The book department

BAY Books with Dr Alyson Hitch

This month we travel to India to find out all about stepwell architecture, go behind the scenes at GCHQ, review two splendid centuries of royal photography, get to grips with Gower haute cuisine, and take a trip back in time to a mutiny on the Spanish main…


‘The Vanishing Stepwells of India’ by Victoria Lautman, Merrell, £25, pb

Unless you are an aficionado of India’s historical architecture, you’ve probably never heard of ‘stepwells’ – a fact cheerfully acknowledged by Victoria Lautman before confessing that she is obsessed with them. The term is only accurate as far as it goes because, while it is a matter of objective fact that stepwells are water sources accessed by stone staircases, they are so much more than that. ‘The Vanishing Stepwells of India’ is Lautman’s fascinating account of this little-known category of building that is for the most part confined to western India, and that has given us extra-ordinary and intricate geometrical structures, the like of which really can’t be seen anywhere else. She’s not an academic expert in the field, she warns. And neither is she a professional photographer – but somehow what she sees as shortcomings in her approach combine to become the book’s strength. Her sheer enthusiasm for the subject carries the day as she catalogues the few hundred stepwells that can still be found. Welcome to Lautman’s wonderful world of the stepwell.

The purpose of the stepwell is simple: to maintain permanent access to a dependable supply of ground-water. In hot climates or where the water table is low this can mean digging deep, while the best way of giving everyone access to that water is to provide steps down too it. They were popular too. At one point, Lautman tells us, there may have been three thousand, providing water not just for drinking and laundry, but for irrigation and religious purposes. “They could be almost unimaginably huge,” she says, “or intimately scaled; some were encrusted with ornament, while others were modest and utilitarian.

A shallow stepwell might have had two or three levels, while others plunged a vertiginous nine storeys.” Which is why stepwell hunting – there is such a thing – is not for the faint of heart. You need to be good with both heights and confined spaces, as well as having a relaxed attitude to snakes, bats and bees. Thankfully, Lautman has braved all of these to bring us this architectural treasure.

‘From Mountain to Sea’ by Kate Probert, Gomer, £30.00, hb

Here at Bay magazine there’s nothing we like more than a good cookbook, and Kate Probert’s ‘From Mountain to Sea’ has got to be one of the best we’ve seen in many a moon. The mountain of the title has its origins in the majestic French Alps, while the sea is our very own Gower coastline. Drawing on these two geographical inspirations, Probert produces a sparkling variety of recipes where one style of cuisine influences the other. Which means that this might be the only cookbook ever written in which you’ll find a good old-fashioned Welsh breakfast (complete with laverbread and cockles) jostling for culinary space with fennel velouté with seared salmon, or Welsh rarebit going head-to-head with oeuf en cocotte with cèpes. If this sounds a little bizarre, it’s worth remembering that the chef who has worked with (and is much admired by) Albert Roux, cut her teeth in the world of haute cuisine selling Welsh cakes in Swansea Market. ‘From Mountain to Sea’ furnishes us with wonderful recipes from Probert’s career in some of the best kitchens and restaurants in Europe, working alongside some of the world’s finest chefs. A lovely book, the food photography – courtesy of Nick Perry – does visual justice to Probert’s creativity. Great stuff.

‘Behind the Enigma’ by John Ferris, Bloomsbury, £30.00, hb

The first book to investigate the complete history of any signals intelligence agency, John Ferris’s ‘Behind the Enigma’ is the authorised account of the history of the UK’s cyber-intelligence agency GCHQ. Tracing its development from its origins more than a century ago to the organisation it is today, Ferris examines how GCHQ has transformed from being an impenetrable fortress of total secrecy to its current position of transparency that recognises the notion that the hyper-connected world we live in today is one in which every citizen is participating in communications intelligence.

Best known for its code-breaking prowess at Bletchley Park – think of Benedict Cumberbatch as the computer scientist Alan Turing in the Oscar-winning Second World War drama The Imitation Game – GCHQ has intercepted, interpreted and disrupted the information networks of Britain’s enemies for a century. In doing so it has shortened wars and saved countless lives. And yet the organisation remains the least understood of the British intelligence services. Until now. With analysis of the failures of signal security in the First World War to the full impact of GCHQ in the Falklands War, at 800-plus pages ‘Behind the Enigma’ is a massive contribution (in more ways than one) to the history of British state espionage.

The Swansea History Journal, No.28 (2020-21), by the Royal Institution of South Wales, Minerva, £8, pb

An intriguing book found its way into the Bay Towers this month under the title of ‘The Swansea History Journal’. It transpires that this annual collection of essays on local history is published by the Royal Institution of South Wales. If you are interested in such things – and I heartily recommend you should be – this is a treasure trove of spell-binding information about our local heritage. In this, Volume No.28 (2020-21), we have a collection of subjects ranging from a nostalgic reflection on the old Swansea Swimming Baths, to a discussion on the origins of the old coastal road to Oystermouth. We have an account of Swansea in 1902, as well as of the Mumbles Railway, along with my personal favourite, ‘The People who lived on an Island in the River Tawe’ close to the quays, railway tracks, wharves and warehouses of the docks. “There is little sign that anyone might have lived there and you could be forgiven if you were to assume that no one ever had.” But they did. And it’s fascinating. As ashamed as I am to admit it, I didn’t even know that there was such an august organisation as the Royal Institution of South Wales, much less that they have an annual publication called ‘The Swansea History Journal’, and that it’s been going for nearly three decades, during which time its editors have seen to press some 253 full length articles that “have become a treasury of our past, and we now have a new key to that treasure chest.”

‘50 Words for Snow’ by Nancy Campbell, Elliott & Thompson, £12.99, hb

I have to say that when ‘50 Words for Snow’ landed on my welcome mat I was rather excited to think that it would be an in-depth analysis of Kate Bush’s weird and wonderful studio album of that very name. And so, on discovering that this was actually, literally a book listing fifty different words for snow harvested from the languages of the world, I recalibrated my expectations, intrigued to discover what it was all about. After all, thought I, I’d like to see how an author can sustain a 200-plus page book with ramblings about foreign snow. It turns out that, in the right hands, a suite of mini essays on the varying attitudes of different cultures to this hexagonal ice crystal can tell you a lot about not just linguistics, but also society and civilisation. And if that sounds just a little dull, let me reassure you that this is an ingenious and imaginative book by a gifted writer whose work presented here is by orders of magnitude more interesting than either its title or cover. But it won’t be for everyone. However, if you are the sort of reader that is armed with curiosity over the relationship between linguistics and meteorological phenomena, then ‘50 Words for Snow’ could well be the book that provides you with the white Christmas we all so fervently dream of in song. This is because Campbell’s latest is positively stuffed with snowy, mind-expanding detail and minutiae that will enter-tain, educate and amuse us all. It won’t sell as many copies as Kate Bush’s album I’m afraid, but it will make a great stocking filler for the nerd in your life.

‘Mutiny on the Spanish Main’ by Angus Konstam, Osprey, £25.00, hb

A shockingly blood-thirsty mutiny. A sadistic sea captain who made Bligh of the Bounty look like a pussycat. Treason and hangings. Revenge, hot pursuit and lashings of archaic sea-faring lingo…

It’s all great stuff and could easily spring straight from the pages of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin roman fleuve. Apart from, that is, what we have here isn’t fiction. For the late 18th century tale of the British Frigate Hermione and her part in the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history is exactly that: history. And you won’t find any finer. With her crew pushed beyond the limit of human endurance, Hermione’s men rose up, murdered their captain and most of the officers for good measure. The mutineers then handed the ship over to the Spanish, who were of course Britain’s wartime enemy. Eager to see justice done, the Royal Navy not only obsessively hunted down the mutinous crew – straining diplomatic relations with America in the process – but also set out to retrieve their ship. All of which raises two key questions: first, what was it that drove the crew of Hermione to mutiny? And second, why was the navy’s pursuit of justice so single-minded? In ‘Mutiny on the Spanish Main’, naval historian Angus Konstam delivers the answer to both questions, while thoroughly entertaining the reader with a rollicking tale of derring-do on the high seas. Superb.

‘The Crown in Focus’ by Claudia Acott Williams, Merrell, £29.95, hb

From the opening sepia-tinted studio portrait of Queen Victoria looking very much the Empress of India, to the closing shot of Prince Charles relaxed in black tie on the cover of GQ magazine, Claudia Acott Williams’ ‘The Crown in Focus’ is quite simply a superb illustrated account of the relationship between the British royal family and the camera. It’s hard to see how it could have been done better, with the perfect balance of the readily familiar iconic images that have been commissioned from the greatest photographic portrait artists of their day, to the lesser-known anonymous press snaps, and pot-shots grabbed by members of the old firm themselves.

For anyone interested in photography as an artform there can of course be very little to compete with the formal achievements of Cecil Beaton, who is so far ahead of most other royal photographers it’s almost embarrassing (just think of his luxuriant backgrounds, his lavish attention to clothing and his unswerving ability to get his stately subjects to pose in a relaxed way…) But there is plenty of other good stuff coming in second, with early compositions done with long exposures on large-format plate cameras knocking the modern stuff shot on digital cameras into a cocked hat. Of course, it’s all a matter of taste, but you can’t help feeling that the more the royals let down their formal guard the more of their regal mystique is sacrificed. This is a narrative captured not only with the quality of the picture selection, but also the accompanying words, which are unfailingly excellent.

‘The Party Wall’ by Stevie Davies, Honno, £8.99, pb

There’s something about the humble terraced house that makes for terrific fiction. The idea that people you don’t know are sleeping less than a couple of feet away from you on the other side of a wall isn’t one that crosses most people’s minds. The notion that the noise they create becomes part of other lives nearby is a sonic inconvenience to be blocked out. The arbitrary experience of living in parallel with people you probably don’t care very much about either just gets brushed away with the rubble and rust of everyday life. But in Stevie Davies’ tense and macabre novel The Party Wall, Mark does care, and all these circumstances become the threads woven through the dark fabric of how neighbours become part of each other’s lives.

Mark cares for his next-door neighbour Freya. And he cares for her just a little too much for comfort. For Mark is creepy and deluded, nurturing an ugly version of romance in what passes for his heart as he schemes and plots and fantasises. And when Freya’s husband dies on the other side of the wall, the event triggers an escalation of obsession masquerading as neighbourly compassion. As Mark ingratiates himself, Freya – lost in a sea of grief – only slowly begins to realise that her neighbour’s motives may not be as neighbourly as they seem.

No plot-spoilers here, but what can be revealed is that The Party Wall is a cracking examination of the human condition when poisoned by self-delusion, of ordinary lives that spiral into the extraordinary. This is when Swansea-based Davies ­– who writes with the deftness of a storyteller with a dozen or so novels under her belt – is at her disturbing best. Literary and uneasy, The Party Wall shows a shocking insight into how humans think.

‘Art for Wales: The Legacy of Derek Williams’ by David Moore, Graffeg, £25, hb

When Welsh art collector Derek Williams died in 1984, he left behind a magnificent collection of modern and contemporary paintings for the benefit of the people of Wales. Within a decade, the Derek Williams Trust had been established and his collection was being displayed at the National Museum Wales. To mark the quarter-centenary anniversary of the event, the Western Mail commissioned a series of articles from author David Moore and now, to grant permanence and gravitas to those marvellous essays, they have been collected into a sumptuous illustrated hardback by the masters of Welsh art publishing Graffeg.

While it is an uplifting tale in itself that a wealthy south Wales chartered surveyor should bequeath such riches to the nation, this philanthropic act was merely the start of a series of initiatives developed by the trust to ensure that Welsh art, and art in Wales flourished. While we despair of living in a time when arts funding is dwindling before our very eyes, the Derek Williams Trust is rare in that it is an organisation that sticks to its guns by making sure that there’s plenty for us to enjoy for generations to come. Such is the success of the trust that its collection has grown from the 71 pieces that Williams left to more than 275 works today.

All this and more is documented in Moore’s Art for Wales, which is beautifully illustrated throughout with reproductions from the collection. As you flick through, be prepared to find works by household names such as David Hockney and Lucien Freud, as well as favourites of contemporary Welsh painting such as Ceri Richards, whose ‘The Dragon Pot’ takes pride of place on the cover of this superb celebration of 20th century art.


All Articles