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Archive for the ‘What I'm reading’ Category


Apple – Remembering Steve Jobs

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Orphan elephants

National Geographic has a wonderful piece on the the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the world’s most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation center:

“Spend enough time around elephants and it’s difficult not to anthropomorphize their behavior. “Elephants are very human animals,” says Sheldrick, sitting one afternoon on the back porch of her house at the edge of the nursery grounds, the wide, acacia-dotted plains of Nairobi National Park sprawling in the distance. “Their emotions are exactly the same as ours. They’ve lost their families, have seen their mothers slaughtered, and they come here filled with aggression—devastated, broken, and grieving. They suffer from nightmares and sleeplessness.”

What makes this particular moment in the fraught history of elephant-human relations so remarkable is that the long-accrued anecdotal evidence of the elephant’s extraordinary intelligence is being borne out by science. Studies show that structures in the elephant brain are strikingly similar to those in humans. MRI scans of an elephant’s brain suggest a large hippocampus, the component in the mammalian brain linked to memory and an important part of its limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions. The elephant brain has also been shown to possess an abundance of the specialized neurons known as spindle cells, which are thought to be associated with self-awareness, empathy, and social awareness in humans. Elephants have even passed the mirror test of self-recognition, something only humans, and some great apes and dolphins, had been known to do.”

Michael Nichol’s photographs are amazing.

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On a recent flight I watched Fire in Babylon, a fascinating documentary on the West Indies cricket team. I remember watching their test matches against England when I was a teenager but am ashamed to admit that at the time I had no idea of the political importance of their victories.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is when a member of the crowd holds up a sign saying “Black Wash” after the West Indies beat England 5-0,  a resounding win over their former colonial masters.

The trailer for the film sums it up perfectly, “They brought the world to its knees and a nation to its feet”, as the team accomplished a winning streak of 29 Test series between 1980 and 1995. As the great Sir Viv Richards says in the film: “My bat was my sword.”

I would have known a lot more if Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, had been around when I was young. She tells the story of Jamaican immigrants to England in 1948 just after they had fought for the Empire in the Second World War.

Although it is very recent history, it is shocking to read about what people went through purely because of the colour of their skin: “A devout Christian, Curtis was asked not to return to his local church for his skin was too dark to worship there” and “Louis now believed bloodyforeigner to be all one word.”

 One Englishwomen says: “All those coons eyeing her and her daughters up every time they walked down their own street. Hitler invading couldn’t have been any worse.”

When Hortense, who had been a teacher in Jamaica, arrives in England she asks herself how the “Mother Country”, which she has known all her life, does not know her:

Can this be that fabled relation you heard so much of? This twisted-crooked weary woman. This stinking cantankerous hag. She offers you no comfort after your journey. No smile. No welcome. Yet she looks down at you through lordly eyes and says, ‘Who the bloody hell are you?’

I imagine my parents received similar reactions when they arrived in England from Bangladesh in the 50s and 60s. Yet it is heartening to see that progress is possible as our family is now a wonderful mix from Bangladesh, Spain and England.

Andrea Levy’s latest novel, The Long Song, is set even further back in Jamaica when “the coffin with the words, ‘Colonial slavery died July 31, 1838, aged 276 years,’ was lowered into the ground” and “a joyous breeze blew.”

The treatment of the slaves was even more shocking , including women:

Half-way between the town and Shepperton Pen, they had come upon a naked slave woman, tied to a coconut tree by her arms. As her feet could not reach the floor, she was slowly spinning in the sun’s heat. Dangling juicy as roasting meat upon a spit, crows kept pecking at her to test her as food. As she spat and kicked to shoo them, she would start to spin faster. She had been beaten before being tied up—with a stick or a short riding whip—for her skin, dusty and black, was in places torn off, creating a speckled pattern that appeared like dappled sunlight upon her.

and children:

The small boy had been running with messages to rebel slaves—a crime—there was no doubt in Howarth’s mind upon that. But the boy was then sealed into a barrel which was roughly pierced with over twenty-five long nails hammered into the shell. The boy, still trapped within that spiky cask, was then rolled down a hill.

This further explains why the West Indies cricket team was so important:

And for any number of legendary West Indian fast bowlers – a proud lineage that ran from Andy Roberts to Curtly Ambrose – the ball was a bullet. If the odd bruise was inflicted, the odd bone broken, that was as nothing compared to the suffering of the African people under the yoke of slavery. (The Daily Telegraph)

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“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.

She lies on the bed beside Claire, above the sheets. The faint tang of the old woman’s breath on the air. The clock. The fan. The breeze.

The world spinning.”

These are the final words of Colum McCann’s fantastic novel, Let the Great World Spin, whose title comes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Locksley Hall.

This made me turn to a Folio collection of Tennyson’s poetry I have been keeping on my bedside table since listening to a recent In Our Time podcast on In Memoriam, the poet’s famous elegy to his great friend Arthur Hallam, who died in 1833.

In my book Ruth Padel explains that Tennyson wrote “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change” after taking the first train from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830: “ I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line.”

My favourite passage from Locksley Hall is:

Love took up the glass of Time, and turned it in his glowing hands;

Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.

Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;

Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling passed in music out of sight.

Many a morning on the moorland did we hear the copses ring,

And her whisper thronged my pulses with the fulness of the Spring.

Many an evening by the waters did we watch the stately ships,

And our spirits rushed together at the touching of the lips.

However this love proved to be “falser than all fancy fathoms, falser than all songs have sung”:

As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with clown,

And the grossness of his nature, will have weight to drag you down.

He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,

Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.

Ouch !

Tennyson fared better in love in 1850 when he married Emily Selwood, whom he had first met 20 years before, and he published In Memorium that year. Padel writes: “The marriage lit up the inner darkness sealed when Hallam died, allowing Tennyson to let go of that grief, or at least go public about it. Now the pain was alchemised into an order bearable to him and shareable with others.”

Section L is my favourite example of the emotion that Tennyson shares so beautifully :

Be near me when my light is low,

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle, and the heart is sick,

And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame

Is racked with pangs that conquer trust;

And Time, a maniac scattering dust,

And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,

And men the flies of latter spring,

That lay their eggs, and sting and sing

And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,

To point the term of human strife,

And on the low dark verge of life

The twilight of eternal day.

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I am happy to see that The New York Review of Books’ piece on the new memoir by Jennifer Grant about her father, the great Cary Grant is accompanied by a photograph from my all-time favourite film, Bringing up Baby.

I defy anyone to watch this film and not laugh.  It’s a shame they don’t make screwball comedies like this anymore which has two adults, including a strong woman, and relies on the performances,  dialogue and wit for its humour rather than relying on grossing you out.

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In a new series for BBC One, film-makers visited specialist facilities to witness efforts being made to safeguard the future of the world’s rarest species.

BBC Nature – In Pictures: Babies on the brink

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One of my favourite things about the Kindle is being able to buy long essays or short stories in the form of Kindle singles such as The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield, an American author and poet.  I have always wanted to know more about haiku and was able to satisfy my curiosity for just 99 cents.

Hirshfield uses her own poetic skills to write beautifully about the poetry, life and journeys of Matsuo Bashō, who in the seventeenth century, “substantially remade the shape of Japanese literature, by taking a verse form of almost unfathomable brevity and transforming it into a near-weightless, durable instrument for exploring a single moment’s precise perception and resinous depths.”

Bashō taught his students “that if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you” and used this philosophy to master image-based poems of seventeen sound units, written in lines of five, seven, and then five units each.

They combine the concepts of  sabi which is “to feel keenly one’s own sharp and particular existence amid its own impermanence” and wabi, which is to appreciate the beauty of the most ordinary circumstances and objects.

Two of my favourite haikus in the book:

spring leaving –

birds cry,

fishes’ eyes filled with tears

yukuharu ya tori naki uo no me wa namida

a hangover ?

who cares,

while there are blossoms

futsukayoi monokawa hana no aru aida

Hirshfield shows that the form has been brought bang up to date in the 21st century with more than 19,000 haiku about Spam, “Spamku”, being posted online.

She provides proof that “even the briefest form of poetry can have a wing-span of immeasurable breadth.”

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