Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book review: Claxton by Mark Cocker

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet

Mark Cocker
Jonathan Cape | 2014
238 pp. | 14.5 x 22 cm
Hardback | £14.99 / $ 35.00 | ISBN: 9780224099653

I was kindly sent a copy of the forthcoming Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, after reviewing the author's magnum opus, Birds and People.

This collection consists of 140 short pieces that were originally published in the Guardian and other newspapers. Written over a period of 12 years, they are presented in calendar order here, each chapter corresponding to a month – ideal for dipping into over the course of a year. Many of the entries have been expanded to include text which went beyond the original constraints of a newspaper column.

The germ for each note is typically a chance encounter with some natural phenomenon – a bird, an otter, a fruiting tree – which the writer uses to examine the responses deep within himself, to record details apparent only to those who have immersed themselves in the outdoors. Mark Cocker's keen perception of nature, his power of reflection and his gift for putting our common experiences into words make him one of our most accomplished nature writers. This format probably suits his approach more than any other. Each essay is just long enough to allow him to paint the picture. Each observation is a finely-crafted work of art.

It is no coincidence that the author quotes at the start of the book from the greatest of all nature diaries: Thoreau's Journal. Coincidentally, I happen to have spent the past few months slowly savouring Damion Searls' new one-volume selection from the Journal. Thoreau's entries are longer and more demanding, often needing to be re-read and mulled in order to extract their full meaning; Cocker's pieces are concise, highly-distilled reflections which speak directly and immediately to the reader. Delicate and delightful, each vignette makes its impact at once. However, there is a cumulative effect that builds slowly: each additional nature note adds a new perspective to our vision of this place. The author's New England is Norfolk, specifically the village of Claxton, a few miles south-east of Norwich. Although there is a definite East Anglian flavour, these notes will resonate with anyone who has an appreciation of the English countryside.

This turns out to be the sixth book I have read by Mark Cocker. Each has been rewarding, but I suspect that this may end up being the one that I most often pull off my shelves.