Who on Earth is Tom Baker?

Every August I give myself a theme for the books that month and this year it is autobiographies of people associated with British science fiction or fantasy. I’m starting with the twenty five year old autobiography of, for me, the best Doctor Who, Tom Baker, who held the role from 1974 to 1981 and starred in 178 episodes during that time, far more than any other actor in the role.

The book is 262 pages long plus an unnumbered 8 page introduction, he doesn’t get the role he is most famous for until page 191 and leaves the job on page 229 so don’t expect huge revelations about Doctor Who despite the cover photo and indeed the title. In fact my favourite Who story in the book is when Baker desperately wanted to see a particular episode where he had been held underwater despite his deep fear of such a thing happening as he can’t swim and is terrified of water and he had never been able to see the episode as he was doing publicity tours, this is also years before home TV recording was possible. He had reached Preston on his way home by the time the episode was due and after trying to see it in the windows of TV shops none of which had it on eventually knocked on the door of a house with children’s bicycles outside and asked if they were going to watch the show. Being recognised he was led into the living room where the two children were already glued to the TV in anticipation and sat quietly at the back of the room so the children only gradually became aware that Doctor Who was sitting with them watching the show. Perfectly reasonably they couldn’t believe what was happening and it took numerous double takes, checking the TV screen and the person sitting behind them before they accepted the unlikely was actually true. The story was picked up by the local press thereby really making their school friends jealous.

Having said that there is surprising little about Doctor Who in the book Tom Baker’s life is fascinating and it is written with considerable humour. Born in 1934 he came from a poor Liverpudlian catholic family and he was very religious as a child and youth, eventually becoming a novice monk at the age of fifteen and remaining in holy orders for almost six years, initially in Jersey and later near Market Drayton in Shropshire. The description of his time in the monasteries is funny and terrible at the same time, he clearly had an awful time as a monk but this was nothing to the truly awful time he had with the family of his first wife who appear to have regarded him as little more than cheap labour for their various businesses and treated him with disdain. But his earliest ambition, as a young child in wartime Liverpool was to be an orphan… This was due to the gifts such as hats and jackets along with a card from the President that an child orphaned during the war could expect to receive from America and these were highly prized. He even told his teacher at school, when she started going round the class asking what her pupils wanted to be when they grew up, that he wanted to be an orphan and this earned him a swift trip to the headmasters office.

There are plenty of stories about his slowly building acting career, which until Doctor Who never paid enough for him not to have other jobs as well, indeed he was working as a building site labourer when he got the role of Doctor Who. Post Doctor Who there are tales of drinking in Soho clubs and bars with the likes of the artist Francis Bacon and journalist Jeffrey Bernard both notorious heavy drinkers until eventually his third wife, who he is still married to, managed to lure him away from the city to the countryside and a rural happiness that is where the book finishes. Overall it’s a good and entertaining read although I’d like an updated version, he was continued to work on film, TV and radio through most of the last twenty five years so an additional few chapters are certainly called for.

My copy of the book is the 1997 first edition and is signed by Tom Baker.

Figuring: The Joy of Numbers – Shakuntala Devi

As a child I was fascinated by mathematics, but especially by tricks and shortcuts that could be done. I started reading Martin Gardner’s section of Scientific American when I was eleven or twelve years old, I don’t claim to have understood all of it but each month my knowledge of recreational mathematics was stretched just that little bit more. I’ll cover one or more of his books in a later blog. However in 1977, when I was fifteen, this book was published and it was written by somebody who, at least partly, earned her living from amazing feats of mental arithmetic, I had to get a copy, and this book is still on my shelves today. Some of it I already knew but there were whole sections where she explained how to do tricks that I had seen done but which had baffled me such as calculating the day of the week for any date given to you or working out square and cube roots in your head. I remember practising these tricks for hours until I could do them too.

The book starts of simply by looking at each of the digits 0 to 9 in detail, explaining what is special about each of them and giving tips around multiplying and dividing by them, patterns in their multiplication tables etc. She then moves on to chapters about multiplication, addition, division and a very short chapter on subtraction. These chapters not only suggest shortcuts, which I still use today, to perform such calculations but ways to quickly check if the answer you get makes sense such as casting out nines. The book really caught my attention however when we reach calculating squares, cubes, square roots and cube roots. Amazingly cube roots which non mathematicians would assume to be much more difficult then square roots are actually very simple and fifth roots are even easier, square roots proved to be quite tricky. But just to see how easy extracting a cube root lets look at all you need to know, worryingly forty five years later I can still remember this:

  • 1 cubed = 1
  • 2 cubed = 8
  • 3 cubed = 27
  • 4 cubed = 64
  • 5 cubed = 125
  • 6 cubed = 216
  • 7 cubed = 343
  • 8 cubed = 512
  • 9 cubed = 729

Assuming that we are starting with 474,552 (which is 78 x 78 x 78) how do you get the right answer? Well first of all look at the thousands i.e. 474, this comes between 343 and 516 so the first digit is the cube root of the lower number which is 7. Next you will notice that all the cubes in the list above end with a different number and you just need to find the one that ends with the same digit as the number you are trying to extract the root of which in this case is 2 which matches 512 or 8 cubed and there we have the answer, the 7 from the thousands value along with the 8 from the final digit gives the required answer of 78. Notice that it was simply a case of knowing the first nine cubes and no actual calculation was performed on 474,552 in order to get the right answer.

Calculating the day of the week is a bit more tricky as you need to memorise four tables, admittedly the first of which is simply the first four values from the seven times table so this barely counts as a table and the working out is also more involved. I can’t do this in my head anymore and frankly with the all pervading computers or mobile phones with calendars on them what was once a occasionally handy ability is now of no use whatsoever as you are rarely that far from a device where you can look up the day for a specific date if you need it. When I was a teenager however this was quite impressive at least amongst the other maths fans at school and I got to be pretty quick at it.

The book finishes with chapters on special numbers and finally tricks and puzzles most of which, even then, I had already encountered but this book stretched still further my mathematical skills and I loved it. It has been great fun reading it again and finding out what I remembered and what I had forgotten. Shakuntala Devi died at the age of 83 in 2013 and wrote several books on mathematics along with astrology and oddly ‘The World of Homosexuals’ which she claimed was inspired by her marriage to a homosexual man but Figuring: The Joy of Numbers is probably her best known work, at least outside India although sadly it appears to now be out of print. If you know a child interested in mathematics I suggest trying to get a copy for them, it really is a joy.

Lonely Planet Unpacked – Various

This collection of twenty six stories of travel disasters by some of the Lonely Planet guidebook writers can be read as a series of useful precautionary tales or just as a very entertaining book where you keep thinking I’m glad I’ve never been there. It was published in 1999 as part of the regrettably short lived Lonely Planet Journeys series and was obviously popular as the follow up volume, imaginatively entitled, Lonely planet Unpacked Again came out in 2001 this time with thirty one travel disaster stories some of which are by the authors also featured in this volume, clearly people to avoid travelling with. The obvious exception to this list of people to avoid is Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, and a man who has been everywhere so can definitely be excused the odd travel problem and in this book is merely faced by an extremely drunk Tibetan trying to get into the vehicle Tony was in by repeatedly headbutting the windscreen.

Some of the problems faced by the writers are relatively easily solved, such as with Bruce Cameron who uses a wheelchair so is rightly worried each time he arrives at a new location that he can access the bedroom and bathroom and in Tuscany this involves a very helpful landlord at the rented villa removing not only doors but the in one case the door frame and even part of a wall so that this could be achieved. Others are more concerning with Pat Yale travelling alone in Kenya who on her first day in Nairobi fell in a dark hotel corridor and broke her wrist so ending up with four weeks in plaster and heavily restricted as to what she could do. Precautionary tales include John Mock (another writer in both volumes) talking about the dangers of travelling in Pakistan and specifically the Karakoram Highway which takes you to Gilgit in the Hindukush and some amazing trekking routes. Unfortunately the KKH, as it is known, is one of the most dangerous roads in the world with regular rockfalls, an extremely narrow roadway with precipitous drops into the Indus river far below and armed locals who see closing the road as a way of getting what they want. The only alternative, at least when Mock is writing was Pakistan International Airways with their fleet of antique and barely functioning planes, he documents several trips between Gilgit and Islamabad, none of which I would be looking to be on. Amazing he never saw anyone actually crash off that road but Jennifer Brewer managed to go off the edge of a road in of all places Åland, an extremely flat island in the Baltic Sea belonging to Finland, possibly in the only part of the island such a feat could be achieved and with only 8km on her hire car tachometer.

The book bounces all over the world from China to India, various African countries but surprisingly only Brazil is representing South and Central America, a part of the world where I’ve had a couple of dodgy experiences and which I was expecting to be featured more. Sometimes the disaster is self inflicted, more often it’s encounters with other people or animals where the problems arise and for Randall Peffer who describes riding out a hurricane in Puerto Rico it just feels like the world is out to get you. The book is an easy read, I would pick it up go through a couple of the short stories and then put it back down again oh so glad that in my various out of the way journeys I’ve never had to put up with whatever I’ve just read about. Like all the Lonely Planet Journey’s books it is out of print but it, and it’s follow up, are readily available on the secondary market.

The Life and Times of the Real Winnie-the-Pooh – Shirley Harrison

This week my book choice is a most unusual biography, because although the subject is internationally famous a lot of people don’t know that there is a real Winnie-the-Pooh who was actually owned by Christopher Robin. He has led a very interesting ‘life’ culminating in his retirement along with some of his friends in the Children’s Library in New York and the story is very well told in this entertaining volume. I have to say that I knew some of this story but there was still a lot of material that was new to me. I’ve been a teddy bear collector for over twenty years and a book collector most of my life, now combining both of these interests by occasionally purchasing books signed by A A Milne, E H Shepard, Christopher Robin Milne and even H Fraser-Simson (of which more later).

The bear on the cover is the real Winnie-the-Pooh originally made by probably the finest teddy bear maker in the UK, Farnell, and purchased from Harrods for Christopher Robin’s first birthday in 1921. Over the years he was joined by a cuddly pig named Poglet and later the smaller and easier to carry version named Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo all arrived too in fairly quick succession. Rabbit and Owl who also appear in the books were additions by A A Milne, they were never actual toys owned by Christopher Robin. Those people who have visited Pooh in his retirement home are often surprised that not only doesn’t he look like the Disney version but he also is very different to the one drawn by E H Shepard. In fact the model for the bear in the books is Shepard’s daughters teddy which was probably a Steiff.

New York Children’s Library has Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet and Kanga, sadly Roo was lost at the family home of Cotchford Farm well before the toys made their crossing to America in 1947, originally for a short visit which turned into a permanent stay. They were originally held at the offices of Milne’s USA publishers E P Dutton but transferred to the library in 1987. During their time at Dutton they travelled all over America and Pooh even came back to England for three brief visits, including once flying on Concorde when Pooh was invited onto the flight deck to meet the Captain, he really was an international celebrity.

The rear of the book has some of the lovely photos selected to illustrate the story, several of which I hadn’t seen before including top left Christopher Robin starting school alongside his childhood friend Anne and below that an eight or nine year old Christopher Robin with some of the toys, Pooh and Eeyore are on the floor with Tigger under his left arm and Poglet in his right. Piglet is only three inches (7½cm) tall so this is definitely Poglet. In the middle is the original Winnie Bear with his owner Lieutenant Colebourn before he was donated to London Zoo early in WWI, which is where Christopher Robin met him and the then four year old Edward Bear was renamed Winnie in his honour. To the right of that image is the bridge in Ashdown forest where the game Pooh-sticks was played and named. At the bottom of the page is Christopher Robin’s first school bag from when he went to boarding school at the age of nine and marks the end of his time with Pooh as his constant companion. The fact that his father had used his real name in the books led to Christopher Robin being bullied at school and he built up a resentment to the books that he held for a large part of his adult life, only becoming reconciled with the characters and his and their ever growing fame much later on.

The book not only follows Winnie-the-Pooh on his journeys but also summarises the lives of the Milne family including the somewhat surprising decision by the naturally reclusive Christopher Robin to open The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, although he did keep a fairly low profile about his links to the toy animals of his childhood and the books they led to. I do have a complete set of the paperbacks signed by him though which presumably originally came from his bookshop.

Above is Winnie-the-Pooh as drawn by E H Shepard for comparison with the actual cuddly teddy bear show on the front cover.

Winnie-the-Pooh continues to have massive fame around the world, considerably helped by the Disney version which with films and merchandising generates billions of pounds every year, A A Milne in his will left money to his family but also to set up The Milne Trust which uses his royalties from the characters for charitable causes and Disney, to be fair, also donates significant sums to charities. The book ends with a summary of the main beneficiaries. As for H Fraser-Simson, he was a composer who lived near the Milne’s London home and it was he that set several of the poems from ‘When We Were Very Young’ and ‘Now We Are Six’ to music with the tunes that I learnt as a child. At 102 years old Winnie-the-Pooh has now outlived all his compatriots and looks to just becoming more famous as the years go on and this tribute to a much loved bear was a really good read.

The Greek Coffin Mystery – Ellery Queen

As a lover of mystery and crime novels it is perhaps surprising that this was my first time reading Ellery Queen and the fact that I have started at the fourth book is due entirely to this being the only Ellery Queen that I possess. Let’s get the somewhat complicated back story of the authorship out of the way first and then dive into this surprisingly long (363 pages) crime novel. Ellery Queen is given as the author as well as the name of the private detective featuring in the book, in fact it is the work of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, who also individually wrote crime novels under those names. To add to the confusion both those names are also pseudonyms; Frederic Dannay’s real name was Daniel Nathan whilst his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee was really Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky. Between them they wrote over thirty Ellery Queen novels and collections of short stories and there were also a few later books which were ghostwritten by various other authors and supervised by Lee.

What to make of this book though? It features Detective Inspector Richard Queen and his private detective son Ellery, who improbably gets to sit in on all meetings and interviews, along with visiting crime scenes just as if he was an actual member of the police force, he can even apparently make arrests. Indeed it took me some time to realise that Ellery Queen was, unlike his father, not actually an official part of the police. The story initially is simply the case of a missing will following the death of an elderly art dealer in New York. When it is worked out that the only place the will could have been put in the short time available from when it was last seen to when it was discovered to be missing is in Georg Khalkis’s coffin before the lid was screwed down an exhumation is ordered. The coffin being opened however is found to have two bodies in it, Khalkis and a mystery corpse and the case becomes murder and the problem is not just who killed the unknown victim but who are they… With thirty nine characters (including the police and Ellery) it can get complicated and I was glad of the list of people at the front of the book when trying to sort out the different relationships between them all.

The story is split up into two books, the first ending with the arrest of yet another incorrect suspect but with the police apparently satisfied that this time they have got their man. The second book details the collapse of the case against the arrested person and the slow discovery of the clues leading to the true murderer and thief. One thing I really liked was at the end of the thirtieth chapter where there is a break in the story for Ellery Queen to speak directly to the reader and make clear that at this point you have read all the clues needed to solve the case and that there is only one solution that fits everything you know. With almost sixty pages still to go it provided a break where I could go back in my mind over what has happened in the first three hundred pages and try to solve it. I have to admit that the actual solution was so surprising that I didn’t get it but yes everything fitted once you knew who did it.

This edition of The Greek Coffin Mystery was published as part of the Penguin Drop Caps series of twenty six books each with an author starting with a different letter and it is particularly appropriate for this to be Ellery Queen book chosen for Q as the chapters in this one are titled as an acrostic spelling out the titles and author. First published in 1932, the first Penguin Books edition came out in May 1957, this hardback was published in 2013 for the American and Canadian market only.

As I said at the start this was my first Ellery Queen mystery and whilst I enjoyed it I did find the character of Ellery Queen rather annoying. Reading about later books in the series he apparently does calm down a lot as the series progresses with far fewer irritating build ups to an incorrect accusation than occurs in this story. Maybe I ought to read one of the later books to see if I like him better.

How to Build a Universe – Professor Brian Cox & Robin Ince

Based on the highly successful BBC Radio 4 series ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ this is science book like no other I have read. The radio show is also difficult to explain to people that haven’t listened to it, and you definitely should listen to it (link at the end of this blog) because it is co-hosted by on the one hand a Professor of Particle Physics at Manchester University and on the other a stand up comedian which is an extremely unlikely combination but works brilliantly. The look of the book matches the slightly anarchic structure of the radio show which in an early episode whilst discussing something completely different wandered onto the subject of “is a strawberry alive or dead?” They have come back to this subject on other occasions and I was pleased to see this being treated in the book as shown below:

The science for the most part is not overly challenging and the only really complex section is the largest, an eighty page chapter entitled ‘Recipe to Build a Universe’ which is almost entirely written by Brian Cox and as Robin writes:

This is the hard bit of the book. You may need a pencil to underline sections or just to occasionally jab into your leg or skull as you ask “but what does it all mean?” Don’t let this put you off

Page 80

In truth I have read so many books on this topic that it was relatively easy to follow and I largely sailed through this bit as it is so well written. Although a background of nuclear physics, coincidentally at Manchester University although six years before Brian went there to do his degree, possibly also helped. It also helped that the book is actually very funny especially during interplay between Cox and Ince, I laughed out loud at several sections and particularly a part written by Robin with increasingly irritated footnotes correcting him by Brian.

Other topics covered include the concept of infinity, space travel, the ultimate death of the universe and lots of things in between. In this way it is very similar to the radio show in that the main subject of a chapter, or indeed an episode, can be lost briefly if something interesting comes up as an aside. ‘Schrödinger’s strawberry’ (is it alive or is it dead) alluded to in the first chapter of this review is a prime case in point. You will learn a lot from this book but it won’t feel like it at the time unlike tackling something like Relativity by Albert Einstein or any of the four important science books I read one after another in August 2020. The style is easily approachable and the need for Brian to make sure that Robin is following the points as he makes them keeps the text grounded, although Robin Ince has now written his own science book ‘The Importance of Being Interested’ which I have a copy of so expect a review of that in a couple of months or so.

The radio show is just embarking on its twenty fourth series, some of the earlier ones only had four episodes but it now seems to have settled on six and all of them are available on the BBC website via this link. The shows on the site are usually the extended podcast versions rather than the original thirty (now forty five) minute broadcast. The usual format is that Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined by two scientists who specialise in the subject selected for that episode and also another comedian who may have a science background but more often does not. A notable exception to this format, and an episode that is well worth listening to, was the astronaut special from series 22 where they were joined by astronauts Helen Sharman, Chris Hadfield, Nicole Stott and Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart. The book is great fun, the radio show even more so.

A Shropshire Lad – A E Housman

I have lived in Shropshire for the past eleven years and have seen copies of A Shropshire Lad numerous times in various bookshops across the county but never bought it. I think mainly because I knew that Housman never visited Shropshire before writing this collection of poems celebrating the county and he only came here briefly after becoming permanently associated in the public’s mind with Shropshire so doubted that he would have much insight into this extremely beautiful part of England. Sure enough whilst reading it became clear that even geographic details, which he gleaned from a tourist guidebook whilst writing the poems in London, were incorrect but the poems are not really about Shropshire anyway but about war and the untimely death of youths both in conflict and otherwise, including suicide. It cannot be described as a cheery read.

Let’s tackle a couple of the poems with more glaring geographic issues first just to get these out of the way, starting with one of the few poems to have a title rather than just a number, XXVIII The Welsh Marches which starts

          High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
          Islanded in Severn stream;

Well Shrewsbury may be built in a loop of the river Severn but it certainly isn’t on an island, indeed Shrewsbury castle stands guard on the northern side of the river defending the land entrance to the town. The poem continues in it’s fourth verse with

          When Severn down to Buildwas ran
          Coloured with the death of man,

Buildwas is roughly seventeen miles (27½ km) from Shrewsbury and the river has a significant volume by then so there is no way that blood from a Saxon battle, which would have involved hundreds rather than tens of thousands of combatants at that period of history, would still be visible in the water by the time it got there. The most obvious error though is in poem LXI Hughley Steeple, I don’t even need to quote the poem as Hughley church has a timber framed belfry but it certainly doesn’t have a steeple. But that doesn’t stop Housman giving it one with a prominent weather vane on top, which it also doesn’t have.

Ludlow gets mentioned in five of the sixty three poems and Wenlock Edge, which is a nineteen mile (30 km) long escarpment appears twice. Although even in, probably the most famous poem from the set, known as ‘On Wenlock Edge’ although not actually titled, geography isn’t Housman’s strong point as it mentions the Roman city of Uriconium, the ruins of which are fifteen miles (24 km) from Wenlock Edge. But the poem is a really good example of the style of the collection and has been set numerous times to music, most notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams who included other poems from the set as well in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge.


          On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
           His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

          'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
           When Uricon the city stood:
          'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
           But then it threshed another wood.

          Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
           At yonder heaving hill would stare:
          The blood that warms an English yeoman,
           The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

          There, like the wind through woods in riot,
           Through him the gale of life blew high;
          The tree of man was never quiet:
           Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
          To-day the Roman and his trouble
           Are ashes under Uricon.

As said above most of the poems don’t concern Shropshire in particular but rather the perils of war and death. The collection was first published in 1896 but didn’t really start to sell in significant numbers until the start of the Second Boer War and massively rose again during the First World War when the death of young soldiers was so keenly felt across the country. The overall body count across the series of poems is surprisingly high and it is nearly always young men who are speaking from the grave (a common theme of the poems) to those yet to die. I don’t really know what I expected from the poems as I genuinely didn’t know anything about them apart from the title before I came to read the book but I can’t say they particularly appealed to me. There is however a brief glimpse or two of albeit grim humour amongst the largely unrelenting gloom.


          "Is my team ploughing,
           That I was used to drive
          And hear the harness jingle
           When I was man alive?"

          Ay, the horses trample,
           The harness jingles now;
          No change though you lie under
           The land you used to plough.

          "Is football playing
           Along the river shore,
          With lads to chase the leather,
           Now I stand up no more?"

          Ay, the ball is flying,
           The lads play heart and soul;
          The goal stands up, the keeper
           Stands up to keep the goal.

          "Is my girl happy,
           That I thought hard to leave,
          And has she tired of weeping
           As she lies down at eve?"

          Ay, she lies down lightly,
           She lies not down to weep:
          Your girl is well contented.
           Be still, my lad, and sleep.

          "Is my friend hearty,
           Now I am thin and pine,
          And has he found to sleep in
           A better bed than mine?"

          Yes, lad, I lie easy,
           I lie as lads would choose;
          I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
           Never ask me whose.

My copy is from the 2009 series of twenty books by Penguin called ‘English Journeys’ and I do have the complete set, all of which have very attractive covers. If there is any of these that you would like me to cover in a future blog entry then please send me a comment.

The Anthropocene Reviewed – John Green

John Green wrote this book as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in 2020 and from his first review, the song You’ll Never Walk Alone which gets four and a half stars, through predictions of the end of humanity which he originally gives just one star to but adjusts as the pandemic spreads but humanity persists to four stars we can see how this series of essays is going to progress. The Anthropocene is an as yet short period of Earth history just two hundred and fifty thousand years where man has been, if not the dominant species, at least initially, a significant impact on the world. As this is a tiny temporal range compared to most other species, the elephant has been around for two and a half million years so ten times more, whilst the tuatara (a New Zealand reptile) has existed for a thousand times longer being found in archaeological remains two hundred and fifty million years old our dominance is unique. The book started out as a series of podcasts which can be found here and the audio book is read by John Green so appears similar to the podcast but in the book each topic is dealt with separately whilst the podcast almost always links two subjects in each broadcast. There are forty four separate essays included along with an introduction and a postscript so it comes in at a reasonably chunky 304 pages but because it is a series of disconnected essays it is an easy read.

I wrote that initial paragraph whilst starting to read the book but I quickly switched to the ten hour audio book in order to get the feel of the original podcast and discovered that there are three more entries on the audio book giving a total of forty seven. This is presumably a later edition of the book as the audio book came out in 2021, a year later than the original hardback but as one of the extras includes an audio file which clearly cannot be done in the book then maybe not. After originally deciding that nothing would get the perfect five stars in fact nine entries do receive that accolade, including one of the extra entries, the full list of these gives some indication of the randomness of the essays:

  • Sunsets – A quote from the review is “nothing is five stars because nothing is perfect but this is perfect”. From here on he feels more able to award five stars
  • Jerzy Dudek – Polish goalkeeper who played for Liverpool including the final of the UEFA Champions League in 2005
  • Harvey – The 1950 film staring James Stewart and a six and a half foot tall invisible white rabbit
  • Auld Lang Syne
  • The Hot Dogs of Baejarins Beztu Plysur – A famous Reykjavik hot dog stand
  • The Mountain Goats – A band that is easily the favourite of Green’s
  • Sycamore trees
  • “New Partner” – A song by Palace Music (Will Oldham)
  • The Smallpox vaccine (extra entry)

A few of these need a little explaining as to why he rated them with the maximum score because they are so personal to him. John Green is a supporter of the Liverpool football team and watched the 2005 final on television where his team were 3-0 down to A.C. Milan at the end of the first half only to score three goals of their own in the second half. This led to a penalty shootout where Dudek saved Andriy Shevchenko’s penalty and Liverpool won one of the most amazing comebacks. Fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II is quoted in the review for saying “Of all the unimportant things football is the most important” and Green concurs. Harvey was a film Green was recommended to watch by his then boss as he quit the firm to deal with his nervous breakdown which had left him unable to do anything, strangely enough the film actually helped Green on his way to recovery. Baejarins Beztu Plysur is a small chain of hot dog stands in Reykjavik, the name literally translates as The Town’s Best Hot Dogs and these were enjoyed during a short visit to the city with his wife and another couple, where he tried one on the day Iceland won their first Olympic team gold medal for men’s handball. Green really got into the Icelandic mood of celebration and loved the hot dog. The Mountain Goats is easily the shortest review where he basically just says this is his favourite band and has been for over twenty years with a quote he particularly likes “I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me”. With sycamore trees it is less clear quite why he rated them at five stars apart from talking about walking through a wood with his children and being especially struck by the beauty of the sycamore although this is preceded by a long section about his depression so it may be just he really needed something beautiful to focus on. “New Partner” is Green’s favourite song not by The Mountain Goats and has been for over twenty years, as part of the review he gives episodic stories about listening to the song over the years. The extra entry, smallpox vaccine, leads to a short history of the vaccine and also the covid vaccine that he had recently been to have. In 1796 Edward Jenner infected a young boy with cow pox as a protection against smallpox, as it was known that farmers with cows and especially people dairy maids were immune to smallpox, and gave the world the first vaccination (from vacca the Latin for cow).

At the other end of the scale only three entries get only one star and those are Staphylococcus Aureus, The Plague, or Black Death as it is probably better known and viral meningitis. Staphylococcus aureus is a bacteria John Green has been treated for and this section also features the development of antiseptics. In 2014 Green suffered from viral meningitis and had a headache worse than anything else he has had, extreme pain for a couple of weeks and a week in hospital, he recovered slowly but it kept returning in a less and less serious way for several years. I think it’s quite clear why all three of these only rate one star.

The weird variety of topics is both a positive and a negative to the book, you never know what is coming next, especially when listening to the audio book version as clearly you don’t have a list of contents and some of the essays appear to have only a passing relevance to the topic being discussed, for instance Our Capacity for Wonder is told via a review of The Great Gatsby. Some of the pieces are touching, others just odd, some tell stories that I already knew such as the discovery of the Lascaux cave paintings and the history of Monopoly giving The story of the theft of the game from its original inventor Elizabeth McGee by Charles Darrow, the person who patented it, sold it to Parker Brothers and became a millionaire. Some are new to me, such as the rise of Piggly Wiggly, an American supermarket chain operating in the American Southern and Midwestern regions and Hiroyuki Doi’s circle drawings which use thousands upon thousands of hand drawn circles to make up a complex design.

As mentioned there are three extra entries in the audio book version one of which is The Smallpox Vaccine which I have covered earler. The second one is Mortification where he describes his embarrassment after giving a talk in a high school when he gets to the end and ‘any questions?’ only for the first response to be ‘Are you aware your fly is open?’ After fixing this and going for another question there is just silence where before there were lots of hands in the air. The third is Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, a Hawaiian bird now believed to be extinct along with the other four species of ōʻō. By 1981 only one nesting pair was known to exist but female went missing after a hurricane in 1982. Includes final known recording of the single male pausing in his song for a female reply which never comes, this plaintive call is played three times in audio book.

I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars.

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.

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.