The Desert Island aka Shackleton’s Antarctic Collection.

I doubt there could be a more real life example of the ‘What would you take to a desert island?’ than Shackleton’s trip to the Antarctic. There is an exhibition of the photographs of that trip on at the RGS in London at the moment. One of the photos shows a wall of books, his floating library. The RGS has been able to digitally enhance it, so that we now know exactly what Shackleton took on this unhappy expedition.

Shackleton

Can you judge a book by its cover? The fact is that one often can. And taking that notion a little further, surely we can judge a man by the covers of his books. That’s something, with the advent of electronic book reading, that we will never be able to do again. It is so easy and cheap to download that one can never make assumptions about the relationship of the book to the machine owner. Here, however, of course we are entitled to draw conclusions. The man bothered to take the books to Antarctica. The books mean something.

I’ve arranged the list in order into:

  • literature
  • linguistic and general reference
  • exploration

Between the general reference section and the exploration books I’ve squeezed in two non-fiction books, one by the socialist JB Askew and one by Alfred Dreyfuss.

As for literature, it is interesting to note that it is relatively light on our notion of classics. Most of them are the best sellers or maybe, to convert to our idiom, the Goodreads trending books of his time. There are quite a few murder mysteries or similar.

I’m guessing that those reading this have never heard of:

Gertrude Atherton
Amelie Rives
Montague Glass
Ian Hey
AEW Mason
David Bone
Herbert Flowerdew
John Joy Bell
Louis Tracy
William J Locke
Rex Beach
Robert Hugh Benson
H De Vere Stacpoole

Yet Atherton was compared with Wharton, Rives was the EL James of her day, and William J Locke made the best selling US novels list in five different years. His stories were made into films 24 times, including Ladies in Lavender starring Dench and Maggie Smith in 2004 and four of his books made Broadway as plays. In fact, although not one of my 500+ goodreads friends has reviewed any of these authors, Locke is still well read and loved, judging by the reviews. I confess I did not know his name.

Potash and Perlmutter, the comic rag trade merchants of Monatague Glass, were all the rage amongst New York Jews. Stacpoole is the author of The Blue Lagoon of the film fame (some would say infamy) and Flowerdew used his novels to proselytise on the rights of women:

The Woman’s View: A Novel About Marriage (1903) is a marriage problem tale with a complicated plot drawing attention to the inaccuracy with which the marriage laws relate to how people, especially women, feel about marriage. Valerie marries a fortune-hunter, and discovers he had a wife who was alive when they were married but is now dead. Philip, who has always loved her, tells her she is free, but she still feels married, and remarries her husband. He beats her and her baby dies as a result, so Philip rescues her. The husband sues for divorce on grounds of adultery, and so she is once more free, though she has not committed adultery. She marries Philip to save his political career, but refuses to sleep with him, as she still has a husband alive. Her cousin, who is in love with Philip, tells her she must: Valerie then responds by telling him to get an annulment and going back to her husband. As in Retaliation, Flowerdew sacrifices plausibility for the sake of his thesis. Flowerdew published an article, ‘A Substitute for the Marriage Laws’ in the Westminster Review (September 1899). Oxford Index

 

Rives

Amelie Rives, whose steamy best-seller The Quick and the Dead?  earned her a vigorous campaign of hate mail. And there I was thinking hate mail was just a function of the ease of modern technology. 

Personally, I find it fascinating to read up on authors who were successful in their day but subsequently forgotten. I have included links to the biographies of the lesser known authors, leaving it to you to take your exploration from there. Be brave. Be inquisitive. Shackleton would be proud of you.

Books on Shackleton’s bookshelf:

 

Does James Bond have to go through airport security?

Geneva airport, our plane is boarding. We have just got to the top of the security check queue which is so long today that they have extended it into the airport pathway. That, after a ten minute wait in the fast track of Easy Jet luggage checkin. And today, of all days, is the first time our Easy Jet flight has been on time for years. That’d be right.

But we were okay now, through the thing where you might beep but don’t. Hand on my luggage when a voice says:

‘Is that your luggage ma’am?’

And you look up and say ‘yes’ to the female security guards who ask you to ‘come this way’.

‘Do you know why we are going to search your bags, ma’am?’

I give a seriously stressed out answer because I’m seriously stressed out.

‘So that I miss my plane?’

‘It’s because you have a large knife in your bags, ma’am.’

Do they think I’m a complete idiot? What sort of dickwit would pack a knife in their carry on luggage? Manny comes over and I tell him when he asks, ‘They are looking for the large knife we packed this morning.’ Spoken with all the sarcasm I could muster, which was quite a lot.

Losing it in Switzerland isn’t a great idea. Losing it in airports isn’t a great plan either. Swiss airports? Don’t even think about it. But our plane was boarding. They couldn’t find the knife. They are inclined, in fact to believe me and turn to look at the X-ray dude who has put me in this position. He stares at me and shakes his head in a way that says ‘Think you are getting away with this? Forget it.’

I start getting a wind up, I’m ranting away. ‘Hello? Do you really think ‘a big knife’ could be in there’ as one of them unzips my purse which is maybe 2 inches wide. They are pulling everything out of my bags and I’m in the middle of ‘What are you guys doing, seriously. Why aren’t you out catching terrorists instead of harrassing innocent travellers like -‘ and I don’t actually finish my sentence because as I’m saying that, it dawns on me that one of them is pulling a knife out of my carry-on, where it is hiding in the side at the bottom, just about where you would hide a knife if you were.

Hiding a knife. Which I wasn’t. But there it was. Undeniably there was what I would not call a large knife, but a decent sized one all the same in my carry-on. If Sharia law insisted that somebody’s head had to be removed from their body during the course of our flight to Gatwick airport, this knife wouldn’t cut it. But absolutely one could see it sticking into somebody’s heart or slitting their throat.

Or…as I recollect during the horror I am feeling, cutting cheese and fruit. The weekend before we had been on a train trip and I’d taken the knife to cut things for lunch. Here it was, still in my bag.

Fucketty-fuck. Grovelling apologies. Tip to the X-ray man who was so on the job. It turns out it only looks like they aren’t really looking. How tricky can you get? I’m explaining away and these very nice security guards who have just put up with my diatribe couldn’t be, well, sweeter about it. Maybe their English wasn’t up to it, I don’t know. Or it’s because I’m short. But although they said it was all right, no problem, they did nonetheless take my particulars.

They put my name and address in a big black book whilst telling me not to worry. If they don’t want you to worry, why is it big and black?  Couldn’t they make it pink or something? And smaller. A Hello Kitty notepad, something like that.

The terrorist register. I can just see it. And my worst fears are confirmed. I’ve felt like a terrorist since September 2010 when I was given my second passport. I guess lots of people have two passports from two countries. But mine have two names on them. Now I’m a person with two passports with different IDs and a penchant for packing dangerous weapons in my carry-on. James Bond, eat your heart out.

Anton Chekhov A Brother’s Memoirs by Mikhail Chekhov

For one who professes distaste for biography/autobiography, I’ve been reading a lot of it lately. But it was easy to make an exception in this case.

I’ve read Anton Chekhov’s letters, a form of writing which might distinguish itself from autobiography by being both more honest and of greater literary worth. Letters are, after all – or where when people used to write then, at any rate – small literary gifts. I had a friend who used to send me letters hand-written and tied with a ribbon in a bow. They insisted upon being read in a special place with some degree of devotion. The experience is the very opposite of receiving an email and scanning it while logging onto facebook.

So when I saw this book half-price at The London Review Bookshop, I had to buy it, fully expecting it to add to my reading of Anton’s letters.

The book does not pretend to be more than it is: various pieces published over a period and now cobbled together. If you are expecting the book itself as a whole to be some sort of technical triumph, a remastering of the very idea of The Book, it isn’t. It’s a cobbled together collection of bits and pieces. But what marvellous bits and pieces they are. I am mystified as to why this book has been frequently panned. It’s nicely written – I’m surprised Mihkail Chekhov doesn’t seem to be remembered for his writing – with anecdotes ranging from the hilarious to the pathetic. Some of them are directly about Anton and have, I gather, found their way into many a resource on him.

But much of the book is about the surrounds of the Chekhovs. How people like them lived in that period. The collective Russian artistic community, the intelligentsia, the bohemians, the people of the stage, the publishers of presses and magazines are the stuff of this book. We see how poverty-stricken, talented Russians like Anton and his siblings survived, not only economically, but spiritually in a period of censorship which is hard to credit. It serves to remind one that the Soviet model did not spring from nothing, nor did it spring from Marxism. It sprang from what was already in Russia, subservient masses, an aristocracy and a Tsar. It is an exceptional period in the history of the world and this book puts the reader vividly, right in the thick of it.

One vignette will serve to illustrate how extraordinary the censorship was in this period of late nineteenth century. Mikhail mentions the presence of detention cells in the universities. One of the reasons for being put in a cell was for applauding one’s professor. You may reread that last sentence, it won’t change. Every attempt was made to drum free will and independent thinking out of students. To publicly appreciate one’s teacher was punishable. You can see where Stalin comes from, not to mention Gogol.

I sense a strong connection between English and Russian. I gather it can’t be technical, but may be emotional. That doesn’t surprise me. Maybe the English and the Russians stand historically undefeated in similar ways, sharing a similar psyche, in some regards at any rate. It suits Russian to be translated into English is my gut feeling. The translator in this case, Eurene Alper, is a specialist translator of Chekhov. You can find at his site his translation of Chekhov’s doctor’s recollection of him. It will give you a taste for more. Then you can buy the book.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

Written in 2012:

I hesitate about putting this on my better-written-than-Harry-Potter shelf. It is and it isn’t.

Poor Le Carré. He needed a new day job after the Cold War made his old one irrelevant. The stuff he’s churned out since is hopeless. He doesn’t have a clue how to understand anybody except Cold War spies.

I bought this for 3 francs and I read about that much worth of it. Moving on now.

2014 Update: I’ve been to see the movie, a sadly fitting last outing for PS Hoffman. It isn’t a great movie, but I suspect it has done a good job of improving on the book. Put it this way: I resent the 3CHF I spent on the book, but I’ve spent worse 25CHF on movies….They couldn’t fix up the lawyer, she was still dreadful.

Home is Where the Wind Blows by Fred Hoyle

Fred’s been my companion at breakfast so often this year that I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised Manny’s been a bit testy at times. I expect that question’s been at the back of his mind ‘If he’s here for breakfast, where was he last night?’ In fact I haven’t taken Fred to bed, not once. It hasn’t been a question of primness, loyalty or even the bed not being big enough for the three of us.

It’s more Fred’s unflagging enthusiasm, energy and opinionated observations of everything, bombarding the reader as an independent thinker might. One finds oneself stopping to reflect every few pages of a rather long book not because you reach some sort of sciencey stumbling block but because he’s just presented a theory about 1920s hat fashion, or the efficacy of geese as domestic lawnmower or the reasons we organise into society. He carries you along in a way that is infectious, thrilling – and tiring. I love reading in bed, but this is more theoretical than practical. Mainly I fall asleep by the time I find my place. In the mornings, however, I’m irritatingly bouncy and chirpy and happy. That’s the time to pick up Hoyle.


Hoyle was nothing if not stubborn. I’m thinking of something that plays only a small part in his chosen story: Steady State theory. One of the themes of Alan Lightman’s interviews with scientists of that period is the tension between it and the Big Bang theory and the denouement as the supporters of the former all slowly accepted defeat. Not so much beaten by the bell, as by the bang. But ‘all’ did not include Hoyle. To me it is easy to understand why. The mechanisms we have which permit our survival in the world include our sense of confidence, our judgement, intuition. They are difficult to reject even in the face of blunt evidence to the contrary.

In practice, he was not as stubborn on the point as many have made out. Donald D. Clayton points out in his obituary of Hoyle that

The steady-state theory makes strong predictions. Hoyle’s reaction to poorly documented attacks on the steady-state theory was to demolish the “disproofs.” Almost against his will this reaction placed Hoyle in the position of seeming a sore loser in a scientific debate, a perception that persisted until his death. But in 1964, Hoyle pioneered calculations of nucleosynthesis in a big-bang cosmology with Tayler by arguing that a hot big bang was the source of a uniform cosmic density of helium, though he and Tayler differed on whether the big bang was necessarily of a primordial object (which Tayler favored) or could have been a cumulative result of a series of smaller events involving miniature oscillating universes (which Hoyle himself favored.)

Indeed, Clayton goes on to point out that

Three of Hoyle’s papers were selected for the AAS ApJ “centennial volume” featuring the most influential research of the twentieth century published in AJ and ApJ. (This is a record equaled only by Chandrasekhar and Baade.) I would argue that his 1964 paper with Tayler on big-bang nucleosynthesis might also have been included. Most of his publications were in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, however, including the field theoretic steady-state model. These earned the international Crafoord and Balzan Prizes, and many felt that Hoyle might have shared Fowler’s Nobel Prize but for Hoyle’s embarrassed status over exobiology.

Hoyle was an absolute heavyweight of his field. But he was also always an outsider, as suggested by the poignant title of this book, and had the sort of relationship such people have with the rest of the world that ensures that things stay that way. As well as being an outsider, he was also a loner. I’m sitting in the loungeroom of the Geneva Four Seasons as I write this; Hoyle is the only one who might be said to be sharing my company. But around us people, not matter how they are organised – alone, in couples, in groups – have their mobile phones in front of them. Almost every one. Has there ever been such a mass addiction? What confuses me, in the context of this book, is how do people think any more? In tiny bytes between one screen and another, one twitter and another, rushing from FB to Youtube. Can you have profound thought without profound concentration – without being alone?

The world of Hoyle couldn’t be more different. As a child in rural Yorkshire isolation from the world at large was normal. News came now and again. Nature was the principal of play, entertainment, adventure. Observation. Patience. Wonderment. Curiosity. Deduction. Experimentation. These were the sorts of qualities a child could develop with nature as prime playmate. There was another sort of isolation at work. Young Hoyle walked incredible distances to and from school for years on end. He calculated that he had walked 10,000 miles over the course of his highschool years. These days even if a person did have to do that, he’d do it plugged in. To brain-numbing music is the choice of many. To phones is another. Hoyle had nothing but his own thoughts to occupy him. Are thinkers like this possible any more? The habit was never lost. Hoyle walked and walked on his own even when he no longer had to.

Not just on his own. His passion for climbing was either shared by or forced upon his colleagues. There are many like this in Hoyle’s book. These are from Clayton’s personal collection.

William A. Fowler, Donald D. Clayton and Fred Hoyle stand in the parking lot at Loch Duich Hotel, Wester Ross, Scotland in August 1967. The Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich can be glimpsed between Fowler and Clayton. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these three friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
William A. Fowler, Donald D. Clayton and Fred Hoyle stand in the parking lot at Loch Duich Hotel, Wester Ross, Scotland in August 1967. The Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich can be glimpsed between Fowler and Clayton. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these three friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
William A. Fowler, Donald D. Clayton and Fred Hoyle stand in the parking lot (next to Clayton's red Volkswagen) at Loch Duich Hotel, Wester Ross, Scotland in August 1967. The Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich can be glimpsed between Fowler and Clayton. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these three friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
William A. Fowler, Donald D. Clayton and Fred Hoyle stand in the parking lot (next to Clayton’s red Volkswagen) at Loch Duich Hotel, Wester Ross, Scotland in August 1967. The Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich can be glimpsed between Fowler and Clayton. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these three friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
Willy Fowler and Fred Hoyle at the beginning of their hike to the top of the distant mountain in August 1967. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
Willy Fowler and Fred Hoyle at the beginning of their hike to the top of the distant mountain in August 1967. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
The climbing group at the top of Ben Scriel on a very fine climbing day in June 1969 includes from the left: Fred Hoyle, Wallace Sargent (see photo of Sargent and Clayton on the way up, this site), Donald Clayton (Jr.), Willy Fowler, Vahe Petrosian and Stewart Harrison.
The climbing group at the top of Ben Scriel on a very fine climbing day in June 1969 includes from the left: Fred Hoyle, Wallace Sargent (see photo of Sargent and Clayton on the way up, this site), Donald Clayton (Jr.), Willy Fowler, Vahe Petrosian and Stewart Harrison.
Clayton, Fowler and Hoyle preparing to begin the ascent of Fionn Bheinn, 3059 ft "Munro" (up left) near Achnasheen, Wester Ross, on June 1, 1970. Frequent climbs by these three close friends occured during 1967-74. Each was about 3000 ft, done during one day, talking of mountains and astrophysics.
Clayton, Fowler and Hoyle preparing to begin the ascent of Fionn Bheinn, 3059 ft “Munro” (up left) near Achnasheen, Wester Ross, on June 1, 1970. Frequent climbs by these three close friends occured during 1967-74. Each was about 3000 ft, done during one day, talking of mountains and astrophysics.

These are from Clayton’s collection – these and more can be found here. I dare say there are many hills and mountains in the UK that could be renamed according to the cosmological problems discussed on them by Hoyle and his colleagues. Can this be done today? Is there any territory to be traversed in the UK that doesn’t permit the endless intrusions and interruptions of the internet? Hoyle walked 5 miles to and from school in primary school, eight in high school. Often in the rain, with shoes that might have holes in them. We laugh at the Monty Python skit about The Four Yorkshiremen:

But the reason it’s funny is that it’s true. Life WAS hard and it was never far from his mind that it could be worse. Money comes up again and again in his book as he describes early struggles to make ends meet. His big break was getting to do the radio shows that feature so prominently in the recollections of others talking about their lives as scientists. His popular books and shows galvanised youngsters around the world to take up science, hunt down the meaning of life. Martin Rees commented:

His lifelong success as a populariser started in 1950 – in the pre-Sagan era, long before the dominance of television – with a celebrated series of radio talks. Huge numbers of people (including many who later achieved scientific distinction) were inspired by these talks, by books such as Frontiers of Astronomy, and by his lectures.

But I’m not sure that Hoyle understand how inspirational he was in this way. He was so many things. A scientist’s scientist. The people’s scientist. An outsider. A fighter. A loner. A grudge-holder. A shit-stirrer. An interested observer of the world at all levels, with ideas and opinions about every bit of it. A good raconteur. A good writer.

My copy of Home is Where the Wind Blows is littered with notes and underlinings, ticks and crosses. It’s that sort of book. It involves you every bit of the way. And you get to understand the origin of The Four Yorkshiremen. What more could a book offer?

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

I could only diminish the impact of this book by describing it. Suffice to say one English reviewer said it should have won the Booker – it was merely shortlisted alongside Oryx and Crake – and whilst I have not read the winner of that year, it must be a darn good book.

The Oxonian Review explains the failure thus:

Damon Galgut’s latest novel, The Good Doctor, was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker prize last September. Robert McCrum tipped it for the prize in the Observer , and bookmakers William Hill had it at third favourite (9/2 odds), but it was always the competitor least likely to benefit from the accompanying publicity. It was weeks before Borders and Blackwells stocked more than a handful of copies, let alone displayed it with its five rivals.1 This may have had more to do with Galgut’s publishers than the bookstores, but it also reflects the novel’s marginal subject matter and its author’s marginal status: The Good Doctor is set in a barely functioning hospital in a remote former homeland in northern South Africa, and Damon Galgut is a resident South African writer who isn’t a Nobel laureate, like Gordimer or Coetzee (who now lives in Australia).

If you like, you could read this for its description of rural South Africa in the period of transition from Apartheid. Fascinating. You could read it as a adventure/crime story. Heaert-in-your-mouth thrilling. While I could say I did both of these, more than anything for me it evoked memories of Camus (again) and also The Heart of Darkness, a reminder that I should reread it. My hunch is that Galgut’s small masterpiece will stand up in all respects to Conrad’s. Sufficient praise, I think.

Nightwork by Irwin Shaw

There are lots of personal reasons for my declining to take my nose out of this over the couple of days it took to read. Much of it takes place in Switzerland, where I live. The main character other than the narrator is a hustler, and that includes bridge, my game. Reading of his exploits gambling with the wealthy patrons of the ski resorts made me recall the trip I once made to St Moritz looking for a big bridge game. Little did we know that everything closes down in summer. Fabian, the hustler, totally rings true. The story hinges on lost luggage and how I associated with that after an identical mixup earlier this year where somebody took our luggage of the same brand.

More objectively, you needn’t have been a pilot, skied, found 100K on a dead man or hooked up with a hustler in order to find this an engrossing tale. Shaw is a super writer who probably suffers the same fate of most who are popular – the mentality that you can’t be popular and good. As wiki puts it: ‘Though Shaw’s work received widespread critical acclaim, the success of his commercial fiction ultimately diminished his literary reputation.’ How ludicrous does this mentality make the whole process of literary criticism and review.

Irwin Shaw was born to be a writer, but he had a strong opinion on what that meant:

INTERVIEWER

Could we ask: What are the writer’s responsibilities to his talent compared with his responsibilities to his state of well-being, his family?

SHAW

Well, a writer is a human being. He has to live with a sense of honor. If when I got out of college I had abandoned my family to starvation, which is just about where we were, I think I’d have been a much worse writer. I know that the romantic idea is that everybody around a writer must suffer for his talent. But I think that a writer is a citizen (which is one of the reasons I went into the war), that he’s a part of humanity, part of his nation, part of his family. He may have to make some compromises.

Is there a particular irony in being blacklisted, as he was in the McCarthy period, after fighting in WWII? I daresay Shaw was not alone in this experience.

It comes through in Nighwork that Shaw is a great reader, so the following exchange comes as no surprise:

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any general opinion about young writers starting off?

SHAW

So many young writers I’ve met are uneducated. They don’t read. They don’t read what started things . . . produced the trends. They don’t know the classics. If they become enthusiastic, it’s about someone like Kurt Vonnegut, who is uncopyable. If they try to copy him, they’re in for disaster.

INTERVIEWER

What words of advice would you offer them?

SHAW

Keep going. Writing is finally play, and there’s no reason why you should get paid for playing. If you’re a real writer, you write no matter what. No writer need feel sorry for himself if he writes and enjoys the writing, even if he doesn’t get paid for it.

INTERVIEWER

Why do writers protest so much that writing is no fun at all; why do they complain about the agonies of creation?

SHAW

I don’t believe them. What do they do it for, then? Writing is like a contact sport, like football. Why do kids play football? They can get hurt on any play, can’t they? Yet they can’t wait until Saturday comes around so they can play on the high-school team, or the college team, and get smashed around. Writing is like that. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it.

I hope you can read the following – you can click on them for a larger image. It is Shaw writing about the privileged nature of the young writers now, how they play at being poor, while in the days of his youth they really were grindingly, all but soul-destroyingly poor.

Shaw talks about young writers
Shaw on young writers continued
Shaw on young writers continued

Shaw is on my list of writers I must read. I’m particularly looking forward to his short stories as he is highly regarded in this form. Or was, until he became popular, at any rate. Meanwhile, you must read his Paris Review interviews, the first took place in the early fifties, the next in the late seventies. They are fascinating, opinionated and always educational.

Finally, there is much to look at the Irwin Shaw site.