Perspective Recommends

Reviews by Peter Phelps, Dan Richards, Belinda Bamber, Jamie Colvin, ASH Smyth and Rowan Pelling

 

The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild
By: Enric Sala
(288pp, National Geographic Society, £16.99, hb)

Two things about The Nature of Nature grab your attention before opening it. First, if you haven’t read Sala’s previous work, Pristine Seas: Journeys to the Ocean’s Last Wild Places, there’s an endorsement by HRH The Prince of Wales and an introduction by “Darwin’s heir”, Edward O. Wilson to convince you of his credentials. Second, the cover’s shimmering leaf mosaic, revealing a menagerie of animals when turned in the light, suggests this “guided tour of the world’s marine ecosystems” will be more magical mystery tour than dry science lecture. Happily, this is one book that lives up to the promise of its dust jacket.

Inspired as a boy by Jacques Cousteau, Sala became a marine biologist specialising in algae research in his native Catalonia. He later published several cutting-edge papers as a university professor in California. But he eventually tired of “writing the obituary of ocean life” resulting from the “relentless human sledgehammer” and quit academia to become a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.

Primarily an exposé of marine ecology, the book draws technical strength from the parallels it makes between marine and terrestrial ecosystems, showing how our planet is a single living entity: “Viewed from space, all man-made boundaries disappear.” Sala’s straightforward conversational style distils both the beauty and complexity of the whole earth system, so even non-academics can grasp the interconnectedness of all living things and the critical importance of biodiversity for our future. He avoids the usual clichés, showing us the world with astonishing freshness. Who knew, for example, the importance of tiger sharks in combating global heating, or that American bison help protect prairies from flooding?

Sala’s message is as pragmatic as it is inspirational, setting out the simple economic wisdom of rewilding and making room for nature even in urban areas. He shows how every species has a role to play in ensuring the health of the planet, none more so than humans. (An epilogue on coronavirus says the pandemic is the inevitable consequence of our disrespect for the natural world.) This important book should be required reading for policymakers heading to Cop26. PP


 

Nina Simone’s Gum
by Warren Ellis
(208pp, Faber, £20.00, hb)

In the summer of 1999, Nick Cave curated the South Bank’s Meltdown festival and somehow persuaded Dr. Nina Simone to play. In pain and irascible, it was to be one of her final British performances and the show was astonishing, virtuosic, fierce, tender, mesmeric. Warren Ellis remembers:

“The lights came up and the room seemed suddenly normal. People were in shock. Faces wet with tears, not knowing where to look or how to speak. We had witnessed something monumental, a miracle.”

After the show, “in a state of transcendent awe,” Ellis, a famed multi-instrumentalist and composer, crept up onto the stage and took a piece of Simone’s chewed gum from where she’d stuck in on the piano. He wrapped it in her stage towel and placed it in a Tower Records bag.

The gum remained with him for twenty years, a sacred totem that would ultimately take Ellis back to his childhood and catalyse his relationship with found objects. But superstitiously, he never unwrapped it.

“The last person to touch it was Nina Simone, her saliva and fingerprints unsullied… I thought each time I opened it some of Nina Simone’s spirit would vanish. In many ways that thought was more important than the gum itself.”

When Nick Cave asked for the gum to be included in an exhibition, Ellis finally unwrapped it. The gum was cast in precious metals, becoming the centrepiece not just of an exhibition and Ellis’ book research, but of a continuing celebration of Nina Simone.

This eccentric, heart-warming book is a rich, meandering odyssey about sacrosanct touchstones, relics and magical thinking. That piece of gum, apparently ephemeral and throwaway, gains a totemic power that starts to bring people together – it becomes a conduit, lightning bolt and folk-art marvel. Ellis reveals that strangers well up when he tells the gum story, disclosing their own devotional artefacts and mascots.

There are some brilliant anecdotes about Simone, especially in Ellis’ conversations with Matt Crosbie, sound tech for the original South Bank concert. In one, Crosbie explains that, playing on her own, Simone leaves the band to sort things out amongst themselves. At one point in the sound check, Matt notices a bass amplifier standing unused and asks, “What’s going on with the bass player? Is there one for the show?” Simone interjects, “No, Matt, I sacked that motherfucker at the airport on the way over from Paris. I’ll do the bass with my left hand.”

Everyone was afraid of Simone, but she liked Matt, so Matt was “sort of put in charge of Nina”. Ellis writes:

He knocked on her door to give her a 30 minute to curtain warning. She invited him in. She was just sitting in there in a wheelchair. With another woman.

“Come in, Matt,” she said.

“Doctor Simone, is there anything else you need? Anything that I could get for you?” Matt asked.

According to Matt, she perked up and replied, “Well, Matt, since you’re asking, can you get me some champagne, some cocaine, and some sausages.”

“Nina, I think I can get all that. What sort of sausages would you like?”

“I don’t care, just some goddamn sausages.”

Then she went on stage, and everything changed.

Nina Simone’s Gum is about how small, apparently incidental objects and details can form beautiful connections between people – a celebration of artistic process, shared experience, friendship and love.

It’s also a book about “being there”.

Transporting. A joy. DR

 


 

Burntcoat
by Sarah Hall
(240pp, Faber, £12.99, hb)

Few writers convey the transformative power of electric sexual connection quite like the multi-award-winning British novelist, Sarah Hall. In her writing sex is never just about the bedroom, it hums with a raw animal fierceness; her lovers seem to have a visceral connection with the wild outdoors.

In Hall’s latest novel, Burntcoat, the protagonist, Edith Harkness, remembers that when she first met Halit, “I felt myself rise, as if from the undergrowth, like a creature standing stark against the landscape.” It’s no surprise to learn Hall’s childhood involved solitary clambering in the rugged fells of Cumbria, like a modern-day Cathy Earnshaw.

Burntcoat is a love story set during a pandemic, one that’s deadly, but different enough from our own covid crisis that it doesn’t feel like revisiting the past – more like a frightening vision of the future.

Edith narrates her life story looking back from the moment in middle age when the virus she originally conquered reappears in her body, which means she doesn’t have long to live. She interweaves memories of a childhood caring for her remarkable, brain-damaged mother with those of her developing vocation as a sculptor, and the ongoing impact of that climactic first meeting with Halit.

This love affair, begun just before lockdown strikes, is the turning point in Edith’s story, narrated as though speaking to him. Remembering their walk by the river after that initial meeting, she writes: “You pressed me against the cold, iron-belted wall and continued as two drunks walked past, our state more stupid than theirs. It was as if the air had become suddenly toxic. We could only breathe with our mouths held together.”

Alas, the air soon does become toxic, though the lovers manage to obliterate pandemic fears for a while in the haven of Edith’s bedroom. “It did not seem possible joy would be disrupted, or that our bodies could break. The eye can see disaster on a screen, human silt and effluent, makeshift triages, pits, and the brain cleanly dissociates. We live temporally, deluded. Not here, not us. We’re untouchable.”

While the tragic arc of Edith and Halit’s love affair can be guessed from the first pages, Edith is a fighter: a spiky, scarred heroine who is transformed by her fierce loves and losses like the burned-wood sculptures she forges in her riverside studio-warehouse – the aptly-named Burntcoat. “How is it possible to live with fear and hope?” she asks. “It might take a lifetime to know how to live. How it’s all made meaningful or tolerable; how to attain some semblance of wisdom.”

Edith’s enduring love for Halit blazes in defiance of “that cold breath on the neck”, mortality. Like her monumental public sculpture commission that straddles the motorway – the brazenly female, unashamedly naked “Scotch Corner Witch” – Edith too seems to rise fearlessly “above the yellow furze as if from a pyre, hair streaming on the updraft, her back arcing.”

With its devastating portrayal of the physical ravages of the virus, this book asks the big questions that have assailed many of us in the past eighteen months, ultimately reaffirming the transmuting power of love and art; even of loss – experienced through our all-too-vulnerable flesh and blood. “The body is a wound”, writes Hall, “a bell ringing in emergency – life, life, life.” BB


 

George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch
by Andrew Roberts
(758pp, Allen Lane, £35.00, hb)

George III has gone down in history as the mad king who lost America from British rule. The image of the bewigged Nigel Hawthorne yielding to the barked orders of his doctor, Francis Willis (played by Ian Holm) in The Madness of King George is etched into our memories. And as is often the case with historical dramas, the script can be misleading.

Andrew Roberts has attempted to debunk what he sees as myths in defence of Britain’s longest-reigning king, arguing that he was neither a brute nor a “mad” tyrant, but the “most unfairly traduced sovereign” in the history of the British monarchy.

Roberts had access to a lot more resources than previous George III biographers. In 2015, the Queen published 200,000 Hanoverian papers online – 85% never seen before. Quite rightly, Roberts saw an opportunity to write a sincere defence of Britain’s much-maligned monarch.

Contemporary writers have reassessed George’s illness and Roberts is no exception. Current opinion believes the king’s “madness” was bipolar affective disorder Type I, not porphyria, which psychiatrists diagnosed in the 1960s. Severe manic depressive psychosis left George both mentally and physically infirm.

Handwriting experts have confirmed that the change in George’s syntax and vocabulary when he was “ill” is consistent with modern examples of manic episodes. Other symptoms include babbling, foaming at the mouth and violent movements.

Roberts addresses the king’s role in the loss of America, arguing that George was not the tyrant of Founding Father propaganda, but honoured his constitutional role, which was to support Parliament. It was Parliament that made the wrong decisions for taxing and ruling America, forcing the country to fight for independence.

George was also a highly cultured man and a catalyst for the Enlightenment in Britain, where he generously patronised scientists and built up a revered collection of scientific instruments and books. He bought and extended Buckingham Palace and established London’s Royal Academy.

Roberts’ excellent book makes a convincing case against the exaggerated, unjust version of George III that has been passed down in history. He left this reader in full admiration for George, the noble king. JC


 

Das Dämmern der Welt (The Twilight World)
by Werner Herzog
(Audio book, £11.79, Hanser, read by Werner Herzog, 3hrs 27mins)

Last month I heard that famous loony German film director Werner Herzog had a new book out, and before you could say Weltanschauung I had downloaded it from Audible.

One problem, though. It’s not translated yet. (Renowned bilingual poet Michael Hofmann’s got the gig, but that will not be out until next summer.)

I can’t speak German; the sleeve notes say not much beyond “Lubang” beside a list of dates; and I was not embarrassing myself with Google Translate, which doesn’t even know if Herzog’s title means The Dawn or The Twilight of the World.

But if I had, I’d know this was the story of Lt. Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese WWII soldier famous for holding out – alone, ultimately – on a minor Philippine island until the 1970s, his only understanding of the outside world the flicker of a satellite, or words heard via a stolen radio. He didn’t know we’d landed on the moon, or that there’d been a war in Vietnam.

Eventually a Japanese explorer came to look for him – and had to bring Onoda’s former CO to persuade him their surrender was not, as Onoda had believed for three decades, merely US propaganda. Since he’d killed 30 Filipino “enemy” in that time, Ferdinand Marcos felt obliged to pardon Onoda publicly. All his kit was still in perfect working order. Oddly enough he had a hard time dropping back into civilian life.

Then, on a visit to Japan in the late ’90s, Werner Herzog was invited to an audience with the Emperor (whom he called “der Kaiser”!) Akihito, and opted to meet Hiroo Onoda instead.

An auteur, mind, and not an actor, what really sold me is that Herzog has recorded this himself.

Like an ageing Schwarzenegger reading TS Eliot, or your kindly uncle who turned out to be a Stasi agent all along, somehow Herzog manages to sound both beautiful and quite apocalyptic. It wouldn’t matter if he were reading the proverbial phonebook. Forget ear-worm; this is ear-porn, his voice both as distinctive and essential to his output as, say, WG Sebald’s prose style.

So, what did I understand? Well, most of the major plot points, I’d guess, and a good few of the glistening, visual details.

There were some helpful loan words (seppuku, yeti, Studebaker, faux pas), and German words I’m pretty sure I understood (work – or even oeuvre, perhaps – suicide, thunder, war, binoculars?). Some shortish phrases, even (Is this a dream? / Is he a ghost? / Rain. Jungle. Mosquitoes. / A plastic rucksack. / A little Japanese flag. / “Are you Onoda? Yes. I am Lieutenant Onoda”). Of course, I’m subject to the odd mis-hearing (“cock-bananen”??).

The rest is just a white-noise app for fervid intellectuals. But still, I’ve listened to it three times now, and – as filed under Biographical Fiction (nb) – Das Dämmern der Welt is indeed “a monument to Hiroo Onoda and his senseless struggle… at war with nature and his own demons… a glowing, moving picture dance of the meaning and nonsense of our existence.” Or, basically, your standard Herzog movie.

I spent some days sketching a film about a man who teaches himself German while listening to Werner Herzog, in the Falkland Islands. Failing that, in their latest sale, Audible are offering a German language course, for only £3. ASHS


 

Beautiful World, Where Are You
by Sally Rooney
(352pp, Faber & Faber, £16.99, hb)

Sally Rooney garnered so many plaudits with her second novel Normal People that its successor was always going to face fierce – some would say jealous – scrutiny. The good news is that Rooney fans won’t be disappointed; there’s much to applaud in Beautiful World, Where Are You, despite the unwieldy title. Her dialogue still feels like you’re overhearing real people in a café and Rooney’s gimlet eye for romantic foible is as keen as ever. And there’s some truly brilliant sex writing, capturing the tentative suggestions new lovers make to one another when establishing bedroom preferences. Furthermore, she’s not afraid to tackle the big topics (love, religion, politics and why art matters), even if these subjects are discussed in a weirdly arch manner via letters between the two main characters, Alice and Eileen.

Another key thread running through the book is the corrosive nature of sudden literary fame, which you feel must have been therapeutic for the author.

But… as with Rooney’s previous books, there isn’t really a plot, so much as a “will they, won’t they” scenario that can’t help feeling mined to its limits. Then there’s the fact all the writer’s characters, no matter the novel, have the same voices. Alice might as well be Normal People’s Marianne; which is odd when Marianne’s a student, while Alice has just turned 30 – generally an age at which you start to put aside nuclear levels of solipsism. Meanwhile the love interests, Simon and Felix, feel like the two sides of Normal People’s Connell: Mr Sensitive and Mr Blokey. And yet when Rooney skewers some aspect of human behaviour you’ve never seen properly acknowledged before, all is forgiven. As with this comment from one of Alice’s letters: “The problem with museums like d’Orsay… is that there’s far too much art, so that no matter how well you plan your route or how noble your intentions, you will always find yourself walking irritably past priceless works of profound genius looking for the bathrooms. And you feel slightly cheapened afterwards, like you’ve let yourself down.” If you, like me, read Rooney for those “ah, yes” moments, you’ll leave this novel happy and sated. RP

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