The Great Arc – John Keay

I’ve seen many a ‘trig point’ whilst walking the hills of Britain, these mainly concrete structures on top of high points were used for accurate mapping, specifically to get the correct height of hills and mountains, but quite how they were used was not something I particularly thought about before reading this book. The story John Keay tells is of an epic fifty year project to both start the accurate mapping of India but more importantly to create the longest ‘Great Arc of the Meridian’ a accurate calculation of the curvature of the Earth and it’s variation as you move from the equator to the north pole, one of the most outstanding scientific endeavours of the first half of the 19th century. Started in 1800 by a team led by William Lambton and ultimately completed by George Everest (pronounced ‘eve rest’ not ‘ever rest’ as he and his descendants would repeatedly tell people) the sheer scale of the project can be seen on the map below as a series of phenomenally precise triangles stretch all the way from the southern tip to India right up to the foothills of the Himalayas.

The basic concept is quite simple, first establish a baseline whose length is exactly known but is also long enough to mean that a high point visible from both ends will form a significantly different angle when this is measured by a theodolite from these two points. Using trigonometry you can then calculate the position of this third point and the length of the two inferred sides of the triangle formed. One of these ‘new’ sides can then become the base of another triangle, a new high point selected, measured and so on. It had already been established that the Earth wasn’t round like a ball but more like a grapefruit so flatter at the poles than at the equator but by just how much was it flatter. Measurements had been taken of the length of a degree (1/360 of the circumference of the Earth) and it had been found that in Ecuador (on the equator) it was approximately 111km whilst in Lapland it was around 110km so a whole kilometre shorter.

The problem lies in accurate measurement of a long enough distance, nowadays it is relatively easy but over two hundred years ago the equipment was a lot more primitive and Lambton had to use what was called a chain but was a lot more sophisticated than that. His was made up of forty bars of blistered steel each two and a half feet long and each attached to the next one using a brass hinge, using this he had a measure of one hundred feet (30.48 metres) that he knew to be correct, the problem comes when he needed a long enough base to his first triangle which he decided was a seven and a half mile long (12.07 km) flat stretch of land that needed to be cleared and levelled as much as possible near Madras. Which means that he had to use his chain four hundred times, precisely starting where the previous measure had finished, in a perfect straight line and allow for the expansion of the steel as its temperature rose under the Indian sun even though he only took measurements in the early part of the day. It would take fifty seven days to complete the seven and a half miles and the markers for the two end points can still be seen. From this line he could head north.

Now you have probably seen surveyors with theodolites at building sites but nothing like the giant piece of equipment Lambton used. It needed to be this size not only for stability but to allow for the large brass dials which would make the scale large enough to read extremely accurate measurements of the angles and even then the dials were fitted with microscopes so that the precise figure could be attained. Lugging this massive instrument across India, through jungles, deserts, up mountains and all sorts of other terrain never mind crossing rivers along with all the other equipment, food and tented accommodation for the entire vast team for months at a time was a stupendous achievement with people falling ill or dying both of sickness and animal attacks throughout the fifty years of the survey. Each time it was set up it had to be on a high point with other members of the team at another high point with a marker, initially flags and then later on lights and sometimes it would take weeks for the marker team to reach the next point, it was very slow progress with trees and in some cases houses or parts of whole villages having to be cut down or purchased and then flattened to provide clear sight lines from one point to the next. Six years after starting out a new base line was measured to check the calculated length with reality and amazingly over the six miles (9.66 km) checked the error was just 7.6 inches (19.3 cm) or to put it another way he was out by just 0.0000002%.

William Lambton eventually retired and was replaced by George Everest who carried the survey up to the foothills of the Himalayas but not into Nepal as that kingdom was going through one of its reclusive periods and they were not allowed in even to do scientific work. Besides it was known that the theodolite could see vast distances, possibly even into women’s quarters, and even worse the image seen was inverted and no man wanted his wife, or wives, seen upside down so they were often attacked by villagers or blocked by local rulers from coming through certain parts of India. This added to the geographic, animal and disease problems really slowed progress but Everest was not a man to put up with resistance to his survey and he pressed on regardless. He never saw the mountain that was to be named after him when it was determined to be the world’s highest peak; but nowadays whilst everyone has heard of Mount Everest, who has heard of George Everest? Tragically especially ignored is the brilliant William Lambton who started this magnificent survey so this book is important to raise their profile again. It is also a fascinating description of the hardships endured by the teams who did this amazing project. John Keay has produced a highly readable account of the survey which whilst including details as to how the work was done never gets bogged down in the mathematics which is a trap that would have been so easy to fall into. It was first published in 2000, mine is the 2001 paperback published by Harper Collins and is still easily available and I highly recommend it.

Good Morning Nantwich – Phill Jupitus

OK, I picked this book up because it had Nantwich in the title and that is the town in Cheshire that I was born in. I was also intrigued by a book by Phill Jupitus whom I was familiar with from the TV shows ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, where he was a team captain for pretty well every show, and his occasional appearances on ‘QI’ and ‘Have I Got News For You’ along with the BBC Radio 4 stalwarts ‘The News Quiz’ and ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ but I had no idea he had even done any radio presenting never mind being a breakfast show DJ for five years. On the first point of attraction Nantwich is never mentioned by Phill in the entire book and its sole appearance is the last line of the foreword by fellow DJ Lauren Laverne.

I also hope that this book gives you an insight into the man behind the mic, some tales that make you laugh and an insight into the way a man’s love of broadcasting might drive him to madness and beyond. Possibly to Nantwich.

My lack of knowledge of his radio broadcasting career is explained by the fact that in the 1990’s, when he started as an occasional broadcaster it was for a London based station that I couldn’t pick up and by the time that he appeared on national radio in 2002 it was for a newly launched digital only station ‘6 Music’ and at the time like almost everybody else in the country I didn’t own a digital radio as they were almost impossible to source. This partly explains the dire listening figures for his show but as Phill admits the style of the show probably put off quite a few potential listeners as it was very much a take it or leave it approach to what listeners could expect and if you didn’t like it well you could go elsewhere, he was doing it his way or not at all.

The book is actually fascinating as he not only covers his career on radio and especially his time on ‘6 Music’ but also looks at the history of breakfast shows, and compares the various styles that have been employed over the years including one very funny chapter where he makes himself to listen to a four hour show on an unnamed channel and truly hates the entire experience as it was so forced and formulaic. The humour is all the greater as I found myself hearing him reading the chapter in my mind and just getting more and more irate as he documents the show, down to the adverts and each record played along with the inane and several times genuinely offensive banter between the two presenters. Compare and contrast with the gentle style of that master of breakfast radio Terry Wogan who for twenty seven years held together a dedicated group of listeners in their millions and somebody that Jupitus genuinely admired although he had no intention of remotely copying on his own show, he was looking for something more like the shows done by the great late night broadcaster John Peel although not quite as eclectic in musical choice as he simply wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with it.

The more Jupitus mentions his musical and broadcasting heroes the more he and I agreed and we certainly had the similar exposure to music growing up as I am just fourteen days older than him and whilst he had far more opportunity to hear new things as he grew up in Greater London, a shared addiction to John Peel’s show meant that we certainly heard a lot of the weird and wonderful at the same time. Each chapter of the book concludes with a list of ten songs that has a sort of link to the chapter although at times this could be a little tenuous but it does give an idea as to the wide spread of his musical tastes. His final breakfast show broadcast was done from his own home which had the advantage that he could sleep in for an extra hour and three quarters and was also a nod to John Peel who had broadcast regularly from home where he had access to one of the largest private record collections in the world. Whilst Jupitus’s collection wasn’t in the same league he also played a lot of his own records in his final three hours as a breakfast DJ.

It’s a good book and a lot more interesting than I expected, after all reading about a radio career that you didn’t even know existed for 296 pages is a bit of a stretch, but in fact the book flew by and it just took two days to read and another one to write up. All in all I forgive the author for the Nantwich tag without which I would probably never have picked the book up. As for Jupitus in the ten years since he wrote this book he has never done a regular radio show and has no plans to do so.

The Yellow Wall-Paper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The story that provides the title of this collection of three short stories is easily Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s best known work, it is beautifully written and is also a very difficult read. It deals with the descent into madness of a woman who suffered from a severe bout of postpartum psychosis, a range of mental illnesses which occur soon after childbirth. Gilman was perfectly aware of how this could be as she suffered from very bad attack of some form of postpartum psychosis after the birth of her first child so the story can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Unfortunately for Gilman this collapse of her mental health wasn’t recognised by the medical profession back in 1885 when she had her daughter and she was largely seen as simply needing to pull herself together and rest and recuperate physically after the birth, but in fact she didn’t really start to recover her mental well being until 1888 by which time she had separated from her first husband and was resting in Rhode Island with a female friend.

It was in 1890 that she wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper and the story is told first person from the point of view of the unnamed female narrator as she gradually becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper in the bedroom she is in. At first all seems well, her husband, who is also a doctor ‘treating’ her condition has taken a large house in the country for three months to see if the air would help her recover from the psychosis she is suffering from but slowly she reveals to the reader, if not herself, the true position she is in. The room that he puts her in is a large one in the attic that has a bed screwed to the floor and initially no other furniture so some random pieces are brought up from the rooms below. There is also a gate at the top of the stairs up to this room so initially she assumes that the room had been for the children of a previous resident but it gradually becomes clear to the reader that she is a prisoner in this room, with its terrible, faded and partly pulled off the walls wallpaper. Oh the wallpaper, the pattern is odd, not quite matching and making a satisfying design but maddeningly elusive and the missing pieces along with the faded patches make finding the pattern even more difficult. The colour is also coming away from the paper, brushing up against it leaves yellow stains on your clothing and that blurring makes it even more difficult to interpret.

The colour is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

She is also told to rest after meals and not to do any work, even writing is forbidden so she hides her notes on the changes of the wallpaper that she perceives in different lighting conditions. This was also the fate of Gilman herself, a writer told not to write and this greatly prolonged her own mental collapse. Gradually, as the weeks progress, our narrator starts to see movement behind the wallpaper and is convinced that some malevolent creature is behind the paper, small at first but the creature grows as the nights pass until she sees a woman loping behind the paper and determines to release her. This has to be one of the most disturbing short stories I have ever read, you are drawn totally into this woman’s world and you can feel the paranoia rising. The Yellow Wall-Paper is rightly regarded as a classic of feminist literature and a few years later Gilman sent a copy to her own doctor to try to persuade him away from the stifling treatment she had received at his hands.

The other two stories in the book are also interesting, ‘The Rocking Chair’ is another beautifully written story where two friends take rooms in an old property having been drawn to it by the sight of a beautiful young woman rocking in a chair by the window, but all is not as it seems. The girl is almost never seen by either of the two men although one catches a glimpse of her one day but both of them are convinced that the other has been talking to her, indeed they have each seen the other standing by her at the window when approaching the house. Both are disturbed at night by the incessant rocking of the chair which is in one of their rooms but both deny having been in the chair at night. What is going on and what will be the ultimate result of their gradual loss of friendship for each other as they refuse to believe the others story of not seeing the girl?

The final story is for me the weakest of the three, ‘Old Water’ is another story of obsession this time of a young poet for the daughter of an acquaintance. The daughter is however not in the least interested in him as she likes sports and the outdoor life and his attempts to join in with her simply highlights his inadequacies in her eyes. You know it isn’t going to end well but the final twist is unexpected but strangely satisfying as a conclusion.

I hadn’t heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman before but I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

The Midnight Folk – John Masefield

John Masefield was the UK Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967 the second longest period of time of any of the holders of this office since its creation in 1668, he is only exceeded by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. However this book is not a collection of poems, but is instead a wonderfully imaginative work for children written in 1927 and still in print to this day. My copy was published in this Puffin edition in March 1963 and is beautifully illustrated by Rowland Hilder with not only large pictures but smaller images within the text. Masefield packs in the characters in this story from pirates, witches and wizards, talking animals, mermaids, King Arthur and his knights, moving and talking paintings, hidden treasure, a flying horse and even a crooked gamekeeper and his henchmen to name just a few. But so to our hero, nine year old Kay Harker who is trying to solve the mystery of the lost treasure with the help of some and the major hindrance of the others in this huge cast. He is apparently an orphan, no parents are mentioned except his mother in passing right at the end, and the large house he is living in is equally not very clear, did it belong to his parents or is it the property of his guardian who doesn’t live there? The only residents of the house other than Kay are the servants and his unpleasant governess, who turns out to be one of the coven of witches casting spells and causing mischief as they also search for the treasure.

The story positively races on as we alternate from Kay’s dreary schoolwork set by the governess and tedious meetings with her friends and his guardian to exciting overnight chases both on the ground and in the air on broomsticks or the flying horse which always find him fast asleep back in his bed just before the maid comes round to wake him up; but the mud on his slippers or other traces of the previous nights activities prove that this is not dreams. In many ways this reminded me of ‘The Cuckoo Clock’ which I included a few months ago as part of my look at the early days of Puffin Books, but the stories are far more fantastical than those by Mrs Moleworth in her Victorian adventure. The choice of words and the wide vocabulary used betray this book as the work of a significant poet who was to receive the highest honour for poetry in the country just three years later and the hunt for Kay’s great grandfather’s wrecked ship and the lost treasure he was trying to protect from a South American uprising is carried on in beautifully crafted adventure stories. Will Kay work out where it is before the wizard Abner Brown and the witches get to it and what will happen to the evil governess once Kay has worked out that she is one of the witches and therefore his enemy? Maybe a peek into the past will give the final clues.

Masefield wrote a sequel to this book in 1935 entitled ‘The Box of Delights’ which if anything is better known than this original story and has been adapted for radio, television, theatre and even as an opera by Robert Steadman with a libretto by Masefield. It was also available in Puffin Books in the 1960’s so I may see if I can track down a copy to match this edition, it’s been a really fun read.