Sapiens, by Noah Yuval Harari

A very readable canter through the entire history of humankind, from pre-conscious apes out on the Savannah, through to the possibility of post-human cyborgs and immortality.

Harari has taken a humanist and atheist standpoint throughout, which I found challenging and upsetting in places. I was warned by the person who recommended the book to me (who knew I was a Christian) that I would find it challenging. And it is, and rightly so. But my faith in a transcendent, caring and personal Cod is not shaken by the work of this liberal academic. Some might say I’m too thick to understand.

He has expressed some outrageous and refreshing ideas; a key theme throughout the book has been to question the established wisdom on economics, politics, history, culture and language. I was particularly impressed with his chapter on the individual, the market and the state, noting that the free market cannot really survive without the state. He avoids the espousal of Socialism, but manages nonetheless to articulate the main flaws in the free market, capitalist system. He acknowledges that, notwithstanding those flaws, it is that same system that has brought us so far this last five hundred years.

He notes that European cultures prevailed over comparable or even superior Islamic and Asian cultures because of the concept of credit. What he does not say is that there was little choice. Kings came before Parliaments seeking money: they needed credit, generally to fight wars. This development, of itself, fueled the rise of Parliaments and of democracy.

His final remarks on the future seem ill-at- ease and somewhat hurried. He describes a number of ideas as if they were new- ideas like immortality and post-humanity, cyborgs, genetic modification of people, to name a few. Some of these ideas have been discussed by modern science fiction writers such as Paul McAuley, Richard Morgan, and Alister Reynolds, for decades. He goes on to confuse science fiction as a whole genre with that small sub-genre we call space opera, demonstrating a perhaps understandable ignorance of sci-fi at the very part of his work that would call for an understanding of it. But his final chapter does articulate some of the potentially dreadful and also potentially changing possibilities that lie ahead of us.

Overall, refreshingly positive in outlook, once you are past the early sections where you could be forgiven for thinking that the author does not like the human race. Me, I do like the human race. I think it is excellent. I am a member.

The interview

The interviewer glanced sharply at Igor. Whilst she did not actually move her eyebrows, he had the impression that she did not approve of him.  Negativity and discouragement seemed to come off her in waves.  He made a conscious decision to gather up his courage, taking it up about him as if it were an actual cloak; with an effort, which he hoped was concealed, he held her gaze steadily.  He’d been through battle, through fire and storm; he had no need to be afraid of such as she – and yet, he was. But where had she been at Yekatarinburg? Had she attained to battlefield promotion? Had she seen what he’d seen, done what he’d had to do? Yet, he knew in his heart the answer to all those questions.  The interviewer was an air force officer and very much senior to him. She was a combat veteran – we all were. She would have seen as much action as he, if not more than he.

She took a short intake of breath, as a precursor to speaking.  Ages passed in an instant.  All time seemed to him to stand still in that single moment between her little intake of breath and the words that he knew would follow.

“OK, Major. Thank you for time and for joining us today. The panel will consider your application and we will let you know in due course.”

And that was that.  He had hoped against all hope that he would know in the interview itself, though he should have known better. He would have to wait. He arranged his face in what he knew would appear as a grave and formal military mask, and thanked his interviewer.  He pushed back his chair, rose to his feet, and saluted the officers of the panel. And he left the room.

“What does the Group Captain think?” asked one of the other two members of the panel, once Igor had left the room.

“He’s easily the strongest and most able candidate we’ve seen so far. A definite.  I don’t want him thinking he’s God’s gift to Mother Russia though, so I had to take a stern line with him in the interview. If he has a weakness, it’s that he will tend to see things in black and white.”

“That could be his downfall” replied the Army officer to her left.

“Indeed.  In these times, the need is for balance and nuance, for political nouse, for treading carefully through the post-war wreckage and taking forward what is right, but letting go what is not right, whilst not condemning it overtly.”

“Letting the old, bad ways wither on the branch”, put in the Army officer.

“Tochna” replied the third officer, heretofore silent. Precisely. “Much is at stake.  Stray but a little to the left or to the right, and our new-found strength will snap in our hands.  We would not wish to return to the past.  Russia has moved a long way during and after the war.”

There’s a new young man at Tony’s

There’s a new young man behind the counter at Tony’s coffee shop.  Young, good looking and Italian – of course Italian.  As Italian as they come.  Thick black hair, olive skin, white teeth, lots of gesticulation.

I once knew an old man who spoke perfect Italian.  As a soldier in the war, he’d been set to be a translator, during the Italian campaign.  He told me once that he’d grabbed an Italian officer by the hands.  He’d took hold of both the guy’s hands, and held them still.  And the poor chap was speechless.  Literally.  You ever met an Italian man who could say anything without moving his hands? I reckon this new chap behind the counter at Tony’s will be like that.  I saw him talking – no, gesturing – to one of the waitresses.  He’s very energetic and outgoing.  Cram full of energy, like Tony used to be.

“Issa good job amma fromma Sardinia” Tony once said.

These days, Tony looks a little careworn.  Particularly so, since his mother died – you know what Italian men are like with their mothers.  Tony’s black hair is edged with grey.  Look closely at his eyes, and you see care.  You see concern.  Tony has a kind word for everybody.  An older man’s friendly kiss for every young mum.  A hug and a chuck under the chin for every baby. A handshake for every man. Tony knows everybody’s name.  And now he has a new man behind the counter.  A new generation is coming, taking up the mantle, ready to continue in his footsteps.

 

 

Every glass tells a story

A selection of glasses seen here after washing up. Each glass tells its own story. Each glass has a history.

The red wine glass at the rear was made by my brother-in-law.  It is one of a pair gifted to my wife, his sister. They are not quite identical. My brother-in-law does a little glass blowing, or at least, he used to. He is a skilled craftsman living at Winsley near Bradford-an-Avon. See http://www.metal-arts.co.uk.

The pint pot on the right at the rear was a gift to me from my first employer. I got such a glass by serving on a commercial survey ship over Christmas. Originally I had three of them, one for each Christmas I worked offshore.  Two of them are now lost. One of these, I broke at New Year any days after I was given it. This was a long time ago. This glass dates from the late 1980’s. It is Norwegian lead crystal, engraved with the name of the vessel. And thereby hangs another tale.

The two sherry glasses in the middle are all that remain of a set of six which my wife and I received as wedding presents these 27 years ago. There were wine glasses too, and also, whisky tumblers. Most of them are now gone. As a married lady I know once remarked, “we’ve been married quite long enough that much of the crystal originally given us as wedding presents is long gone.” You can tell the half-life of a marriage by looking in the glass cabinet.

The small crystal glass on the right was inherited from my mother-in-law. It is one of six, very small, and they see much service for drinking malt whisky.

The silver tankard in the foreground is from my wife’s Aunt Josephine, who died last Spring.

2017 in reading

It has been a challenging year in a number of different respects. Difficulties at work, family bereavement, complexities in my volunteer role as a senior Scouter.

I’ve read nearly fifty books in 2017, though some of this reading will have been comfort re-reading – a bit like comfort eating or comfort shopping, but healthier. We’ll look at some of the more edifying reading, as well as some of the comfort food, here.

Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads

I started off the year reading this excellent overview of world history from the standpoint of trade.  Trade goes along roads.  This was a history of the world in roads, and had little enough to do, however excellent and readable, with the Silk Road or with Central Asia.

Stephen King On Writing

Perhaps the best and most inspiring read of the year, recommended to me by fellow members of the Woldingham Writers Group.  This was an encouraging and stimulating autiobiography, telling the story of how King wrote his first novel – “Carrie” – in his lunch breaks whilst working at a laundry. 

Stephen King – The Stand

Thought I’d re-read quality fiction after my interest in Stephen King was re-ignited by his autobiography on writing. The opening paragraph is unforgettable, classic Stephen King – “Arnette, a pissant four street burg in East Texas”.  Yet, he is never disrespectful of such a humble place or of the humble folk who hail from ordinary places.  King’s heroes in The Stand are not the Walkin’ Dude or the old lady Abigail, but common folk like Stu Redman, hailing from “pissant four street burgs”. 

Nicholas Monsarrat – The Master Mariner

Read masterly fiction – it should sharpen your eye and make keen your appetite for good writing. This is classic tale weaving.  Our hero Matthew, guilty of cowardice at a battle in the 15th century, is cursed by a witch to live on and on until he learns courage.  Clearly he had not managed it by the time of Trafalgar, centuries later.

David Eugene Smith and Louis Charles Karpinski – The Hindu-Arabic numerals

This is a nineteeth century work on the history of numbers, and is, for something hailing from that era, surprisingly accessible and informative.

Len Deighton – Declarations of War

Another fine writer whose work we would do well to emulate.  Deighton here brings us a series of short stories about war, some with amusing twists in the tail. We read one about the rise of right-wing politics amongst honourable and upright men – ostensibly in the UK – and only in the last lines  do we see the name of Herr Goebbels mentioned.  In another, men battle in the home counties against the German invasion, as the front rolls inexorably toward London.

Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Richard Morgan’s characters are bitter and twisted.  You don’t need to read more than a few dozen pages of his fiction to feel anger and frustration boiling off the page.  Here we have a dark detective story set in the San Francisco of 500 years hence.  An immortal man has killed himself – and it is important to find out why.

Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club

Why did I read this? It was on my daughter’s shelf.  It was certainly compelling, but ultimately a futile read about a futile subject.  And in any case, the first rule of Fight Club is, don’t write about Fight Club.  I should point out that I never watched the film, nor ever will I watch it.

W.H Murray – The evidence of things not seen

For me, the long-awaited autobiography of celebrated Scottish climber and environmentalist Bill Murray.  His work “Mountaineering in Scotland” is one of the best pieces of mountain literature available.  In this longer work we see the whole of Murray’s life laid out before us, from childhood, through his war service as a tank commander in the Western Desert, imprisonment in Germany, and onto his work in Everest reconnaissance in the Himalayas after the war.

Bruce Sterling – Holy Fire

I like Bruce Sterling; this earliest of the “cyberpunk” authors here tells a rather odd story of an old woman who through late twenty-first medical technology, is restored to full health and youth.  The holy fire, I think, is that of youth.

Peter Fleming  – Bayonets to Lhasa

Peter Fleming was the older (and today, less well-known) brother of Ian Fleming. Both brothers were capable and gifted writers. Here, Peter Fleming writes an account of William Younghusband’s assault on Lhasa in 1904.  It is an essential piece of reading for anyone like me interested in Central Asia or in “The Great Game”.

A. N Wilson – Our times

Another sweeping historical perspective work, covering the new Elizabethan era – our times – from the mid 1950’s until the early noughties.  Much changed in the first four decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  But, it might be said that more has changed in the UK since A. N Wilson finished this book, than in all the forty years before.

Geoffrey Wellum – First Light

A delightful boys-to-men account of a youth who longs to fly, joins the RAF, and becomes a great pilot, taking part in the Battle of Britain.  Even as I write this, I am reminded of Robert Mason’s classic “Chickenhawk” which tells a very similar story about a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.  But Wellum’s account is stiff upper lip throughout.  Mustn’t grumble, old boy….

J D Vance – Hillbilly Elegy

J D Vance has been condemned as a “poster boy of the right” for his Republican views, but what he surely is, is an example of conquering adversity and winning through against the odds.  It is the story of how a boy from the backwoods of Kentucky,  a hill-billy – made good.  Three things contribute to his success: the faith, love and support of his grandmother; serving in the Marine Corps, and a certain amount of luck.  Other reasons are available: ability, charm etc.  A very inspiring read.

Isaac Asimov – It’s been a good life

I set out deliberately this year, to read autobiographies of great writers.  Find me someone who thinks Asimov was not a great writer, and I’ll find you a fool.  Isaac was blessed with a mind far sharper than most of us, and as a writer was energetic, prolific, and wide-ranging in interest.  John Campbell said of him, I think, “Isaac Asimov once had writer’s block….it was the worst ten minutes of his life”.

Rick Broadbent –  Endurance – life of Emil Zatopek

This was encouraging to me as an erstwhile and very amateur 10km runner.  I first heard of Zatopek when I was just a boy.  I recall reading about his amazing triple triumph at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. That year, he took the gold medal in the 5000m, 10000m, and in the Marathon.  I found the book much more interesting in the first half, which dealt with Zatopek’s upbringing and his early success as an athlete.  The second half, dealing with his fame and his struggles with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, whilst important enough a subject, I confess I found less stimulating.

 

R.A Heinlein – The unpleasant professional of Jonathan Hoag

Representing the many sci-fi books I read this year, this is Heinlein’s only real horror story.  It would make an excellent movie if only someone would write the screenplay.  The story opens with a man trying to find out from a doctor what the substance is that is stuck in his nails. He goes on to hire a private detective – to find out what he does for a living. After that, things get macabre.

Hampton Sides – Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

This was spot on: whilst at one level, a biography of Kit Carson, at another level, it is a biography or history of the American nation in the late nineteenth century, as the imperial expansion out to the Pacific was made reality by the grit, determination and plain nastiness of men like Carson and his mentor Fremont.  A very worthwhile read.

Tim Harford – Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy

A first rate canter through some interesting technical and cultural developments that shaped the modern world.  The book is basically an extended version of some chats given on the BBC World Service.  I wasn’t sure which one of the fifty I would have chosen, if any, as the most important, but if I had to pick any one, it would be the JOint Stock company or the concept the Limited Liability Company or LLC.

Len Deighton – SS-GB

I remember when this came out; I tried to read it then as a youth and could not make headway against it, however well-written it is.  Len Deighton is a master of the written word and you’ll learn a lot by him: read him, emulate him.  Unsurprisingly much-copied, this is the grand-dad of all alternative history spy thrillers.  I was particularly gratified to find in his story that the side-streets around the back of Victoria Station, on Vauxhall Bridge Road, were considered one of the roughest inner city areas in Europe.  Go there now!

Tim Marshall – Prisoners of geography

I go this in a charity shop in St Ives. A most excellent account of history as seen through maps, cartography and the importance of where you live, where your country lies.  Straits, river mouths and estuaries, mountain ranges,  cliffs and forests – these are the difference between life and death, wealth and penury.  Even in the days of cruise missiles and cybersecurity, your location still matters.