October 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
This timely and thorough biography of Ernest Shackleton marks the centenary of the Edwardian pioneer’s ‘Endurance’ mission to the Antarctic by reassessing his life and legend in terms of modern attitudes towards heroism. Though ‘Endurance’, his ship, was frozen and crushed into the ice, his courage and caution saved himself and the crew stranded in a freezing wilderness. Captain Oates declared, “If I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.” But Shackleton’s posthumous reputation as a superstar in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration has been doubly handicapped by being Anglo-Irish at a time of political difficulty, and because his success and survival seemed less gallant than the failure and death of Captain Scott. But as a buccaneering Edwardian adventure, as chaotic and hapless in his private life as he was dynamic and optimistic in his public exploits, he is rescued by Michel Smith’s genial biography as a flawed, enduring inspiration.
Show Ben Goldacre a balloon full of hot air and he’ll take a pot shot at it. Deflation of hype and grounding of opportunists who pitch fancy as facts, aspirations as assertions and, especially statistics as the tool of special interests is not only his self-appointed duty, but very often his pleasure. In a busy world where most of us believe what we’re told, wiseacre Goldacre looks behind the quackery. “Science is squabble”, he says: close critical appraisal is the strategy whereby we discover, say, that pink was not always for a girl; pink was for a boy until the 1940s; that IVF kids are not smarter than unplanned children; that many medical claims are akin to magic, that television presents ‘real’ science as cheap stage effects and don’t even get him started on bad academia, biased government and credulous media. In short, everything you take at face value is wrong. Maybe even this review: now read Ben.
Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and political philosopher of choice for all modern market-led behavioural economists, was also a moral philosopher, author of that great but difficult work, ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments.’ As a product of the Edinburgh-based Scottish Enlightenment, Smith’s stoic moral values are rather neglected by right wing financiers and politicians who find the socially liberal context of his economic theories inconveniently disturbing. Happily, Russ Roberts has good-humouredly digested, condensed and commented upon Smith’s theories of the good life. Ambition, for instance – the desire to be rich or famous – is not to be pursued for its own sake. Smith’s economic theories are not simply about the making and management of money: the pursuit of happiness is not the pursuit of money. Roberts tests Smith’s classic sober moderation against our modern intoxication with excess. That should shake a few CEOs and celebrities.
October 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
Does your pulse race when you inhale the smell of UHU glue and fresh copy paper? Are you spoilt for choice between treasury tags, staples and paperclips? When a spin of the Rolodex feels like the roulette of fate, an ink smudge is a Rorschach enigma, and Sellotape can stick together anything but a broken heart, you are ready to open the stationery closet and step into a fantastical Narnia of office and personal materials. James Ward investigates the drama of the desk tidy: what did Biró ever do for us, which brand of pencil did Steinbeck prefer, who is Bette Nesbith Graham and what is ‘Liquid Paper’, and how is it possible to stab yourself to death with an ink eraser? These and way too many other questions you never thought to ask when chewing the end of your Bic are answered smartly in black ink on white paper in geeky detail.
In his absence, first in life then in his death, Paul Godden became whatever his daughter Salena wanted him to be: so she made her Irish father from pieces of other men: poets Richard Brautigan and Laurie Lee, actors Oliver Reed and Dirk Bogarde, jazz musician Chet Baker. Anything but ordinary. But this remembrance by poet and performance artist Salena Godden is also about reality: the daily, domestic heroism of her beautiful Jamaican mother, the competitive but comforting company of her older brother Gus, the scents of Lifebuoy soap, Earl Grey tea, mothballs and kippers in the house of her Godden grandparents in Springfield Road in Hastings in the 1970s, Such times and places, “now in the faraway”, are evoked through family letters and diaries, snatched conversations, the pains and pleasures of adolescence, the discovery of how to love. Her writing is urgent and detailed, colourful and clamorous. Like all love stories, her memoir is intense, intimate and unfinished.
There are few cases of the Victorian period more worthy of the keenest attention by Sherlock Holmes than the tangled human interests, mercenary greed and the theatricality of the long-running cause celebre that followed the alleged death in 1864 of Thomas Charles Druce, a furniture dealer. It was claimed by Druce’s family that he had in fact been the alter ego of the wealthy and eccentric 5th Duke of Portland. In this latest literary exhumation, the complex, contradictory and concealed evidence of forty years and more legal wrangling is examined in the context of cutting-edge forensic techniques such as graphology, and contemporary press and public hysteria. Though Eatwell cannot move her investigation much beyond 1907, when the case stalled after a Highgate vault was finally opened and formally examined, she gives a lively account of the light shone through these embarrassing proceedings on the lies, deceit and hypocrisy of Victorian society and their tragic consequences.
October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
A ‘frood’ is defined in Adams-speak by Jem Roberts as a “really amazingly together guy” although it hardly fits Douglas Adams, begetter of the multi-media ‘Hitchhiker’ phenomenon, as a chaotic, frenzied storyteller with more genius than he could comfortably process. Most people now know that the answer to life, the universe and everything is, as Adams famously declared, 42; though not – as some Adams devotees believe – because Adams said it. Most of what he said and did has already filled several reverent biographies and speculative fanzines which have created an Adams who has become a palimpsest of his own reality. In a dedicated dig through the multi-layered Adams mythology, Roberts has discovered some unpublished ‘Hitchhiker’ extracts which he appends to his larky history of the Adams oeuvre which settles the fiercely partisan argument about whether ‘Hitchhiker’ is comedy or sci-fi: “I just wanted to do stuff I thought was funny”, said Adams.
It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Combining their talents as linguist/phonetician father David and actor/producer son Ben, the Crystals have a lively conversation about English as she is spoken, pronounced and perceived globally. The socially ‘correct’ accent is Received Pronunciation (RP) which used to be known as BBC English before the Radio 4 audience was outraged by regional accents and, worse, ‘ethnic’ pronunciations. Shakespearean language, these days delivered with RP, would provoke letters in green ink from listeners if acted with the authentic period accents. But plummy RP, these days, is no longer a guarantee of good social form: if anything, it has become the standard accent for movie villains. On the other hand, you are more likely to be sent down for being in possession of a Brummie accent than any other. To be phonologically safe, you can’t go wrong with an Edinburgh accent, apparently. Morningside rules!
Would they lie? Of course they would, though not directly. From the Parliamentary Press Gallery, political journalist Robert Hutton has learned to interpret fluent flannel, the language of dissimulation, honed to a fine art by politicians and at least fifty seven varieties of spokespersons. What is said is usually less than what is unsaid. The skill of ‘uncommunication’ lies in the ability to speak with inbuilt deniability. For instance, “I’m sorry if …” is only a conditional apology; “lessons must be learned” means guilty but pretending not to be; and “the important thing is …” the thing I really want to talk about, which is not the question you asked. Confused? Of course you are. You’re supposed to be. But help is at hand: Hutton’s handbook cracks the everyday code of the euphemisms, evasions, avoidances and ambiguities that say less than they mean and mean the reverse of what they say.
October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
If it takes a village to raise a child, it took generations of settlers to make the villages that made the country they came to call home. Archaeology, says Pryor, “is about the past as experienced by ordinary people.” He considers family to be the basis of human success in history. The modern nuclear family has developed from “broader family networks [that] were the basis for nearly all social, tribal and community organizations”, and which still survive vestigially in the House of Lords and the Royal family. Weather, too, had a lot to do with survival in the Bronze Age and after. When the wind is whistling round your hide cap and you’re up to your hocks in mud and snow, you learn to grow, hunt and cook food and construct a more than makeshift shelter for yourself and your folks. None of this is new, but Pryor’s down-to-earth archaeological narrative strongly supports his family-friendly thesis.
“The truth is,” says Val McDermid, “that crime fiction proper only began with an evidence-based legal system.” Forensic science is the pulse at the heart of justice, and so she takes off in hot pursuit of its pioneering heroes and problematic villains. From Victorian poisoners caught out by a more accurate test for arsenic, to convictions based on the latest DNA analysis, she examines the creativity of forensic experts through the analytic techniques they apply to real life crime from CSI to the courtroom. Perhaps the oddest specialisation is forensic entomology, which helped to convict Dr. Buck Ruxton of murder in 1935 by identifying maggots from the dissected, decomposing body parts of his wife Mary. Like Georges Simenon’s humane but implacable Inspector Maigret, Val McDermid understands that “every sudden violent death carries its own story”. She has not lost her early journalistic genius for telling that good story plainly and with passion.
Terry Pratchett’s attitude to fiction is that it’s like real life, which is peculiar enough, until you “put in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.” But the real problem is humour; “we think the opposite of funny is serious.” In this collection of speeches and journalism from his long career as the begetter of ‘Discworld’, he is seriously funny about the weirdness of the world and humorously serious about the NHS, assisted dying and his urgent personal campaign for more research into Alzheimer’s disease: “I am effectively Mr. Alzheimer’s.” When dementia finally does for him, his vision of the afterlife is that they will feed you on the way; crustless cucumber sandwiches mean you’re going to hell, but Branston pickle and cheese means you’re going to heaven. Until then, between the living reality of Terry Pratchett, his habitual wizard-style hat, and the magical universe, there is absolute unity.
September 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the second act of a crowded, colourful, charmed career as an artist and pop celebrity, David Hockney finds himself at the unforgiving mercy of his later years. From the 1980s onwards he loses lovers, friends and colleagues to AIDS, his hearing fades, the trademark blond hair goes grey and he exchanges California for East Yorkshire where he now produces local landscapes as large and vivid as any he painted in California. At the heart of his life is his mother. Her touching letter responding to her son’s homosexuality is a model of innocent, unconditional love. Hockney himself is surprised by a late love for dachshunds, and through all he remains an unregenerate smoker. Sykes provides a lively, reliable, affectionate narrative of Hockney’s activity, emotions and relationships rather than a critical biography. All the more credit to him for his restraint: there is a third act still to come. The life and work are not over yet.
The ash tree has a slightly sinister reputation: it talks in a wind by clattering its twigs, it is of ancient and profound symbolism in myth and legend, and in ‘The Ash Tree’, a chilling story by M. R. James, it was a home for uncanny things. Nevertheless, times had been good for the ash: it was flourishing, it sheltered woodland plants and wildlife of all kinds, and its hard wood was widely used for food, medicine, building and agricultural tools. Now it is sick, a victim of Ash Disease, a complex, microscopic fungus. Rackham, a botanist and historian of the English landscape, reckons the ash can be saved if plants (and bees) are no longer treated as mere articles of the globalised import/export trade and if the neglected science of tree pathology is revived. This short monograph is an ideal, expert introduction to an iconic tree and its endangered habitat throughout the UK.
As editor of this modern-minded anthology of writings about gardening, compiled from ‘The Garden’, the magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society, Ursula Buchan has a lovely time picking over the best and sometimes the quirkiest contributions. Did you know that hostas, usually food for insects, are fit also for humans who can eat their roots in pies or as sushi? Gosling scrotch is “nature’s Velcro” and the ruthlessness of gardeners is confirmed in a frank article, “Plants I’ve Killed”. In a very recent comment, garden designer John Brookes confronts “the whiff of privilege” which has characterised the RHS and the Chelsea Flower Show. Fashion and society have changed, he says; more modest styles and humbler gardeners have supplanted the grandees and their elaborate gardens. Ecology and environment, wildlife and weather, pests and people as much as plants, are gathered together in a bright bouquet of articles by a barrowload of diverse and entertaining gardeners.
September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
Those who believe the world is run by silent, secret organisations may have a point in the case of Alcatel-Lucent, a discreet company formed in 2006 which has 80,000 employees in 139 countries and annual revenue of 16 billion euros. Alcatel’s work, says Coupland, “is at the core of humanity’s new neural reality.” They are essentially cyber-plumbers of the global communications network. On his international tour of the office spaces where humanity’s internal rewiring is coded and processed by future-engineers, he is seriously impressed: this is Frigidaire-cool stuff. “Farewell, office hard drive. Farewell home hard drive”, says Coupland, who understands that “we are now in the adolescence of the creation of a global information grid with near universal access.” In the infancy, some might say. It is reassuring that Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur shows Alca-Loos’s brave new corporate environments as still reliant on blokes in jeans and the linguini of power cables and extension cords.
As a Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer during WWII, and later as a writer whose post-war expertise on the Cold War was fed by inside information from the intelligence services, historian Trevor-Roper was always waspish, quick-witted, and eloquent. In this fragmentary collection of politically calculated book reviews, cleverly indiscreet correspondence, and creatively controversial memoirs, he reveals the infighting and power-broking within the intelligence services. He reflects on traitors such as Kim Philby, the paranoid Peter Wright who believed Roger Hollis, Director General of MI5, to be a spy, and the mythical career of Noel Coward as a secret agent. He is scathing about the recruitment in the 1940s “of metropolitan young men whose education had been expensive rather than profound” and ex-Indian policemen. “Neither class had much use for ideas.” The disdain and distrust was often mutual, and this tension gives zest to Trevor-Roper’s combative alliance with the intelligence services.
OF CABBAGES AND KINGS: The History of Allotments by Caroline Foley (Frances Lincoln, 224pp; £20)
British allotments are more for leisure and pleasure than dire necessity these days, but their social history is less politely pastoral. For the peasantry, from Medieval to Victorian times, those narrow strips of land were too often the fine line between well-being and destitution. That they still exist, and supply exceeds demand, is due less to political goodwill than a fierce and constant fight by the poor for their rights to a statutory stake in the land. The outraged rhetoric of William Cobbett against early 19th century rural poverty renewed their cause, but austerity is always the allotment’s best friend. 20th century wartime shortages were relieved by digging for victory and more recently the green revolution has given grow-it-yourself a veneer of moral virtue. Colourful illustrations relieve the painstaking political detail of Caroline Foley’s report of the vigorous social struggle for land, though the current trench warfare is now mostly conducted by the allotment-loving middle-classes. One for the history shelf rather than the garden shed.
September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
From the age of ten, living in the Swat valley in Pakistan and attending her father’s school, Malala campaigned against the efforts of the Taliban to deny her and other girls an education. Two years later, in 2012, she was shot in the head by affronted gunmen, but survived to be honoured internationally as an symbol of courage and freedom. Though she deliberately presents herself in this memoir as a role model for teenage girls, she can’t watch an episode of ‘Ugly Betty’ without moralising about the commercialisation of Western women; she has little conversations with God; and in media interviews, it isn’t Malala speaking, but “the voice of so many others who wanted to speak but couldn’t”. Perhaps this idealised Masala is indeed a true portrait of an activist for our times, but an attitude of youthful piety blended with middle-aged political rectitude gives this book a high moral tone of precocious missionary zeal.
Wolpert’s contribution as a developmental biologist to the fiercely contested gender debate accepts the largely uncontroversial idea that evolution has resulted in men being modified women. The modifications have made men faster, stronger, bigger, more aggressive and more likely than women to take physical risks. There seems to be little evidence that either men or women are programmed for monogamy. Though women may give an emotional reasons such as “falling in love” to justify extramarital sex, men just focus on physicality. Women, Wolpert says, though also capable of aggression, were genetically selected to be loving carers for their children. He concludes that there are few differences in the skills of men and women, though a greater degree of “empathy possibly makes women more willing to do what men request.” Though some may wish to argue with much in his book Wolpert candidly admits in his defence it was written by a “classic systematising male.”
Clare Balding would be the ideal surrogate sister or auntie; though fortunately for her she already has an extended family not only of human beings but equally of horses and dogs. Her fraternity/sorority also extends to the people she was walked with for fifteen years of the Radio 4 series ‘Ramblings’ over dry hill and soggy vale or vice versa. With her brother Andrew, who trains racehorses and thinks a road map is a walking map, Clare decides to walk the seventy miles of the Wayfarer’s Walk near their family stables in Highclere. This makes for lots of family fun, but the meat of the book is her reminiscences of yomping the length and breadth of the country with frankly off-the-wall walkers, raucous ramblers and her producer Lucy Lunt who backstops for Clare with a microphone and an instinct for good radio. The joy of this book is Balding’s sheer rapture for life, movement and never shutting up about it.