Back in 1997, a volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat blew its top, killing 19 people and burying half the island in ash. After the dust had s...moreBack in 1997, a volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat blew its top, killing 19 people and burying half the island in ash. After the dust had settled, residents of the British protectorate begged London for more aid to rebuild their homes. The UK development minister famously retorted: "They'll be wanting golden elephants next."
Britain's indifference and sometimes outright hostility to its remaining overseas territories is a recurring theme in Simon Winchester's book. His journey to what Ronald Reagan might have called "little bunches of rocks" around the world says as much about the UK as it does about its imperial relics.
Winchester's travels took him from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific, the Rock of Gibraltar to the Caribbean. His visit to Montserrat is especially affecting. Arriving some 15 years before the volcano wreaks its devastation, the author describes a place at ease with itself. Its residents, many of them of Irish descent, welcome him warmly, and one of them lends the author his car. Plymouth, the capital of this "Ireland in the sun" is described as a well-cared for, little Georgian-style town with a handsome clock tower.
Heartbreakingly, Plymouth is no more, its defaced clock now peeking out from a mountain of volcanic ash.
But, as Winchester illustrates, the former colonies have as much to fear from the mother country as from Mother Nature. In an episode that should make all involved hang their heads, he describes the transfer of the Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia to the US for use as a military base. Over 2000 residents were uprooted to Mauritius, with barely time to gather a few belongings together. Now bristling with military hardware, the island is a no-go area – Winchester was refused entry. The residents can never again return to the place that for two centuries was a peace-loving community's homeland.
Occasionally, London does spring into action to defend its interests, but with mixed results. In Anguilla, another Caribbean dependency, Winchester recounts the farcical tale of a British military operation intended to quell a reported uprising. But the natives weren't so much revolting as quietly requesting return to British rule instead of being managed by their hated neighbours in St Kitts. The paratroopers' lamentable excuse for an invasion was lampooned in the press as "the bay of piglets."
Jorge Luis Borges referred to the conflict between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands as "two bald men fighting over a comb", and when the time came to read Winchester's account of his visit there one expected a rehash of the old arguments. But his story of the South Atlantic war turns out to be one of the book's best sections, mainly because he was in Port Stanley only days before the Argentine invasion.
Even twenty years ago, the Falklands were behind the times, a situation that the author appeared to relish, as he described the islanders' reliance on their antiquated radios.
"It was customary to keep it switched on all the time – the Box in the Upland Goose hotel was always burbling away in the background, a combination of Muzak and a pictureless telescreen that I half suspected would bring me news of increased chocolate rations and successes against Oceania…….The usual fare was music, very much from the Fifties, with interleaved snippets of news read by a man named Patrick Watts: who had flown in on the afternoon flight from Comodoro, what His Excellency the Governor was doing for the remainder of the week. 'And now – Edmundo Ros…" But as they listen to the Governor's sombre broadcast announcing imminent invasion, the islanders' mood swings from breezy optimism to grave foreboding.
The final sections of the book are disappointing. Transportation difficulties mean he's unable to reach Pitcairn Island, a place made a famous by the mutineers on the Bounty, and still containing descendants of Fletcher Christian. Then, after a long explanation as to why he hasn't included the Channel Islands or Isle of Man in his journey (they're not foreign enough, it seems) he makes a short and inconsequential visit to Hillsborough in Northern Ireland. The Ulster visit seems out of synch with his other trips, leaving the reader with an oddly empty feeling.
Finally, frustrated at the indifference of the motherland to her dependents, Winchester calls for all of them to be integrated into the UK – as the French have done with their former colonies. For instance the British West Indies, he says, could become an extended county of the UK, with their own Member of Parliament at Westminster.
In the years following the book's publication, some things have changed in Britain's overseas territories: Hong Kong has been returned to China; the hated British Nationality Act has been repealed by a law granting UK citizenship to all residents of its overseas territories; and construction of a new capital for Montserrat is under way. Meanwhile, despite a High Court ruling, the British government - a Labour government - continues to bar the former residents of Diego Garcia from returning home. (less)
Before reading this book, my understanding of Korea was as hazy as a foggy day in Seoul. Korea? Didn't they host the Olympics a few years back? And I...moreBefore reading this book, my understanding of Korea was as hazy as a foggy day in Seoul. Korea? Didn't they host the Olympics a few years back? And I think there was a messy war in the fifties that led to partition; the South became prosperous; the North became weird. Oh, and don't they eat dogs? Well, now the fog has cleared, and it's all thanks to Simon Winchester's absorbing and entertaining journey through this fascinating land. And yes, there are some references to canine cuisine, but more of that later.
The basis of the book is the author's decision to follow in the footsteps of a group of Dutch sailors who were shipwrecked off the Korean coast in 1633. And I really do mean in their footsteps: he walks all the way from the southern coast to the edge of the North Korean border (he would have gone further, but the American border guards threatened to break his legs). He describes the places and people along the way, but digresses to explain Korean history, culture, politics and language in a way that's far removed from the dusty old history book.
His journey begins on Cheju Island, off the southern coast, where thousands of Koreans go for their holidays. It's here that he meets Father Patrick McGlinchey (one of the McGlincheys of Cheju, presumably), who explains how a group of Irish missionaries raise sheep and knit Aran sweaters, which I think is an inventive way of converting folk to Christianity. They've been here since the 1950s and feel quite at home - apparently, if you screw up your eyes until they're almost closed, Cheju looks just like Connemara
Reaching the mainland, the author continues his trek, and finds drivers and bus passengers waving, smiling at him, offering him lifts, food and cans of fruit juice, just like they would in Glasgow. To us, the South Koreans would appear to be the most hospitable people on earth, but they themselves feel that Western influences are tainting their traditional ways. So much so that one observer expresses the view that, while North Korea is an ugly way to run a country, its people have retained their sense of respect for each other and resisted the Coca-Cola-nisation embraced by the South. Even so, the author's encounters with ordinary South Koreans are among the most charming and moving parts of his journey.
Inevitably, the subject of dog-eating raises its snout, and having sampled some, Winchester professes it to be "...very strong, very rich and with a background flavour of kidney". But it soon becomes clear that Koreans don't eat their four legged friends for any other reason than to improve their libido. In short, forget Viagra, try Fido.
For much the same reason, ginseng is big in Korea, but it also has huge cultural and economic importance. The author's visit to the town of Puyo offers the chance to see a factory where all the country's ginseng is made, processed and packed - and from where thousands of tons of the stuff are exported all over the world. The author's verdict on the taste of ginseng extract: "...the faintest hint of drying paint ...a freshly baked Victoria sponge cake, cooked in a pine wood on a spring afternoon...." Could be we've discovered the next Gilly Goolden.
In fact, it's this vivid turn of phrase that was one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much. The Korean desire to kill and eat almost anything that moves means that "...except for the odd weasel or mouse, Korean forest floors are like vast empty ballrooms, dark and quite silent." But, before you're provoked to send a strong memo to the Korean branch of Friends of the Earth, you should know that there is one part of the peninsula where wildlife is flourishing - and it's not where you would expect. Inside the Demilitarised Zone that separates North and South Korea, no shots may be fired, allowing animals like the Korean wildcat and the little Korean bear (awww!) to wander in safety, at least from human prey. As the author observes: "It is an ironic counterpoint to the awfulness of war that so much that is beautiful and rare flourishes where human anger is greatest, and yet in those places where peace has translated into commerce, so much loveliness has vanished clear away."
This book first appeared in 1988, and Simon Winchester ends his journey at the North Korean border. But the preface to the 2004 edition follows him as he eventually ventures into the frozen North. In some ways, this is the best part of all. The North Korean capital, he claims, is much easier to navigate than Seoul mainly because in Pyongyang "...there is nothing there." There's also a revolting encounter with a North Korean cappuccino whose foam on top turns out to be a whisked eggwhite.
From a standing start, I can now say my knowledge of Korea has increased by a hundred thousand per cent, and although I might never get there, this book was the next best thing to experiencing the heart and Seoul of Korea. (less)
Depending on your point of view, Bill Hicks was a comic genius or a crass boor. To his admirers, Hicks was a stand-up comedian in the tradition of Len...moreDepending on your point of view, Bill Hicks was a comic genius or a crass boor. To his admirers, Hicks was a stand-up comedian in the tradition of Lenny Bruce - smart, direct, uncompromising, using humour to sugar his bitter invectives against hypocrisy, injustice and wilful ignorance. His detractors saw only a shock-comic who used free speech as an excuse for bad language and bad behaviour. It's unlikely that this book will bring the twain closer together, but it may help those who loved or loathed Hicks gain a better understanding of the man behind the jokes.
"Love All the People" is a selection of Bill Hicks' writing from the 1980s up to 1994, the year of his death. Along with his stand-up routines, there are letters, interviews and scripts from projects he had in the pipeline. There's also a full explanation by Hicks about what happened when his set was axed from the David Letterman show.
The routines are reprinted exactly as they were delivered, and although they succeed in giving a flavour of the Hicks style, they're no substitute for the "live" performance. I had to go out and buy a CD of Hicks to enjoy the full experience. Comedy, like music, depends on rhythm, timing, intonation, none of which come across as well on the printed page. The book contains a fair amount of repetition between one routine and another, but it's still interesting to see how Hicks adapted his material even as he was performing it.
Beyond the routines, the letters which Hicks wrote in response to his critics reveal a more placid side, but he continued to defend his style with vigour, intelligence, and of course with humour. Hicks made it clear that he didn't care what people thought as long as they thought for themselves, cutting out the interpreters in government, religion, business and television.
A typical example of Hicks at work:
"Aren't bosses something? They're like gnats on a camping trip, aren't they? (makes sound of gnats whining). Get the f*** out of here, buddy. It's just a job. It doesn't mean a thing, all right? I smoked a joint this morning, you're lucky I showed, bud, all right? My bed was like a womb. I always used to get from bosses: "Hicks, how come you're not workin'?" I'd go, "There's nothing to do." And they'd go, "Well, you pretend like you're workin'." "Yeah, why don't you pretend I'm workin'? You get paid more than me. You fantasize, buddy. Hell.Pretend I'm mopping. Knock yourself out. I'll pretend they're buying stuff; we can close up. Hey, I'm the boss now - you're fired. How's that for a fantasy, buddy? If you're gonna pretend go ahead and...I can't have a job: I need my sleep. You know what I mean? I do. I need eight hours a day, you know, and about ten at night (sniffs) and I'm good...I'm good, I am”.
Along with some very robust language throughout the book, some readers may be uncomfortable with Hicks' remarks on Christianity. Yet the interviews in the book uncover a deeply spiritual dimension to Bill Hicks, sometimes taking him to an almost evangelical level.
“The word is ‘enthusiasm’. It is from ‘Enthios’ which means the god within. You know what that means. You do what excites you…what really brings you joy. It is God’s way of saying you are on the right path. We are on it together and isn’t it fun. Do what brings you joy and all else will follow."
All of the facets of the complex character that was Bill Hicks come together in his letter to New Yorker columnist John Lahr, in which he explains how his routine was edited from the Letterman show in 1993. Showing a rare gift for letter-writing, Hicks goes into full, but not tedious, detail about the events surrounding his appearance. In spite of fulsome praise from the producers, a rapturous reception from the live audience and warm congratulations from Letterman himself, Hicks' routine was cut on the night the show went out, and he only discovered its deletion shortly before the broadcast. His letter goes on to describe the incredulity, pain and anger he felt at his treatment, again showing how articulate he could be, even in the midst of emotional turmoil. This letter in itself underlines how powerful the written word can be in the right hands, spoiled only by an inexplicably high number of typographical errors which seem to have infested this particular section of the book.
Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, at the age of 32. He was on the verge of breaking out of his cult status in the United States to mirror the success he already enjoyed in Britain. This book isn't all we have to remember him by, but it is a fair reflection of a complex man, and a reminder of how much we need his like today.
After doing battle with drink and drugs in the 1980s, Hicks worried that giving them up would blunt his talent to amuse.
"But I also realized that I wouldn’t be funny if I was dead."
Heard the one about the architect and the serial killer? It's not a bad joke, but it is a great book. The architect was Daniel Burnham, the driving fo...moreHeard the one about the architect and the serial killer? It's not a bad joke, but it is a great book. The architect was Daniel Burnham, the driving force behind the Chicago World's Fair of 1893; the killer was H.H. Holmes, a Svengali-type figure who lured young women to his hotel and did the most gruesome things, the least shocking of which was murder. The two men never met, but The Devil in the White City brings their stories together, and although it reads like a novel, everything is thoroughly researched fact.
The book The Great Columbian Exhibition of 1893 was Chicago's big chance to shake off its old image as a hog-slaughtering, dirty and dangerous town and to take its place as America's second city. Although the fair's theme gave a backward nod to the 400th anniversary of Columbus bumping into the Americas on his way to India, its vision was futuristic: for the first time, electric lighting, clean water, and planned green spaces could be experienced on a massive scale. Innovations - the Ferris Wheel, the hamburger, an elevated railway, Juicy Fruit gum, the zip fastener and shredded wheat among them - enhanced the feeling that the next century would belong to America. The buildings were monumental, the exhibits eclectic (one example: a map of the USA made entirely of pickles) and the visitors were awestruck. They called it the White City, from the colour of main buildings that were imposing by day, dazzling by night.
Much of this was down to Daniel Burnham. His can-do reputation for building skyscrapers made him a natural choice as project manager. But we're frequently reminded that he had to push himself to the limit and step on quite few toes to ensure the Fair's success, a job made all the more difficult by economic recession, bickering architects, striking workers, pompous politicians and Chicago's notorious weather.
As if all this weren't enough to occupy the reader, a parallel story takes us inside the grim world of H.H. Holmes. Capitalising on the advent of the Fair, Holmes built his own hotel to attract single young women who were streaming into the city from across America in search of work, independence and a new life in the big city. One such unfortunate believed she was on the threshold of marriage to this enchanting gentleman; in reality, she was destined for a gas chamber in the hotel basement. She was not to be the last to fall for his charms, but even in death there was no rest. Holmes literally picked over the bones of his victims, selling their remains to medical students eager to examine recently deceased corpses - no questions asked. At first, the benefit for Holmes was financial, but as time passed, the chase, the kill, the post mortem had become ends in themselves. A single-minded detective and a stroke of luck brought Holmes to justice, but even when he realised the game was up, he managed to keep his unsettling cool.
My thoughts I had a strong feeling that I would take to this book, and from start to finish I was never disappointed. It fairly zings along, both stories proving absorbing, while casting out facts like frisbees.
Although Burnham and Holmes are the book's dominant characters, there are walk-on parts for numerous figures who made their own mark on the White City. Buffalo Bill, Thomas Edison, and Scott Joplin are among the famous names, and the description of George Ferris's efforts to debut his eponymous wheel is a story in itself. But the lesser-known characters are also worthy of note. I pitied poor Frederick Olmsted's attempts to landscape the exhibition in the midst of an enormous, muddy construction site and a fit of depression. But I can see how ahead of his time he really was, insisting on natural greenery instead of a regimented collection of flower beds. Then there was Patrick Prendergast, whose descent into madness was to have a shocking impact on the Fair's final days; it's here that Larson's descriptive powers really come into their own.
As for the serial killer, the author doesn't dwell on the sensationalist aspects of his more grisly activities, but what he leaves to the imagination is far more powerful. Extracts from letters written by a child kidnapped by Holmes are among the most upsetting words I've ever read - a reminder that the worst of human nature may not only be found in our own times.
But my lasting impression from this book is one of optimism, of Burnham straining every nerve and sinew to achieve the impossible, and the ordinary folk of Chicago bursting with pride at what had been achieved.
The U.S. edition of the book has the subtitle "the fair that changed America" - and that's certainly true, right down to the Pledge of Allegiance which can trace its origins to the exhibition's opening day. Beyond that, the Chicago Fair of 1893 not only showed America how it could be, but how it would be - better living and working conditions, convenience foods, domestic appliances, gadgets and more time for fun. In short, it heralded the prospect of a decent day's pay for a full day's work, a clean, safe environment, and of course the God-given right to eat shredded wheat.
Who would like this book? I enjoyed it because of an interest in cities and architecture. But it would equally appeal to readers who are into engineering, politics, social history,horticulture, true crimes: does that leave anyone out? (less)