PD Smith

Owl Sense

18 February 2018 | Guardian, research | Post a comment

I've been reviewing Owl Sense, by Miriam Darlington. It's a wonderful account of the author's fascination with owls and an attempt to re-wild our imaginations with some primal owlishness. This bird has featured in our myths and religions from the beginning: the Chauvet cave paintings dating back to 36,000 BC, include the oldest depiction of an owl, an almost life-size version of a Long-eared Owl, whose penetrating gaze meets those entering the cave: “the artists understood something of the Janus nature of the owl, its troubling liminal status on the boundaries of light and dark”.

 

The Pixels of Paul Cézanne

04 February 2018 | film, Guardian, photography, Reviewing | Post a comment

I loved Wim Wenders' exhibition of polaroids, Instant Stories, which I saw recently at the Photographers' Gallery. There was a beautiful line in the exhibition by Wenders about polaroids:

"You couldn't help feeling
that you had stolen this image-object from the world.
You had transferred a piece of the past into the present."

Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire - the German title is so much better) has always been one of my favourite films ever since I saw it at university as a student of German.

So for all sorts of reasons I was delighted to be able to review his collection of essays, The Pixels of Paul Cézanne.

It didn't disappoint! Here's the first paragraph of the review:

Just like the camera in Wim Wenders’ films, his writing demands the “freedom to move”: “I need to be able to ‘circle’ an idea”. For this reason he chooses to write in free verse – or what he modestly refers to as “my odd verse” – for many of the essays in this illuminating collection. In his hands it becomes a playful and wonderfully malleable literary form that allows him to create a flow of images and ideas, a kind of rhythmic thinking: “visible blocks of thought”. Each line becomes a separate tracking shot as the writer-director moves restlessly around his subject, words crystallising into ideas in the same way as a narrative emerges during the editing of a film.

Read the full review at the Guardian.

Being Ecological

20 January 2018 | Eco, Guardian, Reviewing, Science | Post a comment

I've just reviewed Timothy Morton's Being Ecological for the Guardian. It's the first of a regular series of non-fiction reviews I'll be doing for the new-look Review section. I'll also be reviewing paperbacks as usual, so there will be plenty of fascinating non-fiction titles to choose from in 2018. Happy reading!

Morton's book is full of remarkable insights and ideas - it's a brilliant and only occasionally Delphic display of intellectual pyrotechnics. He doesn’t offer a plan to make society more environmentally friendly: “the idea of sustainability implies that the system we now have is worth sustaining”.

Instead, in what is an inspiringly idealistic book, he wants a paradigm shift in our relationship to the world and for us all to live the idea that we are “a symbiotic being entangled with other symbiotic beings”.

Read the full review here.

A literary city

18 July 2017 | cities, Detectives, Winchester | Post a comment

I've written a piece for the Guardian about Winchester to mark the anniversary of Jane Austen's death in the city two hundred years ago today. As well as being a very historic city, it has links to many other authors, including John Keats and Thomas Hardy. Even the great detective Sherlock Holmes travelled down by train from the Big Smoke to solve a mystery...

You can read my piece here.

Outskirts

15 June 2017 | cities, Guardian, London, Reviewing, Writing & Poetry | Post a comment

I've reviewed a wonderful book on the green belt for the Guardian. Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt is by John Grindrod, author of Concretopia, a celebration of postwar British architecture (“I do love a bit of concrete”).

Part history and part memoir, Grindrod’s evocative and intelligent book explores the green belt and its place in our national consciousness. As well as explaining the history of the green belt, one of the great strengths of the book is that Grindrod tells his own story of growing up on a council estate in New Addington, developed during the 1930s on an exposed Surrey hilltop. Grindrod’s family moved from a flat in Battersea to New Addington in 1969: “a modern phenomenon: the once urban poor transplanted back to the edge of the city, to the country”. Their home was on “the outskirts of the outskirts” and opposite the green belt. His brother said it was “like everything a child could want! There were trees, fields of wheat … It just blew me away.”

Grindrod's wonderful book struck a chord with me. I also grew up on the fringes of London in the 1970s, near the green belt. My parents lived in a rather unlovely 1930s semi on the outskirts of Romford, not far from the rather more desirable garden suburb of Gidea Park, which was inspired by Ebenezer Howard's idealistic vision of a decentralised urban future. "Town and country must be married," Howard had gushed, "and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation."

As Grindrod shows, it was largely Howard's vision of garden cities that inspired the green belt, an urban planning compromise designed to limit the growth of big cities such as London, a barrier to save the countryside from an all-consuming tide of subtopia. I was never particularly keen on Romford (although its raucous, colourful market was memorable) but I loved the sense that green spaces were never too far away.

Today 13% of England is designated as green belt – a striking figure when you consider that only slightly more than 2% of land is actually built on. But Grindrod shows that we need a new approach to the green belt to deal with the current housing crisis: “To city dwellers, the green belt is tightening around our throats. To country folk we are ignorant barbarians, intent on its destruction.”

Read my review here and do buy Grindrod's book. You won't be disappointed...