Eight Men and a Duck – Nick Thorpe

Phil Buck is an American adventurer and admirer of Thor Heyerdahl who conceived of a plan to sail from Chile to Easter Island in a primitive reed boat back in 1999, something Heyerdahl himself never managed, and this is the story of how eight men (and a duck) amazingly made the 2,500 mile journey in 44 days starting in February 2000. Nick Thorpe was travelling round South America submitting pieces of journalism back to his home in the UK when he found out about this great adventure and wangled himself aboard on the basis of having a little sailing experience but more importantly being able to document the trip after the original journalist pulled out. The book, Nick’s first, is a surprisingly candid story of how eight men, from various nationalities and wildly diverse personalities came to bond together in adversity as their ship, the Viracocha (named after the creator god of Inca mythology), slowly became waterlogged and started sinking around them. That the boat was going to get waterlogged and either sink or break apart at some point was well known to all who sailed on her, the hope was that she would do so after completing the voyage rather than during.

The ship was just 64 feet long and 16 feet at its widest point so it was pretty cramped on board especially with all the provisions and extra reeds and wood needed to make emergency repairs stashed on board and this inevitably led to conflicts between the crew which needed to to be sorted out as soon as possible because of the lack of space and the need for everyone to work together as much as they could but largely the crew got on with each other although Nick doesn’t shy away from discussing issues that did arise between them. Having said that the book is largely positive and is a fascinating tale of daring do by a group of men who had little if any seafaring experience just a lot of determination to be the first to sail a primitive boat across the South Pacific in modern times, not so much to prove that it had been done in the distant past leading to the original settlement of Easter Island but to prove that it could be done. Sadly for the non human part of the crew they started off with two pet ducks but one escaped and jumped ship about a thousand miles from the South American coast so only one duck made the complete journey, hence the title of the book.

Phil Buck has since had two more goes at crossing the Pacific in reed boats, in Viracocha II (2003) and Viracocha III (2019) both of which intended to get all the way to Australia from Chile. The second vessel was damaged during launch but still managed to get to Easter Island whilst the third sailed for 86 days before being caught up in a storm and eventually abandoned as no longer seaworthy near Tahiti. Sadly there doesn’t appear to have been any follow up books documenting these voyages, Nick Thorpe wasn’t part of the crew for either trip and neither was anyone else on board up to writing a companion volume. Thor Heyerdahl would not have been impressed, his books led to his worldwide fame and whilst his theories about early migration are, to say the least, not widely accepted the books raised money and his profile to enable funding of further voyages and other projects.

This book was a paperback original published by Little, Brown in 2002.


Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

The third of The Folio Society’s editions of Neil Gaiman’s greatest works, after American Gods and Anansi Boys, is the first one I have purchased as I already have very nice editions of the first two. However I had somehow not actually read Neverwhere, although I was familiar with it having listened to the 2013 radio play version several times. Whilst reading Neil’s ‘Introduction to this text’ I was surprised to discover that it had originally been a BBC TV series back in 1996 which I had completely missed and that Neil wrote the original novel partly so he could save the bits he liked that were either impossible to film within the constraints of the budget or were subsequently being cut from the show. He further expanded the book and removed some of the more obscure London references for a later international version and the version here is what is now known as the ‘Author’s Preferred Text’ where in 2006 he went back to both earlier iterations and merged them, bringing back the bits cut and also writing yet more new text to blend them seamlessly. The cast list for the radio adaptation, which was my first introduction to the book, is frankly amazing as can be seen in the Wikipedia entry for it and it was because of this when it was announced as a title for this years Autumn/Winter collection by The Folio Society I bought it immediately.

Neverwhere is a dark fantasy set in London Above and London Below, Richard Mayhew is an ordinary office worker but one evening on his way to restaurant for a meeting with his fiance and her boss finds an injured girl lying on the pavement. Ignoring his girlfriend’s insistence to just leave her as they are already late for the meal he instead decides to take her back to his home when she refuses medical assistance. Later his fiance calls to break off their engagement but by then Richard’s life has changed completely for the girl is a lady from one of the great houses of London Below and he is now irrevocably caught up in her escape from assassins sent to wipe out her family and her plans to avenge them.

London Below is a hidden place from almost all the inhabitants of London Above, partly on the tube lines, partly in the sewers, partly on the rooftops of London as we know it and partly in huge caverns invisible to those above. Door, for that is the girls name, needs help to escape from the murderous Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar and asks Richard to find the Marquis de Carabas with the assistance of the Rat Speakers. A lot of the character names seem very familiar to anyone who knows London, an aged man living on the rooftops is Old Bailey, Earls Court rides a tube train in a carriage that nobody seems to notice and which resembles a medieval court inside. There is also the scary Night’s Bridge where people disappear into the darkness and the realm of The Black Friars. One touch I particularly liked was The Floating Market, which moves around London Above completely invisible to the people there. Richard first encounters it in Harrod’s then later on it is on HMS Belfast, this is a place for the inhabitants of London Below to gather with a truce between all peoples.

This version of the book also includes the follow up short story ‘How The Marquis Got His Coat Back’, written in 2014, which introduces the very dangerous Shepherds of Shepherds Bush and the Elephant who controls Elephant and Castle. It has also been confirmed by Gaiman that he is writing a sequel novel called ‘The Seven Sisters’ which is paused whilst he is working on TV adaptations.

It’s only four chapters in, and waiting for me to stop showrunning and start writing.

Neil Gaiman’s twitter feed 24th January 2019

The book is, of course, beautiful with seven full page and two double page illustrations along with twenty one chapter headings all produced by Chris Malbon and the chosen font, Mentor with Tommaso as the chapter headings, is extremely clear making the 392 page book a delight to read and I devoured it in just two sittings getting completely immersed in the story. The picture above is of Richard and Door’s first encounter with The Angel Islington. The Folio Society also produced a short video on the release of this book on the 1st September 2022, which can be found here.

I loved the book, and the short story, and can’t work out why it took Folio Society to publish this version before I finally got round to owning a copy and reading it, roll on The Seven Sisters.

Fern Hill – Dylan Thomas

From the Phoenix Poetry 60 paperbacks of 1996 comes this great collection of Dylan Thomas poems featuring most of his most popular works other than ‘Under Milk Wood’ which I have covered in a previous blog back in 2018. There are thirty three poems in the collection including the brilliant ‘Do Not go Gentle into that Good Night’, a refusal to meekly accept death and of course the titular work ‘Fern Hill’ which describes an idyllic childhood, all life is here. What I love about Dylan Thomas is his wonderful sparse descriptive writing epitomised by the first poem in the book ‘Prologue’

This day winding down now
At God speeded summer's end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my seashaken house
On a breakneck of rocks
Tangled with chirrup and fruit,
Froth, flute, fin, and quill
At a wood's dancing hoof,
By scummed, starfish sands
With their fishwife cross
Gulls, pipers, cockles, and snails,
Out there, crow black, men
Tackled with clouds, who kneel
To the sunset nets,
First 14 lines of Prologue by Dylan Thomas

This small book is an excellent introduction to the works of Thomas who despite being Welsh wrote only in English and the cover illustration is a lovely portrait of him by Augustus John which now hangs in the National Museum of Wales. Despite this being just a short collection it took me several days to read as I kept going back over the poems, savouring the words and pausing over particularly beautiful phrases that caught my imagination. The subject matters are often dark, and death is a frequent topic making him a difficult read at times but well worth persevering with. The powerful verse will pull you in even though I sometimes had to read a poem a few times to fully pick up the rhythm and appreciate it fully before I discovered that as part of his broadcasting career with the BBC a lot of his works are available on youtube being read by him such as this example of Fern Hill.

Sadly Thomas died in 1953 just two weeks after his 39th birthday, primarily from pneumonia although his heavy drinking could not have helped, and with his passing the world was deprived of arguably one of its finest poets who had only just finished his famous play for voices ‘Under Milk Wood’. I want to finish with extracts from the poem that first brought me to Dylan Thomas and which shows the raw power of his verse probably more than any other of his works.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

First three and last four lines of Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas

The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s – Rachel Ferguson

With a title like that how could I resist? For those of you unfamiliar with the Woolworth’s name it was a high street range of budget stores in various parts of the world starting in America and later arriving in the UK up until 2008 when the UK side of the business went into administration with over eight hundred shops closing just after Christmas that year. They sold everything from records to sweets, children’s clothing to household goods, toys to books, indeed Woolworth’s was the first big customer for the newly launched Penguin Books back in 1935. It is therefore inconceivable that the Brontë’s would have shopped there even if their timelines had crossed, but Charlotte, the last of the Brontë sisters, died fifty four years before American businessman Frank Woolworth opened his first store in the UK. So what is going on with the title?

OK, time for a confession, I wrote that opening paragraph back on the 24th May intending to read this relatively short book quickly, get this blog written and free up time around my birthday when I was going to meet a very good friend for the weekend whom I hadn’t seen for almost three years due to covid restrictions. As I write this paragraph it is the 25th June, my birthday is long gone, I am still only 84 pages into the full 182 and I hate the awful, shallow, self-centred characters that make up most of the story. The widowed Mrs Carne has brought up three daughters two of which are now adult, Deirdre is a journalist, Katrine starting on a career as an actress and Sheil, the youngest is only eleven. All four of them live fantasy lives still referring to talking dolls from the childhood of Deirdre and Katrine, writing letters from the dolls and sending them to themselves and making up stories about, and correspondence from, people they have met or simply read about as though they know them well. At this point in the book Deirdre has managed to insinuate herself into the home of Sir Herbert and Lady Toddington; a couple that all four of the dreadful Carne’s have obsessed about for three years ever since Mrs Carne did a week of jury service and Sir Herbert Toddington was the judge to the point at which Agatha Martin, Sheil’s governess, is convinced that they do actually know them.

Will I get any further into the book? It’s been haunting me for almost a month now since I put it down mid chapter totally frustrated by the characters and haven’t picked it back up apart from this morning to check the names for this entry.

Right it is now the 13th of July and I have finally completed the chapter where I gave up and the book is at last beginning to make a bit more sense, good job as I am now almost two thirds of the way through. The Brontë’s had even been discussed at the end of that chapter, if only rather disparagingly, with a comment by Sir Herbert that Anne Brontë never wrote anything quotable. So a quick reference to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (I have the 4th edition) to check this out only to find that none of the Brontë’s appear in this rather large volume, which as an English writing family probably makes them unique in that nothing any of them wrote is regarded as quotable. This book is a real struggle and if I wasn’t writing this blog then I would probably have given up long ago but it now feels like a challenge. This is also the first of these blogs to have become a sort of diary entry, I wonder when I will actually finish it?

Well I can now answer the question at the end of the last paragraph with the 2nd September finally seeing the conclusion of the book, and I would never have done it if I hadn’t looked up other reviews and found others with the same problem but saying that it got better. And yes it did with the last sixty pages if not flying by at least manageable in one sitting. The governess, Miss Martin, finally had enough of the family and left during this section and I knew exactly how she felt, but not before meeting the ghosts of Charlotte and Emily Bell, as they introduced themselves although they are clearly two of the Brontë sisters, when they came to visit the Carne’s. This is where the book completely pivots so that the reader isn’t sure what has been going on in the previous 150 pages as it is explained that whilst in Yorkshire the Carne’s had been holding seances and had contacted the entire Brontë family before rapidly leaving to come back south and this was them returning the visit. Are the fantasies of the family more than that? I don’t know and frankly don’t care enough to try to work it out especially when the Toddington’s start to completely step into the fantasy lives created for them by the Carne’s and all pretence of reasonableness from them also slips away. When Lady Toddington says, at the end of the Christmas party which is where the book also finishes, that she saw the Brontë’s in Woolworth’s the other day buying notepads I was half relieved that I could finally answer the question posed at the beginning of this review and half just pleased that I was at the end of page 179 of 182 so the end was near.

Rachel Ferguson wrote at least eight other books, according to the back flap of the dust wrapper, but Penguin only ever published this one. As you can probably gather I don’t recommend reading this book and her entire oeuvre is probably worth avoiding.