PD Smith

Three New Books

29 May 2018 | cities, cold war, Japan, photography, Reviewing, Science, scientists, Tokyo | Post a comment

Sue Black has one of the most extraordinary and – it has to be said – unenviable jobs. She’s a professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology. The task of the forensic anthropologist is to read the narrative written into the body or skeleton in order to reconstruct “the story of the life lived”. Her work takes her to war zones and to the aftermath of disasters. She also helps the police identify bodies. It goes without saying that what she has to witness is traumatic and Black admits she has seen colleagues “haunted” by their experiences: “it has destroyed lives, relationships and careers”.

At the scene of a massacre in Kosovo, where she was assisting in the identification of bodies and the collection of evidence of war crimes, a policeman broke down at the sight of a two-year-old girl who had been shot in cold blood. Professor Black – “the mother on the team” – hugged him: “having chinks in your armour isn’t always a sign of weakness. It is often a sign of humanity.”

Black is often asked how she copes with the appalling things she has to witness. “I have never been spooked by the dead,” she replies. “It is the living who terrify me.” She says she’s “hard as nails” and I believe her, although she does admit to being scared of rats. But despite its often grim content, Black’s remarkable and utterly gripping account of her life and work – All That Remains: A Life in Death – manages to be surprisingly life-affirming.

It is also a thoughtful yet down-to-earth meditation on our attitudes to death in the modern world. Unlike most of us, Black doesn’t fear death: “thanks to her, I have enjoyed a long, productive and interesting career”. In fact she regards her own death as a “final adventure”, one she wants to experience and understand “as completely as is humanly possible”.

Unsurprisingly, she intends to bequeath her body to a Scottish anatomy department, like the one in which she herself has spent her working life, and she writes with real passion about “the mesmerising beauty of human anatomy”. She even hopes to end up as an articulated teaching skeleton: “as bones have a very long shelf life, I could be hanging around for centuries, whether my students like it or not.”

In The Lost Boys, Gina Perry explores what the sociologist of science Bruno Latour calls the “Janus face” of science: the contrast between the shiny public relations image of white coats and hard facts, and the behind-the-scenes details of how science is made which, as Perry says, is “messier, sometimes ugly, but always more interesting”.

Her subject is the social psychological experiments which Muzafer Sherif conducted in American summer camps during the Cold War, using groups of eleven-year-old boys. Although they were the “cream of the crop” in their communities, Sherif showed in his 1954 experiment at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma, how quickly these boys could degenerate into “disturbed, vicious…wicked youngsters”.

Sherif spent his career studying the role of groups in directing our behaviour. He was fascinated by “the power of tribal loyalty, in-groups and out-groups, to shape our worlds”. Unlike earlier attempts, his now-classic 1954 experiment ran according to plan, with the two groups behaving like warring nation states and then being brought together to face a common threat when the camp’s water supply was cut off by a rock fall. Perry shows how everything was carefully stage-managed by Sherif and his team, with observers secretly recording the boys, photographing them and taking handwritten notes of their behaviour, like some early version of TV’s Big Brother.

Perry has previously written a study of Stanley Milgram’s controversial obedience experiments and sees in Sherif’s work a similar lack of interest in the potential harm inflicted on his experimental subjects. The way the boys’ emotions and behaviour was manipulated by the adults is undoubtedly disturbing.

She contrasts the published results of the experiment at Robbers Cave with the raw data collected at the three summer camps used by Sherif and his teams. She also tracks down some of the participants – “the lost boys” – who had no idea of the important role they played in the history of social psychology. Today some of the subjects feel used. “It was a crazy situation run by crazy people,” says one. But Sherif’s assistant remains idealistic: “We were fighting prejudice.” Sherif later boasted of “laboratory-like” conditions. But Perry’s account amounts to a devastating critique of this seminal experiment, casting doubt on how it was conducted and the objectivity of the researchers.

In the end, however, she offers a sympathetic portrait of Sherif – a driven, temperamental man – finding answers to his “lack of compassion” for the boys in his own troubled youth in Turkey. Flawed though it may be, Perry finds in his research an admirable desire to create a world in which “wounds were healed and what was lost was restored”, at a time when the only future was one of war and conflict.

The writer and editor of the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, “grew up with two cultures”. His father was a lapsed Dutch Protestant and his mother British, from an Anglo-German-Jewish family: “My destiny was to be half in, half out – of almost anything.” He always dreamed of escaping from the safe and dull cocoon of his upper-middle-class childhood in The Hague, “a world of garden sprinklers, club ties, bridge parties and the sound of tennis balls in summer”.

The opportunity to study in Tokyo on a scholarship at the film department of Nihon University College of Art provided the perfect way out, though Buruma admits that “Asia meant very little” to him beyond falling in love with the Japanese character Kyoko in Truffaut’s film Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal).

Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975, aged 23. Although he quickly tired of his film course, Buruma immersed himself in the Japanese imagination and in this memoir of his six years in Japan he writes with real passion for both Japanese movies and the avant-garde theatre of the time. A Tokyo Romance is a wonderfully evocative account of cultural life in Tokyo in the 1970s, rich with anecdotes about the people he met and illustrated with his own striking photography, “the perfect art for a voyeur dancing he explores the around the fringes”. In particular, he explores the flight of his younger self from bourgeois respectability to the mysterious Other of Japanese culture with dry humour and real insight.

After six years in the country, Buruma was forced to acknowledge that even though he spoke the language and followed the local customs, he would always be an outsider, or gaijin (literally, an “outside person”): “every gaijin in Japan must realize that a gaijin he or she will always remain”. Some people, who had grown to love the country, found this difficult to accept. But Buruma – who grew up with a sense of being caught between worlds – found it liberating: as a stranger in a strange land, he no longer felt the need to conform or even belong. When he eventually returned to Europe, he brought this “radical autonomy” with him and he realises now that “Japan shaped me”.

I particularly enjoyed Buruma’s memorable study and it made me want to immediately book a flight to Tokyo, a city I fell in love with when I visited a few years ago. The details of all three books, which I strongly recommend, are below, together with links to my reviews in the Guardian.

All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black (Doubleday, £16.99) - Guardian review

The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment, by Gina Perry (Scribe, £14.99) - Guardian review

A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, by Ian Buruma (Atlantic, £16.99) - Guardian review

Nature, Bodies & the Shape of Things to Come

13 April 2018 | cities, City, Guardian, Reviewing, Science, Science & literature, TLS | Post a comment

I have to be honest and admit that I'm struggling a bit to keep up with reviewing, writing and updating my blog at the moment! Still better to have too much work, than not enough...

So in between trying to write my book on urban detectives for Bloomsbury (thanks for being so patient guys...), I've been reading a study of medieval bodies and a couple of books on rural life for the Guardian, as well as one on the shape of things to come for the TLS.

Art historian Jack Hartnell's Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages explores the medieval world-view through the body. Rather than a closed system, the body was seen as fundamentally linked to the external world of matter and spirit: “understanding the body was just one part of an attempt to make sense of the universe in its entirety”. The body was at the centre of their physical and metaphysical world-view, an endlessly fecund source of metaphors and ideas around which their imaginative and intellectual lives evolved.

Hartnell’s erudite yet lively prose, accompanied by beautiful colour illustrations, brings the Middle Ages alive in a physical, and almost visceral way. He highlights the surprisingly deep cross-cultural links between Byzantium, Europe and Islam, and shows how philosophy, art, religion and practical knowledge about treating wounds and illnesses, as well as anatomical ideas, informed medieval attitudes and beliefs about the body. A triumph of historical scholarship. My review is in Saturday's Guardian.

Countryside writer John Lewis-Stempel has written a beautiful book about a wood in Herefordshire which he managed for four years. Nature is not abstract in his writing, but visceral. It’s a physical presence, sometimes sensual, sometimes cruel, but always full of wonder – from the “sad soliloquies” of the robin in January to “a dead rabbit reanimated by the maggots inside it”.

He has a wonderful way with words, and his descriptions of nature have a no-nonsense concision that is remarkably evocative, from the “paper-rustle of rabbits scuttling across dry sycamore leaves” to “the hand-clap of pigeon wings”. You can read my review of The Wood here.

Mark Connell's The Cow Book covers a similar subject but in a very different style. It's a brooding, powerful memoir about a 29-year-old man’s return to the family farm in Ireland and his difficult relationship with his morose and short-tempered father.

As well as a memoir, Connell’s book explores our relationship with cattle, our companions for some ten thousand years: “to speak of cattle is to speak of man”. From the ancient wild ox, the auroch, that appears in ancient cave art to the extermination of the American buffalo by European settlers and Robert Bakewell’s selective breeding in the eighteenth century that produced the first beef cow and influenced Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

It's clear, though, that the strength and power of this book lies not in natural history but in Connell’s deeply personal account of trying to reassemble the pieces of his life after a period of severe depression, what he terms “the Past”. You can read my review at the Guardian.

Both these books about the countryside are memorable and strongly recommended. I'm fascinated by the powerful connection to landscape and nature that I'm finding in many new non-fiction books. It's as if the nation whose people pioneered the move to cities in the 19th century and where by 2030 more than 90% will be city dwellers, has suddenly rediscovered the value of reconnecting to the natural world.

The final book I've reviewed is Peter Bowler's A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov. This was a fascinating book for me to read, because it reminded me of the research I did while writing Doomsday Men. In particular the fiction of HG Wells. The historian of science Peter Bowler describes Wells as a “prophet of progress” and argues that the voices of such technological optimists have been obscured in surveys of the way the future was depicted in writing during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. He accuses fiction writers of spreading an atmosphere “of permanent doom and gloom” while popular science writing was “full of expectations of future benefits”.

Instead of exploring the “nightmare stories set in a dehumanized world” of Huxley, Yevgeny Zamyatin and others, Bowler concentrates on the work of what he terms the “enthusiasts”, writers of popular science from J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal and A. M. Low to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, who were typically optimistic about a future improved by the discoveries of science.

It's a fascinating study and well worth reading, although I felt in the end that he risked over-simplifying what is at heart a complex and subtle story of the interaction of science, society and culture. My review appears in the 13 April issue of the TLS and is sadly not free to view, although if you have a subscription it's online here.

If I find a free moment I may post it on my website...

Elisabeth’s Lists

23 March 2018 | cities, Guardian, Lisbon, Reviewing | Post a comment

We've just returned from a few days staying in Lisbon - a beautiful hilly city of cobbled streets, tiled houses and delicious food. You can see some of my impressions of the city on Flickr.

Before I left, I read Elisabeth’s Lists: A Family Story, by Lulah Ellender, a hauntingly beautiful meditation on life and death, spanning three generations of a family. The narrative is anchored in a book of lists kept by the author's grandmother. The lists range from inventories of household linen and a “register” of eggs laid by her chickens during the war, to what to serve at a cocktail party for eighty people. According to Ellender, “Elisabeth’s lists are her filing system for her troubles and her joys, triumphs and boredom”.

Ellender also explores how we use lists to bring order to the world: “these catalogues hold our chaos”. As his marriage crumbled, Einstein handed his wife an impossible list of Conditions for Marriage. Before he married, Darwin wrote down the pros and cons of marriage, eventually deciding a wife would be “better than a dog anyhow”.

My review of Ellender's book is published in Saturday's Guardian.

Inside the Mind of Marine Le Pen

06 March 2018 | Guardian, Reviewing | Post a comment

I've been reading former philosophy lecturer Michel Eltchaninoff’s study of the ideas of Marine Le Pen. One former senior figure in the Front National tells him: “Marine Le Pen doesn’t have any ideas. She only acts through instinct, because her brain is like a reptile’s. what ideas? What concepts? She’s an echo chamber, that’s all!”

But his fascinating ideological detective work shows how her thinking is deeply embedded in the tradition of French far-right thought: “Le Pen moves behind a mask and she is very good at the game.”

Read my review at the Guardian.

A Philosophy of Dirt

26 February 2018 | Guardian, Reviewing | Post a comment

I've just read A Philosophy of Dirt by Olli Lagerspetz. It's one of those rare books that are worth reading purely for the pleasure of observing a superbly subtle mind at work. Lagerspetz provides a master class in philosophical thinking, a lucid and rigorous analysis of a commonplace notion, one that opens up a new and fascinating view of dirt “based on our physical engagement with the world”.

You can read my review at the Guardian.