CHASING THE GHOST BY PETER MARREN

We are proud to have Peter Marren among our expert panel of writers. Here is a little review of his latest book – as featured recently on Radio 4 – which his friend and fellow contributor to our mag, Rosemary FitzGerald, penned for us. The book is available locally in Number Seven Dulverton and from Brendon Books in Taunton. If you, too, are a local bookseller and you stock this title please let us know and we will mantion you also, as we struggled to obtain a list of local sellers.

Peter Marren, Chasing the Ghost (2018). Square Peg. 286pp. £16.99.

Most of us who love the countryside have this strongly grounded in
childhood memories, and many, like me, retain a gently competitive
collector’s instinct about nature. Special sightings of bird or animal, the earliest date for catkins or frogspawn, seeing a new species of wild flower – all these are notable, small treasures added to a lifetime store, and it’s a wild flower quest which inspired this delightful book.

Readers will remember Peter Marren’s ‘Fungi at Your Fingertips’ (Exmoor Magazine, Autumn 2017). An admired and respected natural history writer, he is a good friend of many places and people in Somerset. His fascinating memoir (Where the Wild Thyme Blew) showed the sometimes hard road to becoming a dedicated naturalist. Chasing the Ghost shows his deep knowledge and love of plants, and a great capacity for fun! A lucid style and a quirky, entertaining viewpoint make it a great adventure story. Imagine The Famous Five Go Botanising and you’ll get the mood of this most original quest.

However, the subtitle may mislead at first glance. In fact, the author has already seen almost all of them, but decided to challenge himself to finish ticking off his final 50 never-seen species in one year. The framework of that bold decision comes from a significant West Country connection. Probably the most influential popular flora publication ever, The Concise British Flora in Colour, was by a Devon vicar, W. Keble Martin, and was illustrated with his exquisite watercolours. First published in 1965, it was a best seller, and drew countless people to wild flowers. The British flora has around 1,500 species, and ‘Keble Martin’, as the book is affectionately known, deals with a solid core of them, excluding the more difficult reaches of subspecies and varieties. Peter always used his copy to tick off plants new to him, youthful family holiday finds progressing to the wide range seen when working in plant conservation. Feeling he had time to spend on an extended adventure, he decided to hunt down the final tantalising rarities shown in this seminal book. This challenge gives the structure for this charming story.

Each plant has its own section, with an elegant line drawing and gripping account of each particular search. Some days were easy and sunny with good company and the plant located and looking perfect. Others involved terrible times, in frightening thunder on a mountain, being stuck on a Hebridean island through the pain of family bereavement, a diagnosis of serious illness – but the author’s good humour and spirit, and the wonderful nature of the quest, make this book both exciting and inspirational as one follows Peter’s every step, willing the target plant to be in flower for him that day!

Among the adventures there are some powerful conservation messages. Our threatened flora needs informed supporters, and Chasing the Ghost seems a wonderful way of encouraging serious thought in the guise of a perfect holiday or bedtime read. It’s a delightful book.

Rosemary FitzGerald

PHOTO: Editor’s own.

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