Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

Monday, 19 July 2010

I did occassionally tweet whilst reading this one:


Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
Simon Winchester
(Penguin, 2004)

In 1883, Krakatoa exploded. It wasn’t actually the biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded but it was the first to happen with something resembling modern media to report on it. Winchester explores not only the geophysics of Krakatoa – much of which has only come to be understood in the last fifty years – but the cultural, political and botanical impact of it. Why did it blow, and why is it so iconic?

There’s a lot to unpack here and the book looks at, amongst other topics: the colonial history of the East Indies; theories of geology including plate tectonics; Darwinism and the Wallace line; undersea telegraphs; Javan and Sumatran religious beliefs; and the touring circus whose elephant trainer tried to house her upset baby elephant in her hotel room (see screencap).

Is all of this relevent? Maybe not if you just want to know what happened. The short version is that the island of Krakatoa is thrown up by two tectonic plates meeting and sometimes the pressure explodes so violently the island is destroyed. When that happened in 1883, a massive tsunami hit the coasts of Java and Sumatra resulting in a horrific loss of life. But the short version doesn’t place you there.

By delving into all the different contexts of the explosion, Winchester recreates a sense of place, time and culture and enables you to empathise with the people who witnessed Krakatoa and understand why it still resonates today. He does this with charm, self-deprecation and without becoming bogged down in the science. You’re not entirely sure where a chapter is going at first, or how it connects, but by the end you’ve gained a real understanding of a complex historical event.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

Sunday, 2 May 2010

I’ve no idea why I am reading so much stuff set between 1900 and 1950 at the moment. I’m not working on any ideas set then. Quite the reverse, in that I’ve broken the cardinal rule of being a writer and turned down the chance to pitch for a couple of collections because I simply can’t manage full time work, writing and being pregnant. The energy runs out. So I’m back to reading.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
Frances Stonor Saunders
(faber & faber, 2010)

My knowledge of Mussolini, prior to reading this, boiled down to his death and the myth that he made the trains run on time. That there had been attempts on his life was unsurprising. That the one that got the closest to him was a shot fired by an Irish aristocrat who’d turned to mysticism and religion was utterly surprising.

Stonor Saunders’ book takes the increasingly common format of a dual biography: she works backwards and forwards from the moment Violet Gibson shot at the dictator. How did these two very different people end up on that piazza? What became of them, afterwards? With Mussolini we know that twenty years later he is shot and then strung up ‘like prosciutto’. Violet, we discover, spends the thirty years after her attempted assassination locked away in a mental asylum. But was she mad?

Probably not, is the book’s conclusion. What Violet Gibson was was a non-conformist. Raised in the Victorian Anglo-Irish aristocracy, she chose to rebel in her choice of politics, religion and spiritualism (I always enjoy a book where Madame Blavatsky pops up – see my tweet of delight). She didn’t marry, didn’t become the stoical supportive spinster daughter one of her sisters became. Her thinking and romanticism of both Italy and martyrdom eventually led her to firing the shots. Chapters of the book are devoted to the realpolitik involved in getting her out of Italy alive and the decisions her family – and the British diplomats then loving Mussolini – made on her behalf.

Throughout the biography there are mentions of Virginia Woolf and other intelligent women who were constrained and sometimes physically restrained in order to maintain the social order they threatened. There are also multiple references to Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I get the impression that there is another book beneath this one where the focus would have been on the medicalisation of female independence and self-possession, but that for some reason the focus was shifted onto the Mussolini biography instead. There’s no doubt there are some interesting parallels between Mussolini and Gibson, not least that both remade themselves into radicals, but the glimpses of the other possible book left me wanting to have read that more.

Austerity Britain, 1945-51

Monday, 5 April 2010

Austerity Britain
David Kynaston
(Bloomsbury, 2007)

Kynaston brings together social, economic and political historical documents to create a picture of Britain between 1945 and 1951 in this first part of his history of modern Britain. The whole series will cover 1945 to 1979: from the day the country celebrated victory in Europe to the day we voted in Margaret Thatcher. Those are telling dates: the whole set will document a period in which an attempt was made to build ‘a new Jerusalem‘, to bring in equality and a social – if not outright socialist – state. That experiment in altering a nation’s culture was finally called to an end with the rise of Thatcherism and the cult of the individual.

Reading the 1945 sections, as people struggle with increased rationing and the removal of ‘wartime spirit’, the politicians find it hard to believe the voters will reject a wartime leader in favour of a socialist party. Yet it happens. Even as the rations become tighter, Nye Bevan drives through the creation of the National Health Service. It seems like a long-distant age.

Yet the real revelation of the book is not the unsurprising desire of people to have a better life after the economic depression of the 1930s and the privations of total war: it’s in how little people have changed. Mass Observation records conversations about the upcoming election where people say that “it’s time for a change” and that they don’t really have time for politics, or that all politicians are the same. A social survey of young working men in a surburb of London reveals that, though they do some dreary job, they dream of escaping by becoming “a champion cyclist, a footballer or a dance band leader“. Really not so different from modern dreams of escape via sport or music.

There are big changes, of course. There’s big manufacture and big industry for one. There’s the nationalisation of the mines and the railways. But there are people complaining about the trains being worse than they were under private hands just as now people mutter about how things were better under British Rail.

What makes this book fascinating is how the fundemental attitude of people is so recognisable despite the massive environmental difference – you laugh at the similarities whilst marvelling at how truly austere life was.

It takes a long time to read: Kynaston’s desire to cover so much material means it took me from before Christmas till just last week. But I’ve the next volume, Family Britain, already on pre-order. A real delight, and something anyone thinking about writing stories set in the period should read.

The Righteous Harmonious Fists

Monday, 13 October 2008

This Timewatch on the Boxer War is a fairly good grounding, for anyone wanting a basic history. It contains a George Morrison who seems to owe a fair bit to Brendon Fraser in The Mummy but I can live with that.  One of the talking heads, Diane Preston, wrote the book I used a lot for research on Warring States as she is very good at outlining the issues and actions taken.

At the chap’s at the weekend, I bemoaned Timewatch being on opposite Strictly Come Dancing with the comment “I’ve read books on that!”. To which the chap’s flatmate’s response was “You wrote a book on that”. It’s odd the extent to which, once a book is done, the historical topic becomes an interest divorced from that research process. I know I read this article and associated leader on the Internationales at the weekend – and the many articles over the last seven years about the reconciliation work going on in Spain – with fascination. I suspect the fiction set in those periods acts as a focus for my research, rather than a catalyst. The catalyst is just curiosity about something and a desire to learn more. I still have the Border Reivers on my research list, and have done for about six years, but there’s yet to be a focal point to trigger the active reading around them.

Crank up the cocktail shaker!

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

The story I proofed the other morning has now been announced: Doctor Who: Short Trips – Transmissions. I’ve a short piece in it (well, duh, it’s a collection of short stories after all) featuring my favourite companion combo of Tegan and Turlough. Technically, I’ve not returned the contract yet, but I think it’s probably not going to be jinxed at this late stage. I mean, it’s been approved by the high heid yins now and typeset and stuff.

It’s set in Imperial Russia in 1905, starting in Vladivostok. I know: it’s such a departure from writing a story about a haunted Russian treasure, or a war in the far East at the turn of the twentieth century. At least this time there’s no Russian bloke called Sasha in i…oh. Anyway, I’m starting to see why historical authors end up wedded to a period. After the initial germ of the idea, I immediately knew where to go to find the necessary historical research. I was a bit flummoxed to find the travel section in the local library has been creeping along the shelves, so books on Russia and Siberia weren’t quite where I was expecting them. Hopefully I’m not going to end up as the Who equivilant of Jean Plaidy.

I went to see ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ a few weeks back with someone who has read all of Jean Plaidy’s books. Our opinion, when we stopped laughing hysterically, was that it was worse than Plaidy. The only way I can sum up why not just us but half the audience was cracking up is to mention that it’s a film set when Henry VIII’s lusts meant he split with Rome, established the Church of England and abolished the monestaries (i.e. the Reformation). And yet they didn’t even have a speaking role for Cardinal Wolsey. Now I’ll bend the historical truth for the sake of the story (Gudok starts in Vladivostok even though, during the Sino-Russian war, the trans-Siberia railway started in Port Arthur because Vladivostok sounds so wonderfully Russian and Port Arthur doesn’t*). However, even I would think twice about cutting out Wolsey entirely in a story about Henry’s decision to split with Rome. There was a bloke in red robes who scowled at one point, but that’s your lot.

*railway historians may, in fact, find some other inaccuracies in the story. However, I grew up on the railways and rail-geeks do not scare me.

The Art of War

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

“No, painting is not made to decorate apartments: it’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”
Pablo Picasso

Simon Schama on Picasso‘s Guernica, this Friday, 9pm, on BBC2.

On the trailer for The Power of Art, they mention the “unexpected end” to the story of Guernica. As far as I know there are two details about the painting which give it contemporary meaning:

  • The dispute over where it should reside.
    Madrid (traditionally part of Castillan Spain) wants it as Picasso is Spain’s most reknown – and critically acclaimed – artist. Bilbao want it because it represents the destruction of the ancient capital of the Basque region.
  • The controversy when the UN covered a tapestry of it so it would not be in shot when Colin Powell discussed Iraq.

When people ask why bother with the history of art, it is this on-going interaction of art and society which is interesting. That is how a work from 1937 can still carry weight and meaning nearly 70 years after its painting.

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