Longhand – Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton is best known as a comedy script writer and actor for TV and radio and his shows have been a constant favourite of mine since he started in the 1970’s especially the BBC Radio 4 long running series Old Harry’s Game which he writes and stars in as Satan. Not a particularly obvious subject for humour but as always with Hamilton he finds a new way of looking at the character and that is what imbues him with comedy. In this book, his second novel, he takes another mythological character and brings him to life in a surprising way telling his story and allowing him to debunk a lot of the myth around him.

We first meet our hero, for hero he is even if he doesn’t like it and for reasons that swiftly become clear he shuns publicity as much as he can, frantically writing a very long letter to the woman he loves because he has to leave her and for the first time in thousands of years feels that he has to tell her why. As you can see below the joy of the book is that we get the letter, the whole book, all 349 pages of it, is handwritten, with crossings out and edits just as Malcolm would have written it.

The reader finds out almost immediately that Malcolm is actually Heracles and has lived for thousands of years always having to move on as firstly he never ages so starts to look odd to people who know him for a long time but secondly, and as it turns out more importantly, Zeus is determined he will never be happy and has tormented him throughout the millennia. The letter he writes to his darling Bess over a period of three days is funny yet also tragic; it is without doubt a love letter but also a confession and Hamilton handles the emotional roller coaster perfectly. I found myself reading late into the night as I simply didn’t want to stop finding out more about Malcolm and Bess and the ways that he tries to disguise his enormous strength and immortality from all those around them.

I have read many versions of the Greek myths so knew Heracles’s story but it isn’t necessary to know any of that before reading this book, Hamilton takes us right through the tales mainly so Malcolm can explain why they are so wrong and what really happened. It’s a brilliant idea and, to me at least, a completely original approach to mythological story telling, Malcolm is so ordinary because he has to be but his back story is one of wanton destruction and tragedy, he so despises that aspect of his early life and just wants to be ‘normal’. With Bess he has found that normality he craves but as the letter explains he is being forced to abandon the happiness he now has and at a truly awful point in time.

By the end of the book you are totally invested in the tragic love story of Malcolm and Bess, a tale that fit right in with the classical Greek mythology that Hamilton has mined for his characters’ source. We never hear from Bess in the whole book, other characters are reported verbatim but Bess is always heard through the medium of Malcolm’s letter as he explains what had just happened in the hope that she will forgive him. Fortunately we know right from the beginning that she does and that she still loves him as there is one other letter included right at the front and that is typewritten ostensibly from a firm of solicitors to the publisher. I read this first as that is where it is placed but rereading it after finishing Malcolm’s letter you understand it better.

The book is published by Unbound, a crowd funded publishing house, and I subscribed to it before Andy Hamilton even started to write, based partly on the pitch that he made on the site but also as a fan of his work over many decades I knew that he would produce something well worth reading and he has certainly delivered. As a subscriber I received a signed copy on publication and my name is in the list of around five hundred people who supported the work through to publication.

Their Darkest Materials – Penelope Hemingway

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With a title clearly inspired by the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman this book heads off in a completely different direction with a theme of death and destitution in the world of knitting and spinning (with a little bit of sewing thrown in). I use the word thrown advisably because although like the proverbial Curate’s Egg it is good in parts, it just feels like a lot of research notes have just been thrown into a mix and the book came out the other side.

The first few chapters are particularly random with a list of press cuttings and court reports where the person who died was either knitting at the time, had knitting about their person when they died or was knitting before they were executed. However as the book later makes clear the poor in the 17th and 18th centuries would normally have some knitting or possibly sewing on the go as it was portable and could be done in times when their normal work was not needing them and could in that way bring in some much needed extra income. The second chapter looks at knitting and spinning in fairy tales with a large section on the folk tale of Rumpelstiltskin but this topic is never referred to again and comes in between chapters one and three which really belong together.

After a while Hemingway gets into her stride and what is actually quite an interesting book emerges as she goes on to explore exploitation in workhouses, mills and something I had not come across before knitting and spinning schools. If Hemingway had expanded her research and written a book about these subjects, which she almost did, then we would have a fascinating work. I loved learning about the knitting and spinning schools of the north east of England and Wales where poor children could get a simple education and learn a trade whilst producing goods for sale which paid for school. In the best of them the children even earned a wage which would help keep the rest of their family from destitution.

The sections on the dark satanic mills as described by William Blake, whilst covering more familiar ground also added much that was new to me. Extracts from wage books show just how desperate things were with families barely able to keep their heads above water even with everyone from the youngest child to the oldest grandparent bringing in as much as they could by working all hours possible. This was well before unions and universal suffrage so the poor had no say in their lives and the mill owners, who could as property owners vote, made sure that laws to improve the lives of their workers struggled to get passed. It took years to get the ten hour limit applied to a workers day and even then it could be avoided by getting the work done at home rather than at a mill when the people were on piecework so paid by output not the time they took to get there.

There is also a chapter on the introduction of artificial dyes which spends most of its time covering the incarceration in an asylum of the wife of one of the pioneers. This sad tale was definitely new to me but it means that the chapter is far too short to tell the story of this revolution in colour which is wonderfully covered in Simon Garfield’s book Mauve, which I really must reread and review in this blog, instead we get a brief overview of the chemists work, which only fits in with the darkest materials theme because it focuses on the story of Mary Dawson.

The real problem with the book is the obvious lack of proof reading, the work is littered with spelling and typographical errors. Most of the spelling mistakes are missing letters in words whilst there are also a lot of words run together with the space between them omitted and numerous examples where sentences suddenly move to the next line part way across the page. There is also a lot of repetition so stories are told again a few chapters later or in one particularly bad example a paragraph is repeated directly after itself.

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It’s a pity that editing wasn’t done properly as there is definitely an interesting book in there but the sloppy way that it has been put together lets it down. It is clearly self published as the publisher is given at the start of the book as ‘At the Sign of the Pretty Baa Lamb Press’. Unfortunately if you follow the website link also given there then you find that the publisher is given as ‘Pretty Baa Lambs Press’, Lamb or Lambs doesn’t really matter but it is an indication of the lack of attention to accuracy in this publication which screams out for a decent editor.

Busman’s Honeymoon – Dorothy L Sayers

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I decided to top and tail the four major science works in August with something lighter, and a couple of detective fiction novels fitted the bill nicely, specifically Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and this book Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers. For those people not familiar with the origins of the title a busman’s holiday is where somebody takes a break from work but still ends up being involved in their career in some way for example a bus driver who holidays by taking a coach trip. Whilst Lord Peter Wimsey isn’t a professional detective, being instead an extremely wealthy junior member of the aristocracy with a talent for detection, it was of course inevitable that he would end up solving a crime on his honeymoon.

This book is the eleventh and final novel written by Sayers about Lord Peter and first published in 1937, there would be some later short stories but this is his last outing in a significant work and rounds off nicely the ongoing romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane which began in “Strong Poison”. Although Harriet is definitely not interested in getting to know Lord Peter any more than she has to at that time as he manages to prove her innocence on a charge of murder. There follows more novels involving the two characters as he eventually manages to persuade her to accept his proposal of marriage at the end of “Gaudy Night”. As a wedding present he buys her the house Tallboys that she loved as a child and they decide at the last minute to take their honeymoon there. Arrangements are made with the previous owner to collect the keys and retain the furniture for a month until they can replace it with their own but on arrival late in the evening he is nowhere to be found and the house is locked up. The first mystery is therefore where is Noakes?

They eventually get access to the house via some spare keys and spend the night before discovering the body of Noakes in the cellar but not with injuries that he would have received if he had for instance fallen down the stairs, in fact the injury that clearly killed him could not have occurred in the cellar at all so how did he die? Cue a cast of characters several of which could have done the deed or at least have a motive but no obvious murder weapon to be found. There are several twists as Lord Peter and the local police force come up with various options for who? and how?, all of which hit the main problem that the house was locked up from the inside so how would anyone get away after killing him? The book was adapted from a play of the same name first performed in 1936 and it still has set pieces that feel like a stage setting, especially the limited number of locations used and the gathering of the entire cast in the front room for the denouement.

It has to be said that Busman’s Honeymoon is by no means the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, for me that would either be “The Nine Tailors” or “Gaudy Night” but it did fulfil my requirements of a pleasant light read after the heavyweight works over the last few weeks. If you have never encountered Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter his faithful manservant I heartily recommend them although don’t start here, the first novel is “Whose Body?” written in 1923 which introduces the characters.

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – Galileo Galilei

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The final, and longest, book in my August reading marathon of important scientific works is also definitely the oldest and arguably the most significant in the leap of understanding passed on to those members of the public able to read a copy. Published originally in 1632 in Italian so that it was more accessible to the general public than it would have been if written in Latin it was immediately seen as an attack on the Catholic church as it presented as valid the then heretical Copernican system of the Sun at the centre of the Solar System rather than everything rotating around the Earth as taught by Aristotle and Ptolemy and adopted as clearly correct by the church as Earth should be the centre of Gods handiwork. Galileo was duly tried by the Inquisition and sentenced to life imprisonment at home and the book remained on the Catholic church’s list of banned works for over 200 years until 1835.

It is styled as a conversation over four days between three characters, Salviati is the instigator of the meetings and is clearly a Copernican, Simplicio is an adherent to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic systems and Sagredo is there initially to play devils advocate putting questions to both of the others but towards the end is obviously swayed by Salviati. Both Salviati and Sagredo are based on real people with those names who had been friends of Galileo but had both died many years before publication so could not be implicated by their names being used, whilst Simplicio appears to have got his name from the Italian word semplice which means simple minded. The choice of this name for the character backing the Ptolemaic system was also not lost on the Inquisition. Galileo was well aware that he was pushing at boundaries and originally got permission from the church to write a book about tides which grew into the final work covering far more than his original proposal, but even the characters acknowledge that this is potentially dangerous territory.

We are arguing for our own amusement, and are not obligated to any such strictness as one would be who was methodically treating a subject for professional reasons, with the intention of publishing it … it should be almost as if we had met to tell stories, so that it is permitted for me to relate anything which hearing yours may call to mind.

This edition was published by The Folio Society in 2013 using a translation originally done by Stillman Drake in 1953. It includes a modern introduction by Dava Sobel along with a foreword by Albert Einstein, which presumably dates back to the first publication of this translation. I did struggle a little with the verbose nature of the translation which whilst it may reflect Galileo’s original did also mean that I several times had to reread a sentence to make sure I followed the text correctly. This is not helpful when I was also trying to appreciate the leaps being made by Galileo whilst reminding myself that this was written decades before Newton formulated the Theory of Gravity so Galileo was truly groundbreaking in his explanations. His theoretically neutral but definitively pro-Copernican text starts from first principles with balls rolling down a slope to end up with not only the Earth rotating each 24 hours but also orbiting the Sun each year with the angle of the Earth’s axis also included to explain the equinoxes.

That is not to say that everything is correct as we would understand the cosmos now, Galileo has astronomical distances far too small, although much exceeding that of his contemporaries. A good example of this is the section of detailed calculations surrounding the two supernova that had been observed in the last few decades before he wrote the book. He is rightly dismissive of a book which aimed to prove that that these occurred within the orbit of the Moon so as to not disturb the changeless firmament which does so by carefully choosing between astronomical measurements of the period so as to find ones with sufficient error to support the authors position. However Galileo makes the same error in his selection by dismissing not only these examples but also any that would imply the nova occurred at an infinite distance from Earth which using the methods explained would actually have been the correct solution. Instead Galileo had decided that the stars were roughly six to eight times as far away as Saturn (then the furthest known planet) although some “could be two or three times further than that” to explain relative brightness and apparent size. He duly provides many pages of calculations regarding the sample set he has chosen, which are clearly there just to demolish the book and author he dislikes. Other ‘scientific’ books and papers from his time are likewise introduced and their methodology and reasoning torn apart. Galileo clearly wanted to leave no stone un-turned in his defence of Copernicus.

In the final section Galileo covers the subject that he originally stated was to be the main topic of the work, that is the tides and what causes them. Fortunately this makes up a tiny proportion of the whole book as sadly this is another area where he is in error by effectively ascribing them to the rotation of the Earth and the consequential ‘sloshing’ of the waters in the seas. The examples of mistakes given above are entirely understandable given the groundbreaking nature of the book and although I feel the translation could have been better this is still a book I thoroughly enjoyed as the insights presented by Galileo are not only good examples for today but give an understanding of the reasoning of the time and the turmoil between science and the Catholic church that would hold back scientific advances within its sphere of influence for decades if not centuries to come.

Galileo finally received an apology for his treatment at the hands of the church on the 31st October 1991 from Pope John Paul II over three hundred and fifty years too late.

The Voyage of the HMS Beagle – Charles Darwin

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At over 206,000 words this is the second of the three large books for my August scientific reading marathon. I chose it in preference to The Origin of Species (first published 1859) for several reasons, including the fact that it is a lot more readable, but mainly because in this you can see Darwin slowly edging towards the theory that would make him famous. This is especially true of the second edition (1845, the first edition was in 1839, twenty years before his more famous work), the text of which is used for this book as Darwin altered sections in light of his research and developing thoughts. Another reason is that I love the work of Robert Gibbings who illustrated this Heritage Press volume. Although called a journal which implies a diary like approach, and yes most of the entries do have the date at their start, it is not chronological. We do bounce around a bit for a few years as The Beagle was on a nearly five year surveying mission so tends to revisit places several times and Darwin to make things clearer and avoid the obvious repetition has entries that may be months or years apart but which are put together because geographically they make more sense that way. It actually took me a while to realise what was going on and it was only when I stepped back a couple of pages to refresh my memory that I spotted that the entry there was two years after the one I was reading.

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Throughout the text you can see Darwin edging towards evolution and the concept of gradual change in species. He also references many species which have the dubious distinction of being ‘described by Darwin but now extinct’ including a type of cattle in South America and on the Falkland Islands a species of wolf which he describes as a fox when he sees it and noted it’s decline.

Their numbers have rapidly decreased; they are already banished from that half of the island which lies to the eastward of the neck of land between St Salvador Bay and Berkeley Sound. Within a very few years after these islands shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the Earth.

This may well be the earliest documented use of the dodo as a reference point for extinction of a species.

When you think of Darwin’s voyage then most people automatically think about the Galapagos Islands but in truth he spent very little time there arriving on 15th September and on his way to Tahiti by 20th October 1835. Just over a month out of a almost five year voyage and they take up in this edition twenty seven pages out of almost five hundred despite having more illustrations than most other sections. What we do get is a basic description of what have become known as Darwin’s finches as he realises that the bill shapes on different islands vary dramatically in order to make best use of the food supplies found there. Despite the giant tortoises being the most famous residents and symbol of the archipelago it was the finches that really drove his realisation of what became known as evolution. He is also one of the first people to accurately describe the marine iguanas found exclusive on these islands and notice their diet of seaweed rather then the belief up until then that they were after fish.

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When reading the book one thing you notice is just how much time Darwin isn’t on board The Beagle, he goes off on long expeditions inland sometimes for weeks at a time whilst Captain Fitzroy is engaged on his duties creating charts for the admiralty. You therefore get long passages where he either makes circuits when the ship will be in one place for a period of time or he arranges to meet the vessel at a specified port further along the coast. The observations he makes away from the coastal areas add greatly to his geological studies and give fascinating diversions to life on board ship, but I suspect they are also inspired by his desire to be on solid ground due to the really bad seasickness he was prone to, which almost made him leave the expedition within a few weeks of the start. Science was greatly enhanced by his decision to keep going regardless but it was so close to being abandoned before he could make any of his discoveries.

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Towards the end of the book the Beagle goes to the Keeling Islands and it is here that Darwin comes up with a theory for how coral islands and reefs are formed and ultimately writes another book on the subject. This is one of the few passages where the text becomes difficult to follow as he references maps from the other book without the reader of this volume having access to them, but there is enough for you to understand the process proposed. Other than this section the book is extremely readable even in this full form. Most versions printed nowadays, including the Penguin Classics edition are heavily edited and have more than 25% removed coming out at less than 150,000 words, which is still a substantial work but I would rather read a complete edition.

The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene

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I bought this book in the July 2020 Folio Society sale specifically for this August science marathon which I have just realised I am reading in order of length. After the relatively short ‘The Double Helix’ last week I jump to the 432 pages of this volume, next weeks is a similar length and the final book to tackle is over 550 pages. If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that I do a reading marathon each August, previously I have read multiple books each week but this year I have decided to tackle major scientific works at the rate of one a week when normally I would have interleaved them with shorter and easier works. So what is the importance of ‘The Elegant Universe? Well it was originally published in 1999 and is one of the first books to attempt to summarise the issues between Einstein’s relativity theories and quantum mechanics and then go on to explain a possible solution to their inconsistencies using String Theory to a readership that is not composed solely of physicists. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize so definitely qualifies for my requirement to be a significant science work for this months readings and represents theoretical physics as I have previously read and reviewed the logical book for this subject namely Einstein’s own book on Relativity.

After a couple of brief introductions, one written in 2017 especially for this new edition, and a brief summary of the current understanding of elementary particles which makes up section one of the book Professor Greene dives straight in with two chapters on the General and Special Theories of Relativity, how these moved us on from the Newtonian Laws of Motion and the odd effects that are predicted by Einsteins equations. After this is a chapter giving a good introduction to Quantum Mechanics, which is a surprisingly easy read given the counter intuitive behaviours of forces and particles at this level of magnification. These are followed by a chapter entitled The Need for a New Theory where he looks specifically at the contradictions between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and the problems that are faced by physicists trying to unite the two in the search for the Theory of Everything. These four chapters make up the second section of the book and cover ground I was already familiar with however I have not read up on String Theory so from here on the theoretical physics was all new.

 

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The chapters get ever more complicated  as they try to explain the various aspects of String Theory, which by its very nature as the search for The Theory of Everything has to stretch from atomic level to cosmology. Professor Greene is very good at using analogies to express complex thoughts in a way the reader can approach them. For those who are fans of the Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine you will be pleased to find that String Theory allows for wormholes to exist. Spoiler alert – they probably don’t but at least there is some physics behind the idea as shown on the page spread above.

One potentially good way that the entire book is written is the ability of the reader to take it at their own pace and also to decide how deep they want to go. This is done by use of an extensive notes section at the back of the book which moves more complex discussions of points raised along with most of the mathematics out of the main body of the text. Now for me this became increasingly annoying as I had to keep two bookmarks to track where I was up to and to make skipping to the notes section easier but it does make the main text simpler to follow for the more lay reader who after all is probably the target audience.

Am I convinced by String Theory after finishing the book? The answer is probably no, there are far too many places where the solution to problems within the theory appear to be solved by the ‘with one giant leap our hero escapes’ methodology favoured by Flash Gordon short films from the 1930’s. Be it the ‘convenient’ choice of three holes in the six dimensions curved around a string so that the known three families of particles are predicted by approximate mathematical formulas. Or the super-symmetrical particles which are a cornerstone of most string theories (of which there are five versions which also doesn’t seem like a solid foundation) not being found as expected by the Large Hadron Collider so the assumptions of which they are based being changed so they ‘couldn’t have been discovered with current technology’ there are too many holes being papered over. Even assuming that the mathematics is finally worked out, and there is almost forty years of people trying, the idea that a mathematical model is also the physical construct is dubious to say the least and there is no need for the actual physical basis of the universe to match the mathematical representation for a theory to be valid in predicting motion and inter-reaction but String Theorists insist that this is the case.

Twenty years on from the book being written even those heavily involved in the physics back then are starting to have doubts about some of what is suggested. The most obvious candidate is super-symmetry. This is seen as one of the most important signatures that String Theory is correct and is number one on the list of things that ‘will prove or disprove the theory’ included in the book but few physicists now believe it is true as can be judged by this extract of a Royal Institution lecture by Dan Hooper, Head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the USA. Maybe String Theory will unravel, maybe it will be adapted to match experimental reality, who knows, but it is an fascinating subject and needs to be tackled to understand the fundamental basis of reality.

Read the book, it’s difficult, even with the solid background in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics that I have, but worth it. It will challenge your understanding of these subjects and that can only be a good thing, physics and mathematics rely on constantly pushing the boundaries and at least at the moment String Theory is the only game in town that attempts to mesh the Quantum Mechanics and what is happening at the smallest boundaries with Relativity and the physics of huge distances. It might be right, it might be wrong, but it will certainly push the boundaries of scientific endeavour for many years to come.

The Double Helix – James D Watson

For this years August reading marathon I have decided to tackle four of the most significant science books that I have on my shelves. Unlike previous years where I have needed to read multiple books in a week this year I only have one at a time but because of their very nature these books are not something you can quickly get through and rush onto the next one, also two of them are over 500 pages in length. Three are published by the Folio Society and the other by Heritage Press in America who often produced books of a similar quality until they ceased publishing.

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I’m starting with what is arguably the most significant scientific discovery of the twentieth century, the structure of DNA and how it could pass on genetic material. It is written by one of the three Nobel Prize winners for the discovery and provides a fascinating account of the race to be the first to crack how this mechanism worked and indeed what it was that did it. Now I freely admit that biology is easily my weakest science having dropped the subject at sixteen so was a little wary of this book and whether it was just going to go over my head but I need not have worried as Watson’s style pulls the reader along so that even in the technical parts I could keep up.

I hadn’t realised how quickly the science behind genetics changed in the early 1950’s or how competitive the search for the solution as to how genetic material was passed on became. Watson provides a good overview of the state of the science after the war where the general consensus was that the information had to be in proteins because they were more complex than DNA appeared to be so that had to be where something so important was encoded. Watson himself became interested in bacteriophages (phages for short) which are viruses which can have within them either DNA or the simpler RNA molecules surrounded by proteins and in 1951 started work at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge where he first met Francis Crick and the story begins. The original foreword which is included in this volume is by their departmental head Sir Lawrence Bragg who had himself won the Nobel Prize in 1915 for his work on X-Ray diffraction which was ultimately the way used to confirm the helical nature of DNA. Bragg says in his foreword regarding Watson’s style and tone in the book

He writes with Pepys like frankness. Those who figure in the book must read it in a very forgiving spirit. One must remember that his book is not a history, but an autobiographical contribution to the history which will someday be written. As the author himself says, the book is a record of impressions rather than historical facts.

Watson does indeed explain that he compiled the book from letters and diaries, which explains the large number of personal details such as dinners and his accommodation problems being included which all provide a more rounded narrative than the straight science. As for the Pepys like frankness, Bragg himself is subject to a few scathing comments especially when he specifically requires Crick and Watson to stop working on DNA and get on with what they were supposed to be doing. But his main target as a person obstructing their progress is Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant chemist and exponent of X-Ray crystalline photography and who took the images which ultimately confirmed Watson and Crick’s model. Franklin did not work with either Watson or Crick she was based in Kings College, London working with Maurice Wilkins or more accurately working against him according to this book as the two did not get on either personally or professionally so Watson’s impressions of her are strongly coloured by Wilkins’ opinions. Wilkins would ultimately share the Nobel prize with Crick and Watson in 1962, sadly Franklin had died of cancer in 1958 and posthumous prizes have only been awarded twice and have been specifically prohibited since 1974. Watson however has said that he thought she should have been included in 1962.

The tension mounts as Watson describes the various groups working on the genetic solution which ultimately comes down to three teams racing for the prize. Crick and Watson in Cambridge, Wilkins and Franklin in London and Linus Pauling in America. Ironically Pauling would also be a Nobel laureate in 1962 but he won the Peace prize for this campaign against nuclear testing. Wilkins and Franklin were the closest technically but due to their failure to work together were starting to trail but what really prompted Watson to get on with model building was Pauling who produced a paper which was close but which had a serious error in the chemistry and so produced the wrong result but Crick and Watson knew that once he realised his mistake it might be weeks rather than months before he fixed it and found the correct answer.

There have now been many more historical and less anecdotal accounts of the search for the structure of DNA, as predicted by Bragg in his introduction including another book by James Watson, which I also have, entitled DNA and written in 2003 to accompany a British TV series on DNA marking the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery. Watson was very young, only twenty four, when he and Crick made their breakthrough and that possibly also affected the style of this book. At the time of writing he is still alive, the only person involved who is, and at ninety two lives in his native America.

A better view of the cover design by Alice Stevenson based on a design by Gavin Morris.

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Tartarin of Tarascon – Alphonse Daudet

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Unusually for books on my shelves I have no memory of acquiring this one, it was printed by the Folio Society in 1968 and I suspect I purchased it with others in a mixed lot of Folio Society volumes when I really wanted some of the others in the collection. It does mean that now that I have come to take it down off the shelves I realise that I have no idea who Alphonse Daudet was and no concept as to what the book will be about. I don’t even know when the book was originally written as the only date inside is that of the translation by J M Cohen which is the same year as publication suggesting that this was an early translation for the Folio Society who up to this time tended to rely on reprinting already translated works.

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For reasons that will be explained later this novel took far longer to read than such a short book should have. It was written in 1872 and is clearly set at the same time and the first section takes places in the Provençal town of Tarascon, Daudet was a French novelist and writer of short stories, although his literary output was relatively modest in comparison to his English contemporary Charles Dickens, he has numerous schools and colleges named after him around France which attest to his popularity in his time. Tarascon is depicted in the book as populated by such dedicated hunters that there is no wildlife left in the area and the men of the town go out each week with their guns and shoot their caps which are thrown into the air for the purpose as there is nothing else to fire on. The one who most destroys his cap hangs the remnants on the end of his rifle and leads the parade back into town, this is apparently usually Tartarin. The consequence of this cap shooting makes the most profitable shop in town the hat shop.

Tartarin is, or believes he is, the greatest at all things in the town and as can be seen in the picture above lives surrounded by weaponry of all sorts. He is also convinced that there are secret assassins everywhere and always goes out armed and take circuitous routes to the club in the evening to shake them off. There are other apparent peculiarities regarding the residents of Tarascon such as each family having their own song which they sing each evening and it is unheard of for any other family to sing any others song at any time, apart that is for Tartarin who will join in with all the others at the drop of a hat, or probably the remains of one. The trigger for the plot of the novel is the arrival of a circus with a lion, here at last was an animal worthy of hunting and Tartarin declares in his usual boastful way that he will go to Africa on behalf of the town to hunt.

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So far so good, a short comic novel about a real town that Daudet has populated with ridiculous characters doing ridiculous things and initially it appears that the trip to Algeria that Tartarin is eventually shamed into doing after spending months hoping that his boast will be forgotten will be a satire of French colonial attitudes in that country, which it is, but only occasionally. The illustration above shows Tartarin in the outfit he chose for the journey, a very much stereotypical ‘Turk’ costume which he believes would be what everyone in Algeria would be wearing only to be very surprised when he is the only one. But this is where the book starts to fall apart, the clothing choice is clearly a dig at parochial attitudes in provincial France but once the action is in Algeria Daudet allows his racist and specifically anti-Semitic beliefs to come through although also makes comments regarding the colonial status quo. There are several derogatory statements about Jews the milder of which I can repeat below as it illustrates my earlier statement, others I wouldn’t include

Just ask the Arabs. Hark to how they explain the French colonial organisation. ‘On the top,’ they say, ‘is Mossoo, the Governor, with a heavy club to rap the staff; the staff, for revenge, canes the soldier; the soldier clubs the settler, and he hammers the Arab; the Arab smites the Negro, the Negro beats the Jew, and he takes it out of the donkey. The poor bourriquot having nobody to belabour, arches up his back and bears it all.’

Another comment about the Algerians which is also a valid point on colonialism is

A wild and corrupted people whom we are civilising by teaching them our vices

There is also the issue of Tartarin himself, surely nobody could be that naive as he falls for all the cons perpetrated on him but also just where did he get all his money? He is in Algeria for at least four months and is conned out of a significant amount of money on top of the huge amount spent before he leaves France on guns and equipment, but at the end of the book still has

his pocket-book, a good-sized one, full of precious papers and bank-notes

well until it finally gets stolen anyway. He just isn’t believable.

In summary I started off enjoying the story but gradually got more irritated by it and reading got slower as I progressed. If I wasn’t going to write about the novel I would probably have given up before the end.

A Valley in Italy – Lisa St Aubin de Teran

20200714 A Valley in Italyr

Subtitled ‘Confessions of a House Addict’ the book more than lives up to that description. St Aubin de Teran is a novelist and I have several of her books although I am mainly drawn to her autobiographical work documenting her increasingly complicated life as she bounces from country to country. She was born in London, but when she had just turned sixteen married a much older Venezuelan sugar plantation owner and bank robber, hence her surname. Eventually she moved to that country at the age of seventeen and ran his estate over the next seven years. It was here that she had her daughter Iseult, known throughout this book as ‘the child Isuelt’ or more simply ‘the child’ despite there also being a younger brother (by her second husband) who is normally just referred to as Allie. By 1989 when this book is set Iseult was now fifteen and just as confident and precocious as her mother had been at the same age, having already been employed as a model in Paris. As for Lisa she was married to her third husband, the artist Robbie Duff Scott and they were looking for a new home in Italy, preferably large and rambling, however bearing in mind the state of their finances it also had to be pretty dilapidated.

I saw the house I had been looking for all my life. It was standing like a jilted beauty still dressed in its ancient best. The abandoned facade was groaning under tons of sculpted terracotta. There was row upon row of long graceful windows reaching down to white marble sills, there were dozens of arches, a loggia, a roof, a balcony and a cascade of wisteria.

I gleaned these impressions through my first glances. Then, though I subsequently climbed through one of the missing windows and roamed around for nearly an hour, I was so entranced that I saw little else that I could remember with any clarity. There was a white marble staircase stretching up with cantilevered vertigo through four floors with neither balustrade nor banister against the sheer drop. There was a white marble fireplace some ten feet high in a blackened kitchen. There were two tractors, a combine harvester and a transport van all rusting in the downstairs hall.

And so the description goes on, almost all the doors were missing as well as the windows, a large part of the roof and indeed most of an exterior wall. They agreed to buy it straight away and only when then had driven away realised that they didn’t actually know where it was as the agent had taken them there as a second choice so they had no documents to tell them anything about it.

It was agreed that Lisa and the child would go to the house to supervise getting the restoration started, Robbie had to go back to Scotland to look after his terminally ill father and Allie would finish that years schooling from their apartment in Venice in the care of ‘the beauties’ two statuesque young Irish women who were employed as nannies. On arrival at the ruined building where they were going to camp as none of the rooms were actually habitable Lisa discovered that despite her careful packing of kitchen utensils, tools, coats, torches and camping equipment the child had simply replaced everything before they left with items a teenage girl deemed essential, that is lots of her impractical clothes, shoes and gallons of make-up and face-packs. As you can imagine their discovery at the house the next morning by the builder and his team they were employing to restore the villa was a real surprise to the men and it took some time to convince them that they really were the new owners. This set the tone of eccentricity the family gained in the village which was only increased by the eventual arrival of Allie and the beauties but still no man of the household which was unheard of in central Italy.

The book is extremely funny, not only in it’s description of the chaotic rebuilding of the villa over the following year but also in the way they all eventually become accepted in the village and the tales of how they got to know their neighbours. The children led the way into the hearts of the people, Iseult had a trail of admirers almost from first arriving and Allie was soon adored by the families. The beauties (we never do learn their names) also had a string of admirers not only from their looks and height (both over 6 feet tall) but also from the fact that only one of the men in the entire village could beat them at arm wrestling! Eventually Robbie arrived and they became a respectable family unit at last and what could have been just another rebuild a ruin book morphs into a charming story about life in an Umbrian village. I heartily recommend it as a great introduction to the works of Lisa St Aubin de Teran and if you do read and enjoy it I suggest Off the Rails which was written earlier as the next one to try. I will at some point reread The Hacienda which is the story of her seven traumatic years in Venezuela, maybe a project for a years time as a follow up to this blog.

Rescuing the Spectacled Bear – Stephen Fry

20200707 Rescuing the Spectacled Bear

This book was written as a diary during the filming of ‘Stephen Fry and the Spectacled Bear’ which itself was a follow up to an earlier documentary entitled ‘Paddington Bear: The Early Years’. That documentary gives a clue as to how Stephen Fry became involved in a project to highlight the problems the Spectacled Bear has in the wild. The much loved children’s book character Paddington famously came from Peru, but were there really bears in Peru? It turns out that yes there are but the question should have been, for how much longer will there be bears in Peru? So from 11th January to 5th February 2002, Fry and a team from OR Media went back to make a film about saving a couple of captive bears from appalling conditions in a tiny private zoo attached to a cafe along with two more from a zoo in Chile and also to try to film more bears in the wild. Well that was the plan anyway…

Things start to go wrong from the start due to the endemic corruption in Peru, Lima zoo had agreed several months ago to put the bears up for a few days before they were to be transported to their eventual home (see below), suddenly they stated that they had nowhere to put them and needed $4,000 to build a a cage from scratch. This is apparently a fairly normal shakedown, wait until it is impossible for the plans to be changed and then demand money which of course isn’t to build a cage but to line the pockets of the minor official who had thought of this wheeze. Fortunately part of the team was an ex Peruvian diplomat who could deal directly with the minister in charge to get this one sorted out. The people at the national park where they were going to film bears in the wild also suddenly demanded $6,000 to allow the filming; but they weren’t expecting the crew to simply say that alright then we’ll do something else. Other sums did have to be paid to at least get something for the documentary but filming bears in the wild was dropped.

The book is sad, when dealing with the plight of the bears, and you get as fed up as Stephen does with the overwhelming corruption which is determined to make achieving much to help them as difficult as possible. However there are also passages that are extremely funny, my favourite of these concerns him trying to get to sleep whilst staying at a jungle lodge, so well out of his comfort zone in more ways that one, where the noises get louder and odder as the night progresses starting with.

A moth about the size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition of Don Quixote flapped in and started circling the tilley lamp. First mistake. Swearing lightly, I pushed myself out of the netting and took the lamp out onto the porch. Creatures of the night being dark and stupid, are attracted to the light. THEN WHY THE HELL DON’T THEY COME OUT DURING THE DAY?

The photography, by Rob Fraser is superb and does full justice to this spectacular country and the amazing diversity of landscapes that it contains from jungle rivers to Andean peaks via deserts and highland forests. It is also home to a vast selection of animals including ten percent of all known bird species. If the documentary and this book can do anything to hell protect some of them then Stephen Fry’s month in the country will have been worthwhile. All his proceeds from the book are donated to the Bear Rescue Foundation.

In 2008 the team went back to Peru, only this time minus Stephen, to do a follow up documentary entitled ‘Spectacled Bears: Shadows of the Forest’ for which Stephen provided narration. You can see the reserve near Machu Picchu where the bears they rescued ended up in the video linked below, although it was a lot more basic back in 2002.

National Geographic video of Inkaterra Andean bear Sanctuary

At the time I wrote this the follow up documentary can be seen via the link below, but presumably it may get deleted due to copyright at some point. I cannot find an example of the original films.

Spectacled Bears: Shadows of the Forest