The Epic of Gilgamesh

A five thousand year old story rediscovered on cuneiform tablets in the ruins of Nineveh in what is now Iraq back in the nineteenth century, this epic series of poems is probably the oldest piece of literature we have available to us today. This Penguin Classics edition is described as an English version rather than a translation because N.K. (Nancy Katharine) Sanders didn’t go back to the original cuniform or even later Assyrian texts but rather compiled the story from existing translations to provide a ‘readable’ rather than scholarly interpretation. The original tablets are damaged with a lot of them broken in bits with parts in different museums around the world and several sections are missing altogether, which makes the task of translating even more difficult that it should be. What Sanders has achieved is a knitting together of the various existing versions, which by definition also have large gaps or variant approximations as to what could have been the meaning of damaged sections. She also wrote an excellent introduction which is roughly as long as the surviving parts of the epic itself and which is highly necessary if the reader is to understand anything of the background to a story from 3000 BCE. This book is an original piece of work for Penguin Classics and my first edition is from 1960 and is a prose version of the original epic poem.

This version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is in seven parts and whilst they are mainly linked it cannot be called a continuous narrative, there may well be other sections still to be discovered even now on the tens of thousands cuneiform tablets or fragments thereof spread around the world in various museums, quite a few of which have yet to be translated, but let’s take the sections we have one by one.

The Coming of Enkidu

At the start of the tale Gilgamesh is the all powerful ruler of the city of Uruk (now Warka in Iraq) situated on the Euphrates river and his people were frightened of him because he had nobody to challenge him so he took everything and everyone he wanted.

But the men of Uruk muttered in their houses, ‘Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin for his amusement, his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute.' 

A tocsin is an alarm bell and should only be used in emergencies to rouse the defences of the city, but clearly Gilgamesh found it amusing to just raise panic amongst his population. To counteract him the gods decided to create an equally powerful being, Enkidu, who would provide sufficient distraction for Gilgamesh so that his people were safer from his excessive desires. This they duly did and almost at first sight Gilgamesh and Enkidu became firm friends and the plan by the gods worked as they spent a lot of time together mainly outside of the city so peace largely reined in Uruk.

The Forest Journey

This is a tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu heading off to a mighty forest in search of huge cedar trees for building materials in Uruk. The forest is guarded by the giant Humbaba and he several times intervenes to try to stop them cutting down the trees but without success. Eventually seeing that he cannot prevent the felling of the cedars he offers himself as the servant to Gilgamesh and will cut down the trees for him. Gilgamesh is all for this proposal but Enkidu insists that Gilgamesh should kill Humbaba instead and this he duly does before sailing away back down the Euphrates with his cargo of sweet smelling wood.

Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the Death of Enkidu

Ishtar is the goddess of love, but also the goddess of war in the Sumerian mythology, an interesting combination and also why Gilgamesh is not particularly enamoured by her approach to him at the very start of this section

Gilgamesh Washed out his long locks and cleaned his weapons; he flung back his hair from his shoulders; he threw off his stained clothes and changed them for new. He put on his royal robes and made them fast. When Gilgamesh had put on the crown, glorious Ishtar lifted her eyes, seeing the beauty of Gilgamesh. She said, ‘Come to me Gilgamesh, and be my bridegroom; grant me seed of your body, let me be your bride and you shall be my husband.

Whilst it is clearly an honour for a man to be approached by a goddess in this way Gilgamesh is all too aware of the fates of previous mortals who had dallied with Ishtar which were not good and he doesn’t want to end up as a bird with a broken wing or transformed into a mole to give just two examples. In her rage at rejection Ishtar sends a mighty Bull of the Heavens to destroy Gilgamesh and his city but Gilgamesh kills it and in petulance she then persuades other gods to kill Enkidu and so deprive Gilgamesh of his companion.

The Search for Everlasting Life

In his despair at the death of his friend Gilgamesh takes to the wilderness, living off what he can hunt and wearing animal skins whilst determining to seek for the secret of eternal life. He has many adventures but is generally shunned due to his unkempt appearance until he finds a way to get to a man who already has to power to live forever. This section is somewhat confused either because sections of the story are missing or there is another story, which would have been well known five thousand years ago when this tale was first transcribed, which fills in gaps in the narrative and explains important details.

The Story of the Flood

We suddenly get a lurch away from the stories of Gilgamesh and deal instead with an ancient story of inundation at the instigation of the gods who are annoyed with the noise made by the humans on Earth. This section was the most fascinating to me as it is clearly the basis for the tale of Noah in the Bible only in this version the boat builder was Utnapishtim, a man of Shurrupak, son of Ubara-Tutu and it was the wrath of gods rather than god that caused the floods to exterminate the human race. There is also a proper crew rather than Noah and his family on their own looking after all the animals on board

Then was the launching full of difficulty; there was shifting of ballast above and below till two thirds was  submerged. I loaded into her all that 1 had of gold and of living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen. I sent them on board, for the time that Shamash had ordained was already fulfilled when he said, "in the evening, when the rider of the storm sends down the destroying rain, enter the boat and batten her down." The time was fulfilled, the evening came, the rider of the storm sent down the rain. I looked out at the weather and it was terrible, so I too boarded the boat and battened her down. All was now complete, the battening and the caulking; so I handed the tiller to Puzur-Amurri the steersman, with the navigation and the care of the whole boat. 

They sailed for many days and to determine if the flood waters were subsided set free birds to see if they returned, just as Noah does in the biblical version. In all the two stories align extremely well so Noah is clearly a rewriting of this more ancient tale which was itself lifted from a still more ancient Babylonian story.

The Return

Having found Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh is finally told that the reason he has eternal life is that he saved mankind and all the animals in his boat and was so rewarded by the gods who had regretted sending the floods when they saw the devastation. This means that he cannot tell Gilgamesh how to live forever because it was a gift of the gods not some potion or magic. Disappointed Gilgamesh decides to return to Uruk which he does without incident in a matter of two or three paragraphs.

The Death of Gilgamesh

This is by far the shortest section, and far from a heroes death in battle which you may have expected from the epic so far Gilgamesh appears to simply die of old age worn out by his travels.

Nancy Sanders was primarily an archaeologist and was involved in digs across Europe and the Middle East. She was born in 1914 and died, aged 101 in 2015, still living in the house she was born in. There is an interesting web site dedicated to her, which can be found here.


James Bond: You Only Live Twice – Ian Fleming

Following the controversy around the patchy rewriting of the James Bond novels announced last month, see here, and this coming so soon after the furore concerning a similar ‘sensitivity driven rewrite’ of the Roald Dahl stories; which resulted in Penguin Books announcing they would issue the original texts in parallel so that people could chose which version they wished, I decided to have a look to see what the fuss was about. I was never a fan of Dahl as a child but I did buy two or three Bond books whilst at school and they have languished unread on my shelves for almost fifty years as it rapidly became clear that I wasn’t a fan of these either. So it is Ian Fleming that I am going to have a look at as at least I have examples. My Pan paperback of You Only Live Twice is the fifth printing from 1974 which I bought new. The book was first published in 1964.

Almost the entire book is set in Japan and straight away I hit some stereotypes of Japanese women as submissive and largely there to be decorative or as sexual playthings but these initial impressions were offset near the end of this book with the introduction of Kissy Suzuki who is definitely not submissive, or just there to be decorative, and whilst she does end up in bed with Bond it is largely at her initiative not his. There are other stereotypes presented regarding Japanese men, the high work ethic, obedience to their superiors and pertinent to the plot of the book the high suicide rate. Now I don’t know what the suicide rate was in the early 1960’s when this book was written but according to World Population Review the suicide rate is still a significant concern to the Japanese government and suicide is the leading cause of death in men between the ages of 20-44 and women between the ages of 15-34.

My main problem with the book however is that for what I expected to be an action adventure tale there is surprising little of either. That is probably due to Bond’s mission in the book which is not as a 00 agent but rather in a more diplomatic role given him as an attempt to get him back to work after the murder of his wife, of just one day, at the end of the previous novel ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. At the start of this novel Bond is a wreck, unable to concentrate on his job, drinking far too much and convinced that he is about to be fired but has no idea what he would do next. His boss ‘M’ is indeed thinking Bond is washed up but is persuaded to give him this final job to see if it can shake him back into usefulness. This means that the plot is largely Bond and Tiger Tanaka, a senior member of the Japanese secret service, having endless meetings usually involving the consumption of lots of sake whilst Bond tries to negotiate British access to a high level source of intelligence from Moscow. It is only when it becomes clear that Britain has nothing of suitable significance to offer that the main story is revealed and that is not until page 109 of what in this edition is a 190 page book and even then Bond doesn’t really do anything until page 141 when he starts to swim over to the castle and by page 171 we are reading Bond’s obituary in The Times.

But I am getting ahead of myself, Tiger comes up with a job that would do as payment and that is to eliminate Dr. Guntram Shatterhand who has established a politically embarrassing ‘Garden of Death’ filled with poisonous plants and deadly animals which has become a major draw for suicide attempts. The Japanese cannot move against him as he has presented the garden as a major resource area for biologists so has gained much honour in Japan for his apparent generosity but the sheer number of bodies returned from the grounds is worrying to the government. When Bond is shown a photo of Shatterhand he recognises that he is in reality Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s major enemy and the person who killed his wife so he is very keen to finally exact revenge however he can. I’m not about to spoil any potential readers enjoyment of the little action that takes place but suffice to say that the obituary is somewhat premature, after all Fleming wrote two more Bond books after this one.

But getting back to the language used, which was after all the reason I read this again after so many decades. Yes there are outdated stereotypes in the book, but it is a product of its time. I didn’t see anything grossly offensive in the text although a Japanese reader may find more than I spotted. ‘Sensitivity Readers’ are almost by definition overly sensitive in looking for terminology to justify their position and are determined to heap modern norms on a book which is after all almost sixty years old and which simply betrays the attitudes of its period. Quite what they would make of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or other classics I dread to think, let’s just hope they never pick up a copy.

Lady into Fox & A Man in the Zoo – David Garnett

These two novellas by David Garnett include his first published work, Lady into Fox from 1923 with A Man in the Zoo coming out the following year. They are both fairly short, Lady into Fox being 24,514 words whilst A Man in the Zoo clocks in at 24,133 words. This undoubtedly explains why Penguin USA decided to combine the two in a book that is still only 135 pages long. Interestingly despite Garnett being English and several other later books by him being printed by Penguin UK I cannot find either of these stories in a UK released edition from Penguin Books. My copy is the Penguin USA first edition from December 1946 and it was later reprinted by Signet.

Garnett was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and indeed married Virginia Woolf’s niece Angelica Bell although she was then 23 years old and he was 50 which caused a considerable scandal. Although not as much as if it had been known at the time that in his twenties, and indeed during the time Angelica was born, he had had an, at that time illegal, homosexual relationship with her father, the artist Duncan Grant. As well as being a novelist he was heavily involved in the publishing scene in England being an original partner of the famous private press Nonesuch Press as well as being Literary Editor of the New Statesman for six years and a director of publishing house Rupert Hart-Davies. Along with his novels I have several of his factual works, of which he wrote many, including The Battle of Britain, written during WWII, and his edited collection of the letters of T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. From what little I have read of his fiction though he tends to the surreal and this is especially the case in his best known work Lady into Fox. ‘Aspects of Love’ which he wrote in 1955 was subsequently turned into a hit musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart in 1989 although I doubt that many people know that David Garnett wrote the original work even though he is credited on the posters.

Lady into Fox

Right, this is definitely an odd story about a woman who spontaneously turns into a fox whilst out for a walk in the country with her husband. This happens within a few pages of the beginning and the tale concerns how she initially retains her personality and intelligence but that both of these gradually fade away as she spends more time as a vixen. Immediately after the transformation it is almost as if she doesn’t realise what has happened to her and when her husband takes her home she tries to dress herself and wants to sit at the table when eating, they even find a way for her to play cards together. He dismisses their servants so that they won’t find out what has happened and explains that she has had to go to London for some urgent reason, he even shoots their two dogs as they just howl and bark all the time as they are aware of a fox being in the house. The deterioration of her humanity is expressed most strongly by her sleeping arrangements, for the first few days she sleeps in the bed with her husband but gradually she moves to the foot of the bed and then to the floor, before refusing to go to the bedroom at all. It is quite clear that she is becoming wilder and that he cannot keep her even as a pet tame fox. She also starts trying to escape from the house and garden until realising that she cannot be happy in captivity he lets her loose into the countryside to exist as best she can. I won’t go into the rest of the story but suffice to say that although he eventually regains contact with her it doesn’t have a happy ending.

A Man in the Zoo

Another strange tale, but no metamorphosis is required this time. The story begins with Josephine Lackett and John Cromartie walking around London Zoo as they were wont to do on a pleasant weekend. The pair had been dating for some time and John was keen to marry Josephine but they are having a row about it as her father didn’t approve, presumably due to the lack of money on John’s behalf. I have selected below the salient part of this argument which becomes the turning point in the whole story.

The next morning John Cromartie wrote to the head of the zoo with the proposal that he should be exhibited in the great ape enclosure and thereby complete the collection. This suggestion was received by the committee running the zoo with considerable disagreement as to whether this would be appropriate but ultimately, because the main objector was disliked by a large part of the rest of the group, they agreed to the idea and a meeting was arranged with Cromartie. It was decided that he should be exhibited in ‘his natural state’ i.e. dressed in his own clothes and with a simply but well furnished living room with his books and a bedroom and bathroom both not on view to the public and that this should be laid out in the cage between an orangutan and the chimpanzee enclosure and so Cromartie moves in with the following written on the sign attached to his cage.

Homo Sapiens
This specimen, born in Scotland, was presented to
the Society by John Cromartie, Esq. Visitors are re-
quested not to irritate the Man by personal remarks.

The astonishment in the visitors later that day on finding a human displayed at the zoo was palpable and this started considerable debate not only amongst the public but in the newspapers as to the probity of the exhibit, which led to huge crowds coming to see him much to the irritation of the orangutan and chimpanzee on either side who suddenly found themselves largely ignored and without the extra titbits it was common to feed the animals at the time. The story progresses with Josephine coming to visit him several times, initially with fury in case she should be identified as his former girlfriend and determination that he had gone mad but gradually things develop and unlike Lady into Fox this does have a happy if somewhat unexpected ending.

Of the two novellas I definitely recommend ‘A Man in the Zoo’ as worth a read, less so ‘Lady into Fox’ although if you like tragedies that one might appeal. Both stories are now pretty well out of print (I have found some print on demand editions and they are also available on Kindle) however they can be read on Project Gutenberg. Lady into Fox is here, and A Man in the Zoo can be found here.

Beauty & Beast – Olivia McCannon

This week it’s the turn of another beautiful book published by the private press Design For Today and this time it is two books in one as if you buy the signed limited edition of the first one hundred copies, as I did, you get the hardback book along with a cut out and make toy theatre which includes a script so that you can perform the play. The total run of books is just 650 so 100 with the toy theatre and 550 without. I suspect that the toy theatre edition has probably sold out as my copy is number 85, but the standard edition appears to still be available on the Design For Today website, although the page relating to it is out of date as at the time I’m writing this it still refers to it being available for pre-order only.

The illustrations have been done by Clive Hicks-Jenkins who also illustrated another book I have from Design For Today, Hansel and Gretel retold by the current Poet Laureate Simon Armitage which I reviewed back in June 2019, his style is immediately distinctive and fits both these books beautifully. The words are by poet and translator, Olivia McCannon and don’t follow any previous version of Beauty and Beast that I am aware of which is one of the joys of the book in that you have no idea where the story is going. The book is wonderfully designed by Laurence Beck so this is definitely going to be an image heavy blog, I apologise in advance for the slightly distorted pictures but I really didn’t want to force the spine flat simply to get perfect pictures.

The text above is part of Beast’s thoughts as he carries the unconscious Beauty into his castle, as she has fainted at first sight of him. As you can see this is framed within a proscenium arch to echo the toy theatre that is also part of the production and has similarly been designed by Hicks-Jenkins. Pages are sometimes with black backgrounds and otherwise white, there are also many full page and double page illustrations, this truly is an art book showcasing the poetic words by McCannon. As I said above this is an original tale involving Beauty having to go to Beast after her father took a pomegranate fruit from Beast’s garden and then signing a contract to forfeit her in return for being allowed to leave Beast’s enchanted castle.

One unusual feature of the book is that so many of the images were done by Hicks-Jenkins before the text was written, sometimes many years before the book was even thought of, and are inspired by his reaction to the Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête‘ which Hicks-Jenkins first saw back in 1964 and which had a huge impact on him. The words and pictures were tied together between covid lock-downs here in the UK and in her introduction McCannon gives thanks to Joe Pearson, owner of Design For Today, for “keeping faith with a project that kept wanting to change”. Whilst the text is relatively short the amount of pictures and the need to combine them all into what is a truly lovely book must have been a highly complex exercise.

One of the double page spreads, in this case depicting Beauty travelling back to her father via interconnecting mirrors. Beast allows her to do this because her father is ill but she agrees that she must return within a week. Needless to say once she is back home the week passes so quickly that she overstays leading to the final tragedy of the story when she does finally return to Beast’s castle only to find him gravely ill from the despair that she may have left him forever. Unfortunately her two sisters see her travel back via the mirrors and realise that they too can go there, but they want to rob Beast of his treasure. Whilst they attack the castle and realise that it is well defended, Beauty cries over Beast, realising at last that she truly loves him.

Sadly Beast dies but Beauty resolves to stay at the Castle, the treachery of her sisters having repelled her from her original home. I loved the book, as have all the people I have shown it to so far. But as I mentioned at the beginning mine is one of the 100 copies that come with a toy theatre in its own folder that is contained with the book in a lovely slipcase made by Ludlow Bookbinders. I haven’t made the theatre but I am considering scanning and reprinting it onto card so that I can keep the original pages whilst also enjoying the theatre. I share with Joe Pearson a love of Pollocks toy theatres along with the scarce Penguin Books items that were designed to be used with them. You can read my short history of toy theatres in Britain based on a couple of the Penguin examples here. But for now here are some pictures of the flattened toy theatre that came with this lovely book, if I do get to make it then I will replace these with the replica.

Front cover of the folder


Rear cover showing some of the cutouts and the scenes that can be performed.

The Mid-Atlantic Companion – David Frost & Michael Shea

A friend is off to New York for the first time so it occurred to me to dig out this funny guide to the differences between America and the UK which originally came out in 1986. My copy is the first paperback edition from 1987, which is when I started regularly crossing the Atlantic to see my then girlfriend and found this full of handy hints. At the time David Frost was presenting TV programmes in both countries and commuted each week between London and New York, Michael Shea was a diplomat and Director of British Information Services in New York but when he wrote this book with Frost he was Press Secretary to Queen Elizabeth II. Both men therefore had extensive experience of the differences that you only appreciate really when you live in the country you are not native to.

The joy of this book is it’s not just the linguistic differences that they highlight but history, politics, food etc. are covered, if not comprehensively then at least enough to give a warning to the unwary. Back in 1887 Oscar Wilde said “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” and it is still very true today. I remember back in the early 1980’s Jane Fonda’s first workout video came out which included the surprising, to British female watchers at least, instruction to sit on the floor and bounce around on your fannies. Americans who don’t know what is wrong with that should know that a fanny moves from behind in America to the front and female only in the UK.

That passage gives some idea of the differences and fortunately the book is not as relentless as that all the way through, the book is equally fair, or unfair if you prefer, in dealing out warnings both for Brits going to America or Americans going to the UK so Brits are warned about the huge size of portions and the sweetness that pervades a lot of American food whilst Americans are equally warned about a lot of British food and heartily recommended to have breakfast three times a day. There are also specific chapters on London and, usefully for my friend, New York which includes a comment on street crime that “they even had a bank robber who got mugged on the way to the getaway car”. As for the cab drivers “Help wanted ads in NY papers claim you can get a cabby’s licence in three days. Most people are surprised they have been driving that long”.

Of course the book has dated, it is after all getting on for forty years old, however as both authors have been dead for a log time, Shea died in 2009 and Frost in 2013 there is no chance of an updated version. There are still enormous differences in language and culture between the UK and USA a lot of which are in this book and still relevant but there are new pitfalls for the unwary traveller to fall into and a new guide is probably called for.

A final thought from the politics section, which still seems relevant, at least in Donald Trump’s mind:

When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal

Richard Nixon

Dangerous Curves – Peter Cheyney

It’s three months since I last reviewed a crime book so definitely time for another one. In August 1949 Penguin Books published five of British writer’s Peter Cheyney crime books, of which I have four. This apparent keenness however clearly didn’t pay off as they don’t seem to have ever published any more of the at least forty more works by him and the five they did publish are long out of print. As I own four books but have never opened any of them it is definitely time to see what they are like and it turns out they chose across his styles, two books about American private detective Lemmy Caution, two about a London based private investigator named Slim Callaghan and one from what is known as his ‘Dark’ series which features various different lead characters. The first one I picked up was ‘Can Ladies Kill?’ one of the Lemmy Caution books but after around thirty pages I gave up on it. Caution is a cut price Philip Marlowe written in a poor version of ‘ American’ slang and consequently almost unreadable’

I like Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe stories and this was so obviously a bad knock-off that I almost gave up on Cheyney all together but decided to give him another chance and next on the shelf was ‘Dangerous Curves’ and this time it was a Slim Callaghan novel. Now Callaghan is still very much a Philip Marlowe character but transplanted into London so the terrible Americanish language of the Caution books is dropped, although women are habitually referred to as ‘dames’ and other Americanisms keep appearing. The change of language style makes it somewhat more a bearable read but despite his obvious popularity from the mid 1930’s until the 1950’s (Cheyney died in 1951 and his books largely died with him) Cheyney is not a great writer, being seemingly stuck in formulaic styles both in language and plots. I did however finish ‘Dangerous Curves’.

This time I stuck at it and was glad I did. Yes the characters are mainly ciphers based on the works of better writers but the plot was certainly original and had enough twists and turns to make the 256 pages it takes up worth reading. One thing that should be pointed out from the start though is the misogynistic nature of Cheyney’s writing. With the possible sole exception of Effe, Callaghan’s long suffering secretary and office receptionist, all the female characters are treated as dumb beings merely there for Callaghan to twist round his fingers and to do what he wants with. Effe does seem however to have some independence of character but even she is at Callaghans’ beck and call seemingly no matter what hour of day he needs her. The story line of ‘Dangerous Curves’ is quite complex and I’m not about to reveal it here but Callaghan definitely feels more like an American private investigator out of place in London but with all the contacts that you would expect to be in his home town. Who has been taking ‘The Mug’ for all his money and feeding him cocaine and heroin to keep him quiet whilst doing so? Eighty thousand pounds in the 1930’s was a huge sum to lose so no wonder The Mug’s father was interested in finding out, then all of a sudden The Mug (yes that is how he is referred to throughout the book) is found on a boat shot through the lung with the man who has been bleeding his bank balance dry dead at the desk opposite. What happened and why? And equally important when? These are the questions Callaghan needs to solve quickly and with enough proof to hand it over to Scotland Yard. As for the title of the book, the Dangerous Curves are those of The Mug’s young stepmother which so attract Callaghan that he also plans to bed her whilst sorting out the case. I told you Cheyney had a downer on his female characters…

Peter Cheyney has, mainly deservedly, been long out of print but in 2022 Dean Street Press published twenty four of his titles with 1940’s/50’s pulp paperback style covers. I can’t say I recommend them however, especially not the Lemmy Caution ones, there are far better crime writers than Cheyney and if you want the hard-boiled American detective just read the original and best, Raymond Chandler.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! – Richard Feynman

Well this book was a complete surprise when I finally pulled it off the shelf where it has sat, largely undisturbed, for over ten years. The year before buying it I had read Six Easy Pieces and Six Not so Easy Pieces which were sections lifted from the Feynman Lectures on Physics and whilst I had enjoyed them I never felt in the mood to see which topics were included in this volume. In fact this isn’t a physics textbook but a stab at autobiography based on taped conversations between Feynman and Ralph Leighton largely done over a seven year period whilst they were drumming together, Feynman was a keen bongo player. The short pieces that make up the book are arranged in a rough chronological order from his childhood to getting his degree in physics at MIT in the first section, his time getting his PhD at Princeton University in the second. Part three covers his time at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb during WWII whilst part four has him working as professor of physics at Caltech and Cornell universities and the final section has some fairly random stories in it. This potentially sounds rather dry but it is far from it, what we actually get is a total of forty anecdotes a lot of which have nothing to do with physics at all. As well as being one of the outstanding physicists of the twentieth century Feynman loved an anecdote and also stretching his brain doing things that had nothing to do with his career such as learning to do safe-cracking and taking it upon himself to translate Mayan pictographs relating to mathematical problems, both of which are covered in this book.

The stories are often humorous such as the first one concerning his Princeton years, which is also where the title of the book comes from. On arrival to start work on his doctorate he was invited to the rooms of the head of college for tea and being a young man from a Jewish background in New York he hadn’t come across this decidedly English concept which was popular amongst the academic elite at Princeton so didn’t really know what to expect. On being asked if he wanted lemon or milk in his tea he replied ‘both’ leading the lady pouring the tea to exclaim ‘Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!’ One of the funniest stories is his battle with the censors working at Los Alamos, now technically they weren’t allowed to censor mail within America but clearly they were going to because of the nature of the work on the Manhattan Project, However Feynman liked to keep his mind sharp so had already started having his correspondence with his father and his wife include codes without giving him a hint as to the key so that he had to crack the codes and the censors really didn’t like that aspect of his letters. Eventually they settled on having the letter writer include on a separate piece of paper how to crack the code and the censors would remove the solution before passing it onto Feynman. All I can say is he must have been a tricky person to work with and indeed his long time collaborator, Freeman Dyson, described him as ‘half genius, half buffoon’ which he later updated as ‘all genius, all buffoon’.

By its very nature the book is somewhat bitty, there are little, if any, links between the various stories included and you quite often want to know more and it leaves out large chunks of his life including his work on the report into the space shuttle Challenger disaster which helped bring him to wider public recognition outside of the world of physicists and academia. However the fact that it is forty largely self contained tales means it can be just dropped into wherever you feel making it ideal for reading when you just have short periods of time available and it is definitely worth reading, even if Feynman does come over as a pain in the ass at times. My copy was published by The Folio Society in 2012, twenty seven years after it first came out and is beautifully illustrated with numerous photographs along with drawings by Aude van Ryn.

Round Ireland with a Fridge – Tony Hawks

British comedian Tony Hawks was first in Ireland back in 1989 as the writer of a song entered for an ill fated attempt at an international song contest, but whilst he was there he saw something odd on his way to the contest; a man hitch-hiking with a fridge. What was even odder, at least to Tony was the complete way that this was regarded as normal by his Irish companions. Over the years this became a favourite tale for Tony to bring up at parties until late in the nineteen nineties he got particularly drunk at a friends house and…

Now both men knew in their heart of hearts that a bet made when neither of them could remember it being set because they were both too drunk does not have to be honoured, but this one niggled at Hawks for a while until he decided to go for it and I’m very glad he did because the trip and the subsequent book are very funny. I first read the book soon after it came out in 1999 and loved it then so it was with a little trepidation that I got it off the shelf for a reread, would I still think it as good as I did then? I needn’t have worried the tale is still as brilliantly daft as I remembered it to be.

Hawks arrived in Dublin having done minimal preparation other than badly packing a rucksack and arranging with a friend in Ireland to be met at the airport by a friend of this friend along with his travelling companion for the next month. It was whilst explaining to this person, that he had never before, what he was planning on doing that the economic idiocy of the adventure starts to come clear. As he pays him the £130 for the fridge it is obvious that even if he succeeds he is already £30 down not counting the flights, accommodation costs, food etc that he will have to pay for on his journey but he had not counted on the friendliness of the Irish. At a suggestion of his friend he drops a note round at RTE, the national broadcaster, for Gerry Ryan who is the host of the popular breakfast radio show on the basis that breakfast radio is a perfect place to talk about hitch-hiking round Ireland with a fridge as this sort of programme is always looking for offbeat stories to fill up some time. Instead of just a short chat with Ryan on his show it turns into a regular feature with the radio programme regularly calling to find out where he had got to since they last spoke and before he had even got half way round Hawks was mildly famous as ‘Fridge Man’ throughout Ireland and people were waiting to see him turn up in their town and he was being covered by local papers across the country.

The book is not just funny though, in his tale Hawks introduces people who helped and the stories of their lives that he briefly touches on, people start signing the fridge and by the time he gets back to Dublin there is no room left of the two foot cube that had made it all the way round. On the way, the pair of them did all sorts of things including going surfing, fortunately there is photographic evidence of this to prove it, the fridge also got christened and became a folk hero, they even spent a night in a dog kennel when there was no room anywhere else. The book is a joy to read and I’m so glad I picked it back up again after more than twenty years. Hawks has written several books since this one, often with a theme of travelling with a specific purpose such as ‘Playing the Moldovans at Tennis’ where he tries to persuade all eleven members of the national football team to play him at tennis. Or ‘One Hit Wonderland’ where he travels around the world trying to have a second hit record, he had his first, and only previous success back in 1988 with ‘Stutter Rap’ which made the British top ten back in 1988. If you like your travelogues with an eccentric edge Tony Hawks is the man for you.

Change of Use – Candia McWilliam

As a response to Penguin Books and Pheonix producing small cheap editions in the mid 1990’s Bloomsbury decided to have a go as well and so the Bloomsbury Quid was born, and almost immediately died. The initial ten books, which came out in 1996, were never followed by any more. Priced, as implied by the series name, at a quid, or one pound, they are probably the nicest designed and best produced, being on much higher quality paper than others of these cheap editions so it is a great pity that Bloomsbury never saw fit to produce any more, perhaps they didn’t sell, perhaps there simply wasn’t enough money in it, who knows after almost thirty years? The titles chosen were certainly interesting:

  • Change of Use by Candia McWilliam
  • The Drowned Son by David Guterson
  • Faith by Joanna Trollope
  • Harald, Claudia, and Their Son Duncan by Nadine Gordimer
  • The Queen and I by Jay McInerney
  • She Wasn’t Soft by T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • A Story for Europe by Will Self
  • Three Stories and a Reflection by Patrick Süskind
  • Two Boys and a Girl by Tobias Wolff
  • The Labrador Fiasco by Margaret Atwood

From the page dedicated to this series on Library Thing you can see that the series was bright and colourful and even that these are suggested as a collectors item of the future; and whilst that hasn’t proved to be the case so far, I’m glad I picked up the full set when they came out.

So enough of the publishing history, what is the book itself like?

On the back of the book is the opening line of the story and it’s certainly intriguing, Why is Mary sitting on the edge of a sink and what sort of rituals? It slowly comes clear that most of the story is set in a retirement home and the rituals are literally that, things that are done ritually by the people being cared for. Mary is one of the nurses at the establishment and she is overseeing one of the residents as he polishes some silver spoons whilst reliving his time as a butler, interestingly enough at the same property that is now his nursing home. Interleaved with his story is that of the grandmother of the person who drives the laundry van that calls at the home. She is getting increasingly fed up with the research work that she does for various authors and dreams of a life away from it and like Mr Charteris, the ex butler, she longs for the memories of her younger life and is scheming to reclaim them.

The story is interesting as you get into the minds of the various characters very well for such a short work and I loved the twist at the end. I’m definitely going to have to read another of McWilliam’s surprisingly few books. She stopped writing in 1997 and then had a medical condition in 2006 which left her blind for two years and which inspired her to take up writing again although this time a memoir which was published in 2010 which was her last published work. Interestingly this story has never been reprinted, even though McWilliam published a collection of short stories in 1997 so this small volume remains the only place you can read it.

Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

It has been said that I will eat anything. This is, of course, nonsense. Medium Density Fibreboard soaked in paraffin served between two discs of foam rubber has never got me salivating (which is why I steer clear of McDonalds).

Start of chapter two

Hugh gained the sobriquet of Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All from a review of one of his books where he advocated eating as much of an animal as possible, no discarding of offal, if a pig has been killed to provide the diner with pork chops the least people can do is eat the rest of it with as little waste as can be managed. I am very much in agreement with him and regard most offal as a treat due to the flavours and textures that you would otherwise miss. I haven’t gone as far as Hugh’s keenness for brains and frankly his descriptions of the texture, which for him makes the dish, are quite off-putting to me.

This book, unlike the others I have by Hugh, is a collection of his journalism and whilst some of the articles are campaigning for various issues, especially regarding ‘nose to tail’ eating, others are very funny and even self deprecating. His own personal food business ‘River Cottage‘ barely gets a mention and whilst there are some recipes in the book they appear only rarely and always to illustrate a point in the article they are attached to. This is worth pointing out as most of his books are cookbooks, and one is my favourite which is his Meat book, nothing I have ever cooked from that book has failed to work or indeed been so complicated that I was immediately put off trying it. Having said that the journalism is a delight and being short articles it makes this a great book to dip into pretty well at random. Hugh started out as a sous chef in the kitchen of the famous River Island restaurant in Hammersmith, London but didn’t last long as a need to cut costs led to him being fired about eight months after joining them, he has never looked back, or indeed worked seriously in a professional kitchen since that date in August 1989. He moved to River Cottage in 1997 and presented his first TV series from there two years later and nowadays it is River Cottage rather than his journalism that most people think of, which is a pity because as I said earlier it’s very good.

The book is split into six sections with articles gathered thematically so for example the first part ‘Hard to Swallow’ includes pieces about McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, bemoaning the quality of their products and the Atkins diet pointing out the dangerous side effects of that regime. There are also articles about the poor standard of food in first class on Eurostar and other other similar topics. These sound like they could be hard work to read but rather they are quite entertaining, especially when he tries to replicate a Big Mac at home. Later sections dwell on travelling to try new foods and also his home life from childhood to his current family life at River Cottage, he is a very good writer, short articles are notoriously difficult to do especially if you are also raising an important point such as intensive farming without just banging on about it. No everybody can’t live the way he does and eat fresh home produced vegetables and meat but we can try to do the best we can afford’ Hugh has the advantage of coming from a wealthy family and sometimes he can be somewhat divorced from the realities of how most people live but having said that he comes over as a very likeable person and at some point I will get down to River Cottage to do one of his cookery courses.

One thing I think that is missing is which publication the articles originally appeared in, you get the month and year but not where. He had regular columns in Punch magazine and the Evening Standard and Sunday Times newspapers so I guess most are from those but it seems a strange omission.