Well April was at least a little better than March for reading but not much. I did read and finish John Bercow’s memoir Unspeakable, which I quite enjoyed, although the details of UK political life won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. During the on going Brexit debacle I became intrigued by the UK parliaments controversial speaker, John Bercow. His impartiality and determined defense of democracy were fascinating and admirable in that partisan and tribal political environment. What was even more intriguing was that Bercow began his political journey as a fairly extreme right wing conservative only to progress to a centrist, even left leaning position and as speaker he advocated to give greater voice to back benchers and the opposition, earning him the ire of his own party.
In this age of partisanship and tribal politics it is fascinating to watch a politician who tries to transcend that divisive culture. Such behaviour displays true leadership, although many on the right would see Bercow as a traitor to his own conservative party. Bercow is a fascinating figure whose origins do not conform to the conservative party stereotype. Essentially a self made man, the grandson of Jewish migrants he became involved in conservative politics from an early age. From working class origins he excelled at university but earned a reputation as an extreme conservative with involvement in such groups as the Monday club, a rather extreme right wing group with policies that bordered on racist, surprising considering his family origins. In Unspeakable he reflects critically on his own early beliefs and displays admirable self knowledge and ability to grow politically and ideologically. He has never been a conformist, always something of an outsider, and certainly opinionated, but with that he is capable of intelligent examination of his own and others positions, making this an interesting memoir of the Brexit years and early 21st century UK politics.
As a controversial figure in British politics Bercow does not shy away from the criticism levelled at him but attempts to honestly address it, including the allegations of bullying made against him. He oversaw significant cultural change in the British parliament and that combined with his insight into the history and significant political figures of the time makes this an interesting read. It is very much a book for those with some knowledge and interest in UK politics of the 21st century. I enjoyed the insight it offered and came away with my admiration for the man undaunted, I wish the political landscape had more players of the caliber of John Bercow, intelligent, open minded and devoted to empowering democracy not self interest.
In April I also read Qing Li’s introduction to the science and practice of Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing in Into the forest. Qing Li has been one of the leading researchers on the benefits of this kind of nature therapy, his own research has focused on immune function and how forest bathing and exposure to phytoncides (fragrant plant compounds released from trees), can boost the bodies production of so called natural killer cells that target viruses and abnormal cells like tumour cells. Combined with decreased production of stress hormones, another established effect of forest bathing, it was concluded that forest bathing could have a preventative effect on cancer generation and development. In Into the Forest Li also discusses some of the other research that found positive cardiovascular outcomes and improvements in mental health.
The book is simple, accessible and meant to inspire us to increase our engagement with the natural world for the benefit of our own and society’s health. It is not intended as an academic evaluation and critique of the research, but Li does make an effort to back up his claims with quality research. This is a populist book designed to educate and inspire the general reader but to be honest unless you are a health specialist of some sort that is all you really need. The book contains simple instructions on how to get the best out of your own trips to the forest and ways to incorporate the benefits of nature into our urban lives. Li is a passionate advocate for the restorative power of nature.
In April I also found myself dipping back into the classic Dickens novel Bleak House. I think this was just a bit of a comfort read when I was struggling to find the motivation to read, sometimes it is easiest to just pick up an old favourite than struggle on with apathy and an inability to get into a book.
The book that really broke me out of that reading block was the last book I read in the month, Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark. A memoir, a collection of essays, this was a wonderful read, perspective inducing and inspiring. Filled with intelligent observations and inspiring ideas. Baird discusses a variety of topics under the the banner of of awe, wonder and things that sustain you, including forest bathing with reference to Qing Li’s work but she also writes eloquently on other forms of nature therapy. She is a keen ocean swimmer and she writes lovingly of the comfort that gives her.
The importance of friendships also feature heavily in her writing. I was unaware that she had suffered from such a daunting personal battle with cancer and she writes about the things that gave her support and comfort during that time. Families and parenting also feature in her essays. Baird also writes eloquently of spirituality, her own personal belief system and the complexities of faith for a liberated woman of the 21st century. This is a wonderful, intelligent, warm, inspiring collection of essays and memoir and a fantastic read:
‘How do we continue to glow when the lights turn out? All we can really do is keep placing one foot on the earth, then the other, to seek out ancient paths and forests, certain in the knowledge that others have endured before us. We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, everyday, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within – our own phosphorescence’.
Not surprisingly two of my reads for the month of April fit nicely into the Gaia/nature reading challenge: Into the forest and Phosphorescence.