The Beach of Falesá – Robert Louis Stevenson

I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning.  The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright.  To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond.  The land breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain

So begins The Beach of Falesá one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s lesser known tales which is set in his beloved South Pacific where he lived from 1888 until his sudden death in 1894 aged just forty four. He is buried in Samoa.

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My edition of this book was published by The Folio Society in 1959 and is illustrated by the wonderful Clarke Hutton who also illustrated many of the Penguin and Puffin books on my shelves. At just under twenty nine thousand words it is more of a novella than a novel, although the Folio edition stretches it to 129 pages including a ten page introduction by H E Bates. The story was originally printed in the Illustrated London News and is normally published along with two much shorter stories (The Bottle Imp and The Isle of Voices) under the title of Island Nights Entertainments. The tale concerns the arrival of John Wiltshire to take up his post as a trader on the island to replace John Adams who had died in mysterious circumstances and how he finds out what is really going on.

Large parts of the book, specifically conversations between the Europeans and the natives are written in Pidgin English which can be off putting at first and it is also assumed that you know what several words that Stevenson would have understood actually mean. For example the main product that the trader is there to collect in payment for his goods is copra – the dried white meat of a coconut used to produce coconut oil. He also refers to the natives as Kanaka which is here used as a generic term for Pacific island workers but originally derives from the indigenous peoples of New Caledonia. Coconut is also spelt throughout as cocoanut which is now an archaic spelling.

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On arrival Wiltshire meets another trader called Case who it turns out will be the main protagonist of the story and it is decided that Wiltshire should have a ‘wife’ to look after him on the island and a native girl Uma is tricked into the role by Case. Because she cannot read English the document that she treasures actually reads…

This is to certify that Uma, daughter of Fa’avao of Falesá, Island of —, is illegally married to Mr. John Wiltshire for one week, and Mr. John Wiltshire is at liberty to send her to hell when he pleases.

John Blackamoar.
Chaplain to the hulks.

Extracted from the Register
by William T. Randall,
Master Mariner.

This clearly indicates the contempt that the white people already on the island hold for the natives, Wiltshire, to his credit, quickly regrets the nature of this and when he meets the missionary gets him to do the marriage properly as he realises that he does love Uma.

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One of the main problems with the book to modern readers is the casual racism which was so common at the time the book was written. The natives are looked upon as little more than children, in fact at one point Stevenson makes this explicit

It’s easy to find out what Kanakas think.  Just go back to yourself any way round from ten to fifteen years old, and there’s an average Kanaka.  There are some pious, just as there are pious boys; and the most of them, like the boys again, are middling honest and yet think it rather larks to steal, and are easy scared and rather like to be so.

Having said that Stevenson doesn’t portray any of the white men in a particularly positive way, Case is a particularly nasty piece of work and Captain Randall is a gin sodden wreck. The missionary is a reasonable character but Stevenson (through Wiltshire) makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of the work of the missionaries in the islands.

Stevenson nowadays is regarded more as a childrens’ author, with Kidnapped and Treasure Island being his best known works along with a book I still have from my early library A Child’s Garden of Verses. But this at least is definitely aimed at an adult readership.

Island Nights’ Entertainments is available to read on Project Guttenberg via this link

Where’s Wumpus – Elleston Trevor

Nowadays if Elleston Trevor is remembered at all it is for his 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix about a plane crash in the Libyan desert where the survivors eventually manage to build a new plane out of the wreckage of the old and fly to safety. The book has been turned into a film twice, once in 1965 starring James Stewart and Richard Attenborough and remade in 2004 starring Dennis Quaid. Born Trevor Dudley-Smith he eventually changed his name to Elleston Trevor which until then was one of his eleven pen names (including his real name) for his various books such as the nineteen volumes about the spy Quiller which he wrote under the name of Adam Hall written from 1965 with the last one published in 1996 one year after his death.

However I want to go back to 1948, as I have a couple of the children’s books he wrote then which were actually originally my mothers and specifically the third (and final) book in the Wumpus series, Where’s Wumpus.

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This has been my favourite book from childhood and it has been a joy rereading it this week. As you can see from the opening page the font is lovely and the spelling wonderfully eccentric and there are also several typesetting jokes later in the book to emphasise action. Wumpus is a koala living in a wood with his various friends Ole Bill Mole, Flip, or maybe Flap, the penguin (it depends on the day, if he is Flip today then he will be Flap tomorrow and vice versa), Hare-With-the-Careless-Air and Chipmunk (who first appears in this final book). The eight colour and forty eight black and white charming illustrations are by John McCail with the colour pages on higher quality paper and inset into the book. This is probably due to paper restrictions still applying after the war meaning that the paper used for the rest of the book isn’t suitable for colour printing.

In the first part of the book Wumpus goes to visit Ole Bill Mole and after partaking of a large amount of ‘swish-roll’ is persuaded to help with the decorating that Bill had started. Unfortunately he had the only ladder so Wumpus ends up balanced precariously on the umbrella stand

But a Wumpus was now doing all he knew now to stay on top of the Brolly-stand which was trying to do a Rhumba while he did the Tango and the Bucket was going into an old-fashioned Waltz

At which point Flap (it being Tuesday) arrived and he tried to get down again…

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In a later story Wumpus discovers the joy of swinging between trees on a rope and the typesetting joins in the fun and games

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It was established early on in the book that there was a rung missing from the ladder leading down from The Wumpus Tree to the ground

So down he went, with a heigh and a ho (according to which rung of the ladder he was on) and when he came to the rung that wasn’t (because he’d forgotten to put a new one in yet) he murmured: “Careful Wump,” in a cautioning way, and managed to reach the ground without taking a run at it from half-way up the ladder (which would have been bouncy, not to mention most uncomfortablesome).

and about two thirds of the way through the book he decides to fix this particular problem even though it had started to rain leading to what appears to be a nasty accident…

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Instead it turns out that the umbrella acted like a parachute and so they all had a go at jumping off the balcony and floating to the ground, unfortunately Bill Mole, being the lightest, floated rather further than the rest and initially landed badly

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Later on it turns out that a gust of wind took him flying over the wood.

The whimsical nature of the book is just as much fun now as an adult as when I first read it aged about eight or nine, the Wumpus books are difficult to find nowadays but there is a copy of Where’s Wumpus available at the time of writing from a shop in Australia.

I do have another of Elleston Trevor’s children’s books which is also a first edition from 1948 and this is aimed at slightly older readers, probably early teens. This is illustrated with line drawings by David Williams and again printed by Gerald G. Swan. The tale is about a group of anthropomorphic animals that decide to go exploring and features an otter (called Potter), a badger (Old Stripe) and a squirrel (Skip). They try to interest other animals in the wood about coming with them but in the end it is just the three that head off down the river.

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They have all sorts of adventures on the trip including meeting up with a church mouse who joins them for a large part of the journey. As can be seen below the drawings are just as captivating as the ones in Where’s Wumpus but have a much more naturalistic style.

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The Secret Travellers is book five in the fifteen book series with the same characters which have become known as the Happy Glade (from the title of the first book) or Deep Wood (from the title of the third) series, confusingly the first two were written under the name of Trevor Dudley-Smith with the other thirteen being as Elleston Trevor hence the two different names for the series. These are all unfortunately also long out of print and difficult to find. I would love to see these available again as I’m sure they would find a readership but in the meantime I will enjoy my mother’s books and maybe I will find some of the other titles one day.

An Unsung Hero: the remarkable story of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer – Michael Smith

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Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean. The first three Antarctic explorers listed are household names but Tom Crean is, as the title of the book implies, largely unknown. But he should be celebrated, as he took part in three of the main British Antarctic expeditions during what became known as The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration during the first two decades of the 20th century.  He  was with Scott and Shackleton on the Discovery Expedition from 1901 to 1904 which at the time set the record for furthest south at 82° 17′. He was then with Scott on his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition from 1910 to 1913 and Scott’s attempt on the South Pole, where he was beaten to it by Amundson and died on his way back to the ship. Crean was later with Shackleton on his failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition on the Endurance from 1914 to 1917 where the Endurance sank early in the venture. Shackleton walked his men to Elephant island and then chose four to go with him for help in an open boat across over eight hundred miles of the South Atlantic to South Georgia and Crean was one of those who was part of possibly the greatest feat of seamanship seen in the last hundred years.

So why is he so barely known, apart from those of us with a fascination with Polar exploration? Well part of the reason is that Crean was really only semi-literate, so he left no diaries or any other documentation for posterity; he also never gave any interviews and the four medals he earned in the Antarctic weren’t displayed. Apparently he never even told his daughters about his exploits in Antarctica. The sole hint that here was a man with his background in exploration was that when he left the navy in 1920 he opened a pub in his home town of Annascaul in Southern Ireland which he called The South Pole Inn. The pub is still called that and in 2003 a statue of Crean was erected in the town, so maybe wider recognition is finally happening for this quiet and self-assuming man and it may well have been helped by this excellent book which was originally printed in 2001, my copy is the first paperback edition from 2002 also published by Headline.

Despite the lack of much documentary evidence from Crean himself Michael Smith has done an excellent job of research to piece together his life from lots of sources. Sixty six books are listed in the bibliography, quite a few I already have in my small Polar library and this list has pointed me to others that sound worth adding to my collection. There are also numerous letters, unpublished diaries and other documents that have been consulted. All this has made a beautifully illustrated book of over three hundred pages which tells not only the story of Tom Crean but also the expeditions that he took part in.  He was in the group of the last eight men on the Beardmore with Scott when he chose the last five to make the final push for the pole. That Scott decided not to chose him may well have been an error as Crean was still fit and strong unlike Oates who had an injured leg and Taffy Evans’ badly cut hand, both of which for reasons of his own Scott decided to take with him. That this undoubtedly saved Crean’s life and allowed him to continue his polar explorations with Shackleton a few years later. What can only be wondered is if Scott had taken the fitter Crean then would his party made it back to the food depot they were aiming for when they died on the ice. We will never know, Michael Smith makes it quite clear where his opinion lies:

Scott, it must be said, made two basic mistakes in selecting his final party to reach the pole. First, he chose the men at the wrong time and second he chose the wrong men.

Shackleton on the other hand greatly valued the taciturn and powerful Irishman, not only selecting him for the crew of the Endurance but picking him as one of the four to go for help with him in that open boat when the expedition became a rescue mission. I’ll cover this in a later blog as I have been in awe of that journey since first reading about it as a child. After returning from the expedition Crean joined the war effort and Shackleton encouraged him to get promotion, along with writing to the First Lord of the Admiralty personally recommending his promotion. This he duly got and after the war ended up with a reasonable pension, which along with money sent to him by Shackleton enabled him to open the South Pole Inn. Shackleton tried to convince Crean to join him again on a trip south but by this time he was a family man with two daughters and declined, his exploring days were behind him.

Michael Smith has written a hugely enjoyable book about one of the lesser known great Polar explorers and even if you know nothing about the history of the time it is well worth reading.

Relativity – Albert Einstein

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If you are going to read a book about relativity then why not go for the man who created the theories, after all as Einstein says himself in his preface…

The present book is intended, as far as possible, to give an exact insight into the theory of relativity for those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics. The work presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation and despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.

Consider yourself warned.

The edition I have was published by The Folio Society in 2004 and has an introduction by Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University Roger Penrose.  Einstein originally wrote the book in 1916, just a year after he published his main paper on his General Theory of Relativity and eleven years after he had formulated his Special Theory of Relativity. Originally in German the translation is by Robert W. Lawson and he does an excellent job especially considering the complexities of the subject. Put simply the two theories deal with different things, the special theory is concerned with resolving issues between the laws of electromagnetism (specifically Maxwell’s equations) and those of motion as described in Newtonian mechanics, this becomes especially problematic as speeds approach the speed of light and time ceases to behave the way you would expect it to. The general theory on the other hand deals with gravitation and the forces between bodies caused by this. This is where the concept of warped space-time comes into place and the highly satisfying rubber sheet model which can easily demonstrate the basics of the idea and has become largely familiar to most students over the last century. It should be noted for anyone who watches the video is that the reason that the objects ultimately collide is due to friction between the balls and sheet, without that elliptical orbits would continue as we are familiar with planetary motion so this can only ever be a rough approximation of space-time curvature.

There are two ways of approaching an explanation of the theories of relativity, one book which I read several years ago does it very successfully and that is Why Does E=mc²? (And Why Should We Care?) by Professors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw which takes eight chapters and roughly 250 pages (depending on the edition) to cover the subject including the derivation of E=mc². Yes there is quite a lot of mathematics but there is also a large number of diagrams and descriptions in simpler terms in order to expand the readers understanding over a extended period and a short appendix in later editions to add more detail to a section that readers had queried. Einstein takes the other approach, with thirty two chapters over 132 pages (in this edition) so you approach quite complex theories and mathematics in small bite size chunks and you can reread the short chapters until you have grasped the concept being covered. There are also five appendices in a further fifty four pages which go into significantly more detail of the mathematical models and theories underpinning the two theories which are not needed by the casual reader but are there largely for completeness. In his introduction Penrose explains that part of the calculations done by Einstein in the book are no longer done that way as expressing time with a fourth dimensional axis based on imaginary numbers is seen as an unnecessary complexity when it can be done by clocks instead. This negates the need for one of the appendices which deals with Minkowski’s four dimensional space model using the square root of -1, other than as an example of Einstein’s thinking at the time.

There is no denying that some of the chapters can be difficult to get your head around the first time of reading, especially if like me you haven’t done theoretical physics at this level for over thirty five years, but it definitely worth the effort as Einstein gradually takes you through the maths. Starting with Euclidean Geometry (the first chapter which also looks at the concept of ‘truth’ for a mathematical axiom) and then pushing your understanding through relative movement of co-ordinate systems until you hit the Lorentz Transformation less than thirty pages later which gives you the basics needed to understand relativity by comparisons of motion within relative co-ordinates systems.

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With the introduction of Gaussian co-ordinates later on we can finally approach non-Euclidean geometry, which combined with Minkowski’s four dimensional space leads to the mathematics behind the general theory and warped space-time, which for now is how we understand gravity. The book is complex, but not unreasonably so, and the short sharp sections work as a way for the reader to grasp the overall concept in practical chunks. A century on this work still underpins our understanding of the cosmos and reading this book or the one by professors Cox and Forshaw, whichever you get on best with, is a good way to exercise the brain.

Of course there is still a lot of work to go before physics hits its ultimate goal of ‘the theory of everything’. Relativity is very good at explaining the very large but when you hit the realms of the very small quantum mechanics is just plain strange to the layman and even Einstein for a long time refused to believe most of the concepts behind that branch of physics. I do have a very good book on that subject as well which I will look at later this year.