Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Alasdair Gray

In Australia the National Trust administers a list of 100 Australian Living Treasures. It is a slightly strange honour (and a number of the current living treasures are deceased) and an interesting mixture of personalities, but does recognise many important figures that the nation should, well, treasure.

If Scotland ever decides to adopt a similar scheme, then Alasdair Gray will surely be on the list.

As Alasdair himself notes he is 'a hard-working, happily married, sometimes short of money, occasionally drunk* old writer'. His biographer, Rodge Glass, fleshes out this description and memorably sums up his writing with the observation that 'the quality of Alasdair's output is limited by his need to pre-empt criticism, and bring socialism and Scottish nationalism into everything' he writes.

Rodge's biography sounds wonderful (review in Saturday's Grauniad), but with a subject like Alasdair it would be difficult for it not to be ...

*I can vouch for the authenticity of this observation, having worked at a certain UK chain bookseller when Michael Jackson's (not that Michael Jackson!) book about whisky was launched with a tasting session in the Assembly Rooms. Alasdair was enthusiastic about the tasting and at the end of a jovial evening had to be helped (i.e. carried) to a waiting taxi.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Slicing the Silence

Slicing the Silence is one of the best books I have read about Antarctica.

The main chapters are interleaved with diary entries from a voyage Tom Griffiths took to Antarctica in the summer of 2002-03 on the Polar Bird, a supply ship for the Australian Antarctic Division.

Presented as a history of human encounters with Antarctica, he covers a lot of ground between Cook's expeditions to the Southern Ocean in the latter half of the eighteenth century all the way to the current scientific programs and burgeoning tourist industry. As an Australian historian traveling to an Australian base many of his stories have a different perspective to those I have encountered before.

The early expeditions of what he calls the 'heroic era' will be familiar to most readers, but it is an excellent introduction to anyone who doesn't know the stories of the likes of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson. However Griffiths has also uncovered a lot of less well-known, but no-less fascinating characters like Robert Cushman Murphy – a young curator from the Brooklyn Museum of Natural History – who was so desperate to see penguins that he voyaged south on a whaling boat.

Griffiths is also particularly good on the absurdities of the flag planting and territorial claims that followed this initial exploration. But where the book became totally absorbing for me was when we entered the post-War era and Cold War geopolitics started to impinge on Antarctic exploration and science. This is a story that I haven't heard before and fills in the gap between the early explorers and the late twentieth century which are both covered extensively in many other places. (Edwin Mickleburgh's excellent Beyond the Frozen Sea does touch on this, but doesn't fill in the detail as well as Griffith does.)

Also fascinating is his history of the Australian researchers, base personnel and the bases themselves and how – in the 1980s – science and research suffered as the lions share of the ANARE budget was spent on building and maintaining the bases.

Finishing with the story of Captain Scott's biscuit he returns to the heroic age and seems to be suggesting that the most important lessons from man's experience of Antarctica still come from this time.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Song for Sunday

Nearer than Heaven ...

Also lots of good things here. Including songs from the new album which I didn't even know had been released ...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mellow Johnny rides again?

Intriguing announcement this week from Lance Armstrong about his planned comeback to professional cycling next season. The video on his website is short on detail, but the one definite piece of information is that his return to racing is linked to the launch of an international cancer strategy.

I will be interested to see how he might make this work in practice – I feel that he could accomplish much the same thing with his current influence and through his existing foundation. How racing the 2009 Tour de France could add much to this is not clear to me.

If he wants to raise awareness of why cancer rates have increased so drastically in western, developed countries and to try and tackle the multi-national food and chemical industries then great. I am totally behind him. If it is going to be a international marketing opportunity for some large pharmaceutical company that's different.

If you were being cynical you could say he misses being the centre of attention or the camaraderie of the pro-cycling team or feels unfulfilled with his current role as bike-shop owner and cancer activist.

So is the motivation personal or does he genuinely have more altruistic goals? His contributions to cycling and the fight against cancer are undeniable and immense, and I have always loved watching him race, so at the moment I will give him the benefit of the doubt. We'll see come September 24 ...

And of course the big question is: could he win an eighth Tour at the age of 37? Logically I feel that the three years he has been retired will make it almost impossible to get back to the level required in ten months. But I also know that Lance does his homework and he won't be lining-up next July unless there is a good probability of winning.

Song for Sunday

Thanks to Kate for the movie recommendation. With bonus Spanish subtitles ...

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I have fallen a bit behind on the book reviews lately – there is a large teetering pile of books near the computer, but high up out of range of small hands ...

So, in an effort to catch-up I will try to write brief comments about some of the more notable recent titles. First up Addition by Toni Jordan. Very enjoyable, even if not totally believable depiction of mental illness (Grace is a compulsive counter, hence the title), which reads like it was written as a film script (not necessarily a bad thing in this case).

It is compulsively readable, a bit like a Melburnian Kate Atkinson, but has plenty of wit and intelligence and is hilariously funny in places. It is a first novel and it will be interesting to see what direction she takes in future novels.