Category Archives: Reading

Angela Gannon & George Geddes: St Kilda – The Last and Outermost Isle

Cover of St Kilda: The Last and Outermost IsleAngela Gannon and George Geddes are  archaeologists with the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland. Both have worked on the islands of St Kilda (Geddes lived there for six months), so they’re well qualified to write this book.

St Kilda is that island group you can never quite see on the weather map during the Scottish weather forecast, because it’s out in the Atlantic behind the presenter’s head.

St Kilda map by Eric Gaba
Map by Eric Gaba (GNU Free Documentation Licence 1.2)

It consists of one big island, Hirta, which hosted the only permanent settlement until it was evacuated in 1930. There are three smaller islands, Soay, Boreray and Dùn, which were used for pasture and agriculture. The islanders also regularly harvested eggs and seabirds from several sea stacks in the surrounding ocean.It’s a World Heritage Site and a National Nature Reserve. Incongruously, it also hosts a Ministry of Defence missile tracking station, on a few hectares of land leased from the National Trust for Scotland, with two radar installations perched on Mullach Mòr and Mullach Sgar. These two locations are served by a narrow ribbon of tarmac. The construction team must have been at a bit of a loose end, because when the Boon Companion and I were there in 1995, we found a zebra crossing laid out in the windswept col between the two radar towers.

For some reason people think I sometimes just make stuff like this up, so I tracked down a photo of it for you, from 2002 (original context here):

Zebra crossing, St Kilda
© Russel Wills, Creative Commons 2.0

Since it was evidently getting a little scadded by that time (presumably by the large number of people re-enacting the cover of the Abbey Road album), I was cheered to discover that it had later been repainted:

QinetiQ staff ensured that the St Kilda Archaeologist was consulted over issues which may be of concern, including the emplacing of a new crash barrier on Mullach Sgar; the construction of a concrete plinth at the POL ramp and the repainting of the zebra crossing.

St Kilda Archaeologist’s Report (2002)

Gannon and Geddes’s book sadly doesn’t contain a picture of the zebra crossing, but it is otherwise chock-full of images of St Kilda. The latter half of the book is a pictorial section, in themed subdivisions each with a little introductory commentary: Landscape, St Kildans, Seasons, Tourism, Evacuation, Military, Expeditions. For me, that half alone is worth the price of admission. There’s some glorious landscape photography in there, along with early photographs of the St Kildan community.

The first half of the book is a history of St Kilda, largely based on archaeological evidence. It’s heavy on archaeological detail, and tends to assume that the reader will already know what a cleit, a naust, or a consumption dyke are. Sometimes explanations turn up later in the text; sometimes not. It’s a little light on the detail of the St Kildan way of life from the historical era, but there are plenty of other books that fill that gap. What it does do very well is put St Kilda back into a wider context—this was never the utterly isolated island that popular accounts make it out to have been, but always part of a wider Hebridean seafaring community. A killer fact for me was to find out that Dunvegan Castle, in Skye, didn’t even have a landward entrance until the eighteenth century—sea travel was how people got from place to place, and when you understand that, St Kilda stops seeming so cut off from the world.

Cover of St Kilda and Other Hebridean OutliersThe book also puts to rest the old story that the main settlement on St Kilda had at one time been in Gleann Mòr, on the north side of the island, rather than the current, more sheltered, location at Village Bay on the south side. The archaeology shows that the ruins in Gleann Mòr are actually of bothies and sheep-folds, used by the islanders when grazing their flocks in that area.

If you want a book that tells more about the St Kildan way of life (including the story of the last Great Auk, and instructions on how to make socks out of gannets), I can recommend Francis Thompson’s St Kilda and Other Hebridean Outliers (1988). It’s of course not up to date with the recent archaeology, but otherwise very satisfying. As a bonus, you get chapters on such out-of-the-way places as North Rona, Sulasgeir, the Flannans, the Monachs and Heisgeir Rocks.

Simon Ingram: Between The Sunset And The Sea

Cover of "Between The Sunset And The Sea"

This one’s something I read earlier this year, posted now as a Christmas recommendation for anyone who knows a hillwalker. It’s the sort of book that has something for anyone who is even vaguely interested in British hills.

It is subtitled A View of 16 British Mountains. The sixteen mountains are: Beinn Dearg (the one round the back of Liathach), the Black Mountain, Cadair Idris, Crib Goch, Cnicht, Cross Fell, Shiehallion, Ben Loyal, An Teallach, a selection of Assynt hills, Askival, Ladhar Bheinn, Loughrigg Fell, Great Gable, Bein Macdui and Ben Nevis. So a fairly mixed and scattered sampling from across Britain.

Simon Ingram is editor of Trail magazine, so no stranger to outdoor writing.

Now, I have to confess I’ve never read Trail in my life. I pick it off the newsagent shelf occasionally, leaf blankly through its brightly coloured pages, sigh, and put it back again. I’m a member of that a silent majority of hillwalkers who don’t read outdoor magazines and don’t endlessly prowl gear shops. We wander the hills wearing the same old gear every year until it wears out, and then we venture grudgingly into a shop to try to buy something new that’s as close as possible in every way to the old stuff we had before.  We are suspicious of any hill activity that involves the words “challenge” or “adventure”, because we look on the hills as places that offer comfort, quiet and contemplation. If we find ourselves being “challenged” or “having an adventure”, then we’re pretty sure we ‘ve just done something wrong, and we try very hard to learn from the experience so that it doesn’t happen again.

So, to be honest, Ingram’s descriptions of his own hillwalking experiences seem a little overwrought to me. He seems constantly to be having adventures—setting off late, flirting with terrible weather, being forced to change plans late in the day, and fretting about gear and water and navigation and exposed ridges. I kept feeling that he could avoid all this if he just, well, sorted himself out a bit better. His description of An Teallach, in particular, is so full of episodes of awe and foreboding that it reads more like a trip to the Gate of Mordor than a day hike up a lovely big mountain.

Fortunately, the sixteen mountains aren’t actually what this book is about. They are just the narrative hooks from which Ingram hangs fascinating discursive essays on pretty much all things hill-related: mining and rock-climbing, natural history and weather, painting and poetry, history and geology. He has a great sense for a telling anecdote and a colourful character. We read (among many other things) about the Welsh potholers squeezing through into a new chamber, only to find themselves in a disused mine being used to store dynamite; the marvellously improbable nocturnal encounter between Bill Tilman and Jim Perrin in the summit shelter of Cadair Idris; Norman Collie‘s panic attack on Ben Macdui; the alligators on the Hebridean island of Rum; and the odd characters involved in running a weather station on Ben Nevis and a physics experiment on Schiehallion.

So, apart from intermittent twinges of worry about the sheer intensity of Ingram’s relationship with some of his chosen hills, I enjoyed every page.

Glen Affric from Mullach Fraoch-choire
Comfort, quiet and contemplation
Looking down Glen Affric from Mullach Fraoch-choire, Summer 1980

Gene Kranz: Failure Is Not An Option

Cover of Failure Is Not An OptionGene Kranz is the most famous of NASA’s Flight Controllers, having led Mission Control on both the Apollo 11 first Moon landing, and the Apollo 13 crisis. This, his insider memoir of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years, was published in 2000.

As an Apollo buff, it’s odd that it has taken me fifteen years to get around to reading it. And there’s really only one reason for my having put this off—that terrible title. It was such an incredibly fatuous bit of content-free motivation-speak when Ed Harris uttered it (while playing Gene Kranz) in the 1995 film Apollo 13, I confess to having felt slightly betrayed when Kranz adopted it as his own.

To the extent I’ve been drinking coffee out of this mug for a few years:Failure Is Always An Option

In any case, Kranz never said it. It came from something said by Jerry Bostick, Flight Dynamics Officer on the Apollo 13 mission, when he was interviewed by the scriptwriters for Apollo 13. He said something rather different: “… when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.” The scriptwriters spotted the potential for a striking phrase, albeit one so trimmed down that it sent a different message.

Kranz seems to have embraced that phrase, however. And he has said other, similar things. In the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire, in which astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee died, Kranz delivered a speech in which he instructed his team to write the words “Tough and Competent” on the blackboards in their offices, and to never erase them. When I first heard that story, I couldn’t see how a group of very smart, hard-nosed engineers could find that in any way motivating. It seemed … well, childish. Actively demoralizing.

But it needs context. In the video below, Kranz reenacts his “Tough and Competent” speech for a 2003 documentary entitled Failure Is Not An Option:

Context is all. Kranz is infinitely more nuanced than the “Tough and Competent” soundbite suggests. He delivers a package, and the memorable, pithy phrase is just a wrapper for the whole deal.

So, OK. I belatedly decided that I needed to read the package Kranz had wrapped in Failure Is Not An Option.

It’s beautifully written. I don’t know how much of that is Kranz and how much is Mickey Herskowitz, a journalist that Kranz credits with helping him “condense the story and better focus my role in the story.” However it came about, the narrative pacing is excellent, and the atmosphere of Mission Control beautifully conjured up. I developed sweaty palms during the recounting of the Apollo 11 landing, and it’s not like I haven’t read that story before.

And Kranz also gives an insight into what it was like to do that job at that time. Seventy-hour weeks on government pay, keeping going with black coffee and cigarettes, and then a (Flight Surgeon issued!) double whiskey to come down at the end of the stint of duty. The quantity of beer consumed after missions seems to have been heroic, and the drink-driving rate … astonishing. But they just paid their fines and keep on doing it.

There’s a lot of technical detail, but it’s there to show what a hard job Mission Control is, especially at that time. They were dealing with big, complicated and sometimes potentially explosive devices, operating in an unfamiliar environment, with people inside them. The devices kept changing, radically, on a rapid schedule. And the ability to test these things was minimal, given the financial and time constraints imposed. They just had to try to understand as much as they possibly could about how everything worked, practise constantly in simulations, and then deal with problems on the fly. Kranz describes very clearly how it feels to make a wrong decision in simulation, killing the simulated crew, while the astronauts who are just about to be strapped into a rocket under your guidance stand in a corner and watch the whole thing.

The problem-solving is an interesting mix. On the one hand there are complicated software patches being developed in a couple of hours, to fix a control problem that would otherwise abort the mission. On the other hand, there are some pretty basic approaches: force it (to get a reluctant docking adapter to work), tap it (to get a dodgy panel button to behave) and switch it off and on again (or “cycle the circuit breaker on the radar”, in Mission Control parlance). Kranz calls this a “shade-tree mechanic” approach.

Kranz also talks a lot about himself. He has the slightly teary-eyed patriotism, the ready religiosity and the unique American reverence for his country’s flag that seem to go with a military career in 1950s America. He loves his flat-top crew cut, but lets his hair grow when his daughters complain that it is scaring the boys who come to visit. Then after a while everyone realizes that it’s actually Gene Kranz himself that scares the boys, and he gets to have his crew cut again.

He doesn’t make himself out to be a steely-eyed missile man; he tells us how often he gets angry, demoralized, anxious and confused. But he feels it’s very important to look and behave like a steely-eyed missile man, just as often as you can, because that’s how you get your job done in this environment, and keep those around you doing their jobs, too.

I think the scene in the book that best sums up the man and his attitude to his work appears in the chapter about the Apollo 1 fire. Kranz was at home when it happened. When he found out about it, he writes, “I grabbed my badge and my plastic pocket protector full of pencils.” And then he drives through every red light on the way to Mission Control.

Organized. Meticulous. And bloody determined.

Book Collector

When you have more than 4000 books scattered around the house, it gets difficult to find the one you’re looking for. Especially if you’re hunting for a short story and you can’t quite remember which book you read it in. This used to happen a lot, chez Oikofuge. But not any more.

Book Collector is a book cataloguing program from Collectorz.com, and it’s the best I’ve run into. I can’t now imagine life without it.

Data entry is easy, and highly automated. If your book has an ISBN, you can type it in or scan it with a barcode reader, and the basic book data are pulled down off the Collectorz.com central database. These days, the ISBN is readily visible on the back cover, but with older books (1967 to the mid-70s) you may have to look for numbers written on the spine, or listed in the front matter. Some UK publications of that vintage have nine-digit SBNs instead of ten-digit ISBNs, but the conversion is easy—just add a zero at the left end.

Before 1967, there were no ISBNs, but Book Collector also lets you add books automatically by entering the author and title. This option will bring up all matching entries in the Collectorz.com database, so you might need to do a little poking around to find the entry that matches your specific edition.

That will get the basic data into your database, including a version of the cover art if it’s available. But the software offers a huge number of additional relevant data-fields, which you can fill in or ignore according to your wishes. (You’ll probably want to make use of the “book location” field, unless you have a memory much better than mine.) It even lets you create custom fields.

First page of data entry screen
First page of the data entry screen
Note all the additional tabs at the top

The on-line cover art comes from a variety of sources—it varies in size and quality, and can occasionally be for the wrong edition of your book. But Book Collector has an automated search facility that lets you look for more cover art on-line. It also lets you add your own art by scanning the cover. If you’re of an obsessive nature (who, me?) you may find yourself scanning a lot of book covers to get precisely the right edition.

You can view your database in various ways, usually splitting the view between some sort of overview of the books, and a detailed view of a specific volume. The overviews available are a “bookshelf” depiction of cover art (which I find useful when browsing for a specific book) and a spreadsheet-type display of multiple customizable columns. There’s also a “cover flow” option available, but the less said about that the better—it’s the sort of triumph of style over utility that could only appeal to an Apple user.

Book Collector screen capture images view
Books containing Asimov short stories, displayed using one version of the “Images” view on the left, with a “Details” view of a specific book on the right. Note the contents list.
Book Collector screen capture 2
The same short stories list, this time displayed with a “List” view using customized columns on the left, and “Details” view on the right

You can choose from a growing number of different formats for viewing your book details; or, with a little knowledge of HTML/ XML, and some digging around in the file structure, you can customize up your own view.

Searching is easy. There’s a quick-and-dirty search option that just looks for your chosen text anywhere in the book’s description. It’ll bring up false hits, but often it lets you narrow down the display enough to zero in visually on the book you want. But you can also create moderately sophisticated “filter” views, using simple Boolean logic functions, to pull out the books you want.

Boolean search for Asimov short stories
Boolean search for Asimov short stories

As someone who has a lot of short stories in my book collection, I particularly value the fact that I can enter a contents list for my books. Book Collector offers you a cut-down database and user-defined fields for each short story in a book. Unfortunately, the contents list won’t come down to you automatically from Collectorz.com—manual entry is required, which can be tedious if you have a lot of “complete works” volumes on your shelves. And I would appreciate it if Book Collector some day offered a detailed view by short story as well as by book. But that’s a minor niggle when I can choose to display anything I want in the columns of the spreadsheet view.

What else? Collectorz.com offers a cloud storage facility, so you can be sure you have the same data on all your devices. There’s a responsive Support team (I’ve only ever had to use them once) and an active users’ forum where people are happy to help out with minor queries. And there’s a free try-before-you-buy download.

If you’re in the market for book cataloguing software, do give it go.

Poul Anderson: Three Hearts & Three Lions / The Broken Sword

ThreeHearts&ThreeLionsBrokenSwordPoul Anderson (1926-2001) was a prolific American science fiction and fantasy writer. His name is Danish (pronounce it “pole”). He wrote hard science fiction adventures and puzzle stories, which is how I came to start reading his work. I’ve come late to his fantasy work, since I don’t generally have much taste for that genre.

From his earliest work, Anderson was a stylist—he cultivated a  slightly archaic vocabulary and sentence structure, such that his work can often be recognized from just a few paragraphs. And he was given to lyrical descriptions of the outdoors—the smells, the sounds, the sights, the feeling of being out in a big, wide, complicated world (not necessarily our own world).

I like hard science, I like puzzles, I like words and language, I like the outdoors … I was a reader made for Poul Anderson’s writing.

TauZeroFor big, roomy, high-concept SF, we have Tau Zero and The Avatar; for rollicking adventure, well-constructed puzzles and superior world-building, there are his stories of Nicholas van Rijn and Dominic Flandry; and for carefully crafted time-travel stories combined with compelling evocations of past times, there’s his Time Patrol series. His novella “The Sorrow of Odin the Goth” is, in my opinion, the single best time-travel story ever written.

I was prompted to buy this omnibus edition of two of his fantasy novels by reading an extract of Three Hearts & Three Lions in his retrospective collection, Going For Infinity.

The Fantasy Masterworks series is an ongoing effort by Gollancz to republish some of the finest examples of the genre in paperback. In 2002 they republished The Broken Sword (originally published in 1954), and followed it in 2003 with Three Hearts And Three Lions (originally published in 1961).

This is a 2003 Book Club edition combining the two novels. They’re a mismatched pair, presumably forcibly married under the fantasy umbrella in order to produce a fat book-club hardback.


Three Hearts And Three Lions is generally lighthearted and humorous. A Danish engineer finds himself suddenly transported into another world, inhabiting the body of a mediaeval knight. But he seems to be in a world in which magic works. The humour comes from his slow, shocked adaptation to this new reality, as he pieces together an understanding that he has, somehow, found himself in a world in which the Carolingian myths of La Chanson de Roland are literally true. And then he begins to use engineering principles to problem-solve this new world—an understanding that dragons must be very hot on the inside means that he could arrange an internal steam explosion, if he could just get some water down the dragon’s throat …

And there are sly contemporary references threaded through the narrative, as in this sign outside a magician’s shop:

MARTINUS TRISMEGISTUS
Magister Magici
Spells, Charms, Prophecies, Healing, Love Potions
Blessings, Curses, Ever-Filled Purses
Special rates for parties

There’s also a darker and more significant thread running though the story, as our hero comes to understand that he has a significant role to play in this world—that he has been brought there for a reason, and he will understand the reason only if he can work out who he really is.


The Broken Sword, on the other hand, is dark from beginning to end. It seems to be an effort to write something like a new Prose Edda—a story using  Norse and Celtic mythology, and borrowing the styles, structures and rhythms of the old Irish and Norse storytellers. Anderson’s native archaic style lends itself beautifully to this task.

A battle rages between the elves and the trolls, each side manipulated by the Æsir (the old Norse gods) and their enemies the Jötnar (the Frost Giants). The central characters are a changeling (a half-troll left by the elves in place of a human child), and the human child stolen and raised by the elves. They fight on opposite sides. Each has done terrible things, each is doomed, and each is the other’s doom. There are cursed swords, fatal oaths and dark treacheries. The characters are given to breaking into skaldic alliterative verse from time to time:

Home again the howling,
hail-streaked wind has borne me.
Now I stand here, nearing
ness of lovely England.
She dwells on these shores, but
shall I ever see her?
Woe, the fair young woman
will not leave my thinking.

And Anderson’s prose drives the thing along in style. Here, the god Odin pays a visit, one dark and stormy night,  to reclaim a debt:

Someone knocked on the door leading into Freda’s chamber from the yard. The bolt crashed up and the door flew open. The storm-wind galed around the little room, blowing the cloak of the one who entered like huge bat wings.
He had to stoop under the roof. He bore a spear in one hand that flashed with cold unearthly light, the same steely blaze that lit his one eye. His long wolf-gray hair and beard streamed down from under the hat that shadowed his face.
His voice was the voice of wind and sea and the vast hollow spaces of the sky: “Freda Ormsdaughter, I have come for the price you swore to pay.”

That’s just not going to end well, is it?

Through it all, there is a thread of melancholy about the advent of Christianity, which is slowly driving the old gods and supernatural creatures out of the world. Although it’s a grim story, there is also a sense of deeper loss, that something bright is going out of the world as the old ways die.

I have the feeling Anderson would agree with Algernon Swinburne:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath

Hymn to Prosperine (1866)

 

Brian Lecomber: Three Novels

Brian Lecomber novelsBrian Lecomber’s recent death (he died on 24 September 2015, at the age of 70), prompted me to pull his three novels out of the attic and read them again.

He was first and foremost an aerobatic pilot, most recently known for his Firebird Aerobatics display team.  Here he is in action with John Taylor:

Lecomber (say ləˈkɒmbə(r); it rhymes with “sombre”, not “Homer”) was an automobile  journalist who learned to fly in 1967, became a wing-walker in a flying circus, and then a flying instructor in the Caribbean. He wrote his first novel, Turn Killer, in 1975 while working in Antigua. Two more novels followed: Dead Weight in 1976 and Talk Down in 1978. Then he joined the Rothmans Aerobatic Team and immediately stopped writing, on the grounds that it was “bloody boring”. Compared to aerobatics, you’d have to agree.

Brian Lecomber in 1970s
Lecomber in the 70s

Dead Weight was the first of his books that I read—a thriller involving smuggling Krugerrands around the Caribbean in light aircraft. It’s relentlessly pacy, tightly plotted, and involves a lot of flying. What’s not to like? Lecomber makes you understand the technical difficulty of concealing a large weight of gold safely in a small aeroplane; he builds believability by casually dropping in detail of Air Traffic Control formalities (or informalities!) along the Caribbean island chain at that time; and he produces a genuine sweaty-palm sequence involving an engine fire over water in a rickety old Twin Beech.

Lecomber described his first book, Turn Killer, as “dreadful”, but it’s actually not that bad. The writing is a bit overwrought, it’s gratuitously violent at times, the plot is a little loose. Flying sequences feature at the beginning (murder in a flying circus, drawing on Lecomber’s wing-walking experience to good effect), and at the end. A classic piece of engaging Lecomber detail involves the difficulty of chucking a large weight out of the back door of a small twin-engine aircraft, if you’re a single-handed pilot. The implications for the trim of the aircraft are … difficult to deal with.

His final book, Talk Down, is nothing but flying. It narrates a four-hour period during which a young woman with no flying experience, stranded in the cockpit of a light aircraft with an unconscious pilot, is talked through the process of landing the aeroplane. It’s as much an “Air Traffic Control procedural” as a thriller, but Lecomber makes sure we feel the anxiety (and occasional despair) of those involved. There’s inevitably a lot of aviation detail, but it never undermines the building tension of the story. To some extent it prefigures the real experience of John Wildey in 2013:

You can pick up reading copies of all these books for a pound or two from the second-hand book sites. For a tight aviation thriller, try Dead Weight; for a genuinely tense drama, Talk Down. If you like these, then you’ll probably enjoy Turn Killer, too.

(Two other titles will turn up if you search for books under Lecomber’s name: Letzter Looping is a German translation of Turn Killer; High Summer seems never to have existed, though it does have an assigned ISBN. I wonder if it was a provisional title for one of his existing novels.)

J.G. Links: Venice for Pleasure

Front cover of Venice For PleasureNot only the best guide-book to that city ever written, but the best guide-book to any city ever written.

Bernard Levin in The Times

Joseph Gluckstein Links (1904-1997) wrote Venice for Pleasure in 1966, and it is now in its ninth edition. Venice being the city it is, and Links’s interests being what they are, the book doesn’t need much revision from edition to edition, though (as with other Venice guide-books) you’re well advised to ignore any information about vaporetto routes, which change on a yearly, if not seasonal, basis.

Links was an interesting man: a self-taught expert on the artist Canaletto and the history of Venice, he was also  the Queen’s Furrier (who knew there was such a job?), a Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a regular competitor on the Cresta Run, and once collaborated with Dennis Wheatley in the writing of a popular set of “crime dossier” murder mysteries.

What makes Venice for Pleasure such a rare joy is how lightly Links wears his erudition. Reading the book is like wandering slowly around Venice in the company of a knowledgeable, droll, elderly raconteur. At one moment some piece of art history is being wittily imparted; at the next, we’re being urged to take a seat and have a cup of coffee. For, as Links says, “Generally the first thing to do in Venice is to sit down and have some coffee.”

The book starts with an introductory chapter, dealing with the history of Venice and chatting amiably about the part of the city centred on St Mark’s Square. Then Links takes us through four walking routes which, when combined, cover the major landmarks and art galleries. He is keen that we don’t take his walking routes too seriously, though. He encourages us to dip in and out, deviate if we want to, and under no circumstances to read and walk at the same time. The correct place to read his book, he declares, is while seated at leisure in a trattoria with a decent view:

Comments will therefore be reserved for when we are sitting down and, so far as possible, only the minimum of directions for when we need to get from one place to another. They may even be too minimal and we may get lost. No matter.

That gives you a feel for his narrative style. A fine example of his dead-pan delivery turns up in the Campo S. Margherita:

High up on the house next to the campanile is a statue of S. Margherita herself; the dragon beneath her is the devil in disguise and it is a relief to know that he devoured her but then burst asunder and vanished, leaving Margherita unhurt. It must have been a nasty moment, though.

Finally, I want to give you a longer quote from the book, a story about the painter Veronese, and how he came to paint his Feast at the House of Levi:

It was painted as a Last Supper and Veronese was hauled before the Inquisition, which was sitting for the purpose in a chapel in St. Mark’s. The buffoons, dogs, drunkards and dwarfs in the picture had affronted them but above all it was the Germans they could not stomach. ‘Were you commissioned to paint Germans in this picture?’ they asked. No, answered Veronese, but the picture was very large and there had to be a lot of figures in it. ‘Was it fitting that he should paint Germans at our Lord’s last supper?’ they pressed, and the artist could but answer, ‘No, my lord.’ […] He was given three months in which to correct the picture but he found a less arduous way of satisfying honour all round. He just retitled it Feast at the House of Levi instead of The Last Supper and left in the dogs, drunkards, dwarfs – yes, and even the Germans.

It would have been a pretty riotous Last Supper:

Veronese, "Feast in the House of Levi" 1573.
The offending painting (click to enlarge)

The Germans are in the lower right corner. They’re identifiable as such because they’re soldiers, in uniform. And their presence was particularly offensive to the Inquisition because, after the Reformation in Germany, they were probably Protestant soldiers. But Links doesn’t let such explanatory detail get in the way of a good story, well told.


And now for something completely different …

The whole Veronese/Inquisition dialogue was beautifully lampooned in a sketch written by John Cleese for the 1976 Amnesty International charity concert, A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick), which later turned up on video as Pleasure At Her Majesty’s:

(If my embedded video doesn’t take you straight to the start of the sketch, it begins at 1:08:40 in the YouTube video.)

Colour books

If you’ve been enjoying Dr Helen Czerski’s BBC4 series Colour: The Spectrum of Science (and why would you not?), then I find a cluster of related books on the shelves chez Oikofuge, all of which I can recommend.

Philip Ball is a popular science writer of long experience, and his Bright Earth: Art And The Invention Of Colour (2001) is very much up to hisBright Earth by Philip Ball usual standard. At core, it’s a history of paints, from the first smears of coloured earth on cave walls to the rich palette provided by modern chemistry. But it’s also a brief history of painting, and an investigation into the problems of preserving and reproducing painted artworks.

Of his other works, I also own and recommend his trilogy on patterns in Nature, Shapes, Flow and Branches; and his H2O: A Biography Of Water, which will tell you more astonishing things about water than you imagined possible. And I have Universe Of Stone: A Biography Of Chartres Cathedral on my wish-list. I know absolutely nothing about it apart from the title and the fact it’s written by Ball, but that’s enough to have hooked me in.

Victoria Finlay takes a more personal approach to some of the Colour by Victoria Finlayterritory covered by Ball in her book Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox (2002). She takes Newton’s traditional seven rainbow colours, adds in the non-spectral hues black, white, brown and ochre, assigns a chapter to each, and sets off on various personal journeys to chart the history and production of each pigment. She’s an amiable travelling companion, with a sharp ear for an engaging story. In the USA, the same book goes under the title Color: A Natural History of the Palette.

Also recommended is her later work, Buried Treasure: Travels Through The Jewel Box, which does the same job on a selection of gemstones. Again, it has a different title in the USA—Jewels: A Secret History. I must say I prefer the British titles in both cases.

Finally, and on a slightly different note, I offer Andrew Parker‘s Seven Deadly Colours: The Genius Of Nature’s Palette And How It Eluded Darwin (2005). Parker is a zoologist at the Natural History Museum in London. His book devotes a chapter to each of seven colours exhibited by animals and plants. (It excludes Newton’s spectral Seven Deadly Colours by Andrew Parkerindigo, which never seemed much of a colour anyway, and replaces it with the evolutionarily important ultraviolet.) Each chapter then describes a particular mode of colour production—pigment, diffraction, iridescence, and so on. Along the way, there’s a dissertation on evolution.

Also highly recommended is Parker’s previous book, In The Blink Of An Eye: The Cause Of The Most Dramatic Event In The History Of Life, about the evolution of vision. These two were advertised as part of a planned trilogy, and I awaited the third with great anticipation. I was a little taken aback when the third volume appeared in 2009, entitled The Genesis Enigma: Why The Bible Is Scientifically Accurate, a topic that seemed to come distinctly out of left field, given what had gone before. I confess I haven’t read it.

Martin Caidin: Marooned

Two editions of MaroonedNot a series of novels, but two rather different novels, by the same author and with the same title, written five years apart.

Martin Caidin (first) wrote Marooned in 1964. The novel concerned the fate of an astronaut trapped in orbit by the failure of the retro-pack on his E.P. Dutton hardback cover of MaroonedMercury spacecraft. I encountered it in the E.P. Dutton first-edition hardback a few years later, as a space-obsessed eleven-year-old prowling the shelves of my local lending library. Everything about it entranced me—the gorgeous  cover art, the realism of the technology depicted, the insight into the astronaut training programme, and the fact that there were ten pages of appendices detailing the orbital calculations that had been carried out, by actual spaceflight engineers, to ensure the accuracy of the fictional depiction.

The movie rights were picked up by Columbia Pictures, who produced a Marooned movie posterfilm, also entitled Marooned, in 1969. Caidin acted as a technical adviser. The space programme was moving so fast then, at the height of the Space Race, that the novel needed to be completely updated. For the film, the solitary astronaut in his Mercury capsule was replaced by a trio of Apollo astronauts, flying an Apollo Applications mission in earth orbit. The fictional mission drew on much of the planned detail of what would later become the Skylab missions of 1973-74. Caidin made a cameo appearance in the role of a TV reporter.

The film received twin accolades: the 1969 Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and the October 1970 Mad magazine movie spoof.Mad magazine Moroned spoof

Caidin rewrote his novel to reflect the film plot. This revised edition appeared alongside the film release in 1969, so both the revised novel and the film eerily prefigured the real Apollo 13 crisis of 1970.

Dyna-Soar on Titan IIIc
Dyna-Soar launch configuration, © Mark Wade

The novels necessarily differ in the hardware deployed. The 1964 Marooned features rescue missions by the two-seater Gemini spacecraft (which had yet to fly a manned mission at the time of writing), and the Soviet two/three seater Voskhod. The 1969 novel uses a fictional vehicle called the X-RV, which seems to be a hybrid of the lifting bodies then under test, and the cancelled Dyna-Soar design, intended for launch using a Titan IIIC launch vehicle. The Soviet rescue mission is a Soyuz, the Russian workhorse that has been in continuous manned operation since 1967.

The 1964 novel is to some extent a history of the early Space Race, with an almost mission-by-mission account of real-world Mercury and Vostok launches. The 1969 novel, set in the (then) future and written when the Apollo moon landings had only just begun, is necessarily a more speculative affair.

Both books are an extended love letter to the manned space mission. The “Go!” responsory in Mission Control, as the Flight Director polls the Flight Controllers for their go/no go decisions, has always seemed like some sort of quasi-religious ritual, and Caidin is clearly moved by it:

One by one, beautifully, the men at the consoles responded with that exultant, brief cry: “GO.”

Neither book is for the technologically faint-hearted, though. If you can’t stand the occasional paragraph like this, then perhaps you need to seek entertainment elsewhere:

“We’re programming—in the event of trouble in azimuth—launch-vehicle guidance in yaw. This is for the upper stage of the core vehicle only, of course. We do this by varying the launch azimuth of the spacecraft so that the azimuth becomes an optimum angle directed towards the target’s plane. In this way we hope to reduce the out-of-plane distance prior to initiating booster yaw guidance. This cuts down the workload of the booster in correcting yaw discrepancies, and gives us the best chance to slide down into the same plane—or close enough to get that fast rendezvous.”

(I’m glad we’ve got that clarified …)

The film is an obvious precursor to both Alfonso Cuarón‘s 2013 Gravity (peril in low earth orbit), and Ridley Scott’s 2015 The Martian (NASA tries to bring its stranded boy home, with a little help from a foreign space programme). But to a large extent it’s the antithesis of Cuarón‘s undoubtedly spectacular but otherwise deeply idiotic effort. Marooned offers believable characters with believable emotional responses, a plausible problem with plausible solutions, half-decent dialogue and acting, and genuine ramping tension. And it doesn’t need a blaring overwrought score to let you know when you should be worried—in fact it dispenses with music altogether, contenting itself with a little ambient electronic noodling here and there.

I was reminded of how different Marooned and Gravity are when rereading Caidin’s 1969 novel. In the story, the pilot of the rescue mission makes a joke of the fact that he has never flown the rescue vehicle before:

“Nothing to it. I got me a handy-dandy do-it-yourself erector set instruction book. It’s got big pictures …”

It’s as if Caidin were speaking to Cuarón across four decades, but Cuarón wasn’t listening. So poor Sandra Bullock found herself flying a Soyuz capsule using nothing but the sort of instruction manual Caidin had mocked.

Soyuz instruction manual in film Gravity
That’s all there is to it!

Reading: Introduction

I’ve always done a lot of reading. And now there’s a whole lot of reading-for-work that I can stop doing and replace with reading-for-pleasure.

This is a Good Thing, because there’s something of a backlog of books to be read for pleasure. This photo is of about half the stash:

Stacks of books still to be readThe Oikofuge’s Boon Companion has long had instructions that, in the event of my death, all unread books are to be tipped into the coffin with me. She has recently been grumbling that heavy machinery will need to be hired to move the coffin thereafter.

To the physical stash, we need to add a couple of hundred additional volumes in the virtual stash: those on the wish-list maintained by the nice people at Amazon.

And then we need to consider the several thousand volumes stored in various nooks and crannies chez Oikofuge. There’s not much point in hanging on to books that you’ve already read unless you intend to read them again. So there’s a lot of work to be done there. In particular, it would be nice to sit down and reread the occasional classic series of novels as a series, in the correct order, rather than encountering them sporadically over many years.

So I’m imagining that this section of the blog will contain reading reports that cover a spectrum between new non-fiction and rather old fiction.