The Second Tree from the Corner by EB White

I had no idea that this writer of charming children’s books wrote prolifically for adults too. He was a newspaper man and one of the things that stands out in this collection is his discussion of the way in which newspapers have to fill their pages and the consequent lowering of the standards of what is written. Like now, except that newspapers were not a bottomless internet pit. His credentials to be this critic? Well, he was the rewriter of The Elements of Style, which might be the most famous of its genre.

He writes of war, of sport, of the nuclear threat, of robots, of cheating at chess. He writes of many things in ways that speak now. Amazing!

He is humorous like this, from a section called ‘Answers to Hard Questions’ where he harvests questions to newspapers searching for advice and gives his own take.

L.D. writes: Is there any likelihood that the temporary physical condition a man is in would have an effect on his offspring? In other words, should a man hesitate about becoming a father during the time he is suffering from hay fever? – Health column in the Chicago Tribune.

This is a question many a man has had to face, alone with his God. Sensitivity to pollen, the male element of flowers, is at once an exalted and a pitiable condition and inevitably suggests to a prospective progenitor the disquieting potentialities inherent in all propagation. Like father like son is the familiar saying: big sneeze, little sneeze. There is little doubt that allergy to hay, so deep-seated, so shattering, is inheritable; and it is just as certain that a sensitive man, during the season of his great distress, is as eager for life and love as in the periods when his mucosae are relaxed. We cannot conscientiously advise any man to abstain from fatherhood on a seasonal, or foliage, basis. The time  not to become a father is eighteen years before a world war.

There it is, that fabulous juxtaposition where he kicks you in the gut, no warning, just kapow. Fantastic. Brilliant line. Brilliant timing. I’ve read it two dozen times now and it still makes my insides curl up.

This is what you got when  you read The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly between 1935 and 1955, the time span of the chosen pieces.

Mrs Wienckus

The Newark police arrested a very interesting woman the other day – a Mrs Sophie Wienckus – and she is now on probation after being arraigned as disorderly. Mrs Wienckus interests us because her ‘disorderliness’ was simply her capacity to live a far more self-contained life that most of us can manage. The police complained that she was asleep in two empty cartons in a hallway. This was her preferred method of bedding down. All the clothes she possessed she had on – several layers of coats and sweaters. On her person were bankbooks showing that she was ahead of the game to the amount of $19,799.09. She was a working woman – a domestic – and, on the evidence, a thrifty one. Her fault, the Court held, was that she lacked a habitation.

‘Why didn’t you rent a room?’ asked the magistrate. But he should have added parenthetically ‘(and the coat hangers in the closet and the cord that pulls the light and the dish that holds the soap and the mirror that conceals the cabinet where lives the aspirin that kills the pain).’ Why didn’t you rent a room ‘(with the rug that collects the dirt and the vacuum that sucks the dirt and the man that fixes the vacuum and the fringe that adorns the shade that dims the lamp and the desk that holds the bill for the installment on the television set that tells of the wars)?’ We feel that the magistrate oversimplified his question.

Mrs Wienckus may be disorderly, but one pauses to wonder where the essential disorder really lies. All of us are instructed to seek hallways these days (except school children, who crawl under desks), [The US expectation of nuclear attack against them colours much of White’s writing in this sort of way] and it was in a hallway that they found Mrs Wienckus, all compact. We read recently that the only hope of avoiding inflation is through ever increasing production of goods. This to us always a terrifying conception of the social order – a theory of the good life through accumulation of objects. We lean toward the order of Mrs Wienckus, who has eliminated everything except what she can conveniently carry, whose financial position is solid, and who can smile at Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown. We salute a woman whose affairs are in such excellent order in a world untidy beyond all believe.

If, like me, you don’t know the reference to Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, pancocojams discusses it here. It’s a song about paying rent.

I challenge the reader not to be moved by this, surely every bit as pertinent now as when it was written.

The Dream of the American Male

Dorothy Lamour is the girl above all others desired by the men in Army camps. This fact was turned up by Life in a routine study of the unlimited national emergency. It is a fact which illuminates the war, the national dream, and our common unfulfillment. If you know what a soldier wants, you know what Man wants, for a soldier is young, sexually vigorous, and is caught in a line of work which leads towards a distant and tragic conclusion. He personifies Man. His dream of a woman can be said to be Everyman’s dream of a woman. In desiring Lamour, obviously his longing is for a female creature encountered under primitive conditions and in a setting of great natural beauty and mystery. He does not want this woman to make any sudden or nervous movement. She should be in a glade, a swale, a grove, or a pool below a waterfall. This is the setting in which every American youth first encountered Miss Lamour. They were in a forest; she had walked slowly out of the pool and stood dripping in the ferns.

The dream of the American male is for a female who has an essential languor which is not laziness, who is unaccompanied except by himself, and who does not let him down. He desires a beautiful, but comprehensible, creature who does not destroy a perfect situation by forming a complete sentence. She is compounded of moonlight and shadows, and has a slightly husky voice, which she uses only in song or in an attempt to pick up a word or two that he teachers her. Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a fern, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place. For millions of years men everywhere have longed for Dorothy Lamour. Now in the final complexity of an age which has reached its highest expression in the instrument panel of a long-range bomber, it is a good idea to remember that Man’s most persistent dream is of a forest pool and a girl coming out of it unashamed, walking toward him with a wary motion, childlike in her wonder, a girl exquisitely untroubled, as quiet and accommodating and beautiful as a young green tree. That’s all he really wants. He sometimes wonders how this other stuff got in – the instrument panel, the night sky, the full load, the moment of exultation over the blackened city below….

Fantastic. He’s a genius hidden away in the ephemeral nature of the daily (or weekly, or monthly) press.

This book came my way because a stranger died. She left behind a lifetime’s reading, a lifetime’s observation of the world as reported by the novelist, the poet, the children’s writer, the essayist. A history you can see and touch – I simply cannot understand how a USB stick can possibly have the meaning of a room of books. This is one of those I kept and I regard it as a complete treasure, falling apart paperback with cheap yellowing paper. A couple of the pieces in it puzzle me as to their presence. But mostly, oh wow. Sheer bliss.

What about this one?


We are delighted with the recent censorship ruling in the matter of motion-picture harems. Some scenes in a Paramount picture now in production are set in a harem, and after careful deliberation the censors have decided to allow this type of polyform allure provided the boudoir does not contain the sultan. The girls can mill about among the pillows, back and side having gone bare, but no male eye must gaze upon them – save, of course, yours, lucky reader. This harem-but-no-sultan decision belongs in the truly great body of opinion interpreting the celebrated 1939 ruling on the exposure of female breasts in the Flushing World of Tomorrow, which provided that one breast could be presented publicly but not two, and thereby satisfied the two seemingly irreconcilable groups: the art-lovers, who demanded breasts but were willing to admit that if you’d seen one you’d seen them both, and the decency clique, who held out for concealment but were agreed that the fact of concealing one breast established the essential reticence of the owner and thereby covered the whole situation, or chest. That subtle and far-reaching ruling carried the Fair, as we know, safely through two difficult seasons, and we imagine that the aseptic harem will do as much for Hollywood.

and on the poet:

You read, perhaps, about the man who stole four tyres from a car in Norfolk, Virginia, and left a purse and a diamond ring untouched on the front seat, with this note: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, we like your jewels but your tyres are new.’ the papers said it was a case of a thief who had a flair for poetry. This is palpable nonsense. It was a case of a poet who was willing to attempt desperate thing, even larceny, in order to place his poem. Clearly, there was a man who had written something and then had gone up and down in the world seeking the precise situation which would activate his poem. It must have meant long nights and days of wandering before he found a car with jewels lying loose in the front seat and four good tyres on the wheels. Poets endure much for the sake of their art.

The Hour of Letdown is a sci-fi chess story.


When the man came in, carrying the machine, most of us looked up from our drinks, because we had never seen anything like it before. The man set the thing down on top of the bar near the beerpulls. It took up an ungodly amount of room and you could see the bartender didn’t like it any too well, having this big, ugly-looking gadget parked right there.
“Two rye-and-water,” the man said.
The bartender went on puddling an Old-Fashioned that he was working on, but he was obviously turning over the request in his mind.
“You want a double?” he asked, after a bit.
“No,” said the man. “Two rye-and-water, please … .” He stared straight at the bartender, not exactly unfriendly but on the other hand not affirmatively friendly.
Many years of catering to the kind of people that come into saloons had provided the bartender with an adjustable mind. Nevertheless, he did not adjust readily to this fellow, and he did not like the machine — that was sure. He picked up a live cigarette that was idling on the edge of the cash register, took a drag out of it, and returned it thoughtfully. Then he poured two shots of rye whiskey, drew two glasses of water, and shoved the drinks in front of the man. People were watching. When something a little out of the ordinary takes place at a bar, the sense of it spreads quickly all along the line and pulls the customers together.
The man gave no sign of being the center of attention. He laid a five-dollar bill down on the bar. Then he drank one of the ryes and chased it with water. He picked up the other rye, opened a small vent in the machine (it was like an oil cup) and poured the whiskey in, and then poured the water in. 72
The bartender watched grimly. “Not funny,” he said in an even voice. And furthermore, your companion takes up too much room.” Why’n you put it over on that bench by the door, make more room here.”
“There’s plenty of room for everyone here,” replied the man.
‘Tain’t amused,” said the bartender. “Put the goddam thing over near the door like I say. Nobody will touch it.”
The man smiled. “You should have seen it this afternoon,” he said. “It was magnificent. Today was the third day of the tournament. Imagine it — three days of continuous brainwork! And against the top players in the country, too. Early in the game it gained an advantage; then for two hours it exploited the advantage brilliantly, ending with the opponent’s king backed in a corner. The sudden capture of a knight, the neutralization of a bishop, and it was all over. You know how much money it won, all told, in three days of playing chess?”
“How much?” asked the bartender.
“Five thousand dollars,” said the man. “Now it wants to let down, wants to get a little drunk.”
The bartender ran his towel vaguely over some wet spots. “Take it somewheres else and get it drunk there!” he said firmly. “I got enough troubles.”
The man shook his head and smiled. “No, we like it here.” He pointed at the empty glasses. “Do this again, will you, please?”
The bartender slowly shook his head. He seemed dazed but dogged. “You stow the thing away,” he ordered. “I’m not ladling out whiskey for jokestersmiths.”
” Jokesmiths,” said the machine. “The word is “jokesmiths.”
A few feet down the bar, a customer who was on his third highball seemed ready to participate in this conversation to which we had all been listening so attentively. He was a middle-aged man. His necktie was pulled down away from his collar, and he had eased the collar by unbuttoning it. He had pretty nearly finished his third drink, and the alcohol tended to make him throw his support in with the underprivileged and the thirsty.
“If the machine wants another drink, give it another drink,” he said to the bartender. “Let’s not have haggling.”
The fellow with the machine turned to his new-found friend and gravely raised his hand to his temple, giving him a salute of gratitude and fellowship. He addressed his next remark to him, as though deliberately snubbing the bartender.
“You know how it is when you’re all fagged out mentally, how you want a drink?”
“Certainly do,” replied the friend. “Most natural thing in the world.”
There was a stir all along the bar, some seeming to side with the bartender, others with the machine group. A tall, gloomy man standing next to me spoke up.
“Another whiskey sour. Bill,” he said. “And go easy on the lemon juice.”
“Picric acid,” said the machine, sullenly. “They don’t use lemon juice in these places.”
“That does it!” said the bartender, smacking his hand on the bar. “Will you put that thing away or else beat it out of here. I ain’t in the mood, I tell you. I got this saloon to run and I don’t want lip from a mechanical brain or “whatever the hell you’ve got there.”
The man ignored this ultimatum. He addressed his friend, whose glass was now empty.
“It’s not just that it’s all tuckered out after three days of chess,” he said amiably. “You know another reason it wants a drink?”
“No,” said the friend. “Why?”
“It cheated,” said the man.
At this remark, the machine chuckled. One of its arms dipped slightly, and a light glowed in a dial.
The friend frowned. He looked as though his dignity had been hurt, as though his trust had been misplaced. “Nobody can cheat at chess,” he said. “Simpossible. In chess, everything is open and above the board. The nature of the game of chess is such that cheating is impossible.”
“That’s what I used to think, too,” said the man. “But there is a way.”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me any,” put in the bartender. “The first time I laid my eyes on that crummy thing I spotted it for a crook.” 74
“Two rye-and-water,” said the man.
“You can’t have the whiskey,” said the bartender. He glared at the mechanical brain. “How do I know it ain’t drunk already?”
“That’s simple. Ask it something,” said the man.
The customers shifted and stared into the mirror. We were all in this thing now, up to our necks. We waited. It was the bartender’s move.
“Ask it what? Such as?” said the bartender.
“Makes no difference. Pick a couple big figures, ask it to multiply them together. You couldn’t multiply big figures together if you were drunk, could you?”
The machine shook slightly, as though making internal preparations.
“Ten thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, multiply it by ninety-nine,” said the bartender, viciously. We could tell that he was throwing in the two nines to make it hard.
The machine flickered. One of its tubes spat, and a hand changed position, jerkily.
“One million seventy-five thousand three hundred and thirty-eight,” said the machine.
Not a glass was raised all along the bar. People just stared gloomily into the mirror; some of us studied our own faces, others took carom shots at the man and the machine.
Finally, a youngish, mathematically minded customer got out a piece of paper and a pencil and went into retirement. “It works out,” he reported, after some minutes of calculating. “You can’t say the machine is drunk! ”
Everyone now glared at the bartender. Reluctantly he poured two shots of rye, drew two glasses of water. The man drank his drink. Then he fed the machine its drink. The machine’s light grew fainter. One of its cranky little arms wilted.
For a while the saloon simmered along like a ship at sea in calm weather. Every one of us seemed to be trying to digest the situation, with the help of liquor. Quite a few glasses were refilled. Most of us sought help in the mirror — the court of last appeal.
The fellow with the unbuttoned collar settled his score. He walked stiffly over and stood between the man and the machine.
He put one arm around the man, the other arm around the machine. “Let’s get out of here and go to a good place,”he said.
The machine glowed slightly. It seemed to be a little drunk now.
“All right,” said the man. “That suits me fine. I’ve got my car outside.”
He settled for the drinks and put down a tip. Quietly and a trifle uncertainly he tucked the machine under his arm, and he and his companion of the night walked to the door and out into the street.
The bartender stared fixedly, then resumed his light housekeeping. “So he’s got his car outside,” he said, with heavy sarcasm. “Now isn’t that nice!”
A customer at the end of the bar near the door left his drink, stepped to the window, parted the curtains, and looked out. He watched for a moment, then returned to his place and addressed the bartender. “It’s even nicer than you think,” he said. “It’s a Cadillac. And which one of the three of them d’ya think is doing the driving?” Text taken from here.

As for The Morning of the Day They Did It, I see online one comment by  Bill Christensen: “Absolutely first-rate story by White makes me think I completely misunderstood Stuart Little. A man who works on a Stratovideo plane in the nascent television industry writes the story of the end of the world. This story is so up-to-date you’ll whimper with fear by the end. Highly recommended.’ Unfortunately I can’t find the text accessible online and it’s too long to type out, but I see that it is in at least one sci-fi anthology, it is absolutely deservedly mentioned in many contexts, as you’ll see if you google it. To quote White himself, who was beset by requests to reprint it and declined them all ‘Got  my reasons. One reason is that I’m not sure it’s a public service to describe the end of the world, even in a spirit of satire. People are jumpy, right now, and I see no reason to explode paper bags.’

The man’s so damn quotable. These, from a Paris Review interview of the late sixties:

Feuds did not threaten The New Yorker. The only feud I recall was the running battle between the editorial department and the advertising department. This was largely a one-sided affair, with the editorial department lobbing an occasional grenade into the enemy’s lines just on general principles, to help them remember to stay out of sight. Ross was determined not to allow his magazine to be swayed, in the slightest degree, by the boys in advertising. As far as I know, he succeeded.


Magazines that refuse unsolicited manuscripts strike me as lazy, incurious, self-assured, and self-important.


I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.


A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.


If sometimes there seems to be a sort of sameness of sound in The New Yorker, it probably can be traced to the magazine’s copy desk, which is a marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention. Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.

and, asked about permissiveness (as it used to be called) in writing:

Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.

and, of his future:

I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn’t know where else to go.






Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis

What stayed with me, long after I had read A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit  by Alan Lightman, was the tone of regret, that powerful, haunting emotion. He writes of his own regrets in discovering in his thirties that his chosen life was over. He was a physicist, he no longer had any expectation of doing anything that mattered.

When I directed an astrophysics conference one summer and realised that most of the exciting research was being reported by ambitious young people in their midtwenties, waving their calculations and ideas in the air and scarcely slowing down to acknowledge their predecessors, I would have instantly traded my position for theirs….None of my fragile childhood dreams, my parents’ ambitious encouragement, my education at all the best schools, prepared me for this early seniority, this stiffening at age thirty-five.

and of maths:

About four o’clock, I went down to tea. Every afternoon, the mathematicians in Fine gather on the second floor for tea. At the back of the room loomed a large photograph, a conference of great mathematicians from the 1940s. They were lined up in rows, staring off into space.

One might think that, living in their beautiful worlds of sublime isolation and perfection, mathematicians would be the happiest of all people. However, many don’t seem at peace with their chosen profession. Mathematicians are ruthlessly self-critical. In most professions, it is possible to tell yourself and others that your accomplishments are significant, whether they are or are not. Not so in mathematics. In the community of mathematicians, there is a disturbing consensus on what is important, and the standards are painfully high. ‘Mathematicians are more aware of the failures than any other professionals,’ says Professor Gian-Carlo Rota of MIT. Of his own work, Rota says that only one or two moments have brought him any pleasure. Looking back on his long career, Hermann Weyl…told a colleague that he considered his life a failure. Near the tearoom of Fine, I ran into Simon Kochen, the past chairman of the Princeton mathematics department. Kochen, a trim and articulate man, leaned in a doorway and said that ‘the moments of joy in mathematics are few and far between. Most of maths is pure frustration. Results, when you finally get them, are obvious.’ (Isn’t that the goal of a good proof, anyway, to reduce the proposition to a near tautology?) Many mathematicians keep most of their calculations permanently in file drawers, having decided that their results are not worth publishing.

Apostolos Doxiadis takes this strange world and creates a story soundly based in fact, but a most splendid piece of fiction nonetheless. It’s a thriller and a tragedy and frankly I rather think that I held it up in front of my eyes while shovelling food down my gullet from time to time. That unputdownable.

The author is absolutely qualified for the task, having been a mathematical prodigy but whose first love was writing. He not only translated it from the original Greek, but significantly rewrote it in the process. So, I think even the most sniffy individuals on the subject of translation could let their guard down for this one.

I’m surprised more of my GR friends haven’t read it. An unhesitating five stars.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

You can see why Asimov thinks he’s great shakes. This is written early 1950s and he talks of a future world where humans live in huge cities with the utmost efficiency, protected from the environment, entirely dependent upon nuclear power, eating food created by science. Thus earth is still able to support a massive population and rising. Let’s just say, we are getting there. The age of the car is well gone -in this world people walk on transport belts that go up to 60 miles/hour. The vehicles are only community ones, for the police and emergency services.

He describes a world in which the advanced, rich, long-living Spacers are trying to impose robots upon the inhabitants of the City states. He describes the hostility as people find themselves displaced by these machines. He could be describing the world of right now, as we find this happening, this idea that it is good to take work from people, replace them by machines, have them face a hopeless future of poverty, reliant upon society’s vengeful charity. Apparently we think that this is somehow more conducive to a better society, than a world worked by humans who earn decent wages and live decent lives. I’m mystified by it. I want to talk to a bank teller. I want to chat to a checkout person at the supermarket. I want to talk to people, not machines, on the telephone. I see no reason to think that it is better for those people to be jobless. Well, nor do the ordinary people in Asimov’s world. It forms the basis for the whodunnit.

My favourite prediction:

If there were one thing that had resisted mechanical improvement since Medieval times, it was a woman’s purse. Even the substitution of magnetic closures for metal clasps had not proved successful.

The man’s a veritable seer.

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

I could not resist….


The author sits, in front of him a pile of galley proofs, it is his book about the nature of time. He starts at the end, reading, checking, and as he does so the words disappear from the page, each page from the pile. He looks forward to finishing his work. Eventually the first letter disappears from the page, the first that began the book. He sits, reflecting upon the empty space in front of him. He should write a book, he thinks to himself. Yes, a book about the nature of time.


In one world he says each morning to his daughter that he must write that book he keeps talking about and she replies that he has already written it, and shows it to him. He is very surprised, picks it up and reads it with interest. It is just what he wanted to say, he thinks with satisfaction. He goes to bed. And in the morning he says to his daughter….


In another world, he is sure he’s written the book, it is there clearly in his mind’s eye. But when he asks his son to bring it to him, he asks what book he is talking about? There is no book. He must write it then, right now put down the vision of it he sees in his head. He sits down, pen in hand, blank paper on the table and floats into his vision and writes and rewrites. It grows dark. He is exhausted with writing. He goes to bed. The paper on the table is still blank.


The author sits, eyes closed, looking at the words spinning around in his head, a jumble of words, the very exact words he knows would make his book, but try as he might, he cannot put them in order. In this world time is higgledy-piggledy, the effect is to make the words unruly. Even as he thinks he is affixing one to the page, it escapes and something else stares up at him. Nonsense. Sheer nonsense time in this world makes of words.


In another world the author finds he must write about the nature of time, but every few pages just when he has finished his task he realised it might instead be this. Or that. Or all of them. It is fast, slow, forward or backward moving, fixed or chaotic, neat or predictable or not. Simple, complex, art, science, everything, nothing, the source of all happiness. The source of all tears.


The author considers the exquisite gifts of literature he has given the world. He looks back further to his wretched realisation that he would never become the great scientist of his dreams. The gain, the loss, the everything, the nothing, the art from science.


Somewhere, sometime, a small child reads this book and realises he must explain time. He becomes a great scientist. A great scientist who has been given the breadth of vision and imagination that is Lightman’s work of art. I keenly await the consequences.

The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

We are inside the head of an aging school teacher of biology. In a theoretical way, if asked, we know that life is about natural selection, evolution, the struggle to survive. But for Inge Lohmark it is far more than a theoretical by-the-way. It is life, it really is for her. Every thought, every observation, every relationship, every mouth of food, every moment of teaching, every coffee break, nothing exists without this conscious understanding of what is happening.

She sees teaching as something to survive in a Darwinian way. She is a disappointed person, but in a matter-of-fact way. Her take on her classes, on the behaviour of teenagers, on the Eastern German education system is hilarious in a bitter, dry sort of way.

I can’t resist giving a couple of examples: if nothing else they will serve to reassure the reader that this book works in translation.

Here she is in front of her class.

Bull by the horns.

‘There are cases when patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia can’t remember the names of their children or their partners, but they can remember their biology teacher’s.’ Bad experiences sometimes left more of a mark than good ones.

‘A birth or a marriage may be an important event, but it does not secure a place in the memory.’ The brain, a sieve.

‘Never forget: nothing is certain. What’s certain is nothing.’

Now she’d even started tapping herself on the head with her forefinger.

The class looked on in dismay.

Back to the book.

‘There are about two million species in the world. And if environmental conditions change, they are endangered.’

Total lack of interest.

‘Can you think of any species that have died out already?’

A handful of outstretched little arms.

‘I mean – apart from dinosaurs.’

All the hands came down straight away. The nursery disease. The couldn’t ell a blackbird from a starling, but they could rattle off the taxonomy of extinct large lizards. Sketch a brachiosaurus out of their heads. Early enthusiasm for the morbid. Soon they’ll be playing with thoughts of suicide and haunting cemeteries at night. Flirting with the beyond. More death trend than death drive.

Later on she finds herself on the school bus to get to and fro because her car’s broken down. It’s a hilarious description of how the teenagers arrange themselves, somewhat put out, of course, by her presence. She sits in the second to last seat. Behind her are Jennifer and Kevin, an item.

The bus stopped again. The latest entry was Saskia. As always she went straight to the back. Bent down to Jennifer. Three kisses on the cheek, both otherwise not a word. Her hair like a curtain. Rattling bracelets. A hand stretched out towards Kevin. Then she threw herself into the seat, put on her enormous headphones and turned the volume up a few more decibels. Sooner deaf than lonely. She’d briefly set her cap at Paul, to outrun Jennifer. But then the alternation between devotion and rejection became too much of a strain. Competition lost. Connection broken.

Silence on the back seat. Jennifer and Kevin were bored.

‘Do you love me?’ Jennifer’s childish voice.

‘Of course.’ How grown up he sounded.

‘Say my mobile number. You’ve got to know it by heart.’ Feminine logic.

‘Why? I’ve got it stored.’

‘Com on, let’s hear it.’


‘Go on.’

He didn’t get any further. She helped him with the gaps. Then she probably let him kiss her. At any rate there was nothing more to be heard. But what did they have to talk about? There was nothing to say.

If you don’t like these extracts, you won’t like the book, it’s all like that. You are in Inge’s head and it’s a sad, dry, evocative, eye-opening way of looking at the world. Whole-heartedly recommend it.

Fred Hoyle’s Universe by Jane Gregory

That it’s taken me so many months to read this is the fault of neither author nor subject: it is all mine.

I read this hoping, like others no doubt, for illumination and amplification of the story Hoyle tells in his autobiography and Gregory certainly delivers. I guess autobiography is rather a ‘mind your own business, I’ll tell what I want’, whereas biography presumably has expectations and standards to meet.

Hoyle tells the story he wants to tell. Gregory does an admirable job of being Hoyle’s rivet man. She reports the early years pretty much as Hoyle does, no surprise there as Hoyle tells the story of those years in detail and is obviously going to be the principal source for his youth. But once he starts becoming part of the world of science Gregory comes into her own with a comprehensive depth and breadth of research. She has interviewed people, been through written background records from newspapers to government correspondence; in short, she’s looked at all the angles.

What emerges from this, as may be gleaned from the title, is a book that is far more than a biography. It is about the world in which he lives. One might read this book, for example, to gain understanding of how science and politics combine – or don’t. It tells the story of what the politicians need from science and vice versa, this at both national and international level. Who gets the credit for combined international projects? Who leads them? Scientists have an invidious choice in that they can leave all this to people who don’t necessarily, supposing the best will, have the understanding to make the decisions; or they can get involved themselves with the costs in time, emotional energy, pyche, that may result. Indeed this was the case for Hoyle whose battles on these fronts must have cost him dearly. There is much material here to fascinate the sociologist.

It tries to explain what we see as the degeneration of Hoyle’s standing as he takes deeply unpopular stands which sounded crazy – still sound crazy no doubt – but may still be vindicated. In short his science fiction, his stubbornness, his isolation, his independence and his satisfaction from making people angry came together to see him roundly abused by his peers. Gregory, in a way she has of being subtle but firm, distances Hoyle from his partnership with Chandra Wickramasinghe which did so much to destroy his reputation. Nonetheless, one can see the attraction for Hoyle of Wickramasinghe’s wacky theories. It gave Steady State new hope and it clearly fitted in with ideas he had been toying with for a long time in his science fiction. Thankfully, he was able to drop this aspect of his thinking and get back to more conventional cosmology for a good period before his death.

The price he paid for his involvement with Wickramasinghe was heavy, Fowler alone being awarded the Nobel Prize he should have shared with Hoyle. Many were uneasy about this situation – his Nobel prize winning work was just that. How can a scientist be judged instead on whether he rubs people up the wrong way or whether he has fields of investigation that are unpopular, if not crazy. This judgement on Hoyle was a judgement on science. A warning of what could happen if you didn’t toe the line. Hoyle often thought his fields had developed politically to a point where one wasn’t able to think brilliantly and come up with new important ideas. This story of his Nobel that wasn’t would be an object lesson not to rock the boat. Ironically, he suffered just the fate that Jocelyn Bell did, who might also have been awarded a Nobel Prize but wasn’t. It was for different reasons, it was because she was a girl, or because she was a student, or both, but Hoyle didn’t like it one bit and went in to bat for her subsequently. She distanced herself from Hoyle’s defence – or attack, if you like – but it isn’t at all clear to me that this was for any reason other than she knew to toe the line.

I’m amazed at how unknown Hoyle is now, within his discipline and without it. It is staggering to compare with his rockstar (never let it be said that I can’t use a post-1950s word) presence in his prime. Not only was he publicly a star who inspired a generation of children to become scientists and was at one point the most popular broadcaster on the BBC – imagine that, a scientist – but one of the fascinating stories that is part of this book is the efforts of the British Government to try to keep him in Britain when he was threatening to move to the US. He wouldn’t have been the first of his colleagues to do so in this period, but the others didn’t matter. Reading the vast amount of harried, fraught governmental correspondence during this tense period of trying to keep Hoyle sweet, is to get a true understanding of how important the man was.

In short, this is an admirable work of footslogging scholarship, which takes us behind the scenes. It doesn’t just show us the universe, it gives us micro-views of how it operates. Gregory completely takes the backseat to the material, it is almost like primary sources, which is why the sociologist would find it so rewarding. There should be an XKCD cartoon – stand back, I’m going to do history – Bravo, Gregory!

Brave Genius by Sean Carroll

Eeekkk. I’ve been reading, honest. In fact I finished this a week ago and I’ve knocked off two Alice Munros. Not to mention started Graham’s biography of Hoyle. Not to mention another spinoff from Dr Glas. And most importantly, I’ve reread Heidi.

I’m not big on biography, as you will know, so I’m not even sure what came over me to have ordered this even before it was released. I guess we’ve been reading science and I love Camus, so a book about Monod and Camus probably seemed obvious at the time.

I must say, Carroll does a splendid job. It turns out, when you get to the end of the book, that he has a perfect background for it. The science is obvious, but he is highly knowledgeable about WWII and also has fair French. He is detached as the historian must be, but never cold. He refrains from bombarding us with the horrific minutiae of the period without that making it anything other than horrific. If the movie came out, I imagine it would be chock full of scenes of Nazis torturing the good guys. Carroll has no need for that (and nor should a good movie either).

I will display my appalling ignorance of this period of European history – the thirties to the sixties or thereabouts – by saying I learnt a lot from this book. The hesitancy that lets a Hitler not only take over a country, but attempt to take over the world. The way in which he may appeal to some prejudiced side of a leader or a people which stops them from fighting in the right way soon enough. France was sufficiently anti-Semitic that when it capitulated almost as soon as the Germans invaded, it saw the upside. And, of course, the Nazis did the thing that divides and buys support: make things appalling enough for one group and the other will be simply relieved that it could be worse and at least they aren’t the – in this case Jews. French non-Jews sort of starved for Germany and supplied slave labour and so on, but at least they weren’t killed for their troubles as long as they weren’t Jewish.

It is one of the things that seems obvious about how fundamentalist Islam operates. Make life so dreadful for women, that the men experience relief instead of revulsion. ‘At least we aren’t women, it could be worse’. Divide and conquer. What do my Islamic acquaintances think about this? Equally, of course, the Hindu caste system works this way.

I have a lot of very nice left-wing small ‘l’ liberal (that is, for non-Australians, the Liberals in Australia are Conservative) who say that the consequences of fear of terror (such as censorship to combat terrorism) is worse than terror. So far I’m waiting for them to explain what that actually means. It was on my mind right through this book, how insulting it is to say that, and how much it reflects a safe life and a safe upbringing. Life in the period under consideration was not safe. Camus and Monod both fought in the Resistance and answered big questions. What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? They were intellectual and physical heroes. This does not mean they were not scared. It meant they did what they thought had to be done despite that. They and their brave colleagues resisted during world war two even though they knew every moment of every day that they might be arrested, tortured, killed. They constantly knew that they might, under threat of torture, betray their comrades. This was terror. Absolute pure terror. I do not believe for one moment that these people would have thought that fear of terror was worse than terror.

The story Carroll tells is of people who are allies unbeknownst to themselves, their closest shared experiences being as anonymous members of the Resistance. It is after the war that Monod and Camus become actual friends. Carroll talks about their work too, of course, and the way in which Camus’s philosophy influenced Monod. He talks of Camus’s impossible position in regard to Algerian independence after the war.

What is missing from Carroll’s analysis is no fault of his. He tells of a trip Camus makes to Paris from his writing retreat. His wife and children take the train, whilst Camus is talked into driving with friends. Before heading off he writers to several lovers to arrange to meet them in several places on his return. I could not help recalling with a smile that I made a similar trip as a teenager, a car trip from Adelaide to Sydney. I had various enthusiastic men waiting for my arrival, no doubt something the well-practised Camus would have managed better than I. I sat reading about what I imagined to be Camus’s predicament, recalling that I avoided the ensuing difficulties by having a crash only a couple of hours into our long drive. The car was a write-off, we all ended up in hospital with minor injuries. The trip never happened. And as I recall this and wonder how Camus is going to get on in Paris, Carroll informs us that the driver of Camus’s car loses control and wraps it into a tree. In an instant Camus is dead. I had the luck of a treeless landscape. Camus did not.

This is a real tragedy for mankind. Not the watered down abused notion of tragedy that is part of life now, but one which involved the loss of the world’s most prominent public thinker. One who could actually influence and change the world. On considering the meaning of life,

Camus asserted that the meaning had to be approached, first and above all, in the light of the absurd condition of human existence – of the conflict posed by the human desire for meaning and the total indifference of the universe to that desire. And, second, one had to consider meaning in the fact of the obvious fact of a finite lifetime and a certain death. Integrating these two elements, the central question for Camus thus became: If everyone is destined to die and the universe could not care less, how can life have any meaning? Carroll p137

For Camus the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. He spent the war reassuring those in Paris who did not want to collaborate, that there was something to fight for, a meaning to life that necessitated that they risk their lives every moment of the day as resistance fighters, life from life. And it led when victory could be seen, no longer just imagined, to this famous piece in his propaganda newspaper written and printed and distributed at risk of life every day:

Four years ago, a few men rose up amid the ruins and despair and quietly proclaimed that nothing was lost yet. They said that the war must go on and that the forces of good could always triumph over the forces of evil provided the price was paid. They paid that price. And the cost was indeed heavy: it had the weight of blood and the terrible oppressiveness of prison. Many of those men died, while others spent years enclosed within windowless walls. That was the price that had to be paid….

Nothing is given to mankind, and what little men can conquer must be paid for with unjust deaths. But man’s grandeur lies elsewhere, in his decision to rise above his condition. And if his condition is unjust, he has only one way to overcome it, which is to be just himself. Our truth tonight, the truth that hovers in the August sky is in fact man’s consolation. What gives our heart peace, as it gave peace to our dead comrades, is that we can say before the impending victory, without scolding and without pressing any claim of our own, ‘We did what had to be done.’ Carroll p. 246-7

Remember, my friends who sit at home liking posts on facebook about something not very nice happening somewhere in the world, that this is bravery. Standing up and doing something at risk of annihilation. Like Camus, the brave Monod survived. He had also spent the war in anonymity as a resistance worker, vital to the moment, and ending up at the top of the rather hodgepodge resistance leadership because of attrition as leaders were caught. These people died, they died horrifically, and as they died other people had to take their place. Monod happened to survive and so he had a moment of personal triumph when he took power officially from the Vichy generals who had spent the war theoretically leaders of France with all the unforgivable consequences that led to the struggles of the Resistance. Monod and his brave, perpetually terrified of being caught and tortured assistant, Noufflard, were called to the Ministry of War, temporarily housed in building that had been the residence of Napoleon’s mother. There was fighting all around Paris, nothing was clear yet. Carroll tells the story:

When they reached the door to the Ministry, they were stopped by a group of FFI men with tommy guns; they were there to guard Monod and Noufflard. They entered a grand hallway of large black-and-white flagstones, decorated with armor and were led into a large salon. Sitting in a circle of elegant, high-backed eighteenth-century armchairs was a group of military men in civilian clothes. They were mostly generals and colonels attached to the Vichy government. They appeared a bit stunned to see Monod and Noufflard, who were disheveled and dirty from pedaling across the city. She was wearing an old skirt, and her legs were black with grease from her bicycle chain; Monod was in a suit that was too small for him and that had been mended at the knees. Nevertheless, the assembled gentlemen were to turn over the Ministry to them. Carroll p245

One can say that this was a tiny moment of triumph in a never-ending struggle against the bad side of mankind, there are always people willing to be a Vichy government. Good men do not stand back and suppose that their duty has been done. They carry on fighting and it is terrible to contemplate that the end of WWII was no happy ending. There was in particular the USSR and its forays into Europe to contend with. The world watched and did nothing. It watched, for example, the attempts of Hungarian workers and students to stand up to their regime and the brutal suppression by the USSR. But while the world did nothing, Monod helped two scientists escape, a dangerous, complicated, expensive, time-consuming business.

Camus and Monod go hand in hand.

Ullmann asked her host, ‘Why would you help me?’

‘It is a question of human dignity,’ Monod replied.

Camus’s words. Camus’s philosophy. Monod’s beliefs, Monod’s actions.

Good men, brave genius indeed.