Monday, October 31, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“PIECES OF MIND – 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain” by Michael C.Corballis (Auckland University Press, $29:99)

You are, I’m sure, familiar with the concept of the bedside book. You pick it up for five or ten minutes before lights out, to soothe your mind or maybe to let you go to sleep with that happy sense that you’ve learnt at least something useful in the day that is ending. Books of bite-sized essays are perfect for this purpose. So Michael Corballis’s Pieces of Mind fits the bill.

This short (100 pages) tome puts together 21 of the columns written for New Zealand Geographic by  Corballis, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Auckland.

In no particular order, Corballis’s columns  consider some of the basic problems and functions of the brain playfully and with the minimum of jargon.

Does the physical size of the brain determine an animal’s intelligence? Of course not. You have to consider the ratio of brain to body mass, and also the type of brain it is. So the big brains of elephants and blue whales are not more intelligent than human brains and neither are the brains of mice (which are larger in proportion to body size than human brains). Dolphins, however, might give us a run for our money.

Has human bipedalism affected human intelligence? Of course it has. And while we share common ancestry with the chimps and great apes, it seems likely that our tree-dwelling ancestors were already bipedal before the chimps and great apes had evolved.

Corballis delights in considering such vexed questions as handedness (why are approximately 10% of human beings consistently left-handed?), explaining how it is demonstrable that Neanderthals form part of the human genome, and clarifying the phenomenon of prosopagnosia (loss of the ability to recognize faces). Essentially Darwinist in his outlook (however much that term may now be modified), he describes human beings as the “lop-sided apes” because of the hemispherical nature of our brains and the way functions are distributed between the hemispheres. His piece on laughter sees it as a sign of non-aggression common to all primates.

There are some fine demolitions in this little collection.

Corballis has fun with the nonsensical, and totally unscientific, idea that we use “only 10%” of our brain-power, much as this idiotic concept has frequently been used by boosters and motivational speakers. He also demolishes folklore about the rational “left brain” and the creative “right brain”, which is another cliché from life-skills seminars. (I wish he had gone further and shown how vacuous it is to ask men to “get in touch with their feminine side”.)

Some of his demolitions show that even in the world of sober academic psychology, there are fashions that have come and gone. When he deals with the phenomenon of memory, Corballis notes that psychologists now reject Freud’s idea that memories of great trauma are routinely suppressed by the brain. If anything, most people who suffer great trauma recall it vividly. Hence the discrediting of those therapists who, in Corballis’s words “created social mayhem” twenty and thirty years ago with their invention of the “recovered memory”, usually of childhood sexual abuse. As has repeatedly been shown, “recovered memories” tended to be suggestions planted in patients’ brains by the therapists themselves. Corballis doesn’t press the point, but this experience would also tend to discredit much of classic psycho-analysis.

Corballis has his own  pet theories – one being that human language developed first in hand gestures rather than in the power of speech. He can also take on, respectfully, some of his illustrious contemporaries. He disagrees politely with Steven Pinker about the place of music in human evolution and he at least queries Noam Chomsky’s assumption that there is a universal human “grammar”.  When he speaks of the nature of (quasi-musical) tonality in Asian languages, I couldn’t help wondering if this explained why so many New Zealand school orchestras are now dominated by Chinese and Korean kids. When he discusses synaesthesia – the phenomenon of responding to one sensory stimulus in terms of another – I wanted to introduce him to Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances”, which is almost a litany of synaesthesia.

I don’t want to talk up this little book too much. It is a collection of short magazine columns, after all, written to deadline and with strict space limitations.  There is the occasional dud. The piece about swearing is merely a collection of commonplaces that didn’t require Corballis’s expert knowledge.

On the whole, though, Corballis writes with the ease of somebody who is an expert in his field and who knows his readers need some help, but who doesn’t patronise them. He is clearly a materialist who does not see mind as separable from physical brain, and he takes the occasional passing swipe at religious belief, but he doesn’t go raving Dawkins on us.

So it adds up to a good bedside book, probably ruined by being read all together, one piece after another, but perfect for those last ten minutes of daily consciousness.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Isaac Asimov “A CHOICE OF CATASTROPHES” (first published 1979)
Doris and David Jonas “OTHER SENSES, OTHER WORLDS” (first published 1976)

Reading Michael Corballis’s little Pieces of Mind reminds me of the importance of what the French call “vulgarisation” in scientific matters.

Non-scientists like me are incapable of understanding complex equations and un-glossed scientific jargon. Because we non-scientists make up the overwhelming majority of the population, we are badly in need of books and articles that explain scientific processes and concepts to us in accessible language. I do not mean works of unscientific fantasising. Nor do I mean works that patronise us by over-simplifying. I mean works written by qualified scientists who treat us as adults but know we are not specialists.

In this area of “vulgarisation”, one of the best recent examples was Victoria University of Wellington lecturer Gillian Turner’s North Pole, South Pole, published last year by Awa Press, which examined the topic of geomagnetism. When I reviewed it in the Sunday Star-Times, I called it “a clearly written well-illustrated primer on an important and under-publicised area of science” and I later made it one of my Books of the Year. So imagine my surprise when I later came across a review where a journalist threw a tantrum because Turner’s book contained some long words and a little jargon. I repeat, I am no scientist, but I thought Turner’s book was crystal-clear with all the hard words considerately glossed. Even when it comes to “vulgarisation”, it would appear that for some readers nothing is vulgar enough.

There is an obvious difficulty with good vulgarisation, however. It will date as quickly as the science that it explains, so few works of scientific vulgarisation ever become classics. Ideas in science are quickly superseded when experimentation discredits them and new hypotheses arise. Even so, there are some vulgarisations that have stood up for a few decades, and two of them are this week’s Something Old.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1993) was the ultimate “nerd” writer for teenagers whose tastes ran to science fiction and popular science. He was also a writing machine who could crank out books by the yard. Some references credit him with writing more books than any other single author, a total of 400 books over 50 years. That averages at 8 books per year, which means that, throughout his adult life, Asimov wrote one book every month-and-a-half. And it shows.

Inevitably, some of Asimov’s books are crap. His “hard-core” science fiction doesn’t hold up well for grown-ups, being compounded of cardboard characters, technology and no nuance. Check out his overrated Foundation series. But the right sort of teenager can still enjoy it and good on them. I’m on the side of anything that gets kids away from Harry Potter-ish fantasising or moping teenage vampires. I note, too, that some of Asimov’s sf was specifically written for teenagers.

A professor of biochemistry, Asimov spent as much time producing popularisations of science as he did writing  sf.

A Choice of Catastrophes is one of his best.

The book is subtitled The Disasters that Threaten Our World. Methodically, chapter by chapter, Asimov considers all the possible ways in which Planet Earth itself, or at least all human life on it, could be destroyed. He classifies these possible disasters into five types. First, cosmic catastrophes, such as an increase in entropy, contraction of the universe or the compelling force of black holes. Second, solar catastrophes, such as the death of our sun. Third, something happening to the Earth alone, such as its bombardment by cosmic debris (comets, asteroids etc.), the slowing of Earth’s rotation or the loss of magnetism. Fourth, competition with other life forms, be they bacilli, large animals that have yet to evolve, or extraterrestrials. And finally, disaster and extinction brought about by human beings themselves, through depletion of resources, misused technology and so forth.

A sceptic and an atheist, Asimov was nevertheless interested in religious speculation and wrote his own massive commentary on the Bible. This partly sprang from his Orthodox Jewish background. He considerately begins his survey of disasters with a brief chapter on how various religions have imagined the Last Days.

I do not commend A Choice of Catastrophes for its literary style. Asimov was a stylistic plodder and explicator, but this suits his subject matter. I am sure that, after thirty years, some of his specifically scientific data would now be contested by scientists. Even so, while outlining how it could all end, Asimov makes it clear what is meant by thermodynamics, by quasars, by anti-matter, tectonic theory, scientific catastrophism, genetic mutations and much else. In short, while entertaining us, he does his work as a good vulgariser.

Probably a lot dodgier in its science, and far more speculative even than Asimov’s imagined catastrophes, is Doris and David Jonas’s Other Senses, Other Worlds.

The underlying idea of this book is very simple. As we should all know, animals other than human beings have very different ways of perceiving the physical universe.  How different must reality look to a bat or a dolphin, each of which makes much use of echo-location. What of the fact that bees and many birds can see parts of the spectrum that are invisible to human beings? And what of the fact that human beings have a relatively limited sense of smell in comparison with many other species?

Now, imagine these non-human sensory faculties allied to an intelligence as great as that of a human being. What sort of civilization or culture would develop among intelligent beings for whom smell was the dominant sense? Of who could see the whole spectrum? Or who could harness any one of a dozen faculties that are not accessible to human beings?

As you can guess, Other Senses, Other Worlds deals as much with speculation as explanation, and comes close to imagining possible types of extraterrestrial beings. But the Jonases keep their feet on the ground. Both were evolutionary biologists, most of whose work (Young Till We Die, Man-Child etc) was devoted to explaining specific inherited aspects of human behaviour. They make it clear when they are speculating and prove that that even good vulgarisation may be permitted its flights of fancy. 

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

When I was young, I had the principle of flavoured crisps explained to me. When you buy a packet of chicken-flavoured crisps, I was told, you do not experience the taste of chicken flesh at all. What you taste are all the condiments that are associated with the preparation of a cooked chicken. Dipping crisps into powders and spices is easier for the manufacturers of crisps than infusing them with a true chicken flavour. Your taste buds are thus fooled into thinking they have experienced the flavour of chicken when they have tasted nothing of the sort.

Aspiring to be a poet, I often think in far-fetched metaphors. This principle of crisp flavouring strikes me as an excellent metaphor for something non-crispy which I have recently experienced.

Picture my home environment during the school holidays. In residence are me, one wife, one cat, one rabbit and three teenage daughters.

The teenage daughters are a studious lot. They spend most of the day in their rooms quietly swotting for post-holiday exams, some of their time on Facebook, and some delightful time practising their singing or musical instruments. But in the evening, with no homework to do during holidays, they crave something worth watching on DVD (knowing, of course, that nothing on free-to-air television is worth watching).

So we plunge into a season of watching BBC serial adaptations of classic 19th century novels.

The first week, I hire from the library the 2005 BBC version of one of Dickens’ longest novels, Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson in a very creditable performance as Lady Dedlock and a quite terrifying Charles Dance as Mr Tulkinghorn. (On decaying videotape we already have the 1985  version of Bleak House in which Diana Rigg does an equally good, but very different, Lady Dedlock).The 2005 version was the one which, divided into half-hour episodes, was promoted in Britain as a soap-opera, played in the time-slot immediately after East Enders, and gained a huge soap-following viewership as a result. There are over eight hours of it. We watch it over three evening in 2- or 3-hour lots. We all, apart from the cat and the rabbit, thoroughly enjoy it.

A few days later I haul out my decaying videotapes of the 1977 BBC version of Dickens’ shortest novel Hard Times. (Apparently the Beeb revisited it with another version in 1994, but I haven’t caught up with that one.). There are only three hours of it, and we watch it over two evenings, again with full enjoyment.

A few more days go by, and I hire the 2002 BBC version of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. But here something curious happens. On the whole, daughters and wife enjoy it, as we watch its 3-and-a-half hours over two evenings. But while I find it well-produced and acted, I also find it extraordinarily thin, the characters oddly empty and under-developed. I do not particularly enjoy it.

Now you might think that there are some obvious explanations for my negative  reaction. Maybe it has to do with the author. Maybe I’m a chauvinist pig and therefore more sympathetic to male authors like Charles Dickens than to female ones like “George Eliot” (Mary-Anne Evans). Maybe the very moral George Eliot is harder to bear than the more boisterous Dickens. Maybe it’s the novels themselves, and perhaps Daniel Deronda isn’t as interesting as either Bleak House or Hard Times. Or maybe I was all classic-serialled out, and watching three of the beasts in one fortnight was just a bit much.

But I offer you a different explanation for my negative response.

I’ve read both Hard Times and Bleak House and know those novels fairly well. But while I’ve read most of George Eliot at one time or another (Middlemarch, Adam Bede, Romola, The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner), I blush to admit that I have never got around to Felix Holt or her last novel Daniel Deronda, even though both of them sit, unread, on my shelves – all 600 large, finely-printed pages in the case of Daniel Deronda.

When I watch a BBC adaptation of Bleak House or Hard Times, my brain is in part replaying my memories of characters and situations and prose as I have experienced them on the printed page. In short, much of the nuance of the TV version is not provided by the TV version itself, but by my memories of what Dickens actually wrote.

But watching Daniel Deronda, I have no such memory to fall back on. The sights, sounds, locations and dialogue of the TV presentation are all there is. I have no residual memory of how George Eliot presented it to fall back on, none of her fine interior monologues or the long, self-contained authorial observations that are such a feature of her work. Result? Characters are seen from the outside only, without the author’s psychological analysis, and therefore they are inevitably thin.

I argued once before that to some extent film and TV adaptations of classic novels are like the old Classics Illustrated comics. All outward image and dialogue, but completely lacking the distinctive style of the author being adapted.

I now argue that they are like chicken-flavoured crisps. There’s Lady Dedlock visiting her lover’s grave, and there’s Jo the crossing sweeper dying as he says the Lord’s Prayer and there’s Mr Tulkinghorn scheming and Mr Jarndyce being benevolent  – the condiments of the plot. So we simply imagine that we have tasted the chickens – Dickens.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE GENIUS IN MY BASEMENT – The Biography of a Happy Man” by Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate, $34:99)

I was under a misapprehension when I read the first 30 pages of Alexander Masters’ The Genius in My Basement.
I had noted the way the text sometimes breaks into cartoonish illustrations and I had noted that there were some photographs. But the opening pages give such a  wonderful over-the-top description of the childhood of a mathematical genius, and of the chosen squalor in which the genius (now nearly 60) lives, that I was convinced I was reading a clever fiction. You know - one of those cod biographies complete with cod documentation and photographs that jolly parodists sometimes make up.
Then I came across some things that could only possibly be factual, so I did a little Firefoxing and Googling. In no time I discovered what I was beginning to suspect. This is no fiction. It is a factual account of a real eccentric genius who lived downstairs from the author in what the author frequently dubs “The Excavation”.

Of course, “fiction” is a relative word with this sort of book. Alexander Masters makes it clear that he is not writing an orthodox biography, nor even an orthodox memoir, although The Genius in My Basement lives in the same ballpark as a memoir. It’s a series of encounters between author and subject in which the author pushes himself forward as a main character in the story, admits when he doesn’t know enough about certain areas of his subject’s life, makes up things in order to hear his subject grunt or guffaw about them and in short has a thoroughly enjoyable time while giving us the essence of his chosen subject’s personality, but without all the documentary facts. This is the same technique Masters used in his award-winning first book Stuart: A Life Backwards, which grew from his encounters with a vagrant drug-addicted man when Masters was working for a Cambridge charity. (Stuart: A Life Backwards was later turned into a BBC tele-movie.)

Let’s consider his subject in The Genius in My Basement.

Simon Phillips Norton was a budding mathematical genius when he was a tot. He won awards while still in elementary school, got the highest-ever scholarship entrance exam score to qualify for Eton, repeatedly scored 100% in international school Maths competitions, winning gold medals and astounding judges by the speed with which he could solve complex problems. By the age of 17, while still a schoolboy at Eton,  he had completed a masters degree in Pure Maths through he University of London.

On he soared to Cambridge, readily recognized as a genius, zipping through complex three-hour exams in about 40 minutes and tossing off in casual conversation solutions to problems that had baffled his mathematician peers for months. He was given a fellowship and for some years worked on what may have been the definitive book on Group Theory. He worked with five other gifted mathematicians (one of whom, John Conway, was almost his equal as a genius). The book, Atlas of Finite Groups was published.

And then… and then… and then?

Well, academically, nothing really.

Simon had never been good at teaching and his Cambridge fellowship was granted on the condition that he never taught. The research team was dissolved. John Conway fled from Cambridge to become a respected Professor of Maths at Princeton. In about 1985, without other geniuses to spark off, Simon fell apart. He was fired by Cambridge (or as he prefers to say “his contract was not renewed”). He gradually became the man he is today -  a cheerful eccentric who still worries away at aspects of  Group Theory which all his Cambridge contemporaries have dropped. He has spent 25 years picking at a Group Theory problem concerning the right equation for a number with 53 digits. Mathematicians nick-name the problem “The Monster” , says Masters, “because of its gargantuan complexity and fiery insight into the fundamental structure of the universe.

Simon loves collecting bus and train timetables and taking long journeys on public transport, in which he tots up the mileage and makes elaborate calculations. He is an activist in the promotion of public transport and frequently fires off letters about how iniquitous the Tory government is in making cuts. He lives in what the author just avoids calling squalor – a room piled high with what most people would call junk. He seems celibate by choice (at one point he tells a loudly gay tradesman that “If I was interested in sex it would be with women”). And yet it is quite clear that he is still a genius – he’s just gone off in his own, odd direction.

I must admit that sometimes, amid my general enjoyment of this book, a few things jarred. Alexander Masters is himself a mathematician of no small ability (he has degrees in Physics and Applied Maths from London and Cambridge), but he is aware that he is writing a book for the general, non-mathematical public. In a series of chapters (each denoted with an asterisk) he attempts to explain to us what the heck Group Theory is anyway, using jolly cartoons and the simplest of explanations. While they give us an inkling of the subject, I think he over-compensates for our collective stupidity and makes his explanations too childish. We end up not really knowing what the fuss about Simon’s specialty was in the first place.

There are a few things that don’t add up. Simon has two brothers, one of whom is immensely wealthy. A discreet and brief footnote tells us that Simon contributes many thousands of pounds a year to the cause of better public transport. But we are never exactly told how Simon now earns his own living.

Yet I think overall this book hits a bull’s-eye. The best of it is the way Masters avoids allowing us thickos to indulge our Schadenfreude. Over the years, there have been many books giving accounts of child geniuses or prodigies who crashed into nonentity in adulthood.  Usually they comfort us with the implicit idea that, while we may be dullards, at least our lives have never become as miserable as that of the burnt-out genius.

This is definitely NOT the theme of The Genius in My Basement. You will note that the book is subtitled The Biography of a Happy Man. Masters is at pains to show that, in his own way, Simon is perfectly happy with his life. He has his own circle of friends and acquaintances, even if he relates to them in an odd way. He enjoys what he does, as he makes his regular train and bus journeys and accompanies the author on a trip to Norway. Nobody now thinks he is going to explain the mathematical structure of the universe but – amazingly – just a couple of years ago he was able to turn up at an international maths conference in Canada and give an impromptu lecture which set the academics chattering with its stimulating, and totally intuitive, ideas.

He’s not unhappy and there’s an even chance that he’s still a genius.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Amy Wallace “THE PRODIGY – A Biography of William James Sidis, the World’s Greatest Child Prodigy” (first published 1986)

Reading this week’s Something New, Alexander Masters’ The Genius in My Basement, automatically put me in mind of a book I first read 17 years ago, Amy Wallace’s The Prodigy, the biography of a child genius.

William James Sidis (1898-1944) was a genius. He could read fluently before the age of two, speak innumerable languages before he was eight, got through four years worth of high school in twelve weeks and was ready to go to Harvard when he was nine. But they wouldn’t accept him until he was 11. Early in 1909, aged 11, he delivered a famous two-hour lecture to the Harvard Mathematical Club and out-reasoned the learned professors who cross-examined him. He graduated from Harvard cum laude at the age of 14. As a teenager he had a brief few months lecturing at Rice University in Texas (where one visiting contemporary, the biologist Julian Huxley, recalled him as a slovenly child who was good only at mathematics).  Yet Sidis made no career for himself as an adult, going from menial job to menial job, shunning publicity, seeking anonymity and dying at the age of 46 (of a cerebral haemorrhage) without, apparently, having achieved anything.


Amy Wallace’s book is basically written to a thesis. She sets out to refute the notion that Sidis “burnt out”. Every so often in Sidis’s adulthood, articles would appear in the popular press, crowing over the former boy wonder’s failure to achieve anything and suggesting that gifted children are merely freaks whose genius does not last. Contradicting this, Wallace argues that Sidis’s genius -   his prodigious mathematical ability, reasoning powers, photographic memory and creative intuition -  remained intact until the day he died. Rather, she says, he effectively went “on strike”, deliberately reacting against high expectations of him by cultivating anonymity and eccentricity.
According to her thesis, he was chiefly reacting against his parents.

His father and mother were both ambitious Russian-Jewish immigrants who brought him up in a reasonably humane, non-disciplinarian way. But his father Boris – one of the founders of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology – couldn’t resist showing the boy off. When William was still a child, Boris even wrote a book, Philistine and Genius, presenting his son as a vindication of Boris’s method of child-rearing to cultivate genius. His mother Sarah, whom William came to hate, was even worse. She endlessly penned articles for the popular press on how to turn children into geniuses. Boris and Sarah were only too happy to show the boy off to an inquisitive press, effectively turning William into an exhibit.

Amy Wallace sees William as a “success” in his own terms. He wanted to live “normally” and obscurely and for much of his adult life he succeeded in doing so. He briefly took the route of trying to scandalise his parents by becoming involved in radical politics, which he knew they would hate. But this merely brought more publicity upon him. So it was on to a life as a clerk in dingy offices, banging away at adding machines when he could in fact perform their simple calculations mentally and faster than the machines could. Wallace interprets his frequent (false) disclaimers of genius in his adult life as evidence of his wish to escape his past.

Only once as an adult did Sidis attract much publicity when, for the first time, he turned on the press. In 1937, New Yorker magazine ran a facetious article called “April Fool!” (Sidis’s birthday was 1 April 1898), written under a pseudonym by the humorist James Thurber. It exposed Sidis as a “failure” – almost a half-wit – promoting the familiar Schadenfreude argument that child genius inevitably ends in adult mediocrity. Sidis attempted to sue, but won only a meagre out-of-court settlement.

There are many interesting side-issues in this book. One is noting how many well known people William Sidis and his family knew. Boris Sidis was well on the way to being hailed as one of the founders of modern psychiatry until, in 1910, he had a massive bust-up with the notoriously touchy Sigmund Freud and denounced psychoanalysis as a fraud. William James Sidis was named after the philosopher William James (brother of the novelist Henry James), who was a family friend. William’s cousin was the writer Clifton Fadiman. As a child at Harvard, William rubbed shoulders with other child geniuses, including Norbert Wiener, who coined the terms “cybernetics”. A book like this always has its gossipy side.

More germane to the book’s argument, though, is the tantalising evidence Amy Wallace produces for William’s undimmed genius. Chief exhibit is a book William had privately published in 1925, for a tiny circulation, called The Animate and the Inanimate. It as rediscovered in 1979, 35 years after William’s death, by a student of William’s former classmate Buckminster Fuller. Fuller at once recognized that, twenty years before anyone else had thought of it, Sidis had postulated the existence of Black Holes in the universe. Almost as interesting a piece of evidence was another (unpublished) book Sidis wrote as an adult – an “alternative” history of the United States, The States and the Tribes, focusing on the interaction of Native American tribes with early colonists, and their interchange of ideas.

All this leads me to believe that Amy Wallace probably has a point in her argument, although it does rather scare me that she quotes the libertarian nutter Ayn Rand to prove it. (There genuinely are some hyper-intelligent people who believe they owe nothing to the world or the rest of society. Mercifully they are a small minority.)

Yet for all Wallace’s careful reasoning, there is still something immensely sad in this story. It is clear that William James Sidis was never able to form an ongoing and  loving relationship with another human being. The one woman he loved married somebody else. Forlornly, he carried her picture with him for the next twenty years.

Interestingly, too, he became a fanatical collector of used tram tickets (or “street-car transfers”). He coined the term “peridromophily” for this eccentric hobby.
This is what chimes most with Simon Phillips Norton in The Genius in My Basement, with his love of trains and buses and old timetables. What is it with mathematical geniuses and public transport? It must have something to do with the neat configurations of routes, the orderliness of systems, the practical resort to numbers and the knowledge that, after all, the journey will reach a predictable conclusion, like a well-wrought equation.

Important footnote – I have reported accurately the contents of Amy Wallace’s book, but it’s only fair to add that Amy Wallace ( daughter of the best-selling author Irving Wallace) is a controversial character. Her reputation has not been helped by her long association (beginning in her teenage years) with the popular charlatan Carlos Castaneda, whose best-selling fictions, posing as anthropology, addled the brains of hippies who thought enlightenment was only one dose of peyote away. Despite the author’s own biography, however, The Prodigy still strikes me as a sober and reasonable work. For a favourable survey of the book, type “amy wallace the prodigy” into your search engine, and you can read the long review by Dr Robert Seitz that not only summarises the book but quotes verbatim many interesting passages. By the way, Amy Wallace shares her name with two completely different American women who write, one being a born-again Christian writer of thrillers and the other a newspaper columnist.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high-school, it’s a wonder I can think it all,” goes the opening to Paul Simon’s lyric Kodachrome.

It’s a common enough complaint, especially from disgruntled recent school-leavers. “Why did they fill us up at school with all those impractical and useless things that have no bearing on the job I hope to get, or the way I live in this world?” Push the argument a little further, and you get strictly vocational and utilitarian ideas about education. “Forget about widening kids’ perspectives. Just get them ready for the marketplace of jobs. Those who want culture can find their own way to it after they leave school.”

But when I ask “Are schools a waste of time?”, I’m thinking just the opposite. After twelve years in the school system as a pupil, and a further twenty-five years as a secondary school teacher, I ask why schools waste so much time that could be more fruitfully devoted to real academic learning. I am appalled, not only at the functional illiteracy and innumeracy of so many school-leavers, but at their lack of cultural capital. I make this comment after some additional years of university teaching, where I have met fresh undergraduates who do not know the most basic facts of history, society or culture.

“Oops, sorry. No, I don’t know when the Second World War ended.”
“Date of the Treaty of Waitangi? No, you’ve got me there.” This from New Zealand Stage One History students who, let’s admit it, are supposed to have a livelier interest in History than the general population.
I know whenever you talk about school education in New Zealand, you have to factor in each school’s decile ranking. Not all kids have the same advantages. It’s totally unrealistic to compare an upper-middle-class state school in a leafy suburb, where the parents are professionals, businesspeople and academics, with a working class state school in a raw suburb, where the parents are lucky to have jobs at all or sole or on welfare benefits. (And note how I carefully avoided mentioning either ethnicity or private schools.).

I understand that any complaints about education in New Zealand quickly get mired in sociological analysis and those defensive statements about how well New Zealand does in literacy compared with other similar countries. 
I’m aware of all this, but I’m not mollified.

I’m still appalled at how much time of the average high-school day is pure waste, and how little real learning takes place.

Consider this. In general terms, classes run from about 9am to about 3pm.and the day is divided into five of six teaching periods. Six hours. Subtract the necessary time for morning recess and a lunch break. You now have five hours. Subtract the time pupils are moving between classes. It’s down to four-and-a-half hours. Now factor in the time classes take to settle in to each period, and the fact that (even in well-run schools) much of a teacher’s time will be taken up with controlling a class as much as teaching it. Even assuming that classes are not particularly unruly, a real school day will probably have an hour or two of real teaching and learning in it. By this I mean an hour or two in which pupils are being instructed or are working in a meaningful way. This will apply only to the more orderly and focused schools. I know (because I have visited them) that there are high schools whose main purpose is social control – a holding-pen to keep kids off the streets and give them perhaps a minimum of social skills before they have to be released. In such schools, virtually no academic learning happens at all and we have the phenomenon of 17-year-olds who can barely read or write.

Then there are the regular interruptions and “entertainments” that bite into even the minuscule real teaching-and-learning time that is available. Travelling road-shows (often government-sponsored social propaganda) supposedly preparing kids for real life by telling them about road-safety, brushing their teeth, racial harmony etc. Doubtless well-intentioned but (as I’ve observed in numerous schools) generally not making a blind bit of difference to pupils’ real patterns of behaviour (At best, such shows might reinforce the behaviour of the kids already well-disposed to what is being said, but for the mass of pupils they are simply a diversion from classroom time. “Hope this lasts until the Maths period ends!”).

Then there are special assemblies for sports-stars, illustrious former pupils etc. Plus the fact that most secondary schools have a wind-down time towards the end of each term when teachers are marking exams papers (in the schools that have exams) or otherwise allowing pupils to “revise in class” etc. etc.

When we consider that the average school year has between ten and twelve weeks of holidays in it, we are looking at between 40 and 42 weeks of school.

Okay, let me be generous. Let me ignore the interruptions, wind-downs etc., and assume that, five days per school week, the better secondary schools are delivering one-and-a-half hours of teaching and learning per day. That’s seven-and-a-half hours per school week. Multiply this by 40 (remembering that I’m being very generous in this calculation) and that make 300 hours of real learning per year. That’s ten 5-day 6-hour-day weeks. Add in the necessary recess and lunch break. We get 350 hours, or eleven-and-a-half 5-day 6-hour-day weeks.

So every school year, your kids are getting the equivalent of just over eleven weeks of real teaching and learning. And that’s in the better secondary schools. For the other 27-and-a-half school weeks of the year, they are basically wasting their time.

You see that I can work up quite a head of steam when I discuss this subject. I could go further and add rude comments about the low level of academic expectations; the lousy second-rate novels that students are asked to study in English classes because they are easy or fashionable or preach a currently-acceptable message, while real literature is ignored; the creeping dumbing-down of syllabuses (or syllabi if you’re a Latinist) etc. etc. But I think I’ve made my point.

And, of course, I can also spot the radical flaw in my whole argument.

I am not Mr Grandgrind at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, who (like a true utilitarian) thinks of children as empty receptacles into which knowledge can be poured. (“Facts, sir, what we want are facts!”) This is the perceptual  trap of many pushy parents. I can understand the impulses of home-schooling parents, especially if they can’t afford to send their kids to private school or want their kids to avoid an especially noxious local state school. Home-schoolers are on the right track if they realize that the average high-school day is poorly-conceived and  badly used.

But I have read enough theory and have enough experience to know that the school day cannot be an endless academic pushing of students. Not only do individual kids work at different rates, but all kids (indeed all human beings) require a pattern of alternating relaxation and effort to learn anything, to take anything in or to be instructed. The breaks, pauses and times of sanctioned goofing-off are absolutely necessary to the process.

Also schools, as I’m sure somebody has been itching to say up to this point, are as much about socialisation as they are about formal academic learning. Sharing activities with other adolescents, having fun, learning to get on with other people and learning to cooperate are as much what schools are about as formal learning. I do not advocate a race of repressed swots, child geniuses who have learned theory but know nothing of people, “peer-group isolates” and other horrors. From my school-teaching years I can recall times of watching kids playing happily in the playground during breaks, and reflecting that for many of them this would be the best thing that would happen to them in the whole school year.

I take all this on board in full consciousness.

And still I think that much of schooling is a waste of time.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“TREES OF NEW ZEALAND – Stories of Beauty and Character” by Peter Janssen and Mike Hollman (Hodder-Moa; distributed by Hachette, $69:99)

God made the country, and man made the town” says a famous line by the 18th century poet William Cowper.
It’s a favourite quotation among old-time farmers and country-people when they want to assert their moral superiority over townies. It is also a piece of arrant nonsense. God didn’t make the country to any greater extent than He made the town. The country that we know, and in which the more unreflective nature poets used to luxuriate, has been shaped as much by human effort and impact as the towns have.
Those bare and rolling Otago hills? They were covered in forest before the arrival of the Maori. Those flat and productive Waikato or Manawatu dairylands? They were dense and tangled bush before Pakeha fought their way in and grabbed them. Sweet harmonious nature really means nature flattened, smoothed, cleared and made liveable for human beings. The bits that have been preserved in their “natural” state (national parks etc.) are there on sufferance. We love them for their wild beauty, but also for the fact that we now control them and we don’t have to live there. We can return to the conveniences of modern, unnatural life when we choose.

Some thoughts along these lines popped into my mind as I was reading and enjoying Peter Janssen and Mike Hollman’s very beautiful Trees of New Zealand. I must admit that I got this book from the publishers under a slight misapprehension. I thought it would, literally, be a field guide, with illustrations, to all the native varieties of New Zealand tree. This I looked forward to as I have more than once been confounded by my own ignorance when I go on bush-walks and attempt to identify by name the native flora.

In fact, this is not the purpose or achievement of Trees of New Zealand.

It is, quite literally, a celebration in text and photography of individual trees that are growing in New Zealand, whether they are indigenous or exotic. The trees are treated as individuals, so that the notes accompanying each photograph amount to arboreal “biographies”. The notes do not follow a rigid format, but most often we are told how old each individual tree is, where exactly it is situated, who probably planted it (if this fact is known) and what local and cultural associations have gathered around it.

Naturally, along the way, the book does achieve much that a field guide to New Zealand trees would achieve. By looking at the photo of the majestic kahikatea on page 51, I am reminded never again to confuse it with the mighty totara which is depicted on page 87. I learn my lesson about numerous other varieties, too.

But along with the natives, the book revels in the exotics that are now just as much a part of the Kiwi landscape. The Chilean Wine Palms which Sir George Grey planted next to Mansion House on Kawau Island. The row of Phoenix Palms (caught fetchingly in the fading twilight) that march down the middle of Raglan’s main drag. A dazzling shot (maybe the best in the book) looking up through the canopy of the California Redwoods in a Rotorua forest. Moreton Bay Figs with their huge, creeping, above-ground roots. Cedars of Lebanon in the Geraldine domain. All of them exotics, and many of them reminding me that some trees thought to be indigenous are also really exotics. After all, some pre-European foliage was introduced here by Maori coming from other parts of the Pacific. It’s a bit like what people now think of as the very English rose – which didn’t exist in England until the later Middle Ages, when it was imported from Persia. As I began by saying, the landscape we inhabit, the nature with which we think we are communing, is a product of much human modification.

Because the text gives the exact location of each tree, the book is handy for tourists or visitors, and inevitably some “celebrities” are featured. Tane Mahuta, the tallest surviving kauri in the country in the Waipoua forest. The spindly pohutukawa that hangs off the rock at Cape Reinga, being the jumping-off point for departing spirits of the dead. The huge Norfolk pine that towers over James Busby’s residency at Waitangi.
But there is a quirkiness to some of Peter Janssen’s and Mike Hollman’s choices and some of them are off the most beaten tracks. The Italian cypresses bracketing the little Anglican church near Waimea. And the fossilised trees at Curio Bay, 90 kilometres east of Invercargill, which  appear in the photograph more tree-like than they did when I visited them five years ago. Trees are as mortal as we are, and these fossils come in a final section of Trees of New Zealand which reminds us that some trees are dead-and-gone, or are so rare as to be near extinction.

Looking at pictures of venerable old trees can be an elegiac business.

This book drew my attention to some things I had never considered. For example, apart from some berry-bearing specimens, fruit trees were unknown to Maori before Europeans arrived. In the early nineteenth century, Maori so delighted in the fruit trees Pakeha were introducing, that some of the oldest apple groves in the country survive next to what were once major Maori settlements. Pear trees have particular longevity, and Trees of New Zealand features some aged and bearded examples.

While I was enjoying this book, my son drew my attention to the work of the Cambridge don Oliver Rackham, England’s acknowledged expert on trees, woodlands, pasture and how these things have been shaped by culture and social attitudes. His best known book is History of the Countryside. I also thought of Simon Schama’s more populist history book on the same general theme, Landscape and Memory.

Trees of New Zealand is essentially a picture book and is not Rackham’s or Schama’s sort of history book. But it does walk on the boundary between nature and human perception of it and in, for example, its story of the Cromwell area’s “Wooing Tree”, it does remind us of how easily “traditions” about the countryside can be manufactured.

For most readers such ideas will, of course, be strictly secondary to the gallery of first-rate images it provides.

Semi-relevant footnote – In case you were wondering (which is highly unlikely), I was first prompted to the type of thoughts expressed in the opening paragraphs of the foregoing by Aldous Huxley’s famous 1929 essay Wordsworth in the Tropics ; but I have often confirmed his central argument by my own observations. I have read William Cowper’s The Task, whence derives his famous line “God made the country, and man made the town”. But I was first acquainted with the line when it was quoted by the puritanical Scots crofter (played by John Laurie), who hates the corruptions of the town, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

Osbert Lancaster “DRAYNEFLETE REVEALED” (first published1949; American edition There’ll Always Be A Drayneflete published 1950)
Osbert Lancaster “THE SARACEN’S HEAD”  (first published 1948)
Osbert Lancaster “PROGRESS AT PELVIS BAY” (first published1936)

A book with beautiful pictures like Trees of New Zealand leads me to consider three books with a totally different sort of beautiful pictures.

When I was a child, all three of the books recommended as this week’s “Something Old” stood side-by-side on my father’s packed bookshelves, their spines equally browned by the clouds of pipe-smoke my father gave out as he worked at his desk.

They now stand on my own packed bookshelves.

Every couple of years I rediscover them and thumb through them, once again enjoying the pictures and occasionally delighting in the accompanying prose. I liked the pictures when I was a child, too, but then I did not fully understand the sharp satire two of them contained, aimed at sophisticated adults.

Let’s give a little background. Osbert Lancaster (1908-1986) was both cartoonist and architectural draughtsman, with a sideline in theatrical set design. He was a very short man with a bushy moustache. He sometimes poked fun at his own lack of height by drawing himself as a kind of dwarf on the edges of some of his cartoons. He moved in the best circles, being Public School and Oxford-educated. He was eventually knighted.

To England’s general public he was best-known for his long-running “pocket cartoons” that appeared, every day for over thirty years, on the front page of the Daily Express. Part of their appeal was the simple fact that they appeared so frequently. In an article which I can’t trace (I think it was in the defunct magazine Punch) somebody explained them with the remark that readers would be delighted to find something topical in the news every day getting such a swift response.

The “pocket cartoons” often ran jokes about snobby aristocrats called the Littlehamptons and their reactions to politics. I think Lancaster’s most famous “pocket cartoon” had Lady Littlehampton, after a Labour Party election victory, leaving a banquet and ordering a servant to  “Call me a tumbril!”

As with his contemporary Giles, selections of Lancaster’s newspaper cartoons were published in book form. I have one such Lancaster collection Studies From Life (1954) on my shelf next to the three books I’m recommending.

Now let’s consider these three beautiful books.

The non-satirical and more-or-less straightforward one is the playful The Saracen’s Head.  Indeed, I once read it to my elder children as a serial bedtime story and I seem to recall they quite enjoyed it. It is literally a medieval tale of a crusader who rides off to Palestine, is knighted because he is erroneously thought to have whacked off a Saracen’s head in battle, and earns the right to wear the device of a Saracen’s head on his shield. The knight is William de Littlehampton, clearly the ancestor of Lancaster’s modern Tory aristocrats. It is illustrated with Lancaster’s black-and-white line illustrations, including technically-correct views of medieval trebuchets and the like, and a wonderful view of a Muslim fort and walled harbour. My child brain delighted in these.

Three times, however, The Saracen’s Head breaks into coloured double-page spreads. The chatelaine farewells the crusaders from a European castle. Crusaders and Saracens face off in a desert battle, with a couple of bloody severed heads lying in the sand. Crusaders storm the walls of a Saracen fort, with falling bodies, impalings and decapitations. Lancaster’s settings are architecturally accurate but his characters are cartoonic, distancing us from the violence in the time-honoured way of storybooks.

I’m sure that its implicit view of alien Muslims and of jolly ancient warfare would now make this book unpublishable or subject to protests. Still it is great –if Non-Politically Correct – fun.

The earlier Progress at Pelvis Bay is a very light-hearted piece of satire, poking fun at town planners and styles of architecture. It purports to be a guide-book to an undistinguished English seaside resort, and the accompanying line illustrations show the development of the town from the late eighteenth century to the present (1936).  Lancaster’s drawing style was then in its early stages, so the drawings are very simple. Text is the type of genteel booster-ism that local guide-books contain, talking up the perfectly mundane features of the town as if they are architectural gems. It first appeared as a series of articles in the English Architectural Review, where it doubtless provoked polite chuckles among architects.

In a way Progress at Pelvis Bay is a foretaste of what I regard as Lancaster’s masterpiece, which came thirteen years later - Drayneflete Revealed (released in America as There’ll Always be a Drayneflete). Again, its seventy pages are a cod guidebook, this time to an English country town. But the time frame is longer. Drayneflete (the name refers playfully to a sewer) begins in the first illustration as a Roman-era village and ends in the last overwhelmed by modern (1949) suburbia. In between, Lancaster’s illustrations carry us through the Caroline, Georgian and Victorian eras, with a distinct nostalgia for the eighteenth century, which is also represented on Lancaster’s cover illustration. A stout and fleshy Muse poses under a tree with the eighteenth century Drayneflete in the distance.

This time, however, Lancaster’s illustrations and text go further than they did in Progress at Pelvis Bay. He now parodies accurately the artworks that hang in stately homes, and the prose and literature of earlier eras. It’s the type of humour that delighted antiquarians like John Betjeman.

The high-point is the last section, “Poet’s Corner”, which purports to celebrate the poets of Draynflete, a mediocre bunch who all conform to the clichés of their age. Eighteenth century Jeremy Tipple writes didactic, sub-Pope verse in rhyming couplets with titles like “The Contemplative Shepherd”. Victorian Miss Amelia de Vere quivers emotionally like a lesser Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the 1890s Casimir de Vere-Tipple writes decadent verse until forced to retire abroad for (ahem) “private reasons”. In the 1920s Guillaume de Vere-Tipple waxes Modernist and imitates T.S.Eliot with “Aeneas on the Saxophone”. But he discovers in the 1930s that this no longer sells. So he suddenly goes all proletarian and Young Auden-ish, changes his name to Bill Tipple, and produces committed political free-verse pieces with titles like “crackup in barcelona”.

Okay, okay – I know this sort of parody assumes you know something about the development of English poetry. It might therefore be condemned as “elitist” – like most of what is worth savouring in the arts.  If you do know your poetry, however, it’s both accurate and very funny. I once saw the “Poet’s Corner” section of Drayneflete Revealed reproduced in a book called Sense of Humour as an example of “Parody as Criticism”. Fair enough too.

As you might guess, these books are now old friends of mine, familiar as household words. But I may be very discourteous to you in recommending them because, so far as I know, they are all out of print. Indeed, they are the type of things you can buy only in well-stocked second-hand bookshops or from on-line catalogues. Sniff through piles of the superannuated, the neglected and the no-longer-read and they might just be there, caviar to the general.

Happy hunting.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Idioms rarely mean what they literally say and it’s a very schoolboy-ish sense of humour that pretends to take idioms at their literal word.

But there is one idiom that really irritates me, because it has the potential to completely mislead people.

The idiom is the one about re-writing history.

A couple of years ago I watched a TV debate in which an opposition member was disagreeing furiously with a cabinet minister. He disputed the minister’s version of events from years earlier. Both the minister’s “facts” and the minister’s interpretation were wrong, he said. Finally, in exasperation, he burst out with “You’re trying to re-write history!”

And seated at home, I immediately thought “That’s not what you really mean, is it?”

The simple fact is that re-writing history is what the study of history is all about. If historians did not constantly re-write history they would not be historians.

New facts come to light, archives are opened which had previously been inaccessible, secret or confidential documents pass into the public domain, a wider group of witnesses become available to testify to events; and old history books are suddenly seen to be either inaccurate or inadequate. They are superseded by new books. History is re-written.

One historian finds another historian’s standard work on a topic to be based on flawed methodology or to be unbalanced or tendentious or otherwise eccentric. She writes her own book on the same topic. History is re-written.

This bubble called The Present, in which were are forever travelling, moves further and further away from a set of events. We now see those events in a new light and from a new perspective. A respectable history book on the Great War, written in 1930, would have a radically different perspective on that war’s consequences from a respectable history book on the First World War written in 1960. History is re-written.

Social attitudes change. Aspects of the past that might once have been deemed trivial or unimportant are now seen as crucial to our understanding. For many historians, history once consisted of a narrative about politics, national conflicts and leadership. Now class and gender and religion and race and popular culture and customs are seen to be just as important. History is re-written.

Okay, I’m not being the facetious schoolboy who can’t recognize an idiom when he meets it. I fully understand that when he said “You’re trying to re-write history!”, the furious MP really meant “You’re falsifying history!” or even “You’re lying!” He certainly wasn’t initiating a learned debate on historiography.

But the phrase “re-writing history” does tend to reinforce the popular superstition that history is one single, immutable, objective and agreed set of facts and interpretations, and that somewhere there is a definitive version of history with which everyone has to agree.

This assumption (rarely thought-through) often lives in people who haven’t thought about the nature of history since their schooldays, and who believe the “facts” of history are as objective as the “facts” of the periodic table at least seem to be. (It is beyond my ability to discuss subjectivity in the sciences, but I think you know what I mean here.). “That’s not the way I learnt it at school” is a phrase in the same ball-park as “You’re trying to re-write history!”

History is mutable, always contested and always written from different viewpoints. In its strictest academic dressing, it still carries a huge freight of subjectivity and will reflect some of the assumptions of the time in which is was written. There is no such thing as unmediated history (history separable from the way it has been recorded and interpreted). There is certainly no such thing as objective history to which every real historian agrees.

In saying all this, I am not submitting to the lame postmodernist doctrine that history is nothing but viewpoint, structured “story” and interpretation, and that therefore it is merely a species of fiction. If this were so, then historians would be free to ignore the most reliable sources and invent whatever they like. Let it be clearly understood that such a doctrine means there are no grounds for refuting fantasists, Holocaust-deniers, Flat-Earthers or other loonies when they purport to be writing history.

History, even as it is constantly and legitimately being re-written, has to be based on sources external to the historian and his/her interpretations. There are ways of judging whether sources are good or bad, reliable or unreliable, representative or not representative of an era. History is not a case of “anything goes”.

Even so, if an historian is told in all seriousness  “You’re trying to re-write history”, the correct answer should be “Yes. That’s my job.”