement I have made,” was, sadly, a variation of most disputes about land. I own it and you don’t. The maps and the money and enough goodwill generally ironed things out.  

From the beginning the people who held the funds to make this revolutionary forest happen knew it was important to consider carefully where the trees would be planted. One cold winter’s day, there was a child who travelled from one of the four cities that surrounded the forest, travelled from the city in a hired bus with classmates, to meet the foresters on a hill where several hundred trees had already been planted. The children and their teachers picked their way up the muddy field, but the trees were tiny and easy to tread on. The child, who had neither hat nor gloves and wore a thin blue anorak emblazoned ‘Foxes’, tried not to step on the trees and worked out that most of them were marked by a stick and guard supporting and surrounding them. The woman from the forest who walked with them explained that the trees were protected in this way from all the things that wanted to eat them - rabbit, vole, hare, deer. Foresters love few furry creatures. 

Laid on the ground were spades and bundles of slender young saplings wrapped in black bags against the wind. Oak with a few tattered leaves, hazel and small leaved lime. The foresters showed the children how to plant a tree: the size of the hole they should dig so that the fine, thirsty roots could be teased out and would fit with ease. They pointed out where the colour changed on the stem of the tree, the stem that would thicken to be called ‘trunk’, and to plant the tree deep enough so that this point of colour would be level with the ground when they’d finished. “Break up the soil and pile it back into the hole. It helps to do this in pairs. One to hold the tree, one to replace the soil carefully. Heel it in. Tread carefully with your boot to press the soil down. We want to squeeze out any empty spaces, so the roots won’t sit in pockets of icy water during this, their first winter out in the wild.”

The forester explained that the trees they were to plant that day were some of the many thousands that were added each year to this forest, and that the location of every tree and group of trees was chosen carefully. “For instance, we wouldn’t want to spoil the view from a site like this.” And the child from the city in the thin Foxes coat, with bare blue hands, said, “Sir, what’s a view?”

And there were students who came to the forest, from a big institution in the same city as the child’s school. One wore walking boots, one wore fashion boots and one wore white trainers. They came to make a film about this forest being created near where they were studying. They wanted to talk to people who had made the forest and about the difference the forest made.

The forester was talking about richness. How the trees flourished, and people walked amongst them in the spring and smelt the scent of the blossom, and in the autumn they gathered nuts and berries. That the trees produced firewood for the woodland owner to sell, who then planted more trees. How the trees would soon offer timber for furniture makers, and how children learnt and played here, and their teachers saw different children thrive. That the leaf fall each autumn made the forest floor richer and healthier and encouraged more insects and animals to make the woodland their home. “I don’t understand,” said one student, “what is ‘forest floor’? I’ve only heard the term ‘floor’ for carpet or dance.”

The people in the forest lived on farms or in villages but mostly in towns. There were four towns in this forest: one built on water, one built on fireclay, another built on history, markets and spa treatments. The fourth came into being because of, and was named for, the coal.

The town built on water was built on beer and brewing. The water ran hard. Tall warehouse buildings with many small-paned windows grew up along the riverbanks, the banks themselves reinforced with timber and iron. The warehouses were full of people, hops, sacking and mice. Outside, carts drawn by horses took the barrels to the buyers. The river, the canal and the railway took the beer to the ships setting sail for the whole world.

The skyline of the town built on fireclay was a stave rising and falling with the outlines of bottle kilns shaped like cones for the firing. This fireclay had special qualities and was formed into white sanitaryware, also sent across the world, supplied to keep the British Empire comfortable. Pipes, pots, chamber pots and kitchenware. 

A favourite mixing bowl might take you by surprise, might be found to have the mark of the town on the base, clay from the forest, purchased by a mother long ago and handed down. Made years before the forest was even begun, even thought to be necessary.

One solitary brick-built bottle kiln was saved, in this town surrounded by forest, and became known for its acoustics, when people sang songs about the clay in the past tense, and songs about the woodlands in present and future tenses.  

In the town built on history, therapeutic spa water would be brought in water wagons drawn by horses from the mines where it pooled, to the smart hotel in the town. Rich people bathed while miners sweated, each a few miles from the other. 

The town built on, built for, and named for the coal, had to find a new identity. The coal was only ever there because of trees that grew millennia ago: trees compressed into the ground, becoming coal, the coal extracted, the world turns and heats and now trees are planted again.

When the first potato farmer signed up to plant trees, it was a sign that the forest would happen. When the estate agents started to include in their fancy words ‘desirable, in the heart of the forest,’ the people knew that the area would thrive once more because of the trees.

Wildlife began to arrive. Diggers were working in a wet field surrounded by gravel pits and fast roads. They had made long shallow scrapes in the topsoil to attract water-loving birds and were packing up to leave. No sooner had they gone than two pairs of lapwing arrived, with their crest feather fascinators and iridescent wings, birds not seen here for over twenty years. This is how they learnt that nature is opportunistic. It does not need ‘beauty’, does not need chocolate-box perfection. Make it good enough and it will come. 

A man was dying. He was one of the first farmers to throw in his lot with the forest and years later he told his story. “Farmers do what pays off the loans. In the 70s we ripped out all the hedges, because we were paid to. The forest came along and offered us a new way to use our land. It’s the best thing we ever did. I never thought I’d see the trees grow but they did, the canopy is over our heads. I feel I’ve put a marker down that will never be removed. For the children round here, everything’s rosy. The forest is everything to me.”

A woman was walking. She had walked from her door to this cafĂ©, in the heart of the forest. “I’ve hardly touched a road. I walked past the lake, glittering with birds, through woods which lead one to the other – the colours are glorious today! It’s uplifting. The forest has been the saviour of this place.”

This is what the seven men and one woman, long since retired by now, had known all along. 

The lichen started to gather.


Thursday 2 May 2024

Corinne Fowler, "Our Island Stories"



Corinne Fowler, photo by Osborne Photography


Corinne Fowler is Professor of Colonialism and Heritage in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. She is co-investigator of the Leverhulme Rural Racism Project, led by Professor Neil Chakraborti at the University’s Centre for Hate Studies. In 2020 Corinne co-authored an audit of peer-reviewed research about National Trust properties’ connections to empire, which encouraged the heritage sector to address its colonial stories and became a major media story. The report won the Museums and Heritage Special Recognition Award, 2022 and the Eastern Eye Community Engagement Award 2023. Corinne directed Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted, a child-led history and writing project with Peepal Tree Press with commissioned photographer Ingrid Pollard (2018-2022). Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain was published on 2 May 2024 by Penguin Allen Lane.



About Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain
This book of country walks opens up the colonial history of Britain’s rural life and landscapes. The countryside is cherished by many Britons. There is a depth of feeling about rural places, the moors and lochs, valleys and mountains, cottages and country houses. Yet the British countryside, so integral to our national identity, is rarely seen as having anything to do with British colonialism. Where the countryside is celebrated, histories of empire are forgotten. In Our Island Stories, Corinne Fowler brings rural life and colonial rule together with transformative results. Through ten country walks, roaming the island with varied companions, Fowler combines local and global history, connecting the Cotswolds to Calcutta, Dolgellau to Virginia, and Grasmere to Canton.

Empire transformed rural lives for better and for worse: whether in Welsh sheep farms or Cornish copper mines, it offered both opportunity and exploitation. Fowler shows how the booming profits of overseas colonial activities, and the select few who benefited, directly contributed to enclosure, land clearances and dispossession. These histories, usually considered separately, continue to shape lives across Britain today.

To give an honest account, to offer both affection and criticism, is a matter of respect: we should not knowingly tell half a history. This new knowledge of our island stories, once gained, can only deepen Britons' relationship with their beloved landscape.

You can read more about Our Island Stories on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read an excerpt from the introduction to the book. 

 

From Our Island Stories, by Corinne Fowler

From ‘Introduction: A Colonial History of the British Countryside’ 

I took the train to Pangbourne, some 20 miles west of Windsor. Perched at the confluence of the Thames and the River Pang, the settlement is ancient: its name was first recorded in 844 CE. The Pang, which gives the village its name, is a tributary of the Thames, a chalkstream which remains full of life despite the farm fertilizers, pesticides and sewage which pollute the local rivers. Voles still swim in its water meadows, just as they did when Kenneth Grahame used to go boating thereabouts in the early twentieth century. Along with other riverine creatures, the water vole appears as Ratty in Grahame’s much-loved children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, a book which re-enchanted generations of readers with the English countryside: its financial success enabled Grahame to retire to a gable-ended cottage in Pangbourne, where he lived until his death in 1932. 

Crammed with listed buildings and expensive real estate, Pangbourne has long attracted people with money: people in search of this bucolic idyll. In the eighteenth century, wealth flooded into Pangbourne, much of it linked to the East India Company. Founded in 1600 by English merchants to trade between Europe, South Asia and the Far East, it became far more than a trading company. Acquiring its own army, it fought rival East India Companies from the European powers such as France and Holland, competing for the lion’s share of trade in spices, cotton, silk, indigo and saltpetre. The English – later British – East India Company established and defended warehouses, forts and trading posts all over India, including Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Surat. Over time, it conquered territory, collected taxes and eventually colonized India. When East India Company employees had made their pile and returned home, many headed for the Thames valley – so many, in fact, that it became known as ‘England’s Hindoostan.’ A former governor of Madras lived 3 miles south of Pangbourne, at Englefield; the former governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, had a residence at Purley Hall, a mile or so from the village. 

I had come to Pangbourne in search of one of these figures, Sir Francis Sykes. I planned to walk the riverside path along the Thames valley to Basildon Park, a landscaped and wooded estate surrounded by a handsome brick and flint wall and, within it, the house that Sykes built: a grand Palladian pile, constructed with the proceeds of his Indian adventures, and now owned by the National Trust. With me would come the historian Sathnam Sanghera, author of the influential Empireland, a personal journey into British colonial history. As we walked, we’d talk about Britain, India and the culture war into which our work had plunged us both.