Mathematics in the Time of the Pharaohs – Richard J Gillings

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There are four extant sources for this book, the Egyptian Mathematical Leather Roll (EMLR), the Reisner Papyri (RP), the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus (MMP) and the most important The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (RMP) which was actually a training manual for scribes. Because it is there to teach this final papyrus document is crucial to our understanding of how the ancient Egyptians performed their calculations. This document along with the EMLR are in the British Museum in London, the RP is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts whilst the MMP is in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as you would expect from its name. Gillings wrote his book in 1971 and one or two errors have since been noted in the mathematical press as further studies have been made of the four sources and almost fifty years have passed since he wrote it, but these are largely technical and the book is mainly correct especially in its overview as to how ancient Egyptians calculated and is pretty comprehensive. Having said that it is definitely not a book for the layman, it is pretty solid mathematics and I would suggest that there is still a gap in the market for a simpler presentation which would introduce those with a curiosity in the subject to more easily come to some understanding as to how this worked.

Ancient Egyptian mathematics was largely overlooked and dismissed by scholars as simplistic especially when compared to that of ancient Greece but that overlooked the fact that it was more than capable of calculating the dimensions of the pyramids. For instance if you want a pyramid 139m high (the size of the Great Pyramid at Giza) just how big a base do you need to start with? It has also ensured that they still haven’t fallen down thousands of years after construction. Also the Egyptians had a large empire, so built irrigation canals, large granaries and temples, and of course had a comprehensive tax system to pay for all this so they must have been highly capable at least in the field of applied mathematics and engineering.

But let’s start at the beginning with the hieroglyphic representation of numbers, one is simply a vertical line, two is two of these and so on until you have nine lines drawn together to represent nine. Now this is easy and like all tally marks rapidly becomes unwieldy so you need symbols to indicate larger numbers and the earlier forms of these are shown below. I love the symbol for a million which appears to be the scribe throwing his hands in the air as if to say wow what a big number, what do I do with this?

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In fact the papyrus scrolls were written in hieratic script which is sort of cursive hieroglyphic and is much more difficult to read and it is also important to note that they wrote right to left just as in modern Arabic so to our way of looking at it you would see the units first, then the tens, hundreds etc. There is a quick way of remembering this as animals or birds used in hieroglyphic writing always look towards the direction the writer. In the scrolls we have available to modern study addition and subtraction are regarded as so simple as to not need to show any working out which is unfortunate as this means we don’t actually know how they did it, you just get the required sum and then the answer. However everything beyond that is included and it should be understood that the ancient Egyptians managed their entire means of calculation by merely being able to multiply and divide by two and for reasons that are too complex to go into in this blog they also had the 2/3 times table (usually written down rather than memorised) and used this so extensively that when they needed to find a third of a number they would first get two thirds of it and then halve the answer.

So how did they multiply? Well the example given in the book is for multiplying 7 by 13 and this was done as follows. Start by writing two columns, the first of which has a 1 in it and the second has one of the numbers to be multiplied (this is the second example in the book as I think it is better to understand than the first). Under each number double the figure above until doing so in the column starting with one you would have a number larger than the number you are trying to multiply.

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Simply adding up the values opposite the checked values in the first column gives the answer to 7 x 13 which is 91. If the number in the first column isn’t needed to sum to 13 in this case then you simply ignore the corresponding number in the second column. It’s simple really. Division is done the same way but a scribe asked to divide 184 by 8 would instead ask himself how many times do I need to multiply 8 to get to 184 so would create a similar chart to the one above.

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Now at this point you hit the issue of fractions which we know that they understood as they had the 2/3 table but the way the ancient Egyptians handled them is definitely beyond me being able to explain here, I will simply say that with the sole exception of 2/3 they did not have any fractions with numerator other than 1, so to express ¾ for example they would write the equivalent of ½ + ¼. As you can imagine this becomes extremely messy very quickly. But the way they expressed a fraction, especially in hieratic is interesting as they drew a line over the number to indicate that it was a fraction and as the numerator was always 1 they didn’t need to show this, two thirds had it’s own specific character so that didn’t cause confusion. Later mathematical systems simply added a numerator above the line to indicate multiples of the denominator so this is where our way of writing fractions almost certainly originates from.

I only want to include one further example from the book and this one I chose as I particularly liked the calculation. I do recommend seeking out this book or the various online papers now available on the subject if you want to take this interesting branch of mathematics further. The calculation is how did they work out the area of a circle? Now courtesy of the ancient Greeks and their discovery of geometry (Euclid in particular) we know that the area of a circle is the square of the radius multiplied by the irrational number π which is 3.14 to two decimal places and that will do for most calculations. Archimedes worked it out to about that in 250BC but that is over 1300 years later than our poor scribe in ancient Egypt so how did he do it?

Well their calculation as given in problem 50 of the RMP is to take the diameter, work out a ninth of that figure, subtract that from the original number and then square the result. The sample problem takes a circle with a diameter of 9 khet (which makes the maths a lot easier), so if the diameter is 9 then a ninth of that is 1, subtracting that from the diameter gives 8. Multiply 8 by 8 as we know how to do above and that gives 64 setat as the area of the circle. It’s a hell of a big circle though as a khet is about 57 yards (roughly 52 metres) so a single setat, or square khet, is roughly 3250 yd² or 2720 m². But how accurate is the result of 64? Well (4½)² x π, which is our way of doing the calculation, gives 63.62 so it’s pretty good. If I ever needed to work out the area of a circle in my head (oddly something I don’t do often) then the ancient Egyptian way is definitely the way to do it, no messing around with π needed.

I was intrigued, so some basic algebra (also not something I do every day anymore) shows that the way the calculation works means that their equivalent of π is 256 / 81 which is 3.16 to two decimal places which explains the accuracy. It is also by far the simplest calculation that is remotely accurate as simply subtracting a ninth from the diameter is very easy. I spent a little more time with a calculator and found that the next easiest fraction that gives a better result is to subtract 4/35ths  which is lot more difficult than dividing by 9.

There is considerably more in the book for a keen mathematician to have fun with such as calculations of volumes and of course the all so important dimensions of a pyramid and truncated pyramid (i.e. one still under construction). So once you can get past the slightly confusing way it is written it’s fun to work through, preferably with some paper and a pencil nearby to do some quick calculations of your own.

Poirot and Me – David Suchet

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A fascinating description of the years David Suchet took to film almost all the Hercule Poirot novels and short stories written by Agatha Christie over thirteen series comprising of seventy episodes. The first day of filming was the 1st July 1988 and the final one was on the 28th June 2013, so almost exactly twenty five years from start to finish. Right at the end of the book he admits that one very short story never got adapted which was The Lemesurier Inheritance, apart from that everything was either specifically filmed as an individual story or merged into another short tale.

But I feel I must get one major failing of the book over and done with right at the beginning of this review. Suchet is completely obsessed with his reviews, after each story about a series or sometimes even an episode you get two or three, or maybe five or six, newspaper reviews saying how wonderful it was. It’s not just a quick one line either some of them are longer and it really get tedious. It is also completely unnecessary, if the reader didn’t think that his performance as Poirot and indeed the series itself was good it is highly unlikely that they will have picked up the book in the first place. He also comes over as a terrible ‘luvvie’ every actor he refers to has done a magnificent performance in such and such, or was fabulous in the role of whoever, everybody is announced with gushing compliments. Having said that, you can just skip the reviews and the overblown introductions and in there is a very enjoyable book.

Suchet covers the entire story of the series from his first being offered the part and getting to meet Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks who controlled the rights to her mothers works. She wanted to be sure that he understood what she expected from his portrayal. The book though starts at Pinewood Studios with the death of Poirot in the filming of ‘Curtain’ as part of the thirteenth, and final, series. From having explained his sorrow and what it means to him and those who have worked with him over the years to film these scenes he sets the tone before we jump back to his first being offered the part. His descriptions at the beginning of the book of his struggles to find the voice for Poirot whilst filming another TV series set on the Isles of Scilly before starting filming at Twickenham studios and only then suddenly realising after seeing the first test shots that he simply had no idea how he should walk are interesting insights into how an actor approaches a role. What was really surprising was that despite the massive hit that the Poirot series became this first series was the only time that any of the TV companies involved actually had an option on Suchet doing another series, after that he went for months or sometimes years without knowing if he would ever play the character again.

What does become very clear is Suchet’s devotion to the Belgian detective, before starting to play him he read all the stories and made a list of ninety three characteristics that made him who he was so that he could play him as a real person rather than the caricatures that he feels have been Poirot’s fate with previous portrayals.

He was a character that demanded to be taken seriously. He wasn’t a funny little man with a silly accent any more than Sherlock Holmes was a morphine addict with a taste for playing the violin.

He carried this ‘Dossier of Characteristics’ with him throughout the twenty five years of playing the part and gave a copy to each director so that they could understand what he was trying to do, I love some of the examples he gives in the book, some of which are emphatic like number one

Belgian, not French

Others are more idiosyncratic, like number eight

Regards his moustache as a thing of perfect beauty, uses scented pomade.

And one that had only partly registered with me in reading the books, number ten

A man of faith and morals, regards himself as ‘Un bon Catholique’, reads his bible every night before he goes to sleep.

This was a side of Poirot that hadn’t been seen in previous screen representations of Poirot but Suchet shows him with his rosary several times during the films revealing a side to the man which helps flesh out his need to see justice be done. This was particularly a feature in ‘Curtain’ and the death scenes in that where Poirot is seen preparing himself for the end that he recognises is soon to come. Just as Agatha Christie wrote ‘Curtain’ many years before it was published, filming this episode was not the last that Suchet did, instead it was filmed first in that final series several months before the other four episodes that concludes the story arc, so allowing him to finish his portrayal of the Great Detective on a high rather than a low point. Fittingly the last part of filming was at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s own home and added an extra poignancy to Suchet’s final day as Poirot.

The book appears to have been remaindered, judging by the sheer number of copies some secondhand book dealers have available even now. This does mean that it is easily available for very little money on either Biblio or Abebooks should you wish to obtain a copy.

Marvel: The Silver Age 1960-1970

20200407 Marvel 1At this time of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus I needed something completely escapist to read and also to take me back to happier times. This magnificent set is part of the 2020 Spring collection from The Folio Society and is a follow up to the 2019 offering entitled Marvel: The Golden Age – 1939-1949. Although I enjoyed the first set, what is regarded as The Silver Age encompasses the comics and characters I remember reading as a child, even if in the slightly later UK editions of the comics rather than the hard to track down American imports. As Michael Moorcroft says in his introduction

these new titles were hard to come by in the early 1960’s. Marvel had yet to have a national distribution in Britain. Two powerful and puritanical chains then owned or controlled UK newsagents in every high street, every railway station and airport. Other distribution through independent suppliers was patchy and erratic. US distributors frequently sold mixed bundles of American returns through UK distributors after they came off sale in the US

Patchy distribution, usually on wobbly racks in obscure corners of the shop meant that sometimes an issue of the Avengers would arrive two weeks after the following issue had just appeared, leading to somewhat surreal story lines.

Living in a small market town in England finding these comics was a real challenge so I treasured the ones I did mange to track down but even then it was rare to be able to find all of a multi-part story. You needed a lot of imagination to fill in the gaps until the later UK printed licensed editions finally came out in the 1970’s. Interestingly the UK versions were larger than the standard US comic book although from memory not as big as the reproductions included in this book which are considerably over size. The original comics were 10 inches tall by 7 inches wide whilst each page of this volume is 13 inches by 9 inches.

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The book itself includes fourteen complete comics ranging from The Fantastic Four number 5 from July 1962 to The Silver Surfer number 3 from December 1968 but includes several important issues such as the one illustrated above which sees the first appearance of Spiderman. Also making their debut in the book are Iron Man (in his incredibly clunky original suit) and The Vision and we also get the first re-appearance of Captain America after he was apparently killed off back in the 1940’s. The pages are quite heavy paper-stock and very glossy making the book pretty heavy. The comics are beautifully presented with black separating pages and the quality of the printing is superb.

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The Avengers issue included is from March 1964 as this is where we see not only the return of Captain America but also another long standing character, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner. He has been running in his own comic for decades by now, having been one of the first characters featured in their comics before Marvel even existed as a name and they were known as Timely Comics, but also had a habit of appearing in the comics dedicated to other characters, usually as the bad guy. In truth he is normally more misguided and misunderstood then actually evil and varies from being an antihero combating The Avengers and others (see below) to for a while being part of both The Avengers and also The Defenders which was a similar group of heroes.

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Daredevil is the first blind superhero and here in issue 7 he is combating The Sub-Mariner but this is also a highly sympathetic portrayal of Prince Namor. Daredevil is a good example of Marvel’s creation of heroes with failings, in fact pretty well all their characters have their own problems, there is no all powerful hero who is just too good to be true and that is one of the reasons why I liked their production so much. That strong character development was unusual in the genre at the time and the need to have a back story rooted them in their environment and made them more than just throwaway ciphers you felt you could get to know them over a run of comics.

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There is one comic in the fourteen selected that stands out as it looks so very different to the others, Nick Fury was written and drawn by Jim Steranko and this issue was clearly inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. The artwork is completely unlike any Marvel Comic I have seen. Nick Fury completely passed me by as a youth so this was the first time I had read anything featuring him. This is much darker in tone and style with full page and even double page illustrations alongside the normal comic book cells. This looks more like an illustrated book in places rather than a comic and I really need to find more work by Steranko.

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There is also a magnificent facsimile version of the first Fantastic Four comic which includes their origin story although confusingly The Human Torch had been a regular character with his own comic since 1940 as android Jim Hammond with his sidekick Toro so he was completely re-invented to go with the others. Number 5 of The Human Torch comic from 1941 is included in the Golden Age book and makes an interesting contrast to his relaunch as part of the Fantastic Four as the two characters despite both being called The Human Torch have almost nothing else in common. The facsimile (like the one included in the Golden Age set) is scanned from an original and printed on as close as they could get to the right paper. The one in The Silver Age is considerably more successful as the 1939 comic has serious ink bleeds and blurring which makes it quite difficult to read whilst the newer version is very clear.

All in all the unlikely collaboration of The Folio Society and Marvel to produce these books must be regarded as a success and I’m glad that both of them are in my library. As you can see from the picture below the first one has a blue embossed cover with red page edging all round in a gold foil box whilst the latest book has a red embossed cover with blue page edging in a silver foil box.

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All images are taken from the Folio Society website and at the time of writing both books are still available and are priced at £150 each.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill – G K Chesterton

Name a British novel written by one of the most celebrated authors of his generation, set (at least at the start) in 1984 where in the future Britain has an government headed by a powerful single ruler telling his populace what to do. No I don’t mean Orwell and his apocalyptic volume written in 1948 and published June 1949, this one was written and published in 1904, was admired by Orwell and one, quite likely, theory for Orwell choosing 1984 as the year of his book was that Chesterton had also used that year for his stab at futurology forty four years earlier.

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Sadly Chesterton’s brilliant work is now largely unread, unlike Orwell’s more famous book set in the same year. My copy is the Penguin Books first edition and was printed in 1946, before Orwell even started his most famous and final book. But enough about Orwell, this is about G K Chesterton’s first novel, he wrote some poetry and biographies with other people before this from 1900 but this was his first work of significance and what a way to start. The premise of the book is spelled out by Barker, one of the three civil servants that we encounter at the beginning of the book, right at the start whilst he is trying to explain how this future England is governed to of all the people the deposed President of Nicaragua who unexpectedly comes walking down the street.

We have established now in England, the thing towards which all systems have dimly groped, the dull popular despotism without illusions. We want one man at the head of our State, not because he is brilliant or virtuous, but because he is one man and not a chattering crowd. To avoid the possible chance of hereditary diseases or such things, we have abandoned hereditary monarchy. The King of England is chosen like a juryman upon an official rotation list. Beyond that the whole system is quietly despotic, and we have not found it raise a murmur.

The ex-President raises the obvious objections regarding the possible sanity of such a person if there are no checks and balances but these are over-ruled by the three Englishmen he is talking to, all of which will be significant in the unfolding tale. One of which is, if not actually mad, possessed of a very odd sense of humour which I had been struggling with up to this point; it turns out that Chesterton is simply trying to illustrate how odd Mr. Auberon Quin actually is. After leaving the restaurant where they had entertained the ex-President, Quin becomes more and more eccentric in his behaviour until they are approached by two policemen.

Two grave-looking men in quiet uniforms came up the hill towards them. One held a paper in his hand.

“There he is, officer,” said Lambert, cheerfully; “we ain’t responsible for him.”

The officer looked at the capering Mr. Quin with a quiet eye.

“We have not come, gentlemen,” he said, “about what I think you are alluding to. We have come from head-quarters to announce the selection of His Majesty the King. It is the rule, inherited from the old régime, that the news should be brought to the new Sovereign immediately, wherever he is; so we have followed you across Kensington Gardens.”

Barker’s eyes were blazing in his pale face. He was consumed with ambition throughout his life. With a certain dull magnanimity of the intellect he had really believed in the chance method of selecting despots. But this sudden suggestion, that the selection might have fallen upon him, unnerved him with pleasure.

“Which of us,” he began, and the respectful official interrupted him.

“Not you, sir, I am sorry to say. If I may be permitted to say so, we know your services to the Government, and should be very thankful if it were. The choice has fallen….”

“God bless my soul!” said Lambert, jumping back two paces. “Not me. Don’t say I’m autocrat of all the Russias.”

“No, sir,” said the officer, with a slight cough and a glance towards Auberon, who was at that moment putting his head between his legs and making a noise like a cow; “the gentleman whom we have to congratulate seems at the moment—er—er—occupied.”

“Not Quin!” shrieked Barker, rushing up to him; “it can’t be. Auberon, for God’s sake pull yourself together. You’ve been made King!”

And so the catastrophe that will be the reign of King Auberon begins. As you can see this is a very different work to Orwell, full of humour but nevertheless there will be tragedy, warfare and death and also poignancy as each featured character gets swept up in the madness which becomes normality before finally it all collapses thirty five years after the start of the novel in 2019. So what is it that the new King does that causes such upheaval? Well for reasons unknown in the early stages of the book he decides to re-introduce the medieval concept of City States but these are not the cities of London, Manchester, Birmingham etc. no he is far too parochial for that, the book is set entirely in London and he creates City States out of the individual boroughs. Now most modern cities (apart from those artificially created such as Brasilia) are a conglomeration of small towns and villages that gradually became swamped by the city itself and became the merely districts. King Auberon pits each of these against the other along with fanciful histories that he creates for them explaining their names and releases “The Great Proclamation of the Charter of the Free Cities” which will force each borough to effectively step back to medieval times not just in their dealings with himself and the other boroughs but with costumes and banners also designed by the King and militias armed with halberds and swords.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility.

“I cannot think,” he said, “why people should think the names of places in the country more poetical than those in London. Shallow romanticists go away in trains and stop in places called Hugmy-in-the-Hole, or Bumps-on-the-Puddle. And all the time they could, if they liked, go and live at a place with the dim, divine name of St. John’s Wood. I have never been to St. John’s Wood. I dare not. I should be afraid of the innumerable night of fir trees, afraid to come upon a blood-red cup and the beating of the wings of the Eagle. But all these things can be imagined by remaining reverently in the Harrow train.”

And he thoughtfully retouched his design for the head-dress of the halberdier of St. John’s Wood, a design in black and red, compounded of a pine tree and the plumage of an eagle. Then he turned to another card. “Let us think of milder matters,” he said. “Lavender Hill! Could any of your glebes and combes and all the rest of it produce so fragrant an idea? Think of a mountain of lavender lifting itself in purple poignancy into the silver skies and filling men’s nostrils with a new breath of life—a purple hill of incense. It is true that upon my few excursions of discovery on a halfpenny tram I have failed to hit the precise spot. But it must be there; some poet called it by its name. There is at least warrant enough for the solemn purple plumes (following the botanical formation of lavender) which I have required people to wear in the neighbourhood of Clapham Junction. It is so everywhere, after all. I have never been actually to Southfields, but I suppose a scheme of lemons and olives represent their austral instincts. I have never visited Parson’s Green, or seen either the Green or the Parson, but surely the pale-green shovel-hats I have designed must be more or less in the spirit. I must work in the dark and let my instincts guide me. The great love I bear to my people will certainly save me from distressing their noble spirit or violating their great traditions.”

All these places are of course within the boundaries of London so no more than a few miles apart and as for forests of fir in St. John’s Wood there probably hasn’t been any forests there since Roman times. The genius of the book is maintaining this ridiculous analogy in all seriousness as it also becomes clear that the King has not done this in madness but simply a a great joke to keep himself amused. And all is strange but well in the land until there rises, ten years later, as Provost of Notting Hill a man who is truly mad in his own singular way and believes totally in the scheme as the only true way for the anywhere to be governed and is prepared to fight to maintain his Notting Hill in all his supposed glory.

This is where the book darkens considerably for there is war to be fought as the surrounding City States of West Kensington, South Kensington, Bayswater etc. are forced into various conflicts with the fiercely independent Adam West, Provost of Notting Hill. It is also where my review will end. To reveal more would give away the book and you do really need to read it. I hope that the extracts I have included will encourage you to do so. Say G K Chesterton to somebody nowadays and if they have heard of him at all it will be the Father Brown detective stories, but there are over eighty books, hundreds of poems, a couple of hundreds short stories and an astonishing more than four thousand essays. He is one of the most prolific writers of all times and to be largely known by the fifty three short stories that make up the Father Brown canon is a great disservice to his legacy.

You can read The Napoleon of Notting Hill on Project Gutenburg here as it seems to have been out of print for quite some time so tracking down a printed copy will need some searching.

Queen of the Elephants – Mark Shand

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This book accompanies a 1995 BBC TV documentary of the same name, which I must admit I’ve never seen, but the book is fascinating. Mark Shand had made a previous trip across India on elephant back and recorded it in his book Travels on My Elephant which won him the accolade of ‘Travel Writer of the Year’ at the British Book Awards in 1992. That time he bought his own elephant Tara for the journey and at the end arranged for her to be looked after. This book starts with him visiting Tara for the first time in three years and renewing their relationship, but it is another lady that he had heard so much about whilst making that first journey that is the reason for this trip. Parbati Barua is a legend amongst people involved with the Asian elephant and she had agreed to help make a documentary about the problems they are facing due to their habitat shrinking so fast as humans encroach more and more into what used to be their territory.

Parbati is distinctly unimpressed by Mark’s previous exploit and when she agrees to take him on it is at the lowest grade in the camp, he has to earn her respect by proving (or in the case of making food rolls for the elephants trying hard but failing as he is too slow) to be good at what she expects before he can ride any elephant that belongs to her. Eventually he does get approval and then a certain limited level of respect as he demonstrates his hard learnt abilities from his last trip. Parbati is not easily pleased and this is something he learns very quickly.

At this point I need to bring up my main problem with the book, lots of local words (presumably Hindi) are used which may have been explained in his previous volume and which it takes a while to work out their meaning (assuming you don’t just google them from frustration) if like me you haven’t read it. Either a better explanation at the time they are first used in this work, or a glossary at the back, would have vastly improved the readability of the text. There is a comprehensive bibliography so the omission of a glossary is all the more surprising.

The three month journey that they undertake through West Bengal to Assam was once heavily forested but now is home to apparently endless tea plantations and the Asian elephant, being a creature of the forests unlike it’s African cousin, is being pushed into conflict with the ever expanding human population. As well as the trip with Parbati, Mark also spends some time with a group charged with keeping the two sides apart and sees at first hand the tragic consequences for both elephant and human when this boundary is breached. Parbati is frequently sent for by forest rangers to assist elephants injured by people just as they also come across humans that have been killed by elephants desperate for food and coming into villages where the locals try, and often fail, to persuade them to leave so annoying a huge and powerful animal. You hear so much about the plight of the African elephant it is fascinating to see what is happening to the Asian version not just in India but across the region.

Mark Shand was the brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and sadly died on the 23rd April 2014 after a fall in New York. He was leaving a party following a highly successful evening which had raised £950,000 for his elephant charity when he tripped and hit his head on the pavement. Parbati Barua is, at the time of writing, apparently still alive and well and working with elephants.

Asterix and the Chariot Race – Jean-Yves Ferri

This is not the book I was planning to post about this week as I am aiming to do a fuller story of the Asterix books later this year but I was doing a quick scan read to get my head round what I wanted to say and this book came up as extremely pertinent to the current world news, so I have added this short review.

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Now you may wonder why a book set during the time of Julius Caesar featuring a small tribe of Gauls would be so relevant to the present day and I will get to that but first a little bit about the series. The Asterix series of books started with ‘Asterix the Gaul’ written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo in 1961 and now run to 38 volumes although now no longer by the originators. Goscinny  worked with Uderzo on the first two dozen titles until he died in 1977. Uderzo then wrote and illustrated a further ten books until 2009. In 2013 the first book written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad appeared and this team have so far produced four titles of which this is their third (overall book 37) and was published in 2017. All comments below relate to the English translation of the text which was done by Adriana Hunter, this was her first time translating Asterix and overall I think she does a good job having taken over from Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell, who between them translated the first 36 books.

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The story starts with complaints about the state of the roads with potholes everywhere throughout the network in Italy. Consul Lactus Bifidus is challenged in the Roman Senate to do something about it as he is in charge of the roads but instead announces a chariot race to prove how good the roads are. The race is to be open to all comers and will start in the north of the country in what is now Lombardy and speed down to the south with a cup for the winner. Asterix and Obelix decide to enter even though neither of them are charioteers mainly because as the chief of their village, in the English translation he is Vitalstatistix, says

It might be fun bothering them on their home turf for once

A lot of the names are changed in the English translations but I need to point out at this juncture that the significant one from this book is the same in the original French edition ‘Astérix et la Transitalique’. The route of the race can be seen on the flyer shown below.

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Lactus Bifidus is visited at home by the Emperor Julius Caesar and it is made quite clear to him that a Roman has to win or he will be personally fixing the roads in Libya which can definitely be seen as an incentive so he finds a great champion. Now this is where the book becomes a bit weird for those of us reading it in March 2020 as the name of the great charioteer is revealed and he is subsequently cheered on in very large text through the rest of the book.

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Yes you read that right, the person racing down Italy starting in Lombardy, for the honour of the Roman people, in a book published in 2017 is Coronavirus.  To prove that this is the original name and not one which Adriana Hunter came up with below is the original French panel.

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Stay safe everyone and let’s hope that things improve soon.


Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter and Emma Thompson

For the 110th anniversary of the first publication of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter in 1902 her publisher, Warne, commissioned a very special edition.

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One thousand copies were printed of this collectors set of the original Peter Rabbit, with some illustrations included for the first time as Beatrix Potter had actually done too many for the book that was first published and indeed almost all subsequent editions. Alongside this the actress and writer Emma Thompson created a new work illustrated by Eleanor Taylor to take the story further. Inside the outer card box you are presented with another box…

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and within that the lined purple inner with the books inside presented in their separate sections.

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This is certainly a luxurious edition of a classic children’s tale, and so it should be for the purchaser got two small hardbacks along with a facsimile letter to Peter from Emma Thompson for the, clearly opportunistic, price of £110.00.

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Now don’t get me wrong the production level of this set is extremely high, the books are cloth bound with a specially designed print and just 1000 copies were made with a retail price of £110, but that is still a large sum for Warne as the margins on books for the retail booksellers are actually quite small and this sold out almost immediately so Warne very quickly made their profit. I paid considerably less than this when the set came out by buying from Amazon and there are currently a couple of sets available on Abebooks for around that price (including postage costs) but the set has largely vanished from the secondary market which may mean that I have made a good investment although that wasn’t the reason I bought it.

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This is probably one of the finest editions of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter yet printed, and I do have the two 100th anniversary editions (cloth or cream leather bound) produced in even smaller amounts back in 2002, (500 cloth and 100 leather bound editions). But this is truly lovely with the purple page edging and the exceptionally fine printing of the remastered illustrations including various versions never before included in a single copy of Peter Rabbit. A prime example of which is shown below as this was in the 1902 first edition but dropped in 1903 for the reprint, not to appear again for 109 years. Other pictures never made early editions for reasons of space but are now included in this printing.

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Emma Thompson actually made a very good job of capturing Beatrix Potters original style and whilst the illustrations by Eleanor Taylor lack the fine definition of Potter’s originals they do still capture the flavour of the much earlier books.

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That they were successful can be seen by the later production of two more titles by Emma Thompson, The Christmas Tale of Peter Rabbit in 2013 and The Spectacular Tale of Peter Rabbit in 2014. The Further Tale is also available as a separate volume outside of this collectors set.

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As can be seen above Peter has not learnt his lesson from 110 years ago and is still intent on exploring Mr McGregor’s garden and the wonderful selection of vegetables to be found there. This time he climbs into his picnic basket, rather than a damp watering can, and eats the sandwiches to be found there before, feeling full, he falls asleep in the basket. Waking in a rocking basket he finds that he is on the back of a cart heading off into the countryside an just manages to escape when he is found to be the picnic thief. Running away he encounters a giant Scottish rabbit

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and ends up as an unwilling participant in the bunny equivalent of the The Highland Games. The gentle humour of the new book is a welcome counterpoint to Beatrix Potter’s quite often more near the knuckle story telling and I can see why Thompson was asked to write two more sequels.

Of the classic twenty three books usually collected in the box sets of Potter’s works all but two have now passed 100 years old, we just have Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes (1922) and The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930) to go. There are several others not normally counted such as The Fairy Caravan (first printed in the US 1929 and UK 1952) right up the The Tale of Kitty in Boots which didn’t get it’s own printing until 2016 when it was illustrated by Quentin Blake but this box set includes a fine edition of the first Potter book and also the first official book set in her stories not by Potter. It’s an interesting, if rather expensive, addition to the oeuvre and with the popularity of the tales only increasing with the release of new films it should be regarded as a landmark set for Beatrix Potter collectors.

The Wanderer & other Old-English Poems

My latest limited edition book from The Folio Society is The Wanderer illustrated and signed by Alan Lee. An artist best known for his decades long association with works by Tolkien, both in illustrating his books and his many years in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

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The text is largely from a 1966 Penguin Classic ‘The Earliest English Poems’, translated by Michael Alexander, which also included four pages of Beowulf. Over the years this has been revised until the 2008 edition which provides the entire text for this book, with some amendments, which by then was entitled ‘The First Poems in English’. Lee was approached by The Folio Society to see if he would like to illustrate something for them and between them chose this work as it takes him back to the source materials that so inspired Tolkien in his writings. This is by no means a typical way round, the society would normally choose a book that they wanted to publish and then approach an artist to illustrate it; but what it has produced is a book where you can see the love the artist has for the material and I suspect they eventually had to stop him from creating any more artwork so that the book could actually get published. As it is each poem has its own distinctive decorative borders along with the beautiful tipped in colour paintings and on page printed black and white illustrations.

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The poems and riddles themselves come from a very short window in time, between the reign of King Alfred the Great over the Anglo Saxons (886 to 899AD) where he started the process of moving the written word from Latin to Old-English and the Norman invasion of 1066 when all that was swept away with the imposition of Norman French. In truth there were probably just thirty or forty years where Old-English hit its peak before becoming almost extinct. The greatest source material for the work of this period is The Exeter Book which was regarded as largely worthless for centuries before becoming recognised as the treasure trove that it is.  The poems are much more powerful than might be expected from their great age, they clearly come from an oral tradition as they are directed at the reader as though being read to them, I am reminded of the Icelandic sagas in concept if not in size. Indeed as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in his especially commissioned foreword

There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile

Along with the general introduction and note on translation each poem has its own introduction setting the scene for the following work and providing mush needed context. The works are over a thousand years old and the people who wrote and read them were very different to ourselves.

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The original Penguin book its variants and companion volumes have sold over a million copies in the fifty years since they came out and the quality of the work shows exactly why Michael Alexander is such a respected translator and this edition makes reading them so much more of a joy than the original paperbacks. The text is presented with the original on the left hand side and the translation on the right as can be seen in one of my favourite works included the fragment of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the section of Heroic Poems. I suspect I like these more than the somewhat more introspective other poems is my fondness for the sagas and these have more of a feel of those. However this is an account of a real battle that can be also seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such a level of detail that there is also an accompanying map included with the text so the reader can easily see how the fight progresses, which frankly is not well for the English side and a lot better for the attacking Vikings.

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The riddles are great fun and at the back are a set of proposed solutions, however the one that I have shown as an example also has drawings by Alan Lee which somewhat give away the answer. All the riddles are from The Exeter Book where presumably there are a lot more as these start at number seven and there are lots of numeric gaps.

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The answer is of course mead.

As only 750 copies were printed at £395 each and these are all sold out from the Folio Society it would be difficult to get a copy of this fine edition, but if I have whetted your appetite for Old-English poetry and riddles then the Penguin paperback is still in print and considerably cheaper.

There is a short video showing the book from the Folio Society

and a longer video of an interview with Alan Lee.


The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde

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This book has as its full title The Happy Prince and Other Stories as there are three more short tales by Oscar Wilde included although easily the most famous is The Happy Prince. As I read this story it seemed familiar although I’m quite certain that I haven’t read it before I must obviously have maybe heard it or read a summary at some point. All of the stories carry a moral so lets look at the four stories individually, they are short so not giving away the ending in a review is tricky but I think I have managed it…

The Happy Prince

The prince in the story is actually a statue on a high pedestal looking out over the city, the statue is covered in gold leaf, has emeralds for eyes and a ruby set in the pommel of his sword and he is far from happy. The young prince he is modelled on however led a ‘happy’ and sheltered privileged life not seeing anything outside the luxurious palace grounds and not knowing anything of the poverty that surrounded his domain, so the statue became known as The Happy Prince. Up here on his column however he can see the poor all around him and wishes he could do something to help them. He is visited by a swallow seeking shelter for the night on his delayed migration to Egypt which is why he is flying alone after the rest of his kind. When the statue tells the bird of how he wants to help the people he comes up with a plan to donate the riches that he has on his body to the needy and enlists the help of the swallow to distribute what he can. The story is heartwarming but ultimately tragic and I really enjoyed it.

The Young King

This concerns another happy prince within his gilded cage although this time he is about to become king and he has not always lived this life of privilege. This one however is enamoured with the riches that surround him, lost in wonder in front of great art and fine fabrics and jewels. The coronation is coming the robe, sceptre and crown are prepared when the night before the ceremony the young king to be has three strange dreams. In them he is confronted with the reality of how his ceremonial raiment has been made, the grinding poverty of the weavers, the death of a pearl fisherman, the deprivation of the mines needed for the fine jewels. The next morning he explains his dreams to the courtiers come to dress him for the ceremony and refuses to wear the outfit prepared, preferring a more lowly guise of the goat-herder he had been before being recognised as the heir apparent. At this point I was sure I knew where the story was heading but I’m glad to say I was wrong.

The Devoted Friend

My least favourite of the four stories, perhaps because it just repeatedly bangs the reader round the head with the moral, where the devoted friend turns out to really be the one who doesn’t consider himself the title character. I confess that I got irritated by the story as Wilde kept pushing his point

The Model Millionaire

The shortest of the stories also includes my favourite quote from the selection with Wilde employing the barbed wit for which he is famous. The story concerns an impecunious young man who whilst visiting an artist friend finds him painting a portrait of a beggar. Now the young man is in love, but the father of his beloved has made it clear that as he has little money and no prospects of getting any he is not considered an appropriate suitor for his daughter. Despite this he hands the beggar most of the money he has on him only to find his generosity repaid handsomely. What is the quote I liked so much, well it makes much of a fine distinction.

Trevor was a painter, indeed few people escape that nowadays. But he was also an artist, and artists are rather rare.

The cover of the book is a detail from a painting by James Pryde and is perfect to represent The Happy Prince on his column. The book is part of the Penguin 60’s series, published in 1995 to mark 60 years of Penguin Books. I bought all of them at the time and I’m ashamed to say still have a lot of them to read twenty five years later.

Ringworld – Larry Niven

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What must be Larry Niven’s best known book was originally published fifty years ago and remains a classic of Science Fiction and for the most part the scientific basis of the potential futures and situations depicted is largely founded in reality. This is more than can be said for the image used on the cover of my copy, see above, where the artist has fundamentally misunderstood the concept of the Ringworld, we should be seeing the world from above in the lit squares not from the side.

The main protagonist, Louis Wu, is celebrating his 200th birthday as the novel starts and has decided to prolong the experience by using ubiquitous matter transmitters in the non-specified future that the book occurs in to skip to a city in a time zone one hour earlier just before midnight wherever he is. This makes the book unique in science fiction as far as I am aware by starting in Beirut, even if by the end of the first page we are already in Budapest. It is during one of these hops from city to city that he is diverted, something that apparently should be impossible, and the novel which initially appears to be dealing with future Earth takes a leap that would ultimately lead us to Ringworld.

The diversion was organised by a member of the alien Puppeteer race which should also have been impossible as they had left ‘known space’ centuries earlier so what was one doing on Earth? It turns out that he is looking for a very specific crew for an expedition to investigate an artefact that he won’t talk about and for their fee he will provide blueprints and a working version of a new type of starship that can travel at speeds thousands of times faster than any other ship…  So much has happened and we are still only four pages into a novel that runs to 283 pages in the 1977 paperback from Sphere (ironic publishing house considering the subject matter) that I have. A definite page turner…

As we get to understand the various races brought together for this journey we discover that all of them are struggling with the issues caused by overpopulation and the exploitation beyond sustainable limits of the various planetary resources that they have all faced. This is a novel concerned with ecology well before it was fashionable and the different races have come up with very different solutions to the problem. Puppeteers are forbidden sex without difficult to obtain permission so have gone the all so difficult abstinence route. Another crew member is a Kzin (basically a race of intelligent and warlike eight foot cats) and they fight amongst themselves if food gets difficult to obtain, however they have also fought several wars against mankind which they have lost fairly convincingly which have also heavily reduced their numbers of potential breeding males.

The humans of Earth have introduced strict limits to the number of children that a person can have although they have largely avoided the problems China had years after this book came out by having specific exclusions from the limit including paying a large sum of money on the basis that being able to afford the fee suggests a certain ability that is worth preserving (it also removes the temptations of bribery). More importantly for the plot of the book there is also a lottery for the right to reproduce and Teela who joins the crew is from the fifth generation of people who all won the lottery. Are humans breeding for luck? It certainly seems so and so she was selected as a lucky talisman for the expedition despite having no other skills that would make her an obvious candidate but the Puppeteer spent a long time trying to find the hundred or so people that fit the category.

Ringworld, when they finally get there is potentially the ultimate solution to population problems being cylindrical in form and a million miles wide from side to side, with a radius of almost ninety million miles, surrounding a sun whilst rotating at 770 miles per second to replicate an almost Earth like gravity by utilising centripetal forces. There are also great plates in an orbit of the sun inside than that of the ring which provide for day/night periodicity.  Niven states that the surface area is equivalent to three million Earths, it’s actually more like 2.87 million assuming the maximum values for radius and width that he gives but it does at least mean that he worked it out. But who built this enormous object and why, and also why does it have Earth like gravity and day/night sequences? Those are the main questions of the book and what Louis, Teela, Neesa the Puppeteer and Speaker to Animals the Kzin apparently have to answer. Along the way we will also discover why the Kzin kept losing their battles with Earth and also just what, or who, was behind the birthright lotteries.

The book is very well written as befits a Hugo and Nebula awards winner but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. Like the wire that becomes so critical to the solution there are too many loose ends that don’t get sorted out with the way they leave the Ringworld.