The Book Department

With Dr Alyson Hitch

This month we find out just what can be done about those huge environmental challenges facing the planet, meet the man who invented Pink Floyd, go behind the scenes with the world’s worst inventions, get ourselves tied up in knots and much, much more…

‘Taming the Four Horsemen’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison, Unbound, £9.99, pb

The Four Horsemen of the title of Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s lat-est are, of course, those of the Book of Revelation, representing the collapse of civilisations in the form of pestilence, war, famine and death. With a 21st century twist, Hanbury-Tenison interprets these as the rise in global disease (think coronavirus), international ten-sions over resources such as energy, getting it to rain where it’s needed, and coming to terms with ocean pollution. Put simply, ‘Taming the Four Horsemen’ is a piece of big thinking about what we can do to avoid disaster. Put less simply, it’s a book of hard-won wisdom from an 83-year-old explorer, activist and campaigner who is seemingly more alive to technology’s potential to come to our rescue than commentators half his age. While Hanbury-Tenison is persuasive on why civilisations have collapsed in the past, he’s at his best when discussing why ours is disintegrating now and the roles free electricity, ocean clean-ups, microbe development and weather manipulation can play in its pre-vention. When it comes to the weather, you can feel Hanbury-Tenison’s exasperation as he quotes Mark Twain: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” In terms of techno-logy at least, he doesn’t see why we can’t. Hanbury-Tenison effortlessly blends his command of history with an understanding of how today’s science could be harnessed to alleviate global problems to create a compelling and important argument for a responsible approach to the future. And while he’s not the first modern writer to adopt this biblical framework to organise his ideas, one of the strengths of this book is simply how well he uses the construction. Anyone thinking that a book on global issues is going to be a bit dry and dusty should think again. Hanbury-Tenison is controversial and entertaining, opinionated and reassuringly rational. You won’t find any politically correct nonsense here, and you’ll come away from ‘Taming the Four Horsemen’ with a far clearer (if less comfortable) understanding of your own position on today’s global crises.


‘How to Tie Knots’ by Tim MacWelch, Modern Books, £9.99, pb

If you live by the sea, and let’s face it, most Bay readers do, you’ll probably think you know a thing or two about how to tie a knot. After all, we’ve all grown up fishing or sailing, and we all know what sort of disaster a slipped hitch or an un-certain blood knot can bring about. Help is at hand though in the form of outdoor survival specialist Tim MacWelch’s superb hand-book ‘How to Tie Knots’, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. You’ll leave this book in less of a muddle about knots.

Most of us use two or three different knots every day without think-ing too much about it. We tie our shoelaces, fasten our recycling bags, hitch the dog to a lamppost and even (although perhaps not so much these days) tie a long thin strip of silk around our necks. But how often do we really stop to consider what an extraordinary skill we have, and to how many more uses we could put it?

MacWelch divides knots into four main categories listed here as camping and hiking, nautical, climbing and fishing. But even if you’re not the outdoor type there’s plenty to be had from the dozen or so knots that make up his general introductory section that comes under the banner of ‘knots you need to know’. After all, “The more knots you know, the more options you have in your day-to-day activities as well as emergency settings.” Endlessly fascinating and clearly illustrated with copious diagrams, ‘How to Tie Knots’ is one of those obsessive reads that – even if it’s not needed to save your life one day – will at least untangle your clove hitches from your double sheet bends. Great stuff.


‘Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema’ by Ian Christie, University of Chicago Press, £26.00, pb

It’s tempting to think of the earliest history of cinema technology as a kind of late 19th century ‘new media’ arms race dominated by household-name pioneers such as Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers. And while this is accurate (up to a point), it is also to make the mistake of overlooking the contribution to cinema made by the British engineer Robert Paul. We can’t call him forgotten, because as Ian Christie says early on in his excellent ‘Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema’, this innovator in the field of ‘animated photography’ has never fallen out of the film historian’s orbit. It’s just that, when it comes to the more widely accepted story of cinema, Paul seems to have faded as a founding father.

Cinema came along in the white heat of Victorian innovation alongside telegraphy, electric lighting, the automobile and x-rays. There was also the “new collective pastime for the whole of the world – the pleasure of spending time, travelling far and wide, without leaving one’s seat in a darkened room.” The short and jerky beginnings of the Kinetoscope would evolve into a mighty empire that would dominate the way we saw the world. It wasn’t simply a case of an upstart technology replacing the printed word or the theatrical drama, and neither was it a fashionable technology fad. Moving images changed every-thing. No one could have predicted that the movies would become “the cornerstone of a new social and industrial order.” Or a multibillion-dollar global industry, either.

Tucked away in this revolution is Robert Paul who effectively launched Britain’s film industry, from the early days of improving Edison’s Kinetoscope to designing his own cinematograph. He took cinema-tography and film editing to new levels, built England’s first film studio and generally played a key role in the emergence of cinema as an art form. An unmissable read for film buffs.


‘Have a Cigar!’ by Bryan Morrison, Quiller, £20, hb

Complete the following song lyric: “Come in here, dear boy…” The missing three words are the title of the posthumous memoir of music industry mogul Bryan Morrison, the polo-playing friend of royalty who launched the careers of Pink Floyd, T. Rex, The Jam, George Michael and, as all the adverts for any greatest hits album will inform you, many, many, more. When Morrison died in 2008 following a polo accident, he left behind a ghost-written book lifting the lid on the heyday of British rock’n’roll spanning the 1970s and eighties.

Although he’d been paid an advance by his publisher, Morrison dis-liked the book and so handed back the money in exchange for his manuscript and the project was forgotten. That is until recently, when Morrison’s son decided it was time the book saw the light of day. A new publisher was found, and a few edits were made. But what we have here is the real thing and it will be devoured by those of a certain age with an interest in what bands were refused entry to what countries, which industry figures got involved with the Kray twins and bizarrely, which Pink Floyd guitarist bit someone’s finger to the bone. We learn how Paul Weller’s principles (or arrogance, depending on how you view his confront-ation with the US music press) put the kybosh on The Jam’s transatlantic career, read about death threats and the Bee Gees, as well as how the author made polo a fashionable sport among the new rock music aristocracy. And yet, at no point are we told that the Pink Floyd song that gives its name to the title of this book was actually sung in the studio by non-band member and friend of Led Zeppelin Roy Harper, which might have been interesting to note. In a nutshell, ‘Have a Cigar!’ is gloriously self-indulgent, silly, excessive and trivial in a way that might mean it’s important after all.


‘Nuking the Moon’ by Vince Houghton, Profile Books, £9.99, pb

Bomb-carrying bats. Listening devices implanted into specially-trained cats. A CIA plan to detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon. These are just some of the superficially daft – but genuine – ideas that came out of the science laboratories of both the Second World War and the Cold War. All these and more are scrutinised by author Vince Houghton in his superb ‘Nuking the Moon’ that portrays history in terms of what didn’t happen, rather than what did. Where would we get such crazy ideas from, he asks, before concluding that when they were conceived, they were in reality nowhere near as outlandish as they sound today.

For the most part the reason these inventions never got off the drawing board was not so much their inherent silliness, but more the fact that they were overtaken by evolutions in technology that did the job in an eminently more evolved way that we have come to recognise as valid scientific solutions: such as drones, parabolic microphones, robotics.

So why nuke the moon? Well it turns out that with the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik, America felt humiliated to the point where it needed to do something big and visible to show the world that democracy was better than communism. Plenty of ideas were put forward, but the one that gained traction was to detonate a high-yield thermonuclear weapon on the moon that everyone could watch on TV. But the project never got off the drawing board, not because the idea was certifiably insane,but because the scientists involved realised that there were serious problems associated with the undertaking. If the intention of the broadcast was to depict a classic nuclear mush-room cloud on the moon subsequent to the detonation, then the mission had basic physics working against it. No atmosphere.

No picturesque stereotypical mushroom cloud. No PR scoop. ‘Nuking the Moon’ is a highly entertaining and often funny compilation of compelling anecdotes about real and sometimes surreal technology. Brilliant.


‘Under the Stars’ by Matt Gaw, Elliott & Thompson, £12.99, hb

When Matt Gaw’s ten-year-old son refused to go to bed, complaining that humans spend as much as a quarter of a century asleep in the dark, something stirred in the nature writer’s mind. If we spend so much time asleep, our lives are only half lived, “And so here I am. Venturing into the Darkness.”

‘Under the Stars’ is a short and powerfully lyrical investigation into that other world, the realm beyond artificial light, a subtle natural world that is lost to light pollution. Artificial light is everywhere and damages the natural rhythms of both humans and wildlife. It obliterates the ‘subtler lights that have guided us for millennia’. He’s talking about moonlight, starlight and even the glow of snow in the winter. As he says, when you turn off the electricity, other forms of light reveal themselves. And while others might leave it at that, Gaw sets off to explore the night, literally stumbling in the dark, his hear-ing sharpened and his eyes slowly becoming accustomed to a ghostly and complex world, where the word ‘dark’ tells us as little about what’s really going on as the world ‘blue’ does about the daytime sky.

If this sounds just a little too fanciful and poetic, it’s worth noting that there’s something very import-ant going on here. Just as the noise of the modern world means that there is little silence left, artificial light is robbing us of our darkness to the point where since 1992 there has been a 19 percent increase in brightly lit spaces, with only a fifth of England unaffected by light pollution. Perhaps this won’t mat-ter too much to most of us, but by the time you reach the end of ‘Under the Stars’ I guarantee it will get you walking in the woods at night looking for things you’ve never seen

 

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