Nonfiction: Red Sky at Night by Jane Struthers

Hardback cover

Jane Struthers’ Red Sky at Night is a delightful compendium of countryside wisdom. Filled with fascinating facts, it covers such things as predicting the weather prediction, reading tea leaves and everything in between. The blurb reads, “Ever wondered how to navigate by the stars? Or wanted to attract butterflies to your garden? Is there a knack to building the perfect bonfire? And how exactly do you race a ferret?” Now, I can honestly say that I’ve never wondered about or wanted to do any of these things—at least, before I read this book.

Despite being born in London, I’m a country girl through and through. I need to be surrounded by green and grass and I actually don’t mind the smell of a farmyard. That doesn’t mean that I’m a countryside expert; I know the difference between a tree and a shrub… but my knowledge ends there.

Reading Red Sky at Night, however, made me want to know more. This wonderfully evocative book, filled with instructions, lists, customs and old wives tales, aims to reconnect its readers with the world around them. Struthers’s book is painfully nostalgic for the Britain that existed before, as she puts it, “we went inside and turned on the TV”.

Nowadays we rely on weather girls and the internet to tell us whether we should wear flip-flops or a pac-a-mac, but a hundred years ago we would have been a lot more in tune with what the skies were telling us. Read Red Sky at Night and you’ll be able to identify high cloud from low cloud and determine whether that dark shadow on the horizon is signalling heavy rain or approaching cold weather. Learning to keep an eye on your surroundings could also prove infinitely useful when you’re on a summer picnic; if daisies start to close up and all the bees and butterflies disappear, it’s time you did too.

Now, though I’ve saluted a fair few magpies in my time, I wouldn’t consider myself to be an especially superstitious person. But after reading Struthers’s book, I’m afraid to say I’ve adopted a few strange habits. I’ve started throwing salt over my shoulder, for one, and bashing holes in empty egg shells, and feeling strangely suspicious of owls.

These are the notions and traditions that our fore fathers lived by. Old wives tales were the old-fashioned equivalent of the NHS website, folklore were our ancestors’ version of online dating, and the stars, when understood, are as good as a satellite navigator. If you’ve ever argued over the true rules to Pooh sticks (if you’ve never played, you really should start) or worried that you’ve hung a horse shoe the wrong way round (keep it pointing upwards or all the luck will fall out), Red Sky at Night is definitely for you. After reading Struthers’s book you’ll know how to tell if an egg is fresh, how to brew your own beer, and which flowers make the best honey. You never know, sometime in the future I might take to bee-keeping, making my own jam or dabbling in a bit of harmless witchcraft. When I do, this book will certainly be the first I reach for.

First published 3 September 2009. Available in hardback from Ebury Press.

Ellie Walker-Arnott

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