Thursday, December 01, 2005

NME: The Stone With The Golden Arm

This the original text of the Dick Tracy story that appeared in the NME on Noveember 18th, 1978.
Valuable additional research for the story was done by Jamie Mandelkau in Canada plus help from Kathy Kelly in London.

It seems it was just one of those strange coincidences that the bad boys of the old wave and the new wave were both in court within a week of one another. Down in New York, Sid Vicious was charged with murder at the Chelsea Hotel, while in Toronto Keith Richards was facing the trial of his life over a rather different kind of a hotel room incident.

Strongest of all connections was the junk network.

Vicious was undergoing methadone treatment for heroin addiction, a habit that Richards, perhaps more than any other rock star, had made chic. Richards' title of The World's Most Elegantly Wasted Human Being had served to make the hard drug socially acceptable in certain circles, the ultimate hip kick; Vicious subsequently earned the title of The World's Most Inelegantly Wasted Human Being . . .

Vicious only had a few friends, his mum, Malcolm McLaren and Virgin Records to call to his aid. Richards, an important lynch pin of the Stones corporate empire, had money, influence and power. The verdict should surprise no one, but the events surrounding the case have been undereported over here.

What follows is the fullest account to date in the British press of the case of the Stone with the golden arm.

The tangled tale began on February 24,1977, when Keith Richard, Anita Pallenberg and their son Marion arrived at Toronto Airport. Maybe they hadn't heard of the airport's reputation of being a 'suicide alley' for drug smugglers, with a crack narcs squad always on hand.

Anita had 28 pieces of luggage with her, and customs became suspicious. In the search a bag containing 10 grams of "high-quality hashish" was unearthed, plus a spoon with traces of heroin on it.

According to a source close to the Stones, Keith "was groggy at the airport and, when their luggage was being searched, actually thought it was record company people who had come to the airport to help him. He had no idea it was the RCMP."

Pallenberg, 34, was arrested and was later to be fined $400.

Meantime Keith and his family checked into Rooms 3223-24-25 at the Harbour Castle Hotel under the name of K. Redland. Another Stones employee reported that their suite was "almost a fortress, with security guards imported from Buffalo to keep watch." Inside, he said, "their room looked terrible, because they didn't want maids snooping around. Both Keith and Anita looked awful."

It was just three days after the airport incident, at 4.30 am on the Sunday morning, that the big bust came down.

Rumour has it there was a tip-off from another guest in the hotel. An unspecified number of Mounties and Ontario provincial police arrived at the hotel with a warrant in Pallenberg's name, spent 45 minutes locating Richards, burst in and searched the suite. In the bathroom they found a leather pouch containing heroin, a hypodermic needle and a teaspoon with traces of what later turned out to be cocaine. Richards and Pallenberg were arrested, their passports confiscated, and all hell broke loose.

MICK JAGGER arrived in town on March 3 and, by all accounts, took control of the situation.

The Stones were in town to complete their live American tour album and start work on a new LP. Out on bail, Richards attended the rehearsals held every night at Cinevision, a film studio in the suburb of Lakeshore.

A Stones employee later told reporters: "I was amazed Keith made it to rehearsal every night because his situation with the arrests had almost ostracised him from the band. They were supportive, but they felt uneasy about the pressure."

Worse was to come when the Stones appeared at the El Mocambo Club and in the audience was Canada's First Lady, Margaret Trudeau. She followed the band to New York, bringing scandal and sensationalist publicity in her wake.

Canada had been a bad place for the Stones — and the future of the band looked bleak indeed.

THE WHEELS of justice everywhere in the world grind slow, and it was almost 18 months before Richards
was to return to Toronto for his court appearance.

One can only speculate on the deals that went down over that period. Richards' only public interviews concentrated strongly on what was to be the main plank of his defence — his cure at a clinic in New York. The man in the dock was obviously to be presented as a reformed character.

With the huge financial investments at stake in the Stones' future, nothing was to be left to chance. Obviously, the Stones' power as a live and recording act wou'd be severely muted if Richards spent time inside.

Court Drawing: Laurie McGaw/Toronto Star

CUT TO Toronto a week before the trial is to begin. Down at the courthouse on University Avenue, special security precautions are being arranged. Rumours are circulating the city that Richards will not show, a story quickly squashed by Stones publicist Paul Wasserman, whose other clients include Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan.

"That's silly," he pointed out. "After all, if he didn't turn up for the trial, he could be extradited from almost anywhere, with the exception of somewhere like the Yemen. And they don't have 24-track recording studios, so he couldn't go there."

Sure enough Richards arrived, very much the family man, with his mother and two kids, Marion and Dandelion, in tow. There was no trace of the man who had a string of drug and other convictions stretching back ten years, the hedonist who had once owned a yacht called Mandrax. Richard was under heavy manners and facing the heaviest bust so far.

With money no object, the Stones had hired the best Canadian lawyer they could find: Austin Cooper, a 49-year-old criminal lawyer with 25 years experience, a man well respected in legal circles for being the prime mover behind introducing the legal aid system in Ontario. He was to tell reporters: "I'm just a lawyer and I'm really awfully dull. I don't even play the guitar."

The case was to be heard by Judge Lloyd Graburn, a 52-year-old with a college haircut and two sons. Unaware of who exactly Richards was, he had to ask around before realising the true celebrity credentials of the defendant.

As is common in most legal cases, plea bargaining was the order of the day.

With the judge's approval, the more serious charge of trafficking heroin was dropped, as was the cocaine possession charge, leaving Richards to face a simple heroin possession rap. This still meant, though, that he was looking at the chance of going down.

The defence tactics soon became clear. Cooper explained to the court that Richards had bought the heroin in bulk to reduce the chances of detection. His New York score amounted to 22 grams of 34% pure smack which, when diluted, was enough for 440 injections with Richards shooting them up at the rate of 10 a day.

Cooper's oratory was overwhelming. Richards was described to the court as a man with "a poor self-image .... a tragic person who became addicted to heroin to prop up his sad personal life." His name was ranked alongside such other tormented artists as Van Gogh, Judy Garland, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

The Cooper version of Richards' habit began in 1967. "H was after a very gruelling schedule with the group, and he was exhausted after all the playing and touring. He experimented with drugs.

"In 1969 he started with heroin, and it got to the state where he was taking such quantities of the drug and getting no euphoria from it. He was taking such powerful amounts — as much as 2 1/2 grams a day — just to feel normal."

The first cure came in 1972, "but he fell back into the cauldron." Another cure attempt at a Swiss clinic the following year worked for a while. Cooper claimed, "but again he fell off the wagon, so to speak."

In 1974 he failed again, but since May 1977 Richards had been undergoing treatment at the Stevens Psychiatric Centre in New York, and this time he was winning the struggle.

Health factors aside, Richards' habit took a heavy financial toll. In just two years, the court was told, Richards spent $650,000 on heroin.

Cooper pleaded eloquently: "He should not be dealt with as a special person, but I ask your honour to understand him as a tortured creative person — as a major contributor to an art form. I ask you to understand the whole man."

Perhaps the strangest note of Cooper's defence came when he claimed that Richards was in the process of setting up an international addiction centre at an undisclosed location. Richards later told a press conference that he did not instruct Cooper to say that, and claimed: "It may be true and it may not. I'll let you know when I've paid the lawyers."

The defence rested, and the prosecutor asked the judge for a jail sentence on the grounds of the amount of heroin snatched, Richards' previous record and his age. The judge decided to retire and deliver sentence the following day.

THE VERDICT was a shock to nearly everyone. The judge said jail was out because Richards was taking the cure. "His efforts to remove himself from the drug subculture can only have a salutary effect on those who admire him." Secondly, because Richards had money — it has been revealed that in 1977 Richards earned some $300,000 — he was unlikely to resort to crime to support his habit.

So Richards was put on a year's probation, ordered to continue his cure and to play a concert for the blind. Richards gave a clenched fist salute to the packed courtroom before leaving with his bodyguard. Another trial, another day.

Reactions to the verdict in Canada were mixed. Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was outraged and urged an appeal, but the largest paper in Canada, The Toronto Globe, described the verdict in its editorial as "a model of enlightened sentencing, one which should pave the way for a more equitable and civilised treatment of convicted drug addicts in Canadian courts."

It should be made clear that less than half the people convicted in Canada of simple possession of heroin go to jail.

But it was the concert for the blind that raised most eyebrows. How had the judge reached that idea? Onestrong rumour was that Cooper had suggested it, but this was tracked down to blind superfan Rita Bedard,who attended the trial every day and was invited in by Cooper to meet Richards and get his autograph. It turned out that she was responsible for the story; Cooper dismissed it.

In fact the judge had called John Simmons of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) just 30minutes before going into court onthat final day. Simmons claims: "He asked me if I would object if he sentenced a young musician to play music at the Institute. We only foundout later it was Richards. We were *shocked and pleased."

But not everyone was that euphoric. CNIB's John Rae said it could negatively affect public attitudes towards blind people, and called the verdict "outrageous, bizarre and patronising".

"We're seeking equal rights, not a handout," he said. "If the judge intended to help blind people, there are a number of organisations besides the CNIB that should have the opportunity to benefit as well."

The big problem for the CNIB now is that their auditorium on Bayview Avenue only holds 200, and their switchboard has been jammed with people hustling for tickets. The owner of the 16,000 seatcr Maple Leaf , Gardens has offered his venue for the event, but no final decision has been reached.

THE COURT scene over, Richards arrived an hour late for a press conference, his last public appearance before waving Canada goodbye. Wearing jeans, a scratched leather jacket and a T-shirt with the legend 'Robbie Rocker' on it, he fielded a barrage of press enquiries.

How had the whole incident affected him?

"Oh it's all show business. Every day of my life is show business. I didn't give it much thought until the last few days. I mean, it wasn't as if I was waking up each day thinking the trial is coming."

Had he made any jail contingency plans?

"I just wondered if the uniform was with stripes or arrows?" He described his probation officer as "sweet".

On the subject of heroin, he said he gave up his addiction because it was boring and commented: "You lose your respect and confidence. Once you get to the stage of addiction it is just where you get to ask, 'Where is the dope?' You wonder what you're doing sitting in an apartment with four men who are dribbling . . .

"I'm happy to be off it ... I have become a lush."

When asked about the Stones' reaction to the verdict, he said: "They were very ticked off I didn't get put away for 30 years. I'm going to use the bail money to bribe the rest of the band to do the benefit."

Of the judge's comment that some Stones' songs glorified drug use, he said: "I think that is a misconception. There are drug overtones in about one per cent of the band's material and Mick wrote them, not me."

So Richards is out once more. Meanwhile Vicious spends time in Bellevue psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. Another week in the history of rock and roll.

NME: Adventures in the Music Press

Dick Tracy's first and only cover story, investigating record
and tape piracy. July 22nd, 1978.

It was a recent weekend Guardian magazine profile of Tony Parsons that initially triggered all this off – a flood of memories. Tony, now a best-selling novelist and a regular columnist for The Mirror, was interviewed in connection with his just-published novel ‘Stories We Could Tell’ based on his time at the New Musical Express (NME). The least said about that the better. Paul Morley's review 'Those Weren't The Days' is right on the button I think.

My story begins back in the days of what was then called the ‘underground press’. I was part of Frendz magazine, one of a number of nationally-distributed haphazardly-produced mags and papers that documented the counter-culture of the period. It was here that I met Nick Kent who turned up and asked me if he could write some rock reviews for the papers. Good writers of any kind were hard to come by, particularly ones that didn’t want paying, and within a few weeks Nick was pumping out live and record reviews that immediately convinced that here was man with real talent. We became best mates

Within a few weeks it seemed, Nick was suddenly everywhere, hanging out with the Grateful Dead and Keith Richards. (He took me once to Richards house in Chelsea but he wasn’t in). I remember travelling down to Brighton with him on a coach with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, hanging out in Wembley with the legendary San Fran rock band The Flaming Groovies (later seeing them live with Nick at their appearance at the legendary Iggy Pop gig at the Kings Cross cinema)

Frendz, in its last incarnation, was being designed in Osterley by Pennie Smith (later to acquire legendary status as a rock photographer par excellence for the NME) in her funky converted railway station pad, helped by our dear departed friend Kevin Sparrow. I remember Roxy Music being the big thing at the time.

Inevitably Frendz came to a close – there was no money left and only a few survivors on the staff – and our last issue, designed by George Snow, featured news of an exclusive Lou Reed piece by Nick Kent which never materialised, we had to print a big apology in the paper. By now Nick and Pennie had migrated to the NME.

The New Musical Express (NME), founded in 1962, had begun recruiting from the underground press and Nick and Charles Shaar Murray, one of the schoolkids featured in the infamous OZ issue that became the subject of the longest obscenity case in British legal history, between them ushered in a whole new era of rock writing – inspired by Lester Bangs and Creem magazine – that made the paper a must-read for so many at that time. This was New Journalism of an irreverent drug-fuelled kind that captured the spirit of the times.

It must be remembered that, at that time, there was no coverage of music in the national press at all – except for headlines when one of the Beatles got married or such like. Hence the strength of the music press and feelings that attached to them. This was vital reading for music fans and the NME along with its rivals Melody Maker and Sounds saw their circulations rise rapidly during the 1970s with the NME way out on top in a dominant position before the decade was out.

Clustered here were the some of the best writers and editors around – the late great Ian McDonald, Tony Tyler and the editor Nick Logan, who would go on to found Smash Hits and subsequently his own magazine The Face, the style bible for the decade to come.

I was determined to get into the paper if I could and it was thanks to Mick Farren, former editor of International Times, who had also joined up, that I managed to get a gig around 1976. I believe my first piece was a three-line story about a guitar-plucking contest which carried my by-line. I remember leaping up-and-down with excitement. I had made it into the NME – the nearest thing we’ve ever had in this country to a national youth newspaper.

Amongst the great writers on NME were Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, perhaps the best known now to a mass audience, but music journalist afficianados will recognise not only Kent, Murray and Farren but also the truly excellent Chris Salewicz, Vivien Goldman, Brian Case, Danny Baker, Paul Morley et al

The best source of information to date on NME and the other papers of the period is ‘In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press’ by Paul Gorman [Sanctuary Publishing 2001], consisting entirely of interleaved interviews with the above mentioned and others.

What is missing from this account, and from other assessments I have read about the NME is the fact that although the paper carried principally music journalism, there was also a great deal of material on books, films and the general youth culture.

From my earliest days at the NME it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to compete with the music writers but I found my niche as the person who wrote everything that wasn’t music. In the process, I became Dick Tracy, investigative journalist and, under that nom de plume, wrote a considerable amount of stories between 1976-82. A few pieces appeared under my own name but Dick Tracy acquired a bigger profile and cachet than my real identity.

So much so that the following small notice was run in the paper on May 20th 1978 in connection with a piece I wrote called ‘Cloning Papers’:

‘Contrary to popular belief, Dick Tracy is not the pseudonym used for NME team efforts. Tracy is one man who works alone, albeit with occasional help from both inside and outside NME central. The only journalist to unearth the covert activities of the Animal Liberation Front, the only journalist to present an alternative view of Operation Julie acid purge, Dick Tracy now offers the most convincing theory to date about The Man Who Was Cloned.’ [An interview with David Rorvik, author of ‘In His Image’ which claimed to be the true story of the first human cloning]

I don’t have a complete record of everything I wrote during this period so what follows is a fraction of the total but includes some of the most important stuff:

FILMS: During the mid-1970s cinema attendances had collapsed, to be subsequently revived by the new generation of sfx films led by Star Wars. The film industry was desperate to get coverage in the NME and I was, in the beginning, one of the paper’s principal film writers, with access to major film studios, artists and writers.

- Exclusive first- run interview with Julian Temple about the first Sex Pistols film
- The first piece, some six months before the film was released, on ‘Quadrophenia’ followed by interviews with Franc Roddam and Phil Daniels.
- Interview with Milos Forman about ‘Hair’.
- Interview with Steven Spielberg about ‘Close Encounters’
- Interview with Billie Hayes and Brad Davis, the actor who played him in ‘Midnight Express’
- Feature on the films of Clint Eastwood.
- UNPUBLISHED: Interview with David Mingay on the Clash film ‘Rude Boy.’

PLUS: Numerous reviews of movies beginning with ‘The Missouri Breaks’ (Jack Nicholson/Marlon Brando)

DRUGS: Wrote a regular drug column called Inside Dope. Major pieces on Keith Richard’s heroin trial, on British drug prisoners on foreign jails, on Operation Julie.

- Worked as part of a team, with Angus Mckinnon, Ian McDonald and others, to produce the four-page NME Guide to the Nuclear Age. There was a nuclear explosion on the cover of that week’s issue. (June 11th 1977)
- Numerous pieces on the Animal Liberation Front and the birth of what has become a worldwide radical movement.
- Number of pieces on the Save The Whale movement and campaigns – the biggest environmental issue of that time. Also the seal culls in Newfoundland

Much of this sort of coverage was taken up in a more expansive form by Andrew Tyler, who now runs the excellent Animal Aid. Hats off to a great writer. See details of his latest campaign here.

MUSIC BUSINESS: I was one of the first journalists to write investigative pieces about the music industry itself, profiling major corporations and pillaging the trade papers of the times for juicy leads. This led to MY ONLY COVER STORY, on Record Piracy. Also did major piece on The Elvis Industry following the death of the King plus similar piece on the mass cross-marketing of Saturday Night Fever.

The NME years were genuinely exciting. The power and reputation of the paper was such that doors opened wherever you went. Johnny Rotten, Paula Yates, The Stranglers and the like would drop round the office, always full of the pressure cooker atmosphere of a weekly paper.

Yes, I spent a lot of time in the legendary ‘kinderbunker’ with Tony and Julie, who liked what I was doing and were real mates to me, inviting me to a number of punk events – like the memorable Johnny Thunders deportation party – encouraging me to go and interview Blondie but also supporting the animal liberation coverage I was writing for the paper.

I was not a major figure on the paper but I made a contribution. Thanks to Chris Salewicz for saying in ‘In Their Own Write’: ‘John May was very good as Dick Tracy. He started the film coverage with what was called Silver Screen and he was quite instrumental in changing the paper.’

Thanks also to Phil McNeill, who took a real interest in the investigative journalism I was writing and supported some very ambitious and difficult stories.

So much more to be said. Consider this a 1st Draft memory exercise.


1. Mick Farren’s account of those times can be found in his biography ‘Give The Anarchist A Cigarette’. I am covered by a sentence that reads: ‘Old underground press contacts came up with stories on bizarre media events, weird performance art, animal rights, the environment, recreational drugs and drug enforcement.’

2. For Neil Spencer’s recent account as his period as editor (1978-85), see here.

3 Am currently chasing up the ‘Inky Fingers’ documentary on the NME, shown on July 4th, 2005, on BBC4. Some of you lucky people who can get digital tv will have seen it already. Further comments to come.

4. A huge amount of journalism from the NME and other music papers can be found at Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Archaeology of New Journalism

Who’s Afraid of Tom Wolfe: How New Journalism Rewrote the World by Marc Weingarten [Aurum Press 2005]

The New Journalism
– Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson
[Picador 1975]

The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft – Robert S. Boynton [Vintage Books. 2005]

Jack London: A Life – Alex Kershaw [Flamingo. 1988]

Can anything be 'new' I guess is the first question. When Tom Wolfe ‘invented’ New Journalism and launched it on the world in the early 1970s, his aim was to supplant the novelists and literature practitioners in the Cultural hierarchy with journalists producing what he considered ‘the most important literature being written in America today.’

New Journalism, writes Boynton – ‘uses complete dialogue, rather than the snippets quoted in daily journalism, proceeds scene by scene, much as in a movie, incorporates varying points of view…’

‘The New Journalism,' he writes, ' was a truly avant-garde movement that expanded journalism’s rhetorical and literary scope by placing the author at the centre of the story, channelling a character’s thoughts, using non-standard punctuation, and exploding traditional narrative forms.’

Wolfe claimed that the true progenitors of New Journalism were the ‘literary realists’ of the 19th century – Fielding, Sterne, Dickens, Zola. Boyd and Weingarten both hold the view that, in a sense, ‘new journalism’ was always there in the ‘old journalism’. Campaigning journalism by Stephen Crane and Jack London, Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis represents its first 19th century flowering, says Boyle.

Its second came with a generation of writers centred around The New Yorker in the 50s and 60s – John Hershey, Lillian Roth and others – who Wolfe writes off as ‘Not Half-Bad Candidates’. He was also to memorably dismissed the magazine itself, in a stunning NJ performance for Esquire entitled ‘Tiny Mummies.’

Wolfe’s New Journalists included Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Terry Southern. The famous anthology also contains material from Garry Willis, Robert Christgau, ‘Adam Smith’, John Gregory Dunne, James Mills, George Plimpton, Barbara L. Goldsmith, Nicholas Tomalin, Joe Eszterhaus, rex Reed and Richard Goldstein. Interestingly there is no Jimmy Breslin, who Wolfe admired enormously.

Weingarten probes the mags, editors and antics behind classic works like ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hell’s Angels, Dispatches. Boynton’s book profiles the ‘New New Journalists’, through brief summaries of their careers and extended interviews about their craft and technique.

‘Contrary to the New Journalists’ this new generation experiments more with the way one gets the story,' he writes. 'To that end they’ve developed innovative immersion strategies ' typified by Ted Conover, who lived as a hobo to write his book Rolling Nowhere and worked as a prison guard for Newjack.

He calls it ‘the literature of the everyday’ and says it is often focused on impoverished subcultures, ‘drilling down into the bedrock of ordinary experience, exploring what Gay Talese calls ‘the fictional current that flows beneath the streams of reality.’

Other writers featured in the book are: Richard Ben Cramer, Leon Dash, William Finnegan, Jonathan Harr, Alex Kotlowitz, Jon Krakauer, Jane Kramer, William Langewiesche, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, Richard Preston, Ron Rosenbaum, Eric Schlosser, Gay Talese, Calvin Trillin, Lawrence Weschler, Lawrence Wright.

Both Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. both read Jack London when they were kids. London himself read Kipling and Stevenson.

Jack became the most successful writer in America in 1903 with The Call of the Wild, based on his own extraordinary real-life adventures. Less well-known is the fact that he wrote two non-fiction prototype new journalism books: one of the first books about drifting across America called simply The Road, and his impassioned study of poverty in London’s East End – The People of the Abyss – which deeply influenced George Orwell in his writing of Down and Out in Paris and London.’

He was possibly the first journalist to write about surfing and, says Kershaw, 'to turn the natural drama of sport into stirring fiction.’ He was also a passionate pioneer organic farmer.

Kershaw’s masterful biography of Jack London (1826-1924), is approachable and sweeps you along expertly, revealing an extraordinary man who, for once, fits that old overworn phrase ‘larger than life.’

Jack came from the streets, ran away from home, became an oyster pirate, shipped out on a sealer with a vicious captain and lots of blood on deck, travelled to the Yukon, on a memorable, miserable, extreme journey that would have killed a lesser man and almost did for Jack.

Resolving to write stories and get them published if it killed him, Jack did almost expire once more before luck and fortune smiled and he rapidly became the biggest writer in America through his adventure stories such as the memorable ‘White Fang’ and ‘The Sea Wolf.’ From poverty he found riches, living in a huge house on the hills above San Francisco, from where he was to witness the destructive earthquake and fire that razed his birthplace to the ground.

In other mad adventures, he became a war correspondent in the Russian/Japanese war and sailed across and around the Pacific with an untrained crew.

London was, of course, a troubled man of gargantuan appetites, a huge physical presence, out of whom poured stories that still resonate, a man of enormous industry who suffered genuine tragedies and weathered personal loss and great pain and suffering. He was a socialist who genuinely believed that Anglo Saxon races were superior to other men. Yet he knew what it was like to be poor.

There are many interesting parallels and connection between London and Guthrie, whose autobiography ‘Bound for Glory’ contains, in Chapter One, a powerful ‘new journalistic’ account of a long and frightening ride inside a boxcar full of cement dust with a lot of desperate men with no heating and little water. Both had a driven ability to write copiously, both escaped from grinding poverty that left its scars.

New journalism or old, these books make you want to rush out to write right now, to see the world with new eyes, to ravish it, consume it and regurgitate every single last detail in torrents of vivid prose that inspire and entertain the reader. Why else would we all do it? As for what’s new. We’ll let the historians argue over that one.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Just discovered a bunch of material that I was assembling back in 1992, aimed at creating a kind of DIGEST OF NEW KNOWLEDGE AND THINKING. Thought this might be of interest. Click on the document to bring up full screen version.

Remembering Hunter S. Thompson

More than a little delighted that my old buddy Lee Torrey, who I hadn't spoken to for at least a decade, found me through this little blog. Needless to say he's had his adventures in the meantime. Torrey was, of course, for those in the know, the legendary creator of the library classification system based on Roget's Thesaurus, which he invented and pioneered whilst working on the now equally legendary book 'An Index of Possibilities'. More of that anon. Turns out he has his own blog here but he was kind enough to allow me to repro on this site his excellent memories of the late, great Hunter S., who we all miss greatly in these benighted times. Lee writes like a dream, methinks, when he puts his mind to it. This piece reads fresh and original

When people ask me what Hunter Thompson was like I tell them he was just like the character in his books, and they smile and nod and leave me alone. I’m allergic to small talk, and despite my years at the National Enquirer, I really hate sharing gossip about celebrities. Besides, they say it’s not right to speak ill of the dead.

But that bastard Thompson nearly got me fired because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut about our nocturnal activities. And he broke his solemn promise not to drag my good name into any of his wretched works of fiction. That’s right, fiction that he sold as journalism. So, yeah, let’s kick some dirt at the maniac’s ghost.

Thompson in Aspen in 1981

Let’s start in Palm Beach in 1983. Peter and Roxanne Pulitzer were having a messy public divorce and the national press corps was having fun in Florida covering the trial. Thompson was reporting the event for Rolling Stone, Reggie Potterton for Playboy, and I was covering it for the Enquirer. We didn’t mix well with the straight press, and so it was natural for the three of us to pool our resources.

A few weeks into this circus, in the middle of one night, Thompson calls me up and says he has an emergency. He’s always having emergencies and I told him to call 911. But he’s says he’s having a problem with the Pulitzer story and needs my help.

That woke me up. The secretive, reclusive, sociopathic egomaniac wants my help? This was totally uncharacteristic. Hunter was a solo operator. He was a lone wolf. He would never ask for help.

Thompson loved playing with fire.

So I go over to his low rent bungalow in West Palm, and find both the front and back doors are wide open, and the lights are off. So I turn on the lights and no one is home. The living room was littered with bottles and overloaded ashtrays and dead junk food. Remember the cheap hotel rooms where Nicholas Cage drank himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas? Just like that.

Eventually, Hunter ambles inside wearing only a bathrobe and dark aviator glasses, and of course his cigarette holder is clutched between his teeth. He was gripping a long black flashlight in one hand and a Colt 45 Combat Commander in the other. And there was a cut on his balding head that was leaking a little blood. He was mumbling more loudly than usual, and there was a hillbilly lope to his gait which gets really pronounced when he’s drunk.

This is all completely normal behavior for Thompson, and I did’t see any emergency that justifies getting me out of bed.

Certainly, there was no sense asking him why he was running around in the dark with a flashlight and handgun. I would never get a straight answer. He often reminded me of an autistic child who was off in his own world. A world, I suspect, that was populated by some pretty fearsome demons. Not that Hunter would ever show fear or turmoil or doubt, but he had a head full of trouble.

One nice thing about Hunter is that he could pull the big master switch in his brain and turn off the psychopath and turn on a personality that could communicate with the real world. His uncanny ability to shape shift his personality was a talent that let him make a living. And it kept him out of the slammer on many occasions. In fact, on rare days, he could be actually charming.

So he switches on an agreeable personality and pours us drinks and stuffs some typewritten sheets of paper in my hands. He asks me to read his first draft of the Pulitzer story.

And it’s garbage. Pulitzer is hardly mentioned. It is the unprintable ramblings of an intoxicated lunatic.

I didn’t know what to say or do because Thompson still had the gun in his hand. And he was waving it around and making incoherent noises.

It is fitting that Thompson died from a gun shot wound to the head. He was a gun nut. The most fun he had in Florida was going to the Everglades on the weekends and shooting up the tropical flora and fauna with exotic automatic weapons. Guns were exciting and wonderful toys to Hunter and he seemed oblivious to the danger they posed to himself and others, which is probably why he shot so many people. Yeah, accidentally.

So, while I sat on his bed, waiting to be shot, I re-read the Pulitzer piece, and it seemed better after I reordered some of the pages. And after a third reading, key lines were jumping out at me and I suddenly got it. The master craftsman had shifted the focus of the story away from the Pulitzer divorce trial and he had launched a howling indictment of Palm Beach society.

Brilliant. The Pulitzer story was small potatoes. Who cared that Roxanne Pulitzer had sex with a trumpet and drank too many daiquiris. Certainly not the readers of Rolling Stone. But the Palm Beach society angle was good. F. Scott Fitzgerald good. He had stumbled upon a diamond as big as the Ritz. This was class warfare. He had discovered why they called the denizens of Palm Beach filthy rich.

And we started talking about this angle and he got excited and he put down the gun.

Soon it was sunrise. Hunter was not fond of early morning light and I managed to escape, exhausted and drunk, but not shot.

And so it went when Thompson got into your life. It was an unending series of close scrapes with disaster, but it was also like hanging out with an alien life form that did not understand, or care about, the customs and laws of pathetic Earthlings. While Hunter could mix with bikers, madmen and drunks, he also had a subtle aloofness. He enjoyed being different. He enjoyed being smarter than the rest of us.

He also liked being unpredictably aggressive. When David Letterman made the mistake of inviting Thompson on Late Night to promote the film Where the Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray, Thompson attempted to take over the show. I mean he physically tried to get Letterman out of his desk and take over the show. And there was a nasty rumor that he had brought an explosive device on the set. The good doctor of gonzo journalism was escorted off the set and his antics were edited from the segment.

After the broadcast I asked him what had happened and he denied bringing a bomb to the show, and he said he was just trying to give Letterman the same rough treatment that the TV comedian gave all his guests. Or whatever.

In a picture I have, at the film premier of Fear & Loathing, you can see Thompson holding a ripped bag of popcorn which he had been throwing at Johnny Depp. Yeah, Hunter could act like a two year old.

He had to be the center of attention. If there was another celebrity in the room on whom all the cameras were focused, he would do something like set the room on fire. Unless, of course, he wanted to be left alone. He’d rip your head off if you stumbled uninvited into his space. And forget about waking him up if he was late for an appointment.

Despite his violent mood swings and prickly personality, people everywhere adored him. On countless occasions on the street I saw all kinds of people approach him and ask for autographs. I was always amazed at the warmth the public had for a man with such an unwelcome reputation.

In fact, Thompson had groupies who would follow him from story to story. This puzzled him. He never could figure out how they knew what he was working on because not only was he obsessively secretive, but because he seldom knew himself what he was working on or where he might be tomorrow. Most of these groupies were young women who would do anything for some face time with the doctor.

Of course these deluded hormone-soaked creatures got the shock of their lives when they got up close and personal with Hunter, who was as liable to lash out and humiliate them as he was to bend them over. Which is not to say that he was a misogynist; he was more of a misanthrope. He really didn’t care for anyone getting too close or too personal.

I was happy to learn that he got married a few years ago, hoping that he had mellowed, and praying that Anita would live through the experience with her sanity intact. And I was not shocked to learn that he blew his brains out last week and left instructions to have his cremated remains shot out of the end of a canon. A perfect ending to a crazy life.

News reports say Anita was talking to him on the phone when he pulled the trigger. She later told reporters that he wanted to get out “while he was still on top of his game.”

He was pushing seventy and you can say he got out before his brains turned to mush. You can argue that the whole fear and loathing thing was getting old in the 21st Century, but in some ways, here in the brave new era of political correctness, we probably need Hunter Thompson more now than we did in the counterculture years.

We will always need blasphemous iconoclasts who are willing to tell anyone who’ll listen that your President is a liar and the government is not working in your best interest. The legend of Hunter Thompson is so shrouded in the trappings of his eccentric lifestyle that we tend to overlook his contributions. And there were many.

"America is just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."
- Hunter S. Thompson

Long before anyone had heard of Woodward and Bernstein, Thompson was telling us that Nixon was a crook. Long before most Americans knew where Iran was on the map, Thompson was warning us that Jimmy Carter was weak. He told us Reagan was senile before Alzheimer’s was a household word. And he’d been telling us Bush was not an honest man long before we invaded Iraq.

But Thompson was more than a political prophet. He tore down the fa├žade of objective journalism by showing that a reporter is always part of the story, and that an observer always disturbs what he is observing. Thompson was always telling us that there is no such thing as “fair and balanced.” He knew that his drug-addled perspective on our society was just as skewed as – and just as valid as – the family value howlings of Bill O’Reilly.

Even loaded to the gills with alcohol, it takes actual courage to put your name on a story in a national publication and call the President of the United States a liar. Years before anyone else had a clue.

So an era has passed. A great American is gone. A warrior has fallen.

Which one of you will pick up his sword?

Howl For Now

Illustration: Michael Anderson

Some of the best things you ever come across, someone tips you off over. Yeah, the internet, blah blah, digital stuff. So’s anyway, it was Flo that tipped me the wink and Route books up north who came through with a review copy of this here compact green-covered volume that I, in turn, am about to hip you to. Thus passing on the favour, if you follow my drift or, at least, my general direction.

HOWL FOR NOW is the book of the event staged in Leeds to celebrate recently the 50th anniversary of the first reading of Howl by Allen Ginsberg on oct 7th 1955 at the Six Gallery in downtown San Francisco in front of an audience of poets, hipsters and other such, including Jack the Kerouac and others. The audience was transformed.

We have seen the best minds of our and subsequent generations being destroyed by various means since that time and the Poem and the Poet have since been righteously, realistically recognised by all and sundry and judged to be one of The Biggest of Big Deals as in 20th century masterpiece kind of stakes.

Howl is read a lot still by young people all over the world and that seems to be the most important thing, it being a great shout of exuberance, insanity and protest against the VERY BIG THINGS that are fucking up our world, So that’s why Howl will always be a contemporary book in the way those old ancient Greeks are and why it was a good idea to celebrate this recent anniversaire with some kind of Beat Bonanza.

I wasn’t there but I’m pleased to learn that the film maker who made the multi-media-movie of Andy Warhol’s 1966 ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ event is currently editing footage of the Howl for Now performance, held at the School of Music at the University of Leeds, for release next year so that we can all see what went on.

In the meantime it is my pleasure to heartily recommend this Route book which contains essays by some of the key players, organisers and hipcat heads involved. I more or less read the whole thing in one big gulp (accompanied by three pints of the new Irish Guinness that is in town, and listening also through both ears to the conversation of the Czech barmaid and the jukebox which was on random shuffle.

Let’s be straight about this, as in I found this a crackerjack book in the sense that each essay gave me something, triggered a thought-stream, made me sit and ponder, intrigued me in some way or other.

So without further ado, here is the line-up: begins with old-time beat David Meltzer, still operating in the Bay area, who sets the vibe in two pages in a jazz riff called Howling Wolves.

Next up Steven Taylor’s ‘the poem and I are fifty’ which recounts the times when he played guitar with Ginsberg and, more importantly, gives us real sense of the real stuff that made up Allen Ginsberg, brings him to life for the reader in a cool and touching manner.

Simon Warner, editor of the book as a whole and a kinda mastermind-type character in the whole howl-for-now scenario, broadens out the focus in ‘Sifting the shifting sands: Howl and the American landscape in the 1950.’ This is totally fascinating wake-up, showing how the Beats and Be-bop intertwined, how Howl and Rock around the Clock coincided, pulls it all together.

You’ve just recovered from that, had a pause, a half-pint, a bit of a think when George Rodesthenos bats you right on the button with a powerful piece on Rimbaud and Ginsberg, about bodies and nakedness and much else. Through this, discover new poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) who I already love and am no longer immune to.

Then come the interviews – with Ronald Nameth, formerly mentioned filmmaker, godfather of modern multimedia, about the Howl for Now event and film and then also Bill Nelson talking about the soundtrack front.

Sandwiched between (appropriately), another cross-dressing cultural exercise by Michael Anderson – ‘The visual arts and Howl: painters and poets in the American 1950s.’

Get the general drift – I loved it all. The publishers Route are based in Pontefract and seem to be up to lots of other good things also. Check them out on and buy this book. And have a howl for now, for God’s sake or anybody else’s.

Howl for Now, Edited by Simon Warner [Route. 2005. £9.99]

PS: For those who find the style of this review irritating, you haven’t met my barroom buddy Hip Flipster, Beat Poet.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Earthed: The New Industrial Revolution

Developments in sustainable, environmental and energy-efficient technologies

Photo credit: Stefano Paltera / North American Solar Challenge

The University of Michigan solar car crosses the finish line amid some 10,000 spectators at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta , Canada to win first place during the 4,000 km (2,500-mile) North American Solar Challenge, Wednesday, July 27, 2005. Michigan made the trip in 53 hours, 59 minutes, 43 seconds and set a record by averaging a speed of 46.2 mph in the world's longest solar car race from Austin, Texas to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

In Sepetmber 2005, a Dutch team in Nuna 3 beat 19 other competitors in the four-day 1,190mile World Solar Challenge race in Australia - their third consecutive win. They crossed the finish line in 29 hours and 11 minutes and averaged a speed of 63.85 mph.

An article ‘Why UK wind power should not exceed 10 GW’ (Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Civil Engineering [158] Nov. 2005. pp 161-169) by energy analyst Hugh Sharman, gives serious warnings about the feasibility of the UK wind power programme.

A PDF of the article is exclusively available from this site, by agreement with Simon Fullalove, Editor/ICE Proceedings. Simply drop me an e-mail request.

Sharman writes: ‘Britain’s wind power reached 1 GW in June this year, making it the eighth largest national installation in the world. Over the next five years a further 6 GW is likely to be built at a cost of £7 billion in the rush to meet the Government’s target of 10% renewable energy by 2010.

'The plan is for wind energy to deliver three-quarters of the target but that, as this paper explains, would actually require 12 GW, meaning the target will not be met. Furthermore, experience in Denmark and Germany shows that the UK will find it impractical to manage much over 10 GW of unpredictable wind power without major new storage schemes or inter-connectors.

'The paper concludes that while wind power should be exploited as fully as possible, it must not be at the expense of renewing existing firm generating capacity.’

This practical limit to the adoption of wind energy in the UK is well below that currently planned up to 2020, and Sharman believes that this limit should be sensibly reached in offshore locations, where wind speeds are higher and where the wind turbines can be brought in closer to major centres of load, thus reducing the need for extensive, uneconomic, grid expansion which is ecologically damaging (such as that currently proposed throughout Scotland).

This article confirms findings in the E.ON Netz Wind Report 2005 which states: 'The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the German experience is that the unsophisticated nature of the UK's Renewables Obligation is driving us towards an irrational over-commitment to an unreliable and extremely expensive energy source with an extremely large and deep environmental footprint. A rethink of both the conventional and renewable energy policy is obligatory. '

According to John Constable, Policy and Research Director for the Renewable Energy Foundation said: "At a time when the UK should be addressing its need for reliable generation, we now see from European data that wind is unable to contribute any significant firm capacity to the power portfolio, and offers only very expensive fuel saving and emissions reduction…A review of UK renewables policy is now unavoidable."


IN A RELATED STORY: The global wind industry has reached a 50 GW milestone of wind energy capacity installed worldwide, with an increase in total installed generating capacity of 20% over 2004, said representatives at the Global Wind Energy Council's (GWEC) Windmasters Dinner in Husum, Brussels on 22nd September 2005.

'Wind Force 12, a blueprint to achieve 12% of the world’s electricity from wind power by 2020' is an annual global wind energy assessment that has been conducted regularly since 1999. The 2005 report has been completed by Greenpeace and EWEA on behalf of the GWEC.

The International Energy Agency estimates that under current trends, the world’s electricity demand could double from 2002 to 2030. The global power sector requires 4,800GW of new capacity to meet increasing demand and replace aging infrastructure, at a cost of €10 trillion in power generation, transmission and distribution. By 2030, the power sector could account for 45 per cent of global carbon emissions.

On 25th October, the Biomass Task Force presented the results of a year-long study, commissioned by DEFRA and the DTI, which concludes that biomass (fuel from forestry, crops and waste) could reduce the nation's carbon emissions by almost 3m tonnes a year if used to provide heating. The carbon saving would be the equivalent of taking 3.25 million cars off the road.

The Task Force’s Chairman Sir Ben Gill said: 'What many see as tomorrow's fuel is here today. We estimate there could be 20 million tonnes of biomass available annually. The challenge for the Government now is to unlock this vast potential. We have suggested several ways to develop this industry which has a vital role in climate change, sustainable development throughout the country and economic activity in rural areas.

'Heat has been the forgotten part of the energy debate - enough waste heat is emitted from our power stations to heat the country one and a half times over - but our findings show that producing heat either alone or in Combined Heat and Power plants is by far the most efficient way of using biomass.

'There are many renewable sources of electricity but biomass is the only widely-available source of renewable heat. Heat generation accounts for 40 per cent of our national energy consumption. At a time of rising oil prices, biomass heating is fast becoming an attractive economic option. And it is a cheaper way of cutting carbon emissions than many other options.'

The Task Force makes 42 recommendations, including a call for the ntroduction of capital grants to fund more biomass heating boilers ad says that public buildings can be the ideal place to begin the expansion. It concludes that one of the biggest barriers to progress s ignorance and recommends that the Government acts in the next six onths to create a single information point on biomass for the ountry as a whole as well as delivering on its promise in the 2003 nergy White Paper to lead by example in its own building stock.

The full report is published at:

The winners were announced 25th October in Sheffield. They include the following:

Somerset Waste Partnership won Best Local Authority Initiative, for their Sort It! Programme, which ncludes a weekly collection of recycling and food waste, fortnightly refuse collections and optional charged garden waste collections using wheeled bins or compostable sacks. Overall recycling rates have more than trebled in collection areas from 14-18% to 50% and the amount of refuse collected for disposal has halved.

Balfour Beatty Rail Track Systems Ltd won Best Industry Recycling Initiative. The Company, which supplies railway castings to Network Rail and other railway projects worldwide, sourced organisations willing to incorporate the company's waste into their products or take it for further processing and recycling. Process waste is now used in concrete blocks, cement manufacture, Tarmacadam production and hardcore, while other materials such as cardboard and wood are segregated for recycling. As a result the volume of waste disposed at landfill has been reduced from 2,750 tonnes per annum before the project started to just 25 tonnes per annum.

Comet, Wincanton and Remploy won Best Partnership Project for Recycling, for their "reverse supply chain solution" for waste electrical electronic equipment such as used televisions and toasters. Comet worked with its logistics partner Wincanton to develop a collection service and establish sorting centres, and approached social enterprise organisation Remploy to refurbish the better quality white goods for onward use in the community. Following successful trials in 37 stores last year, Comet has announced a national roll out of the scheme and anticipates receiving up to 500,000 used electrical items for recycling or refurbishment each year.

EnviroSystems (UK) won Recycled Product of the Year for the animal bedding material it has developed using recycled by-product from paper mills. Envirobed, which took two years to develop, is soft, cost-effective and is already being used for 50,000 dairy cows across the UK. It offers benefits over traditional bedding materials such as straw which can suffer from fluctuating supply and risk of disease.

HMYOI Wetherby won Waste Minimisation Project of the Year, for its forward-thinking waste management plan which included the creation of 16 trainee jobs and the provision of a fully accredited educational course in waste management for staff. HMYOI Wetherby is now considered one of the leading prisons in the country in terms of waste minimisation.
For more information see:

According to Leo Hickman in The Guardian, questions were put to Environment Minister Elliot Morley in parliament this summer ‘asking how many patio heaters there are now in the UK, and what damage they might be doing. The answer given was 630,000 in use in homes and between 26,000 and 105,000 in the hospitality sector. According to the figures from the Market Transformation Programme, an agency that supports the government in developing a policy on sustainable products, the total energy output by the UK's patio heaters is between 950 and 1770GWh (gigawatt-hours). Or in terms of annual carbon dioxide emissions, between 200,000 and 380,000 tonnes. That roughly negates all the savings in CO2 emissions made in 2003 after pollution-reducing company car tax reforms were first introduced.’

The International Energy Agency's report Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective suggests that 50% of world transport could run on biofuels by 2050.

“In the absence of strong government policies, we project that the worldwide use of oil in transport will nearly double between 2000 and 2030, leading to a similar increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Claude Mandil, the organisation's Executive Director. 'Biofuels, such as ethanol, biodiesel and other fuels derived from biomass could help change this picture, by offering an important low-greenhouse-gas alternative to petroleum over this time frame.'

See also: John Vidal's 'Growing Confusion'

The European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive came into force in January 2003. Member states have three years to implement its recommendations. It means that commercial,public and private buildings of all kinds will be given an energy rating and encouraged to improve their building's efficiency; low ratings will certainly affect the valuations of properties, is expected to have a profound impact on the commercial property sector and will trigger off a big cost to landlords.

The buildings sector accounts for 40% of the EU’s energy requirements. It offers the largest single potential for energy efficiency. Research shows that more than one-fifth of the present energy consumption and up to 30-45 MT of CO2/Y could be saved by 2010 by applying more ambitious standards to new and when refurbishing buildings – which represents a considerable contribution to meeting the Kyoto targets.


Nanocar (Y. Shira/Rice University)

Scientists at Houston's Rice University have built the world’s first single-molecule car. This nanocar consists of a chassis and free-rotating axles made of carbon atoms linked into rigid rods. The wheels are buckyballs, spheres of pure carbon containing 60 atoms apiece. The entire car measures just 3-4 nanometers across, making it slightly wider than a strand of DNA. A human hair, by comparison, is about 80,000 nanometers in diameter. A million nanocars parked bumper to tail would cover the length of a flea.

Synthesis of the nanocars produced major challenges. The Rice research group spent almost eight years perfecting the techniques used to make them. Much of the delay involved finding a way to attach the buckyball wheels without destroying the rest of the car. Palladium was used as a catalyst in the formation of the axle and chassis, and buckyballs had a tendency to shut down the palladium reactions, so finding the right method to attach the wheels involved a great deal of trial and error.

According to Prof. Tour: 'The synthesis and testing of nanocars and other molecular machines is providing critical insight in our investigations of bottom-up molecular manufacturing. We'd eventually like to move objects and do work in a controlled fashion on the molecular scale, and these vehicles are great test beds for that. They're helping us learn the ground rules."

Other research groups have created nanoscale objects that are shaped like automobiles, but study co-author Kevin F. Kelly, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, said Rice's vehicle is the first that actually functions like a car, rolling on four wheels in a direction perpendicular to its axles.

'It's fairly easy to build nanoscale objects that slide around on a surface,' Kelly said. 'Proving that we were rolling - not slipping and sliding - was one of the most difficult parts of this project.'

The researchers used the fine tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope to attract the nanocar and pull it along over a flat gold surface. Their studies confirmed that the C60 molecules revolved perfectly on their axles and that car moved forward in a purposeful manner.

The group have also built a nanotruck that can transport molecular cargo as well as a light-driven motorized nanocar.

Fiend out more about this spoof nanocar at:

In a related story, engineers at the BMW Group are examining the use of nanotechnology in future cars to develop scratch-free windscreens, rear-view mirrors that darken automatically in response to light incidence, sensors for the analysis of driving conditions, moreefficient pollution filters. More details here.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Deconstructing Dyer

Geoff Dyer is regularly promoted with a single quote from The Daily Telegraph which reads: ‘Quite possibly the best living writer in Britain.’ Talk about hedging your bets. 'Best living writer' covers a very wide field and gives no indication of what that means. It sounds good though and certainly works as a come-on.

To better describe Geoff Dyer, what would one say. He is certainly a generalist, a non-specialist and a polymath, which the OED defines as ‘a person of much and varied learning; one acquainted with various subjects of study.’ He is certainly very industrious, having produced a steady stream of books and countless articles for the mainstream press. He is a great traveller, is of the Left and is inspired by two major influences: John Berger (the subject of his first book ‘Ways of Telling: The Works of John Berger’) and D.H.Lawrence (the subject of his greatest book so far ‘Out Of Sheer Rage.’).

He has written three novels (‘The Colout of Memory’, The Search’ and ‘Paris Trance’) and four other works of non-fiction - ‘But Beautiful’ (a superlative study of jazz through imaginative part factual/part novelistic profiles of leading players), ‘The Making of the Somme’ (which explores the landscapes, myths and atmosphere of the First World War), ‘Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It.’ and a collection of essays ‘Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.’

Dyer’s approach to a subject is elliptical, interesting, intelligent and unique. The only other writers that come to mind who employ similar techniques are the late W.G. Sebald and Guy Davenport in his marvelous book ‘The Geography of The Imagination’. Dyer meditates on a subject, roams around it, sniffs at it from all angles, looks for connections. He reinforces his insights and ideas, his vivid characterisations and original thoughts, with a encyclopaedic range of quotes drawn from other authors, a big favourite being the poet Rilke.

All these facets and faculties are on display in Dyer’s just-published book ‘The Ongoing Moment’ {Little, Brown. £20.00] which is nothing short of a personalised history of photography from a very interesting perspective.

From his view, he writes on p212, ‘the history of photography seems to consist of photographers doing personalised versions of a repertoire of scenes, tropes, subject or motifs. This repertoire is constantly expanding and evolving rather fixed, but a surprising number of its components were established at the outset by Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s. Some of these pictures of Talbot’s had been derived, in turn, from earlier templates found in painting.’

Thus the form of the book. No chapters, rather a succession of essays, each of which connects with the next, each built around one of the scenes or subjects described. The book begin strongly with an analysis of pictures of blind people in the street, taken by a variety of photographers across a long time period. Each photo is described in loving detail, giving Dyer full range for his sharp eye and descriptive powers. We learn about the photographers concerned and begin to appreciate how connected many of them are, through subject matter, or through lineage and influence, often paying homage to a key image from the previous generation.

There are forty-two featured photographers, principally American, woven through this catalogue of themes which includes hands, backs, chairs, steps, photos of photographers, photographs by one photographer that looks like the work of another photographer, empty beds, watching the world from a hotel room window, from a car, from a train, clouds, drive-ins, barber shops et al.

There is a hint of madness throughout as Dyer digs into the metaphysical almost occult business of taking a photo of something. Diane Arbus believed she could see the suicide in people, written in advance in their faces. Gary Winograd became ‘seized by a mania for photographing so intense that it took the place of seeing.’ In the last six years of life in Los Angeles, ‘he made more than a third of a million exposures that he never even looked at.’ W. Eugene Smith, it seems, did a similar thing in Pittsburg, making over 10,000 images of every facet of the city.

Everyone in this narrative seems to connect with everyone else in a vast cat’s cradle of Dyer’s making. His whole approach forces one to think in fresh ways. He refuses to be bound to any conventions of traditional art history or narrative. He can get too intense and convoluted, losing this reader in places, only to pull one back in with another surprising angle, attitude or well-chosen quotation. In fact much of the book is written like jazz improvisations, weaving around the theme, illustrating it with runs, flourishes and licks.

This is certainly the most exciting book on photography I have read since ‘Motion Studies:Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge.’ by Rebecca Solnit.

Free-thinking, non-academic, non-specialist eloquent stylists are always welcome in any age. Dyer’s struggle to breakout of the stranglehold of convention and to establish his own unique perspective on such disparate fields of study is to be applauded and enjoyed.

See also:
* Geoff Dyer at the Complete Review
* Absolute Write
* Substantial archive of Dyer's journalism for The Guardian and The Observer here
* 'The Outsider' is a truly excellent piece by Dyer on Dianne Arbus in Vogue [November 2005]. Doesn't appear to be available on-line.

Dyer begins ‘The Ongoing Moment’ with the following sentence: ‘I am not the first researcher to draw inspiration from a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ described by Borges.’

No indeed. The introduction to my book ‘Curious Facts’, written Jan 14th 1979, reads in part:

‘Unusual classification systems destroy traditional patterns of thought, forcing us to reexamine our assumptions. A classic example of this is quoted in the preface to The Order of Things (1970) by French philosopher Michel Foucault. It comes from the blind cosmic librarian Jorge Luis Borges, who quotes a certain Chinese encyclopedia in which it is written that:

Animals are divided into: a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, 1) etcetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.’

Foucault read this and his book ‘grew out of the laughter that shattered ... all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography— breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things.’

Friday, October 14, 2005

Robert Lamb: Tree Campaigner, Creative Conservationist

Robert Lamb (centre back) at tree protest in Lewes. September 2004

What follows is a fuller version of the obituary I wrote for The Guardian which was published on 14th October. Robert was the first person I met, back in 1981, who was talking about deforestation of the tropical forests. He became a dear friend and is sadly missed by us all.

Robert Lamb, who has died suddenly of a heart attack aged 56, dedicated his working life to trying to alert the world to the destruction of the world'sforests, to strengthening the links between environment and development issues and to forging a connection between creativity and the environment.

He was led to a study of the forests through his work as a government scientific officer, which partly involved liasing with the Termite Research Unit at the British Museum (Natural History) in the mid-1970s. This study of wood-eating insects required him to read the forestry literature where he discovered that a lot of alarming things were going on. He searched in vain for a book that provided an overview of the situation and eventually decided to write his own.

'World Without Trees' (1979) pulled together a vast amount of information -the biology of trees, their importance in society, the timber trade,deforestation, tree diseases and the problems of Amazonia. Robert went on to work with World Forest Action from its inception in 1979 to 1982, to try and turn this information into practical action. Set up by the writer and documentary filmmaker Herbie Girardet, WFA was the first NGO to deal with all aspects of deforestation. Both men became part of an important informal international network of writers, researchers, filmmakers and activists who drew attention to this important global issue and sought to make it relevant to ordinary people's lives.

Increasingly, Robert was drawn towards finding ever more creative means of getting the messages across to the mainstream by linking art and environment.

His memorable documentary, 'Mpingo:The Tree That Makes Music' (1992), which he both conceived and appeared in as an expert witness, was directed by Michael Gunton and broadcast on May 3rd as part of the BBC’s One World Week. It showed how many western woodwind orchestral instruments (the clarinet in particular) are made from the wood of the African blackwood tree (Mpingo), a species that was and still is under threat. As a result, a number of classical concerts were held to raise money for more plantings and the African Blackwood Conservation project was founded in the US to raise further funding.

In the 1990s, he began working with Bill Beech at the school of arts andcommunication, University of Brighton, and it was there that he establishedand administered a Life Arts Research Centre; Life Arts was his term forcreative work with an environmental consciousness, another pioneeringeffort. The Centre worked alongside Friends of the Earth to coordinate twoanti-motorway art spectacles - the 'Grey Man of Ditchling' (July 1994)a chalk figure caricature of John Major, created by Steve Bell and land artist Simon English, protesting the proposed expansion of the A27, and the unique Art Bypass event at Newbury (August 1996),comprising the work of 70 artists including Christo, Werner Herzog and Heathcote Williams. His popular biography, 'Promising the Earth', formed an important part of FOE's 25th anniversary (1996).

Great confusion was caused over the years by the fact that there were two Robert Lambs, the other being the founder of the Television Trust for the Environment. First introduced in the mid-1980s by Catherine Caufield, later author of ‘In the Rainforest’, who felt they should meet, they discovered they both had sisters called Susan. To distinguish them, friends used a shorthand – do you mean fat Lamb or Thin Lamb? When the other Robert left his job at IUCN in Switzerland, Robert took it over. The same thing happened at UNEP in Nairobi – which completely confused everybody. After Nigel Hawkes memorably confused the two of them, attributing each of their films to the other in his review in The Times, they mischievously wrote a letter of complaint, entitled ‘Breaking the Silence of the Lambs,’ claiming that neither was the other.

From 1997 to 2000 Robert, now based in Lewes, managed id21, a freeweb-based service that communicates the latest UK-based internationaldevelopment research to decision-makers and practitioners worldwide, part of the activities of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex - and set his style on it. Robert also made a significant contribution to UNEP’s state of the world environment report GEO 3 (2002).

He spent some considerable time in recent years working on the yet to be published 'A Hungry Ghost', a biography of the Russian-born Dr Barbara Moore, who became a national celebrity in the early 1960s with a series of epic, record-breaking walks from Lands End to John O'Groats and across America, with only nuts, honey, raw fruit andvegetable juice for nourishment.

He was a substantial and warm presence with a big heart and a gift for friendship. Sometimes difficult but never dull, he was passionate and knowledgeable about food (especially mushrooms), fishing, wine, books and music.

Born in Doynton, Gloucestershire, he was educated at Commonweal grammarschool in Swindon, and at Marlborough College, and gained an exhibition toMerton College, Oxford (1968-71). From 1971 to 1983, he worked as a scientific officer for a now defunct branch of government, assisting research in tropical agronomy, entomology and integrated which led him on assignment to the Gambia, Ghana, Niger, Yemen and Nigeria (where he spent extended tours of duty conducting field trials). He is survived by his artist wife Jo and their two sons Ollie and Fred.

Robert Lamb, writer and conservationist, born February 7 1949; died September 12 2005

UPDATE: On November 1st 2005, The Times published the following obituary for Robert. Unfortunately, half of the piece referred to the works of the other Robert Lamb, who wrote a letter entitled BREAKING SILENCE OF THE LAMBS 2 to The Times as follows.

Sir,In 1992 The Times was generous enough to publish a letter by the late Robert W. Lamb and myself regarding the review of Mr Hawkes of two films shown by the BBC on one night. He assumed we were one and the same. 'Neither of us', we wrote to you, 'was the other.' I am bound to point out that you have repeated the error in the November 1st obituary of Robert. At least it is 50 percent correct this time, which is an improvement. The middle bit of your review is all about my films. The pity of course is that Robert W. had achieved quite enough not to have half his obituary given over to an interloper. He would have been amused, though, and it is a great sadness to me that I write this time alone.

Yours sincerely, Robert Lamb (Editor/Earth Report).

UPDATE 2: A fulsome new tribute to Robert by Tom Flynn can be found on Tom's excellent blog The Institute of Flaneurology.

Robert was a contributor to my magazine Tree News and the last piece he wrote for us was this profile of the great tree-planting pioneer Richard St. Barbe Baker. It gives some idea of the depth of his knowledge and his eloquent writing style.

Richard St Barbe Baker being welcomed back to Kikuyu by his old friend Thotho Thongo, who was head moran and leader of the 'Dance of the Trees.'

The Man of the Trees

Robert Lamb

‘In the stillness of the mighty woods, man is made aware of the divine.’
Richard St Barbe Baker

This year [2004] marks the 80th birthday of the Men of the Trees – high time to review the legacy of its charismatic founder, RICHARD ST BARBE BAKER, whose inspired advocacy for trees and conservation made an impact on many lives and landscapes. But has it withstood the test of time?

During his lifetime it is said that Richard St Barbe Baker planted or caused to be planted over 25 thousand million trees. He published some 30 influential books about trees and conservation. In Kenya in 1922 he persuaded a major clan of Kikuyu agriculturists to start up Men of the Trees (Watu Wa Miti). Part secret society, part agroforestry project, part dance ritual, it was the first official effort anywhere to involve local people in what we would now label social or community forestry. A worldwide confederation of Men of the Trees societies grew from these unusual roots.

St Barbe developed a rationale for tree-planting as a universal remedy against desertification and soil loss, and in 1924 he founded the Men of the Trees in Britain to encourage tree planting in this country. He also helped start the Soil Association and the Forestry Association of Great Britain. His forthright views were pretty nearly all there was in the way of modern pro-environment thinking on trees in wide circulation before the early 1960s.

Most who knew him called him simply St Barbe and their memories of his deeds and character tend to embellish both with an almost saintly aura. When he died in 1982, Teddy Goldsmith’s tribute to him in The Ecologist hailed him as ‘a prophet, in the Old Testament sense of the term; that is to say, a wise man, a teacher and an inspirer’.

Less reverentially, Alan Grainger praised St. Barbe’s ‘unique capacity to pass on his enthusiasm to others. Many foresters all over the world found their vocations as a result of hearing the Man of the Trees speak. I certainly did. But his impact has been much wider than that. Through his global lecture tours, St Barbe made millions of people aware of the importance of trees and forests to our planet.’

There is no denying the passion with which St Barbe preached his message, even if it concealed an innate bashfulness which caused him to dread public speaking engagements. Yet without the benefit of a first-person encounter, how should we judge his merits and legacy today?

Christian ministry
A vegetarian pacifist whose first ambition – interrupted by World War I – was to read divinity at college and become an evangelical Christian minister, St Barbe saw a spiritual or ethical point and message in most of his works. In later life he became devoted to the Baha’i faith, a liberal offshoot of Islam that prides itself on blending a scientific with a spiritual world view.

St Barbe’s quest to seek inspirational synergies between science, nature, society and spirituality, contrasts oddly with his private turmoil – including a blighted first marriage – and with his rival pursuits as a man of action, hands-on inventor, astute businessman and avid self-publicist. It can be argued that his quest to latch forestry to spiritual advance led him to warp the borders of both.

His view that deserts inevitably spread because of pressures of human development is notably contentious and appears to connect with myths surrounding the Biblical Fall. He proposed as a millenarian goal for mankind the total ‘restoration’ of the Sahara to what he believed to be its innocent state – a tropical forest – by creating a Green Front of sustainably managed forestry across middle Africa, then gradually shifting it north.

Born in 1889 into a horse-loving Hampshire family with collapsed aristocratic connections, St Barbe was taught to plant tree seedlings at the age of four by his father, who mixed a not-for-profit living as a Mission Church clergyman with running a successful plant nursery. At 20, St Barbe was posted off to Saskatoon in Canada in response to a call for missionary helpers to work with settlers in isolated homesteads.

A lumberjack in Canada
St Barbe prepared for his overseas mission by acquiring blacksmithing skills and camping out under the stars in Hampshire with the son of a local fruit-grower. They planted trees by day then stripped off for boxing and swimming contests in the evenings. Such tales of muscular Christianity and hyperactivity abound in all St Barbe’s early memoirs.

His exploits in Canada were truly prodigious and so were his learning activities. He was one of the first 100 students to enrol for a foundation course in arts and sciences at the newly-established University of Saskatchewan. He paid his way through college by working as a lumberjack and by breaking wild mustangs and selling them on as carriage ponies. He also wrote a sports column for the local newspaper. And he planted trees. In My Life – My Trees, the best-known of a string of autobiographies he published at intervals throughout his life, St Barbe recalls how:

‘While crossing the prairies of Canada, I recognized for the first time a desert in the making. Wide areas had been ploughed up where for centuries dwarf willows had stabilized the deep, rich, black soil. In those days, anybody could file on to a quarter section of 160 acres for nothing … The first thing they did was to plough as much of it as they could then sow wheat and oats to feed the horses. One could travel miles without seeing a tree. With no sheltering trees the soil began to drift and blow away; up to an inch would be lost in a year.’

During the three and a half years he spent in Canada, St Barbe encouraged local farmers to plant trees around their homesteads and as shelterbelts around farms and fields. On university farmland he raised different tree species in special nurseries and experimented with them to find which gave the best shelter. The state government agreed to provide free seedlings to farmers participating in the scheme, some of them part of Mission Church congregations that St Barbe, still set on a priestly vocation, was working with out in the boondocks.

A change of heart was not far off, however. ‘While working in a camp near Prince Albert,’ he later wrote, ‘swinging the axe as a lumberjack, my heart was torn to see the unnecessary waste of trees, and I decided that one day I would myself qualify for forestry work.’

The First World War
World War I spared him from having to choose between souls and saplings. Burying conscientious objections, he enlisted as a cavalry trooper, then was promoted to become an artillery officer. Twice wounded in action in France, he was reassigned to the notionally less hazardous duty of shuttling cavalry horses to and from the Front. In April 1918 another life-threatening injury clinched his ticket home.

He kept bees and enrolled for a Diploma in Forestry at Cambridge. Armistice came soon after and peacetime left big stockpiles of surplus fuselages and undercarriages lying useless in aircraft factories. St Barbe devised a scheme for recycling them to build motor-drawn caravans to his own original design. Intended mainly as a job-creation scheme for ex-servicemen, the scheme turned out a going concern and a conspicuous moneyspinner.

In effect, St Barbe had invented the caravan in its modern, two-wheeler format, a claim unlikely to endear him nowadays to motorists in a hurry or landscape purists. The versatility and savvy his invention had demonstrated stood St Barbe in good stead when in 1920, forestry diploma in hand, he was recruited by the Colonial Office to serve in Kenya as an Assistant Conservator of Forests.

The African years
Africa made a deep impression on St Barbe and Kenya remained a spiritual home to him for the rest of his life. But he was shocked to have to report that much of the forest land in Northern Kenya in and around the Rift had become denuded of tree cover and eroded, leaving the mainly Kikuyu people, who laid customary claim to the area, on the edge of demographic ruin.

‘Whole tribes were dying out, trapped in a triangle of forest with desert in front of them for 1,000 miles, desert behind for 1,000 miles. The chiefs had forbidden marriage, the women refused to bear children. It was racial suicide on the biggest scale the world had ever seen, directly as a result of forest destruction.’

St Barbe admitted part of the problem was land clearance on a vast scale by Asian contractors preceding white settlers. Yet he decided the main culprit was ‘the nomadic methods of farming which had devastated vast tracts of the African Continent’ and had been brought south by descendants of nine of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, followed by ‘wave after wave of Arabs with their goats’. Native forest dwellers, ‘men who lived by the bow instead of the hoe’ were displaced, leaving the land defenceless.

‘There was but one hope, and that was to restore the indigenous forest. I demarcated a large area and had it gazetted as a forest reserve. Cultivators were used to clear the rubbish and plant young native trees between the corn and yams so as to leave a potential forest behind them. Thousands of transplants were needed. I enlisted the cooperation of the chiefs of the area . . . but the young warriors seemed more interested in dancing than in planting trees. So I said, “Why not a dance for tree-planting – a Dance of the Trees!”’

St Barbe’s main ally, Chief Josiah Njonjo, called the clans together for a celebration along these lines, which it is said over 15,000 Kikuyu people attended. Fifty hand-picked warriors were given select status as Watu Wa Miti (Men of the Trees) and St Barbe devised a special handshake, a badge and later a secret password – Twahamwe (let’s work together) – to distinguish them from imitators who might steal their badges to gain access to the handouts of crop seeds and tree seedlings (mainly pencil cedar, cape chestnut and native olive varieties) that St Barbe persuaded the colonial administration to supply.

His memoirs say he had the Boy Scout movement in mind as a model. But he must have been aware of the powerful influence of oath-swearing as a feature of male initiation rites and clan identity among the Kikuyu: the banning of secret oaths would lead, 30 years on, to Independence by way of the Mau-Mau revolt.
At this point it all seemed innocent enough, however, and certainly it had a positive effect on the living conditions of many Kikuyu people, who reclaimed large holdings of land, while the Forest Service in due course derived a handy share of sustainably harvested timber from the scheme. But St Barbe fell out with his superiors in Kenya and was transferred to West Africa to serve as Assistant Conservator of Forests in Nigeria.
Here he managed forests of African mahogany (Khaya) on a sustained yield basis, trying to apply the relatively new principles of silviculture he had learned at Cambridge. He found himself ‘issuing permits to fell tens of thousands of pounds worth of mahogany with a mere pittance of £100 a year to spend on reafforestation’.

St Barbe was winning his battle for a more measured approach to running Nigeria’s forests when recurrent malaria forced him to return home. No sooner had he risen from his sickbed than the Colonial Office posted him off to what was then the British Protectorate of Palestine, where he somehow managed to rope leading Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics into a scheme to replant six amenity and fruit tree species common in biblical times, on eroded slopes and exposed roadsides throughout the territory. Influential friends in England raised enough money to fund 42 nurseries.

Saving the redwoods
In 1929 St Barbe was offered a free passage by an ocean cruise line director on one of the line’s empty boats heading west to ply winter trips from New York to Bermuda. He decided on the spur of the moment to quit his civil service post and use this gift, he wrote, ‘to set out on a tour of the world’s forests with little more than a fiver and a free ticket to New York, only this time with my Palestinian films and slides illustrating The Life of a Forester in Kenya and in the Mahogany Forests of Nigeria. It was a serious blow to me when the customs officer charged duty on my film, leaving me with five dollars.’

A providential encounter with the publisher Lincoln McVeigh at a gentlemen’s club gave rise to his first book. He dictated, edited and delivered Men Of The Trees inside 20 days, then set off on his lecture tour with advance fees adding up to $1,000 in his pocket. The trip led him to California and to his first encounter with the mighty giant redwoods and sequoias of north-western America’s temperate rainforest.

It was the start of a love affair that would last until the very end of St Barbe’s life. For him, ‘these magnificent and fantastic trees’ were, as he exclaims in Dance of the Trees, ‘the biggest and most beautiful trees in the world. They have been standing for thousands of years. They tower hundreds of feet into the air and around their feet bloom giant irises, themselves standing nine or ten feet high.’

There was already a Save the Redwoods League campaigning inside America to save individual trees or small groves. St Barbe decided that the top priority was to preserve substantial areas of forest to ensure the survival of the whole environment. His world tour took him further westwards and across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, where he founded Men of the Trees chapters that still flourish.

When he returned to London the first thing he did was to call a meeting at the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society to set up a Save The Redwoods Fund to buy up land holdings and lumber concessions in and around Mill Creek, an area St Barbe described as ‘the heaviest stand of timber in the world’. St Barbe returned to the USA every year for eight years to campaign and raise funds for Save The Redwoods initiatives. By 1945 the area of conserved redwood forest stood at 17,000 acres. It had expanded to over 100,000 by 1960, most of it within protected areas managed by the state authorities.

St Barbe also campaigned on issues surrounding Douglas fir and boreal forests in Canada and giant eucalypts in Australia. He doorstepped Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 with a plan to create a Civilian Conservation Corps of 500,000 unemployed men to ‘serve the land, assist agriculture and stem the oncoming timber famine’ by planting trees to prevent dustbowls. President Roosevelt acted on this idea and six million young men worked in 2,600 CCC camps in the nine years the corps lasted.

After the second war
After World War II, St Barbe worked in Germany on restoring the landscape and in South Asia on steps to contain the Thar Desert. He became increasingly preoccupied with his Green Front scheme for reforesting the Sahara and he led two expeditions across the desert to seek evidence of prehistoric or pre-agricultural forests. He also sought UN backing for a World Charter for Forestry and was one of the first public figures to comment on rainforest destruction in the Amazon Basin.

His last foreign tour, at the age of 92, was in the USA and Canada. He witnessed the dedication of Redwood National Park as a World Heritage Site. Then he revisited Saskatchewan University, the scene of his first overseas venture. There he planted a tree to commemorate World Environment Day, and died two days later. A hard-bitten pressman, Sam Blackwell of the Southeast Missourian, saw St Barbe during the Redwood National Park dedication:

He was very old and frail. The young environmentalists taking care of him treated him with respect and awe. They said I could speak with him as soon as he awoke. When he did wake up he could barely speak, and the words he said were difficult to understand. It didn’t matter. He had a presence that made you happy to be in his company. We went outside to take his photograph. Spontaneously, he did what people who scorn environmentalists make jokes about: he hugged a tree. I don’t mean he put his arms around it. He hugged it like I hug my old friend Carolyn, like he never wanted to let it go. I began to understand. We do need to care, of course, for everything and everyone.

The legacy
So much for the legend. But what of the legacy? In the UK the Men of the Trees, mostly for reasons of political correctness, became the International Tree Foundation in 1992. There are now 22 branches across the country involved in practical tree planting and conservation work in Britain, and both branches and headquarters fund tree planting projects in Africa and India.

In Australia too, where there is a Men of the Trees branch in every state, each with a highly active, predominantly youthful membership, there is no disputing the staying power of St Barbe’s ideas and example.

In North America, however, his memory is far from evergreen. Most of the leading US organisations that were historically involved in redwood conservation, including the Sierra Club and the Save The Redwoods League, make no mention at all of him in their literature or in their online archives.

Similarly, definitive histories published in America in recent decades about the battle to conserve the redwoods make no mention of St Barbe. His was – it seems – more of a walk-on part than the starring role awarded to him in his own books and in eulogies by dedicated supporters. It is safest to say that he raised some handy funds and raised the stakes by voicing British concern over the redwoods’ plight, flagging the international significance of the issue.

In Africa, where you could say it all began, the situation is more complex. St Barbe’s ideas about Africa’s ecological and social history range from perceptive firsthand observations through to extremely sketchy – sometimes downright barmy – ideas and theories. He claimed in Africa Drums (1945) that he had been ceremonially initiated as a blood brother into a secret council of elders, the Kiama, that, he said, exerted hidden influence all over Africa, dating back to a Golden Age when 'men of the forest' ran the continent. This claim, though nonsensical, was backed up in his preface by a University of London Professor of Anthropology, Malinowsky, who should have known better.

St Barbe also believed in the ‘drought follows the plough’ hypothesis that human overcrowding, intensive cultivation and overgrazing leads to deforestation, which in turn leads inevitably to desertification, soil loss and famine. He was not alone in this belief. It was received wisdom among professionals and academics for many years.

Recent generations of researchers have begun carefully to untangle this narrative and to show that it does not stand up to close examination. More people can just as easily lead to more trees as to fewer trees. Evidence of ancient forests in places now covered by desert are more likely to be evidence of natural processes of climate change than of human destructiveness.

As Jeremy Swift points out in 'The Lie of the Land', a well-known collection of studies that explode myths surrounding deforestation in Africa: ‘The desertification story is a particularly interesting example of a narrative [explicable] in terms of the convergent interests of governments, aid agencies and scientists that has persisted in the face of rapidly mounting scientific evidence that it was inaccurate, and that the policies it suggested did not deal effectively with dryland degradation.’

Without straying too far into a scholarly quagmire, it is enough to say that St Barbe shared a widely held set of misconceptions about the situations he encountered in Africa that worked to the ultimate detriment of his programmes of action. Though these programmes were undeniably well-meant, little physical trace can now be found of them. The cedar and mahogany forests he planted and nurtured in Kenya and Nigeria have mostly been plundered, apart from a few embattled relics. Watu wa Miti did not survive decolonisation.

The Green Belt Movement
Yet maybe St Barbe’s African works were not entirely in vain. For his personal influence continued to affect at least one contemporary champion of Africa’s forests, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and by far the most respected voice for forest protection in modern Africa. ‘I met Richard St Barbe Baker on at least three occasions in the company of ex-Senior Chief Njonjo,’ she told me. ‘On one occasion they visited me at the office of the National Council of Women of Kenya and wanted to know more about my idea of planting trees with communities. They told me about the Men of the Trees and invited me to join, which I did.

‘The second time I met him and we talked about our work, especially his work in Australia and Canada. The third time was during the UN conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy in 1981 here in Nairobi. He participated in planting trees along with other delegates on a farm near Naivasha, in the great Rift Valley. I still remember how he, Njonjo and I walked hand in hand away from the site after the tree planting ceremony.’

Wangari Maathai was unaware of the Men of the Trees when she started her Green Belt Movement and St Barbe’s organisation is no longer active in Kenya, but she sees the movement as ‘a continuation of what the two men started in the 1920s, adding: ‘During the short period I knew Barbe Baker I found him a warm and inspiring man full of energy, ideas and hope that the young generation would embrace the concerns of the older generation and would save the planet from environmental disaster. We may not have realised that vision but we continue to be inspired by their commitment.’

There can be no arguing with a testimonial like this. Wild and woolly though some of his ideas may have been, the major worth of St Barbe resided in his spirit and vigour. His life proved that it is not enough just to know trees or understand the science of coexisting with them. If we wish to deserve to protect them, we must also love them.


Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns (Eds) 1996. 'The Lie of the Land: Challenging received wisdom on the African Environment.' (The International African Institute in association with James Currey (Oxford) and Heinemann. 1996)

Richard St Barbe Baker 'My Life – My Trees' (P/B reprint. The Findhorn Press, 1970.)

Wangari Maathai, 'The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the approach and the experience'. (Lantern Books, New York.. 2004). See also the movement's own website here.

The International Tree Foundation, Sandy Lane, Crawley Down, Crawley, West Sussex RH10 4HS; 01342 712536;