Sunrise

One of the best things about winter is that the sun comes up sufficiently late for us to catch the sunrise. Molly and I were taking our early morning walk the other day and the sun was just coming up over the hills. The colours were stunning. It was like normal life, but with the colour saturation cranked up to the max.*

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* Please excuse the large volume of photos on my blog that are of this part of Somerset and taken with my cameraphone. But I walk along here several times a day and there’s always something new to see. I really do live in a particularly fantastic part of the world. And no, I don’t work for the tourist board. Though perhaps I should.

Getting back to nature… in a cemetery

I spend Saturday volunteering at the Bristol BioBlitz, an annual event that gets everyone involved to identify as many species as possible on a given site over the course of two days. This year’s venue was the historic Arnos Vale cemetery, a fascinating place that I have been meaning to visit for some time. While I was mainly there to take photos of the flora and fauna, I couldn’t help but try to capture the scale and gravity of the cemetery itself, too.

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Why I’ll probably never live in a little country cottage

I used to dream about living in a little cottage in the country, miles from the nearest neighbour, with a dog resting on the front wall and chickens scratching around in the back yard. Or perhaps an old coastguard cottage on a cliff top somewhere, nothing in sight but the sea and the sky. But the older I get, the more I realise that this isn’t going to happen.

For one thing, I’m no longer sure that I want to live in the middle of nowhere. Having lived for the last four years on the edge of a small market town in Somerset, I’ve kind of gotten used to having neighbours and to being able to walk to the shops. And while it’s not exactly what you’d call a particularly urban area (there are open fields just a five minute walk away), it’s nice to have things like the farmers market, doctor’s surgery and vet within easy reach.

For another thing, I need to earn money and I’m not sure how I’d go about that if I lived cut off from the rest of civilisation. Even though I can do much of my writing and research at the kitchen table (as long as I have a phone and internet access), I do need to get out occasionally. And for my consultancy work, I really need to be near to my clients. If I were to live somewhere in the wilds, I’d definitely need to (a) write a lot more and a lot more quickly or (b) come up with a very different approach to paying the mortgage.

I also like having access to the things that you can only really get in a large town or city. We’re just a twenty minute drive or a short bus ride away from the city of Bristol, with its university, bookshops, clothes stores, coffee shops, theatres, evening lectures and other cultural events. And I’m not sure that I’m ready to give up on them quite yet. Having a mainline railway station, two motorways and an airport all within about fifteen minutes is also a definite plus, and not something that many country villages can boast.

I’ve always loved the countryside and the coast and they have a very strong influence on my life. And I’m really not much of a city dweller. But we’re fairly sociable creatures and living on the edge of our little town seems to suit us quite well. In fact, it strikes me that a city ‘hub’ surrounded by a series small towns could be a fairly sustainable way of living for most people. So while an isolated cottage in a picturesque valley or on some rugged coastline somewhere may have its appeal, it’s perhaps not for me. Or, at least, not yet.

A morning walk

My dog and I have just got back from our morning walk through the fields on the edge of the small town where we live. We have a very pleasant morning walk, in which we meander along the side of a long valley, which leads from Bristol right down to the sea. And when it is sunny like today, our walk is a particular pleasure.

The valley near our house

Valley of the hounds

As we reached the mid-point of our wander, we passed two small terriers playing on the edge of a field. Molly greeted them in her usual enthusiastic manner and, after a brief interlude in which the three dogs took turns to chase each other in a sweeping circle through the freshly-cut grass, we continued on our way.

About five minutes later, we heard one of the terriers let out a colossal woof. Not a ‘look what I’ve found’ woof or a ‘help, a tiger’s got me’ woof, but one that says simply ‘hello world, I’m here’. In the dewy morning air, the woof echoed slowly down the valley, as if all the world’s terriers were joining in. Our new friend was evidently surprised by this response, as he woofed again. And again.

One by one, other dogs in the fields and hamlets down the valley joined in, until the place was alive with a riotous symphony of canine communication, multiplied a hundred-fold by the steep hills on either side. My own dog, needless to say, sat silently, taking this all in with her usual quizzical expression. And then, suddenly, and with the sad inevitably of all things ephemeral, the moment was over and the dogs fell silent. Molly and I looked at each other and continued on our way.

My literary dilemma

Ever since I learned to read as a child, I’ve been a great fan of the written word. I grew up with Swallows and Amazons, the Hardy boys and the Famous Five. I had hundreds of books and borrowed even more from the local library. Even now as an adult, I usually have at least two or three on the go. And my house is, basically, a big bookshelf with a door and a roof.

When it comes to reading, I’ll admit readily to being a bit of a traditionalist. I love the feel of a book in my hands and like being able to lug one or two around in my briefcase or in my bag when I go on holiday. I sometimes buy books in the bookshops in town, but generally hear about something interesting from friends, in the paper or online and end up buying it online.

Recently, though, I’ve bought myself an Amazon Kindle (well, I bought it as a birthday present for my wife, but I’m not sure she’s actually got her mitts on it yet) and have downloaded a few books that I hadn’t quite got around to reading. I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete Kindle convert, but it is a handy way of keeping a few books at my fingertips and I can see myself using it more and more.

Then I read Tim Waterstone’s article in the Guardian explaining how, in his view, Amazon is destroying the UK book industry and annihilating local and independent bookshops across the country. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Can I be a fan of books and continue to buy them online?

The conundrum is this. I love small, independent bookshops with well curated stock and knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff. And I would like dearly to be able to spend a lazy hour or two on a Sunday afternoon browsing a few titles and checking out the latest from my favourite authors while savouring a freshly brewed coffee and stroking the owner’s cat. But unfortunately, I don’t live in a Lucy Dillon novel and I don’t happen to have a branch of Daunt Books just around the corner.

We do have a small, independent bookshop in our town, but it’s cramped, dreary and only stocks local footpath maps and things about the second world war. And every time I go in to give it another try, the lady who runs it either ignores me or stares at me like I’m about to steal the carpets and curtains. I would love to do my bit to keep it in business, but to be honest it isn’t worth it. Some places just have to die, and my local bookshop is one of them.

If bookshops are going to compete with the likes of Amazon, then they need to do what Amazon cannot. They need to be friendly places that bring people and books together. They need to really know and understand their customers in a way that an algorithm is unable to achieve. They need to generate a warmth and passion that you can’t get from a website or an app.

I take great pleasure from reading and I’m happy to pay for the books that I buy. And if I know that the books have been chosen, ordered and presented with enthusiasm and care, then I’m happy to forego the discounts that Amazon can offer me or the convenience that I can get from my Kindle. But I need to know that the person selling them to me cares as much about the books – and my enjoyment of them – as I do.