Heatwaves, hurricanes, flooding, drought, extinction. No-one can accuse Tim Flannery of understating the effects of global warming. And there's no dou...moreHeatwaves, hurricanes, flooding, drought, extinction. No-one can accuse Tim Flannery of understating the effects of global warming. And there's no doubting his passion for the subject. Once sceptical about climate change, he's now a fully-paid up member of the global warming warning brigade. His chapter headings alone - "Peril at the Poles", "The Carbon Dictatorship", "Boiling the Abyss" - signal that he's nailed his colours to the mast. And those colours are all green.
Not so long ago, climate change was confined to the inner reaches of scientific journals. Now it’s front page news. Hardly a day passes without another instance of wild weather being blamed on global warming. Flannery believes the changes we’ve seen in weather patterns, seasons, biodiversity and, above all, rising global temperatures have a single, man-made cause. Fossil-fuelled industrial development is the villain of the piece - from coal-fired power stations to the infernal combustion engine. So busy have we been in pillaging the Earth‘s resources that it’s only when the planet started fighting back that we woke up to the terrible consequences.
Of course, he’s aware that not all agree with this argument, and so he sets out to support it with an avalanche of evidence. At times, the reader risks being engulfed by statistics, and some of the scientific vocabulary requires both a deep breath and a running jump. Even so, Flannery’s genuine concern for all forms of life on the planet shines through.
But he has to tread carefully. Scary talk about runaway warming, may lead his readers to conclude that it's too late to do anything. Or, as Irving Berlin didn't write: there may be trouble ahead, but let's face the music and turn up the heating. Flannery insists the problem is still soluble, but tackling it will take action by every government, every business and every gas-guzzling, trash-tipping, pollution-pumping one of us.
After braving 200 pages of bleak prognostications, it’s a relief to reach an environmental success story. Flannery calls the 1987 Montreal Protocol the world’s first victory over a global pollution problem, and without it life on Earth would have been in deep trouble. A hole in the planet’s ozone layer risked exposing us to dangerous ultra-violet rays from the sun. The Montreal agreement banned the fluorocarbons that were eating away at this layer, and there are now hopeful signs that the hole is healing.
Despite this good news, Flannery insists prevention is always better than cure, a view that’s reinforced when turning his fire on the energy sector. Just as the tobacco industry spent many decades in denial about the link between smoking and lung cancer, he says, energy companies have been similarly sluggish in facing up to the impact of fossil fuels on the environment. But while he’s scathing about the automobile, Flannery appears resigned to the increasing volume of air traffic and believes aircraft will continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere long after other forms of transport have gone green.
At one point in this book, Flannery speculates that researchers investigating the impact of climate change on mountain regions may have given up because it was all too depressing. It's an odd observation, but if true, who could blame them? Global warming may be a hot topic, but talk of imminent catastrophe is enough to send anyone running for the prozac.
Yet, far from being alarmist or defeatist, Flannery is a convincing advocate of the need for urgent action. Perhaps, if enough of us heed his warning, a Tim Flannery of the future might be able to write a book telling the story of how we saved the planet. (less)
Long before Harry Potter was even a twinkle in J. K. Rowling's eye, another British author staked her claim as queen of children's literature.
Enid Bly...moreLong before Harry Potter was even a twinkle in J. K. Rowling's eye, another British author staked her claim as queen of children's literature.
Enid Blyton was a lean, keen, writing machine who churned out over 700 books in a career spanning forty years. Devoted readers from Portsmouth to Port Elizabeth devoured her stories in their hundreds of thousands. Even today, translations of her work outnumber those of Shakespeare and Dickens.
Barbara Stoney's biography of this gifted, single-minded woman was first published in 1974. The current edition brings the story up to date and uses recently discovered material from Enid's early life.
Born into a comfortable London home, Enid's carefree childhood came to an abrupt end when her beloved father left his wife for another woman. Unable to share her feelings about this trauma, young Enid retreated to her bedroom to write fairy stories. It was a coping mechanism that would often carry her through the harsh realities of life.
Turning her back on a promising career as a musician, Enid followed a vocation in teaching. Pupils adored the cheerful young woman who turned their lessons into games, and it was through teaching that she began to enjoy success as a contributor to children's magazines. Young readers responded warmly to Enid's tales of fairies and goblins, while older children enjoyed her weekly observations on nature. By her mid-twenties, Enid was able to forsake the classroom for a new career as a full-time writer.
Stoney's treatment of her subject is largely sympathetic, but she doesn't airbrush out the less appealing aspects of Enid's life. A broken marriage, the sometimes harsh treatment of her staff, a stubborn streak and quick temper are frankly acknowledged. But Enid also learned she was a brand that could be a force for good. The mere mention of a children's charity in her magazine was enough to ensure a tidal wave of donations.
The biography highlights other contradictions in Enid's character. Her young readers seemed to sense there was a part of Enid that had never grown up. This empathy was to prove invaluable during World War II. As many British children found themselves evacuated to the countryside, they took comfort from Enid, who gently encouraged them to identify the plants and wildlife she'd so often mentioned in her writing. Yet, Enid was also a formidable businesswoman. A card index memory and a confident manner served her well in negotiating publishing contracts. But her publishers knew they were on to a good thing, ensuring that even wartime paper shortages wouldn't stop Enid's books rolling off the presses.
After the war, her popularity reached new heights with the Famous Five and Secret Seven books. But critics started to worry that Enid's influence on children was not entirely beneficial. Some claimed the vocabulary in her books was too limited, while others warned that children might never tackle more challenging forms of literature. The criticism came to a head over one of her best-loved creations.
Like Harry Potter in our own times, Noddy became an unlikely hate figure for those who took it upon themselves to be the guardians of children's development. Some librarians removed the books from their shelves, prompting the Daily Mail to defend Enid in suitably Blytonesque style:
"We'd better face it, said Big Ears sternly. 'You and I and all the rest - and that goes for Mr Plod, the policeman too - are like Librarian says, caricatures. And what is more, we are members of the intellectually underprivileged class. Noddy could not believe his ears."
Enid herself never understood the furore. In any case, sales of the Noddy books went from strength to strength, and a stage version enjoyed similar success.
The final chapter of Stoney's biography underlines that Enid Blyton's death in 1968 was by no means the end of her story. Books, television programmes, fan clubs and websites have ensured that her fame lives on. Celebrations to mark her centenary, in 1997, included a set of Royal Mail stamps featuring her characters, while her famous signature appeared on that year's London Christmas lights. Enid's charitable works have also outlived her, and many deprived children continue to benefit from the work she began.
But more than anything else, it's Enid's writing that has proved her enduring appeal. Her books continue to sell in their millions, and many of those writing for children today -- J. K. Rowling among them -- enjoyed Enid Blyton's stories in their own formative years.
It's fair to call this the definitive biography of Enid Blyton. The foreword by her daughter, Gillian (who died aged 76 last month) and the author's access to Enid's letters and diaries give the book an air of authority, and the inclusion of a 40-page bibliography reinforces just how prolific she really was. Barbara Stoney's own observations about her subject also provide a helpful commentary to explain Enid Blyton's complex make-up. The book is an enjoyable and absorbing account of a woman who, even in her later years, remained a child at heart. And that may have been the real secret of her success.(less)
Incest, paedophilia, child abuse, suicide: The Brothers Bishop is just another tale of everyday life in Connecticut. If this story ever makes it to si...moreIncest, paedophilia, child abuse, suicide: The Brothers Bishop is just another tale of everyday life in Connecticut. If this story ever makes it to silver screen, prepare for outraged demonstrations of the moral majority outside a cinema near you.
The book's central characters are Nathan Bishop, a reclusive gay school-teacher and Tommy, his fun-loving brother, also queer, who’s made an art form of promiscuity. Nathan's still living in the seaside cottage where he grew up, while Tommy never grew up and set off to sow his wild oats in New York City. But for one week only, Tommy's back, up-ending Nathan's comfort zone with his unsettling presence, and bringing an entourage of an unhappy couple (Kyle and Camille) and Tommy's latest flame, Philip.
It's hardly the dream team: Kyle's closeted, Camille’s frustrated, Tommy’s horny, Philip’s enfatuated and Nathan’s volcanic. As if this Molotov cocktail in-the-making weren't bad enough, enter Simon, one of Nathan’s students whose father is a little too useful with his fists. Once Simon enters Tommy's orbit, it seems only a matter of time before both will crash and burn.
Hovering over the smouldering stew like a bad smell is the Bishop brothers’ father. Long dead, but ever-present in their memories, he's the loving dad who turned abusive after their mother’s sudden death. Nathan is constantly being likened to his father, a, comparison that ignites his temper, which only serves to heighten the resemblance.
It would have been all too easy for the author to create suspense for the reader by hinting at a sexual dimension to the brothers' relationship. But there's no such device. He just comes right out with it, using Nathan's voice to make the matter-of-fact admission. Distasteful? Scandalous? Unacceptable? Perhaps. Except, the author seems to challenge the reader: who is going to cast the first stone?
And so the relationships pile on top of each other: Kyle and Camille, Kyle and Nathan, Nathan and Tommy, Tommy and Simon. There's even room for a neighbour, Cheri, whose archaeological dig represents a not-so-subtle metaphor for raking up the past. The characters are well drawn, the dialogue is sharp, and Nathan excels in the role of narrator.
No emotion is spared in this novel, and the author seems ever-ready to pour another cauldron of oil on the fire of hate, guilt, love and lust. And yet, as I neared its conclusion, I wondered if Yates would have the courage to face up to the inevitable. As it turns out, he didn’t, and although part of me was relieved that a phoenix was salvaged from the ashes, another part felt I'd been short-changed.
But The Brothers Bishop is a haunting story, and one that manages to combine those two imposters - tears and laughter - in beautiful, economically written prose. The book reminds us of that eternal verity: everything is relative.(less)
“The Island of Lost Maps” is a story of one man’s obsession about another man’s obsession.
The author charts the course of Gilbert Bland: child of a b...more“The Island of Lost Maps” is a story of one man’s obsession about another man’s obsession.
The author charts the course of Gilbert Bland: child of a broken home, VietNam vet and map thief. In the 1990s, Bland cut a swathe across the libraries of North America, surreptitiously slicing pages from atlases and selling them to hungry cartophiles.
Unable to meet the incarcerated Bland himself, the author retraces his steps, encountering librarians, map dealers and a psychologist specialising in the mind of the collector.
It’s a good tale, well told, although his prose can get a bit purple. Harvey’s take on my own profession is of particular interest, although it doesn’t start altogether encouragingly:
“Librarian – that mouth-contorting , graceless grind of a word, that dry gulch in the dictionary between libido and licentious – it practically begs you to envision a stoop-shouldered loser, socks mismatched, eyes locked in a permanent squint from reading too much microfiche.”
But it gets better:
“If it were up to me, I would abolish the word entirely and turn back to the lexicological wisdom of the ancients, who saw librarians not as feeble sorters and shelvers but as heroic guardians. In Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian cultures alike, those who toiled at the shelves were often bestowed with a proud, even soldierly, title: Keeper of the Books.”
That’s more like it. Here I am, a heroic slayer of bibliocrooks, a defender of knowledge, a valiant standard-bearer for readers’ rights. (Now whose prose is turning purple?)
And, if you care to check, you’ll find my socks are perfectly matched. Today, at least.(less)
Fame by association is hardly the stuff of dreams. History is peppered with the fleetingly famous who have scrambled into the chronicle of time merely...moreFame by association is hardly the stuff of dreams. History is peppered with the fleetingly famous who have scrambled into the chronicle of time merely by dint of their connection to people in high places. For some — Stalin’s daughter, Carter’s brother, Thatcher’s son — relative fame comes at a high price. Their flaws are magnified and their failings written in the sky. For others obscurity beckons, but for all of them, in life and in death, they must forever exist in someone else's shadow – and so it might have been for Abram Petrovich Gannibal.
Long one of history's footnote figures whenever he was mentioned, if mentioned at all, it was always in reference to the towering influence of his godfather, Tsar Peter the Great, or to the genius of his great grandson, the beloved Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. Yet Gannibal's own life story rivals that of any iconic leader or cultural superstar.
In the entertaining and scholarly biography, The Stolen Prince: Gannibal, Adopted Son of Peter the Great, Great-Grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, and Europe's First Black Intellectual, author Hugh Barnes takes the reader across three continents in search of his fascinating, elusive subject. Describing Gannibal's life as eventful is a Siberia-sized understatement.
Continually reinventing himself, he was at various turns a mathematician, linguist, secret agent, philosopher, military engineer, naturalist, soldier, author, farmer, husband, and father. It’s all the more extraordinary that, but for an unlikely turn of events, this eighteenth-century polymath might have lived out his life as an African slave.
Hard facts about Gannibal are frustratingly thin on the ground, and one of the biggest gaps comes at the very start: no one knows where he was born. Barnes does his best to settle the matter, making a dangerous journey to Ethiopia in search of clues that might confirm Gannibal’s own claim to have been an Abyssinian prince, but Barnes’ research points also to Logone, south of Lake Chad, as Gannibal’s birthplace. Gannibal himself muddied the waters by his adoption of the Russified name of a Carthaginian general and the use of an elephant on his coat of arms.
His earliest days may be lost to history, but this much is known: at the beginning of the 18th century, while still a child, Gannibal was snatched from his homeland and sold into slavery at the court of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. There, he might have lingered in obscurity, ending his days in the closed world of the Topkapi palace. Instead, little over a year later, he found himself heading north on another life-changing journey.
Smuggled out of Turkey, Gannibal arrived in Moscow and was presented as a gift to Tsar Peter I. He was one of many African slaves at the Russian court, but while most were harshly treated, Gannibal's innate intelligence instantly impressed the Tsar, who adopted Gannibal as his protégé and later as his godson. He had the young man educated and took Gannibal into his confidence about his plans for the new city of St Petersburg.
While still a teenager, Gannibal was being feted in the salons of Paris by Leibniz and Voltaire. Before the phrase had ever been thought of, Gannibal was the very embodiment of "young, gifted and black." Barnes shows that the same enlightenment scholars who hailed Gannibal as Europe's first black intellectual viewed his African brothers as little more than savages. It was not the last time the colour of Gannibal's skin would generate hostility.
Throughout the book Barnes shares with the reader his exasperation at the number of fabrications, falsehoods, claims, and counter-claims surrounding his subject. Not only was he hampered by a lack of documentary evidence, but also by unreliable accounts of Gannibal’s life, including Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which twisted the truth out of all recognition. While Barnes may grumble at the use of poetic license, he himself is not averse to bursts of purple prose. Describing Gannibal’s banishment to Siberia after Peter the Great’s death, the author is almost breathless with excitement: "...one can imagine the Negro of Peter the Great on the road to Tobolsk, hurrying through forest-blackened hills towards the huge glimmering emptiness of Siberia – a twelfth the landmass of the world – the scenery wrapping itself around him like a fog."
The drift into fiction is excusable given the paucity of solid evidence, but in his forensic attention to what is known about Gannibal and his use of intelligent guesswork about what isn’t, Barnes never shortchanges his subject or his readers - and no one can say this author didn’t go the extra mile. Following in Gannibal’s footsteps takes him from the dark heart of Africa to the white nights of the Baltic and beyond. The account of his travels is as rewarding as the biography itself. In Siberia, close to Russia’s border with China, Barnes sees for himself the outline of a fortress Gannibal designed during his exile from the court of St Petersburg.
Unsurprisingly, confusion surrounds the precise date of Gannibal’s death, some time in 1781. His funeral was sparsely attended and no death notice was published. It was left to his great grandson, Alexander Pushkin, to revive interest in the "Negro of Peter the Great," but the real credit for uncovering the true Gannibal must go to Hugh Barnes. By dismantling the fairy tales and fraudulence surrounding Gannibal's life, Barnes has revealed a figure richer in intelligence and stronger in character than even the most gifted of writers could invent.(less)
Gore Vidal's acid-drenched Pages from an Abandoned Journal appears in this excellent anthology. And in this extract, the old contrarian's voice rings...moreGore Vidal's acid-drenched Pages from an Abandoned Journal appears in this excellent anthology. And in this extract, the old contrarian's voice rings out loud and clear...
May 24 1948 "A fight with Hilda, this time about Helen whom she hardly knows. She felt that Helen was pretentious. I said who isn't. She said many people weren't. I said name me one. She said she wasn't pretentious. I then told her all the pretentious things she'd said in the past week starting with that discussion about the importance of an aristocracy and ending with atonalism. She then told me all the pretentious things I'd said, things I either didn't remember saying or she had twisted round. I got so angry I stalked out of her room and didn't go back: just as well. Having sex with her is about the dullest pastime I can think of. I went to my room and read Tacitus in Latin, for practice."(less)
A magnificent overview of Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy. The author employs all of his journalistics skills to the full, covering...moreA magnificent overview of Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy. The author employs all of his journalistics skills to the full, covering every aspect of modern life in Spain, from politics to prostitution, bullfighting to ballet. His chapters on the autonomous regions are particularly good, as is the chapter on the Spanish media. The perfect primer for anyone planning to live and work in Spain. For the rest of us, it's an eye-opening account of a country we thought we knew so well. (less)