Thursday, August 31, 2006

To the North

A few months ago I decided to get away from it all and go to Iceland. The remoteness, low population density and proliferation of volcanoes, geysers and thermal springs appealed, as did the bizarre Viking sagas of blood feuds and retribution. Bugger the south of France.

I had an enjoyable week driving along deserted roads, getting stuck up mountains and paying £5 for a pint of beer and whilst my trip wasn't the stuff of legend, I thought it would be worth mentioning to people.

The following week people asked me what I'd been up to and I replied that I'd been to Iceland. They looked bemused, slightly uncomfortable and occasionally mildly contemptuous. I couldn't understand why. I know that most of us are generally well-travelled these days and a trip abroad no longer has the kudos it might have had, but surely my journey to Iceland didn't warrant such a hostile response.

A week later I solved the mystery. People had thought that I was telling them that I had been to a branch of the Iceland supermarket chain and wondered why I thought it was worth mentioning. I corrected them and started to describe the amazing landscape and the fact that it was still light at midnight, but they still didn't seem convinced.

One of the things that appealed to me most of all was the idea of being in an landscape that hadn't been damaged by people, where the air was clean and the water was so pure that you could drink from a stream (which I did and it was the best water I've ever tasted). It was therefore quite a shock to read that Iceland is one of the most ecologically damaged environments in Europe.

In Jared Diamond's excellent book "Collapse" he explains how the first Viking settlers were struck by the similarities between the Icelandic landscape and their homeland. There were abundant forests, rolling pastures and a plentiful supply of fresh water. They could hardly believe their luck. Unfortunately the similarities were only superficial, as the Vikings soon discovered. In Norway, the Vikings had been used to a deep, rich soil and had no reason to assume that Iceland should be any different, but beneath the tufts of grass lay a soil composed of fine, volcanic ash. When the sheep and cows ate the grass, the ash became exposed and was blown away by the harsh winds of the north leaving a barren outcrop of volcanic rock.

At the beginning of the 10th century, large parts of Iceland were covered in dense forest and the Vikings assumed that they'd have an abundant supply of wood for building and heating. However, as with the pasture, every time a plant was removed the soil literally vanished into thin air and it was almost impossible to grow anything new.

Within less than a century Icelandic society was on the brink of collapse. The forests had almost gone and the Vikings struggled to find suitable pasture for their animals. They could have descended into anarchy, fighting over the last remaining scraps of land, but instead they did an amazing thing - they held a conference.

The leaders of Iceland's settlements accepted that their farming practices had almost destroyed the ecosystem and together they agreed on a way of living sustainably, managing the land so that it could support future generations. It is a huge tribute to these early settlers that their descendants are flourishing over a thousand years on.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Expect the unexpected...

Did they allow this sort of thing in 1871?

They had a night of wild love. The hothouse joined them in their lovemaking, burned with the heat of their passion. Renee's body...was completely swollen with sensuality, and the clean outline of her shoulders and waist stood out with feline sharpness against the ink spot the black fur left on the yellow sand of the path. She eyed Maxime, her prey, lying on his back beneath her in a posture of utter surrender...

No, it's not an extract from the latest Black Lace book. In fact, the author is Mr Emile Zola and this racy prose is from his second Rougon-Macquart novel 'The Kill'. This novel has been waiting for a new translation for over a century when suddenly, like London buses, two come along at once. I'm reading Arthur Goldhammer's excellent version.

There's a bit of sauce in 'The Kill', but it's mostly a superb portrait of a decadent society in the grip of financial speculation, aided and abetted by a corrupt political system.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The end of the Space Age

I though that the future was going to look like this. We had people on the moon in 1969 so surely it was only a matter of time before we installed nubile women in skin-tight outfits on a moonbase. Instead it looks like this...

And as if that isn't enough, we've lost a planet too. As from this week, Pluto has been stripped of its status as a planet because it's too small and dull. Apparently, astronomers have discovered lots of other small, dull rocks orbiting the Sun and rather than have to go through the hassle of finding names for them, they thought that it would be easier to downgrade everything under a certain size to 'dwarf planet' status. Why couldn't they have included Mercury too? I've never liked it.

Have you heard of this film?

I've just watched a film called 'By Dawn's Early Light'. It was made in 1990 and stars Martin 'Space 1999' Landau and James Earl Jones, amongst others and if you can turn a blind eye to the Hollywood gloss and slightly stereotyped characters, it is a superb film. So good, that I can't understand why I've never heard of it. I may not be Barry Norman but I've heard of most movies, good and bad and as far as I can tell, this one hasn't been on television and the DVD is only available intermittently. So what's so good about it?

The plot is straightforward enough. During the last year of the Soviet Union's existence a separatist group get hold of an atomic weapon and detonate it, setting a chain of events into motion that threaten to lead to a full-scale nuclear war between NATO and the USSR. What's so brilliant about the film is its terrifying plausibility.

Today we live in a climate of hysteria about terrorist attacks and WMD's, but until the end of the Cold War we faced the far more terrifying prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Yes, it didn't happen because common sense prevailed, but archives show that there were plenty of hawks on both sides of the Iron Curtain who were prepared to contemplate nuclear war. Even more depressingly, many civilians agreed. In a 1985 survey, 8 out of 10 Americans said that they'd rather be dead than red. So much for 'Where there's life there's hope'.

'By Dawn's Early Light' is a chilling glimpse of what could have happened if the more psychotic elements in the American military had assumed power during an international crisis and the result is far more terrifying than any horror film I've seen. If you want to be scared out of your wits, try this movie.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The controversial Mr Scott Pack

In the drab, utilitarian head office of Waterstone's - the largest bookshop chain in Britain - a man with an equally drab, utilitarian name - Scott Pack - reigned like a despotic medieval monarch, possessing the power of life or death over the latest works of fiction. Publishers would nervously make their way up to Pack's office knowing that if he gave any of their authors the thumbs down, then they might as well cancel the print run. When a takeover of Ottakar's - the second largest chain in Britain - was mooted, the publishing world quaked in its boots.

Articles like this one appeared in the press and suddenly Scott Pack went from being an unknown buyer in a retail chain to become the most controversial figure in the publishing industry. Pack, it was claimed by many, would 'dumb down' bookselling and replace range and diversity with a limited selection of bestsellers.

This was largely nonsense and there are several obscure authors who have succeeded against the odds thanks to Pack's support, as this link will testify.

Pack is no longer at Waterstone's and now works in publishing. I have just seen his blog is one of the best I've come across. He comes across as someone who is passionate about books, but doesn't take himself too seriously. There is a enjoyable rant about the author Norman Lebecht and a wonderful entry about a visit to a second-hand bookshop.

It is worth visiting Pack's blog just to read an anecdote about David Tomlinson, the actor who played the fake magician in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

I am confused

I have always been against nuclear power. Although it may be a safe and clean source of energy 99.9% of the time, incidents like Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island give a terrifying glimpse of nuclear energy's potential to harm human life. Also, there is the very serious problem of nuclear waste, much of which will remain toxic to human life for at least 100,000 years. Atomic energy may be relatively clean, but it seems a very high price to pay for zero carbon emissions.

Like most people, I prefer the idea of a future in which our power comes from a mix of energy conservation and sustainable sources of electricity, including wind turbines, tidal power and solar energy. However, the grandfather of the Gaia movement, James Lovelock, believes that unless we build more nuclear power stations, we're buggered.

When I first read about Lovelock's change of heart in a newspaper article, I was appalled. However, now that I have read his latest book The Revenge of Gaia, I feel increasingly convinced by the power of his argument. In short, Lovelock argues that climate change has already begun and there is nothing we can do to stop it. The world will become a hotter, more hostile environment, sea levels will rise and food supplies will dwindle. In the face of these changes, Lovelock argues that the best that we can hope for is an 'organised retreat' during the course of the 21st century. Instead of descending into a state of anarchy as essential supplies diminish, we have an opportunity to try and anticipate the problems ahead and prepare. By managing population growth, food production and our infrastructure, we can mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The key to survival, in Lovelock's view, is sustainability and part of that equation is nuclear power. Lovelock believes that alternative energy sources will never generate enough megawatts to replace today's carbon emitting power stations, so we must accept that out of all the energy sources available, nuclear is the best option. It is reliable, clean and, most important of all, provides us with a source of energy that is not dependent on fluctuations on the stock market. In Lovelock's view, nuclear fission power isn't the answer, but it is a temporary solution until the safe alternative of nuclear fusion power is ready.

I feel confused because although I am strongly opposed to nuclear energy, Lovelock's argments are very persuasive. What is the greatest threat to our future? A miniscule chance of radiation leak at a power station, or being dependent on other countries for our power? We have already seen how oil dependence can affect American and British foreign policy.

Ideally, I would like to see every home and business become responsible for their own power supply through a combination of wind and solar power complemented by energy saving measures. However, it is unlikely that all of our energy demands could be met this way and if I had to choose between Russian gas, Iranian oil and domestic nuclear power, I think that I would feel marginally more secure with the latter.

Our government is now talking about building a new generation of nuclear power stations. I only hope that they see this as a last resort and continue to pursue renewable sources of energy.

Friday, August 18, 2006

My five-year plan...

I've just finished reading Emile Zola's 'The Fortune of the Rougon's'. It isn't a great book, but it's important because it explains the background to Zola's Rougon Macquart novels and introduces some of the most significant characters. I now intend to read all twenty novels in Zola's sequence and have checked to see which translations are the best.

Amazingly, over half of the novels haven't been translated into English since the Victorian age and two are currently out of print! I know that the Rougon Macquart novels are of mixed quality, but surely the sequence as a whole is important enough to merit commissioning new translations for the backlist titles?

I have given myself five years to read the whole series. That works out as one book every three months and will give me plenty of time to read other things.

Friday, August 11, 2006

I watched Sin City last night...

It was brilliant and as near to you could get to the graphic novel. Instead of turning a comic into a movie, they turned a movie into a comic and the result, thanks to CGI and the genius of Robert Rodriguez, is visually stunning. There's a lot of violence, but it's comic book violence. People get showered with bullets, lose limbs and jump off skyscrapers, but still somehow live to fight another day.

The cast were generally superb, but my favourite was Carla Gugino, for obvious reasons.

This morning I looked her up on the internet and ended up finding this article:

If you can't be bothered to read it, there is a damning review of the film by a 20-year-old student who complains that the film is 'a tedious round of one dimensional, patronised, possessed women'. It's a good article and argues its case very persuasively and I ended up feeling a bit chastened for enjoying looking at so many scantily-clad chicks with guns. All I can say is that everyone in the film is one (or rather two) dimensional, in keeping with the film's origins and the men are just as stereotyped as the women. The only difference is that they keep their clothes on.

I think Sin City would be more offensive if it purported to be remotely realistic, but the whole point of the film is that it is turning live actors into comic book characters.

You know that feeling when thinking about space makes your head hurt? Well look at these...

This picture shows how tiny we are compared to the outer planets

But compared to the Sun, Jupiter is nothing

And if you thought the Sun was big...

At this point my head starts to explode...

On the subject of the Middle East...

Although it's unseasonal, this picture by Banksy sums it up...

The world turns...

During one hot summer in my childhood, our house became infested with ants. I spent many hours gleefully bombarding their nests with boiling water and when that failed we turned to chemicals. But however many ants we killed, the next day they would reappear without fail.

Then one day I read in a book that the best way to get rid of ants was to stop them wanting to come in your house. I knew that ants liked sugar, so I sprayed a solution of harmless salt water around the cracks. They never bothered us again.

Perhaps the Israelis and Americans would do well to adopt this method instead of thinking that they can bomb their way to a solution. I know that innocent Israeli lives have been lost, but does that justify killing ordinary Lebanese people? Some blogs have been depressingly bellicose in their response to recent events. I'm not surprised. Military superiority breeds an arrogance in which the killing of civilians becomes 'collateral damage' and this naturally creates a climate of desperation in which a small but significant number of people will be convinced that terrorism is their only weapon.

Terrorists are like the ants - powerless as individuals, but collectively they are a force to be reckoned with and are impossible to eradicate by force. If you don't agree look at the ETA in Spain and the IRA in Northern Ireland. The British Army is generally regarded as one of the best in the world, but they were unable to stop terrorists in Ulster.

So what should we do? Give in to the the people described by George Bush as 'Islamic fascists'? Of course not. They do not represent Islam, but their very existence is proof of the desperation that some people in the muslim world feel. Let's not forget that Islam has also been a religion of enlightenment and tolerance. We must remember that Jews and Christians were tolerated in the muslim world for over a thousand years and this only came to an end when Israel was founded.

We need to ask ourselves why so many ordinary people are turning to murder. Look at the 9/11 bombers. Look at the average suicide bomber. As much as we like to persuade ourselves that they were evil, they weren't. They worked, studied hard and were nice to their families and neighbours and yet they were capable of such an appalling and immoral act. Why? How can we stop this seemingly unstoppable slide into an age of terror and anarchy?

There is no easy solution, but we should begin with achieving a lasting settlement in the Middle East. Israel must return to its pre-1967 borders in return for a cessation of hostilities and it should create a society in which Arabs are not second-class citizens. As for the West, we should leave the Middle East alone. We have lost the moral high ground and everything we do seems to alienate even more people. Let's get our own house in order before we put the world to rights.