Darwin in Malibu – Crispin Whittall

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This play by Crispin Whittell was premiered by The Birmingham Repertory theatre in Birmingham, England in May 2003, it opened on the 9th May and finished its scheduled run on the 31st, I attended the performance on the 21st. The copy of the book I possess was bought at the theatre and includes several pages relating to the performance including biographical details of the performers along with details regarding the theatre company and the theatre itself. Presumably these pages are not present in later versions of the book as it is replacing the need for a programme at this particular performance and is not relevant to any later production.

The entire play takes plays on the deck of a beach house in Malibu, California and is viewed as though the audience are sitting on the beach looking towards the house with the sea behind them. It is clearly the present day from the attire of the young woman who appears on the stage as the play opens. Already seated on the deck is an old man with a white beard wearing a Hawaiian shirt and reading a book, which turns out to be Malibu by Pat Booth. Already I was intrigued by the set-up, as presumably this was Charles Darwin, and nobody had said anything yet. Sarah and Darwin chat aimlessly for a while, she is clearly a little ditsy and missing her boyfriend whilst Darwin appears to have discovered a rather unlikely liking for horoscopes.

The two are joined by Thomas Huxley who was Darwin’s friend and public champion of his theory when it was published in 1859 whilst Darwin himself had stayed at his home in Kent most noticeably at an acrimonious  debate at the British Association’s Oxford meeting in 1860. It soon becomes clear that both men are well aware that over a century has passed and that they are both dead. They are also puzzled as to why in that case they are sitting in a beach house in Malibu and also why they are joined by Sarah who is clearly not a Victorian ghost. Nevertheless they chat about the Oxford debate and also technological discoveries since such as DNA which shows how Natural Selection (as Darwin called it) works.

Then suddenly from along the beach the bishop of Oxford from that same debate, Samuel Wilberforce, arrives. It was with the bishop that Huxley famously, and possibly apocryphally, disagreed most. Apparently back in 1860 Wilberforce facetiously asked Huxley whether his ape ancestors were on his grandfather or grandmother’s side. Huxley replied that he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man with an impressive brain and considerable influence who chose to employ those facilities in the ridicule of science. The three of them attempt to continue the debate on stage and although it is now 143 years later it is clear there will be no meeting of minds, just as we also slowly find out who Sarah is and why she is there.

Now if that all sounds a little dry and overly intellectual for an evenings entertainment I have to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst not a laugh a minute it is very funny when it wants to be and poignant when appropriate. I still have the flyer for the show I saw which is tucked into the book as a bookmark and the quote from Darwin’s lines in the play printed on it sums up the effect of California on the great thinker. The play is seldom performed although it has had a few revivals not just in the UK but America as well, if it ever on near you I recommend it.

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Wind, Sand and Stars – Saint-Exupéry

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I think most people come across Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry, to give him his full name, via his massively popular novel The Little Prince which is one of the most translated books ever written, only beaten by The Bible and, depending on where you look, Pinocchio. Once you have heard of his work then quite often you discover that he was a French pioneer aviator, flying mail planes from 1926 and that he died in mysterious circumstances during WWII whilst on a reconnaissance flight looking for German troop movements in mid 1944. This lovely Folio Society edition concerns some of his flying experiences from a student through the 1930’s. He was to write another book covering his wartime flying called Flight to Arras and having finished this book I now need to get hold of a copy of that.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, tales of daring do, a man against the elements in what was still very primitive machinery perhaps, what I had not allowed for was how much the philosopher and poet would shine through. Indeed near the beginning in the chapter called ‘The Elements’ which describes being caught in a storm in the Andes Saint-Exupéry makes it quite clear that my first thoughts are not to be realised

And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.

In reality the story that follows is dramatic, but not because of excitable reportage which may have been the style selected by a lesser writer, but for the calm descriptions of each problem thrown at the pilot as the storm winds batter his plane around the sky. The various chapters whilst maintaining an internal consistent time-frame are not placed chronologically in the book. Chapter one does cover his days as a student pilot, or at least the preparations for his first flight as the pilot on a mail plane rather than his student days and as the book progresses you find him in South America and later the Sahara although in reality his three years as a desert pilot preceded his time across the Atlantic.

There is surprising little flying in the book at all, the longest chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ starts out with a proposed flight from Paris to Saigon in December 1935 and does indeed have Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic in the air for several pages until the inevitable crash presaged by the chapter title has them down in an unknown part of the desert. The main part of the chapter concerns their attempts to attract rescue and treks away from the plane wreckage to seek water and nourishment almost all of which had been lost in the crash. But even here Saint-Exupéry deflates the tension pointing out early on that he is writing the story so they must have eventually found help, even  though it was at the last possible chance as they were almost dying from lack of water. This for me is the best chapter of the book, closely followed by ‘Men of the Desert’ which again is chiefly not concerned with flying but rather the people on the ground that he comes into contact with and almost half the chapter regards the freeing of a slave held by desert nomads and returning him to Marrakesh.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Barcelona and Madrid (1936)’ covers some of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in this conflict was never as a participant unlike George Orwell whose time there led to his book Homage to Catalonia. In fact it is not clear exactly what he is doing there as he manages to be on both fronts and is vitriolic regarding the futility of the conflict.

There was not much to choose between Barcelona and its enemy, Saragossa; both were composed of the same swarm of communists, anarchists and fascists. The very men who collected on the same side were perhaps more different from one another than from their enemies. In civil war the enemy is inward; one as good as fights oneself. What else can explain the particular horror of this war in which firing-squads count for more that soldiers of the line?

and a little later

Here in Spain a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Here again Saint-Exupéry is dealing with mankind as his subject, the title of the book is probably a little misleading, you expect Biggles but you get Descartes.

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On the 23rd July 1944 Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work The Little Prince was published for the first time. Eight days later he set off on a routine reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning looking for German troops and was never seen again. Indeed no trace of his plane was to be found for over fifty years, first a bracelet was discovered in the nets of a Marseilles fisherman and that led to the discovery of a wrecked P-38 off the coast. Checking a recovered serial number proved the wreck to be his plane but there was no body. Near the end of The Little Prince the eponymous hero has to return to his own planet and amongst his last words are

I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true…

For over fifty years fans of Saint-Exupéry wanted that to be true of him also…

 

Mortimer Also – Jo Rice

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I was lucky, I was introduced to books at an early age and was a confident, and voracious, reader by the time I was five and around that time my parents subscribed to the Children’s Book Club which supplied a hardback book every month from a selection they provided in a catalogue sent with the previous month’s book. The book club was run by the famous London bookshop Foyles, at least going by the address printed in the books I still have of 121 Charing Cross Road, there is no mention of the owner of the club in any of the books I still have from them. As well as books reprinted for the club there were also books from other publishers included in the selection and all editions were offered at a significant discount to the listed price. I know I was a member for at least five years judging by the dates of the books I retain and memory of the significant shelf space they took up and this weeks blog subject is one of the earliest from when I turned six years old.

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It was great fun to read Mortimer Also again, probably for the first time in over forty years. Over those intervening decades the only time it has come off the shelf was to be packed in a box and then unpacked again after each house move. It was one of those not reprinted by the book club so this is the 1968 first edition printed by Worlds Work and sadly it would appear to have been the only edition as a search of abebooks and biblio only revealed this version. It seems odd it never got reprinted, the story is well written and beautifully illustrated by David Knight and I’m sure would have found a wider readership if it had been picked up for a paperback reprint, at 21 shillings for the hardback (roughly £18 in today’s money) it was quite expensive if not bought through the book club.

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The story concerns Henry Lester, a leading cricket umpire about to start on his final season before retiring with the highlight being the Lord’s Test Match, The Ashes, England v Australia. Certainly in the 1960’s when the book was written this would have been the standout game of cricket that year however Henry has a problem, his eyesight is failing him and he occasionally has double vision so he is planning on quitting before his career grand finale. He also has another concern which he makes some notes of before going to bed one night and to his surprise finds replies added to his piece of paper the next morning

1. A mouse has taken up residence in the skirting board of my parlour
THAT'S RITE!
2. Clean, tidy, quiet, no trouble at all
THANKS I'M SURE
3. Listens to wireless, only on Saturday evenings
SEE B.B.C. 6:30pm
4. During Summer
WHO PLAYS CRICKET IN WINTER?
5. Sits in entrance to hole - backwards!
YOUR FAULT?
6. Makes strange scratching noises and occasionally twitches tail
SEE 5.
7. The sports page of my evening paper disappears every Saturday night
YOU GET IT BACK ON SUNDAY
8. I am worried
AWRIGHT I'LL GO.

And so Henry gets to meet Mortimer Also, a family name “Grandfather Mortimer; father – Mortimer Too; yours truly – Mortimer Also” a cricket mad mouse who notes the scores down on old bus tickets, hence scratching noises and sitting in his hole backwards to prevent them being blown about, and is also perceptive enough to spot Henry’s secret eyesight problem. He talks Henry out of resigning and between them come up with a plan where Mortimer Also will hide in his hat, observing the game through tiny holes and signalling to Henry what decisions he should make. The story is full of gentle humour with Mortimer reacting to the Australians initially in a highly partisan way especially after the fast bowler sees him on the ground and tries to hit him with a bat. Gradually though he settles down and the plan succeeds in getting Henry through the five days of the game with only a few incidents. In the final few pages where Mortimer Also steps up to defend the ruse to the Lords Committee after Henry confesses all after Mortimer was knocked out by a stray ball are beautifully written and that is probably why over fifty years after I first had this book it is still on my shelves unlike most of my original childhood library.

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The book includes a few very thinly disguised actual cricketers including a large framed Australian fast bowler called Kelly who was probably based on Graham McKenzie and the captains of England and Australia from the early 1960’s, Ted Dexter and Richie Benaud respectively. Dexter is simply referred to as Ted Baxter but there is a quite an accurate summary of Benaud as Henry describes him to Mortimer before the start of the game.

Archie Renaud, Captain; all-rounder; slow spin bowler; lively bat; goes in 6 or 7.

This dates the year that this is based on to probably 1961 as by the 1964 series Benaud was no longer captain. Ah the serendipity of cricket, whilst looking that up I found that the Australian touring team in 1961 included a slow left-arm bowler called I Quick. Although he never played in the Test Matches I love that fact almost as much as I loved reading Mortimer Also, now will somebody please reprint it so that more people can discover this little gem of a book.

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McCarthy’s Bar – Pete McCarthy

The eight rule of travel states: “Never Pass A Bar That Has Your Name On It”

For someone with roots in the west of Ireland, even though he was born in England, McCarthy spent a lot of time during his childhood in Ireland and was familiar with just how ubiquitous the McCarthy name was in the west and so how many bars there were with his name. As this is being posted on New Years Eve being in a bar is an ideal subject.

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A little background on Pete McCarthy first, he originally made his name as a comedian but where I first came across him was as the presenter of Travelog, a Channel 4 (UK television) quirky travel programme which started in 1990 and then from his numerous appearances on BBC Radio 4 shows both comedy and travel based. Sadly he died of cancer in 2004 aged only 52 and left us just two books to enjoy his gently humorous writing. McCarthy’s Bar was the first and was published in 2000, my copy is the paperback from 2001. The book starts on St Patrick’s Day and “McCarthy’s Bar was heaving”, he goes on to describe not only his own steadily more drunken state but that of the very international clientele of pub and his growing realisation that he really felt Irish, the punchline at the end of the chapter is typically Pete McCarthy.

Outside I stood under the green neon shamrock and looked up at the sign. ‘McCarthy’s’ it said. ‘Hungary’s top Irish pub’.

I turned up my collar. Budapest can still be quite chilly in March.

Sod this I thought. Next year I’ll go to Ireland.

Sadly McCarthy’s in Budapest no longer exists, but it is commemorated by the fact that next year he did go to Ireland and provided this wonderfully funny and also at time deeply thought provoking book as he sees how Ireland has changed since he was there as a child each summer holiday on the family farm, whilst visiting as many bars called McCarthy’s as he could find. There are two trips covered in the book, the first one uses a hire car for a week to set up a much longer trip using a beaten up old Volvo which he buys in England for less than the cost of hiring the original car for the week, cue a very funny passage which deals with the trials, tribulations and surprising hidden costs of hiring a car.

By the trip with the Volvo he has got into his stride with the style of the book and he also has a plan beyond the original premise of just travelling which is to finish with a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory a notoriously difficult three days of fasting and prayer on an island in a lake in County Donegal. There is no real explanation as to why he chooses to do this, visiting all the pubs with your name on them makes sense as a plan for a trip round Ireland but as to why he wants to do the three days at the end not even McCarthy seems clear with the reasoning other than he picked up the leaflet about it and decided to go.

Another series of locations soon become obvious in the narrative, McCarthy is fascinated by the multitude of ancient stone circles and other monuments that litter the countryside in Ireland and regular diversions are planned to visit them between evenings (and quite often nights) in the various pubs. He examines the uneven way Ireland has become wealthy from the mid 1990’s with the Celtic Tiger boom and the huge increase in tourism outside of Dublin that has come with it, so there is a lot more to the book than simply funny stories. However there are plenty of those and one of my favourites concerns the town of Bunratty and the castle with the Folk Park. The park includes various buildings created to represent Irish history and a ‘pub’ called Durty Nellies where it turns out that at night the locals go to so as to avoid all the tourists that now fill their traditional bars. Creating the odd situation that the real pubs in town cater for the tourists and the fake pub in the theme park, which is aimed at tourists, is where you will find the actual locals at least after the park is officially closed anyway.

There are several laugh out loud sections and I loved the short passage on his trip to Killarney racecourse which he went to on the advice of his severely out of date guide which was written by William Makepeace Thackeray a hundred and fifty years earlier.

At the end of an astonishing long line of bookies is a chap called McCarthy. I go straight over and put £5 at five to one on a horse whose name closely resembles a TV executive I’d like to see run two and a half miles jumping fences while a fierce little Irish bloke whipped him.

The horse lost, but it’s a good story. That also applies to all the other stories in the book even including the three days on Station Island in Lough Derg where he manages to inject humour into purgatory.

The pub doorway featured on the cover is that of MacCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere, County Cork owned and run by Adrienne MacCarthy, the ‘a’ drops in and out of spelling Mac quite frequently in both Ireland and Scotland. However the sign was photoshopped for the cover to reflect the spelling of Pete’s surname. The nun by the way is not really in holy orders but one of the barmaids dressed up for the photoshoot. There is a really good write up about the real bar and the effect it had and continues to have on the business in the Irish Times from December 2014.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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This post is going up on Christmas Eve so I thought it would be good to look at one of the Christmas books sent as occasional gifts by Allen Lane (the founder of Penguin Books) and his family. This isn’t a review of one of the greatest works in English literature, rather I want to look at the book itself and how it came into existence.

The Ancient Mariner was the gift in 1945 from Allen and his brother Richard, sadly the third brother John had died during the war, and this was the first one published since 1930. The tradition of an occasional privately printed limited edition book was started by Allen’s uncle, John Lane, who founded his company The Bodley Head in 1887 initially to sell antiquarian books. In 1894 he started publishing in his own right and that year sent a small volume of the autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley as a Christmas present to family and friends. It is not known how many copies were printed but it is rarely seen so presumably the print run was quite small. I featured this book in my first ever post on this blog.  There were three books printed as gifts from 1928 to 1930, the first was from Allen and Dick Lane, the other two were from Allen, Dick and John Lane and then whilst there was a gap in the production of books, there were some interesting Christmas cards printed instead in some of those years.

As mentioned above John Lane (Allen’s brother as opposed to his uncle of the same name) died during the war so this restart of a tradition came from Allen and Richard (no longer calling himself Dick). The resultant volume bears the mark of being a little hurried, after all it was only a few months after the end of the war and it was presumably also a little celebration that the conflict was over and normal life could start to return. The cover is full dark blue Niger leather with a medallion stamped in gold and looks rather fine (although it does fade quite badly) however the title page in particular is a bit of a mess with five different fonts and type sizes used in just seven lines.

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After that unprepossessing start though the presentation of the poem itself is rather lovely, the paper is hand made with a gilded top edge, the illustrations by Duncan Grant are also quite atmospheric and whilst better than the original attempts which were rejected by the artist were apparently not as good as they might have been.

Duncan Grant was not happy with the first illustrations we produced, so we did them again, adding I think two more colours

Richard Lane

Quite what they would have looked like without the extension of the colour palette I can’t imagine as they are fairly restricted in colours used even as ultimately printed. Hans Schmoller, Head of Typography and Design at Penguin Books from 1949 to 1976, also felt that they were not as good as they might have been, although for a different reason.

I’ve always thought it a pity that Duncan Grant’s beautiful coloured drawings were reproduced photo-lithographically instead of as auto-lithographs.

Auto-lithography is definitely a far superior process and one that Penguin already used very successfully to give far more subtle colour grading and is also under control of the artist so would presumably avoided Grant’s original problem with the first version of the prints. Maybe it wasn’t done because of this extra work that the artist has to do, but anyway the illustrations are good but as Schmoller says, could have been better.

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As can be seen above the actual text is very pleasingly done with the main part of the poem being in black whilst the commentary on the action is in Venetian red. There is also a lot of blank space round the text which makes it easier to read, this is especially noticeable after the cramped styling forced on publishers during the war when the need to conserve paper stocks led to small fonts and words as close to the paper edge as possible. Richard Lane again:

During the war the production of our publications was only moderate – very narrow margins and as many words to the page as we possibly could fit in – so in The Ancient Mariner we went to town on production

I like the book a lot, it is one of the more difficult Lane Christmas books to find as it appeals not only to collectors of these works but Duncan Grant is also very collectable and there were only 700 copies produced. This is a lot compared to the other Christmas books right up until 1950 when the first one with a print run of 1000 appeared but this does appear to be quite elusive, so was one of the last I have managed to acquire for my collection. I leave you with the image of the first appearance of the albatross that would cause so many problems for the Mariner and wish my readers a very Happy Christmas.

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Penguin Science Survey

I recently completed my collection of this interesting series, some of which are surprisingly difficult to find, so I thought it was time to review the fifteen books that make the set and the history of how they came to exist. Although they were all published in the 1960’s their genesis was back in the 1940’s with two ‘quarterly’ periodicals also published by Penguin; Science News which ran to fifty four volumes from June 1946 to March 1960 and New Biology which had thirty one volumes from July 1945 to January 1960. As you can see from the date ranges, although these were theoretically quarterly, in practice only Science News managed anything like a volume every three months, in fact there was a gap of nineteen months between New Biology 1 and volume 2. These books each contained various articles covering a wide range of scientific advances written by scientists at a level where the interested layman wouldn’t feel intimidated but detailed enough to be of interest to the scientific community. By 1960 though Penguin Books were getting out of the periodicals business, however there was still seen to be a need for something like Science News and New Biology so Penguin Science Survey was born the following year.

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1961 The Specials

Science News and New Biology had their own series codes within Penguin Books but as those had come to an end a new home was needed. The logical place was within the Pelican imprint which was well established as the main factual part of Penguin Books output and the 1961 volumes were therefore planned to go there. Both books have the Pelican logo internally and volume 1 even has a number in the Pelican range A526 (which was re-assigned to The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter published August 1961) but for some reason very late in the day it was decided they should be Penguin Specials and came out as S193 and S194 in June 1961 in what looks like a hasty rebinding with laminated thin card covers unlike anything else from Penguin at the time.

Volume 1 replaced Science News and covers such diverse subjects as elementary particles, The US space plan, geophysics, the development of nuclear weapons and several other topics. Each article is around twenty pages long and there are a dozen in total along with a preface by the editor Arthur Garrett and a section on units and constants. Volume 2 is the equivalent of New Biology and has fifteen articles ranging from smoking and cancer of the lung (an article well ahead of its time), world food production, the life of viruses, the cockroach, the brain of the octopus, etc. again these are normally around twenty pages long each and there is also a preface by the joint editors S.A. Barnett and Anne McLaren. Both volumes also have numerous line drawings within the text and a section of black and white photographic plates in the middle of the book. Having created this template in these volumes it was largely stuck to for the following years.

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1963 A new home

There were no editions in 1962 and when they re-appeared in February 1963 they were oddly assigned to be part of the ‘main series’ with catalogue numbers 1924 and 1925 where they shared space with novels, travelogues, biographies and plays, they had also become A and B rather than 1 and 2 although A continued to be the equivalent of Science News with B covering New Biology with the same editors as in 1961. Volume A has amongst its eleven main essays a good article on optical astronomy by Patrick Moore and a fascinating piece on computers subtitled a progress review where the author describes an amazing IBM machine that could store a massive 100 million characters; which is several orders of magnitude less than an average mobile phone today. Roughly half of volume B is taken up with a series of articles linked under the heading ‘Matters of Life and Death’ which cover chromosomes, contraception, malformations and family planning. Also included in the rest of the book is a piece on tissue transplantation which was still in its early days, along with eight other essays.

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1964 and 1965 A short period of stability

These two years continued the pattern of 1963 with the same editors and a wide spread of subjects covered. The books are still in the ‘main series’, which is where they would remain, and are assigned the following catalogue numbers 2043 and 2044 (April 1964) along with 2225 and 2226 (April 1965).

In 1964 subjects included elementary particles, Soviet space research, adhesion and a quirky short article entitled ‘How discoveries are made: a plea for intuition’ all in volume A, whilst volume B has life on other planets, the origin of man, learning a birds language, communication in bees amongst many other essays. In 1965 part A is split into three sections: Physical Research including superconductivity (still very relevant today), the physics of the brain, and automated spacecraft of the US. The second section is entitled Industrial Applications of Science and has diverse subjects such as Diamonds in industry, rubber, and supersonic aircraft. The final part is entitled Communications and has just two articles, the communication of information, and science on radio. Part B bounces all over the place from mental images, athletic physique, homosexuality, tranquillisers, and the yeasts of wine to other subjects equally intriguing.

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1966 A missing book and a new title

Any collector looking for Penguin Science Survey A from 1966 will look in vain because it was never published. B did come out in March as number 2467 and it was joined, the same month, by Penguin Technology Survey 1966 (number 2439) which covered some of the same ground as Survey A would have been expected to do, it is also edited by the regular Survey A editor Arthur Garrett. This book is probably the one that interests me most with essays on the impact of electrical engineering, new methods of printing, computer aided design (remember this is 1966 so really surprising to see what feels like a new technology in use over fifty years ago) and a look forward to nuclear fusion reactors (which is still the case) along with other subjects. Science Survey B has a new editor, Anthony Allison, but apart from that little has changed. Like Technology Survey the subjects feel up to date including the challenge of insecticide resistance, two articles on fighting virus infections by differing means, and several more on the effects of temperature in biology and medicine.

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1967 And then there was three

Any thoughts that the 1966 Penguin Technology Survey was a re-branding of Survey A which wasn’t done very well and left Survey B stranded was dispelled this year by the existence of three titles 2640 Penguin Technology Survey 1967 (April), 2687 Penguin Science Survey 1967 Biology (July) and 2688 Penguin Science Survey 1967 Physical Sciences (also July). The renaming of the surveys was presumably to make it more obvious what they covered rather than A or B and the same editors continued from the previous year along with Nicholas Valéry who took over what used to be Survey A and was now Physical Sciences.

Technology Survey has a good article on technological advances in Japan, something we would all become familiar with over the following decades and there are also a couple of excellent essays on technology in medicine but my favourite has to be the last one which deals with the problems of naming things as technology advances and is entitled “Let’s make up the words as we go along”. The Biology Survey is subtitled The Biology of Sex and all fifteen essays are concerned with some aspect of this subject including four on sex in the insect world, a couple on mammals in general and others including anthropology, and the x-chromosome. With technology now in its own volume what was Survey A is more restricted in its subject matter but this means it can look deeper into specific areas, instead of one article on space science which was the most you got up until now there are three, this better reflects the 1960’s Space Age fascination. There are also pieces on solar energy, detecting underground nuclear explosions (also a hot topic at the time) and high energy physics.

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1968 The last hurrah

Technology Survey only lasted for two volumes and was gone after 1967. 1968 would be the final year of the Penguin Science Survey. 2840 Penguin Science Survey 1968 Biology and 2841 Penguin Science Survey 1968 Physical Sciences finally hit the bookshelves in November and had the same editors as in 1967. As with the previous year the Biology volume took one overarching subject, in this case photobiology, and the twelve papers look at all aspects of the effect of light in biology. From photochemisty, through photosynthesis, to the impact of light in controlling flowers, and on to bioluminescence with plants and animals producing their own light there is lots to get into in this book. Finally comes Physical Sciences, there are ten articles in this volume and several of these are still major paths of investigation today such as the worlds weather, superconductors, controlled nuclear fusion, and life in the universe.

Conclusion

All properly written articles on science should finish with a summary of what we have learned and in this case I just want to stress how good these books are. As you can see from the selection of article titles I have picked out they are to some extent still relevant today and provide an interesting background to the development of modern science and technology. Apart from the 1963 volumes the covers were all designed by F.H.K Henrion which gives a pleasing consistency to the series, no designer is credited for the 1963 effort or 1967’s Technology Survey but that one at least looks like his work.

The price more than doubled over the eight years from six shillings (30p) in 1961 to twelve shillings and sixpence (62½p) in 1968 and they were always considerably more expensive than other Penguin books at the time which probably helped with their demise. In 1968 a novel the same length as one of the surveys would have cost five shillings (25p) so less than half the price, the reason is probably down to the lower print runs for specialised titles so fewer being sold but equally the price must have put off a significant number of potential readers therefore contributing to the downward spiral of purchasers.

Search them out, they are worth looking for and when you do find them still only cost a few pounds.

Misericords – Philip Sharpe and Andrew Judd

This lovely book wasn’t planned to be a post on this blog because until the 23rd November this year I didn’t even know it existed. On that day I was in Hay on Wye, which is the worlds first book town, and discovered a new shop that I hadn’t seen before. Balch and Balch (also trading as The Story of Books) specialise in books from Private Presses and although the main room was closed at the time as they were preparing for the Winter Festival to be held the following weekend Graeme kindly brought a selection of about eight titles for me to have a look at, top of the pile was this one. Now he couldn’t have known that I have a lifetime fascination with misericords and if ever I am in a medieval church or cathedral always check to see what delights are hidden away there in the choir stalls.

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So before reviewing the book, just what are misericords? The description as given at the start of the King Penguin book on the subject (written by M.D. Anderson and published in October 1954 as K72) is reproduced below.

An intelligent sightseer who wishes to understand the mentality of ordinary people living in the Middle Ages will find a rich reward for even a superficial study of the carvings on Gothic choir stalls, particularly those of misericords. The medieval priests, finding the physical strain of standing through a succession of long services beyond their endurance, devised a hinged seat with a corbel projecting from its under-surface which, when the seat was tipped up, allowed them to combine the comfort of sitting with the appearance of standing. In an age which was lavish in the use of fine craftsmanship it was natural that these corbels, although seldom seen, should be decorated with carvings and the work gave a rare opportunity for self-expression to carvers employed.

As implied there is a wide variety of subjects to be seen on misericords and a lot of the time you wonder what they are doing in a church, real and imaginary animals, people making beer or wine (and drinking it), various domestic scenes, knights in armour or even in New College Oxford a series depicting the seven deadly sins… What is rarely depicted is religious subjects. these carvings after all were intended to be sat on and it was not seen as suitable to have sacred images for that purpose. This brings us to the carvings in St Mary’s church at Ripple in Worcestershire, England which were used to inspire the illustrations in this book. Of the sixteen misericords in the church twelve depict ‘the labours of the months’ and Andrew Judd has produced some lovely linocuts of these to accompany not only a medieval poem but also twelve new works by Philip Sharpe that fill out the story.

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The book is printed in a limited edition of just 50 copies of which mine is number 45 by a private press called MKB Editions about whom I have unfortunately been able to find out very little other than it appears to be a Hereford based collaboration between Sharpe and Judd as everything I can find published by the press involves one or both of them. Of the 49 other copies of this book, two are held in libraries according to worldcat, at the University of Oxford and also, somewhat more randomly, the University of Arizona.

It really is a beautiful book, printed by letterpress on Zerkall paper it is quarter cloth bound with printed boards forming the cover. In total there are fourteen prints, one for each of the months along with one facing the anonymous medieval poem that formed part of the inspiration to the book and a further image making up the final page; all are based on the misericords in St. Mary’s. I admit to buying it for the prints rather than the poetry by Philip Sharpe which is OK but without the images I would not have looked twice at the book. There are several references to the River Severn (which flows roughly 100 yards from my front door) and also its propensity to flood, which living here I am all too aware of, so the verses ring true to my locality. But sadly other than the geographic recognition I don’t have a deep feeling for the text; but I will treasure the book nevertheless for adding to my love of the remarkable misericord and a chance discovery decades ago in childhood that has led to a fascination with old churches that I still retain today.

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