Creation

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement for 2 October 2009

Creation (Various cinemas)

“I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true”, wrote Charles Darwin in 1876, “for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” These uncharacteristically forthright words, written shortly before Darwin’s death, are all the more remarkable in that they were faithfully copied out and preserved by his widow, Emma, during the course of collating his personal papers, though she did ask that they be omitted from the published version that appeared in 1887. Whatever pain they may have caused her — a convinced Christian, whose husband’s loss of faith was a source of lasting grief and torment to her — she nevertheless recognized their sincerity and significance, and chose to pass them on to posterity.

Though Darwin’s loss of religious faith was slow, stealthy and (according to him) painless, the version of events we get here, in Jon Amiel’s evolutionist weepy, is of a crisis that threatened to unbalance a mind already destabilized by the death of the Darwins’ daughter, Annie, in 1851. Annie’s ghost, played with disarming solemnity by ten-year-old Martha West in her first screen role, haunts Darwin’s waking thoughts, as well as his elaborately cinematic dreams, in which she cajoles him into finishing his much-delayed book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). “What are you so scared of; it’s only a theory”, she says at one point, a question aimed as much at the 20 percent of Britons (and 47 percent of Americans) who continue to reject evolutionary science, as it is at her grieving father. For Creation is not exactly a ghost story, nor is it a straightforward biopic; it is, instead, a loosely historical account of the sad personal circumstances in which the most influential book of the last two hundred years was slowly and painfully completed.

It had been a long wait for all concerned, particularly for Darwin’s scientific allies, to whom he had confided his revolutionary ideas ever since his return from the Beagle voyage in 1836. Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) — a suitably barking Toby Jones — was the most vociferous and impatient (“you’ve killed God, sir, you’ve killed God”), while Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) urged him to overcome his tiresome psychosomatic disorders and knuckle down to work. Meanwhile, the long-suffering Emma, played with gloomy stoicism by Jennifer Connelly, bore daily witness to her husband’s emotional disintegration as he battled with depression following the death of his daughter, while struggling to finish his book.

Paul Bettany, perfectly cast as the young Charles Darwin (he is also Connelly’s real-life husband), spends much of the film either lying on a couch, slumped at his desk, or visiting his hydrotherapist at Malvern spa (the ever-reliable Bill Patterson), and only comes to life during the sunlit flashbacks, watching Annie turning cartwheels on the beach, or fossicking for beetles during a riverside picnic (“don’t tell me, don’t tell me, it’s . . . Carabus violaceus!”). The riverbank scene contains the film’s most compelling sequence, in which a discussion of the God-given “harmony” of nature is countered by the hidden spectacle of a fledgling sparrow falling from its nest, dying of starvation and being eaten by worms, in a time-lapse visualization of Darwin’s celebrated “entangled bank” passage from the last page of The Origin of Species. “All of nature is a battlefield”, as Joseph Hooker observes, to the displeasure of the sanctimonious Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), Emma’s spiritual counsellor and Charles’s sworn enemy. Though there is only a modicum of science in the film, this richly imagined episode is an unusually thoughtful (and successful) attempt at portraying a scientific concept on the screen.

If only more of the film could have been like this, instead of the television melodrama it mostly resembles, complete with clunking, anachronistic dialogue (“Charles, we need to talk”). But even though its scientific content is frustratingly slight, and its emotional register close to histrionic, Creation is nevertheless a brave and serious film, not least for its very un-Hollywood contention that scientific understanding can enrich us emotionally as well as intellectually. Down by the river, as the picnicking disputants sip their tea, the gulf between the pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian view of the world — in which the extinction of weak offspring, whether a bird, an orang-utan, or a consumptive child, is all part of the pitiless struggle for existence — seems to open up before them in the afternoon haze. “So much beauty for so little purpose”, as Bettany’s Darwin concludes, “yet there is grandeur in this view of life.”

Richard Hamblyn

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Darwin’s Eye for Life

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 17 July 2009

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, 344pp., Yale University Press, £40 (US $75)

Like many aspects of his contradictory public persona, Darwin’s legendary philistinism was not as straightforward as it seemed. As his son Francis observed, the great man seemed to derive a certain satisfaction from portraying himself as “an ignoramus in all matters of art”, cheerfully dismissing contemporary high art as “affected nonsense and [a] waste of money and time.” When the critic John Ruskin invited him to view his private collection of Turners, Darwin confessed afterwards that “he could make out absolutely nothing of what Mr. Ruskin saw in them”; yet Ruskin’s disheartened response — he chided Darwin for seeing the world through the eyes of a vivisectionist — was equally myopic, for it overlooked the surprising richness of Darwin’s visual imagination, which, as this stunning exhibition sets out to show, was a crucial component of his unparalleled achievements as a naturalist and thinker.

Darwin had not always been resistant to the arts: in fact he made regular visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum during his time at Cambridge in the late 1820s, “and my taste must have been fairly good, for I certainly admired the best pictures, which I discussed with the old curator”, as he recalled in a later memoir. He began to collect old prints and reproductions of Italian Renaissance works, and even managed to wade through Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art; but it was his exposure to natural history illustrations that served to open young Darwin’s eyes to “the bright tints of nature” that were evident in the watercolours of Audubon and MacGillivray, outshining “the dingy high-art colours” that he encountered on the walls of the museum. The Cambridge botanist John Stevens Henslow, who was Darwin’s natural history tutor, was an accomplished and highly observant watercolourist, whose annotated teaching sheets, collaged from dozens of exquisitely drawn botanical studies, apparently made a powerful impression on his students. Two of these sheets are included in the exhibition (in an introductory section entitled “Darwin’s Eye”), alongside a range of other visual materials that helped direct the course of Darwin’s later research. Among them is an astonishingly dense and detailed lithograph of the Brazilian rainforest, which Darwin recalled when he arrived in Brazil on H.M.S. Beagle in 1832, writing to Henslow that “nothing but the reality can give any idea how wonderful, how magnificent the scene is. . . your engraving is exactly true, but underrates rather than exaggerates the luxuriance.” Such detailed visual recall was characteristic of Darwin’s observational cast of mind, an attribute that was reinforced by the long-standing traditions of natural theology that continued to dominate Victorian attitudes to nature. Labouring to uncover the intricacies of the natural realm was still regarded as an act of homage to the wisdom of the divine creator, and was not yet associated with the march of secular scientism for which Darwinism would later be held responsible. As Diana Donald (one of the exhibition’s co-curators) points out in her introduction to the accompanying catalogue, Darwin was keenly aware of the visual dimensions of the scientific enterprise, and “the foundation of his brilliance as a natural scientist was his ability to study nature with sustained attention and insight.”

By the time he returned from the Beagle voyage in the autumn of 1836, Darwin had amassed enough research materials to last him for the rest of his life. Considering his frequent bouts of ill-health, his work-rate was prodigious, and over the course of the following four decades he produced fourteen major published works, two of which — The Origin of Species (1859) and its sequel, The Descent of Man (1871) — utterly transformed mankind’s understanding of the natural world, as well as his own place within it. The social and religious impact of evolutionary theory can hardly be overstated; writing The Origin of Species was, as Darwin famously observed, “like confessing a murder”, and Victorian culture was both unnerved and energised by Darwin’s revelations. This inspired exhibition — the first of its kind — traces the impact of evolutionary thought on the work of nineteenth-century artists across Europe and America, from the stark Jurassic shoreline of William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay (1858) to the unsettling simian elegance of Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1881), via a host of more literal visual interpretations such as George Bouverie Goddard’s The Struggle for Existence (1879) and George Frederick Watts’s Evolution (1898-1904), the latter portraying a monolithic Earth Mother gazing off across a dark primeval landscape while her gang of feral offspring fight it out among themselves.

But it’s the photographs that really make the show. Henry Fox Talbot’s The Geologists, for example (an early salt print from c. 1843), poses a middle-class couple in their Victorian town clothes against a vast stratified rockface, the man pointing stiffly to an intrusion of fossil-laden limestone. Taken only a few years after Darwin’s return from the Beagle voyage, this haunting image seems a world away from the natural history illustrations that first inspired his travels. Darwin was much taken with this new visual technology, and one of his later (though less successful) publications, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was among the first scientific works to be illustrated with photographs, some of which were specially commissioned from the Swedish-born portrait photographer Oscar Rejlander. The selection of posed mug-shots of Rejlander “expressing surprise” and of Mrs Rejlander “sneering” are easily the funniest images in the exhibition, but they also serve to illustrate the difficulties that Darwin faced when it came to the visual representation of his ideas. His contention that our minds and emotions are as much products of evolution as our ape-like physiques was always going to be difficult to demonstrate, particularly as his argument was so dependent on his choice of supporting images. But, given the impossibility of photographing animal expressions (long exposure times required sitters to keep still), Darwin turned to the sentimental dog-painter Briton Riviere, who supplied a series of annotated drawings of dogs in various emotional states (“humble and affectionate”, “aggressive and snarling”, etc.), although, as Riviere pointed out in one of his many letters to Darwin, tail-wagging was impossible to convey effectively in a drawing.

The critics had a field day with The Expression of the Emotions, not only for its unquestioning anthropomorphism, but also for its exposure of Darwin’s middle-brow tastes, typified by his fondness for Sir Edwin Landseer’s soulful pooches, whose homesick expressions and upturned eyes were much admired by provincial Victorian gallery-goers. Darwin was aware of his aesthetic limitations, acknowledging in his Recollections of 1876 his own “curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes.” By then (he was in his late sixties), he found all forms of fine art tiresome, with the exception of popular novels, though “only if they do not end unhappily — against which a law ought to be passed.” So it’s hard to imagine what Darwin might have made of this wide-ranging exhibition, with its profusion of images by the likes of Ruskin and Félicien Rops, though he probably would have approved of the Landseers on show in “The Struggle for Existence” room, especially the pair of fighting stags who, antlers entwined, lie dying from exhaustion on a Scottish hillside. As Darwin observed in The Descent of Man, skeletons of stags were often found with their antlers locked together, “shewing how miserably the victor and vanquished had perished” in the struggle for sexual dominance. The fact that an animal’s sexual impulses could override its instinct for self-preservation was something that Darwin had already noted in connection with the mating rituals of birds, in which the males’ displays of movement and colour would increase the dangers of predation. The elaborate (and extremely noisy) courtship routine of the male Argus pheasant was a case in point, and Darwin’s rhapsodic account of the distinctive “ball-and-socket” markings on its large secondary wing feathers (“it was more like a work of art than of nature”) served to reinforce some of his more controversial ideas about the nature of sexual selection: firstly, that (with the notable exception of the human race) females were in charge of sexual choice, and secondly, that animals, especially birds, had evolved a taste for beauty. Once again, the critics rounded on Darwin’s anthropomorphic assumptions — it was noted that Darwin had managed to project himself into the mind of a peahen —, and, as Jane Munro (the exhibition’s other curator) points out in an excellent catalogue essay, Darwin appeared to base his assertion that birds “have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have” on the fact that people the world over, from Maori chiefs to Victorian hostesses, took pleasure in adorning themselves with “borrowed plumes.” To illustrate the point, a large and lustrous canvas by James Tissot — The Artists’ Wives (1885) — hangs opposite a looped video of a Malaysian Argus pheasant going through his noisy courtship routine: as the excited bird reaches a climax, his impressively raised feathers seem to mirror the plumage on the hat of Tissot’s central figure, an elegantly dressed Parisian woman who turns in her seat, as though to see where all the noise is coming from.

A witty pairing, and typical of the insight and imagination that has gone into curating “Endless Forms” (the title is taken from the famous last line of The Origin of Species: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”) And though this major exhibition has been put on as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of Darwin’s birth, the result is far more than a commemorative exercise, for it succeeds in placing a familiar figure in an entirely new perspective, revealing the surprising extent to which Darwinian ideas, in changing the ways we understand the world, have changed our ways of seeing it.

Richard Hamblyn

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Tropic of Cold

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 22 August 2008

Paul Colinvaux, Amazon Expeditions: My Quest for the Ice-Age Equator, 328pp., Yale University Press, $32.50 £20.00

In late 2005 the Amazon rainforest suffered its worst drought in a hundred years, prompting the Brazilian authorities to declare a state of national emergency. As army helicopters dropped supplies onto villages left stranded by the retreating waters, forest fires spread into Amazonia’s remote south-west, consuming some three thousand square kilometres of the most diverse habitat on the planet. Droughts and fires are, of course, natural features of any forest system, but the 2005 dry season was unusual both for its longevity and for the fact that, unlike most South American droughts, it was not caused by an El Niño event in the eastern Pacific Ocean, but by an anomalous bout of north Atlantic warming: the same warming that generated hurricane Katrina. For an ecosystem as vulnerable as the Amazon basin, already under sustained attack from large scale deforestation, global ocean warming constitutes a potentially serious threat — for if the next Atlantic heatwave happened to coincide with a severe El Niño in the eastern Pacific, the resulting double drought could prompt forest die-back on a massive scale, transforming one of the world’s principal carbon sinks into one of its principal carbon sources: a classic positive feedback scenario in which drought and die-back amplify the warming that caused the drought in the first place, which in turn leads to worsening drought, and thus to ever increasing heat, until the climate finally regains control by doing something drastic.

The Earth, after all, has seen it all before, from hothouse periods such as the scorching late Permian (c. 250 million years ago), when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were ten times higher than they are today, to sudden climatic crashes, as at the end of the Ordovician (c. 450 million years ago) when global temperatures fell by more than 10°C, precipitating a mass extinction in which two thirds of life on Earth abruptly disappeared. Glacial eras tend to be just as inimical to life as hothouse ones, due to lack of rain rather than the cold itself, so it might seem reasonable to assume that rainforests such as the Amazon would be the first to suffer during a dry ice age, withering away to savanna as the ice-bound rains continued to fail. Isolated patches of higher forest might survive by drawing moisture from mist and clouds, but the rest would die back into a treeless waste, an arid plain incapable of supporting much in the way of life. But according to the ecologist Paul Colinvaux, this assumption is entirely false, and forty years of forensic fieldwork has definitively disproved it. By analysing ancient pollens laboriously extracted from lake sediments across the equatorial Amazon, Colinvaux has concluded that the region remained deeply forested “even through the vicissitudes of an ice age. The climate changes that inevitably happen are taken, as it were, in the forest’s stride”. In other words, the ice-age Amazon was as green as it is today. If Colinvaux is right — and it remains an “if”, in spite of his insistence that his findings “tear[s] the guts out of the arid Amazon thesis” — the mainstream view of the Amazon forest as a climatically vulnerable ecosystem will need to be updated, to reflect instead the “stability and tolerance” that has ensured the region’s survival.

Such insights are loaded with ecological implications, since a clearer understanding of Amazonia’s past is likely to influence our understanding of its future, so it is unfortunate that Colinvaux devotes so much of Amazon Expeditions to rehearsing decades-old arguments with his academic colleagues rather than pursuing the significance of his findings. The principal targets of his long-nurtured feuds are the proponents of the so-called “refuge theory”, a hypothesis advanced in the late 1960s as a means of accounting for the peculiar distribution of Amazonian wildlife: many of the bird species found in the Amazon confine themselves to particular patches of forest, indeed many of these patches are populated by groups of species unique to those areas, “as if these animals had carved little nation states out of the great forest”, as Colinvaux puts it. Given that the more abundant trees and flora are present throughout the three-thousand-kilometre-wide expanse of forest, the oddity of Amazon bird distribution had long invited scholarly explanation, which eventually arrived in the form of a paper published in the journal Science in 1969 by the German geologist Jürgen Haffer. Haffer argued that Amazonian endemism reflected the region’s ice-age past, when die-back caused by glacial aridity left only a few scattered patches of forest, the inhabitants of which went on to evolve in isolation from their neighbours. When these isolated hillside patches (which Haffer called “refuges”) were reunited by regrowth during warm interglacials, the local species remained where they were, at home in their long-established niches.

Haffer’s Pleistocene refuge hypothesis supplied an elegant solution to the endemism puzzle, and was quickly taken up by ecologists and biologists in universities all over the world. Colinvaux, however, who had begun his career shortly before the hypothesis came out, had doubts about the whole idea of Amazon aridity, and in spite of the fact that Haffer’s explanation had quickly become established as the consensus view, he set off for the Amazon with the express intention of proving the theory wrong. Colinvaux’s account of his equatorial adventures is by far the most rewarding part of the book — think Indiana Jones and the Refuge Paradigm — and there is something rather heroic about his single-minded endeavours, at least there would be if he wasn’t such a cross-patch. Every argument at an academic conference, every rejection by a scholarly journal, every sharp exchange of words is brooded over and analysed, Colinvaux’s capacity to harbour a grievance extending to his still feeling “narked” about not being invited to a biodiversity conference in 1979. No doubt all this sheds fascinating light on the process of scientific canon formation, but it only serves to remind me of why I got out of academia: not so much the egotism and the endless point-scoring — you encounter those in every profession — but the loss of intellectual perspective that comes with the culture of micro-specialisation. Refuge theory is of central importance to Amazonian palaeoecology, but Colinvaux’s assertion that it constituted a paradigm shift on a par with the acceptance of plate tectonics is wishful thinking, though perhaps understandable on the part of someone who has devoted his career to disproving it.

So, given that he rejects the idea of ice-age “refugia”, what is Colinvaux’s preferred explanation for Amazonian species distribution? It is a complex question, particularly as many of Haffer’s “refuges” are in fact vast tracts the size of Ireland or Idaho: can an area of land on that kind of scale really be thought of as “isolated”, even within the immensity of the Amazon forest? And is complete geographic separation necessary for speciation anyway? The Amazon’s vastness and great antiquity — by Colinvaux’s reckoning, it has been permanently forested for something like ten million years — create plenty of environmental niches, separated by climatic or geographical gradients, as well as by the sheer distances involved. “Take all this into account”, he says, “and isolates seem more likely than not.” As plausible as it sounds, however, even with Colinvaux’s hard-won pollen histories submitted in evidence, the everlasting Amazon theory has not yet seen off Haffer’s refugia, the “beautiful hypothesis” that has inspired a generation of ecologists. So it may be some time before a conclusion is reached on the true nature of the rainforest’s ice-age past, by which time we may already be dealing with the legacy of its warmer future.

Richard Hamblyn

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Gulf Stream

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 25 July 2008

Érik Orsenna, Portrait of the Gulf Stream: In praise of Currents, Translated by Moishe Black, 320pp., Haus Publishing. £18.00

Among the many irritations suffered by the British during their administration of the American colonies was the fact that ships dispatched from England took two weeks longer to cross the Atlantic than ships dispatched from America. At a loss to account for this disparity, the Admiralty eventually approached Benjamin Franklin, scientist and Postmaster General to the Colonies, whose subsequent enquiries among his seafaring contacts revealed what Nantucket whalers had known for generations: the existence of a swift Atlantic current that plies its way along the eastern seaboard before heading across the open sea to Europe. Franklin, whose next two crossings were spent excitedly testing the waters, confirmed that a fast-flowing ocean river, known as the Gulf Stream, did indeed run across the north Atlantic, and that “a stranger may know when he is in it, by the warmth of the water, which is much greater than that of the water on each side of it.”

In the centuries since Franklin’s findings, the course and pace of the Gulf Stream have been comprehensively tracked and measured, as have the changes that it undergoes during its long Atlantic crossing: as the current heads north, its cargo of warm tropical water cools and evaporates, leaving saltier, heavier water behind. By the time it reaches the Norwegian Sea the Gulf Stream’s payload is cold and dense enough to start sinking towards the ocean floor, turning to flow south towards the equator in a cold counter-current that will eventually return it to the point where its journey began. The effect of this great circulation is to transfer significant amounts of heat across the North Atlantic — a thermal budget almost 100 times greater than world energy demand —  preserving the inhabitants of western Europe from the harsh winters which besiege other places at similar latitudes, such as Canada or southern Alaska.

This thermohaline warming was first described in the 1850s by the American hydrographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who seemed to view the oceans as little more than a vast and efficient boiler house: “the furnace is the torrid zone; the Mexican Gulf and Caribbean Sea are the caldrons; the Gulf Stream is the conducting pipe”, he wrote, introducing an analogy that, along with his contention that “it is the influence of this stream upon climate that makes Erin the ‘Emerald Isle of the Sea’, and that clothes the shores of Albion in evergreen robes”, has proved surprisingly prevalent. “Now don’t forget to thank the Gulf Stream”, as Érik Orsenna’s grandmother would remind him as he shivered beneath his blanket during out-of-season holidays on the Breton coast; “if not for the Gulf Stream, our ocean would be cold”. Family prayers, according to Orsenna, were offered up to God and the Gulf Stream, the two great benefactors of Breton life, and “one of the pillars of my existence, one of the few axioms on which I could always count for support.” Thus began Orsenna’s lifelong love of ocean currents, and from an early age he began to “collect” them, “as others do with stamps or butterflies”, taking to the seas in a variety of craft, becoming in time one of France’s best-known mariners, as well as one of its most celebrated writers (his novel L’Exposition coloniale won the 1988 Prix Goncourt); and in all this time, Orsenna recalls, “the Gulf Stream has never left me.”

But in recent years a growing unease over the long-term future of the current has emerged, linked to the effects of global warming on diminishing Arctic sea ice. Rapid melting has already diluted the salty waters of the North Atlantic, but the fear among oceanographers is that a massive influx of cold, fresh water could weaken the Gulf Stream to such an extent that it would no longer sink in the Norwegian Sea, thus switching off the transatlantic heat conveyor. Northern Europe would consequently freeze, and this apparent paradox — that global warming could bring about a new European ice age — seems to have caught the popular imagination, adding the dramatic shutdown of the North Atlantic current to the now familiar catalogue of climate change catastrophe. However, scientific opinion remains divided over how likely or even possible such an outcome could be, leaving non-specialists such as Orsenna — “I am not a scientist. I am a wanderer”, he writes — uncertain what to believe. So, on the basis that the best way to learn about something is to start writing a book about it, Orsenna began telephoning oceanographers, asking for their guidance through the difficult terrain of ocean conveyors and temperature differentials, while learning not to ask unanswerable questions such as “where exactly does the Gulf Stream begin?” — the response to which was usually prefaced with a weary “it’s not that simple.”

Orsenna’s accounts of these conversations reveal the novelist’s dawning remorse for his lack of scientific awareness: “What a fool I’ve been to neglect science all these years”, he declares; “natural history is the mother of every form of history, every sort of story, the novel of all novels.” Like W. H. Auden, who said that the company of scientists made him feel like a shabby curate who had wandered by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes, Orsenna is a little in awe of the experts he encounters, not least because he begins to suspect that they are in possession of all the best stories. Like the ancient myths and legends of the sea to which Orsenna is clearly devoted, the great oceanographic narratives have much to teach us “about the nature of pathways and the secret of first beginnings”. The Gulf Stream, he soon discovers, is not so much a single path as a sequence of thermal improvisations: eddies, whirlpools, vortices, maelstroms. These scientific songlines of the sea “stir jealousy in a novelist’s heart”, and Orsenna brilliantly exploits the tension that arises between the two competing narrative modes — “I went endlessly back and forth from reading maps to reading legends, not knowing which would leave me better informed” — a process that in the end produces a near-seamless blend of travel, science and literary reportage, a peerless portrait of a force of nature made up of a series of digressions.

Richard Hamblyn

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Fram

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 2 May 2008

Tony Harrison, Fram, Olivier Theatre

“Everything is real and everything is true”, as the fictional author of Fram declares at the outset of Tony Harrison’s ambitious excursion into the politics of representation. Harrison’s “author”, the long-dead classicist Gilbert Murray (played with shuffling panache by a well cast Jeff Rawle), has risen from his tomb in Westminster Abbey in order to rehearse a play that he has been writing for the past fifty years. Murray, known for his cumbersome verse translations of Aeschylus and Euripides, has hit upon the unlikely subject of the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, whose three masted schooner Fram (Norwegian for “forward”) remains the strongest wooden vessel ever built. Its uniquely rounded hull, designed to ride the impact of encroaching winter sea ice, allowed the Fram to reach the unprecedented latitude of 84°4’ N, from where Nansen and his fretful companion Hjalmar Johansen made their way overland to 86°14’, “the farthest northern latitude that anyone had been”. As Murray explains in his Westminster prologue, the ghosts of Nansen and Johansen will be invited onstage to play themselves, as will the rest of the historical characters who constitute his resurrected cast.

What follows is a two-and-a-half-hour verse play within a play that traces Nansen’s transformation from a self-promoting Arctic adventurer (“a Darwinian with the emphasis on win”) to a leading humanitarian activist, focussing on his fundraising efforts on behalf of the victims of the Volga famine. It was for this work that Nansen was awarded the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize, but Harrison has come not to praise but to problematize, and Nansen’s complex voyage into altruism occasions a protracted discussion of mankind’s moral and aesthetic obligations when faced with the horrors of the world.

It is an important subject, and one to which theatre is particularly well suited, but Harrison’s decision to ventriloquize the entire proceedings through “Gilbert Murray”’s heavily rhymed couplets serves not only to obscure the debate, but at times to render it facetious:

                                   God spare us goddam culture when the point of our discussion’s

                                   the quickest way to save the lives of millions of Russians.

Harrison as Harrison is a wonderfully gifted poet and translator, but as “Murray” he succeeds in burying an issue of some urgency — the representation of collective suffering — beneath a layer of tiresome doggerel. T. S. Eliot’s famous observation that “the Greek actor spoke in his own language, [but] our actors were forced to speak in the language of Professor Gilbert Murray” applies just as well to Harrison’s Nansen (a world-weary Jasper Britton), forced to advance his objections to artifice in a pointedly artificial manner:

                                    ‘Shut up, Dr Murray, homeless people need a

                                   place to eat and sleep and shit, not bloody old Aida!’

The debate gains bite, however, when more visual forms of rhetoric come in for analysis, Nansen’s harrowing slide show from the Russian famine serving to silence both cast and audience until the photographs are revealed to have been staged. More truthful than the grisly archive, or so the playwright seems to suggest, is Sian Thomas’s compelling famine soliloquy, a “messenger speech” delivered in the character of a starving Russian peasant who has turned to cannibalism to survive. It’s an extraordinary performance, and as Murray points out in one of his many professorial asides, such speeches were valued by the ancient tragedians above crude theatrical devices such as buckets of blood because they knew that their audiences were affected not by images but by the power of verbal testimony. It is why poetry still matters, he concludes, art having been invented

                                   to give focus to our suffering and our pain

                                   and the more it’s done through language the more we’ll stay humane.

                                   Reliance on devices like the photograph and slide

                                   will lead, I rather fear, to linguistic suicide.

This may well be what Harrison believes, too — he is, after all, a professional poet — but the play is nothing if not dialectical, as though fearful of the silence of a settled argument, so all resolutions are withheld. Harrison and his set designer (and co-director) Bob Crowley end it all instead with an apocalyptic white-out, a realization of Nansen’s astrometeorological projection of a frozen Earth abandoned by the sun. As Nansen and Johansen perch on the prow of the foundered Fram (what became of its ice-resistant hull?) they survey the now uninhabitable planet, an endless Arctic where “farthest north” means nothing and where humans must become “cuddlers” to survive. Though visually quite impressive, it’s an unconvincing ending, and unrelated to all that has gone before. Fram in the end is a puzzle of a play, and is likely to disappoint Harrison’s admirers. And anyone expecting a polar documentary is advised to give it a miss.

Richard Hamblyn

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Pecking Orders

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 8 February 2008

Meredith Hooper, The Ferocious Summer: Palmer’s Penguins and the Warming of Antarctica, 300pp. Profile Books, £20.00

Long before Ian McEwan got into trouble for pocketing those pebbles on Chesil Beach, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally helped himself to a trophy biscuit from Captain Scott’s near-derelict hut at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Twenty-five years later, prompted by his conscience (rather than — in McEwan’s case — the threat of a fine from Weymouth council) Keneally posted his souvenir to the New Zealand headquarters of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, asking them to return it to the Huntley & Palmer ration tin from which it had been filched during the course of a visit arranged by the American Ambassador to Canberra. Keneally’s crime, apparently, was not all that unusual — dozens of items taken from the huts have begun to be returned in recent years —  but it nonetheless acts as a salient reminder of the extent to which attitudes to conservation have changed, as well as of how well established Antarctica has become as a fixture on the cultural itinerary. Keneally first went there in the late 1960s, when it was relatively unusual for a non-scientist to visit, but since then a generation of writers and artists have made their way to the frozen continent, either as tourists on one of the iron-hulled cruise ships which ply their way through the Southern Ocean, or as beneficiaries of the much sought-after research grants which fund non-scientific work in Antarctica.

The historian Meredith Hooper, a serially successful funding applicant, has made numerous such research trips over the past fifteen years, writing in residence on a variety of vessels, including “a month with plate tectonic scientists” on an American icebreaker, as well as spending a summer onshore with scientists and support staff at Palmer Station, the American research base near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. This book is an account of Hooper’s time at Palmer during the “ferocious summer” of 2001-02, when the scale and rapidity of Antarctic warming was brought home to the world by the sudden collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf, a 720-billion-tonne apron of ice so vast and white that its fragmentation was clearly visible from space. No-one had predicted such a sudden loss, and Hooper’s sobering first hand account of the pace of the Peninsula’s temperature rise forms the core of this well-wrought and timely book. Over the past 50 years, she notes, the region has experienced a mean rate of warming some ten times greater than the global average, with the most dramatic spikes occurring in midwinter. Since 1951, average July temperatures on the west Antarctic Peninsula have risen by an astonishing 6.3°C, making it the most rapidly warming spot on the planet.

The impact of this winter warming on the fortunes of Antarctic wildlife has now become worryingly apparent. An overall decrease in sea ice cover has caused a steep decline in krill populations (krill feed on the algae which form on the underside of ice), which in turn affects the distribution of krill-dependent species such as baleen whales and penguins. It is the tiny Adélie penguin that has come off worst, since it feeds almost exclusively on krill, and relies on winter pack ice for survival. Adélie numbers have been in decline over the past twenty years or so, but it was only during the “ferocious summer” that Antarctic biologists began to think they might be witnessing the onset of an extinction. “In my mind at least, 01-02 is starting to look like Adélie hell”, as Palmer’s lead biologist Bill Fraser is quoted as saying, and Hooper, who had voyaged to Antarctica in search of something she was not yet sure of, realised very quickly that the visible consequences of rapid warming “took the story I’d come to write and shoved it into the eye of climate change.” Hooper, who has no scientific training — “I’m an outsider to the way scientists think and work. Like most of us” — began to tag along on Fraser’s Adélie-monitoring expeditions, seeing the evidence of abandoned nest-sites for herself, and learning how to make wary adults disgorge the reeking contents of their stomachs so that changes in their diet could be tracked. Her descriptions of these fieldwork trips are wonderfully observed, but even better are her deadpan accounts of life on the station itself.

Despite the romantic associations of doing frontline science in Antarctica, most of the scientists and staff remain career academics, with all the jealousies and resentments of academic life never far from their waking thoughts. “Scientists’ talk is about other scientists”, Hooper observes: “funding, promotion, reputations, positions on programmes, inclusion and exclusion, priority and protection of ideas, how data are accessed and used. Ambition and bruised egos, vulnerability and inadequacy.” Biologists seem particularly conscious of their lower funding status compared with the likes of geologists and oceanographers. Fraser nurses a twenty-year-old slight from his time on a research ship in the Weddell Sea: “an announcement came over the ship’s systems, ‘will all scientists, and’ — pause — ‘biologists, come to the bridge’”, while a comment from a journal editor who had rejected one of his research papers: “the day that a seabird biologist can tell us something about climate warming is the day we are all in trouble”, clearly still preys on his mind.

Though an outsider to all this disciplinary jockeying, Hooper gets caught up in the status game herself, and when a tourist ship berths at the station jetty, suddenly she’s an insider, too, and is happy to condescend to the temporary intruders; though when the tourists depart on their “vast luxury vessel”, her place on the bottom rung is restored, outsider status reinforced by her use of an Apple iBook, the only non-PC on the station, and yet another object of Dr Fraser’s angst (“Bill, it turns out, has an unrelenting hatred of Macs. . .”) All this Antarctic cabin-fever stems from boredom as much as anything else. Most observational fieldwork involves long periods of sitting and waiting, as well as an awful lot of counting and recounting. Ever since the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, science has been the official justification for a large international presence on the continent, with the requirement for the signatory nations to be visibly engaged in something scientific giving rise to vast amounts of weather data, “met obs”, as they are known, being the easiest and cheapest form of everyday science. No training is required, and reams of publishable results are guaranteed. Yet it was this routine data that began to reveal the rapid warming of the west Antarctic Peninsula, and by the late 1990s, as climate science began to take centre stage, Antarctic scientists found their work elevated from an obscure political obligation to one of the keys to understanding global change. What emerges from Hooper’s account of her summer with the scientists is the centrality of their data to the climate change story, those hours spent counting regurgitated krill building up into a wider picture of planetary emergency. “Our planet is irrefutably warming. No doubts, no buts”, as Hooper concludes, although the real question now is the pace of that warming, and our capacity to respond to it in time.

Richard Hamblyn

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Climate of Enlightenment

This review appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 25 August 2007

Jan Golinski, British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment, University of Chicago Press, £22.50, 284 pp.

When the Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, described last month’s Yorkshire floods as “a strong and definite judgement” on Britain’s moral failings, he can not have been all that surprised by the derision that greeted his pronouncement. Such views, after all, were supposed to have been swept away by the rising tide of Enlightenment thought that came in during the 17th century, and which (in much of the West, at least) served to undermine clerical authority through the promotion of a modern, sceptical materialism based on the application of reason.

But, as Jan Golinski argues in this thoughtful and deeply researched account of how weather and climate consistently challenged the scientific certainties of the Enlightenment project, ancient attitudes, such as those of the Bishop, have always proved hard to dislodge. Take “weather-wising”, for example, the time-honoured ritual of invoking signs and sayings foretelling local weather events, a habit that remains popular even among professional forecasters: “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” was, as Golinski notes, a particular favourite of the BBC weatherman Michael Fish, yet it was just this kind of proverbial reflex that early scientific meteorologists strove to replace with a sober and standardised vocabulary. It was clear from the outset that this was not going to be an easy task, and when Robert Hooke distributed detailed instructions to the fellows of the newly founded Royal Society, urging them to fill out daily weather charts covering eight separate observable phenomena — winds, temperature, humidity, pressure, clouds, lightning, prevailing illnesses, and the tides — not a single fellow acted on the advice. Even the few who did attempt to maintain weather records did so in the form of pleasingly hypochondriacal diaries, in which reflections on the weather were interspersed with complaints about the writer’s state of health. “A chill driving Rain”, wrote one, was “a kind of weather as never fails to discompose me”, while the heat of July “made me feint & allmost swoon & even wasted me to the degree of deliquium animi (failure of spirit).” Golinski quotes generously from these long neglected journals — one of the aims of his research, he writes, is “to give the weather diarists of the time their due” — and their words do much to bring this book to life, elevating it from a somewhat specialist account of the state of early atmospheric science, to a vividly drawn excursion into an age besotted with the emerging languages of nature.

Much of this sense of philosophical adventure flowed from discoveries being made in the new colonies, especially those of North America, and Golinski’s best chapter gives an illuminating account of how the early American colonists, like the British before them, “came to value their weather as a national resource, one that contributed to their destiny.” Strange as it may seem today, many eighteenth-century Europeans regarded North America as more-or-less uninhabitable, due mostly to its extremes of climate. Too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and battered all year round by hurricanes and tornadoes. How could any form of civilisation be expected to thrive in such conditions? The answer, according to American naturalists, was widespread deforestation, which, along with the draining of marshland and the cultivation of crops, did much to moderate the colonies’ seasonal extremes. By the 1780s, according to Thomas Jefferson, “both heats and colds are become much more moderate within the memory even of the middle aged”, and as Golinski points out, the colonists’ belief that they had succeeded in improving not only their land but their very climate became a key component of American self-confidence, and was taken to heart by the settler population of the newly independent United States.

Such pride in their founders’ ability to modify the nation’s climate makes it even more disheartening that so many Americans today seem reluctant to acknowledge their ongoing contribution to globally changing conditions. Hurricane Katrina may have been an American tragedy, but it was also a world event, one that, as Golinski notes in the conclusion to this rich and timely volume, invites us to reflect on the worrying limitations of our own incompletely enlightened age.

Richard Hamblyn

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