The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.

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Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

(Above) – This is Merlina, one of the seven ravens at the Tower.

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Summer Catch Up

catch_up I’m really enjoying this faculty summer schedule and am having a good time doing… well, not much really. I am auditing a class to renew what I know (and don’t know) about news writing (particularly with regard to AP), and although it might sound a bit dry, I am really enjoying it. Since I’m auditing it, I’m not doing it for a grade which is very freeing in many ways. I just sit at the back of the classroom, be quiet and take notes. It’s a fun way to learn….

As part of that class, I’m reading my way through The AP Style Book (which is the gold standard for journalistic writing and is similar to reading a huge dictionary). This sounds like it would be an arduous and boring task, but it’s actually not as reading the AP Stylebook is more like studying for a very particular game of trivia in some ways. I’m also learning a lot (which is extra fun).

So the mornings are usually taken up by class with a lot of homework (since it’s an abbreviated summer school class which means it’s very fast-paced).

The afternoons are usually filled with going to the gym, doing the class homework, and then reading (more deets to come) before the DH comes home after work and we start to do supper etc.

And – drum roll please. I put the last piece into that challenging jigsaw puzzle that I’ve been working on, and here’s the pic of the final version. (I’m finding jigsaw puzzles to be very addictive!):

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Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s been a while since I’ve had the need to do a “swabbing the decks” kind of post, but it’s come around again. This type of post is just for me to catch up with some of the titles that I’ve been, the titles that perhaps don’t really warrant an individual post of their own. It doesn’t mean that these particular titles are not good. Au contraire. Most of the time, it’s because the books haven’t triggered any great thoughts or debate for me, but they are still good all the same.

I’ve just finished two quick but enjoyable reads of a couple of the Miss Read books, Friends of Thrush Green (1987) and The School at Thrush Green (1991). I do enjoy these rather mellow narratives where the most vexing thing is usually that the tea was luke-warm and perhaps a newcomer arrives in the village.

They’re just enjoyable chillaxing kinda books and ideal for very hot days (as we have been having) where you’re taken over by lassitude and end-of-the-semester fatigue and don’t really want to think that hard. I don’t know if I could plough through all the Miss Read novels one after the other, but as a refresher between books, they work a treat.

TV-wise, we’re finishing up the latest season of “Better Call Saul”, the spin-off of “Breaking Bad”, which we have loved. It’s probably going to lead to us re-watching the “Breaking Bad” series now that we have learned this prior (and parallel) storyline. So good…

The big thing is what to read next? The eternal question for any reader….

 

New Books…

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The FoL summer book sale was held the other day, and although I tried to not go, I did end up spending some time there. (Well, to not go would have been so rude, don’t you think?)

And so this is what I ended up with in my shopping bag, all ready for a future summer’s day. Uncertain which summer it will be, but I’m ready!  🙂

Top to bottom:

  • Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan (usually good fiction writer)
  • The Last Picture Show – Larry McMurtry (fiction set in Texas. I first read this in my first semester at American university and hadn’t been in Texas long enough to get the references. I think now that I’ve been here a while, I will appreciate it more.)
  • The Best American Short Stories (1999) – edited by Amy Tan (F) (current slight craze on short stories)
  • Tinkerbelle – Robert Manry (NF travel – guy has never sailed before, but buys a boat and sails across the Atlantic with many adventures…)
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (F and African-American classic which I haven’t read but with the new focus on reading more POC will do so soon)
  • Bailey’s Cafe – Gloria Naylor (F) (see above about the focus on reading more POC authors)
  • Advertising in America – (NF) big coffee book with some lovely color plates of old advertising from across the USA

And going against my usual grain of not-reading-things-I’ve-just-bought, I’ve just finished a good read of the Naylor fiction. Loved it so expect more to come about that.

So hmm…. What’s next?

Getting some culture: two plays…

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Since we’re lucky enough to live in a town with a big university presence, this means that we are also able to take advantage of some of the cultural offerings that come our way, and we recently went to two plays, both about some under-appreciated women which was a good touch as it’s Women’s History Month.

The first one was a one-woman play called “The Other Mozart” (written and performed by Sylvia Milo), and focused on the true story of Nannerl Mozart, Mozart’s older sister who was also a prodigy with music, but due to her gender and the times, didn’t receive all the attention that her younger brother did.

The solo actor was the sister in question, and so the play was presented through her eyes and thus the audience could track her musical life as she is recognized for her musical talents, but then slowly overtaken and eclipsed by the younger Mozart. I think this is probably a really good play, but the university sound system was very muffled and so it was pretty hard to keep up with what was going on.

That, and I had the ill-fortune to have a tall guy with a big bobble-head sit right in front, and it was uncanny how his head movements would match mine at almost every turn. So – good play. Bad venue. I’d still go and see this play, but only in a smaller theater with a good non-karaoke-based sound system.

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The other play was a completely different experience (thankfully). This was also a one-woman play, but in a much more intimate setting which made it easy to hear what the actor was saying and thus keep up with the action.

Called “If a door opens: a journey with Francis Perkins”, it was written and performed by a regional actor called Charlotte Keefe and focused on the life and times of said Francis Perkins, who was one of the earliest female Secretary of Labors in the twentieth century. She worked with presidents and others to help secure the 40-hour work week, social security benefits, and generally looked out for child and female workers at a time when they were over-used and under-paid.

Perkins also played a sentinel role in improving workplace safety standards as she was in NYC at the same time of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and knew how to effectively work with politicians, unions, and others to pass new laws improving working conditions for everyone who was not a rich white man. 🙂

I was not familiar with Perkins (or the actress who played her), but by the time we came to the end of the play, I was astonished at just how much Perkins achieved at a time in the twentieth century when women were not encouraged or supported in their working lives if they upset the status quo.

I really enjoyed this experience, and recommend that if you see this play coming anywhere near you (whether with this actor or another), you take the hour or so to see it. Perkins was a firebrand whose mark still remains on the twenty-first century workforce.

And then later on this week, we’ve got tickets to listen to Ruth Reichl, former NYT food critic and best-selling author… Riches abound right now.

Obama: The Historic Journey – The New York Times (2009)

Obama_bookNeeding a happy read, I chose to wallow in nostalgia for happy times past with this large coffee table book, Obama: The Historic Journey (NYT). Packed full of great photographs from the time of President Obama, this book was put together using the journalistic resources of the illustrious New York Times and was a pleasure to read. The NYT seems to have the best journalists and photographers, and I really enjoyed this browse through years past, even though it’s not really that long ago. (I think it just seems like a long time ago since our Orange Goblin came in office. Sigh.)

This book not only had great production values with the award-winning photographs, but it also included some of the main speeches which Obama gave, including the nomination acceptance speech, and the Presidential acceptance speech. As a constitutional law professor, Obama was incredibly articulate at describing his vision for the country, and some of his speeches almost made me cry as they were so perfect (and, unfortunately, so very different from the 5th grade utterances of our current Prez).

The book covers Obama’s journey from childhood through to his junior Senator position in Illinois through to his election campaign, the nomination, and then when he is actually President, and if you loved and now miss Obama, you’ll be in the target market for this title.

Spectacular photographs (including some from official WH photographer Pete Souza) combined with solid journalism and spectacular speech-writing skills made this a really interesting and poignant read for me, and I highly recommend this book. You can probably read it in one afternoon on a weekend, and I just loved it. If you’re not an Obama fan, maybe not for you, but for those who are: this was a great read.

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At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England – Walter Dean Myers (1999)

Book413So, prowling my shelves and thinking of Black History Month as one does, my eye was caught by a thin title and pulled it off the shelf, curious to learn more. The book turned out to be about Queen Victoria (swoon) and how she semi-adopted a young African princess when the girl first arrived in London. It’s an interesting story, but I had not heard of it before, so I dug right in.

Based on a stash of original nineteenth century documents that the author unearthed in the National Archives one day, the book follows the life of young Sarah Forbes Bonetta when she is first “rescued” by a white military officer from an African nation full of warring tribal groups, and then introduced into royal circles in England. (It does have shades of the movie, Greystoke… Perhaps the author wasn’t the first person to find this info out.)

This was in the mid-nineteenth century and slavery was in full force in both England and the States, and, although there were people who were abolitionists, it hadn’t taken up full swing just yet. A Royal Navy officer happened to be at one of the ports where the slave ships would embark with kidnapped slaves-to-be, and after a skirmish of some kind, the girl’s parents were killed, and so she is alone. The military officer decides the best thing is to take the new orphan, and deliver her to England. (Cue: Greystoke here.)

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Upon arrival, the young African girl has no English language skills, and hardly any schooling. She was surrounded by people who looked nothing like her, and she was trapped in multiple layers of uncomfortable English clothes in a strange cold country. However, she made the news and that alerted the Queen of her presence.

Hearing talk of this arrival, Queen Victoria asked for a meeting, and that’s how the whole English part of the story began.

Queen Victoria enjoyed the young girl and gave her the best tutors and education that one can receive, and it all seemed to be working out well until the young girl started to get sick more and more often. The Victorians didn’t have a good grasp of medicine at this time, let alone tropical medicine, and after trying to treat her, the little girl ends up on a boat back to Africa where she attends missionary school, but unfortunately has a very hard time fitting in with her peers due to the recent English influence. This is overcome, and in the end, she grows up into adulthood, and no one seems to know of how her life went after this experience.

While I was reading this, I really enjoyed it, but as I started to think about it in a critical manner, it dawned on me that this was a tricky situation to look back on through twenty-first century eyes, especially with the knowledge of slavery for England and US. On the one hand, the little orphan was saved from a poverty-stricken life in an African country and given the royal treatment for a year. On the other hand, this is covered with the haze of white/ colonialism/power, so it’s not easy to parse.

Still, an interesting read. BTW, it’s classified as YA, so it’s a fast read, but it’s still informative.

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

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