Miscellaneous Memoranda

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turns fifty this year and The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article about the true story behind the book. Really, that book is the only reason I’d ever want to visit New York (although sadly, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Claudia and Jamie slept in and the fountain they bathed in are no longer there). And did you know there was a film made in 1973 called The Hideaways, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler? The trailer looks … not very good. Has anyone seen the film?

– And speaking of beloved books, did you know that I Capture the Castle has been made into a musical?

– Here’s an interesting article about the day jobs of various famous authors. Did you know that Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising and devised the ‘Toucan’ Guinness ads? And that Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, and Vladimir Nabokov a butterfly curator in a museum, and Harper Lee an airline ticketing clerk?

– Sadly, authors need to scrounge for money because “celebrity deals are shutting children’s authors out of their own trade”.

– Regarding Nabokov, apparently his favourite word was “mauve”. A new book by Ben Blatt reports on the statistical analysis of thousands of ‘classics’ and contemporary bestsellers, concluding that while women write about both men and women, men write overwhelmingly about men; that the writers who used the most clichés were all men and those who used the least clichés were all women; and that Tolkien really liked exclamation marks.

– Finally, here are instructions for how to turn your boring conventional shoes into shoes that look like pigeons. (My favourite part of the story is that Kyoto Ohata created the shoes because she was worried her regular shoes were upsetting the pigeons she encountered on her daily walks.)

‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds is an engrossing account of how intelligence and ‘consciousness’ might have evolved in animals, specifically in cephalopods – that is, octopuses, cuttlefish and squid, those fascinating sea creatures who are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, writes in a clear, accessible manner about this very complex subject, with a great deal of warmth and humour and creativity (for example, he describes scallops as “swimming castanets” and cuttlefish as wearing “animated eyeshadow”).

He begins by discussing how neurons (nerve cells, the building blocks of the nervous system) might have evolved in our earliest common ancestors, then looks at how the cephalopods developed their vulnerable soft bodies and why they might have ended up with such large and complex nervous systems. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, comparable to a dog, but these are not distributed in the same way. Dogs and other vertebrates, including humans, have a large brain that directs the actions of the body using neurons, which branch off from a spinal cord. However, the octopus “is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system”. Its arms can act on the direction of its brain or can act completely independently of the brain and each other.

Octopus behaviour is as mysterious and strange as its neuroanatomy. They can perform well in experiments – learning how to navigate a maze, unscrew jars or operate a lever to receive food rewards – but they also have a tendency to cause mayhem. In one experiment in the 1950s, an octopus named Charles decided to break the lever he was meant to be pulling, snapped off the lamp above his tank, and directed jets of water at the experimenter. Octopuses in captivity often escape, cause floods or short-circuit the lights. Even if they decide to hang around and cooperate, they can recognise individual humans, are aware of when they’re being observed, and can behave in ways that seem deliberate:

“Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day, [Jean] Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”

Fortunately, most of the observations described in this book are not of poor captive octopuses, but octopuses in the wild, notably at an unusual site off the east coast of Australia, which the author and his colleagues named ‘Octopolis’. Although octopuses are usually solitary creatures, the octopuses living at Octopolis have built a little town, perhaps for protection from predators, and they interact in fascinating ways. The researchers make a point of not interfering with the octopuses, but the octopuses are curious about the divers and their camera equipment, and even make ‘friends’ with one particular researcher, Matt Lawrence:

“Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child. The tour went on for ten minutes, and ended at the octopus’s den.”

There’s also an intriguing chapter about the giant cuttlefish, which can change its skin colour and shape in seconds – as camouflage, to communicate with predators or prey or its own species, even as random patterns when resting. Remarkably, it can match its skin colour to its surroundings, even though the two eyes in its head seem to be colourblind. What it does have are thousands of photoreceptor and colour cells all over its skin, which can detect and reflect changes in light and then activate colour cells in response – in effect, ‘seeing with its skin’.

So much about cephalopods is still unknown, and a lot of this book consists of questions and tentative attempts at answers. Why do cephalopods need such a complex nervous system when most of them barely seem to communicate within their own species? Why do they have such enormous brains, when they have such short life spans to use those brains? How can a tree live for two thousand years and a boring rockfish for two hundred years, when the splendidly colourful cuttlefish and curious, clever, playful octopus live for only two years? (Also, who knew that there was such a thing as a vampire squid?)

Other Minds is highly recommended for readers interested in animal intelligence, and in cephalopod intelligence in particular. It would probably help readers to have some basic knowledge of the theory of evolution and how human cognition works, but I think the author does a good job of explaining complex ideas in an accessible way. There are some lovely photos in the book and the author has posted some interesting videos on his You Tube channel.

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

‘The Genius of Birds’ by Jennifer Ackerman

'The Genius of Birds' by Jennifer AckermanCould there be a book title more perfectly designed to appeal to my interests? Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a fascinating exploration of bird intelligence, which begins with a description of the New Caledonian crow’s amazing ability to make and use tools in a variety of contexts. Of course, other birds also use found objects – to hook food out of holes, to carry water or honey to their nests, even to fight off enemies (with one documented case of a crow and a jay having a ‘sword’ fight with a sharp twig). However, tool use is just one of an awe-inspiring array of abilities displayed by birds.

I was especially interested to read about the complex social skills of different bird species. Birds tease one another, play together, teach useful skills to younger birds and console family members after an upsetting event. Some of them spy on and steal from their rivals, kidnap baby birds or feign injury to fool an enemy. They are sensitive to injustice and, just like dogs and primates, will refuse to work for a smaller reward than their peers. They can choose to delay gratification to receive a bigger reward later (which many humans struggle to do) and will bring gifts to those who have rescued or fed them (although not necessarily gifts that most humans will appreciate – one girl in Seattle received buttons, screws, hinges, a tiny plastic tube and a rotting crab claw).

Bird song is also complex, with many similarities to human language. Just like humans, young birds have an instinctual urge to vocalise, with an ‘optimal period’ of learning. Like humans, they learn by imitation and practice, although some birds are far superior to humans in the number of ‘languages’ they can learn and show amazing acoustic consistency when singing a particular song. Birds sing the dialect particular to their local area and can show ‘speech defects’, such as a stutter.

Other human-like abilities include architectural and artistic skills. There’s a wonderful description of an Australian satin bowerbird building not a nest, but a boudoir for attracting and seducing females:

“First, he furiously clears debris from an area about a yard square and then sets about diligently collecting twigs and grasses, which he distributes evenly to make his ‘platform’. From this collection, he selects choice twigs to plant in two neat rows, creating a kind of avenue carefully positioned to catch the morning strike of sun. At the northern end, he arranges his bed of fine twigs, evening it out. This will serve as the background for his panoply of decorations – and also as a sort of dance floor, where he will later offer up some showy pirouette and song.

Next comes the business of collecting treasures. Not just any object will do. This bird is bullish on blue: cornflower-blue tail feathers from a parrot, lavender lobelia blossoms, shiny blue fruits from the quandong tree, purple petunias, and blue delphiniums stolen from a nearby homestead, along with fragments of cobalt glass or pottery, navy blue hair ribbons, bits of turquoise tarp, blue bus tickets, straws, toys, ballpoint pens, that [turquoise glass] eyeball, and his prize, a baby-blue pacifier pilfered from his neighbor. These he arranges artfully against his twig canvas. If his flowers wither or his berries shrivel, he’ll replace them with fresh ones. Watch for a few more days, and you might see him paint a chest-high band on the inside of his twig hall, using dried hoop pine needles he has chewed and crushed in his beak.”

Other birds build ingenious nests from natural and human-made materials, with sparrows even adding cigarette butts (which contain chemicals that repel bird parasites).

There’s an engrossing discussion of how pigeons and migratory birds manage their extraordinary feats of navigation and memory, which leads to a critique of our biased, anthropocentric definitions of ‘intelligence’. The author ends with a sober warning about how human activity – hunting, deforestation, pollution and climate change – is already threatening some bird species. Within a few decades, the effect on bird diversity could be catastrophic and this book demonstrates just how much we would lose.

Anyone with the slightest interest in birds will find this book fascinating, but it will also appeal to those interested in the wider field of human and animal cognition. Highly recommended!

You might also be interested in reading:

‘Alex and Me’ by Irene M. Pepperberg

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– There’s a great interview with E.B. White in this 1969 edition of The Paris Review, which includes his thoughts on writing for children:

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In ‘Charlotte’s Web’, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.”

– I was also interested in this article at The Guardian about a new exhibition of Soviet-era children’s books. “The idea was to abolish fantasy literature and illustration because they were seen as bourgeois and unhelpful to the revolution,” says Olivia Ahmad, the curator of the exhibition:

“In one cautionary tale called ‘Ice Cream’, by writer Samuil Marshak and illustrator Vladimir Lebvedev, a bourgeois capitalist eats too much ice cream and freezes to death. In ‘Red Neck’, a poem by Nicolia Aseev, a faithful Young Pioneer (the Soviet youth group) refuses to take off his red neckerchief even when attacked by a raging bull, thus demonstrating doughty revolutionary commitment even in the face of an unpleasant goring.”

The Guardian is also running a series about recipes for fictional food, including strawberry and peanut butter ice cream from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables. I also liked this blog post at Pop Goes The Page about a DIY Harry Potter party, complete with Hogwarts letters, house banners, snowy owl balloons, floating candles and of course, pumpkin pasties, chocolate frogs and butterbeer.

– From the world of publishing, here’s a depressingly accurate article about how authors who are “hard to look at” (that is, not conventionally attractive) are less likely to find a publisher for their work. This only applies to women writers, of course (as one commenter notes, “Only one name is needed to mention here: George R. R. Martin”). And here’s an essay by a New Zealand editor, Stephen Stratford, entitled “The book didn’t sell and yes, I was mean-spirited enough to rejoice”: An essay on the dark arts of book editing.

Copyright protection for creators has been in my thoughts lately, so I was interested to read this discussion of the “Monkey Selfie” case, in which a US judge eventually ruled that “a non-human was not capable of owning copyright under current US law”. (It is a great photo, though.)

– Finally, for those students feeling stressed about school and exams, “one Canberra school has invited a local kitten rescue to bring cats into the classroom in a unique bid to mitigate pre-exam anxiety”.

'The Globe kittens' by Ernest J Rowley (1902)

Miscellaneous Memoranda

Rivers of London fans, here’s a good interview with Ben Aaronovitch at Radio National (although, beware, it contains big plot spoilers for the whole series). Also at Radio National, there’s an interview with Leanne Hall about Iris and the Tiger.

I liked this article about Mary Gernat’s lovely cover art for the 1960s editions of the Famous Five books – the artist used her four sons and the family dog, Patch, as models for her sketches and watercolours.

Here’s an interesting attempt to sort into Hogwarts Houses by asking two questions: Are you governed by morality or ethics, and do you derive satisfaction from internal or external validation? (As always, I get thrown straight into Ravenclaw.)

A recent BBC poll of non-British critics about the greatest British novels of all time came up with a list in which women writers dominated the top ten and made up half of the top fifty. As I’d only read fifty-five of the books, I’ve added a few titles to my To Read list, although I think I can live quite happily without Lucky Jim and the two listed D H Lawrence novels.

I feel I’ve read a few too many of these type of novels lately (“I’m going to write a story about a character who feels the way I feel! Middle class, educated, with seemingly every advantage, but who still feels aimless and dissatisfied … Someone with my lived experience will be able to shine a penetrating dramatic light on the problems that arise when you don’t really have other problems.”)

In happier news, the new(ish) Australian children’s laureate is Leigh Hobbs, and hooray, he has a new Mr Chicken book out – Mr Chicken Lands on London!

If you happen to be in London (with Mr Chicken) and are worried about air quality – fear not, the Pigeon Air Patrol is on the case. The pigeons, equipped with tiny backpacks, measure nitrogen dioxide, ozone and other volatile compounds and send the results to Plume Labs for analysis. Londoners can request a reading for their particular location (by sending a tweet, of course). The patrol team includes “Coco, the ‘maverick’, Julius, the ‘hipster’, and Norbert — the ‘intellectual’”.

Finally, in important cephalopod news, a previously unknown species of milky-white octopus has been spotted four kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The octopus is currently nicknamed ‘Caspar the Friendly Ghost’. It joins another a new species, a tiny orange octopus discovered last year that scientists would like to name Opisthoteuthis adorabilis because it is just so adorable.

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice for Writers

“So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”

The Brigadier fortunate enough to be seated beside Mrs Hawkins at a dinner party “listened with deep interest”. Mrs Hawkins continues:

“I must tell you here that three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs, published by Mackintosh & Tooley. On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.”

'Napping Cat' by Elizabeth Fearne Bonsall (1903)

From A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

The Years of Grace: Your Home

In my previous discussion of the opening section of The Years of Grace, I neglected the fabulous illustrations, so I’ll make sure to include some here. Each section of this book has an introduction by Noel Streatfeild, and in this second section, ‘Your Home’, she admits that she was a “menace” as a teenager, “scowling round the house, saying ‘Why should I?’ about everything I was asked to do” and bringing home an unsuitably un-English friend called Consuelo (“Girls from Latin countries grow up faster than girls from cold countries. Consuelo probably held the record for fast growing-up even in a Latin country.”).

The first chapter, by Margaret Kennedy, discusses the difficulties of sharing a house with parents and siblings:

John Verney illustration from 'The Years of Grace'

“The mother must manage to make room for her daughter’s wider life without letting the others feel that the whole house now belongs to an ENORMOUS GIRL who seems to be everywhere at once – locked in the bathroom when her brother wants to shave, telephoning in the hall at the top of her voice, pressing a dress on the kitchen table and dancing to the radio in the sitting-room.”

(By the way, I thought that illustration’s dense cross-hatched style seemed familiar and it turned out to be the work of John Verney, author of Friday’s Tunnel.)

Margaret Kennedy provides some sensible advice about reaching compromises with parents, including the need to be nice to your parents’ dull old friends (“It is highly mortifying for a mother if the refreshments at her bridge party are brought in by a daughter who looks as though she were dispensing alms to a colony of lepers”) and having to explain your own friends to them (“Parents do not always understand their daughters’ friendships or see where the attraction lies”). This is further explored in an article by Richmal Crompton, who gives useful tips for being a good friend (you need tact, generosity, lack of possessiveness, common but not identical interests, and a shared sense of humour).

Next comes Magdalen King-Hall with a chapter about community service and social justice, even if she doesn’t call it that. Although the examples she provides are a little dated (Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale), the message is still relevant today:

“We are linked together, not only with the other people in our own country, but with all the other people in the world. It is like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples spread out in widening circles – you, your family, your school, your community, your country, your world. This feeling of world citizenship is only in its infancy, but it has been born, and two devastating world wars have not destroyed it.”

She even mentions The League of Nations. Veronica FitzOsborne would approve. But Veronica probably wouldn’t think much of Mary Dunn’s article, ‘The Queen Was in the Kitchen’. Mrs Dunn explains that men reserve their greatest admiration for a girl who can cook:

Anna Zinkeisen illustration from 'The Years of Grace'

“Pretty, helpless women are very nice in the fiancée stage, to take to the pictures and to dance with, but after marriage, unless a girl is feminine in the right way, not just to look at but a homemaker, there is going to be trouble. Of course, after he has married her a man still wants a girl to look pretty and to have time to do things with him, but he wants as well to be quite certain that she looks after him better than the wives of all the other chaps in the street, and that he can brag that he is the best-fed man he knows.”

Mrs Dunn despairs because British housewives are letting down the side, compared to their glamorous counterparts in France, Scandinavia and especially the United States. You might think those Hollywood films depicting pretty housewives creating beautiful meals in dazzling kitchens are just Hollywood fantasies. But you would be wrong:

“Most American kitchens are like that and nearly all American girls really are splendid cooks, and really do whisk up superb meals and appear five minutes later in their living rooms looking too glamorous to be true. This business of looking smart when doing housework or cooking is something that we in this country really ought to turn our attention to … I feel sorry for tradesmen; how depressing when they call, to be greeted by a bedraggled object …”

Fortunately, the next article, by Janet Farwell, involved a vet talking to a family about the advantages and disadvantages of various pets (dogs, cats, rabbits, tortoises, fish, hamsters, budgies, silkworms) and included some adorable puppy illustrations, so my blood pressure returned to normal.

Finally, Elizabeth Cadell gave a lot of practical advice on hosting teenage parties, including hints on venues (turn your bedroom into “a very attractive bed-sitting room” by scattering cushions on the floor and covering the dressing table with a tablecloth), refreshments (sausage rolls, trifle, ice-cream, cider cup and “in cold weather, provide Bovril”) and games (cards, Tiddlywinks, charades). Which leads nicely to the next section of The Years of Grace: Leisure.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

‘T. H. White: A Biography’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

It took me a while to read this excellent biography of the author of The Once and Future King – not because it was lengthy or written in ‘difficult’ prose (quite the contrary), but because it often made me sad and I kept needing to put it down to have a bit of a think about what I’d read. Terence Hanbury White had an awful childhood – born in India in 1906 to feuding parents who frequently threatened to shoot one another, and him, and who then bitterly separated in an era when divorce was a great scandal. His father abandoned the family, and his mother alternately smothered and maltreated her only child. White was sent to a sadistic English boarding school, then worked as a private tutor until he had enough money to put himself through Cambridge, with his studies interrupted by a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis. After achieving a First Class with Distinction, he worked as a schoolmaster for a few years, then spent the rest of his life writing, interspersed with various short-lived enthusiasms – for hunting, fishing, falconry, gardening, flying aeroplanes, sailing yachts, making documentary films about puffins, learning everything there was to know about Irish Catholicism or Arthurian mythology or the Emperor Hadrian …

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend WarnerBut as passionate as he was about facts and technical skills, he was not very interested in most people (“How restful it would be if there were no human beings in the world at all”) and he lived a hermit-like existence in various remote cottages for many years. His friend John Verney (author of Friday’s Tunnel), who wrote the introduction to this biography, noted that, “With strangers he could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing him, still more so if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.” White himself admitted he was “a sort of Boswell, boasting, indiscreet, ranting, rather pathetic” and admitted to “trying to shock people” (to repel them?), although he also had very old-fashioned ideas about modesty, women and sex. Another writer friend, David Garnett, accused White of having a “medieval monkish attitude” and White didn’t disagree. He wrote to Garnett, “I want to get married … and escape from all this piddling homosexuality and fear and unreality.” He tried to fall in love with a barmaid who had a “boyish figure” but this was unsuccessful, as was a later engagement to another young woman. She (sensibly) called it off; he wrote her anguished letters, but his biographer says “his torment in so desperately wanting something he had no inclination for is unmistakable”. He tried psychoanalysis and “hormone therapy” as a cure for homosexuality, which also didn’t work; then he tried to blot everything out with alcohol (“I used to drink because of my troubles, until the drink became an added trouble”). Unfortunately, he wasn’t attracted to men (which would have been bad enough at a time when homosexuality was illegal) but to boys, and he spent years obsessing over a boy called Zed:

“I am in a sort of whirlpool which goes round and round, thinking all day and half the night about a small boy … The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on … What do I want of Zed? – Not his body, merely the whole of him all the time.”

He never told Zed of his true feelings, or acted on them (“I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved”), but Zed’s parents grew wary and eventually the boy himself broke off contact. To further complicate matters, White told Garnett that he (White) had managed to destroy every relationship he started because he was a sadist and “the sadist longs to prove the love which he has inspired, by acts of cruelty – which naturally enough are misinterpreted by normal people … if he behaved with sincerity, and instinctively, he alienated his lover and horrified and disgusted himself.” Whether White actually acted on his “sadistic fantasies” is unknown (he had a great talent for self-dramatising and might have been trying to shock Garnett), but he blamed it all on his mother and his boarding school experiences.

The greatest love of his life, though, was Brownie, his red setter. She slept in his bed, was fed elaborate meals, wore a custom-made coat and accompanied him everywhere. (There’s a photo here of Brownie with White, the two of them looking as though they’re posing for a formal engagement portrait.) Brownie eventually became as eccentric as her human:

“She used to kidnap chickens and small animals and keep them as pets, and insisted on taking her pet rabbit to bed with her – in White’s bed. The rabbit bit him freely, but he submitted. She had geological interests, too, and collected stones which she kept under the kitchen table.”

When she died, he sat with her corpse for two days, then at her grave for a week, wrote her an anguished love poem, and forever after kept a lock of her hair in his diary, next to her photo.

White seems to have been a mass of unhappy contradictions. He railed against the British Labour government because he hated paying tax, and he moved to Ireland, then the Channel Islands, to avoid taxes, but he could be very generous with his money and time when it came to charitable causes. He claimed to hate people, but hosted week-long parties at his house in Alderney each summer and his friends all seemed to love him, despite his many faults. He was often miserable, but was “always capable of being surprised by joy” and his writing is full of humour. He announced in his forties that he was done with “forcing myself to be normal” and he gave up drinking – but not for very long, and he died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven of coronary heart disease, probably exacerbated by his drinking and chain-smoking.

This biography includes a discussion of each of White’s books, but I don’t think you need to be familiar with his work to find this book fascinating. I’d only read The Sword in the Stone (which I liked because it was full of animals), but I’m now curious about The Elephant and the Kangaroo, a satire set in Ireland. White, according to his Cambridge tutor, was “far more remarkable than anything he wrote” and his biographer seems to have agreed.

Why Science Book Titles Are The Best Book Titles

Browsing the science shelves at my local library yesterday, I found the following books:

How to Fossilise Your Hamster and Other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist

Dunk Your Biscuit Horizontally

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?

The Velocity of Honey

Lies, Deep Fries and Statistics

The Joy of X

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?

Ignorance

Actual book titles, people. And How to Fossilise Your Hamster is “The must-have companion to the No. 1 bestsellers, Does Anything Eat Wasps? and Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?