Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel
To be invited along to see the announcement of the winning book/author in this year’s Wainwrights Golden Beer Book Prize held at Blenheim Palace during Countryfile Live was a real honour. I was privileged to meet most of the writers both before and after the prize ceremony. I said during the run up to the day that the 2017 prize was the toughest yet as the quality of the writing is just an exceptional high standard and gets better and better every year. One of the writers on this year’s shortlist was John Lewis-Stempel who had two books with The Running Hare and Where Poppies Blow listed and it was in the end his book Where Poppies Blow came out as the winner of the 2017 Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize.
Many books have been written of the horrors of The Great War and the hell that the soldiers endured. My bookshelves are filled with books on WWI and also natural history but I have not yet come across a book that takes a look at how the British soldiers explored nature during the darkest years of 1914-18. They lived in nature it was in fact all around them and in Where Poppies Blow John Lewis- Stempel explores the soldier’s relationship with the plants and animals and how nature helped to fill the hours and days of the men that filled the trenches. From those who kept logs of the birds and plants they saw to the men who kept gardens as a reminder of home. Nature has a way of enduring like no other. To endure the hell of the trenches in The Great War the men needed something to take their minds off the horror they witnessed on a daily basis. Britain sent over five million men to the battlefields during those years but one fact that many may not understand was just how many horses, mules and donkeys were sent to aid the war effort, in total more than two million with many of them dying in such dreadful conditions. But without these animals Britain would not have been able to have continued the war. Many of the men cared deeply about their horses in their charge and here in Where Poppies Blow there is a chapter dedicated to the bravery of these animals with words and poems.
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
When you read how the British Soldiers kept both flower garden and also vegetable garden and held show to decide winners this was both to keep up morale and the reminder of home life and in fact the growing vegetables helped feed the men in the trenches. There are chapters also on men and how they kept notebooks on the daily bird sightings and even nesting birds despite the shelling. To hear Larks singing in between the fighting must have been on one hand been calming and on another near impossible. Nature carried on despite the hell that was The Great War. Nature had a way of healing it was all around them from the Poppies of the battlefields to the Skylarks that sang while shells rained down.
Where Poppies Blow is a truly remarkable insight to life of the British soldier during The Great War and a side that many will have never known. John Lewis-Stempel has written many books on both natural history and also military history and this deserves its place among the best. The Wainwright chair of judges Julia Bradbury described Where Poppies Blow as “an extraordinary book about the healing power and resilience of nature in the darkest of times”
This is a remarkable and moving book and one that I whole-heartedly recommend. The poems alone will move you to tears. This is the second time that John Lewis-Stempel has won the Wainwrights Golden Beer Book Prize. He previously won it in 2015 with Meadowland (Transworld).
Thank you to Laura Creyke at the Wainwright Prize for the advanced review copy of Where Poppies Blow and all of the books on the 2017 Wainwright Prize
Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops. The Paperback will be released on 14th September.