Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland

Pointless fact about Marshall McLuhan: he has always been oddly tangled up in my mind with Malcolm McLaren, he of the Sex Pistols and Buffalo Gals. The lingering after-effects of a youthful misunderstanding. Malcolm McLaren, in turn, gets mixed up with Malcolm McDowell.

I’m a fan of Douglas Coupland’s novels — they’re not all masterpieces, but they’re always worth reading — and his fascination with media, pop culture and technology made him seem an intriguing person to be writing a biography of McLuhan, based on my vague idea of McLuhan’s work.

And I think it’s true that there’s a real meeting of minds there, and this book is quite readable, but I was left wondering if biography was the best form it could have taken. It might have been more interesting to read a book in which Coupland responded directly to the work; i.e. by taking a couple of essays and surrounding them with commentary, annotation and footnotes. A bit of playful fisking.

Still, the book served well enough as a short, light, introduction to McLuhan’s life. It made me think I ought to pick up one of McLuhan’s own books, so it clearly worked on that level.

The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ

The Fortunes of Wangrin is my book from Mali for the Read The World challenge.

It’s a novel — or at least it seems to be universally described as a novel, despite the fact that Hampaté Bâ says in the Afterword:

I don’t know why, even is spite of the specific assertions contained in the Foreword, some people continue to ask themselves whether this narrative is fiction, reality, or a clever mixture of both…

I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who might still be in doubt, that I heard everything related to the life of the hero, from the account of his birth (a story told by his parents), through the relationship with the animist world, the various predictions, and so forth, all the way to the downfall caused by commercial bankruptcy, from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humour, and vigour, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Diele Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.

[…] I rounded off the information already at my disposal by visiting everyone who had frequented him… I have made up no event or circumstances whatsoever. Every single story was told by the people in question or by someone in their circle, either griot, houseboy, or friend.

Which is interesting case. Because it does read like fiction, stylistically; I certainly read it that way and was surprised to learn that it wasn’t. It is told as a single coherent narrative with the kind of omniscient third person narrator normally associated with fiction. To use a television analogy, it is more like a dramatisation of real events than a documentary. And I don’t think it is like a biography in the standard sense, a work of history intended to establish the true events of a person’s life.

Rather, it is a work of oral history — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since Hampaté Bâ was an ethnologist and folklorist. It has the qualities of a good storyteller telling the story of their own life: not perhaps outright fabrication, but just enough massaging and selection and elision and exaggeration to turn the messiness of reality into something beautifully moulded and polished. It’s like a memoir told in the third person.

And Wangrin is certainly an interesting character; the son of a prominent family, he was sent to the colonial school to learn French and worked as an interpreter, which put him in position as the literal and symbolic intermediary between the French colonial administration and the native population, able to play off both sides against each other. Which he did, enriching himself in the process. So a bit of a crook, then, even if a likeable one.

His position between the French and the Africans makes this book a fascinating look into the functioning of colonial life; one of the more striking things for me was how thin the layer of bureaucracy seems to have been: a very small number of French administrators on their own out in the bush, in charge of a large population of people of various languages and religions with whom they share neither culture nor language. And that makes the interpreter a rather more important figure than the title suggests.

I certainly recommend the book. Like so many of these books in translation, it had a few too many endnotes for my taste, and the edition I read had some truly awful typography inflicted on it* — but I can hardly blame Hampaté Bâ for that.

* The front cover and the page headers are set in Lithos Bold, a typeface which is a typographic cliché for black/African literature, despite being based on Greek inscriptions, so that’s at the very least unimaginative; but worse, the chapter headings use a numeral in Lithos Bold and then a chapter heading and an ornamental initial in Papyrus, another typeface used to give a generic impression of the exotic, and a rather ugly one at that.

» The masks are from the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. I just found themby putting ‘Mali’ into the search engine, and thought they were particularly striking.

The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling

The Unknown Matisse is the first of two volumes, taking our hero from 1869-1908. I actually bought it some time ago on Jee Leong‘s recommendation, but it has taken me some time to finish, mainly I think because the simple physical size of it makes it slightly awkward to read in bed. It’s not that huge, but it’s quite a fat volume and printed on large format paper to make space for some colour reproductions of the work. Which are, of course, lovely and very welcome.

It’s fascinating to read about the outrage that greeted paintings which now seem, if not tame exactly, at least uncontroversial. Indeed the first time he shocked the Parisian public, it was with a painting (The Dinner Table) that now looks positively conventional.* Over the past hundred years, outraging the public has become an explicit part of the job description for artists; but how much more satisfying to shock people not by placing a sculpture of Christ in a glass of urine, or exhibiting a work consisting of a room with the lights going on and off, but with a painting of a woman in a hat.

Not that Matisse seems to have been temperamentally inclined to shock people for its own sake. Some of the other modern artists obviously rather enjoyed the opportunity to wind up the public: André Derain came back from a visit to London with a classically tailored English suit made fauvist by the choice of a green fabric, with a red waistcoat and yellow shoes. Matisse, though, was more inclined to respectability: partially because unlike most of his contemporaries he had a young family, which meant he needed at least enough saleable work to keep them in food. But also because (through no fault of his own) he was caught up in the most magnificently baroque financial and political scandal I’ve ever heard of — really, it would merit a book by itself — which gave him enough experience of public notoriety to last a lifetime.

It’s a fine book, readable, evocative, well-researched.  Or at least it gives the impression of being well-researched, which is as much as I have the expertise to judge.

* Although actually, in one of their periodic fits of cynical outrage about the Turner Prize, the Daily Mail held a ‘Not the Turner Prize’ competition, open to the public, and the work in that suggested that there are still plenty of people in Britain who feel that the highest aspiration of the painter should be photographic accuracy. Preferably of tigers. Or steam trains.

Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow

 Jenny Uglow wrote the excellent The Lunar Men, about the Lunar Society that included Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Matthew Boulton. Nature’s Engraver is a biography of the wood engraver Thomas Bewick who, born in 1753, was just about contemporary with those men. He worked in Newcastle at a time when it was just starting to turn from a small provincial town into a major industrial city, but his subject matter is overwhelmingly rural. His masterpiece was his History of British Birds, which, quite apart from its artistic merits, was a landmark in the development of British ornithology.

The sensitivity with which he manages to reproduce feathering in an awkward medium like woodcut is remarkable. But the incredibly fine detail is even more apparent in the little decorative vignettes he produced which were used to fill gaps in the text of books. Engraved into the cross section of pieces of box wood, they are rarely more than 3″ across, but they are staggeringly finely worked. In the book, which is decorated with these vignettes throughout, they are printed at life-size; but since computer screens are simply not high-enough resolution to show them that way, here’s a 2″ section enlarged to show the workmanship: 

The book is almost worth reading for the pictures, but Uglow also does a great job of evoking the period: the life of a provincial craftsman; the growth of interest in natural history that coincides, not perhaps by chance, with the coming of industry; radical politics and the response to the American and French Revolutions.

» Both pictures are taken from the website of the Bewick Society.

Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

The definite article in the title seems a little hubristic. I don’t know if this is the definitive biography of Shakespeare — haven’t read any of the hundreds of others — but I certainly enjoyed it.

I don’t know if I completely trust Ackroyd as a historian; it’s probably unfair, but I just get a nagging sense sometimes that he’s a bit too fond of a good story. He has clearly done a ton of research, though, and as you’d expect he’s very good at providing historical context. And he writes well.

bar in Neuchatel, found on flickr, used under a CC licence

There’s a perception, perhaps, that we have very little historical record of Shakespeare other than the plays themselves, so if anything I was surprised by how much material there was: legal stuff, references to him in other people’s writing and so on. Certainly there’s enough to build up a broad-brush picture of his life. What there isn’t is much that is truly personal: no letters back and forth between London and Stratford, no learned essays on theatrical technique, no gossipy personal journal.

So instead of the common pattern of literary biographies, where the biographer tries to use the details of the life to shed light on the work, here it’s more often the other way round: trying to mine the plays and poems for details that might tell us something about his life. It’s all hints and scraps, and any conclusions are tentative and contingent, but it’s all quite interesting even so.

In the end, I think Shakespeare remains elusive: but then, if we knew every moment of his life, I suspect it would only serve to emphasise the fundamental mysteriousness of genius. What biographical detail could possibly be adequate as an explanation?

» Pub sign in Neuchatel, Switzerland, posted to Flickr by iwouldstay (Stefan) and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is a biography of Stalin, focussed on his domestic life and the tightly-knit group of people around him: his own family, and politicians, bodyguards, and their families.

As a piece of history, it’s very impressive. It’s clearly the result of a huge amount of research by Montefiore: he seems to have personally interviewed just about every living relative of the major figures, quite apart from the endless reading of archives and memoirs that must have been involved. As a casual reader I found it slightly hard going at times. I didn’t do it any favours by largely reading it in bed at night, but even allowing for that, I found it hard to keep track of all the people involved. I found I was having difficulty remembering which was which even of the most important figures, like Molotov, Mikoyan and Malenkov.

I don’t know if that’s an inevitable result of a book with quite so many people in it — it’s not a subject I’ve read about before, and all the unfamiliar Russian names didn’t help — or if it’s my fault for reading it while drowsy, or if there’s more Montefiore could have done to fix the various people in my mind. I didn’t find I got much sense of their various personalities that would have helped me keep them separate. Still, what I did get was a strong sense of Stalin himself, and his trajectory from a charming (though ruthless) young man living an almost campus lifestyle at the Kremlin, surrounded by the young families of his colleagues, to a sickly, garrulous old despot wandering nomadically from dacha to dacha and living in a vortex of terror and awe.

But even a sense of what Stalin was like to live and work with doesn’t get you much closer to understanding his motivations and the motivations of people around him. Was it just about power or did he believe to the end that he was acting in the interests of Russia and the party? The inner clique around Stalin clearly knew at some level that all the denunciations and show trials were arbitrary and could attach to anyone: they saw the process happen over and over again. And when colleagues they had known for years confessed to ludicrously unlikely accusations, they surely can’t have believed it. But the things they said and wrote suggest that at the same time they sort of did believe it, and remained theoretically committed to the ideology to the end. It made me inclined to reread 1984, because the concept of ‘doublethink’ is so startlingly apt.

In some ways the Stalinist purges are even more incomprehensible than the Holocaust. The Holocaust at least has a kind of simple central narrative: an attempt to exterminate the Jews. It fits into a thousand year history of European anti-Semitism as well as a broader human history of racism and genocide. The purges don’t offer any kind of similarly clear story: at different times they focussed on different things. It might be a whole social class, a profession, an ethnicity, or it might start with one or two individuals that Stalin was suspicious of and spread out through their colleagues and families to take in hundreds of people. Targets included kulaks, engineers, doctors, army officers, Poles, Jews, ethnic Germans, Chechens, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Koreans: in fact any ethnic minority that could provide a possible focus for dissent. The total number of deaths, including not just those executed but those who died in slave labour camps or famine, is disputed; but 20 million is apparently a plausible ballpark figure.

At one stage Stalin was setting two quotas for the different regions: the number to be shot and the number to be arrested. These numbers were in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but the regions were soon writing back and requesting that their quotas be extended — out of ideological zeal? In an attempt to demonstrate their loyalty? Or just because these things have a momentum of their own?

It’s a staggering story and despite the slight reservations I expressed earlier, this is a very impressive book.

» The photo, Posing for communisim, was posted to Flickr by famous boxer and is used under a by-nc-nd licence. It was taken at the 2006 May Day protest in London and shows members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). The CPGB-ML website has a link to the Stalin Society, “formed in 1991 to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact and to refute capitalist, revisionist, opportunist and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him.” Which just goes to show… well, I don’t know what, really.

George III and the Mad-Business by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter

I highly recommend this fascinating book; it seems to be out of print, but there are lots of second-hand copies on Amazon. As the title suggests, it’s about poor mad George III. And even Americans, brought up to think of George III as a tyrant, might have a little sympathy for him after reading this.

detail of Hogarth

It starts with a detailed account of his illness—or his illnesses, really, since he initially suffered from relatively brief bouts, separated by long periods of good health. Having offered a diagnosis of porphyria, which is a hereditary condition, Macalpine and Hunter examine the medical histories of George II’s relatives and demonstrate that porphyria can be identified, with varying degrees of confidence, in a startling number of them; most notably perhaps in James I, Mary Queen of Scots and Frederick the Great of Prussia.

detail of Hogarth

The book then moves on to a survey of C18th psychiatry, both in terms of its theoretical basis and treatment, and looks at the way it developed. Not surprisingly, George’s illness had a huge impact on the mad-business because of the publicity surrounding it. The idea of a king being forcibly confined in a strait-waistcoat focussed people’s minds on the treatment of the insane. The book traces developments in the treatment of patients and the law surrounding insanity, both in terms of treatment and things like criminal responsibility. Finally it looks at the way developments in psychiatry have affected historians’ portrayal of George III.

mad ‘king’ in Bedlam

It is, as I say, fascinating. The account of his illness is remarkable, not least because of the political chaos around it. It was just the moment when, although Britain was increasingly recognisable as a modern democracy and decision-making increasingly rested with the Prime Minister and parliament, the king was still an important enough figure that his incapacity led to a crisis. And since the question of whether or not to establish a Regency depended on it, and a Regency would mean a change of government, his treatment was incredibly politicised. His doctors issued regular bulletins about his status, which were pored over by all concerned; his doctors themselves became associated with different political factions and found it very difficult to agree on anything.

Meanwhile the king was kept from his loved ones, frequently confined to a strait-waistcoat, and was subjected to a variety of unpleasant and intrusive treatments—bleeding, cupping, blistering, emetics—none of which, we now know, did him any good at all. And at least one aspect of his treatment, a ‘lowering’ diet without any meat in it, will have been actively making him worse.

detail of Hogarth

Still, interesting though all that is, it was starting to get a bit repetitive—thoroughness is a great quality in a historian, but doesn’t always make for riveting reading—and I was glad to get past the details of George’s case and onto the broader stuff, which I found fascinating. For example, as psychiatry increasingly worked under the theory that mental illnesses are self-contained and separate from physical illnesses, the king was retrospectively diagnosed with ‘manic-depressive psychosis’ , and all of his various and violent physical symptoms—pain, fast pulse, colic, sweating, hoarseness, stupor—were interpreted as hysterical, or even as invented by the Court to disguise the truth of his condition.

detail of Hogarth

And because it was assumed that he must always have been manic-depressive, the diagnosis colours historians’ portrayals of his whole personality:

Watson, in the standard Oxford history of the reign, writes : ‘He lacked the pliability and easy virtue of less highly strung people. When his obstinacy encountered an immovable obstacle, all his resources were at an end and the black humour claimed him… Madness was but this mood in an extreme form.’

The book quotes a whole series of similar descriptions. But the king’s early biographers presented a completely different picture, and in fact, we now know that between bouts of illness, sufferers from porphyria can be very healthy. Macalpine and Hunter are pretty scathing about psychiatry generally; the book was written in 1969, and it would be interesting to know whether they thought there had been any progress in the meantime.

» the pictures are details from ‘The Interior of Bedlam’, the final scene in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. It predates the king’s first bout of madness, so the fact that one of the inmates thinks he is the king is not a jibe at George III. I got the picture from this site about the history of Missouri’s first state mental hospital.

Erasmus Darwin by Desmond King-Hele

This is a biography of Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He was a doctor by trade, and one of the most highly rated in the country, but was one of those classic Enlightenment figures whose interests included botany, meteorology, physics, chemistry, engineering, philosophy and just about anything else that came his way. And for a few years he was the most successful and critically acclaimed poet in England.

He seems to have been effortlessly brilliant at everything; the list of inventions and discoveries which can be attributed to him is startling. The inventions include: an improved steering system for carriages, a machine for writing in duplicate, a temperature-regulated system for opening and closing the windows of a greenhouse, a machine that reproduced human speech, an artificial bird, an improved seed-drill, the gas turbine, the rocket motor, cataract surgery and the canal lift. Scientific principles include: the ideal gas law, the chemical composition of water, the structure of the atmosphere, the formation of clouds, the artesian well, and of course evolution.


Even so, there’s a touch of defiance in the book’s full title: Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement. That’s because almost everything on that list comes with a caveat of one kind or another. For example, many of them are based on a few lines or a quick sketch appearing in his Commonplace Book or in one of his letters; and while it’s undoubtedly takes a remarkably inventive mind to come up with the principle for the gas turbine a hundred years ahead of its time, if it never gets beyond a quick scribble it’s a very limited achievement. Another example is his improved steering system, which worked by just angling the wheels left and right instead of turning the whole axle. This creates a much more stable carriage and is the principle used by all modern cars. Darwin built a carriage on this model, and used it successfully for decades going over thousands of miles of bumpy roads to visit his patients; but he never made a real effort to market the idea and it died with him.

Which isn’t to say he had nothing to show for his scientific brilliance. He submitted quite a few papers to the Royal Society on subjects like meteorology and geology; he did the first English translation of Linnaeus, and wrote a major book on medicine. But there is no one major achievement you can attach his name to. Partly that’s because he was a very hard-working doctor. Not only did it take up a lot of time; he was also very worried about his professional reputation. Much of his work was published anonymously because he didn’t want to detract from that reputation, and the biggest single factor that prevented him from achieving more as a scientist was probably that he always put his career first.

And when he did commit to major works he didn’t always make the best choices. His translation of Linnaeus’s botanical taxonomy was drudgery really, the scientific equivalent of translating a phonebook, even if it did add a few words to the English language, like bract, floret and leaflet. And his major work on medicine doesn’t hold up at all because, frankly, no-one at the time knew enough about the workings of the human body. No-one knew about germs, microscopes had been invented but weren’t really used, and they had very few treatments that did any good, so they just gave everyone lots of opium.

opium poppy

Comparisons between Erasmus and Charles are inevitable, and it’s tempting to put the difference between them down to personality: to suggest that Charles was less brilliant but made up for it with dogged single-mindedness. Personally I think the financial aspect is just as important. Erasmus and his son Robert were both highly successful doctors and Robert also had a very good eye for investments, with the result that Charles was a wealthy man. If Erasmus hadn’t had to work, who knows what he would have achieved. His medical practice certainly proves he was capable of hard work; his calculations suggest he travelled about 10,000 miles a year, which on C18th roads is a hell of a long way.

I find the poetry the most interesting thing, though. Science is not a subject that has often been successfully treated in poetry, so someone like Erasmus Darwin writing poems about science is really intriguing. If you have an interest in science and poetry, it’s always fun when the two overlap, as with the reference to Galileo in Paradise Lost. But it’s rare to have poetry written by someone right at the heart of the scientific culture. Darwin’s friends and correspondents include people like Joseph Priestley, Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and Richard Arkwright. He writes about science and technology as a complete insider. And for a few years he was very successful and critically acclaimed, before being left behind by a shift in fashion—he represents everything Coleridge and Wordsworth were reacting against—and in politics. As the French Revolution turned bad, his radical views became a public liability.

detail of Gillray cartoon, tree of liberty

So I find the idea of Darwin’s poetry fascinating. I’m undecided about the poetry itself. All the mythological trappings seem so unnecessary, and the ornate style can border on self-parody; one of his particular quirks is phrases like this:

Swords clash with swords, on horses horses rush,
Man tramples man, and nations nations crush

Still, I love the very fact that he’s applying this high style to such non-literary subject matter. In another poem, someone might only apply this kind of language to a subject like a tadpole to make a joke out of the incongruity. Darwin did have a sense of humour, and if not actually tongue-in-cheek, I think the poems are intended to have a fairly light touch; but he seems to be trying to communicate a real fascination and beauty he finds in nature, as in this passage where he is invoking tadpoles and mosquitos as a comparison with life emerging from the sea:

So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale
With balanc’d fins, and undulating tail;
New lungs and limbs proclaim his second birth,
Breathe the dry air, and bound upon the earth.
So from deep lakes the dread Musquito springs,
Drinks the soft breeze, and dries his tender wings,
In twinkling squadrons cuts his airy way,
Dips his red trunk in blood, and man his prey.

Is that good poetry? Maybe not. Maybe the style is just a distraction. On the other hand I think you can pick out passages which are more successful, like this:

“Yes! smiling Flora drives her armed car
Through the thick ranks of vegetable war;
Herb, shrub, and tree, with strong emotions rise
For light and air, and battle in the skies;
Whose roots diverging with opposing toil
Contend below for moisture and for soil;
Round the tall Elm the flattering Ivies bend,
And strangle, as they clasp, their struggling friend;
Envenom’d dews from Mancinella flow,
And scald with caustic touch the tribes below;
Dense shadowy leaves on stems aspiring borne
With blight and mildew thin the realms of corn;
And insect hordes with restless tooth devour
The unfolded bud, and pierce the ravell’d flower.

“In ocean’s pearly haunts, the waves beneath
Sits the grim monarch of insatiate Death;
The shark rapacious with descending blow
Darts on the scaly brood, that swims below;
The crawling crocodiles, beneath that move,
Arrest with rising jaw the tribes above;
With monstrous gape sepulchral whales devour
Shoals at a gulp, a million in an hour.
— Air, earth, and ocean, to astonish’d day
One scene of blood, one mighty tomb display!
From Hunger’s arm the shafts of Death are hurl’d,
And one great Slaughter-house the warring world!

I find that to be a strong piece of writing and a striking vision of violent nature. It’s from Canto IV of The Temple of Nature, where Darwin comes within a whisker of stating the principle of natural selection. Here’s another bit from later in the same canto:

“HENCE when a Monarch or a mushroom dies,
Awhile extinct the organic matter lies;
But, as a few short hours or years revolve,
Alchemic powers the changing mass dissolve;
Born to new life unnumber’d insects pant,
New buds surround the microscopic plant;
Whose embryon senses, and unwearied frames,
Feel finer goads, and blush with purer flames;
Renascent joys from irritation spring,
Stretch the long root, or wave the aurelian wing.

“When thus a squadron or an army yields,
And festering carnage loads the waves or fields;
When few from famines or from plagues survive,
Or earthquakes swallow half a realm alive; —
While Nature sinks in Time’s destructive storms,
The wrecks of Death are but a change of forms;
Emerging matter from the grave returns,
Feels new desires, with new sensations burns;
With youth’s first bloom a finer sense acquires,
And Loves and Pleasures fan the rising fires. —
Thus sainted PAUL, “O Death!” exulting cries,
‘Where is thy sting? O Grave! thy victories?’

I love the cheeky jabs at both royalty and religion; firstly in lumping together a monarch and a mushroom as comparable lumps of organic matter, and then the way he implies that acting as compost for plants and food for insects is what St Paul had in mind with ‘Oh Death! Where is thy sting?’ But there is also a kind of slightly nutty grandeur to the poetry.

Some bits of his poems hold up better than others, both scientifically and aesthetically. But I think the best of it is good enough to be worth reading, particularly because the subject matter makes it so unique.

» passages from The Temple of Nature are taken from this site where you can read it in full. The picture of a rocket is by jurvetson on Flickr and is used under an attribution CC licence. The opium poppy is from a C19th German herbal and is used courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden at under a by-nc Creative Commons licence. The hat is a detail of a Gillray cartoon, the Tree of Liberty, from a page of cartoons from the period at the University of Lancaster.

Fave books of 2006

It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”

A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.

The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.

The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.

The memoirs of the Turner Prize winning potter. I blogged about this before here and here.

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.

A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.

And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.


I do enjoy reading biographies. Not just to learn more about people I have a special interest in, but as a more entertaining way of reading about history.

There can be something a bit stifling about the careful thoroughness of the conscientious historian trying to lay out all the strands of a complicated subject. The joy of a biography is that it just picks out one strand. The subject’s life offers a route through a period. And even though it’s often a rather erratic and contingent route, it forms a natural narrative.

And because these narratives are immune to certain kinds of criticism, they can be full of the kinds of unexpected twists, bizarre coincidences, heavy-handed irony and acts of heroism or villainy that might seem vulgar in mere fiction. I mean who could make up a character like T. E. Lawrence? Or Emma Hamilton?

Shelley the lost Victorian

Well, I’ve finished Richard Holmes’s Shelley:The Pursuit. I didn’t find it as gripping as his superb biography of Coleridge, but it became more enjoyable as it went along. Mainly, I think, because Shelley became much more likeable as he matured personally, politically and poetically. Not that he became less radical, or completely lost the restlessness that tended towards recklessness, but he did become a good deal more nuanced and thoughtful. And what one particularly looks for in a poet – his poetry got much better. He’s never going to be one of my favourite poets, but I’m more positively inclined towards his work now than before I read the book.

An odd fact about the five major English Romantic poets: their lifespans were nested inside each other like a set of Russian dolls. Keats was born last and died first; Shelley was a little older and died shortly after him, and so on through Byron and Coleridge to Wordsworth, born way back in 1770 and going on to outlive them all.

The deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron really do create an extraordinary discontinuity in English poetry. Not just in terms of the poetry they might have written – if Coleridge and Wordsworth are anything to go by, their later work might not have been very exciting – but just as part of the normal progression of generations of influence. Who knows how Browning’s poetry might have been affected if instead of Shelley the idealised poet, he’d had a chance to meet Shelley the neurotic radical.

It also mires a group of poets in the Regency who, by rights, ought to have been Victorians. The would have been getting on a bit by the time of many of the landmarks of High Victorianism; even Keats would have been 64 when The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Byron would be 73, assuming that he hadn’t died of syphilis or liver failure. But by that time they’d have lived through the coming of the railways, the full impact of the Industrial Revolution, the 1832 Reform Act, the abolition of slavery, the Irish potato famine, the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Shelley would certainly have had a few opinions.

I suppose they might have been less influential if they were still alive. In the increasingly stern moral climate of the time, it might have been more difficult for people to see past the unconventional lifestyles of Byron and Shelley if they were sill alive and racketing about in Italy. There’s a fascinating comment I read once, which I think came from the letters of Fanny Burney, although Google isn’t helping me. She is returning someone’s copy of Oroonoko, which she found too indecent to read. She comments how strange it is that she should find herself unable to read a book in the privacy of her own room which she had heard in her youth being read aloud at polite parties. Perhaps Byron and Shelley would have inevitably changed with the times in the same way; perhaps they would have become increasingly embarrassing relics.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

I’ve just read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, which is the autobiography of Grayson Perry, the artist who won the Turner Prize in 2003. I quite like his art, but the main reason I bought the book was that I enjoy his columns for the Times (if that link doesn’t work, you’ll just have to go to their main site and search for yourself).

Perry is one of the more memorable Turner Prize winners, though not really for his work. I mentioned that I was reading the book to my mother, and she looked blank at ‘Grayson Perry’ but immediately knew who I meant by ‘the transvestite potter’. It’s a brilliant bit of branding. I’m quite certain he didn’t become either a transvestite or a potter to make himself more memorable, but it has certainly worked.

So the obvious reason to read the book, which covers his life up to the point where he sold his first work, is to learn either about the transvestism or the art, and he writes well about both. Actually, though, it’s an enjoyable book in its own right. It was written by a friend of his, Wendy Jones, based on taped interviews, and it has the intimate immediacy of the spoken voice. It would be an good read just as a memoir of growing up in Essex in the 60s and 70s, although the second half of the book, which deals with the time from when he left home to study art, is probably more immediately anecdote-worthy.

Here’s a semi-random extract, describing a summer-job:

Being a sugar factory where zillions of tonnes of sugar were stored, there was a constant problem with wasps. Wasps made their nests in the gounds, then zoomed in on the sugar: there were swarms of them hovering in the factory. There were jumbo insecticutors at the doors of the factory that went VCHKUFF-VCHKUFF-KUFF-KUFF the whole time. Employees were paid a pound if they found a wasp nest so the workers would spend their lunchtimes careering around the grounds after a wasp to find its nest in the hope of earning a few quid.

Shelley update

I’m still reading the Shelley biography. Remarkably, his personal life seems to have stabilised somewhat, I suspect mainly because his grandfather died and so, while the exact terms of the legacy are still with the lawyers, he’s not actually having to hide from the bailiffs any more.

The chances of his life running smooth are reduced by the fact that, as well as being atheist, vegetarian, republican and probably revolutionary, he’s a believer in free love of a rather high-minded sort. So the second wife in succession has had to deal with him being keen to share her with his friends. And what she seemed to find even more difficult, it rather looks like she was having to share him with her sister. The exact details are a bit conjectural because apparently there are lots of diary entries torn out from the relevant period.

It’s like Hello! for people who can’t bring themselves to read the real thing. Though I don’t suppose Jude Law’s love notes to Sienna Miller are couched in terms of high-flown philosophy.

Shellier than thou

I didn’t mention in the last post that, as well as the two elopements, Shelley has been shot at by a Welsh ghost, is under observation by the government because of his seditious publications, and is going extravagantly into debt in expectation of an inheritance from a family which has disowned him.

Was there ever a time when I would have found all this romantic? Reading it now it just seems like complete car-crash biography.

Shelley, Shellier, Shelliest.

I’m reading a biography of Percy Bysshe. An interesting and talented man, but perhaps just a wee bit erratic; he’s just eloped for the second time, abandoning his first wife and their new child in order to run off with a 16-year-old. And her sister. And he’s still only 21.

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama

I’ve only read two books by Schama; Citizens, his book about the French Revolution, and this biography of Rembrandt. Both have been excellent. They’re also quite hard work simply because he’s so thorough. Thoroughness is no doubt a virtue in a historian, but it does make for large books. Rembrandt’s Eyes is frankly too large to read in bed, as it weighs a whopping five and a half pounds. The reason it’s so large is that it’s printed on thick glossy paper and full of beautiful reproductions of the paintings. Amazon’s price of £13 is almost worth it just for the pictures.

Self Portrait at an Early Age, from the Rijksmuseum. Click on the image to see a larger version.

I was slightly taken aback when the first chapter of a Rembrandt biography was about Rubens’ father. Schama’s obviously feels that Rembrandt can only be understood in the context of his predecessor (who was born 30 years before him), since he devotes 200 pages, nearly a third of the book, to Rubens. I actually forgot that the book was supposed to be about Rembrandt at one point. This kind of attention to context — not just artistic, but the political and religious background of the region – is perhaps unsurprising given that Schama is primarily a historian, rather than an art critic. He’s brilliant at evoking the everyday reality of life in C17th Holland, as well. There’s one tour-de-force where he introduces Amsterdam by showing the city via the five senses, one at a time. So for example, the section on smell begins:

First, the Zuider Zee itself, sucked through the inlet of the IJ, washing against the slimy double row of palings separating the inner from the outer harbor, carrying with it a load of tangled wrack and weed, worthlessly small fish, and minute crustaceans generating a briny aroma of salt, rotting wood, bilgewater, and the tide-rinsed remains of countless gristly little creatures housed within the shells of barnacles and periwinkles. In the yards behind the first row of houses facing the docks there were better things to smell. Lengths of green timber were stood on end to season, some already bent to form a rib in a ship’s hull. A man might walk down the alleys parallel to the harbor, inhale the sharp tan of fir (for masts) and oak and beech (for hulls), and for a moment think himself in a fresh-cut wood in Norway.

And on through the smells of taverns, the night-soil boats, the tanners, the plague-pits, the nosegay sellers, the bakers; and then each of the other senses in turn.

Having said that Schama is primarily a historian, I still think he does a great job writing about the paintings. That’s just as well, since it becomes apparent during the book that there is very little surviving material written by Rembrandt. There are no journals or essays, and Schama only quotes from letters once or twice. Really, the only times we get direct written contact with Rembrandt’s life is when he’s dealing with the law – buying a house, writing a will, being declared bankrupt, or indeed having his ex-mistress declared as of unsound mind.

Those things are interesting, but by themselves they give a skewed and incomplete view of someone. So Schama has to fill out the gaps though the paintings, and does it admirably. There can hardly be a more appropriate painter to do that with, since Rembrandt was an almost compulsive self-portaitist. Not only did he produce nearly 100 self portraits in different costumes and different personae, but he painted his own face into most of his history paintings as well. There was a part of me that wanted to hear Rembrandt’s voice more directly, to be able to read his words; but perhaps it’s fitting to tell an artist’s story though his art.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63, from the National Gallery.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about this book. I enjoyed reading it, and learnt a lot about Rembrandt, Rubens and the Low Countries in the C17th . Most of all, I was introduced to a lot of beautiful paintings I didn’t know before.

‘Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson’ by Paula Byrne

I picked up Perdita at the airport on the way to Egypt. It’s the biography of Mary Robinson, who was an actress, the most beautiful and fashionable woman in London, who became famous as the mistress of the Prince of Wales (and later Charles Fox and Colonel Tarleton, among others). Then, after she developed rheumatic fever and largely lost the use of her legs, she re-invented herself as a poet, novelist, playwright and radical feminist. Coleridge thought she had genius and particularly admired her ear for metre, she was chummy with Godwin and Wollstonecraft. And so on. Entertaining stuff.

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