Sunday book review – The Oak Papers by James Canton

I came across this book when it was reviewed by the incomparable John Riutta – it seems odd to learn of a book about an oak tree in Essex from a resident of Oregon, but there you go! And after my mention of it here on a Sunday I was most impressed that someone in Canongate had offered me a copy of the book before 10am on Monday morning.

I enjoyed this book, more and more as I read through it, but, to be honest there is a little too much communing with trees and giving them a hug for my taste. However, that is a matter of taste. I skipped a few communing passages.

The Honywood Oak in Essex is around 800 years old (its reach back to the Magna Carta is quite a thought) and a remnant of a larger ancient oak woodland, almost all of which was felled for timber in the 1950s (and there are some gossipy tales about the motivation for that clearance). It is like an old soldier/airman/sailor, the last of its generation, once a stripling, having seen a lot of life and a lot of change, but rather reticent about talking about it. Luckily, the Honeywood Oak has James Canton to speak for it.

Scattered through this book are examples of oak trees cropping up in literature and myth over the centuries and back further. These work well and the author did a good job of weaving them into the text in a useful and functional way. Everyone seems to have had something to say about oaks, in a way that I doubt they did for ash or elm.

This is a well-written book with a good mixture of information about this tree in this place, and its life and times, oak trees in general both in the UK and beyond, and in these days and ancient days, the people who care for and manage trees and something of the wildlife that depends on such trees. There is something, a lot, in here for everyone.

Natural history is not the author’s strongest hand, I reckon. There is quite a lot of ‘a chiffchaff called’ and ‘a jay flew past’ but we don’t learn enough, for my taste, of the natural history of oak trees, and that was a little disappointing for this reader. However, the phrase I will remember forever from this book is from Oliver Racham who pointed out that two two-hundred-year-old oak trees are not equivlent to a four-hundred-year-old tree and the author exlains why.

If you were to ask me which is my favourite type of tree I’d say ‘oak’, and now that I think about it a little more I’m not entirely sure why. But I am sure that is the answer. There really is something about oaks (of various species) that capture the imagination. This is especially true, but not exclusively, of aged oaks. And acorns are pretty special, and the shape of an oak leaf is handily memorable and instantly recognisable.

The cover? I like it – clean and oaky, like a good New Zealand Chardonnay, 7 out of 10.

The Oak Papers by James Canton is published by Canongate.


3 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Oak Papers by James Canton”

  1. I confess – have a terrible google addiction that I should probably seek help for once there are no more more pressing matters for the NHS which I know is unlikely but Dearly Beloved Mrs Cobb is standing around menacingly with a pruning saw and muttering darkly about some blackthorn or other so I’ll delay halting the rewilding of the garden for another couple of minutes even though the Information Superhighway is in fact fractal and so has no end …

    The estimation of an oak’s age has intrigued me since I was at primary school. Wickham Common County Primary School in Gates Green Road in Kent that is now in Bromley had on its badge 6 oaks that represented 6 old oaks on Wickham Common. Said oaks were allegedly mentioned in the alleged “Domesday Book” which allegedly was compiled in the 1080s. The oaks were in sorry state even in the 1950s – hollowed out and pollarded almost to death, polished inside and out by generations of kids playing, charred from alfresco fires and carpeted with dog-ends. I believe only 2 may be standing now allegedly – according to TfL London Loop Section 4 info.

    But the oak-aging thing: The Loop doc states the alleged 2 gnarled Domesday Oaks are thought to be over 700 years old. I would have thought that as it is commonly held that the Great Survey was completed ~1086, and the oaks were worth a mention even then, by 2020 the Great Survey was over 900 years old. Allowing time for the oaks to be worth mentioning they may be 1000 or more years old. If it is noteworthy to big-up the age of the oaks, why not make the note worthy of noting a more significant bigging-up?

    By chance, the Loop doc has some other interesting stuff. It goes on: … Cross the road (Kingsway) and keep going along Church Drive (where Cobb lived as a boy), then continue straight through Coney Hall recreation ground (where Cobb played footy, cricket and tennis as a boy). The route passes The Greenwich Meridian stone in Coney Hall Recreation Ground, marking 0 degrees longitude, the basis for calculating standard time for Britain and throughout the world. Well – the Stone wasn’t there when Cobb was a boy, otherwise he would have spent hours stood standing with one foot in each hemisphere with George the Groundsman moaning about you kids messing up my white lines.

    Unfortunately I now have to go and deal with this spiny tree, when I would much rather be doing less useful but vital research into the finding of the lost Roman town of Noviomagus in a field to the northwest of the church of St. John the Baptist that can be accessed after leaving Coney Hall Recreation Ground where there is a stone marking where Filbert Cobb once stood pondering whether it was possible to make Time stand still by not moving and whether Kennedy really meant it about the Cuban missiles and who killed Marilyn.

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