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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog begun in 2012 about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.

I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps.

Around 2018 I tried a new way of writing my family's and my own UK travel adventures. Britain is a brilliant place for a staycation, mini-break and day trips. It's also a fantastic place to explore so I've begun to write up reports of places that are easy to reach by public transport. And when they are not that easy to reach I'll offer some tips on how to get there.

See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Books looking at the big apple

Is it possible to find a city where ideas grow and apple trees thrive? Or is sustainability and the opportunity of being-true-to-yourself a too difficult match for urban planners? Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

Review of two interesting books. The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown
and What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love) by Andy Merrifield.
Deep love of a place isn’t a given. So many people grow up in the sort of car-dominated suburbia where place has been so subsumed by the individual’s own home that love of place is dying. Small wonder that most suburban-raised children’s dream is to escape for the bright lights where things actually happen. Or they believe they do: punk, celebrity, academia, riches… 

At their best cities are a place where you can live your authentic self. The village gossip (in the club/pub/tube) is admiring, not judgmental. Chance meetings turn out to be a pleasure when there are millions of people you don’t know surrounding you.

Many writers who’ve escaped the smallness of the burbs, or the dullness of what they feel is provincial, fall very passionately for big city living. I’ve just finished reading Andy Merrifield’s What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love)and come away with a simmering set of thoughts about how to live well in crowded places. Merrifield’s book (perhaps more rightly an extended essay) tends to the philosophical, but we get this via his own life’s journey and obsessions with Marshall Berman (and thus New York), city soul-searching and his romance with fellow university colleague, Corinna. The book is much deeper than this summary though and sometimes I found it hard to follow, mostly because I wasn’t aware of Marshall Berman’s work. And, whisper it, I’m not that fond of New York. Or music. Sorry....

That said, I’m a city lover too – minute exploring the small corners of big places is my particular passion. I wanted to read this book to find out more about making cities work well for people, but that’s not the book Merrifield is writing, so I can hardly criticise him for this. 

A working class lad from Liverpool, often selfish and with scant interest in the past is an interesting guide to the cities he loves. His book takes us without apology through his often whaaaaat! behaviour (eg, dating a university student with such carelessness about his own lecturer power; insisting on going out on his own the night he arrives home to NYC after the long weekly commute from his uni job in Boston) but it also introduced me to an intellectual and predominantly male world of city talk shop. There is a softer side to the book, the love story of course, but also his friendship with aging Berman and a fascinating re-look at the work of Jane Jacobs. Her book The Death and Life of Great American cities is full of ideas, mocked by many back then, still has a big impact on some eco-thinkers and those who wish cities to be more people-friendly..

Merrifield doesn’t leave the city much – not in this book at any rate. In contrast another city resident, Londoner Pete Brown, clearly loves his urban base but adds extra energy writing about The Apple Orchard precisely because he has to leave the city to tell his story. I bought this book – in a Stoke Newington wine shop where you can refill your reds and olive oil - to give to my brother, who lives in the countryside and has an orchard. Actually, I think you only need five trees to claim this title… It was nearly autumn and I imagined he’d find it fascinating, and possibly helpful, before the great juicing he organises with friends and family each year. 

The chapters are divided into neat sections – as if slicing an apple with a pocket knife - through blossoming, fruiting, ripening, harvesting, celebrating, transforming, slumbering, taking us on Brown’s journey around the orchards.  In real life this urbanite does a lot of cider tasting and is, bizarrely, allergic to apples. But this particular set of twists gives him a unique voice. I rushed through this book, savouring the weather, the trees, the technique (unchanged for 2000 years), the people.  

As a bonus the apple world breeds characters and Brown’s interviews let us get to know the people well enough to both sympathise with their approaches and reveal the tribalism that afflicts the apple world. Every specialist world maybe?

Both books were an adventure for me. From Apple Orchard I learnt more about these wonderful trees (and a surprising amount about mythical Eden which probably didn’t have an apple when it was first dreamt up, because apples were not then in the Middle East – their birthplace is central Asia). From What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love) I upped my modernistic knowledge and puzzled over the many different ways people can love cities. I can’t imagine enjoying chatting with Merrifield but his passion for cities isn’t so dissimilar than mine, it’s just we have different ways of loving them - I like the closeness, the village feel within them, the possibility of sustainability. He likes the adventure, the grit, the music, the deep thought and the way you can thrive without "hellos" from every street corner. He likes following his heroes too. 

But that ability for such a range of people to live happily (or just live) in a city is of course Merrifield's starting point.

But are cities still working well? Can you still love them if you yearn for a more people-friendly type of living?

Cities thrive thanks to diversity of ideas, income and people; they are spoilt if dominated by the rich taking over all those crumby places the poor meet, artists colonise and the explorers discover. Living in a city ought to offer the chance to meet people very different from yourself without having to “buy” the experience as a tourist or buy out the "others". At their best a crowded city becomes more friendly - a place we squeeze past each other in the coffee shops, meet as volunteers or bump into each other in the street where kids can play safely. This doesn't really happen yet, and to do that successfully people in cities have to forgo that bit of personal privacy Merrifield so loves and communicate better with each other. 

I write as an eco bunny and my dream is that such conversations - cautious at first, then maybe properly deep - can be enjoyed under newly planted apple trees lining a car-calmed street. Or maybe under the blossoming canopies starting to spring up on the grassy strips between estate blocks thanks to groups like The Orchard Project who love both apples and towns. 

So two good books: both written by men and possibly best given to men. Perhaps like me (not a man!) they are a perfect pair to offer as a present and get some fascinating conversations going? Let me know what you think of them.

The Apple Orchard: the story of our most English Fruitby Pete Brown (Particular books, £!6.99)
What we talk about when we talk about cities (sand love) |Andy Merrifield (OR Books,

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