REVIEWS: Books – Non Fiction


STRAWBERRY LINE TIMES Book Review: From mountainous Minehead to rain soaked Land’s End, via sheep shearing work and sleeping on cliffs – Raynor Winn’s redemptive and page turning memoir of homelessness in The Salt Path

Travel memoir REVIEW: The Salt Path. By Raynor Winn

They walked around the South West Coastal path and to my annoyance dismissed my home town of Seaton as ‘a flash of 1950s time warp.’ Still I suppose by then they just wanted to get on with their 630 mile hike in their final push to the finish in Cornwall. The path runs from Minehead to Poole so you can gather from that Raynor and her husband Moth did the walk in bits. Well two major bits missing out at least three chunks for understandable reasons. Barnstable and Bideford, Torbay and Teignmouth as well as Portland Bill – which they said they’d return to one day. Even so it’s a pretty impressive journey camping out on cliff tops and in the odd field in all weathers. It’s proof you don’t need to travel around the world in search of the great outdoors and of adventure.

The Salt Path has sold over a 100,000 copies, featured on the Sunday Times best seller list for weeks and continues to sell for a simple reason: it’s a page turner. Each bay, each cove, each new unexpected event is revealed with a mixture of quirky ironic humour, seriousness and classic travelogue description. And with honesty. There’s no sugary twaddle. It’s raw and candid in all its frankness. Such as their desperate moments of shoplifting, of scrounging from strangers and friends – and of Raynor Winn’s descriptions of their ups and downs. And the downs are always going to grip the most. Moth’s struggles with his creeping corticobasal degeneration condition and Raynor’s existential crisis having become homeless and lost all her possessions in a court case.

There are a couple grouches. I’d have liked a little more about the court case as it seemed something of a ‘shit or bust’ confrontation over money. How did that happen? And I could have done with less self-pity and a bit more about the towns, bays and landscape’s backgrounds. So much of interest that was just trudged past. Having said that, to manage to scoop up so much in economical prose in less than 300 pages is a literary achievement. Raynor, thankfully doesn’t overwrite. She’s to the point and tells a good story with surprises around each headland including their decision to winter back on a farm before returning to the walk the following summer. Uplifting, enjoyable and with a redemptive flourish to end on. Just a pity she didn’t wax lyrical about my boyhood town of Seaton which is generally regarded as a dump my most but heaven to me. Perhaps I should do the walk.

Harry Mottram

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Rapscallion Magazine BOOK REVIEW: despite the decades Peter Brook’s The Empty Space contains many thought provoking ideas – although much of the text seems lost in the distant haze of the 1960s

The Empty Space by Peter Brook

In 150 odd pages Peter Brook spells out his thoughts on four types of theatre: the deadly, the holy, the rough and the immediate. He could easily have done it in 50 pages such is the density of his thought process. His essential theme is that theatre should be thought provoking, challenging and creative. A play is a play Brook concludes and more importantly explains that theatre is in the present, in the now. Cinema is experiencing something filmed and acted often years ago. Art works and installations have been created in the past while TV drama nowadays is almost always recorded. On the stage each performance is live and if you watch the same play twice you’ll notice changes of pace and tone.

For years The Empty Space has been required reading for every student of theatre and those with an interest in drama. Brook’s thoughts and views come thick and fast providing considerable material for discussion and yet at times he appears to labour a point and cloud his ideas with too much philosophy. “As you read this book it is already moving out of date,” he writes. The hippy ‘happenings’ of the 1960s no longer take place and a single theatre critic can no longer kill a play dead with a killer review thanks to the internet and its plethora of views on any given subject.

There’s a section close to my heart on the deadly critic who fails to understand the process of drama and has no vision of what theatre should be. Brooks suggests that critics need to embrace the theatrical process to get a better understanding rather than standing at the side lines and firing off volleys of barbs. In the deadly theatre creativity has given way to convention where entertainment triumphs over innovation. The holy theatre is that of reverence to the cannon and tradition while the rough theatre – that of Brecht for instance – brings a fresh and strikingly new force to the art form. And in many ways Brook’s division of theatre into the four sectors can be applied to many art forms. In his concluding chapter on the immediate theatre it is the role of the audience and how an actor reacts to the immediacy of a performance that he discusses. Clocks never go back he writes, and with plays you wipe the slate clean for each performance.

Harry Mottram

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Peter Brooks is best known by many in the theatre for his production of A Mid Summer Night’s Dream in 1970. There’s a short documentary about it at although the recording quality is a bit poor.


How it all went wrong for the Labour Party in John O’Farrell’s reflections of the last 20 years of British politics (with wit wisdom and a few political blind spots)

Things Can Only Get Worse?, by John O’Farrell

No wonder John O’Farrell found it so hard to like Jeremy Corbyn in his book Things Can Only Get Worse?, because unlike his chums Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Corbyn is a real socialist.

O’Farrell’s light weight left wing credentials are exposed by the way he so easily accepted the offer to become the Labour party candidate in the Eastleigh by election. He’s offered the job from Labour head office on the phone, asks his wife Jackie who is ambitious for him to be an MP and he accepts. His description of the actual selection process fails to recognize the obvious way the party rubber stamped his application when there were local Labour candidates who would have done a better job.

He’s out of touch with the voters believing Iraq should be the main issue when they are interested in jobs and the influx of immigrants who are effecting employment for locals. UKIP scoop up their votes leaving Labour far behind. How could he be so blind? Easy. He was in hock with the Blair and Brown Governments for years and came to see the world through their eyes. He wrote their jokes, had dinner with them and accepted that they were the authentic voice of Labour voters. Then came the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. The following year of 2004 saw workers of EU member states of Eastern Europe given the right the work in the UK causing major concerns about immigration among many ordinary workers and the effects on employment and finally the credit crunch in 2008.

O’Farrell and the Labour Party as a whole failed to see how this would affect their election prospects as voters looked for answers to unemployment, low wages and a decline in living standards. His blindness to these themes he unwittingly exposes in his the chapter The Sickest Man in Britain. He makes light of it all and appears to blame it all on the people of Eastleigh for not being very enlightened.

No wonder Jeremy Corbyn became leader after the years of New Labour. He may not be the most media savvy leader of the party but he is a genuine conviction politician who takes social issues seriously. It was only when he proved a hit against all the odds in the 2017 General Election that O’Farrell finally signs up to the idea that Corbyn is OK.

That said, this is a highly readable and funny book, with lots of commons sense, some excellent jokes and many insights into O’Farrell’s mindset. Even if you are a true blue Tory O’Farrell’s prose and anecdotes keep the pages turning and the chuckles and glimpse into how those at the top of the Labour party live and how someone at the top of a media career lives.

O’Farrell is very hard on the LibDems as you might expect but compounds his prejudice by effectively saying nobody should vote anything else but Labour or Conservative. His London bubble of thinking forgets there’s a whole world of opinion outside of the M25. There’s Northern Ireland with its own unique political divisions, the Green Party, UKIP and Scotland, plus Wales and pockets of England where low wages and economic neglect explain the vote in favour of Brexit.

The chapters on his campaign to create a new secondary school in his area are some of the most interesting as he battles to get the backing and funds of the enterprise. His conclusion is that compromise is key in getting things done as the school is not quite the one he envisaged but is eventually built and he becomes chair of the governors. But it his honesty in not knowing what to do after a row with the head teacher and with the school is in crisis that are some of the strongest sections. And then there are the jokes. Like the day in 1997 when William Hague became the leader of the conservative Party – he notes that nobody cared as it was like Neighbours – the Tories were still going but all the big stars had left and nobody watched it anymore.

As a sequel to Things Can Only Get Better, it has a huge amount of wit and wisdom repeatable anecdotes – along with a few political blind spots.

Harry Mottram

Things Can Only Get Worse?, by John O’Farrell, was first published in 2017 by Doubleday and is also available in paperback by Black Swan.

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