23 February 2009

Book Review: Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper by Peter Hill

Stargazing It began, as do so many adventures, with a trip to the pub. On a night out in 1973, Peter Hill mentioned to a friend that he’d always fancied being a lighthouse keeper. Shortly afterward she saw a job ad looking for people to do just that, and encouraged him to apply. The lights being a little short-handed that year due to the greater appeal of working on the oil rigs, the Commissioners of the Northern Lights were happy to hire a long-haired hippie art student for the holidays. Despite having no idea what it was a lighthouse keeper actually did, and being some weeks short of finishing the year’s studies, he set off to spend the next several months being rotated between shore leave and various lighthouses off Scotland’s west coast (and being invited to depart from the art school on a more permanent basis). Along the way he discovered that while you don’t have to be mad to work in a lighthouse, it helps - and whether it’s crosswords or an obsession with Doctor Who, you’ve got to have a hobby.

Two years ago this was recommended to me by Dancin’ Fool, and after long months of it reproaching me from across the room I’ve finally read it. (And this is by no means the longest time a book has languished in my TBR pile.) Happily it was worth the wait. It’s described as a memoir of the first profession ever to be made totally redundant, but I’ve got my doubts as to whether that’s actually the case (the Worst Jobs in History series featured more than a few careers kept alive purely out of historical interest). It’s a fascinating account which conjures up the lost world of the lighthouse keeper and what it was like to be young in 1973 with Vietnam and Watergate forever looming in the background. The islands on which the lighthouses stand are almost characters in themselves, but the highlights are the eccentrics who staff them. From the gourmet cook who spent his free time building a boat behind the fog signal to the man who liked his Scrabble games limited to words with a nautical connection, there’s not a dull - or even an ordinary - one among them. There’s also interesting information on everything from lighthouse operations and coastal weather to the world’s worst poet and how to hold a conversation in the lulls between deafening blasts of a fog signal. Stargazing is a wonderful memorial to and celebration of a lost profession, and makes life on a tiny island seem like a fine way to escape the real world.

Rating: A

5 comments:

  1. This sounds really cool-thanks for reviewing it! :)

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  2. Well, I'M intrigued. Now, how long would it take me to get it out of MY TBR pile!? =) At any rate, this book sounds fun and I appreciate your review!

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  3. I think I'll look for this book - thanks for the review.

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  4. Great review. I love lighthouses and would love to learn more about the people who run them. I'm adding it ot my TBR list but it could be years before I get it read. Always something to look forward to, isn't there?

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  5. Anonymous7:19 AM

    I read this book a few years ago and I still maintain it's my favourite read ever. My great-granfather was a lighthouse keeper but I didn't actually know that (or had maybe forgotten)until I raved about this book to my parents and insisted that they read it. I've visited some of the locations in the book, one of the many advantages of living in Scotland. I really can't recommend this read enough and I'm so happy to see such a great review about it, thank you :-)

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776