Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “non-fiction”

Invertebrates in the Gulf of California

The Log from the Sea of CortezThe Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began reading this book I was reminded of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. It’s the same genre — travel with a lot of philosophical musing thrown in.

Most of the book is a description of a voyage to the Gulf of California. John Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts was a marine biologist, and they chartered a fishing boat to collect specimens of marine invertebrates. There is an appendix, Steinbeck’s memoir of his friend Ed Rickett’s.

I found it interesting because it’s a part of the world I knew nothing about, and after reading the book I know a little more, at least about what it was like 70-odd years ago. And in the process I learnt something about marine biology; most of what I knew about that was from bed-time stories my father read me when I was 3 or 4 years old from his biology text books. Who needs extra-terrestrial monsters when you can have a sea urchin? That caused me problems in my later reading when I came across descriptions of children as urchins — were they all spiny?

As for the philosophy, I’m not sure if I understood it all. I think Steinbeck was coming from a completely different place, with different assumptions. He seemed to be anti-teleology, and to think that there is too much teleology in the world, but he seemed to see it in a quite different context. Here’s a sample, for anyone interested:

It is amazing how the strictures of the old teleologies affect our observation, causal thinking warped by hope. It was said earlier that hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe. For hope implies a change from a present bad condition to a future better one. The slave hopes for freedom, the weary man for rest, the hungry for food. And the feeders of hope, economic and religious, have from these simple strivings of dissatisfaction managed to create a world picture which is very hard to escape. Man grown toward perfection, animals grow toward man, bad grows toward good, and down toward up, until our little mechanism, hope, achieved in ourselves probably to cushion the shock of thought, manages to warp our whole world. Probably when our species developed the trick of memory, and with it the counterbalancing projection called “the future,” this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair. For if ever any man were deeply and unconsciously sure that his future would be no better than his past, he might deeply wish to cease to life. And out of this therapeutic poultice we build out iron teleologies and twist the tide pools and the stars into the pattern. To most men the most hateful statement possible is, “A thing is because it is:” Even those who have managed to drop the leading strings of a Sunday school deity are still led by the unconscious teleology of their developed trick. And in saying that hope cushions the shock of experience, that one trait balances the directionalism of another, a teleology is implied, unless one know or fell or think that we are here, and that without this balance, hope, our species in its blind mutation might have joined many, many others in extinction.
Source: Steinbeck 2000:72f

What puzzles me is that I don’t find “It is because it is” hateful at all, but I find Steinbeck’s aversion to teleology in this context (biological evolution) puzzling, because elsewhere he appears to cite with approval his friend Ed Ricketts’s theory that rattlesnakes and kangaroo rats are symbiotic. Though rattlesnakes eat kangaroo rats, they are actually doing them a favour by removing the weaker elements of the population, thus increasing the chances of the species as a whole to survive. But if it is because it is, why should it matter, and why should we see such ecological connections.

So some of his comments were interesting, but others seemed to make little sense, to to be contradicted by something else he wrote a few pages later.

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The Tudors

The Tudors (British Monarchy)The Tudors by Geoffrey Christopher Morris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is a chapter on each of the Tudor monarchs of England, a dynasty that lasted from 1485-1603. Each chapter deals with the character and relationships of the particular ruler, derived from contemporary sources.

One of the most interesting of these sources was Edward VI’s diary. He came to the throne at the age of 9, and died before he was 16, and was one of the earliest English diarists.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that it assumed the knowledge one expects to gain from such a book. It is not really a history, or even a series of biographies, but a series of character sketches of the reigning monarchs. It is therefore best to be familiar with the history before reading this book.

For example, it says that Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, came to the throne not so much because of a hereditary claim, because his claim was weaker than that of some other candidates, but because he won the Battle of Bosworth. It does not, however, explain what his hereditary claim was, not even in the genealogical tables at the end of the book, or who the other claimants were. Nor does it explain the Battle of Bosworth, who the combatants were, or what they were fighting for, other than the throne of England.

I knew some parts of the history, having studied Church History at an English university, though that was 50 years ago. The period was that of the English Reformation, and the character sketches of the monarchs throw some light upon that, but this book is best read after reading a more general history of the period. Or else be prepared to interrupt your reading by Googling such things as the Battle of Bosworth.

The Background section of the Wikipedia article is the kind of introduction that should have been included in this book, but wasn’t. The lack is all the more remarkable since, when the book was first published, neither Wikipedia, nor Google, nor the Internet itself would have been available.

And since Wikipedia is now available, I suggest reading the Wikipedia article on The House of Tudor before reading this book.

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A copy of this post may be found at my old blog here.

I originally intended to post it here, but could not find the functional WordPress editor, which had been hidden again, and only the new enhanced dysfunctional one was available. Eventually I did find the working editor, so was able to post it here too.

Beaufighters over Burma

Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45 by David J. Innes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spotted this book in the library, thought “That’s interesting”, then took it out and read it, interrupting all my other reading to do so, and found it more absorbing than many novels. Having finished it, I’m left wondering why.

It’s not particularly well written, and has the rather annoying habit of some writers of military history of putting a list of all the medals a person was awarded after their name in the text. But I still found it fascinating, and I find aircraft of the Second World War particularly fascinating.

I’m not sure why I, a convinced pacifist, should find that particular conflict so interesting. Perhaps it is because I was born during the war, and I was four years old when it ended, and so war seemed to be part of the normal state of things, and when it ended, the world seemed to be in an abnormal state. My uncle, who had been in the paratroop regiment, had a couple of books called Aircraft of the Fighting Powers and I read them with great interest when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and had the specifications of several of the aircraft memorised, even though some of them were probably inaccurate to confuse the enemy.

One of the things that struck me about Beaufighters over Burma, however, was the logistics and bureau7cracy of war, with people being posted into and out of squadrons for no apparent reason. That must have been an enormously costly exercise in itself, and I wonder who decided such things and why. There was this squadron with trained crew and pretty expensive aircraft, and they would have pilots and navigators transferred in and out and all over the place, for no apparent reason. And in the days before computers, who kept track of these things, stores and supplies and personnel, not to mention petrol and ammunition to keep the planes flying and shooting up the Japanese occupation army in Burma, and trying to disrupt their supplies of petrol and ammunition and personnel.

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Inside Quatro: ANC and Swapo prison camps

Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPOInside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO by Paul Trewhela
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s taken me nearly six years to read this book. It’s about prison camps run by the ANC and Swapo, mostly in Angola and Zambia, in which party dissidents were detained without trial, and sometimes tortured. The book consists mainly of essays reprinted from a publication called Searchlight South Africa edited by the author, Paul Trewhela, and his colleague Baruch Hirson, both of whom had been jailed for anti-apartheid activities in South Africa.

The articles, it seemed to me, varied greatly in quality, and that was one reason it took me so long to read it. Another reason was that there seemed to be no way of verifying the claims that are made, and so I didn’t really feel competent to write a review — so let anyone reading this review beware.

Some of the articles seemed factual, and thus believable, while others seemed to be much more tendentuious. The title, too, is misleading. It is not the exile history of the ANC and Swapo — that has yet to be written, or maybe it has been, but I haven’t seen it. There were some things I knew a bit more about — churches in Namibia, for example — but Trewhela dealt with a period after I had been deported from Namibia, and so was out of touch. But again, it did seem to be very patchy and incomplete. In part that is because of the nature of the material.The articles were all topical articles in a magazine, and so could not really be expected to provide a comprehensive history.

I was initially put off be a couple of the early articles, which had “Stalinist” in almost every paragraph, to describe the ANC. Paul Trewhela had been a member of the South African Communist Party, which was inclined to be Stalinist. He left it and became a Trotskyist, and I had read somewhere that many of the American Neocons who had pushed the US into war in the early years of the century had originally been Trotskyists, and some of the early essays seemed to lend support to that thesis. They seemed to be the kind of thing the National Party government would say to try to discredit the ANC and Swapo as “communist”. So I put the book aside, and only picked it up occasionally to read another of the essays.

The later ones generally seem better than the earlier ones, but there is no way of determining how accurate they are without a great deal of historical research, and that is the kind of research that I would prefer to leave to others. I’m interested in writing about periods that I do know something about, where I have at least some first-hand knowledge.
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A who’s who of writers and scurrilous gossip column

Palimpsest: A MemoirPalimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not quite sure why I took this book out of the library. I sometimes find that I like literary biographies of authors more than the books they wrote, and I’ve never read any books by Gore Vidal.

After reading this one, I’m still not sure if I’ll read any others, but I found this one quite interesting, and in many places, especially the earlier part, witty and humorous. As the title suggests, he jumps backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing over what he has already written, and sometimes the chronology is a little confusing, especially when discussing people he had known for a long time.

As a writer he met lots of other writers, and the book is a cross between a literary who’s who and a scurrilous gossip column. On the whole, however, he didn’t much like the company of other writers, even though he had met quite a lot of them, and he seems to have had fallings out with those he knew quite well, among whom were Tennessee Williams the playwright and Truman Capote the novelist. I was most interested in what he said about Beat Generation writers, as I have been particularly interested in them, and he knew Allen Ginsberg quite well, and had met some of the others, including Jack Kerouac, in whose book The Subterraneans he appeared as Arial Lavalina.

There is also quite a lot of political gossip, which throws an interesting light on American politics in the early 1960s. Vidal and Jackie Kennedy Onassis shared a common stepfather, whom both of their mothers had married for his money. Vidal himself even stood (or ran) for election at the time that Jack Kennedy was running for President, though he did not have a high opinion of most of the other members of the Kennedy administration, or of Kennedy himself, whom he regarded as a warmonger.

Concerning his own life, Vidal hated his mother, and had only one true love, Jimmy Trimble, whom he met at school, and they were lovers from the age of 12 until the age of 19, when Jimmy Trimble was killed in the Second World War. Thereafter Vidal had a preference for casual anonymous sex, a preference which, he says, he shared with Jack Kennedy, and thought sex was inimical to friendship. He did have a lifelong companion, but according to Vidal their relationship was premissed on “no sex”.

Vidal was also involved in film and television, and wrote several plays, some for television, some for the stage, and he also wrote the screenplay for several films. As a result quite a lot of his personal reminiscences involve actors, directors and producers in the film industry, and it is only his acerbic wit that keeps the parts of his book that deals with them from being a standard celeb gossip column.

An enjoyable read, and quite illuminating, but I’m still not sure if I’ll try to read any of his fiction.

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Authors familiar and unfamiliar

A friend asked on Twitter whether people read anything by authors that were unfamiliar to them, and I thought that if an answer to that was to be worthwhile, it needed to be longer than 140 characters, so here are some thoughts about it.

Yesterday I went to the Alkantrant branch of the Tshwane public library, and for the first time I went armed with a list of books and authors to look for. Usually I just browse the shelves and pick out anything that looks interesting, but this time I had a list of books that had been recommended by various people, a bucket list of books, as it were.

So here are the books I found:

Actually only one of them was on the recommended list of authors I hadn’t read, the John Banville one. I had read another book by Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf, which I read about 50 years ago. And the recommended book by Jessica Anderson was Tirra Lirra, by the river, but that wasn’t on the shelf at the library, though she does count as an unfamiliar author.

And then I went browsing for some non-fiction (not on my list), and found this:

Palimpsest: A MemoirPalimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal

I’m not quite sure why I took this book out of the library. I sometimes find that I like literary biographies of authors more than the books they wrote, and I’ve never read any books by Gore Vidal. In my youth I was vaguely confused about Gore Vidal and Vidal Sassoon, who were both celebs at the time, though I wasn’t quite sure what the cause of their celebrity was.

Much later a relative in New Zealand sent a transcript he had made of my wife Val’s great great granduncle’s diary. He was Edward Lister Green (1827-1887). In it he describes travelling by ship from Bombay to Hong Kong, and striking up a friendship with David Sassoon, the “million heir” (I wondered whether that was the normal spelling of “millionaire” at the time, or just an elaborate private pun). That got me reading The Sassoon dynasty, about this remarkable family of Iraqi Jews whose business in Bombay (now spelt Mumbai) expanded over most of southern and eastern Asia. I also read Siegfried Sassoon the biography of the poet, who was a member of the same family, as was the Vidal Sassoon who provided a very tenuous link with Gore Vidal.

When I’ve finished reading those (or abandoned them, if I don’t like them) I still have these on my list:

Anderson, Jessica — Tirra lirra by the river
Bell, Sara Hanna — December Bride
Burgess, Anthony — Earthly powers
Byatt, A.S. — The children’s book
de Bernieres, Louis — Captain Corelli’s mandolin
DeLillo, Don — Underworld
Hosseini, Khaled — The kite runner
Kadare, Ismail — The successor
Tartt, Donna — The secret history

Not all those are unfamiliar authors either — I’ve read other books by A.S. Byatt and Ismail Kadare — the latter I had never heard of until we were sitting in a cafe in Tirana, Albania, and our friend told us that Kadare was sitting at the next table and was the most famous author in Albania. A little while earlier we had seen the most famous film star in Albania, riding his bicycle down the street, but I forget his name.

So this might be the appropriate point to mention the last book I got from the library, though it’s not on the list and I was browsing the shelves in the non-fiction section.

Albania: The Bradt Travel GuideAlbania: The Bradt Travel Guide by Gillian Gloyer

One normally reads travel guides before one visits a country. If you find it useful, you might take it with you on your visit, but I visited Albania 16 years ago and I’m unlikely ever to travel there again unless we win the Lotto, which is unlikely even if I do remember to buy a ticket. So I took this book out of the library to remind me of our previous visit. Apart from anything else, I don’t think this book was available when we visited Albania in 2000 — the first edition seems to have been published in 2005.

So it’s really for the memories, and perhaps to find out a bit more about the places and things we saw.

And I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when we have our Neo-Inklings Literary Coffee Klatsch, and Duncan Reyburn will be telling us something about G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is not an unfamiliar author to me, though I’ve only read a few of his books. And if anyone is interested, and living in or near Tshwane, come and join us at Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road (opposite the US Embassy) at 10:30 am on Thursday 7 July 2016.

 

 

The Anatomy of Crime

What I do, see, hear, eat and drink.

I don’t read much crime fiction so the work of Val McDermid was not known to me.  I started reading, Forensics, The Anatomy of Crime, as an exercise in Criminology.  From the outset I was stunned at how readable the work was.  It was only then that I realised that Val McDermid is a practised and experienced genius in the field of writing entertainingly about crime.

Forensics

So, here we o find her engaged in explaining the work of forensic scientists to lay people. Along the way she explains the history of each forensic field from the first recorded autopsy (that of the body of Julius Caesar) to the Great Fire of London and modern advances which allow crimes to be solved years after the case has officially been closed.

She works through twelve chapters, all equally interesting.  Theintegrity of the crime scene, fire investigation, entomology (probably best not to…

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Ghosts and culture

The Ghost That Closed Down The Town: Stories of The Haunting of South AfricaThe Ghost That Closed Down The Town: Stories of The Haunting of South Africa by Arthur Goldstuck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At last I’ve finished the book, after writing two “What do you think” pieces on the way. So now I can get down to an actual review.

I’ve moved the other two pieces to my blogs. First I was excited because the book mentioned as haunted places that I knew from my youth, or had actually visited. You can read that one here, if you like The missing ghosts in my life | Notes from underground.

The second one got me even more excited when the ghost turned out to be related to my wife. It’s quite something to have a family ghost. And you can read abou that one here The family ghost — it’s official! | Hayes & Greene family history.

And those were, for me, the most interesting things about the book. I have a couple of Arthur Goldstuck‘s earlier books on urban legends, and there’s something about them that applies to ghost stories too (apart from the fact that ghost stories are often themselves urban legends). The main interest in reading about urban legends is if you have heard them in the wild. And in the same way, ghost stories are interesting mainly if you know the places or the people concerned. Having the ghost actually related is a bonus.

But a long string of ghost stories, or non-ghost stories, tends to get boring rather quickly. The non-ghost stories are about places that are said to be haunted, but where no one actually claims to have seen a ghost, and there seem to be rather a lot of those, including the famed “spookhuis” in the Armscor grounds in Pretoria.

I found the most interesting parts of the book were the beginning and the end. The beginning told me some things about history that I didn’t know, and had some interesting information about Islamic ghost stories told by slaves in the Cape, which would include stories told by slave nannies to the master’s children, and so the conception of ghosts among Calvinist white Afrikaners was influenced by folktales from Muslim Indonesia.

The blurb makes much of the point that South African ghost stories are multicultural, as the different cultures influence one another, so I expected a bit more analysis and interpretation of some of the individual ghost stories, tracing the cultural influences and the different conceptions of ghosts, but there was little of that. At the end there was a potted description of how Judaism, Islam and different varieties of Christianity regard ghosts, but it too did not relate them to any individual stories. There were some quite interesting ghost stories written by children, and a description of Pinky-Pinky, a ghost that went viral among school children in the mid-1990s — a tokoloshe for the new South Africa, as Goldstuck puts it. That was one I hadn’t heard of, though our kids were still at school then.

So apart from the personal bits, I found the book a bit disappointing. If it hadn’t been for the personal bits, I’d probably have given two stars, but for them I give three.

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The missing ghosts in my life

Ghost That Closed Down The Town,The: Stories Of The Haunting Of South AfricaGhost That Closed Down The Town,The: Stories Of The Haunting Of South Africa by Arthur Goldstuck

I haven’t finished the book yet, so this isn’t a review, but rather some thoughts inspired by some of the bits I’ve read so far, that mention places that are familiar to me, or at least that I have been to.

Arthur Goldstuck has written several books about South African urban legends, and there is an overlap between urban legends and ghost stories, especially in the legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Hitchhikers have now vanished in more than one sense, and I’ve written something about that here and here.

In one of his earlier books Goldstuck mentioned the Uniondale ghost as a story belonging to this genre and he has dealt with it more fully in this book. I found it quite interesting as I recently travelled the road in question, though when he mentioned the Barendas turn-off the name didn’t ring a bell, but when I looked it up on a map I did find that the road we had travelled along passed a railway halt called Barandas. Perhaps the ghost entered the typesetting machine to add a little more mystery to the story.

The story is of a motorcyclist who have a hitchhiker a lift, and lent her his spare crash helmet, and a little further on he felt the bike swerve a bit, and looked round and the hitchhiker had gone, and the helmet was in its usual place.

We travelled that road four years ago, and again in September this year. On Friday 29 April 2011 we drove down the N9 from Graaff Reinet, noting the empty dam on the Groot Rivier (a trickle), and about 40 km south of Willowmore we turned west on to the R341, leading to De Rust. I think this is what Arthur Goldstuck refers to as “the Barendas turn-off”.

We had only gone a few kilometres when an ambulance came the other way, lights flashing, and the driver signalled to us, and stopped, so we stopped, and he asked if we had seen an accident involving a motorbike. We said we hadn’t so he turned around and passed us going the same way we were, and past the turnoff to Uniondale we came to the scene of the accident. The ambulance had obviously come up from Uniondale and hadn’t known which way to turn.

We didn’t stop at the scene of the accident, but passed by sending up a silent prayer for the rider, since the ambulance was there. Now, having read the stories in the book, I wonder if we had stopped, would we have found that the accident was caused by a ghostly hitchhiker?

The other thing that struck me in the book was the mention of the Sandringham Dip. I lived for 6 years at Sunningdale, on the ridge above the dip in question, from the age of 7-13, and four years down the hill in Sandringham itself. The dip actually leads from Silvamonte to Senderwood, and as you go that way the grounds of the Rietfontein Hospital were on the left, and on the right was the Huddle Park Golf Course. At the bottom of the dip is a stream, a tributary of the Jukskei, which runs between Sandringham and the golf courses. As a child I used to play in the stream, and I went through the dip many times, by car, bicycle and on horseback. I rode on horseback with friends to see another friend who lived in Bedfordview, and a little way up the hill past the dip was a gate that opened to the Huddle Park golf course. When the gate wasn’t locked we would take a short cut through the gofd course, galloping down the fairways. There was a danger of being hit by a sliced ball perhaps, but we were more afraid of municipal officials who might accuse us of trespassing and make us go back. Nothing could be further from our minds than the fear of ghosts.

Goldstuck mentions a grave at the bottom of the dip. I never saw that, but I did know of a graveyard at the top of the hill beyond the dip, and took photos of it because I thought it was picturesque, with mouldy wooden monuments and crosses rotting under the trees.It may have been the graves of people who died in the hospital, but I doubted it. It was too far from the main hospital, and looked more like old farm graves.

As children we also used to ride on horseback through the grounds of Rietfontein Hospital, because there were plenty of wide-open spaces, which were (and are) getting harder to find in an increasingly urbanised landscape. We gave the hospital buildings (a few old Victorian houses) a wide berth, partly because of the fear of Authority, which might chase us away, and also because it was an isolation hospital for infectious diseases, and we were afraid of catching something.

More recently I have been in correspondence with people who are concerned about proposals to develop the site, because apparently a lot of people who died at the hospital have been buried there over the years, and local history groups believe that these sites should be respected.

So I seem to have missed the ghosts. Though I was in the right places, obviously it was at the wrong time.

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Thunder on the Blaauwberg

Thunder on the BlaauwbergThunder on the Blaauwberg by Lawrence G. Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this family), and indeed chapter 3, with the title “Blood Royal”, is all about Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, and his lover Julie de St Laurent, whom he had to give up when he needed to make a suitable marriage tio produce an heir to the throne.

So far, so good. But the story is that the prince and Julie had a son, William Goodall Gteen, who was the ancestor of the Green family in South Africa. Unfortunately that is not so. The full story is told by Mollie Gillen in her book The Prince and his Lady. William Goodall Green was born in 1790 in Quebec, a year before Edward and Julie had ever set foot in Canada; his father was William Goodall, a London businessman, and his mother was Eliza Green, the daughter of a Quebec butcher. Green tells some fascinating stories, but at the most significant points this one is untrue. I’ve covered this in more detail here: Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Another chapter, about a British spy in German South West Africa, mentions another mystery of our family history. The spy was Alexander Patterson Scotland, manager of a store on the border between the Cape Colony and German South West Africa. The Namas and Hereros rebelled against the Germans, and one of the leaders of the rebels was Abraham Morris, who was known to Scotland, and Lawrence G. Green tells something of his story in in chapter 6, “Hauptmann Schottland”. Abraham Morris was also related though we are not sure how yet, and that is one of the problems we are working on in our current family history research.

I’ve read several of Lawrence G. Green’s books, and most of them deal with stories of interesting characters or places, many of whom featured in news stories of their day, or sometimes rumours — stories of outlaws like Scotty Smith, guerrilla fighters like Abraham Morris, spies like Alexander Scotland and many more. This one includes a diamond prospector, Solomon Rabinowitz, a visionary theorist of time, John William Dunne, a legenderay escaper and others. But the second half ofr the book was rather disappointing, where Green doesn’t focus of people and places, and goes into themes, like tastes, sounds and smells of Africa, where he jumps from one place to another, and the story becomes rather fragmented.

As I said at the beginning, some of Green’s stories, like the “Blood Royal” one, have been debunked, and most need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he is a marvellous raconteur, and they are enjoyable reads, even if the history is sometimes doubtful.

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