The Book Department

With Dr Alyson Hitch

If you wanted to know anything about what the best new books on offer were, from our point of view, for a decade there was only one person to ask: our literary editor Sarla Langdon. As our regular readers will know, Sarla died a few short months ago, leaving us not only without our dear friend, but without a book section too. At first, the latter didn’t seem so significant, but on reflection we realised that Sarla wouldn’t have wanted all her hard work to go to waste and we should carry on. She was so inimitable we couldn’t continue in her style, and we didn’t try to. We hope you enjoy it.


Wintering by Stephen Rutt published by Elliot & Thompson £12.99 HB

Every now and then you come across a book that has a cover so enticing that you simply can’t resist the urge to pick it up and explore its contents. And this is the case with nature writer Stephen Rutt’s second book of the year, ‘Wintering: A Season with Geese’. From the moment you set eyes on Dan Mogford’s sumptuous woodcut of a flock of pink-footed geese flying over the sea, you get the feeling you’re in for a treat. And Rutt barely puts a foot wrong in his charming account of how, after moving to Dumfries in the autumn of 2018, he witnesses the migration of thousands of geese, which, let’s face it most of us take for granted.

No so Rutt, who makes geese the centre of his life during the shortening days and lengthening nights of the last months of last year. He observes them, counts them, gets to know their habits and explores their place in our culture, history and festive feasts.

His writing is informal, lyrical and autobiographical – “I am one insignificant human to them but they are reminding me that I am a part of the world that stretches as far away as Iceland, part of the rhythm of winter” – and so if you’re looking for a textbook or a spotter’s guide, you’ll be disappointed. My only disappointment was that the book is too short and, as a result, feels as though it’s been rushed to the bookshops to (justifiably) capital-ise on the success of Rutt’s earlier and far more substantial ‘The Seafarers: A journey among Birds.’

Talking of which, the publisher very kindly sent us a copy of ‘The Seafarers’ too. Again, this is part-memoir and part-observation. But there is much more to please the birder in this volume, as Rutt describes the spectacular gatherings of terns, gulls, fulmars and eiders. This time he ranges the length and breadth of Britain, even visiting the Pembrokeshire coast where he records, as well as the birdlife, porpoises and dolphins.

At one point in ‘Wintering’ the author mentions that the Ancient Greeks would use the patterns of migrating birds as a way of seeing into the future. But you won’t need the wisdom of birds to predict Rutt’s future as a nature writer is, if ‘Wintering’ is an indication, assured.

The Story of Codes by Stephen Pincock and Mark Frary – Modern Books £19.95 HB

When it comes to the whole subject of encryption, cyphers and codes, it’s tempting to think that we’re dealing with a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a function of living in the wireless digital age. And while the authors of ‘The Story of Codes’ accept that today ‘the very air around us hums with encryption,’ they are quick to point out that there is nothing new under the sun. Pincock and Frary trace the roots of our encoded society back four millennia.

Keeping communiqués safe plays such a huge role in our digital finance, social media and mobile comms that this will in all probability be the first real use of the much-anticipated next generation of quantum computing. But it will also protect us from cyber-warfare, healthcare disruption and hacked air traffic control systems playing havoc with our holidays. Which makes quantum technology, based on the current limits of mathematics, a big priority.

We know there’s all this clever encryption happening today, but where did it start? After a glimpse at how the ancient Egyptians modified hieroglyphs to protect trade secrets about pottery glazes, we plunge straight into the juicy stuff in which Julius Caesar is dispatching encoded military orders written in substitution cypher. Less convincing is the Greeks’ experimentation in steganography that involved tattooing encoded messages on slaves’ heads and waiting for their hair to grow.

In Britain, the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots was brought about by the decryption of her letters by codebreaker Thomas Phelippes, an expert in frequency analysis, nomenclators and nulls. Meanwhile the ‘Kama Sutra’, say the authors, encourages ‘developing the skills of cryptography and cryptanalysis.’ There are bits of the Bible that can’t readily be understood without a knowledge of the Abtash cipher while, looking further forward, airport novels such as ‘The Da Vinci Code’ present a mix of riddles, codes and cyphers to entertain us.

We had Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the Enigma wartime cipher, the ‘Zodiac’ killer and the Navajo Code, all leading up to the electronic era where one of the main purposes of all this powerful digital encryption is to protect the citizenry from cybercrime. Entertaining and clever, ‘The Story of Codes’ is a great place to find out about the world of cryptography.

Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe by Andrew May – Icon Books £8.99 PB

You’d think by now we’d know whether there is life in the universe other that what we’ve got here on Earth. And that’s the subject of Andrew May’s book ‘Astrobiology’, which is basically, as he freely admits, a fancy science term for extra-terrestrial life. The idea that there could be other lifeforms ‘out there’ is one he takes extremely seriously as he analyses our current state of knowledge and describes how the best way to confirm off-world life is to study ‘signatures’ generated by other beings, whether they are humanoid aliens (the ‘little green men with big brains’) or microscopic single-cell organisms lurking under a rock on some distant exoplanet.

We’ve been involved with SETI (‘search for extra-terrestrial intelligence’) for decades now, and the best that we can come up with is our hyper-actively imagined science fiction. This is no surprise to May, who explains in simple terms the probability of our being contacted as virtually zero. First, our neighbours would have to be on pretty much exactly the same place on the technology evolution curve as we are. Given that we have only had radio for a century, it’s conceivable that there have been messages we missed millennia ago. Second, for security reasons, aliens simply might not want to draw attention to their location in the Universe. What’s much more likely is that there is primitive ‘biology’ out there that will be detected by capturing ‘biosignatures’. These may not be as exciting as intelligent aliens, but ‘the fact that primitive lifeforms have existed on Earth for so much longer than advanced ones, implies that they’ll be a much more common occurrence in the galaxy.’ We can expect confirmation of microbiology in the next decade. But it won’t, as the author says, make front page news.

A History of Britain Through Books, 1900-1964 by Christopher Tugendhat Whitefox £18.99 HB

According to author Christopher Tugendhat, there are many ways to look at history. Inspired by Neil MacGregor’s best-selling ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, he set out to do something similar, but restricted his horizons to the first two-thirds of the twentieth century in Britain, seen through his own book collection. And it’s a hectic time to put under the microscope: two world wars, the collapse of the British Empire, the Cold War, mass poverty giving way to the rise in prosperity. It was a time when we stopped sending people to overseas outposts and opened our doors to immigrants. It was the time of the suffragettes and the rise of feminism. It was a time when the working class found a voice through books.

If this all sounds a bit serious, it’s just a way of explaining the framework of an idea that will get you rushing to your bookcase to retrieve your old favourites and get reacquainted with them. For example, when it comes to the paranoia about future wars that marked the 1950s we had two different but equally brilliant variations on the theme. While William Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’ looks at what happens when civilisation declines, Nevil Shute’s ‘On the Beach’ wonders what life in a post-Armageddon scenario would be like for the few survivors. Both were bestsellers. Both were made into films. And to a significant degree they are both vital snapshots of the way we thought we’d be living in the future.

On the subject of books made into films that are mentioned in ‘A History of Britain through Books’, we have ‘A Passage to India’ in which the deepest suspicions and prejudices of the British colonial mentality are examined. There are George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, two different takes on totalitarianism, and cautionary tales for what might happen to Britain under a different administration. There’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ by Alan Sillitoe that paints a picture of post-war life in Nottingham at a time when Prime Minister Harold MacMillan claimed that ‘most of our people have never had it so good.’ There’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and the ‘Heart of Darkness’, all contributing to how we see Britain of a few generations ago today.

The Secret Life of Books by Tom Mole – Elliott & Thompson £14.99 HB

Books have been with us for millennia. They may change in the way they look, the materials they’re made of and the way in which the words are physically transferred to the reading surface. But conceptually they’ve been with us since the Ancient Egyptians and, despite the gloom-mongers forecasting that ‘the book is dead’ along with their inevitable replacement by digital files on computer screens, they’re not showing any signs of going anywhere soon. They continue to open doors to knowledge, culture, religion, science and everything else.

For author Tom Mole (who is Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Edinburgh) books are so much more than merely containers for words, images or even ideas. He’s interested in books as ‘things’: things that speak of more than simply their contents. Their bindings can tell us about the state of our technology, and when political parties burn them in public, they can also tell us we’re in trouble.

“We’ve barely begun to describe the book if we define it as a tool for reading,” says Mole, who also confes-ses that he’s “not interested in books as things to read. I want to talk about all the other things that we do to books – and what books do to us,” and why they mean, as the book’s subtitle tells us ‘more than words.’ A wonderful treasure trove of facts that will make the perfect present for the bibliophile in your family. Great stuff, and certain to become one of those books that will be a ‘thing’ that is read.

Bombay before Mumbai by Prashant Kidami et al – Hurst & Company £40 HB

One of the last books our dear departed book reviewer Sarla Langdon had up for her eagle-eyed scrutiny was ‘Bombay before Mumbai’. We know this because it was sitting on her desk along with her cat. Because she was born in Bombay, Sarla would have loved the chance to share her views on a collection of essays that takes us right into the nostalgic and historical heart of the Indian metropolis that’s sometimes called the ‘city of gold.’

Anyone that’s ever been to modern Mumbai will know that for all the mad-ness, the crowds, the sheer size of the place, there’s a majestic grandeur that has its roots in its rich past. ‘Bombay before Mumbai’ is an anthology of the best historical writing about the place, ranging from trade to famine in the 19th century, from home furnishings in late colonial Bombay to the governance of charitable institutions, from the National Promotion of Scientific Talent to the ‘Social Geographies of Bombay’s Sex Trade, 1880-1920.’ All of this is topped off with a memoir – ‘Remembering Bombay: Present Memories and Past Histories’ – by Jim Masselos, the legendary historian in whose honour the book has been published.

It goes without saying that such a specialised book about so remote a city will hardly be bedside reading for most of us. But if you have anything more than a passing interest in the social history of India, this might well be the hidden gem you’ve been looking for.

The Ice at the End of the World by Jon Gertner – Icon Books £18.99 HB

Anyone following the news in recent months will know that global warming, climate change and sea-level rise are all parts of an environmental story that won’t go away. According to the BBC, Greenland’s ice is under a ‘death sentence’. While it’s tempting to think this is typical of the BBC’s uniquely terrible website journalism, the old axiom of there being no smoke without fire might just hold true. The author of ‘The Ice at the End of the World’, Jon Gertner agrees, at least in part, when he says that the problem facing our ice sheets is ‘serious.’

Gertner also sets out to explain why the world’s ice is so important. In doing so he asks questions such as: What scientific secrets lie within Greenland’s ice? What can the history of the region tell us about the threat of climate change today? How can an increased knowledge of the state of Greenland’s ice help us put measures in place to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels that result from global warming?

In his answers, Gertner takes us on a guided tour of Greenland’s scientific and exploration history. He makes the case that the country is becoming one of the most important field laboratories for scientific research into understanding why and how the planet’s ice is starting to melt.

Written in a clear, reasoned and balanced style that will appeal to the lay-person as well as the eco-conscious, ‘The Ice at the End of the World’ comes as something of a breath of fresh air after the hysterical newspaper headlines and uninformed, bandwagon street protests.

NEXT MONTH: Bay’s Christmas choice

We’ll be rounding up what we think are the best Christmas gifts in the book department. For a sneak preview look left…






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