Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon &the-phantom-atlas-by-edward-brooke-hitching Schuster 2016)

I love maps. There’s something magical and mind-transporting about them, but the maps in this book are even more special than usual. They don’t transport your mind elsewhere, they transport your mind nelsewhere – to places that never existed, but might have done.

Or did they once exist? That’s one of the fascinating things. In some cases, phantom islands have been seen by more than one ship and in more than one year. Sometimes reports came in for centuries. Sometimes phantom islands have appeared on Google maps, like Sandy Island or Île de Sable, “northeast of Australia” (pp. 206-7). Possibly first discovered by James Cook in 1774, it was “undiscovered”, as Edward Brooke-Hitching puts it, in 2012, when a group of Australian scientists tried to find it and failed.

But perhaps it really exists and was simply mislocated. Even the most skilful navigators could go astray in the long years before electronics and position-fixing satellites. Or perhaps it lived up to its name and was washed away. That may have happened to more substantial land-masses:

Tracing the cartographic history of the island of Mayda is like tracking a spy through a series of forged identities, although, as it moves about the North Atlantic over the years, adopting a range of names and shifting in shape, it never quite escapes recognition. Mayda is one of the oldest and most enduring of phantoms, stubbornly clinging to the skin of maps for more than five centuries; it was one of the last mythical North Atlantic islands to be expunged. But in a strange twist, it may be that the phantom label is too readily applied. (“Mayda”, pg. 158)

The strange twist, Edward Brook-Hitching goes on to say, is that a ship’s captain south of Greenland “decided to measure the depth” of the supposedly very deep water he was passing over, “perhaps noticing a variation in water colour” (pg. 161). Water that was supposed to be “2400 fathoms” deep turned out to be only “24 fathoms”: there appeared to be a sunken island beneath the ship.

Or was there? Probably not, but islands do indeed come and go, as volcanoes vomit them to life and the sea swallows them again. Mountains come and go too, but over much longer stretches of time, so it’s unlikely that any of the phantom mountains here really existed. The Mountains of the Moon certainly didn’t. They were supposed to be the source of the Nile and appeared prominently on maps when “virtually nothing was known of Africa by Europeans” (pg. 162). Sir Richard Burton tried to reach them in the nineteenth century, during the great age of African exploration, and helped prove they didn’t exist. By then, another African legend was long discredited: the Kingdom of Prester John had melted away into legend.

He was supposedly a Christian king who sent a letter to “Manuel I Komnenon, Emperor of Byzantium” (pg. 194) in the twelfth century, claiming “enormous wealth and power” and descent from the Three Magi of Matthew’s Gospel. The letter proved to be a forgery and historians have long speculated about the identity and motives of the forger. But belief in Prester John took a long time to die and his kingdom appeared on many maps before explorers laid it finally to rest.

Prester John is a legend that most readers will probably have heard of before, like Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu and El Dorado. But it’s good to have them collected here in one book with lots of more obscure legends, from “Crocker Land”, the “Isle of Demons” and “Australia’s Inland Sea” to the “Sunken City of Vineta”, “Wak-Wak” and the “Phantom Lands of the Zeno Map”. The maps and drawings are always interesting, often beautiful, and Brooke-Hitching doesn’t stick strictly to geographic phantoms: he also has chapters on the “Sea Monsters of the Carta Marina”, Olaus Magnus’s “hugely influential and imaginative map of Scandinavia” from 1539, and the “Creatures of the Nuremberg Chronicle Map” from 1493.

This book is indeed a cartophile’s delight, detailed in its text and delightful in its imagery, but I would have liked a little more than maps and cartography. The chapter on the Mountains of the Moon or the Kingdom of Prester John could easily have incorporated something about H. Rider-Haggard and King Solomon’s Mines (1885) or Alan Quatermain (1887), just as one of the chapters on the Pacific could easily have incorporated something about H.P. Lovecraft and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928). And something about At the Mountains of Madness (1936) could have gone into the chapter on Terra Australis.

As the maps were filled in and the phantoms were exorcised, imaginative writers like Haggard and Lovecraft invented new sources of wonder and mystery. R’lyeh is a phantom land in more senses than one and deserved some mention here. Lovecraft would certainly have delighted in this book and drawn inspiration from it. Its appeal is captured in a story about Pedro Sarmiento, a Spanish explorer taken prisoner by Sir Walter Raleigh. He was questioned about “his maps of the Strait of Magellan” and “one particular island, which seemed to offer potential tactical advantage.” Sarmiento replied that

…it was to be called the Painter’s Wife’s Island, saying that, whilst the Painter drew that map, his Wife sitting by, desired him to put in one Countrey for her, that she in her imagination might have an island of her own. (Introduction, pg. 10)

When we look at maps, we all have islands of our own.

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Plankton Wonders of the Drifting World by Christian SardetPlankton: Wonders of the Drifting World, Christian Sardet (The University of Chicago Press 2015)

Originally published in French as Plancton, aux origines du vivant, this is a big book on a tiny subject. A microscopic subject, in fact. Or mostly so:

It is not easy to collect and study a drifting ecosystem consisting of a vast multitude of organisms ranging in size from less than 1 micron to tens of meters, over 10-million-fold difference. The smallest beings are viruses, and then bacteria and archaea. The largest are threadlike colonial cnidarians (siphonophores such as Praya dubia) that can reach more than 50 meters when extending their fishing filaments. (Introduction, pg. 16)

Nothing unites these organisms except the way they drift on the ocean’s currents: “plankton” is from the same Greek root as “planet”, which is literally a wandering star. And if there is life on another planet or one of its moons, it may be no stranger than some of the organisms here. And may be less so. The faintly dizzying smell of ink that rose from the pages of the copy I looked at went well with the phantasmagoric colours and shapes on those pages. Some are beautiful, some are grotesque, all remind me of a line from Aquinas: Unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis – “One philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness that he might know the nature of a bee” (Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, 1273).

The philosopher at work here is the French marine biologist and planktonologist Christian Sardet, creator of the Plankton Chronicles project and a worthy heir to Jacques Cousteau, who sailed around the world to capture images of macroscopic life like whales, dolphins and squid. Sardet sails around the world to capture the microscopic.

In this, he’s also a worthy heir to Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who first popularized the beauty of microscopic marine life in books like Kunstformen der Natur (1904), or “Artforms of Nature”. His books truly were art, because he illustrated rather than photographed his subjects, like the “siliceous skeletons of polycystine radiolarians” on page 85, which are reproduced from Kunstformen.

Something is lost in a photograph, but the door of technology can’t be closed now and some images could only be captured by a photograph, like the instant in which a misleadingly named predator meets its next meal on page 166:

The naked pteropod Clione limacia, or “sea-angel”, is a torpedo-like creature a few centimeters long. Furiously flapping its fins, it speeds through the water hunting its favorite prey, the coil-shelled thecosome pteropod Limacia helicina (lower left corner). On contact, Clione immediately ejects six buccal cones, grabs the prey, then eats it slowly with its raspy tongue. Clione roam the cold polar waters where they can reach high densities comparable to the tiny shrimp that constitute krill. Sea angels are themselves a major food for marine animals.

The photograph, “taken by Alexander Semanov in the White Sea” (off Russia), looks like a Lovecraftian deity descending on a Lovecraftian demon. Velella, a beautiful blue cnidarian that floats on the surface, propelled by the wind, is more like something from Clark Ashton Smith. There’s a photograph of a specimen of Velella about to be eaten, with gourmet-like delicacy, by a giant sun-fish.

Lovecraft and Smith would have enjoyed not just the images in this book, but the language too. The colours and shapes are phantasmagoric and so are the scientific names: from Asterionellopsis to Xystonella, from Phaeodactylum to Meganictyphanes. But the terminology is complex because it has to be and this is actually very clear writing:

These three spumellarian polycystines measure between 50 and 100 microns. To capture microscopic prey, they use membranous and cytoplasmic extensions, a peduncle called an axopode, and shorter extensions called rhizopodes that cover their entire surface. (pg. 79)

Christian Sardet translated this book himself from French with Dana Sardet and I’d like to sample it in the original. But Georgian would be even better: plankton should be written about in a strange language and beautiful alphabet. Of course, French and English are strange from the perspective of Georgian, but I don’t think the Roman alphabet could ever look beautiful to a Georgian. It’s functional and perhaps it’s good to have that contrast with the phantasmagoric.

If it is a contrast. Everything here is functional, no matter how strange or beautiful it seems:

Ctenophores owe their name to the Greek word ctene, referring to the minuscule combs comprised of thousands of fused cilia, arranged in eight rows on the gelatinous surface. The cilia of these comb plates are made of the same microtubular elements as those present in human cells. A simple nervous system controls the pulsating movement of the comb plates that act like tiny prisms, diffracting light in rainbow colors. (pg. 98)

No matter how remote ctenophores, diatoms, cephalopods, nudibranchs, tintinnids, chaetognaths and doliolids seem from humans, we have a common ancestor with them. And vertebrates are part of the plankton: larval fish drift there, so we were once part of it too. We mirror the world and the world mirrors us. But some parts of the mirror are more beautiful to look at than others and the world of plankton is certainly one of them.

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Drawing and Painting Plants by Christine BrodieDrawing and Painting Plants, Christina Brodie (A & C Black 2006)

A book that combines botany with beauty. Christina Brodie’s beautiful drawings of trees, flowers, leaves, fruit and seeds rely on a botanically trained eye. So it’s a textbook in two ways: artistic and scientific. The colours and shapes of plants please the eye; understanding those colours and shapes challenges the brain.

So does capturing them on paper with pencil, ink and paint. Art is an intelligent activity in more ways than one. Illustration has one big advantage over photography: the eye can be selective and adaptive in a way the lens can’t. When Christina Brodie drew a passion flower for page 31, she reduced it to its essentials to capture its structure: the three-pronged stigma, androgynophore, hinged anther, corona filament, perianth segments, and so on.

Colour and shading weren’t important, so she didn’t depict them. Elsewhere, she does: the autumn leaves on pages 96 and 97, for example. There are also two photographs on page 97 and they underline the advantage of illustration. Brodie’s leaves are isolated on stark white paper; her photographs have backgrounds and inessentials. Photography can’t focus and exclude in the way that illustration does and there’s no clear sense of purpose and mind in photography.

Nor does photography pay proper tribute to the complexity and depth of nature. A camera can record a leaf in the same time and with the same ease as it records a forest. Or record a star with the same easy as a galaxy. If photography is an art, it’s a lazy one. There’s nothing lazy about botanical art and some of the power of this book comes not just from the obvious skill of the artist but also from her implicit patience and perseverance. We see in an instant what sometimes must have taken hours to create.

So art is a ritual that pays proper respect to the deep evolutionary time that is also implicit in this book. From fruits and flowers to ferns and fungi: plants come in a huge variety of forms and have been evolving and diversifying for hundreds of millions of years. Anyone who opens this book will see that for themself, but botanical artists like Christina Brodie appreciate it more deeply. She’s a highly skilled artist and thanks to printing she’s able to share her skill with many others.

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Guide to Garden Wildlife by Richard LewingtonGuide to Garden Wildlife, Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing 2008)

Richard Lewington illustrated the excellent Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe (2006). Here he’s both illustrator and author, describing and depicting the many species of mammal, reptile, bird, insect, arachnid and mollusc that can be found in a British garden. But that list isn’t exhaustive: millipedes and centipedes aren’t insects or arachnids:

Luminous Centipede Geophilus carpophagus

Dark and sombrely marked, this centipede is sometimes known as the “glow worm” as it gives off phosphorescent light at night. Found under loose bark and fallen logs, and in damp sheds and buildings. Widespread, it appears to be essentially coastal in northern England and Scotland. (“Chilopoda”, pg. 164)

Centipedes are strange animals. Luminous ones are even stranger. But glowing-in-the-dark isn’t the greatest feat of Geophilus carpophagus. Like all other centipedes, it has to solve complex biomechanical problems with an exigent allocation of neurons. As Lewington notes, centipedes are elusive, fast-moving and predatory. But they have flexible bodies that are never in the same orientation twice. Some very interesting algorithms must be at work in their brains and bodies.

In a more general sense, that’s true of every page in the guide proper, with Lewington’s drawings of beautiful or bizarre animals facing potted summaries of their behaviour and habitats. Evolution is a kind of algorithm and every species in this book, from the sparrowhawk, Accipiter nisus, on page 49 to the horse leech, Haemopis sanguisuga, on page 195, has a common ancestor. So evolution is the greatest artist of all, working with matter and energy to create millions of variations on that common ancestral theme.

But the human brain is also a product of evolution, so this book is actually part of nature. That would be true even if it used photographs, but I prefer illustrations. Photography is literally “writing with light”, but a camera is a mindless mechanism. Richard Lewington understands light and had to struggle as he learnt how to capture it on paper. By drawing nature, you acquire a deeper understanding of the richness and complexity of nature. When you draw as well as Richard Lewington and his brother Ian, who supplied the bird illustrations here, you can initiate the unartistic and bring them at least across the threshold of nature’s temple. There’s something magical and ritualistic in illustration that isn’t found in photography and a book like this is as much as an aesthetic experience as an intellectual one.

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The World of Visual Illusions by Sarcone and WaeberThe World of Visual Illusions: Optical Tricks That Defy Belief!, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber (Arcturus 2012)

A bigger, better and brain-bendy-er version of Eye Bogglers by the same authors, The World of Visual Illusions has nine chapters of old and new illusions. The illusions aren’t just entertaining: they raise some very profound philosophical and scientific questions and teach you some important lessons. For example, on page 97 there’s a simple arrangement of multi-coloured blocks and thick black lines. But Sarcone and Waeber ask this: “Do you perceive bright ‘ghost’ blobs or smudges at the intersection of the lines?”

I do and so will almost everyone else. But when I look directly at a blob or smudge, it disappears. Why? What’s going on? No-one knows for sure: “there are many explanations and counter-explanations regarding this illusion, which is related to the Hermann grid illusion.” So this illusion is multum in parvo: much in little. It’s very simple, but it baffles modern science. And, like many other illusions here, it teaches you that your senses aren’t reliable. They can be subverted and you aren’t in control of what your eyes tell you. Even when you know that the lines on page 109 are “perfectly straight and parallel”, it’s impossible to see them like that because of the background they’re set against.

That kind of trickery can also be applied to words and ideas, and although Sarcone and Waeber don’t talk about advertising or politics, the implications are obvious. Appearances can be deceptive and simple things may have hidden depths. So may complicated things: Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) would be a rich and detailed painting even without the anamorphic skull that hovers between the feet of its two subjects. Sarcone and Waeber give the painting a page and a handful of words, but there’s enough there for a long book (John Carroll analyses the painting in a chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture).

There’s enough in the other illusions here for a library, but you don’t have to puzzle over how they work if you don’t want to. We aren’t all equal in intellect or education, but vision is much more egalitarian and this book will entertain all ages and all levels of intelligence. What you experience in an instant can take decades or even centuries for scientists to understand:

It looks like this cat has green eyes. Actually, only one eye is green – the other one is shown in black and white but seems tinted because of the purple context. Thanks to a mechanism of colour adaptation, the brain desensitizes itself to the purple veil which covers the right side of the cat’s face and by doing that it subtracts a bit of purple from the gray eye, which then become yellowish-green. (pg. 120)

I’d like to see Sarcone and Waeber look at other senses. Sight is the most important and powerful sense for human beings, but the ears, nose, mouth and skin can also be illuded. And what about the role of illusions in biological competition and evolution? It’s a big field, often fun, always fascinating.

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Drawn from Paradise by Richard Attenborough and Errol FullerDrawn from Paradise: The discovery, art and natural history of the birds of paradise, David Attenborough and Errol Fuller (Collins 2012)

A book about feats for the eyes that also is a feast for the eyes. The second set of eyes are human; the first are avine – specifically, the eyes of female birds of paradise. The gorgeous plumage of the males has been created by female preference over many generations. The more attractive a male’s feathers and the more energetically and skilfully he displays, the more likely he has been to mate and leave offspring. As the most attractive males in each generation are selected, so the features that make them attractive grow ever more exaggerated, even – or especially – if they become a handicap in escaping predators and so on.

Darwin called this “sexual selection” and it’s most famous in the peacock. Peahens are drab and inconspicuous by comparison, but they are the driving force for the spectacular feathers of the male. If peacocks didn’t exist, would any artist have been able to create them? I don’t think so. The same goes for the birds of paradise: it’s not just their beauty and extravagance that are astonishing. So is their variety. Some have golden feathers, some have scarlet, some have celestial blue. Some have plumes, some ruffs, some sprays, some wires and some “flank feathers” that rise “to form a perfect ellipse”, framing the male’s head during courtship (ch. 6, “The Sicklebills”, pg. 142).

That’s the brown sicklebill, Epimachus mayeri. The superb bird of paradise, Lophorina superba, does something even stranger, raising a cape of feathers on its back to create a kind of cone around its head, in the shadow of which two white head-feathers glimmer like eyes. But it wasn’t until artists saw these birds in the wild that they knew precisely how to represent them. Before that, they’d used guesswork and inevitably got many things wrong. For a long time, as Attenborough describes, artists were working from dead specimens, sometimes traded several times before they reached Europe and sometimes lacking their wings and feet. This gave rise to the legend that the birds floated rather than flew, living permanently in the sky till they died and fell to earth. Hence the name “birds of paradise”:

In 1522 the first of many, many bird of paradise plumes arrived in Europe. Within just months they attracted the attention of a celebrated artist, Hans Baldung Grien. His picture may have been a comparatively flimsy affair, but it began a tradition among artists that has continued to this day. The list of artists who have felt compelled to paint or draw birds of paradise is studded with some illustrious names: Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Millais. Then there are men who actually specialised in painting birds: [Jacques] Barraband, [Josef] Wolf, [William] Hart, [John] Gould, [John Gerrard] Keulemans. And, of course, there are modern painters. Walter Weber produced a series of iconic images for The National Geographic magazine during the early 1950s. William T. Cooper illustrated two major monographs on birds of paradise, and Raymond Ching is known throughout the world for his poetic and highly charged paintings. (Introduction, pg. 32)

The work of these artists illustrates the book. There are no photographs, just paintings, drawings and engravings from the six centuries during which Europeans have been fascinated and dazzled by the Paradisaeidea. Errol Fuller, the co-author of the book, is one of the artists. He’s a skilful painter, but he has to be: birds of paradise are challenging subjects, the visual equivalent of a complicated piece for violin or piano. An artist has to have full command of colour and line. The artists here do: you can almost smell the jungle in some modern paintings.

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis

But that realism is the influence of photography and of personal observation. The Frenchman Jacques Barraband (1761-1809) never got to Papua New Guinea or northern Australia, so he never saw the living birds, but he remains one of the great paradiseans, able to bring dead specimens to life on canvas. The biographical section at the end of the book, describing “People Associated with the Discovery and Visual Representation of Birds of Paradise”, says this:

Despite the incredible beauty of his images, and the great influence they have had, comparatively little is known of Jacques Barraband and it has not proved possible to find a portrait of him. He was the son of a weaver, and it seems he worked originally as a tapestry designer at Gobelin’s, and later turned his hand to decorating porcelain at the famous factory in Sèvres. (pg. 236)

So we know he existed, but we don’t have an image of him. The opposite applies to some birds of paradise: we have images, but don’t know whether they ever existed. Some paintings and drawings are mysterious. Are they are invented or based on real specimens that are now lost? Birds of paradise often hybridize, adding more phantasmogoric variety to the family, and a few species may have gone extinct or be awaiting re-discovery.

Those are tantalizing prospects, but the biological interest of this book isn’t confined to birds. The biographical section at the back contrasts with what’s gone before. Birds of paradise come in many colours and shapes, but the “People Associated with” their “Discovery and Visual Representation” are overwhelmingly white males of northern European ancestry. They’re the ones who have created the beautiful art and run the enormous risks. New Guinea has always been a dangerous place, with its fast rivers, mountainous terrain, violent tribes and tropical diseases. That’s why it attracted one of the twentieth century’s greatest adrenalin-junkies:

Adventurer, bar-fly, beachcomber, boxer, brawler, drifter, entertainer, freedom fighter, lover, platypus and bird fancier, prospector, self-confessed thief, sailor, writer, Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn [1909-59] packed every conceivable human activity into his whirlwind tour through life. He starred in almost 60 films, wrote two novels and an autobiography, before dying at the comparatively early age of 50 from the effects of a totally worn-out body. (pg. 240)

I was surprised to find Errol Flynn here, but his presence and the quote about collecting birds of paradise from his memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1960) make the book even stranger and even more satisfying to read. White men like Flynn are as spectacular for their achievements as male birds of paradise are for their plumage. Perhaps sexual selection explains both sets of phenomena. Certainly some kind of evolution does, because genetics are responsible for the feats of both. There is much more to this book than birds, but phantasmagoric feathers are why it’s such a feast for the eyes.

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Miller's Field Guide Glass by Judith MillerMiller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Glass is a magical substance. How can something solid be transparent or translucent? How can it become soft and malleable when heated, so that it can be moulded into infinitely many shapes? Well, glass can and glass has been for thousands of years. This attractive little guide begins with the “Ancient Glass” of the Egyptians and Romans, then moves forward to begin a detailed survey of British glass. There’s a big gap between “ancient” and “British”: “virtually no glass was produced in Britain before the late 16thC and all supplies of glass were imported” (pg. 14).

In talking about glass, it’s also talking about history, because changes in technology and fashion were inevitably reflected in glassware. But glass has its own evolutionary path too: “Lead crystal was developed in 1676 by the British glassmaker George Ravenscroft. It used a high proportion of lead oxide to create a relatively soft, brilliant glass that was suitable for cut and engraved decoration” (pg. 8). New techniques were invented and old techniques re-discovered as glassmakers learnt how to make their glass more delicate and more colourful.

After British glass, the book looks at France, then glass from Holland, Central Europe, Scandinavia and Italy. Finally there are “American Glass” and a brief section on “Chinese glass”. It’s a small book devoted to a big subject full of beautiful objects: glasses, decanters, claret jugs, bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, scent bottles, stained glass, and sculpture. I could have named only two glassmakers when I opened it: Lalique and Tiffany. They’re both here:

Technically challenging and rare, cire perdue (lost wax) casts are the most eagerly sought of the Lalique glass output. A model for the design was made in wax and this was encased in clay or plaster to create a mould. This was heated to allow the wax to flow out of the mould. Molten glass was then poured into the mould. (pg. 126)

Son of the American jeweller Charles Tiffany, Louis Comfort visited Europe and the Middle East, where he was inspired by decorative styles and forms from many countries. On his return he founded the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. in 1892, and in 1902 he became art director of his father’s company, Tiffany & Co. (pg. 189)

But with Lalique and Tiffany are many other designers and manufacturers who have enchanted the world with the magic of glass: Gabriel Argy-Rousseau, James Couper & Sons, Daum Frères, Josef Hoffman, George Davison & Co., Wilhelm Kralik Sohne, Stevens & Williams.

The colours and shapes of their work are beautiful, and so is the fragility. If glass were indestructible, it would be less magical. It’s like a butterfly or flower: beautiful but fragile. Unlike a butterfly or flower, however, it will retain its beauty if it’s handled carefully. Living with glass is like living with fragments of rainbow, brought to earth and sculpted by magicians’ hands. The natural world certainly inspired many of the objects here: Lalique is famous for his dragonflies and fish, of course. He’s famous for his girls too: glass is a feminine substance, smooth, seductive and sinuous.

This book is an excellent introduction to its charms, explaining terms and prices and guiding the novice’s eye with questions:

Does the piece bear a mark of a crowned lion rampant over battlements?

Is there a polished pontil?

Is the glaze similar to Chinese peach-bloom glaze, in shades of cream to light or deeper rose pink?

Has the lampshade been reverse-painted with a landscape?

Is the piece a single colour of glass with carved or incised decoration?

And it notes that glass “is one of the few areas of antiques collecting where items are still relatively undervalued, unlike silver or porcelain” (pg. 6). If you want to live with rainbows, Judith Miller tells you how.

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The Wreck of Western Culture by John CarrollThe Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

I hadn’t heard of John Carroll before I picked up this book, but I felt as though I’d read him before. The Wreck of Western Culture reminded me strongly of John Gray. But it’s much longer than Gray’s recent books and discusses art, music and film, not just literature. I also think Carroll is a deeper thinker and better writer. He’s an Australian professor of sociology, not an English philosopher, but his very clever and compelling analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) isn’t marred by jargon or pretension. Anyone who has looked at the painting and noticed the distorted skull hanging at the feet of the two ambassadors must have wondered why the skull is there.

Carroll supplies a convincing answer:

Death is the master, and there is no other. These eminences of the Renaissance have failed to find a place on which to stand. Their inner eye stares into the face of their Medusa, into nothingness, and they are stricken, blind, rooted to the spot. (ch. 3, “Ambassadors of Death: Holbein and Hamlet”, pg. 32)

Humanism, the attempt to make man the measure of all things, was a grand experiment that failed. Or so Carroll claims. His own response to the failure seems to be a suggestion that we make God the measure of all things again. He certainly doesn’t accept the strictures of perhaps his greatest predecessor in the study of nihilism: “What is so admirable about Nietzsche is that he saw clearly what was at stake, and refused to give up the hopeless struggle” (Prologue, pg. 5).

The Ambassadors (1533) Hans Holbein the Younge

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger

But the suggestion of a return to God is never fully explicit: he says at the very beginning that this book is about diagnosis, not prescription:

Doctors cannot recommend a cure if they are blind to the disease. I have begun the subsequent task – of ‘Where to now?’ – in later work, principally Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, 1998) and The Western Dreaming (HarperCollins, 2001). (Preface, pg. viii)

Does he recommend a return to God there? I’ll be interested to find out, but I think I’ll re-read this book first. His analyses of paintings, books and films may be mistaken, but they are profound and wide-ranging, conveying a strong sense of the richness of the art and culture he is discussing. But, like John Gray and many others, he betrays one great weakness in his analyses: he doesn’t seem to know much about science and statistics. History and culture are not simply about minds and ideas, but about biology and genetics too. Carroll is constantly discussing geniuses – Holbein, Caravaggio, Bach, Nietzsche – but he never discusses genius and its biological foundations. Ideas both shape human biology and are shaped by it. European history and European genius are distinct in part for biological reasons.

Like Gray, Carroll doesn’t acknowledge this. I suspect that he believes that the human race is one and indivisible. It isn’t. Science needs philosophical foundations, but philosophy benefits from scientific guidance. Carroll writes a lot about Protestantism and its proponents Luther and Calvin. But Protestantism had biological aspects, because Europeans aren’t one and indivisible either. Science may be contributing to the wreck of Western culture, but without it we will never understand the roots of that culture. You should bear that in mind if you try this clever and stimulating book.

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Freshwater Fish ed. by Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-ArayaThe Complete Illustrated Guide to Freshwater Fish & River Creatures, Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-Araya (Hermes House 2011)

Fresh-water fish are special in part because fresh water seemingly isn’t. It’s the transparent stuff that human beings drink and bathe in. It’s an everyday thing that, in most parts of the world, falls regularly from the sky. And yet very strange creatures live in it: fish, which breathe water and drown in air. That inversion of normality doesn’t seem so remarkable in the sea: the saltiness of the water doesn’t seem to contradict the strangeness of the citizens, as it were. Instead, saltiness and citizens go together.

The difficulty of keeping a marine aquarium seems appropriate too. What else should you expect? But a freshwater aquarium seems special in part because it’s so simple. Even if the water has to be heated, it still seems everyday, like bathwater. But it’s bathwater with aliens in it.

In truth, of course, it’s human beings who are the aliens. Water is where life began. Fish are still there, breathing in the natural way, not the unnatural one. The ocean is the womb of life and when life left the ocean, it had to find ways to re-create it. Blood is a portable ocean and human beings have gills for a time when they’re embryos. We were fish once. Fish still are. But they’ve continued to evolve and to find new habitats. As the introduction to this book points out, moving from the sea to fresh water is like moving from a continent to an island. The world shrinks and fresh-water fish don’t generally have such big ranges as marine ones. Some species are confined to single rivers or single lakes or even single pools, which makes them vulnerable to pollution and desiccation.

But some fish can survive desiccation:

West African lungfish, Protopterus annectens

This fish inhabits temporary swamps and floodplains. When these habitats start to dry, the fish buries itself in the mud and secretes a thin layer of slime around its body. This dries to form a fragile cocoon which helps to maintain moisture. By slowing its body metabolism, it can survive within this cocoon for a year or more, although it normally re-emerges within a few months, when the rains return. … Once the water within its burrow has [evaporated] it relies entirely on its primitive lung to obtain oxygen. (“Africa: Knifefish, Elephantfish, Bichir and Lungfish”, pg. 157)

So lungfish are a step towards life on land. Elsewhere, other fish step in other directions. Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel of South America, isn’t truly an eel but is truly alien. It uses electricity both as a weapon and as a sense, because it lives where vision isn’t always useful: in the “calm, turbid waters” of streams, rivers and swamps (“South America: Sharks, Rays, Sawfish and Electric Eel”, pg. 127). Some cave-dwelling fish have lost their eyes entirely, like Typhlichthys subterraneus, the southern cavefish of Tennessee and Kentucky (pg. 111).

But Toxotes chatareus, the archerfish of Asia and northern Australia, has excellent eyesight, because it can squirt jets of water and “shoot insects” from overhanging branches up to five feet away: “Once it has knocked its target into the water it darts across to snap it up” (“Asia and Oceania: Other Perch-Like Fish”, pg. 231).

This makes it popular with some aquarists. Other fish are popular for their appearance, not their behaviour. Fresh-water fish can’t match the range of colour and patterns found in salt-water fish, but a shoal of neon or cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon innesi and P. axelrodi, is like a cloud of swimming jewels. Surprisingly for such a well-known aquarium fish, the neon tetra is restricted “in the wild to the tributary streams of the Solimões River, which flows into the Amazon” (“South America: Tetras”, pg. 140).

The paintings here capture the beauty of both species: one of the good things about the natural history series to which this encyclopaedia belongs is that it uses paintings to illustrate the main text, not photography. Capturing the shine, shape and colour of fish is a challenge to artists, so when they meet the challenge their art rewards the observer. The amphibians, reptiles and mammals also covered here are less challenging, so less rewarding, but they’re few in number and fish dominate the book. I like that dominance and I like the maps that open each geographic section. Rivers and lakes are prominently marked, from the Amazon to the Mississippi, from the Nile to the Euphrates, from Lake Victoria to the Caspian Sea. There’s lots of interesting information here and lots of attractive art.

Fish are strange creatures and that strangeness seems to strengthen in that everyday liquid we call fresh water. But water is strange too, wherever you find it and whatever it tastes like. It’s still being studied, still throwing up surprises, despite the simplicity of its composition: two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen. We should remember that as we read books like this.

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Rise of the Super Furry Animals by Ric RawlinsRise of the Super Furry Animals, Ric Rawlins (The Friday Project 2015)

It’s hard to believe that the Super Furry Animals were ever signed to Creation Records. They write intelligent, inventive, innovative and attractive music. They don’t take themselves seriously. If you take the number of eyebrows in the band and divide by the number of people in the band, you usually get two. In short, Super Furry Animals are completely unlike Oasis.

But you’ll learn from this book that the money Creation made from Oasis was a big help to SFA. It’s a bit like manure and roses. And to be fair, Creation were about much more than Oasis. If you read this book, you’ll want to be fair. Like SFA’s music, it encourages you to be happy, not mean-spirited. SFA are about fun and phantasmagoria. Black Sabbath got their kicks by setting their drummer on fire. SFA get theirs like this:

Eight miles away, the army tank rolled over the hill. Attached to its missile turret were twin speakers pumping out a steady techno groove. The tank had been painted bright psychedelic blue, with thick yellow letters spelling out a simple question above its headlights: ‘A OES HEDDWCH?’ (Prologue, pg. 3)

The question is translated in a footnote: “Is there peace?” It seems simple in English, which is why seeing it in Welsh is a useful reminder of how strange language is. Geographically, Welsh exists right beside English. Linguistically, it’s on the opposite side of the globe, if not off the planet altogether. If Salvador Dalí had ever painted a language, it might have looked rather like Welsh. SFA have taken a lot of drugs, but the strangest they’ve ever taken is Welsh.

Apart from water, which is the strangest – and strongest – drug of all. They absorbed both with their mothers’ milk, because Welsh is their first language. But they’re not militant or exclusionary about it. Some Welsh-language Puritans have condemned them for singing in English. SFA want to communicate with as many people as possible. But not communicating is a kind of communication too. SFA have fun with their music and fun with their mother-tongue. In his “Furry File”, the drummer Dafydd Ieuan lists his “first song-writing attempt” as something from 1979 called “Llanaelhaearn Lleddf (Blues)”.

They used Welsh in the early part of their career, playing as Ffa Coffi Pawb (“Everybody’s Coffee Beans”), and this book is also useful as a primer to Welsh rock and indie. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Ankst Records were important in the rise of SFA. But so was their decision to use English. It meant that “some Welsh patriots considered the Furries to be culturally exiled”. But they’ve released albums entirely in Welsh, like Mwng (2000):

In one of the lighter moments on the record, the band found time to pursue their long-standing love of wordplay. ‘Drygioni’ is a song about good and evil duality; but the title is also funny to Welsh speakers, because ‘drygioni’ is phonetically close to the English word ‘drug’, though it usually translates as ‘mischief’ or ‘badness’. (ch. 17, pg. 177)

That use of Welsh is an extra layer for an extraordinary band. Or rather, it’s the first layer of all. Like most of their fans, Ric Rawlins is an outsider looking in on that part of their work, but he speaks their language perfectly, psychologically speaking. This book is a pleasure to read: no pretension, no obtrusive Guardianese, just lots of ideas and lots of entertainment. It seemed short, but there are a lot of crazy and cool characters here, from a golden-haired (and Welsh-speaking) Robert Plant to the Bohemian drug-dealer Howard Marks. Plus Robin Friday, “The Man [Who] Don’t Give a Fuck”. Or didn’t, during his brief but memorable footballing career.

There are a lot of strange and sometimes scary situations too, from driving in a techno-tank to partying in the Colombian jungle. You can also read about, and see, some of the art that has helped SFA become a unique but ever-evolving band. In the words of Gruff Rhys, Rise of the Super Furry Animals “sometimes hits on truths that are closer to what happened than what actually happened”.

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