Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

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From the Penguin ‘Drop Caps’ series that I covered last year in a general review of all twenty six books, and I’m amazed that I had never read it before, the quote at the top is the opening line and immediately draws the reader in. What little Steinbeck I have read in the past I have thoroughly enjoyed, he really was a master wordsmith able to conjure totally believable characters with just a few sentences or even a handful of words and what characters he has populating Cannery Row. There is a plot to the narrative but it is definitely secondary to the characterisations deployed. You really get to know marine biologist Doc and his lab/home, Mack and the boys at the Palace Flophouse and Grill (a rather grandly titled abandoned storage shed), Dora and her girls at the Bear Flag Restaurant (in reality a bordello), Lee Chong and his shop which seems to stock everything, albeit totally randomly, and the general human detritus living in whatever shelter they can find along the Row.

The people are poor but making the best of their situation, the time is the 1930’s during the Great Depression and times are hard. The main employers are the sardine canneries that give the area its name although the work depended on the arrival of the boats loaded with fish which also gives the area its distinctive odour. None of the characters are actually in employment at the canneries though, apart from when they need some money which they cannot get some other way. Lee Chong, Dora and Doc all have legitimate businesses in their own right. Lee’s grocery presumably would make money if his customers actually had any, what it mainly makes is debts which do mainly get paid off when he refuses to extend any more credit to somebody unless they actually part with some money to cover the backlog. Doc is the main character of the book, he owns Western Biological Laboratory, and if anyone in the US wanted a specimen of pretty well any sort of animal Doc would get it for them, eventually anyway. Dora as stated above owns the bordello and probably makes more money than any of the other characters but has to hand over large parts of it in ‘charity’ just to ensure that the authorities keep looking the other way. She is genuinely kind hearted though and looks after her staff who can’t work much due to age or infirmity, one breaks her leg during the book and there is no suggestion that because she can’t work she would lose her room or meals each day.

Mack and the boys at the flophouse, which they con Lee Chong out of at the start of the book, don’t work unless they have to, they have developed over the years a sense of contentment about their lives where they can get what little they need to survive somehow, even if it actually belongs to somebody else at the time. What they will do is get creatures for Doc at a fixed price that everybody knows because that’s more of an adventure than ‘working’ for a living. Despite their low grade criminality you can’t help but like them, they are more victims of their schemes than pretty well any one else and they are genuinely remorseful when things go badly wrong.

Even the bit parts are masterful, I particularly enjoyed the regular appearances of the old Chinaman as he wandered down to the sea and back each day; and like a minor character in a West End farce he always failed to interact with any of the major players whilst just walking through the narrative adding nothing to the plot apart from a comic interlude and a sense of wonder. Just what is it he is doing and why? It’s never explained.

The book revolves around Doc, his need for specimens and his love of classical music, his books and a quiet life. The plot, such as it is, involves Mack and the boys wanting to do ‘something nice for Doc’. They decide on a party so then need to raise some money to finance it, how they get the ‘money’ and the form it takes is really funny and the disaster of the party leads to real poignancy as the various characters reflect on how it went so horribly wrong and what to do to try to make it right. The book is brilliant and difficult to put down when you have started you just need to know more about the population of Cannery Row and apparently there is a sequel so I have to get a copy of that.

Sailing to Freedom – Voldemar Veedam & Carl B. Wall

This beautiful volume was a gift from a friend in Estonia and tells the tale of sixteen people escaping from the Russians after the annexation of their country post WWII. This edition of the book was published as part of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence in 2018 and includes a preface by the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Sadly that initial period of independence was snuffed out by the start of World War II with first the Russians then the Germans and finally the Russians again taking control, Estonia would not be independent again until the 20th August 1991. Estonians therefore celebrate two Independence Days, the 23rd February marking the first time they were their own state back in 1918 and the 20th August for the current and longest period of independence the country has had in the centuries it has existed.

During the early 1940’s the Russians instigated mass deportations of ethnic Estonians to Siberia and the majority of those sent there never survived to get back to their own country. To escape these deportations many Estonians sailed across the Baltic to Sweden where they were largely held in camps amongst these escapees were the heroes of this book. They were faced with yet another problem at the end of the war as Sweden was set to send the Estonians back to their own country and Soviet control.  In March 1945 Voldemar Veedam was sitting with his friend Harry Paalberg when the first of the letters from the Swedish foreign ministry were received by the refugees informing them that they were to be returned and the Soviets has assured the Swedish government that they would be safe. Needless to say the refugees in Sweden didn’t believe the Soviet assurances and it turned out to be a correct supposition as tens of thousands more Estonians were sent to their doom in Siberia during the 1950’s.

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And so the plan was hatched between Voldemar and Harry to escape, this time from Sweden and try to get to the USA. They would need a boat and a few more people to man it and also help raise the money needed for the trip; this was going to be difficult enough never mind the gruelling ocean voyage. Money was tight and they couldn’t get more from family abroad as Swedish law severely limited the amount that could be sent to the refugees. In the end they managed to purchase a 36½ foot long (11.1m) by 13 foot wide (4m) sloop called Erma and an erratic diesel engine, but only by taking so many people into the escape attempt that the crew numbered twelve adults and four children. Working out how to get all those people on board with sufficient provisions and still be able to sail was a logistical nightmare. So much so that one of the recurring themes is the amazement of bystanders whenever they did manage to make it to a port as to how so many people were aboard. When they bought her Erma was over fifty years old and had been out of the water for years so leaked badly when she was refloated.

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There was a massive amount of work needed to make Erma seaworthy and this took far longer than any of them hoped even with four men working up to sixteen hours a day rebuilding the boat to be able to get everyone on board. So much so that instead of the hoped for summer departure it drifted into the autumn and meant that they ended up crossing the Atlantic during November and December.  This undoubtedly increased the amount of bad weather they hit during the crossing and caused a lot of the delays which hit their rations hard. It really is a magnificent tale of daring-do and remarkable seamanship that they managed to get all the way making repairs to their tiny vessel whilst on the way.

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When the book came out it appears from some of the blurbs reproduced from the old book covers that the trip was compared with that of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and his crew on the Kon-Tiki expedition whose book had been published a few years earlier. Somewhat unfairly I feel as his was a well funded trip (along with equipment from the US Army) with no pressure on him other than to prove his own theories. The sixteen people on the Erma had no such backup and made an amazing trip out of desperation to avoid the Soviet oppression in their homeland. I’m amazed that I haven’t come across this book before especially as it was clearly an international best seller in the 1950’s but checking on Amazon it appears that it is no longer in print apart from the edition I have now read which despite being in English does not appear to be available here. Thank you Christel for a fantastic gift which I have greatly enjoyed reading.

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The cover of the first UK paperback edition

The copy I have was published by Eesti Mälu Instituut, The Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, and a beautiful job they have made of it. The colourised photos from the trip, a couple of which are reproduced above, are wonderfully atmospheric and the inclusion of lots of covers of previous editions appeals to me as a book collector as well as showing just how popular this book has been around the world. Surprisingly, to me at least, the book was originally written in English by Veedam with the assistance of Carl B Wall who was an American journalist. It was first published in a much shorter form as The Cruise of the Erma in the February 1947 edition of Readers Digest and subsequently expanded in 1952 to the text that is now used. The front cover photo was taken from the American patrol boat John P. Gray soon after they had found the Erma and re-provisioned them for the final few days journey to an American port and journeys end.

Below are some more international translations, including ones on the right where the cover designer has clearly not read the book and has no idea what sort of boat Erma actually was.

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Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher

Hi, I’m Carrie Fisher and I’m an alcoholic

And this is a true story.

The start of Carrie Fisher’s first memoir certainly sets out her stall all too well. This is going to be a roller coaster ride through the highs and lows of her life told with self deprecating humour honed by telling much of the material covered in the book in a hit one woman show which premiered in 2006. The copy of the book I have is the 2008 first edition published by Simon and Schuster.

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The daughter of film star Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, Carrie grew up in a far from normal household. Her father left when she was two when he started an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who was also married at the time. Reynolds married again a couple of years later to a millionaire business man (who later lost all his money along with Reynolds’ due to bad business decisions and gambling) but he was Carrie and her brother Todd’s step father through most of their childhood. The book is quite open about this time in her life, how they only saw their mother occasionally, her step father even less often and her biological father about once a year. From the descriptions of the two children spending time with Reynolds’s clothes as they smelt of her when they couldn’t be with her and the times she was around spending as much time as possible in her presence they clearly missed having her in their lives.

By her mid to late teens Carrie had discovered alcohol and drugs, mainly marijuana at this stage and was what would become her life long addictions to both had started. This could have been a really dark book but the humorous way she addresses this along with her later mental health problems (she was bipolar) makes you laugh along with her even when she is describing really low points.

Okay, have it your way. I’m a drug addict.

You know how they say religion is the opiate of the masses? Well I took masses of opiates religiously.

or talking about her committal to a mental hospital a couple of years after giving birth to her daughter.

I was invited to go to a mental hospital. And you know, you don’t want to be rude, so you go. Okay, I know what you must be thinking – but this is a very exclusive invitation.

I mean, hello – have you ever been invited to a mental hospital?

So you see, it’s exclusive. It’s sort of like an invitation to the White House – only you meet a better class of people in the mental hospital.

The reader is introduced to Fishers fragile mental state right at the beginning of the book as she discusses the electroconvulsive therapy she has undergone and the effects it has had on her, including sporadic memory loss but she has also gained a re-awakening of things she has done which had been lost in the fog of drugs, drink and mental imbalance. This enabled her to create the stage show which led to this book.

Yes there is a section about Star Wars, but it’s quite a short one, and surprisingly nothing about her later career as one of the top Hollywood script doctors where she fixed scripts for various TV shows and films, including working for George Lucas. She got the role as Princess Leia at just nineteen years old and you get the impression that she is slightly irked that Lucas owns the image rights to the character including a throw away wry comment that every time she looks in the mirror she owes him a dollar. All those t-shirts, posters, dolls, figurines (large small and Lego) earn money for Lucasfilms not Carrie Fisher and it still seems odd to her that Leia became a sex symbol ‘while being chained to a giant slug’.

One afternoon in Berkeley I found myself walking into a shop that sold rocks and gems.

“Oh my God aren’t you…” the salesman behind the counter exclaimed.

And before he could go any further. I modestly said “Yes, I am”

“Oh my God! I thought about you every day from when I was twelve to when I was twenty-two.”

And instead of asking what happened at twenty-two, I said “Every Day?”

He shrugged and said “Well four times a day.”

Welcome to the land of too much information.

In the book there is a lot of information and a lot of it is dark but there is never too much and it is a great read while she takes us through her fascinating life.

Ten Italian Folktales – Italo Calvino

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As the title states there are ten tales included here and they are a wide mix so the best way to review the book is to look at each one in turn. Please note there will be the occasional spoiler but as these are folk tales it is entirely possible that you have come across the stories already or at least variants of them and it is those variants that I will mainly be referring to. The first story is Crack and Crook, this is one of the shortest tales and also one of the oddest included. It tells the story of two thieves who decide to team up to pull off a major robbery by tunnelling into the King’s treasury. They succeed in the attempt but this is where the story gets weird as the King, advised by another thief come up with stranger and stranger ways to identify the culprits. Story two is The Land Where One Never Dies which is basically a morality tale, the protagonist wishes to live forever but eventually discovers that he misses his family and local village.  Pome and Peel is another weird one as the title refers to two boys who were born after their mothers ate parts of a magic apple (one the flesh and the other the peel) and were inseparable throughout their lives until one wishes to marry a wizard’s daughter who puts a curse upon her when she runs away with the two men.

The Sleeping Queen is a strange variant of the classic Sleeping Beauty tale as it really seems to be two stories merged into one with the Sleeping Beauty part sandwiched between a morality tale. The middle bit has the castle surrounded by a motionless populace and in the castle is the Queen in her bed, however unlike the Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the story where she is awakened by a kiss, the Prince in this version gets into bed with her and she is awakened nine months later when she gives birth with everyone else starting to move again at the same time. This is much truer to the original version of the story from the fourteenth century where a princess gives birth to twins after her ‘rescuer’ leaves nine months earlier. But there is also the interwoven morality story in this tale about a blind King and his three sons who go off one after the other to find a cure for his blindness; but the two eldest abandon their quests when they find beautiful women that they fall in love with and decide to marry and forget all about the reason for their journeys. This leaves the youngest to complete the quest but he also gets betrayed by his feckless elder siblings before they get their comeuppance in their turn.

The next tale is The Enchanted Palace and this time a Prince gets lost in a forest whilst out hunting and finds a strange apparently deserted palace until a veiled lady with twelve maidservants suddenly appears, she dines and indeed sleeps with him all without saying a thing or removing her veil. It turns out she is under a curse and when he unwittingly breaks the terms of the spell she has of all things to go to Peterborough and be given as a prize in a jousting competition even though she is in fact the Queen of Portugal. That was a definite twist I hadn’t seen coming. After that is The King of Portugal’s Son so as the Italians clearly think the Portuguese Royal family are strange I was expecting something odd and wasn’t disappointed. It is difficult to summarise the plot of this one without giving too much away but yet again the twist in the end is well worth the reading of the story.

The two stories that follow are both very short, Apple Girl tells of a Queen who gives birth to an apple but inside the apple is a beautiful girl who escapes each day to bathe and do her hair before returning to the fruit until the spell is eventually broken. Joseph Ciufolo, Tiller-flautist is another short morality tale and is probably the weakest of the stories included.  There then follows Misfortune which is the tale of the youngest daughter of the Queen of Spain who is desperately unlucky and is cast out from her family to try to restore the luck of the rest of them. Eventually she meets and improves the temper of the grumpy witch who is controlling her fate thereby reviving her own fortune and that of her estranged family.

The final story in this selection is Jump into My Sack and this definitely felt familiar although I cannot place where I first heard it. It tells of a magic sack which will fill with anything the owner wishes and a stick which will do anything it is commanded to. Using these the hero of the story manages to have great wealth and use the powers for the betterment of others and even defeat the Devil.

Italo Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents but grew up in Italy after they returned to their home country before he was two years old. After WWII he became a journalist on a Communist newspaper and also started to write novels and short stories. These folk tales are a selection from the two hundred that Calvino collated in 1956 from collections of folklorists across Italy. Having read this book, which was published in 1995 as part of a set marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Penguin Books, I definitely need to get hold of the full collection to be able to enjoy the others but for now this is the only work by Calvino on my shelves.

Heidi – Johanna Spyri

I asked my Catalan friend Anna, who is an advocate for children and young adults reading around her country, to choose a children’s book from three titles that I have on my shelves, but have never read, for me to tackle this week and she chose Heidi. I have to say that I know very little about it other than it is Swiss, Heidi lives with her grandfather and she has a friend called Peter so it’s all going to be new to me. In fact I couldn’t even have told anyone the authors name until I looked it up for this blog, that is how little I know about it. The copy I have is by Puffin Books and was printed by them in November 1956, the translation from the original German is by Eileen Hall and the lovely cover illustration is by Cecil Leslie who also provided the drawings included within the book.

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Well that was an interesting read, I don’t know what I expected but this book definitely wasn’t it. For a start when we first encounter five year old Heidi she is being taken up the mountain by her aunt, whilst wearing most of her clothes on a hot summers day, so that she can be dumped on her grandfather who has no idea she is coming. Why is this happening? Well the aunt who has looked after her since she was orphaned at the age of one has been offered a job in Frankfurt which she wants to have and cannot take Heidi with her, so has to leave her with somebody, and the apparently cantankerous old man is the only option. He lives way up the mountain all alone, well away from the nearest village having distanced himself from them over the years so the villagers cannot believe that the aunt is planning on leaving Heidi there so far from anyone else, in the sole company of the man known to everyone (at least in this translation) as Uncle Alp. The handover does not go well…

“Good morning Uncle” said Detie. “I’ve brought you Tobias’s daughter, I don’t suppose you recognise her as you haven’t seen her since she was a year old”

“Why have you brought her here?” he demanded roughly.

“She’s come to stay with you Uncle” Detie told him coming straight to the point.  “I have done all I can for her these four years.  Now it’s your turn.”

“My turn is it?” snapped the old man, glaring at her. “And when she starts to cry and fret for you, as she is sure to do, what am I supposed to do then?”

“That’s your affair!” retorted Detie. “Nobody told me how to set about it when she was left on my hands a baby barely a year old. Goodness knows I had enough to do already looking after mother and myself. But now I’ve got to go away to a job. You’re the child’s nearest relative. If you can’t have her here, you can do what you like with her. But you’ll have to answer for it if she comes to any harm and I shouldn’t you’d want anything more on your conscience.”

Detie was really far from easy in her mind about what she was doing, which was why she spoke so disagreeably and she had already said more than she meant to.

The old man had got up at her last words. She was quite frightened by the way he looked at her, and took a few steps backward.

“Go back where you came from and don’t come here again in a hurry,” he said angrily, raising his arm.

Detie didn’t wait to be told twice.

And so the deed was done, and 12 pages into the 233 page book things were where I thought they should be, Heidi was on the mountain with her grandfather; although how we had reached this arrangement was a considerable surprise to me as I hadn’t known that she had just been abandoned there with him. However he turns out to be very kindly to her and all is well in the bucolic bliss that Spyri conjures up and I settled down to enjoy the tales of goat herding with Peter and descriptions of the high mountain pastures.  However just 35 pages later, two years in Heidi’s life have passed and Detie reappears to drag her away from the life she has come to know and love and dump her yet again on another unsuspecting household, this time in Frankfurt. Just what is going on with this book, and why isn’t Detie being investigated for child abandonment?? The well being and happiness of Heidi seems to be nowhere in her considerations and indeed once she has again abandoned Heidi and run away before anyone in the house could stop her she is never heard of again in the book.

Without giving away too much more of the plot there now follows roughly a hundred pages of Heidi having fun with Clara, the invalid girl she has been brought here to be the companion of, but at the same time getting more and more homesick and depressed about being trapped in the city far away from the Swiss mountainside and her grandfather whom she has come to love. Yet again this book is not what I expected. Eventually she becomes so unwell that she is sent back to Switzerland and the book finally takes the positive tone that I was looking forward to when I started it.

My one negative point about the book is that half way through religion really started to be pushed, the children have to say their prayers and later on when she gets back home hymns read to Peter’s blind Grandmother. I suppose it is a mark of the times when the book was written (1880) but equally I don’t remember other children’s books of the period being so proselytising to the point where it sometimes gets in the way of the narrative. This does seem to be an issue with her other books as well as the Deutsche Biographie states at the end of it’s summary of her life, translation below:

S.’s writings were already criticised during their lifetime because of the religious-conservative positions they represented as well as their tendency against women’s emancipation

Having raised the one negative that I found with the book I have to say that it was a great read, with more twists than I expected and I’m glad I have finally read it.

The Jaguar Smile – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is best known as a novelist, but he has written a few non-fiction books and this was his first. Originally published in 1987 and subtitled A Nicaraguan Journey even Rushdie in his new introduction to my edition written 10 years after first publication admits…

In the last ten years the world has changed so dramatically that The Jaguar Smile now reads like a period piece, a fairy tale of one of the hotter moments in the Cold War.

By the time I first read the book, almost a further 10 years on again in 2006, I was also in Nicaragua and the story was coming full circle although I didn’t know that when I arrived.

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But first a little history to set the book in its time and to provide background to the various characters. We need to go back to the US occupation of Nicaragua which lasted from 1909 to 1933 and which was opposed in a guerrilla war by a group led by Augusto Sandino. When the Americans left Sandino agreed a peace treaty with the new regime but on his way home from the signing banquet he was assassinated on the orders of the commander of the National Guard, Somoza who in 1937 took power himself and so began a 42 year brutal dictatorship led by his family. They siphoned off all the money they could from the country during their time in power especially the aid funds to rebuild the capital, Managua, following a devastating earthquake in 1972 this meant that when they were finally deposed in 1979 it was estimated the family wealth was in the region of $1 billion ($3.5 billion today) and all from a relatively poor small country of just three million people. They were overthrown by a rebel group who call themselves Sandinista’s in honour of the 1930’s rebel leader, whose profile now stands high above Managua.

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And this is where Rushdie comes in, he arrived in 1986 during yet another revolution, this time by a group called the Contra’s and financed by the Reagan administration in the USA in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government, even though the US Congress and the International Court of Justice in the Hague deemed such actions as illegal. The fighting was brutal with the Contra’s targeting the civilian population with kidnapping, rape and random murders being their main strategy to try to wear down the people rather than attacking the military forces of Nicaragua. That is not to say that the Sandinista’s were blameless and he makes a fair attempt to provide a balanced view of the situation. He had excellent access to almost all the government leaders and as a novelist he seems to have been able to talk to them (most of which were published novelists or poets themselves) as an equal and therefore get past the politics to be able to put issues regarding press freedom, food shortages, repression of the Catholic church and other items directly to even the president Daniel Ortega himself. There is a whole chapter detailing an interview with Ortega.

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The ruins of the cathedral in Managua

All of the leaders point out that they are at war and it is difficult to do things in such a context, and that the food shortages were mainly due to the US blockade and mining of the only deep water port in the country which was a fair point. They are however able to point to successes such as the reduction in child mortality, this would be halved by the time they lost power in 1990 and a significant increase in literacy (although this was not as big as they claimed), which was a priority for a government led in the main by writers. That the capital was still in ruins, and presumably still is, it certainly was when I was there twenty years after Rushdie, was not really a surprise either with the Somoza’s having emptied the country’s coffers when they fled into exile.

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Anti-CIA mural on a wall in Leon, presumably dating back to the 80’s when Rushdie was there as the CIA were heavily involved in the Contra revolution.

As well as having excellent access to the leadership Rushdie also manages to travel round the country to a certain extent, obviously the border areas, especially those with Honduras were too dangerous to enter, but he did manage to get over to the Caribbean coastal area of Bluefields which as usual was in the middle of storms throughout most of his time there and he memorably describes as

Bluefields was poor as mud (only dry places could be dirt poor)

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Bluefields

This is a really interesting section of the book. The Sandinista’s had completely messed up their control of this part of the country and were only then coming to recognise that the west (where they were) and the east were very different places, indeed there wasn’t even a road joining the two sides of the country and the east was (and still is) really really poor. There was slowly coming into place a new policy called “Autonomy” where the east would have more control over its own governance and the wildly mixed population could return to their own localities.

In Bluefields it was often difficult to remember I was still in Nicaragua. The west coast was, for the most part, homogeneous, but here, as well as Mestizos, there were Creoles, three different Amerindian tribes and even a small community of Garifonos, who shouldn’t have been there at all, according to the textbooks, but up in Belize. And that wasn’t the only difference. The majority of the inhabitants here were not Catholic, but belonged to the Moravian church. And a large proportion of them were English speaking to boot.

I had arrived in Bluefields via a small plane from The Corn Islands, a pair of islands about 70km (roughly 45 miles) off the coast from Bluefields where I was when the result of the elections that we had been following since arriving in Nicaragua were announced. These two islands are a tropical paradise and made the poverty in Bluefields even more striking.

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Procession of cars driving round and round Big Corn Island in celebration of the Sandinista win in the 2006 elections

In 1990 the Sandinista government lost the election and would be out of power for sixteen years. The government that replaced them was led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of a journalist who had been assassinated by the Somozo regime and whose paper had been closed down by the Sandinista’s so there was no love lost between her and Ortega. Rushdie also has a chapter interviewing her in the book and although he ends up being less than impressed by her she would be the person credited as bringing an end to fighting in Nicaragua after decades of various struggles.

Salman Rushdie makes a creditable attempt to understand Nicaragua and present as balanced view as was possible at the time. If he went there now I’m sure he would write a very different book, the Sandinista’s are still led by Daniel Ortega and he is still president thirteen years after the election I witnessed but for how much longer? There is considerable unrest in Nicaragua again and this time the Sandinista government are the ones putting down a rebellious populace. It’s a pity, it is after all a beautiful country with friendly people and a fantastic place to be and I thoroughly enjoyed this book whilst I was there and it’s subsequent rereading for this blog. Yes it’s dated but it’s still definitely worth a read.

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Brightly coloured buildings in Grenada

All photographs are by myself from my trip in 2006 and are © David Jackson 2019

The Evolution Man – Roy Lewis

Although my copy, published by Penguin in 1963 has the title ‘The Evolution Man’ this was not the original title; when the book was first published by Hutchinson in 1960 it was called ‘What We Did to Father’, it has also gone under the title of ‘Once Upon an Ice Age’. As far as I can tell it has been out of print since 1994 when it gained a further subtitle which because it rather gives away the ending I’m not going to repeat here.

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The book is written from the point of view of Ernest one of the sons of Edward, the Evolution Man of the title. The family are Pleistocene ape-men in Africa and recently down from the trees, which is where his Uncle Vanya thinks they should all still be but Edward is determined that they must evolve. Part of the conceit of the book is that he is aware of the time periods that we now assign to history and worries that they may still be in the early Pleistocene and so have a long way to go rather than the mid to late period so are well on their way. The other part is that father achieves all the steps needed to lift them from scavenging apes just venturing onto the plains to the cusp of becoming the dominant species dragging his protesting family behind him. His first discovery is fire for warmth and defence against predators.

Fire – ‘How did fire work?’ ‘what I wanted was a small portable volcano’ ‘my only hope of finding the sort of limited family sized fire I wanted was to go up a volcano and chip a bit off’

Whilst telling the tale of how he brought fire from the volcano he accidentally invents ‘the heavy duty hunting spear with the fire hardened point’ by not paying attention to where his spear was when engrossed in the story. The fact that he instantly names it correctly and understands what he has got is entirely typical of the character. He is determined that humanity will progress and he won’t tolerate any back-sliding

The secret of modern industry lies in the intelligent utilisation of by-products,” he would remark frowning, and then in a bound he would seize some infant crawling on all fours, smack it savagely, stand it upright, and upbraid my sisters: “When will you realise that at two they should be toddlers? I tell you we must train out this instinctual tendency to revert to quadrupedal locomotion. Unless that is lost all is lost! Our hands, our brains, everything! We started walking upright back in the Miocene, and if you think I am going to tolerate the destruction of millions of years of progress by a parcel of idle wenches, you are mistaken. Keep that child on his hind legs, miss, or I’ll take a stick to your behind, see if I don’t.

All the family get caught up in this drive for progress, the youngest son Alexander uses burnt stick to draw uncle Vanya’s shadow one evening so inventing representative art. A little later on as Edward instantly understands what he has done they work together to draw a mammoth and soon after that the family kill a mammoth.  As this is perceived as cause and effect by the family, if not Edward, is this the start of religion? In another part of the book he demonstrates a basic grasp of genetics, or at least the need to widen as far as possible the genetic pool and get away from the natural trend for a small tribe to inbreed.

I should point out that the Roy Lewis who wrote this book is very different from the crime writer of the same name who has written over sixty books. Roy Lewis of The Evolution Man wrote only two works of fiction, he was a journalist and worked for The Economist and The Times in his long career, he also founded The Keepsake Press, a small private press.

To summarise the book I can do no better than to quote Sir Terry Pratchett from a article he wrote for the Washington Post published 7th April 2002

I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time — a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about — but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It’s also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done.

I can only say I heartily agree.