Book review: ‘The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future’ by Fiona Reynolds

An enlightening journey through history’s many attempts to secure and protect what is beautiful in the world.

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Beauty is a complicated subject. We all know what it is, but as time goes by we become less comfortable with speaking about it, or so says author Fiona Reynolds in this stunning new publication from Oneworld.

Describing beauty of the natural world has become something sacred and very personal, where once it ran free within government documentation and legal literature, it is now replaced by more clinical attempts of ‘protecting biodiversity’ and ‘conserving habitats’. So much is the case that today, even while striving to protect natural beauty with climate change legislation and environmental protection orders, we do more than ever to ignore it.

Heeding the words of John Ruskin in the 19th century, Reynolds highlights the ever increasing drive for economic growth and desire for material possession in modern times. “Wherever I look of travel in England or abroad,” wrote Ruskin. “I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty. They seem to have no other desire or hope but to have large house and to be able to move fast.” How much has changed since this time?

It reminds me of a recent news story about a real estate tycoon in the US who built the most expensive house to ever go on the market. The house is available for $250 million and comes complete with its own private cinema, massage parlour and luxury cars. What was the aim of this dwelling? To tap into the niche, super wealthy market of people willing to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a yacht, but who barely surpass $10 million when it comes to housing. A fantastic business venture if ever there was one – build a man a dream house and his friends will surely want one too – but it doesn’t do much to inspire hope in a future where consumerism isn’t everything.

Reynolds believes this state of economic affairs – where people strive for bigger and better possessions, and only things of monetary value have any real worth – makes it more difficult than ever to protect what matters, including the environment and our future.

In The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future Reynolds collects words and aspirations of figures past and present who all endeavoured to achieve one thing: protection of the Earth and conservation of its natural beauty. The book examines ideas about nature, farming and urbanisation, explores mountain sides, secluded woodlands and protected heather-rich moorland, and delves into romantic thoughts and war poetry. Beginning with the impassioned minds of friends behind the Kyrle Society of the 19th century, whose calls for environmental protection gave way to the modern National Trust, Reynolds shows how definitions of beauty have been rearranged and reconsidered throughout history, before becoming somewhat lost within the fast-paced consumerist lifestyles of modern day.

The Fight for Beauty is at once intriguing, fascinating and incredibly moving. What could serve as an interesting account of the importance of the countryside throughout history is, on a much deeper level, a fervent call-to-arms to protect what, once gone, is gone forever. For Reynolds at least, inspiration from the past and from nature itself could provide an alternative path forward from human development, one where beauty is not forgotten.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

Spring has sprung – Byron’s pool

The last week or so has felt like a new beginning after a very long and dreary winter. The other morning I was overjoyed to wake up with the sun on my face and more or less leapt out of bed. A sunny day off is not to be wasted. So my beloved and I headed down to one of my favourite local walking spots – Byron’s pool.

Byron’s Pool is a small nature reserve on the outskirts of Cambridge in the village of Grantchester, named after the poet Lord Byron, who it is said, would swim at the weir pool on warm summer’s days. It’s a picturesque location, and perfect for a leisurely walk along the River Cam.

If you have never been to Grantchester you could do worse than to plan a day trip, the village is a truly beautiful location.

Banks_of_the_Cam_at_Grantchester If you need more convincing, this should do the trick:

…………………. would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! –
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, Or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low:…
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day-long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester ….

Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, 1912

Byron’s pool itself is just outside of Grantchester. A public footpath through the reserve takes you in a loop alongside the River Cam, and around a small patch of quiet woodland. The river is calm and quiet, brimming with water lilies, with small shallow streams of crystal clear water and darting sticklebacks running through the woodland. The woods, though just beginning to bud in the early spring, comes to life in the summer with hundreds of sweet smelling wildflowers, daisies, willowherb, hogweed, ragwort, dovesfoot, meadowsweet, elder, ivy and cows parsley to name but a few.

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I think the main thing which draws me towards Byron’s Pool is the knowledge that Byron spent time there, and, if you listen to Brookes, perhaps still does:

Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.

I like to think that the playful spirit of Byron still roams the area.


George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)Fun Byron fact – Lord Byron was a great lover of animals, and while he was a student at Trinity College installed a tame bear in his quarters. He was compelled to do so after becoming upset that the university forbade the keeping of dogs – they neglected to mention that bears were also forbidden. The college authorities had no had no legal basis to complain, although it is said that they tried to tell him that domesticated animals were not allowed, to which he replied: ‘I assure you that the bear is wild.’


I love the idea of wandering around with the spirits of poets past, and always feel compelled to slip beneath the water as to become even closer to the celestial body of Byron – Alas!IMG_0039

As always I had to settle for a quiet walk, pausing every now and then to try and capture the scene through the lens of my camera.

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Walking with the boy on this warm spring day we spoke casually about the location and came upon a bit of difference of opinion. Sebastian thinks the location is ruined by its close proximity to the M11, and while I will concede that this doesn’t add to the experience it does not ruin it for me. I would be lying if I said I can’t hear the road, it is there, in the background, but the sounds of the river, the birds, and the breeze through the trees disguise this for me. Focus on the road and you will hear it, lose yourself in the location and it can pass you by.

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“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” ― Groucho Marx

A child’s innocent review

My Family and Other Animals ― Gerald Durrel

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My Family and Other Animals is the childhood autobiography of the renowned naturalist Gerald Durrell, and takes place over a few short years that the Durrell family spent together on the Greek Island of Corfu. It is perhaps the best known of Durrell’s Corfu trilogy, the others of which are ‘Birds, Beasts and Relatives’, and ‘The Garden of the Gods’. I have yet to read the other two, but they are currently working their way to the top of my ever increasing ‘to read’ pile.

The Durrell family made the choice to migrate to Corfu in an attempt to escape the dreary English weather. Early on in the book you are made aware that the family is somewhat unconventional as moving abroad seems to be a very snap decision. While of course this could just be the situation viewed through the eyes of a child, I have heard it said that the book paints a fairly accurate picture of the family. In fact it was described by Gerald Durrell’s elder brother Lawrence as “a very wicked, very funny, and I’m afraid rather truthful book”.

Through My Family and Other Animals Durrell traces the amusing happenings of the family in their new lives, and goes to great length to describe and account for all the creatures that he comes into contact with throughout his adventures. In fact, Durrell originally planned for the book to be purely a journal of all the animals he discovered, but in the process of constructing the journal he managed to wonderfully meld his own adventures with that of his family. The result is a really charming child’s snapshot of a period of Gerald Durrell’s life which to all extents sounds absolutely blissful and idyllic.

When writing about her married life to Durrell in her autobiography ‘Beasts in My Bed’, Jacquie Durrell remarked that she had never known Durrell to work with the vivacity he had while writing My Family and Other Animals, commenting that “it seemed to pour out of him”. I find this interesting, as many writers consider writing to be a laborious task. I remember with such clarity a lecture on essay writing during my first week at university. One of our new lecturers told us quite matter-of-factly ‘Writing hurts, and it will always hurt, when you sit down it will be painful’; words that have forever stuck with me. As much as I love writing, I do often find it painful in a way, albeit a positive way. There is no doubt that Durrell was immensely passionate about the animals he wrote about and this seems almost to have flowed directly out of him, through the pages of the book, and into the minds of the reader. I suppose you have to, like Durrell, write about something you love ardently for it to come this naturally.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Durrell’s time in Corfu, while it is not an action packed adventure novel there is so much to appeal to the reader. The eccentricities of the Durrell family seem to make each character instantly likeable. To live on a whim, as the Durrell’s do, must be ever so exciting. Imagine at the age of ten having a mother that would let you keep as a pet any creature you brought home be it a snake, a toad, an owl, anything. Everything that occurs in the Durrell’s lives in steeped in unconventionality, absurdity and hilarity. From the offset Larry has only to suggest going to Greece, and although Mother attempts to resist at first, it is done. Once in Greece Larry makes the bizarre suggestion that they move to a bigger villa, because their current one is too small to accommodate the guests he has invited to stay, and again Mother attempts to stand her ground, but part two of the novel begins with the line ‘The new villa was enormous’. Indeed the uniqueness of the family does not go unnoticed, their parties are always lively to say the least, and on the journey back to England, with “the finches [singing] in their cages, the Magenpies [chucking] and [hammering] with their beaks, and Alecko [giving] mournful [yarps] at intervals. [While] the dogs lay snoring” the family are described by passport control as “One travelling Circus and Staff”.

The entire book is told from the point of view of Durrell’s childhood self, Gerry, the inquisitive ecologist. Gerry’s love of animals of all sorts comes out in all aspects of his writing, the most obvious of course being the title ‘My Family and Other Animals’. He has countless encounters with strange beasts, many of which would make the average person squirm in discomfort, but fill Gerry with an unquenchable curiosity. In fact some of the most animated conversations, and interactions that Gerry recollects are those between himself and his best friend Roger the family dog. He speaks of, and to his pets [and there are many of them] as if they are people. I would even say that in some ways Gerry appears as if he is a sort of animal himself, distanced and at odds with the rest of the family, he is often referred to as: ‘THAT BOY!’

Throughout the novel Gerry is subjected to an education of sorts and often finds himself with the most peculiar tutors. He seems to bond the most with, and indeed goes into the most detail describing, his final tutor Kralefsky who quite coincidentally has a house full of exotic birds. Not surprisingly nature plays a large role in Gerry’s methods of learning and remembering those dull things which children were often forced to memorise. Hannibal and his elephants were memorable because Hannibal gave his elephants hot water bottles, equally he is most interested not in Columbus discovering America, but it the fact that Columbus’ first words upon reaching the shores of America were ‘A Jaguar’. There is the distinct impression that much of the time Gerry spent with his tutors was time better spent elsewhere, as he ultimately learns the most from his unlikely friendship with Theodore, a scientist, and nature lover just like Gerry. Days spent with Theodore are the days Gerry looks forward to the most, and when he commits the majority of his education to memory, asking questions, learning and discovering:

”What, I wondered, did things sound like to a trapdoor spider? I could imagine a snail would trail over the door with a sound like a sticking plaster being torn off. A centipede would sound like a troop of cavalry. A fly would patter in shorts bursts, followed by a pause when it washed its hands – a dull rasping sound like a knife-grinder at work. The larger beetles, I decided, would sound like steam rollers, while the smaller ones, the ladybirds and others, would probably purr over the moss like clockwork motorcars.”

One of my favourite things about My Family and Other Animals, and I am sure this is a recurring theme throughout Durrell’s work, is the lengthy descriptions of the most stunning scenery, amongst events, people, animals, although it is the scenery in particular that I enjoy. The book is full of examples of this, but one of my favourite instances and the one which really stood out to me first and foremost was the description near the beginning of the book, of the family having breakfast outside of their new villa:

“We ate breakfast out in the garden, under the small tangerine trees. The sky was fresh and shining, not yet the fierce blue of noon, but a clear milky opal. The flowers were half-asleep, roses dew crumpled, marigolds still tightly shut.”

Through a description like this you can almost smell the dampness of the flower buds, and feel the slight chill of dawn, the soft blanket of night being pulled back to reveal the splendours of the day ahead.

Durrell pays just as much attention to detail in the description of just about everything in the book. Accounts of different characters are described down to the smallest details; the invaluable Spiro is “a short, barrel-bodied individual, with ham-like hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jauntily-tilted peaked cap”. Everything is described so that it feels it will leap out of the page, like the crowd of Corfiots waiting in the church to kiss the feet of Saint Spiridion “This dark multi-coloured wedge of humanity moved slowly towards the dark door of the church, and we were swept along with it, wedged like pebbles in a larva-flow.”

One aspect of this particular edition of my family and other animals that I very much liked was the inclusion of an afterword by Peter J S Olney. This gave the reader a little information on what happened to the family in the years after the book was set. I thought this a very nice addition, as with works based on true events I often find myself wondering what happened afterwards, knowing of course that the lives of these characters carried on beyond the pages of the book. It was through this afterword that I discovered that the events described in the book, are sometimes, not exactly true. For example, Gerry’s brother Larry actually spent the whole of the time the book is set, living in another part of Corfu, with his wife Nancy. I have also heard it quoted that the reason the family left the Greece, was not, as Gerry claimed, so that he could get an education, but in fact due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Indeed the dates do match up. These inaccuracies, if you can call them that add to the innocence of the book. The idea of the whole family, living together, embarking on one huge, somewhat eccentric adventure, is far nicer than thinking of them having been separated by something as grown up as marriage. Also, while being forced to leave the home of your dreams to pursue an education is hardly a pleasant thought for a child, it is much sweeter than the bitter harsh reality of the Second World War.