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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