Posts Tagged ‘human bio-diversity’

’Vile Vibes

In Plain Sight The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan DaviesIn Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, Dan Davies (Quercus 2014)

’Seventies nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Britain has reeled again and again at revelations about the sex-crimes committed by famous entertainers from that ever-more discredited decade. Gary Glitter, Jonathan King and Stuart Hall have all gone to jail. Rolf Harris will probably die there. But the biggest nonce of the lot got clean away:

Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, OBE; Knight of Malta, Knight of the Vatican, ‘Special’ Friend of Israel; Honorary Royal Marines Green Beret, Honorary Doctor of Law and Honorary Assistant Entertainment Officer at Broadmoor maximum security psychiatric hospital; miner, scrap metal merchant, inventor of the disco; racing cyclist, wrestler and marathon runner; pop Svengali, radio DJ and Top of the Pops presenter; charity fund-raiser, highly paid business consultant, hospital administrator; confidant of prime ministers and princes. (ch. 2, “Frisk Him”, pp. 18-9)

Savile got a lot done in his eighty-four years, but the public didn’t know the half of it. He was born poor and sickly in Leeds in 1926 and died in the same city in 2011, rich, famous and laden with honours. I didn’t live in the UK at the height of his fame, but I saw some episodes of his famous children’s programme Jim’ll Fix It, on which he made dreams come true for a lucky few of the many thousands of children who wrote to him every week: some “got to fly with the Red Arrows, blow up water towers or sing with The Osmonds” (ch. 2, pg. 13). I didn’t like Savile or his programme, but I always reasoned that he couldn’t be a paedo because he looked and acted so much like one.

That was Savile’s bluff: as Davies puts it, he was hiding in plain sight. After his death it gradually emerged that he had committed sex-attacks on children for decades, relying on his fame, cunning and peripatetic life to keep himself out of jail. He had narrow escapes and was even interviewed by the police, but he got to the end of his life unscathed. That’s why his highly expensive grave in Scarborough bore the jeering epitaph: “It Was Good While It Lasted”. Not that the jeer was immediately apparent: Savile was buried with honour and acclaim. But Davies opens this biography by describing what happened to the grave when the toxic truth got out:

The three 18-inch thick slabs of dark granite it had taken eight months to craft and to polish and to inscribe had been taken to a yard in Leeds where the fourteen hundred letters were ground down and the black granite smashed into tiny pieces for landfill. Nothing was to be left of the headstone and nothing was to be left to mark the spot where the coffin was buried beneath the earth. It was good while it lasted. (ch. 1, “Apocalypse Now Then”, pg. 8)

The title of that first chapter, “Apocalypse Now Then”, is a good example of what you’ll find in the rest of the book: black humour and bathos. There’s also a series of impossible-to-answer questions. What made Savile tick? How did he fool so many people for so long? You could ask the same questions about Tony Blair, a criminal on a much bigger scale, but there are two big differences between Savile and Blair. Unlike Blair, Savile was highly intelligent and a self-made man. Blair got to the top by serving powerful interests; Savile got to the top under his own steam. I’d also say that while Blair is a narcissist, Savile was an exhibitionist.

Long before Savile’s death, Davies saw through the exhibitionism and glimpsed the depravity beneath. At the age of nine, he attended the recording of an episode of Jim’ll Fix It “at a television studio in Shepherd’s Bush, west London” (ch. 2, pg 13). After watching Savile’s performance as a zany, dream-fulfilling jester, he came away with an uncomfortable feeling that “there was something remote and cold and untouchable beyond the façade”. Later, he read Savile’s autobiography, As It Happens (1974), and was disturbed again:

As a child of the Seventies and Eighties, I had heard all the playground rumours about Britain’s favourite uncle; we all had. Jimmy Savile was a weirdo and possibly worse; a poofter, a necrophiliac or a child molester. [When I was an adult] Friends thought I was joking when I spoke of my ‘Jimmy Savile’ dossier and how I was going to use it to bring him down one day. (ch. 2, pg. 15)

The rumours may have been completely true. Savile was a Charlie Chester who preferred girls but also molested boys. And he spent a lot of time with corpses during his unpaid stints as a “celebrity porter” in various hospitals. Davies didn’t get to bring him down, but his uneasy fascination with Savile never went away. After he grew up and became a journalist, he conducted some lengthy interviews with his “bogeyman” for a magazine called Jack (ch. 2, pg. 17). He never got to the truth: Savile was too clever for that. But his uneasiness grew and the interviews are the basis of this book. Savile speaks at length, relishing the battle of wits with Davies and revelling, no doubt, in the thought that his words would acquire their full feral-and-fetid meaning only after his death.

I was struck by the strangeness of his language. This is how he described a narrow escape from death in a plane:

“It was all a bit of fun. You’re gonna die, you didn’t die, very good. I had plenty of time to think about it because I was up in the air when we ran out of fuel. It didn’t bother me because I’m a bit odd. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re not.” (ch. 15, “Didn’t Die, Very Good”, pg. 117)

That’s English, but it’s “a bit odd”. If you know Savile’s voice, you can hear him speaking as you read. There’s something unsettling about the words and syntax he uses, not just the tone and manner that must have gone with them. I can’t point to exactly what it is, but I wonder if his language was influenced by brain damage or some other neurological abnormality. There was certainly something very odd about Savile’s brain, whether he was born that way or suffered a brain injury later, perhaps when he was hit by a collapsing roof during his time as a coal-miner (ch. 8, “The Power of Oddness”, pp. 65-6).

He claimed that he was “concussed”, but Davies couldn’t verify any details of the accident, not even the year it happened or whether it happened at all. Savile lied and distorted constantly, so nothing is certain about long stretches of his life. But something that suggests to me that he was brain-damaged later in life is the early photo of him that opens the book. He’s standing with his family as a boy, smiling happily and candidly at the camera. He’s the least odd-looking person in the photo. In fact he doesn’t look odd at all: just an ordinary, cheerful kid, albeit a clever-looking one.

In his photos as an adult, he definitely looks odd. The photo that opens Part Four is chilling: he’s sitting alone in a camper-van, dressed in dungarees and peering out of the window at a busy street with a blank, calculating expression on his face. You can’t put your finger on exactly why the photo is chilling, but it is. It screams “Nonce!” And many people besides Dan Davies were suspicious of Savile during his decades of fame. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t one of them, but it took her a long time to give him a knighthood, because her civil servants kept saying no: “Under the headings Benefactions, we have again considered the name of Mr Jimmy Savile, whom you have of course considered on previous occasions. We have concluded that he should not be recommended.” (ch. 53, “I am the boss – it’s as simple as that”, pg. 404)

The civil servants were right, Thatcher was wrong. But she had more excuse than the police and the BBC, who both come out of this book very badly. They missed numerous opportunities to stop Savile’s crimes and the BBC tried to maintain a cover-up as long as it could. Nevertheless, Savile was indeed a master manipulator, committing sex-crimes for decades against both sexes and all ages in TV studios, schools and hospitals up and down the country. He secured powerful friends and even managed to get an important position and unsupervised access at Broadmoor, the country’s most notorious psychiatric hospital. It was through Savile that Princess Diana seems to have got access to Broadmoor too. Diana was another fascinating fake who combined ostentatious charity-work with ghoulish interests, but she wasn’t a sex-criminal or a self-made woman and she didn’t achieve a fraction of what Savile did.

So how did he get away with it and fool so many for so long? His high intelligence was undoubtedly part of it, but so was his extraordinary energy: he lived like a blue-arsed fly, never staying long in any town or city, making and raising millions of pounds for himself and for charity while recording TV and radio shows, courting or fending off the media, and running dozens of marathons. Like Thatcher, he doesn’t seem to have needed much sleep or time for recuperation.

And like Thatcher, he is very interesting from the point of view of HBD, or human bio-diversity. What were the physiological and genetic bases of his intelligence, energy, will-power and dominance? What was his precise ancestry? We should be able to answer those questions one day. Other questions about Savile may never be answered, but Dan Davies does an excellent job of capturing the black comedy, bathos and chutzpah of his strange, sordid and sinister life. If you want to be right repulsively entertained, In Plain Sight will fix it for you.


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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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Dream Cars by Sam PhilipDream Cars: The Hot 100, Sam Philip (BBC Books 2014)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The UK would be much better off without the Three C’s: cars, canines and coos (i.e., pigeons*). I don’t like cars and I’m not interested in them. But I’m interested in why I’m not interested.

One reason is that I don’t find cars attractive. For me an attractive make of car is like an attractive breed of dog: it’s unusual. Ugliness is the rule with cars and dogs, not the exception. Planes are more like cats: ugliness is the exception, not the rule. But I can still find an ugly plane (like the A-10) interesting. And I like tanks, which are much more brutish than cars. However, tanks can be elegant too and they do something interesting: kill people and blow things up. And they have tracks, not large and obvious wheels like cars. The wheels on a car put me off. I think part of it is the way they contradict the chassis. A chassis points somewhere and looks purposeful. A wheel doesn’t, because it’s circular.

A-10 Thunderbolt

A-10 Thunderbolt

So this book did nowt for me. I don’t find cars attractive or interesting, I never have and I hope I never will. For me, the best thing in this book was linguistic, not locomotive: the two words “Lamborghini Murciélago”. They’re almost incantatory. But I have to admit that the car lives up to them: a “bewinged, four-wheel-drive beast capable of hauling from nought to 60mph in 3.2 seconds and running all the way to 212 mph” (pg. 139). I think “hauling” should be “howling”, though. That’s what beasts do, after all, and in their “promotional bumf, Lamborghini proudly boasts” that the car “emits a range of noises from ‘the trumpeting of mighty elephants to the roar of a raging lion’”.
Lamborghini Murciélago

Lamborghini Murciélago

But men make the beast. Italians, in this case. They’re one of four nations whose cars get sections to themselves: Great Britain, Germany, Italy, USA. Everyone else, from Sweden to Japan, is filed under “Rest of the World”. Like guns, cars demonstrate the importance of genetics for technology. Light-skinned races living at high latitudes are the only ones that matter, because they have the necessary intelligence. But the invention and innovation come from Europe. Within Europe, the art comes from Italy. I don’t feel it much myself, but I recognize that cars can be works of art. Lamborghini would make good use of Leonardo if he came back to life.

So I don’t agree with the claim that “when it comes to cars, Britannia still rules the waves” (pg. 7). But this book is aimed at fans of Top Gear and provocative opinioneering is part of TG’s USP. And it later notes that: “Top Gear has long maintained that you can’t be a true petrolhead until you own an Alfa [Romeo].” Being a petrolhead isn’t one of my ambitions, but that’s an interesting observation for a British programme to make. The presenters don’t write here, but there are constant references to “Clarkson” and his sidekicks Phil Hammond and James May. Sam Philip successfully mimics their slangy, ironic/hyperbolic, public-schoolboy style, presumably because he has the same background. And again I have to admit: though I hope I never see it again, Top Gear is an entertaining programme and I enjoy Jeremy Clarkson’s political incorrectness.

But he’s still a yob and an example of something I do find interesting about cars: their effect on human psychology. The late great Peter Simple prophesied Clarkson long ago when he invented J. Bonington Jagworth, who leads the militant Motorists’ Liberation Front and defends “the basic right of every motorist to drive as fast as he pleases, how he pleases and over what or whom he pleases”. Jagworth would have liked Dream Cars, although even he might have thought the cardboard 3-D glasses and blurry 3-D double-spreads were a bit undignified.

The 3-D photos didn’t work for me when I tried the glasses, so they went well with the glossy normal photos, which didn’t work for me either. Sleek shiny machines for driving fast in. Yawn. Give me planes any day. Or tanks. Or cats. But petrolheads will feel differently. As the introduction says: “If you love cars – and if you don’t, what are you doing here? – there’s never been a better time to be alive.” What was I doing here? Trying to understand better why I don’t love cars. I’ve succeeded.

*No, seriously.

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The Secret Footballer's Guide to the Modern GameThe Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game: Tips and Tactics from the Ultimate Insider, The Secret Footballer (Guardian Books 2014)

Who is the Secret Footballer? I don’t know. But he’s definitely a Guardianista. You can tell this by two things: 1) he’s passionately committed to the fight against “homophobia, sexism, racism and everything in between”; 2) he uses “in terms of” a lot. Interviewing another concealed component of the crypto-community, The Secret Physio, he asks this:

TSF: So would players need to train differently from one another in terms of the weights they lift and the core work they do? (ch. 1, “Getting Started”, pg. 14)

“Core” is also Guardianese and maybe he’s really interviewing himself, because the Secret Physio uses “in terms of” too. I didn’t spot the incendiary slam-dunk of a mixed metaphor anywhere, but he does claim that Wayne Rooney is “one of quite literally only a handful of players” who matter a lot to Manchester United’s profits (ch. 4, “It’s Football, But Not As We Know It”, pg. 116). So case proven: he’s a Guardianista.

But he’s also worth reading and this is his most interesting book. He talks about world football and the game in general, not just his life in the Premier League, and he seems to know his stuff. I don’t. To me football is like music: I appreciate it without understanding it. I know what players, teams and matches I like, but I don’t have a clue about tactics or formations.

The Secret Footballer combines appreciation with understanding, so it’s gratifying that he praises three of my favourite players: Glen Hoddle, Matt Le Tissier and Dennis Bergkamp. He says that Hoddle proved that “an entire football nation did not know what to do with skill and finesse” (Epilogue, pg. 218) and lists Le Tissier and Bergkamp among the scorers of “The goals that influenced me most”. This is Le Tissier’s:

…his finest goal, in my opinion, came against Newcastle in 1993. It is so skilful that it deserves to grace most lists. The three touches he takes to get the ball under control while beating a defender at the same time are by no means easy and all have to be perfect. I later read that the slightly scuffed finish had taken the gloss off it for Le Tissier himself, but, for me, it serves as a lesson in composure for every kid who wants to be a striker. (ch. 1, pp. 52-3)

This is Bergkamp’s, against Newcastle in 2002:

Almost every other player I have seen would try to control the horrible bouncing ball that comes into him. But Bergkamp, with his back to goal, flicks it to one side of the defender and runs the other, using his strength to outmuscle the defender and find the calmest of finishes. For a long time, some people debated whether or not Dennis had actually intended to do what he did here. Like so many others, those people don’t truly understand football. (Ibid., pg. 54)

But what does it mean to “truly understand football”? Ultimately, it means using mathematics. There’s maths everywhere in football and everywhere in this book, from the topspin on a free kick (ch. 1, pg. 41) to 4-2-3-1, “the most in-vogue formation in modern football” (ch. 6, “Formations”, pg. 158). A good footballer has to be both an athlete and an expert in reading and responding to patterns. The movement of players on the field sets constantly shifting problems in combinatorics, for example. There’s no entry for “Mathematics” in the index, but then there’s no entry for “English language” either. This book is written in English and is talking about maths, implicitly but intensively.

That’s as true in the section about diet as it is in the section about using spin in free-kicks. One is physiology, the other is physics, but they both involve the interaction of entity that is the essence of mathematics. The spin of the ball affects its interaction with the air. Chemicals in the body affect its interaction with play: its strength, stamina, flexibility and so on. That’s why diet is so important. But chemicals are important in other ways. To physiology and physics you can add physiognomy, as a recent scientific paper shows:

The structure of a soccer player’s face can predict his performance on the field – including his likelihood of scoring goals, making assists and committing fouls – according to a study led by a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The scientists studied the facial-width-to-height ratio (FHWR) of about 1,000 players from 32 countries who competed in the 2010 World Cup. The results, published in the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, showed that midfielders, who play both offense and defense, and forwards, who lead the offense, with higher FWHRs were more likely to commit fouls. Forwards with higher FWHRs also were more likely to score goals or make assists. (Facial structure predicts goals, fouls among World Cup soccer players, ScienceDaily, 12/xi/2014)

Facial structure is influenced by testosterone, which also influences competitiveness and aggression. And testosterone itself is influenced by genetics. Football was invented and is still dominated by men. That won’t change until the human race changes. And it will be men who invent the means for the human race to change.

Or rather: the human races, because there are a lot of them. The big ones – Europeans, Africans and Asians – are all represented in this book and the Secret Footballer writes a lot about genetic differences, even though he doesn’t know it. And would be horrified by the claim that it matters. As a Guardianista, he knows we’re all the same under the skin and that environment is responsible for the way blacks contribute little to science and mathematics. Blacks contribute a lot to football, but not as managers and not as certain types of player: goalkeeper, for example.

Why not? The Secret Footballer would say it’s racism and lack of opportunity. I would say it’s lack of intelligence. But lack of intelligence is due to racism and lack of opportunity too, isn’t it? No, I’d say it’s due to genetics. Why is the performance of the brain less influenced by genes than the performance of the muscles? It isn’t. Sadly for Guardianistas, hateful stereotypes like this are based on a hateful genetic reality:

Speedboat, no driver: Refers to a player who has blistering pace but no clue where he is supposed to be running or when. Controversially, this phrase is typically used for young black players. There are lots of managers who do not trust black players with the disciplined side of the game and just tell them to run instead – I even had a manager who did not want to play black centre-halves because he was convinced that they had tunnel vision and didn’t read the game well. I can’t disprove it one way or another, though it sounds ridiculous to me. However, I’m here to tell you that lots of managers feel this way and I’ve lost count of managers, coaches, academy coaches and players who describe young black players using this term. It’s even been said to me on the pitch by an opposition player when we brought on a young black player in the second half. (“Appendix: The Guide to Modern Football Language”, pg. 228)

Genetics at work, in my opinion: the environment of Africa selected for athletic ability but not high intelligence. Football is not just a beautiful game. It’s a bountiful one too, because it offers so many patterns to analyse: patterns of play, of history, of culture, race, human behaviour and biology in general. The Secret Footballer discusses all of them, sometimes without realizing it. He’s interesting, opinionated and obsessed with the game. I’m not and never have been, but this book woke memories of the days when I cared much more about twenty-two men chasing an inflated sphere around a rectangular field.

Perhaps I should care more now, because the game has never stopped evolving and improving, as the Secret Footballer will show you. There are some exciting names in his list of the “ten best players of the last twenty years”: Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi Hernández, Ronaldinho, Paul Scholes, Paolo Maldini, Thierry Henry, Ryan Giggs, Andrés Iniesta (ch. 6, pg. 186). He also offers his “ten best players of the future playing now” (ch. 7, “Coaching”, pg. 206) and lists the “best young players you probably haven’t heard of… yet” (ch. 3, “Fashion in Football”, pg. 104) And where does he stand on one of the great questions of our time? Here:

Cristiano Ronaldo once said that God put him on this planet to play football. We’ll just have to ask Lionel Messi if he remembers doing that. (ch. 8, “Whatever Happens, Never, Ever Give Up”, pg. 215)

There’s also Nike vs Adidas, Mark Viduka singing Monty Python in Middlesbrough and an explanation of why England are so bad. And for once a good popular book isn’t spoilt by a bad literary omission, because there’s a detailed index. I don’t like the Guardian, but it occasionally comes up with good things and this guide is one of them.

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Sub-Machine Gun by Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. WilliamsSub-Machine Gun: The development of sub-machine guns and their ammunition from World War I to the present day, Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. Williams, (Crowood Press 2011)

There’s a special fascination to beautiful things that inflict pain, suffering and death. Like military aircraft, guns can be very beautiful. There’s an additional power in their ingenuity. For many decades, very intelligent gun-designers have racked their brains for better ways to wreck brains, bones and bodies:

Wounding effectiveness is generally measured by the size of the wound channels created in ballistic gel, which is designed to replicate the characteristics of flesh. This can, of course, only give an indication of the real results, since bodies are not composed of homogeneous material but contain organs of varying toughness, voids and bones; nevertheless the gel does allow comparative testing under controlled conditions. Two different channels are created when a bullet passes through the gel: the most important is the permanent channel, which is what the name implies – the track of destroyed material. Other things being equal, this determines the rate of blood loss, which is the main incapacitating mechanism. The other is the temporary channel, which is the much wider volume disturbed by the shockwave from the bullet’s passage. This is less serious, although it can still have some effect. (“Ammunition Design”, pg. 53)

As you’ll see here, bullets can be beautiful too. This book is about a weapon designed to combine maximum firepower with maximum portability: the sub-machine gun (SMG), which is a “fully automatic shoulder gun firing pistol ammunition” (Introduction, pg. 8). An SMG is a way for one man to massacre many men at high speed. That’s what makes the SMG frightening and fascinating. But the one man has to have an advanced industrial civilization behind him. This book is explicitly about SMGs, but implicitly about HBD, or human bio-diversity. Or rather: the lack of it. The nations listed in part 2, which describes sub-machine guns manufactured everywhere from Argentina to Vietnam, are all populated by highly intelligent light-skinned races.

But there’s diversity among the light-skinned: the huge nation of China gets seven pages, the tiny nation of Switzerland gets eleven. Europeans are innovators, Asians are adopters and adapters. But the United Kingdom does poorly by comparison with Switzerland too. Snobbery and stupidity help explain that: “Until the start of World War II the British military had practically ignored SMGs, referring to such weapons as ‘gangster guns’” (pg. 260). Once the war started, the military tried to repair its error, first with the Lanchester, “a very close copy of the German Schmeisser MP.28”, then with the Sten, “one of the crudest and most cheaply made, but the simplest and most effective guns of World War II” (ibid.).

The next nation in the list is the origin of “gangster guns”: the USA, the biggest and most important arms-manufacturer of them all. From the elegant Tommy-gun, made world-famous by Hollywood, to the stubby Kriss Super V, American sub-machine guns have been giving the world a lot of bang for not-so-much buck since the First World War, when the “noted ordnance expert” John T. Thompson “set up the Auto-Ordnance Corporation … in order to fund the development of automatic guns” (pg. 272). The “Annihilator” was released in 1919, but the Tommy-gun became famous under more sardonic names like the “Chicago typewriter” and “Chicago piano”. That’s what the British army didn’t like. The war changed their minds and by 1940 Britain couldn’t get enough of the Tommy-gun, in part because “many of them were lost en route, due to German submarine attacks” (ibid.).

Submarines are another fascinating weapon, but they’re a team effort from start to finish. SMGs involve teams of designers and manufacturers, but the collective effort is focused through an individual, the man who carries the SMG and fires it. He can be a soldier or a bodyguard, a gangster or a policeman, an assassin or a gun-enthusiast. The portability and power of the SMG are attractive in all those roles. This book would appeal to everyone who plays one of them. It discusses all aspects of the annihilator, from armour-piercing ammunition and the cost of manufacture to silencers and stocks.

It illustrates everything too. Some of the early SMGs are like works of art, some of the modern ones are like alien artifacts, so you can see evolution and innovation over nearly a full century, as manufacturers around the world compete to sell slaughter. The manufacturers range from the infamous to the obscure: even I had heard of Kalashnikov, Heckler & Koch and Uzi, but what about STAR, Cugir and Husqvarna? Unfortunately, not all of the photographs and weapon-summaries are dated, but that’s the only flaw I could see. Sub-Machine Gun is a book by experts aimed at enthusiasts. And what explains the appeal of the SMG? It’s summed up in the section devoted to “Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic”, another small region of Europe that’s big in armaments. In the 1960s, it produced the Scorpion SMG. Sub-machine guns are small, but they have a deadly sting.

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Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

An excellent guide to science in all its aspects, from theory and practice to sociology and politics, describing how scientists think, work, live, love and sometimes cheat. It’s a book about bones, but it made me think about stars. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte set an absolute limit on the ambitions of astronomy:

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us. — Comte quote

Comte seemed completely right, but was in fact completely wrong. Fraunhofer had already discovered his lines by then and one day astronomers would be using “spectroscopic fingerprints” to “determine the mineralogy of asteroids, the composition of stars, the gravity of white dwarfs, the motions of galaxies, the dynamics of accreting black holes, and more – all from the comfort of a telescope control room” (30-Second Astronomy, ed. François Fressin, 2013).

Comte could have easily have said something similar about palaeontology, but perhaps it seemed too obvious. How much would scientists ever discover from ancient bones? They could weigh them, measure them, compare and contrast them, even analyse their chemical composition, but what would bones ever tell us about the flesh that had once sat on them, about the behaviour of vanished bodies? Very little, it once seemed.

A lot, it turned out, because of something called DNA. This book is about one of the most interesting projects in scientific history: the quest to reconstruct the genome of those long-extinct humans called Neanderthals. Except they’re not entirely extinct, as Svante Pääbo discovered: their genes live on in some modern humans, because we interbred with Neanderthals when we left Africa. Some of us also interbred with a group called the Denisovans, as Pääbo describes too. And there are other groups of archaic interbreeders to be uncovered, inside and outside Africa. Groups of human have separated, evolved differences, and then come together again, but not consistently and completely.

This has big implications for human bio-diversity, or HBD: races are different not just because they’ve evolved to be, but because they’ve interbred to be. Pääbo doesn’t discuss those implications, but there’s no propaganda here about “One Race – the Human Race”. The journey he and his team have begun is going to end in storm and lightning, because Neanderthal genes are doing more than stick around for the ride. They must have physiological and psychological effects, separating those who possess them from those who don’t. Ditto for the Denisovans and others.

So the search isn’t over and this book will have sequels. I look forward to reading them, because Pääbo writes well and engagingly in what isn’t his mother-tongue. Born in Sweden, he’s now “director of Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany”. For an evolutionary anthropologist, he’s very famous: “In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World”. He describes how he got there, the compromises he had to make and the toes he tried – and sometimes failed – to avoid treading on. But it’s mostly a story of obsession and ingenuity: Pääbo was obsessed with reconstructing a Neanderthal genome and had to be highly ingenious to do so. Luck and hunches were important too:

Most labs discard side fractions as by-products. Fortunately we had saved all of ours from our previous experiments. For years I had insisted on doing so, just in case something came along that would make them useful. This was easily one of my least popular ideas and caused many freezers to be filled with frozen side fractions that no one thought would ever be used. But thankfully in this case the crazy idea of the professor had been adhered to by the group. So now Tomi could simply heat the side fractions from earlier preparations from the Vindija bones and retrieve additional, relatively copious amounts of Neanderthal DNA without having to do any more extractions. (ch. 13, “The Devil in the Details”, pg. 145)

Pääbo is writing a popular account, so there isn’t a lot of technical detail, but there’s more than enough to be impressive. Genetics isn’t stamp-collecting: it requires serious intellect and nowadays serious computer-power and programming too. Pääbo couldn’t do all of that on his own: modern science is a collaborative endeavour. He directs a team and this book describes their ingenuity and idiosyncrasies. But in a way they’re a burial party. Science is now measuring mankind for its coffin. The more we know about ourselves, the more we will be able to surpass ourselves. This book about an obsessive human is also an early obituary for the human race.

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Front cover of Olivier by Philip ZieglerOlivier, Philip Ziegler (MacLehose Press 2013)

It’s difficult to be objective about big artistic names, so it’s good when you can admire them unaware. I once heard a song called “Dear Prudence” by Siouxsie and the Banshees and, not expecting much, was surprised by how good it was. I didn’t know then that it was by the Beatles. I was pleased when I found out, because I knew I had judged them on their merits, not on their big name.

Something similar happened to me with Laurence Olivier (1907-89). I was watching Spartacus (1960) and was struck by the skill of an actor playing a Roman general. Kirk Douglas is fun to watch, but the other actor was on a different plane. I had no idea who it was, so I watched for the name in the credits. And there it was: Laurence Olivier. Again, I was pleased when I found out and for the same reason. Olivier really was as good as he was said to be. And it’s almost frightening to think that Spartacus isn’t one of his best performances in what wasn’t his best medium:

Orson Welles remarked that Olivier was the master of technique and that, if screen acting depended only on technique, he would have been supreme master of the medium. “And yet, fine as he’s been in films, he’s never been more than a shadow of the electric presence which commands the stage. Why does the cinema seem to diminish him? And enlarge Gary Cooper – who knew nothing of technique at all?” He might equally have cited Marilyn Monroe; a woman who barely knew what acting was yet who, twenty years later, was to outshine Olivier in every scene [of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)]. (ch. 3, “Breakthrough”, pg. 52)

Why does the camera love some people and not others? It’s a mystery. But so is acting in general. Those who witnessed Olivier play Othello at the National Theatre in the mid-1960s heard the “hum of mighty workings”:

Billie Whitelaw took over the role of Desdemona from Maggie Smith. “It was like being on stage with a Force Ten gale,” she said. He himself realized he was achieving something altogether extraordinary, which he could scarcely comprehend. One night, when he had given a particularly spectacular performance, the cast applauded him at curtain call. He retreated in silence to his dressing room. “What’s the matter, Larry?” asked another actor. “Don’t you know you were brilliant?” “Of course I fucking know it,” Olivier replied, “but I don’t know why.” (ch. 19, “The National: Act Three”, pg. 284)

The pagans might have explained it as literal inspiration – entrance of a spirit – by something divine. In other roles, perhaps Olivier was the medium for something diabolic:

Olivier had concluded from the start that the relish with which Richard III gloats over his villainy was always going to contain something of the ridiculous … But though his [performance] raised many laughs, they were uneasy laughs; it was Olivier’s achievement to be at the same time ridiculous and infinitely menacing. Never for a instant did the audience forget that it was in the presence of unadulterated evil. (ch. 8, “The Old Vic”, pg. 129)

The critic Melvyn Bragg suggested that Olivier’s initial “reluctance to take on the role” was from the fear that it might permanently affect his psyche. If it was, Olivier overcame his fear. But he often did that: he was courageous not just in the parts he chose but in the physical risks he took with leaps, jumps and falls. For Olivier, acting was a sport, not just an art and craft. He tried to master every aspect of the profession, from performance to direction, from voice-projection to make-up.

The photographs reveal how good he was at make-up and the facial control that complements it: it’s remarkable how different he looks from role to role. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize him, which helps explain why Ziegler chose to begin the book with these two quotes:

“I can add colours to the chameleon;
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages;
And set the murderous Machievel to school…”

Henry VI, Part Three.

“Rot them for a couple of rogues.
They have everyone’s face but their own.”

Thomas Gainsborough on David Garrick and Samuel Foote.

But there was almost more make-up than man for Olivier’s leading role in one production of Macbeth, which prompted Vivien Leigh to say: “Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on.” The French director Michel Saint-Denis was the guilty party: “a fine director with a wonderful imagination”, said Olivier, “but he let his imagination run amok” (ch. 4, “Birth of a Classical Actor”, pg. 66).

Another guilty party isn’t named: the person responsible for putting a shot from The Entertainer (1960) on the back cover of the book. Olivier is in make-up as the failed and fading comedian Archie Rice. He doesn’t look good and it wasn’t his biggest or best role. But he did say it was his “best part”, according to Ziegler (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 321). He presumably meant the most interesting or challenging to play, but perhaps he was joking at his own expense. He often did that:

The graft [for playing James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night] was almost too much. Derek Granger at one point asked him whether he was enjoying the part. “Crazy wife, drunken old ham actor, don’t you think it’s just a little near the bone?” Olivier replied. “Some of us have lived a little, boysie.” (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 331)

The “crazy wife” was the beautiful but unbalanced Vivien Leigh, whom Ziegler treats sympathetically but objectively. She was Olivier’s second wife and she does seem to bear the chief blame for the breakdown of their marriage. But not all of it, although when Olivier divorced her and married Joan Plowright, he didn’t stop his philandering. His “phil” never included “andros”, according to Ziegler, who says that Olivier didn’t have an affair with Danny Kaye, as other biographers have alleged:

[Olivier] could be extremely camp; he was by instinct tactile, quick to lay an affectionate arm around the shoulder of another man or woman; his epistolary style, even by luvvie standards, was extravagant – “Darling boy,” he began a letter to David Niven, ending with “All my love dearest friend in the world, your devoted Larry.” Nobody who knew him well, however, can have doubted that he loved women, lusted after women and would have considered a sexual relationship with another man a pitiful substitute for the real thing. (ch. 11, “Life Without the Old Vic”, pp. 166-5)

That’s Olivier as amorist; more interesting is Olivier as genius. It’s not as easy to judge genius in the arts as it is in mathematics or the sciences, but Olivier definitely had something extraordinary. The key to it lay inside a box of bone he is shown cradling to his cheek as Hamlet in one of the photographs. That was Yorick’s empty skull; in life, Olivier’s skull must have contained a very powerful and unusual brain. He wasn’t widely read or wide-ranging in his interests, but his memory was prodigious, his will adamantine and he could inhabit a staggering variety of roles, from Romeo to Toby Belch, from Uncle Vanya to Julius Caesar, from camp comedians to Nazi dentists.

Box of bone: Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

Box of bone: Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

If you’re looking for an explanation of his genius, I think there’s something significant in his ancestry, which was Huguenot on his father’s side. Olivier was a patriotic Briton, but his charisma wasn’t purely British. Ziegler dissects his friendship and rivalry with his fellow Brits Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, who were great actors too. But they didn’t act with Olivier’s flash, swagger and fire. I also wonder about much more ancient genetics: Olivier looks elegantly handsome in some photos, but ape-ish in a few others, and before his hair was “refashioned”, a director said that it made him look “bad-tempered, almost Neanderthal” (ch. 2, “Apprentice Days”, pp. 33-4). That was decades before it was proved that Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals after leaving Africa. The genes we acquired then may have conferred some cognitive or psychological advantage: Neanderthals had inhabited the colder and more demanding environment of Europe for many thousands of years by then.

If those acquired genes were expressed more strongly than average in Laurence Olivier, perhaps they helped him become one of the greatest actors who ever lived. I also wonder whether acting extends to olfaction: can great actors control their pheromones as they control their faces, voices and gestures? If so, perhaps that helps explain why Olivier didn’t manage to reproduce on camera what he did during extended sessions on stage. I’ve not finished this book, because I got bored with the minutiae of Olivier’s later career and want to see more of what he left on film before I try it again. But it’s full of interesting stories and ideas and it’s already helped me better understand and appreciate acting and the theatre.

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Ruthless by Geoff SmallRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

Because Geoff Small is black he can say things in this book that would have been called racist if they had been said by a white journalist. For example, he tries to explain differing levels of violence in the island nations making up the West Indies by the differing natures of the African tribes who were enslaved and transported there. Some tribes were peaceful, some warlike, and Jamaica, birthplace of the Yardies, was populated by representatives of the warlike ones.

Combine that with dire poverty and illegal drugs, add the intense rivalries of local politics and asinine interference by the CIA, and you have a recipe for some very violent and dangerous gangs: the Yardies, named after the Jamaican word “yard”, meaning a neighbourhood or district. They started to come to the attention of the media and the general public in the 1980s, as they broke their way into the drugs market in the United States and United Kingdom, and the word used of them then is still being used of them now: “ruthless”. If you have a quarrel with the Mafia, the Mafia will kill you. If you have a quarrel with the Colombians, the Colombians will kill you and your wife. If you have a quarrel with the Yardies, the Yardies will kill you, your wife and your children.

With anyone else who happens to be in your house or on the street or in the nightclub at the time. In fact, “ruthless” is hardly strong enough: another word that Small uses comes closer to the truth: “nihilistic”. The Yardies seem to cultivate a complete disregard for human life. Anyone who wonders if their bark is worse than their bite is likely to stop wondering when he reads about this kind of thing:

In terms of utter ruthlessness, the killing of Cassandra Higgins ranks high on the list. A Jamaican visa overstayer, she was certainly no angel. Still, her demise was shocking by any standards. The nineteen-year-old was stripped naked by five Rude Boys in an eighteenth-floor crack-house on the Cathall Road Estate in Leytonstone, east London. Then, to the horror of those who looked on, she was thrown out of the window 160 feet to the ground. Higgins’s death, in September 1993, was thought to have been the result of a rudie drug deal double-cross on her part. The brutal murder was witnessed by several people, but true to form the mouths of those assembled were welded shut by the force of the posse code: ‘See and blind, hear and deaf’; in fact, not one person was willing to go to court to testify against the killers.

Gangs and gang-warfare have long been fashionable on screen and in print, and this book offers many satisfying fixes for the aficionado of other people’s thuggery as it describes how the Yardies or Rude Boys – “rude” meaning “lawless” or “aggressive” in Jamaican English – invaded expatriate Jamaican communities in the US and UK. Their intent was to take over the drugs-markets there and they succeeded through a combination of extreme violence and use of a Jamaican patois that local police forces often found impossible to understand during phone-taps or surveillances.

An often fascinating, sometimes frightening book, Ruthless seems to me more proof of the harm done both by mass immigration and by the illegality of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Yardies do not kill and terrorize people just for the fun of it: they do it because there are huge sums of money to be made from the illegal sale of drugs and huge amounts of excitement and satisfaction to be had from confronting and outwitting the authorities. Small describes Jamaicans as naturally rebellious, ambitious and aggressive, making a mark on the world in international fields like music and sport out of all proportion to their numbers. The Yardies are another example of Jamaicans making their mark in an international field: that of crime. If we legalized drugs, that field would get much smaller. And if Jamaicans had not been allowed to immigrate in such large numbers into Britain and North America, their criminality would not have inflicted so much misery and imposed so much expense.

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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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Front cover of Himalaya edited by Philip ParkerHimalaya: The Exploration and Conquest of the Greatest Mountains on Earth, general editor Philip Parker with foreword by Peter Hillary (Conway 2013)

A book with spectacular images and spectacular stories. In the nineteenth century, early mountaineers confronted and conquered the Alps. Then they looked for new challenges. They found them in a much higher and much harder mountain-range lying to the north of India:

For thousands of years the Himalaya has captured the imaginations of explorers, writers and those who have lived among this spectacular, remote and often dangerous landscape. This is a land that demands superlatives – it is the highest mountain range in the world, one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, home to all of the world’s independent mountains exceeding 8,000 metres (26,246 feet) above sea level, the “eight thousanders”, and some of the greatest river systems on earth. (ch. 1, “Anatomy of the Himalaya: The formation and topography of the range”, Madeleine Lewis, pg. 13)

Opposite that description is one of the spectacular images: a satellite photo showing India colliding with Eurasia to throw up the crumpled band of the world’s highest mountains. The collision has taken place over millions of years, creating a patchwork of blue ocean, green and brown lowlands, and white mountains. Himalaya means “Snow-Abode” in Sanskrit, the ancient Indic language that inspired European scholars to discover the common roots of two linguistic outliers separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years: Icelandic, spoken on a cold island in the far north, and Bengali, spoken on a warm delta in the deep south.

This book is about a parallel exploration by incoming Europeans: of geography, geology, ethnography and the limits of their own biology. Orography, or the mapping of mountains, is part of geography, but Europeans had to climb a psychological barrier before they became true orographers. For example, one of the first great explorers of Tibet was the Italian missionary Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733). For him, the Himalayan mountains were “the very picture of desolation, horror and death itself” (ch. 3, “Early Travellers and Adventurers: The Himalaya to 1815”, pg. 41). As Stewart Weaver, the author of that chapter, remarks:

It is clear that in 1715 the romantic appreciation for mountain glory had yet to take hold of the Western imagination; the Himalaya was a desolate and fearful obstacle to be crossed out of missionary necessity, perhaps, but otherwise to be strenuously avoided. (Ibid.)

Mountaineering rose in Europe as religion declined. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Divinity retreated and humanity advanced, climbing to new heights in all kinds of ways, from science to music. Vivaldi and Mozart didn’t write music to conquer mountains by; Beethoven and Wagner did. This spirit of adventure – or hubris – was European and the older idea that climbing a mountain is sacrilege has kept Europeans off the top of a mountain even more challenging than Everest: Kangchenjunga. The British mountaineers George Band and Joe Brown could have been the first, but refrained from climbing the last few yards to the very top: the leader of their expedition had “promised the Sikkimese authorities that they would not step onto the summit out of respect for Kangchenjunga’s status as a holy mountain” (ch. 8, “The ‘Golden Age’: 1953-1960”, pg. 147).

That was in 1954. Forty-nine years earlier, in 1905, another Briton had made an attempt viâ the notorious “Yalung Glacier”. He became much better-known in other fields: mountaineering is not how Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made his notorious name. But he confirmed his courage and daring in the Himalaya, having climbed extensively in the Alps, and fully deserves the sidebox he receives here as a “Mystic, poet, magician, pansexual and Satanist” (ch. 5, “The Opening Phase”, pg. 62). After all, he was “part of the first serious attempts on K2 and Kangchenjunga” and “identified the route that would eventually be used in the conquest of each mountain” (ibid.). “Eventually” is the operative word: Crowley and the expedition-leader Oscar Eckenstein shared an “iconoclastic contempt for the ‘stuffy’ Alpine Club”, but “once again, accomplished Alpine climbers” proved “unprepared for the scale of the Himalaya” (pg. 61).

No-one had thought to use “supplemental oxygen” in the Alps, for example, but it began to seem essential in the Himalaya: “at the top of Mount Everest there is approximately one-third of the oxygen available at sea level” (pg. 63). There were debates about the propriety of its use, just as there had been about the use of crampons and other climbing aids in the Alps. One thing was a big argument in its favour: death. People have regularly died of altitude sickness in the Himalaya. Avalanches, rock-fall, cold and disease take an even heavier toll: four men died during Eckenstein’s and Crowley’s attempt on Kangchenjunga. The great Austrian Hermann Buhl (1924-1957) died in the Himalaya too. He had solo’d Nanga Parbat and was making an attempt on “the neighbouring peak of Chogolisa” when he and his companion Kurt Diemberger were forced to retreat by a storm “when only 305 metres (1,000 feet) below the summit” (ch. 8, pg. 131). During the ascent, Buhl “fell to his death through a cornice”.

His body has never been discovered. The body of George Mallory (1886-1924), another famous Himalayan casualty, was discovered in 1999 after lying on Everest for seventy-five years. Had he reached the summit? And if he did, how did he feel? Sometimes conquest isn’t satisfying. In this chapter, another spectacular image shows a bearded mountaineer sprawling on a rock-outcrop above a sea of clouds and a near-vertical snow-slope. It’s described like this:

Bill Tilman takes a precarious rest on … Nanda Devi during his 1936 ascent of the mountain. When he and his summit partner Noel Odell reached the top, Tilman’s initial euphoria was followed by melancholy. As he later wrote, he had a “feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed”. (ch. 6, “Himalaya Between the Wars 1919-1939”, pg. 79)

And yet Tilman was a “famously taciturn misogynist”: the psychology of mountaineers is another part of why mountaineering is so interesting. Mallory may have conquered Everest in 1926; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay definitely did in 1953, but Hillary didn’t ask Norgay to photograph him on the summit. The only photos of the moment are of the Nepali, not the New Zealander, apparently because Hillary didn’t want any taken of himself. Quixotry or modesty aside, it was an appropriate partnership: one by one, the Himalayan peaks have been conquered by combining European psychology with Nepali physiology. The environment of Europe has created human beings who want to climb very high mountains and the environment of Nepal has created human beings who can carry supplies in thin air.

This book also covers the medicine of mountaineering: the effects on the human body of thin air and low temperatures. Nepalis are adapted to both: they’ve evolved the right kind of lungs and blood to live at high altitude. That’s why they were hired as porters by the unadapted outsiders from Europe, who were sometimes killed by the challenges they set themselves. But there’s another kind of biology in the Himalaya, and another mystery. Crowley was To Mega Therion, or “The Great Beast”. But does another great beast live in the Himalaya: the Yeti? Probably not: bears seem to explain all the stories, tracks and hair-samples.

And the chances that there’s really something mysterious there dwindle by the year: Himalayan mountaineering is increasingly crowded, increasingly bereft of solitude and glamour. Everest is becoming strewn with rubbish, for example, and the climbing challenges of the Himalaya are increasingly contrived: not first ascents, but new routes, new methods, new times of the year. Sic Transit Gloria Montis – “So Passes the Glory of the Mountain”. But this book explains that vanishing glory and opens a window on a fascinating region of the earth, describing history, humanity, geology and technology, and displaying everything from multi-coloured Tibetan script and glaring death-gods to awe-inspiring walls of sun-slanted ice-rock and Aleister Crowley outside a tent.

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