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Archive for January, 2014

Latest Reviews (16/i/2014)

Der ÜbergmenschDougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, Jeff Connors (Canongate Books 2002)

Book with Bite Steve Backshall’s Most Poisonous Creatures, Steve Backshall (New Holland 2013)

The Politics of PretenceMo Mowlam: The Biography, Julia Langdon (Little, Brown 2000)

Guns’n’GladioliA Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths, Tony Fletcher (Windmill Books 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Think Ink50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know, Joanne Baker (Quercus 2013) (posted @ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Dougal Haston The Philosophy of Risk by Jeff ConnorsDougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, Jeff Connors (Canongate Books 2002)

Shortly after Dougal Haston set off for the skiing-jaunt that would kill him, his girlfriend was struck by the impulse to catch a last glimpse of him. She hurried upstairs and looked out over the route he had taken, but she was too late — he was already out of sight. That’s how Jeff Connors starts the book and the story is so appropriate that you start to wonder whether it’s true. Reading on you’ll discover that Haston was always hurrying, always in pursuit of the peak experiences that would lift him out of mundane reality and place him where he wanted to be: up with the Nietzschean Übermenschen he had studied during his never-completed philosophy degree in his hometown of Edinburgh. In a saner world, Mick Jagger might have been the Dougal Haston of popular music; as it is, Dougal Haston was the Mick Jagger of mountaineering, idolized around the world for his joli laid looks and his Byronic aura of tragic, suffering, misunderstood genius.

But it wasn’t only his looks that were odd: he was tall and slender but so “pigeon-toed” that people sometimes wondered how he managed to walk. It’s almost as though he was some new species of human, Homo montanus, mountain man, evolved for the sheer rock and ice of high altitude. A strange contrast with Britain’s other mountaineering genius of the 1960s and ’70s, the stocky, aggressive, almost ape-like Mancunian Don Whillans, born working-class like Haston but unlike Haston determined never to let people forget it. The two of them performed one of the great feats of twentieth-century mountaineering: the first ascent of the south face of the Himalayan massif Annapurna on an expedition organized by Chris Bonington in 1970.

Haston was Whillans’ protégé then, but he later rejected his mentor, casting one of the votes that kept “The Villain” off one of Bonington’s expeditions to Everest. Whillans didn’t voice open resentment, perhaps recognizing himself that his best days were behind him. Haston’s own position as one of the world’s five or six greatest mountaineers was beginning to be challenged when he died in 1977, strangled by one of his rock-star scarves after he was buried in an avalanche while skiing. And Connors hints earlier in the book that he might always have been in the shadow of another mountaineering genius from Edinburgh, Robin Smith.

But Smith died in 1962 on an expedition to the central Asian mountain range the Pamirs at the age of only twenty-three, and his full greatness remains only a might-have-been. Connors’ implied belittling of Haston there isn’t an isolated flaw: this is often a mean-spirited book and Connors sometimes seems to follow the motto De mortuis nihil nisi malum. The Californian John Harlin, a blond “Greek god” who died in a thousand-foot fall climbing the north face of the Eiger with Haston by the direttissima — straight up — comes in for a thorough kicking when he’s literally down. But perhaps that’s the kind of thing Connors enjoys most, as an ex-rugby player. He’s much more sympathetic with the first of Haston’s two big personal tragedies. The second was his own early death, the first the manslaughter of a hiker in a drink-driving accident in Scotland.

Haston’s distaste for publicity was increased by the court case and his two months in Glasgow’s justifiably notorious Barlinnie Gaol, and he never liked to be photographed smiling afterwards. The brooding melancholy or scowls by which he became known to the newspaper-reading public increased his legend and he found it relatively easy to earn his living by mountaineering, becoming a climbing-instructor in Switzerland.

But his students were often disappointed: expecting individual tuition from him, they could easily find him “out of sight”, climbing too fast and too skilfully for mere mortals to match. His appointment as the director of the international climbing school at Leysin in Switzerland precipitated his death, when he translated his taste for mountaineering in extremis to the ski-slopes and took one risk too many. Some of those who knew him were surprised only that he died skiing and not climbing, like so many of his friends and colleagues. Even the most careful and safety-conscious mountaineer places his life in the lap of the mountain-gods every time he climbs. But without risk there is no rush. Although Connors dismisses the suggestion that Haston had a death-wish, it’s certain he had a defy-death-wish. “Genius” is an over-used term but Haston’s achievements — Eigerwand by the direttissima, south face of Annapurna, south-west face of Everest — speak for themselves and will continue to do so long into this century.

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Front cover of Steve Backshall's Most Poisonous CreaturesSteve Backshall’s Most Poisonous Creatures, Steve Backshall (New Holland 2013)

As the BBC naturalist Steve Backshall says in his introduction: “Human beings have an unhealthy obsession with any animal that can maim or mutilate, and those that deliver venom are obviously high on our fascination list.” But is it unhealthy? It’s wise to pay attention to dangerous things and it’s possible that some animals in this book have become part of our DNA. Human beings were once monkeys and monkeys have an instinctive fear of snakes (though it needs to be primed). If there’s an instinctive fear of snakes, why not of spiders and scorpions too?

There are lots of snakes in this book, but not so many spiders and few scorpions. The latter two are a more specialized taste and a popular book doesn’t want too many of them. Snakes often inspire respect, spiders and scorpions often inspire repulsion. As do centipedes and cane-toads. Some venomous animals look villainous, some poisonous ones look painful. Some don’t. Phyllobates terribilis is “believed to have enough poison to kill ten men”. But it’s a harmless-looking golden frog shown here perched on a scarlet flower (pg. 10). If you saw one, you’d feel like picking it up. Which would be a very bad idea.

That also applies to the two species of blue-ringed octopus, Hapalochlaena lunulata and H. maculosa, found around the Australian coast. Again, it’s a very bad idea to pick one up: “one tiny, golf-ball-sized octopus can have enough venom to kill 26 people” (pg. 115). That combination of delicacy and deadliness gives a special power to the poison-dart frogs and the blue-ringed octopus. Australia’s deadliest snake is more conventionally disturbing:

The most powerful venom, drop for drop, is produced by the inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidatus): a single drop from this beautiful snake is enough to kill 250,000 mice and by extrapolation, 100 people! However, no-one has ever been killed by one. This is mainly because they are shy snakes that tend to avoid human contact. (pg. 120)

Australia is famous for strange and dangerous wildlife, but its cars are much deadlier than its snakes or octopuses. Less dangerous, but even stranger is the duckbilled platypus, Ornithorhyncus anatinus. Very few mammals lay eggs and very few use venom. The platypus does both, though not at the same time: the females lay eggs and the males use venom, injecting it with “moveable spurs on the rear legs” (pg. 118). One Vietnam veteran who experienced a platypus sting said it was more painful than a bullet-wound.

But there’s even more toxicological strangeness in that part of the world: Papua New Guinea has at least one poisonous bird, Pitohui dichrous, the hooded pitohui. It uses the batracho-toxins first discovered in, and named for, the poison-dart frogs of South America, just as the blue-ringed octopus uses the tetrodotoxin first discovered in, and named for, the pufferfish, Tetraodontidae spp. All these groups get their deadly chemicals from their diet: insects, plankton and so on.

So why don’t they die from their diet? That’s one of the interesting questions about the animals in this book: their venoms and poisons have to be dangerous to others and harmless to themselves. It’s a question of chemistry, one way or another. Either the animal has a way of neutralizing the effects of its own poisons or it stores them away from the rest of its body, creating some kind of barrier to their spread. Richard Dawkins has described evolution as a blind watchmaker, but the watchmaker is really a chemist. And an electro-chemist. Nerve-signals, and the toxins that interfere with them, don’t run on copper wires. They flash through flesh instead, carrying the pain of a bite or sting. Or the patterns of a dangerous animal’s skin or scales: it pays to advertise when you’re poisonous. And perhaps some feathers are advertising too: Backshall suggests the birds of paradise on New Guinea may look spectacular as a warning for predators, not simply as a signal for mates.

Poisonous birds are a recent discovery and there may be more surprises in store: biology is a big field, though Backshall ends the book by noting that it’s getting smaller. More people mean less space for fewer animals and pollution is the deadliest poison of all. Another big poison is television: it dulls more brains and stifles more minds than anything Mother Nature ever devised. But this book wouldn’t exist without TV and Homo sapiens is part of nature, just like shrews, salamanders and slow lorises. We’ve just added more complexity to the game of evolution: we haven’t escaped it. The rules that apply to animals also apply to us and toxicology is one of the most interesting areas of biology. This is a good introduction full of photos, folklore and facts about everything from snakes, octopuses and platypuses to jellyfish, water-boatmen and the Komodo dragon.

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Front cover of Mo Mowlam by Julia LangdonMo Mowlam: The Biography, Julia Langdon (Little, Brown 2000)

(A revision of a review first written in 2005)

When you’re poisonous, it pays to advertise. When you’re not poisonous, it pays to steal that advertising. Wasps have distinctive yellow-and-black stripes, and so do some harmless moths. They’ve evolved to mimic wasps without running the physiological costs of actually being poisonous. It’s cheaper to pretend than to be, in other words, and in nature pretence works. In politics, where mimicry has evolved too, it only works in the short term, because politics is based on promises of delivering good, not threats of doing harm. So you’re in trouble if you can’t find a good excuse for failing to deliver.

Mo Mowlam managed to get some good excuses for not meeting her lying promises, but I don’t think Tony Blair will. Whether he does or not, I can’t understand why people saw Mowlam as such a “refreshing” contrast to Blair. They were very similar in many ways. Like Blair, Mowlam was a not-very-bright egomaniacal fake whose success was based on manipulation and deceit. But in fact she was helped to escape detection by the media’s desire to set a villain, Blair the Liar, off against a heroine, Holy Mo. We don’t like to think that the alternative to a bad ruler might be equally bad or worse, and Mo was a kind of Queen across the Water for those suffering under bad King Tony. Her ill-health and the undoubted malice shown to her by Blair and his cronies added to her romantic image, and when she died in August 2005 the UK even relapsed briefly into mild Di-mentia.

But Mowlam is now sliding back into deserved oblivion. Why she deserves that oblivion is explained by this book. And I suspect that this was part of the author’s intention, though probably not in a fully conscious way. Langdon may have thought she was producing a “balanced” portrayal of her subject’s “complex” personality, but when someone is supposed to be honest and “unspun”, evidence that she can be deceitful and calculating doesn’t so much balance her honesty as suggest that it’s fake. Langdon describes Mowlam calling loudly for a drink in a bar at the House of Commons “because I’ve got the curse” (ch. 8, pg. 171) and either not noticing the “slight frisson” this caused or not caring. But Langdon goes on:

Some of her colleagues are convinced, however, that she actually sets out to shock or take people by surprise as part of a deliberately considered strategy. There is some evidence for this. For example, in an interview for the Mail on Sunday in early 1998, the writer and photographer waited to see the Northern Ireland Secretary for quite some time in an anteroom. She suddenly burst into the room wearing no shoes, no wig and no jacket, and on seeing them exclaimed in apparent surprise in a fruity four-letter way. The reporter, Louette Harding, wrote that the freelance photographer who was with her later disclosed privately that he had photographed Mo Mowlam before for another publication in London, and that, curiously, exactly the same thing had happened on that occasion. He had waited, she had burst in, appeared aghast, done a double-take and then cursed in surprise. (ch. 8, “‘I have as much right to be there as they have’: Westminster 1987-1991”, pp. 171-2)

Langdon’s conclusion is that the “surprise tactics she employs helped present her at Westminster and later to the wider world as someone who was different, a woman who was prepared to challenge the norm” (pg. 172). If that’s an admiring assessment of Mowlam’s behaviour, it’s a cynical one too. However, Langdon says elsewhere that Mowlam’s “spontaneity” — in this case a comment to a male reporter about the discomfort of a new bra — is “quintessential Mo” and “the way she is”. So perhaps Langdon wasn’t expecting her readers to read between the lines of other anecdotes, like this one from Mowlam’s time as an MP in the north-eastern constituency of Redcar:

On one occasion she dropped a friend back at a junction in Grangetown late at night and a passer-by mistakenly thought she was a taxi-driver. He climbed in the back of her car, giving an address as he did so, and rather than pointing out his error she drove off. They started a conversation and a few minutes into the journey he recognized her voice and was quite naturally horrified at his presumption. ‘You’re all right. I’m going that way. I’ll drop you off,’ said his MP. (ch. 9, “‘I’ll be back to see you after’: Redcar 1987-1995”, pg. 192)

But was she going that way before she realized the opportunity the mistake had given her? A story like that would quickly spread, adding to the “Good old Mo” legend, and Langdon goes on to describe how “this popular and saintly woman who is regularly mobbed on the streets of Redcar can also get very angry when she doesn’t get what she wants from her staff” (pp. 192-3). Then Langdon seems to slip back into naïve Mo-groupie mode: Mowlam’s failure to match casual acts of kindness to strangers with consideration for her own staff is explained by the fact that she was “‘driven’ — partly by the impetus provided by her background, partly by her profound political beliefs and partly by fear of failure” (pg. 194). Langdon seems to forget here the way she has shown elsewhere that Mowlam didn’t have any profound political beliefs: like Blair, she was a “pragmatist” who avoided commitment to any particular group as much as she could. She wasn’t particularly left-wing or particularly right-wing, and she didn’t identify herself as a feminist. She was just “good old Mo”… except to those perceptive few who claimed she was devious and a control-freak.

This absence of ideology — and principle — helps explain why Mowlam and Blair were such close allies in the beginning, but she soon fell out with the homosexual cliques that surrounded Blair and Gordon Brown, as Langdon hints when she reports what “one Labour MP” has told her: “People were jealous of her because she was pretty and personable and popular. This MP said: ‘Nick Brown couldn’t bear Mo being close to Gordon. He couldn’t bear a woman being close to Gordon.’” (ch. 8, pg. 186) And yes, Mowlam was attractive before her brain-tumour and the treatment that made her put on weight and lose her hair. Before she revealed she was ill, one female journalist infamously described her as looking like “an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker” (ch. 11, pg. 264). But that masculine side always seems to have been there: she looks like a boy in some of the childhood photos reproduced here and her features were always large, solid, and rounded.

I’d diagnose the higher-than-average testosterone levels that seem to be characteristic of female politicians, and that may also have manifested themselves in Mowlam’s “earthiness”: her swearing, her enthusiasm both for sex and for talking about sex, and her endearing habit — to some — of helping herself to other people’s food and drink. She was extrovert in a masculine way, in other words. Testosterone helps explain why men are more extrovert on average than women and also more ambitious. Langdon doesn’t use biological explanations like that, of course, preferring to use Mowlam’s early environment instead. Mowlam had an alcoholic father and sought escape from her childhood demons first in academic success, becoming a professor of politics, and then in politics itself.

But she doesn’t seem to have been very intelligent and Langdon’s naïvety and Moöphilia may be apparent in her description of Mowlam’s preparation for her role as “Spokeswoman on City and Corporate Affairs“ in Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet:

She worked, as ever, extraordinarily hard. Night after night she could be seen walking down the Library Corridor in the Commons with a huge pile of books in her arms. She had no particular expertise in City affairs and she had some catching up to do, but she was going to get on top of this portfolio and she was going to prove that she could make it a success. (ch. 8, pg. 181)

Well, she “could be seen” carrying “a huge pile of books”, but did she ever read them? As on many other occasions, Mowlam is doing something ostentatious or flamboyant that will be talked about. But, like the warning yellow-and-black stripes on a harmless moth, there may have been no substance behind it. I remember hearing or reading her admit in an interview that when she had that job in the Shadow Cabinet and hadn’t prepared properly for a meeting with financiers, she would go and ask them to explain what they thought, which she knew they were always happy to do. Meanwhile (I assume), she nodded and looked intelligent. Langdon reports that later, after Labour achieved power and Mowlam was appointed Northern Ireland secretary, she

prepared diligently for this post and impressed her friends and colleagues … with her degree of application. [One of them] came across her studying a calendar she had compiled containing all the dates and anniversaries of historic and political consequence in Irish history. (ch. 12, “‘Discipline Before Desire’”, pg. 265).

Had she set that encounter up too? Either way, her calendar doesn’t seem to have helped her much in Northern Ireland, but success there would have been beyond a much more intelligent and capable woman. Peter Mandelson, another homosexual in Blair’s inner circle who fell out with Mowlam, began to brief against her as he manoeuvred for her job. Some of what he said does seem to have been true: her brain-tumour was affecting her judgment. After all, when she left Northern Ireland she started to believe her own hype and wanted to become Foreign Secretary. Surprisingly, the acerbic cartoonist Gerald Scarfe believed her hype too, because as she was being pushed out of favour he portrayed her as a puzzled and unhappy dove of peace with the title “Mo Grounded”. It’s the last photo in the photo section and would be the lasting image of Mo Mowlam: a good and decent woman done down by dark forces.

Well, there’s enough evidence in this book to show that this image is false, though she does seem to have been targeted after the standing ovation she received during a speech by Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference in 1998. He mentioned “our one and only Mo”, and then had to pause for “90 seconds” of applause touching “110 decibels on the clapometer” (ch. 12, pg. 299). It’s said that Blair’s lieutenants — people are still reluctant to admit the sickness starts at the top — disliked both the ovation and the polls that showed she was more popular than he was, and set out to undermine and isolate her.

If so, it was a falling-out among thieves. Although Mowlam’s illness and death were sad, she and Blair were very similar. Like him, she was a fake who used politics as a stage for her own self-serving psychodrama. I felt sorry for her when she deteriorated intellectually in the final days of her illness, lapsing into a kind of amiable premature senility, but then I’d feel sorry for Blair in the same circumstances. It wouldn’t undo the harm he’s done to British politics or excuse his earlier deceit and dishonesty, and the same goes for “Mo” Mowlam.

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“Look,” I whispered, “there’s Harold Acton.” — Words on Waugh’s World from Emlyn Williams.

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