What I Read In March

Ehsan Masood: GDP The astute reader will note that this is very similar to Masood’s book The Great Invention, which I read in January. And the astute reader would be correct: the latter book was published in 2016, whereas the new edition takes us up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the content is the same, although there is a completely new chapter on a strain of Marxist macroeconomics in Harvard that Masood unearthed when on a writing fellowship in the United States. For much of the rest I refer you to my earlier effusion. There is one thing, however, that I forgot to discuss. That was the effort by Robert Costanza and colleagues to put a value on all those things the Earth provides us for free, in a now notorious paper, concerning the publication of which I was not entirely unadjacent, during my day job (by day I’m with the Submerged Log Company: if that counts as a disclaimer, I’ll throw in another – the author is a colleague at the same outfit). It seems to me – and this is not entirely my view, as the book makes clear – that one can no longer measure the world’s economy in terms of a metric that measures production and consumption; is expressed as a percentage (and therefore accrues in a compound way); and does so in a world whose resources are demonstrably finite. It’s time, Masood argues, that we found some other means of measuring economic health. That time must be now. There are signs that the global economy has been essentially static for the past twenty years. The reasons given are changes in the mechanics of supply chains, and increased protectionism. But I think there might be a deeper reason: that we’ve essentially run out of resources. People have been warning about this since the 1960s (as Masood amply documents). Seems not many people are listening.

Bob Shaw: Nightwalk The name of Belfast-born Bob Shaw (1931-1996) is little known outside SF circles. This is a shame, but also ensures that each story or novel one uncovers will be an unexplored delight. I picked up this one as a paperback in a secondhand store (the cover here is for the Kindle edition). He is best known, if known at all, for his haunting short story The Light Of Other Days. Perhaps because he suffered from poor eyesight, light and vision are recurring themes in his fiction, and this is brutally so in Nightwalk. Sam Tallon is a spy from Earth who has been sent to the remote planet of Emm Luther to discover the coordinates of a new planet that the Lutherians had come across. Searching for new planets is a risky business. Each new planet is valuable, and planets with established populations will go to war over each discovery. Tallon is caught by agents of the Lutherian secret service, who put out his eyes, and exile him to a version of Devil’s Island – a tropical prison camp surrounded from the mainland by a swamp full of dangers, natural and man-made – from which nobody has ever escaped. But he does. With the help of a fellow inmate and a complaisant prison doctor, Tallon invents a pair of spectacles that allows him to see through the eyes of nearby people, even animals — most notably his faithful seeing-eye dog Seymour (the pun is deliberate). With this McGuffin he manages to … hey, I’m telling you the plot. This cracking adventure story comes from the late 1960s, an era when SF novels were short and sharp, marked by economical writing and pacy plot. Ah, for the light of other days.

Max Adams: In The Land Of Giants Were I an historian my speciality would be Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. This is perhaps the most obscure period in our history. No contemporary written record survives from the land we now call England between the sudden collapse of Roman Britain around 410 and the arrival of St Augustine in 597, by which time Britain was a patchwork of petty kingdoms and retained hardly a trace of having been a prosperous Roman province for four centuries. It’s not for nothing that it’s called the Dark Ages. But the Dark Ages weren’t as dark as all that. Many clues lie hidden in the landscape, if you know where to look. Archaeologist Max Adams is one of those who’s been doing the looking. I first came across Adams in his book The King In The North, about the life and times of the subsequently sainted King Oswald of Northumbria. This was especially resonant as I read it while on holiday in Northumbria and could visit some of the places mentioned, such as Hadrian’s Wall, Hexham Abbey, and Bamburgh Castle. But that’s all about the 7th and 8th centuries, when Northumbria emerged from barbarian darkness to become a significant cultural centre. Think the Lindisfarne Gospels and St Cuthbert preaching to the puffins on the Farne Islands; the altogether more worldly St Wilfred, and, most of all, Bede, that son of Jarrow whose Eccelesiastical History of the English People remains a rip-roaring read to this day. That all came to a crashing end with the sack of Lindisfarne by the Vikings in 793. But I digress. More pertinent perhaps is The First Kingdom,  in which Adams looks directly at the 5th and 6th centuries — more on that below. In The Land of Giants — cuts across all the others. It is written in the form of a series of travelogues, in which Adams recounts marathon cross-country walks, the occasional motorbike ride, and one memorable boat trip, in which he visits many significant Dark-Age locations in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. These are often revealed only by tiny clues. A curious bend in the road that betrays an ancient field system; the profile of a hill on the skyline; half-buried headstones in ancient graveyards; stones in crumbling churches scavenged from even earlier buildings. What struck me most about the book is Adams’ capacity for endurance. Plainly a seasoned walker, he treks up to twenty-five miles in a single day, often battered by atrocious weather (some things in Britain never change) reading the clues that only the landscape can tell to the trained eye. He reminds me of Jack Corstorphine, the often weatherbeaten landscape archaeologist in my own SF trilogy The Sigil, who disappears into the countryside for weeks on end in search of clues to the vanished past (and I should stress than no resemblance is intended, as I discovered Max Adams long after I wrote the story). I left the book with a sense of envy for that freedom – and for that stamina.

Tom Higham: The World Before Us Back in the 1980s when I was doing my PhD on how to tell the difference between Ice-Age cows (Bos) and Ice-age bison, and if I had a pound for every time I heard the joke ‘what’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?’, I’d have £874, there was a big problem about dating. That is, it was very hard to put a reliable date on any finds that were more antique than about 47,000 years — the effective limit of radiocarbon dating. If you had volcanic rocks, sure, there was potassium-argon dating, because volcanic rocks contain radioactive potassium that decays reliably into argon, so you could get a fix on the date of the eruption that produced the layers of ash deposited on top of (or underneath) a fossil. And if you had stalactites and stalagmites in a cave, you could measure the decay of radioactive uranium, in the hard chalky substance from which these structures are made, into other elements such as thorium or lead, and so get an idea of when the stalactite or stalagmite formed that capped (or underlay) the deposit in which your fossil was discovered. But if your bones came from an open-air site far from volcanoes, or caves, and were too old for radiocarbon dating to be of much use, you were in a pickle. This was certainly true of many of the cows and bison in Britain, in the Ice Age. Not pickled, that is, but not dateable. Then there was the question of how different all those cows and bison were, really? After all, cows and bison are sufficiently close relatives that they can interbreed. If only we could get their genes down and have a look at them. If that wasn’t enough, I was limited to bones that were complete enough to be identifiable. Not a problem for cows and bison — museums up and down the UK are filled from rafters to basement with boxes marked  ‘Bos or Bison?’, so I had plenty to work on and not once did I have to go out into the field to find any more. It’s a problem, though, for much rarer creatures in which some people incomprehensibly take an interest, such as the remains of early humans.  (Actually, I did once go out into a field. It was near Clacton. Such is the romance of British Ice-Age palaeontology). But the same museums are also stuffed from rafters to basement with plastic bags full of tiny chips of bone, retrieved from digs, that could have come from anything, awaiting the invention of techniques that could reveal their secrets. At the end of the 1980s I left research and in due course of time I became Bone-Botherer-in-Chief at the Submerged Log Company. During that time I have witnessed a revolution in the science underpinning palaeontology and archaeology. Clearly, I was holding research down by staying. Over the past thirty years our ideas of the period between around 200,000 and 50,000 years ago — crucial to our knowledge of human evolution — has been not so much overturned as transformed and immeasurably enriched by new scientific developments. A key player has been Tom Higham, who, with colleagues at Oxford and around the world, has made carbon dating much more reliable, and has pioneered a method called ZooMS (Zooarchaeology with Mass Spectrometry), in which the identity of otherwise tiny fragments of bone can be established by extracting and sequencing the constituent amino-acids of any collagen they contain. Collagen is the raw material for carbon dating. Now it’s possible to read off the species whence a bone fragment came, as well as its age. The same is true for the genetic material, DNA. The sequencing of ancient DNA  was pioneered by the remarkable Svante Pääbo whose book Neanderthal Man tells all. Higham’s The World Before Us is much the same. It’s an engaging personal tale of discovery, enriched by from-the-horse’s-mouth descriptions of the science and its importance. I should declare an interest here, as I play walk-on parts in both books, and indeed Pääbo features strongly in Higham’s account, especially concerning the revelations from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. It was here that the remains of a hitherto unknown yet extinct relative of humans was discovered. The Denisovans, close kin to the Neanderthals, lived in the region until around 50,000 years or so, but their DNA lives on, especially in people from Island Southeast Asia — just as the DNA of Neanderthals lives on in everyone without a purely African ancestry, signs of interbreeding in the long past. Denisovans are known almost exclusively from tiny fragments, but we know an amazing amount about them thanks to the DNA and collagen that these fragments contain. This would have been impossible without the science pioneered by Higham, Pääbo and their associates. I enjoyed The World Before Us hugely, and will treasure it as a personal account of an amazing period in archaeological science, but perhaps I am biased as I have a close interest in the science and know some of the protagonists personally. I wonder whether a less clued-up reader might find some of the more technical parts hard going, although I for one appreciated Higham’s description of Bayesian statistics, something that hitherto I have found as hard to grasp as a hot buttered ferret skittering down a drainpipe.

Max Adams: The First Kingdom I read this late last year but it inexplicably didn’t make my top ten. My excuse is that I read so many books last year that I must have overlooked it. I knew I was going to re-read it, so here it is now. It’s about that most obscure period in the history of Britain, the fifth and sixth centuries. The Romans left Britain rather abruptly in 410. They came back in 597 in the form of Augustine’s mission to the King of Kent. In between the country turned  from an orderly, prosperous province of Rome where people spoke Brythonic (a close relative of Welsh) and Late Spoken Latin, to a patchwork of fiefdoms where people spoke what King Alfred later called Englisc. The almost total lack of contemporary written evidence has made the transition between the two obscure. In this brilliant book Max Adams explains what we do know (and it’s more than we think) and constructs a plausible hypothesis to resolve the many contradictions and fill the large gaps in the tale. We know that the economy collapsed – no Roman coins are found in Britain that date to later than 410 – along with the standard of living, and the population. In many parts of Britain, people went back to the kind of locally based, subsistence existence they had enjoyed (if that’s the word) before the Romans came. Local Roman commanders and opportunists among the population sequestered what wealth there was – it became privatised. Adams doesn’t say so, but it reminded me of the rise of the oligarchs after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And at some point, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived. The simple story of battle, fire and plunder familiar from Bede (who wrote much later), and that dyspeptic British chronicler Gildas (who was contemporary, writing around the year 500, but whose horizons did not stretch beyond Wales) is not borne out by the archaeology. Some Germanic people were probably already settled on the east coast while Britain was nominally Roman. Others were undoubtedly piratical and established pirate bases in creeks and estuaries, in Essex and Suffolk. More came, but the transition from Brythonic Christianity to Germanic heathenism might have been a process of acculturation as well as migration. For example, Cerdic, the culture hero said to be the founder of what became Wessex, and therefore England, is a suspiciously Brythonic name. And Adams makes the point that the presence of Japanese cars in Britain today doesn’t mean that Britain has been invaded by Japan. Neither does the fact that many people in Holland speak excellent English imply that the English have invaded the Netherlands. There was also a marked division between the north and west, and the east and south. In the former, the domain of St Columba and St Patrick, Celtic Christianity survived, and people lived a more Roman existence than perhaps they ever did while the Romans were still around. Trade by sea brought goods from the fading Empire – wine, olive oil, fine tableware – at least until the climatic downturn and plague associated with the reign of Justinian in the mid sixth century. Eastern England and lowland Scotland, in contrast, became, if not Saxon, then Saxonised. Max Adams traces how the country developed from a quilt of tiny territories, sometimes traceable to this day from the landscape, and ancient parish boundaries, to larger realms defined by established custom. Slowly, surpluses built up that allowed the persistence of a warrior class that lived on the render of the classes below. The great change happened when the country became largely Christianised. Rather than building pocket empires by the sword, which vanished as soon as they died, kings ruled by divine grace conferred by clerics, in exchange for lands given to the church in perpetuity. This created continuity. It allowed churches to accumulate capital, invest in the landscape and in activities such as literature, and, from the dark ages, England emerged as a country of lore and literature once more.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
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