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The Lost Words makes the most familiar things shiny and interesting once more

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris bring together enchanting and accessible poems and artwork.

Last Christmas my parents ended up in separate hospitals. I spent the festive weeks driving a relentless triangle between them and home. I was fast becoming a car component.

Painfully early on New Year’s Day I was trudging over the footbridge that linked the deserted multi-storey to the high-dependency unit, when the dawn chorus kicked in. In some dark corner below me, blackbirds were rolling out their melodies. On the wires overhead, the fax-machine racket of the starlings began.

I could try to describe the feeling I got from that moment: connection, maybe, or context. But the only important word at the time was “better”. I felt better. Something I’d lost was being given back to me. Not just the sense of the nearness of the natural world, but a stream of memories of my primary school nature table, my pile of I-Spy books, morning walks with my parents when they were young and well.

The Lost Words is a breathtaking book that sets out to replicate that moment of giving back. It has its origins in Robert Macfarlane’s reaction to the news that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had dropped words such as “bluebell” and “buttercup” in favour of “broadband” and “bullet point”. As he put it, blackberry had given way to BlackBerry.

Another Macfarlane masterpiece, Landmarks, is a hoard of names for things you might not notice if you could not name. I honestly have no idea how I ever lived without smeuse – a path worn through undergrowth by the habitual passage of mammals. Caochan is the gallic name for a moorland stream that is hidden from view by vegetation.

If we can’t name things, we don’t notice them. Words help us see. So it’s appropriate that Jackie Morris has created something that you could spend all day looking at. It’s beautifully complex. Goldfinches flutter through all its pages because the collective term for goldfinches is a charm, and Macfarlane’s poems are mostly charms. This is the kind of complexity that can enthral a child as much as an adult. Each subject is introduced by a flock of letters thrown across the page, with the name hidden among them. You can puzzle it out before turning over to the acrostic poem, sequenced alphabetically from “Acorn” to “Wren”. I watch my youngest lean over each huge page as if he could dive into its landscape (which you can, because there’s an exhibition of the original paintings at Compton Verney in Warwickshire).

At the proposal stage this book must have looked financially suicidal: expensive and niche. In fact it’s a huge success, not just commercially but emotionally. One woman has set up a crowdfunder page to help get a copy into every primary school in Scotland. People have posted videos of their children chanting the spells from treetops, and reported the magical effect of reading it to relatives with dementia.

The roots of the success of this apparently very old-fashioned work – essentially a picture book about the English countryside – lie in the Twitter feeds of its creators. Macfarlane has been tweeting lost words to a rapidly growing audience for a year and Morris has been sharing sketches and notes on her feed. If you’ve been following them then the book has the slightly magical feel of something very digital and momentary incarnating itself as something you can touch and smell and give as a gift.

For all the gold and glamour of Morris’s art, the view of nature offered is refreshingly accessible. Yes there are otters and hares – creatures you have to go looking for – but some of her most enchanting plates celebrate the mundane: starlings, magpies, things you might encounter on a hospital footbridge.

Macfarlane’s excavation of lost words from rural communities and ancient languages has a comic twin in The Meaning of Liff, John Lloyd and Douglas Adams’s inspired made-up lexicon of feelings and objects for which there should be words. One of its most useful coinages is “Glassel (n): A seaside pebble which was shiny and interesting when wet, and which is now a lump of rock.” The Lost Words has the reverse effect. It makes you look again at things that have become so familiar as to be invisible and to make them once more “shiny and interesting”. It is utterly deglasseling

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. His most recent book is “Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth” (Macmillan)

The Lost Words
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
Hamish Hamilton, 128pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist