Friday, September 21, 2007


This is what I learnt today from the
September 2007 issue of
Scientific American.


Worldwide, more than 1.3 billion people are overweight, whereas only about 800 million are underweight.

The arrival of unhealthy Western diets and sedentary Western lifestyles in developing nations has had a dramatic effect, in just one generation,on the diet and health of millions. This is paving the way for a public health catastrophe, leading to an upsurge in diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.

For most developing nations, obesity has now emerged as a more serious health threat than hunger. Just as in the US, it is predominantly a problem of the poor.

Many governments and industries are contributing to the problem by flooding developing countries with cheap sweeteners, oils and meat while doing nothing to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Sweetened beverages - Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the like - are one of the biggest contributors to the obesity epidemic in the Third World.

The spread of supermarkets in the developing world has greatly increased the availability of sweetened beverages and processed foods.

The surge in consumption of animal-source foods means that, by 2020, developing countries are expected to produce nearly two-thirds of the world's meat and half its milk.

No country in modern times has succeeded in reducing the number of its citizens who are overweight or obese. In fact, the obesity epidemic is accelerating.

'Unless strong preventive policies are undertaken, the medical costs of illnesses caused by obesity could bring down the economies of China, India and many other developing countries.


More than 800 million people live every day with hunger - "food insecurity" - as a constant companion. Yet the world produces enough food to meet the energy and protein needs of every living person.

It is poverty that renders millions unable to buy or grow adequate food. Although not all poor people are hungry, almost all hungry people are poor. 75% of them live in the rural areas of developing countries. The highest percentage are in Africa; the largest absolute number in the Asia-Pacific region.

Drought is the leading cause of hunger worldwide.

Armed conflicts are precipitating an increasing number of food crises, accounting for 35% of food emergencies.

Hunger and malnutrition affects two groups of people disproportionately - pre-school children, and women and girls.

18% all hungry people are children younger than five.

More than 60% of the world's hungry are female. Every day 300 women die during childbirth because of iron deficiency.

According to FAO statistics, there were an annual average of 854 million undernourished people in our world in the years 2001-2003. Of these, 820 million were in developing countries, 2.5 million in transition countries (eg former members of the Soviet Union) and nine million in industrial countries.

Recent statistics show that in developing countries, 27% of children younger than five are underweight and 31% are stunted.

At the 1996 World Food Summit, political leaders from virtually every country agreed to reduce the number of hungry people by half in the period from 1990-2015. Five years later, they took stock of their progress. China had made strides but over half the countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, had more hungry people. On a global level, the total number of hungry had not changed significantly. Promises were renewed but very little new action has been taken since.


According to the UN more than 6.5 billion people in habit our planet today. They estimate that by 2050, the population will be between 7.3-10.7 billion people. They anticipate that, sometime after 2200, the world population will stabilise at 10 billion inhabitants.


(Left): Young coal miner in Linfen, China. The State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) of China has branded Linfen as having the worst air quality in the country. Photo: Andreas Haberman

On September 12, 2007 , the U.S.-based Blacksmith Institute, an independent environmental group, in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland, issued their Top Ten list of the world's most severely polluted places which are located in seven countries and affect a total of more than 12 million people. Major pollution causes are mining, the pollution legacy left by the Cold War era and unregulated industrial production. Time magazine has done a good pictorial summary of the Top Ten List here

'The 9/11 Cover-Up: Thousands of New Yorkers were endangered by WTC debris—and government malfeasance', is the title of an article by Michael Mason, in a special issue of Discover magazine on the health effects of 9/11 on the people of the city. Issue also includes interview with Philip Landrigan, the doctor leading the research on this. Extract as follows:

Q: Your department is monitoring the health effects from the collapse of the World Trade Center. When the towers collapsed, two million tons of dust containing cement, asbestos, glass, lead, and carcinogens rained down on lower Manhattan. Yet less than a week later, the EPA said it was safe to go there and breathe the air. Now we know that erroneous assessment may have put thousands of people at risk for serious chronic health problems, and even death.

A: [EPA Director] Christine Todd Whitman's statement that the air in Manhattan was safe to breathe was stupid and ill-considered because she was making a very strong assertion with almost no data. I wondered how she could say this—it's like a doctor telling a patient that the patient is healthy before he's done any tests.'

The disaster site created by Hurricane Katrina covered an area the size of Great Britain. At least 1,836 people were killed and some 1.5m have been displaced - the largest population migration in the US since the dust bowl of the 1930s. Now severe mental health problems in the region have developed among the nearly 70,000 families still living in temporary housing. 'The slow recovery, researchers and clinicians are finding, has bred levels of mental distress unseen in the aftermath of other disasters.'
Source: Emily Harrison - 'Suffering a Slow Recovery' [Scientific American. Sept 2007]

'Beyond the security checkpoint at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, a small group gathered in November for a conference on the innocuous topic of “managing solar radiation.” The real subject was much bigger: how to save the planet from the effects of global warming. There was little talk among the two dozen scientists and other specialists about carbon taxes, alternative energy sources, or the other usual remedies. Many of the scientists were impatient with such schemes. Some were simply contemptuous of calls for international cooperation and the policies and lifestyle changes needed to curb greenhouse-gas emissions; others had concluded that the world’s politicians and bureaucrats are not up to the job of agreeing on such reforms or that global warming will come more rapidly, and with more catastrophic consequences, than many models predict. Now, they believe, it is time to consider radical measures: a technological quick fix for global ­warming.' Source: 'The Climate Engineers' by James R. Fleming [The Wilson Quarterly. Spring 2007]

On 26 April 1986, one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine exploded. A concrete sarcophagus was hastily built over the wreckage, but it is starting to crumble and has been leaking radioactivity. President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine has signed a $505 million deal with the French construction firm Novarka to encase the whole Chernobyl plant in a massive steel vault to halt these leaks. The arched structure, called the New Safe Confinement (NSC), will be 150 metres long and 105 metres tall - big enough to allow the existing sarcophagus and the wrecked reactor to be dismantled and permanently entombed.
Source: 'Chernobyl to be encased in steel' (New Scientist. 20 September 2007)
See also: Panoramas From The Chernobyl Zone

This year's Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, which ran from August 27th to Sept 3rd had a Green Man theme. The Organisers stated aim was to try and offset the carbon footprint of the festival, todecrease solid waste by 70% and to switch to local biofuels for the burning (it requires 20,000 gallons). They also built a 30-kilowatt solar array to provide power for the event. As to whether they succeeded in their aims we will have to wait and see until they publish their annual AfterBurn Report.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A NEW WASTE LAND: Mike Horowitz

Wed 20th: The Generalist
attended Fine Art auction at the East West Gallery in Blenheim Crescent, Ladbroke Grove, London for the Benefit of 'A New Waste Land: Timeship Earth at Nillennium' - a major poetic work by Michael Horowitz, a ten-year labour. The funds are to rescue the hardback edition which is currently stuck at the printers. A small but enthusiastic gathering were able to bid for works by Hockney, Peter Blake, Martin Sharp and others. Mike read stirringly from his book and made everyone feel at home. Lord Gowrie handled the aunctioneering with the aplomb appropriate for a former Director of Sotheby's. Hopefully a fine total was made.

The book's advance information release describes the work as follows:

'In his most political work to date, Michael Horovitz adapts and extends the structure, music and apocalyptic collage of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land of 1922, to take a hard look at the state of the nation and the planet at the turn of the millennium, and after. Among the soulless forces of darkness deconstructed in the poem itself, and in the abundant notes and illustrations, are Tony Blair’s degradation of the Labour Party; the mega-materialisms of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch; the macho duplicities of Bull Clinton and Gorge Dubbya Bash; Hypeing Up, Dumbing Down and the “EnterPrize Culture”; the hubristic vacuities of the Greenwich Dome saga; and the suicidal commercial triumphalism promoted by the arms, nuclear, advertising and war industries.

Where 'The Waste Land' of 1922 echoed phrases and lines from the past cherished by T S Eliot, Michael Horovitz mixes more substantial quotations into his update. Virgil, Christ, Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Byron, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Kipling, W H Davies, D H Lawrence, Pound, Bunting, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Allen Ginsberg, Kazuko Shiraishi, Adrian Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jeni Couzyn, Frances Horovitz, Grace Nichols, John Lennon, Mahmood Jamal, Stacy Makishi, and Eliot himself are among the angels whose insights fuel the text’s lyric fire.

The book also projects a kaleidoscope of telling photographs; images from artists including Bosch, Michelangelo, Brueghel, El Greco, van Gogh, Picasso and Hockney; cartoons by Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, Nicholas Garland, Michael Heath, Andrzej Krauze, Chris Riddell, Gerald Scarfe, Posy Simmonds, Trog, and their peers, at the top of their form.'

The Generalist will be digesting the book and reporting back.

A New Waste Land: Timeship Earth at Nillennium'
is published by New Departures.
Price: £15 (paperback) ISBN 0-902689-18-5 978-0-902689-18-3 (pb)
Publication: October 2007

'ON THE ROAD' IS 50: The Scroll

Left: The British edition of 'On The Road: The Original Scroll' by Jack Kerouac. Edited by Howard Cunnell. [Penguin Classics. £25.00]

Fifty years ago this month (on Sept 5th, in fact) saw the first publication of 'On The Road' by Jack Kerouac, an event that has been widely celebrated in the US and around the world. The Generalist, like millions of others, was first infected with the Beat spirit through reading this marvelous book.

''On The Road: The Original Scroll', which I purchased yesterday at The Travel Bookshop in Ladbroke Grove, is an event in itself. Began reading it in a bar as the light faded into the early autumnal evening, continued on the late-night train home (fell asleep and almost missed my station by a whisker) and read some more late into the night, began again this morning over coffee and croissant and have now reached San Francisco. The book has me under its spell once more.

Some explanation is required here.

Part of the huge myth surrounding 'On The Road' is do with the actual process of writing of it. Legend has it that it was written while Jack was high on benzedrine and that he wrote it all in three weeks in April 1951 on a long roll of Teletype paper, with no punctuation, while listening to bop on the radio.

In fact the story is a great deal more complicated than that, as we discover in this new edition of the book thanks to an excellent long introductory essay by Howard Cunnell (a Visiting Lecturer In Creative Writing and American and English literature in the University of Kingston), the man who also had the responsibility of preparing the 'scroll' for publication. [The book has three other introductory essays by various authors, each of which add something to the party]

To begin: Kerouac had written at least three proto-novels of 'On The Road' of varying lengths - big chunks of long-form fiction - and had myriad notebooks and travel journals and letters in which he can be seen to be developing the work.

During the writing jag when he produced the scroll he later told Cassady: 'I wrote that book on COFFEE, remember said rule. Benny, tea, anything I KNOW none as good as coffee for real mental power kicks.'

He was writing in a large, pleasant apartment in Chelsea, New York. He did the writing on long, thin sheets of drawing paper but its not known whether he stuck them together first and then typed, or vice versa (typed then stuck). Whichever way, Kerouac shaped and cut the paper into different lengths to fit into the typewriter. 'A long roll of paper,' writes Cunnell, 'like the remembered road that he could write fast on and not stop. So that the paper joined together became an endless page.' The scroll is, for the most part, conventionally punctuated.

Cunnell says something really exciting and inciteful about Kerouac's scroll typing: 'Kerouac's clattering typewriter is folded in with Jackson Pollock's furious brushstrokes and Charlie Parker's escalating and spiraling alto saxophone choruses in a trinity representing the breakthrough of a new postwar counterculture seemingly built on sweat, immediacy and instinct, rather than apprenticeship, craft and daring practice.'

Kerouac's first book 'The Town and the City' had been published on March 2nd 1950. After writing the scroll in April 1951, Kerouac undertook extensive revisions of it and in Oct0ber that year, also wrote his third novel 'Visions of Cody'. Cunnell says intriguingly that 'the scroll is the wildflower from which the magic garden of 'Visions of Cody' grows'.

It would be a further six years before 'On The Road' was finally published in what can now be seen as a bowdlerised version, in which Kerouac changed people's real-life names to pseudonyms and also either took out or altered virtually all the sex scenes and sex talk within the book.

So now finally we have the original version, as typed by the 29-year old Jack Kerouac, lightly edited in ways that are explained but basically intact. It reads like a dream. The actors now have their masks off and the whole book has a rougher and darker feel.

This new edition is a beautiful piece of book making - cover, binding, choice of paper and type, all excellent.

(Right: The cover of the very first edition of 'On The Road', published by Viking in 1957. This comes from a site that shows a marvelous selection of Jack Kerouac book covers from around the world. Also links to covers of works by Burroughs, Cassady et al.)

The beat goes on: Tracing Kerouac's tracks 50 years later: A restless spirit and 'holy' pie endure by Charles M. Sennott [Boston Globe July 15, 2007]. He writes: 'With Jack Kerouac in the rearview mirror, I set out for a road trip. The idea was to retrace the first leg of the coast-to-coast odyssey chronicled in Kerouac's classic 1957 novel, "On the Road." A map drawn by the writer in a notebook unearthed from the Kerouac archives in his hometown of Lowell served as my compass. It showed a crudely sketched shape of the United States and a ragged line that traced the journey due west by Sal Paradise, the novel's narrator and Kerouac's alter ego.' See his animated slideshow of his journey with photographer Dominic Chavez.

'The Scroll of Jack Kerouac' by James Elmont describes how in 2001 he went to see this beat artefact for himself at Christie's in New York, who sold it that year to Jim Isay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, for $2.43m. Isay told the Associated Press: "My goal all along was to have it and share it with all those who want to see it, whether it's in this country or other countries," After the scroll was intially displayed in a museum in Indianapolis, it set out in January 2004 on a journey of its own - a 13-stop, four year national tour of museums and libraries. It is currently on exhibit in Kerouac's hometown of Lowell at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, Lowell National Historical Park until October 14, 2007.


Was 'On The Road' the first 'non-fiction novel' - years before 'In Cold Blood' was claimed to be? See 'Truman Capote: Truth and Lies'

See interviews with 'Allen Ginsberg' and 'William Burroughs'

ON THE ROAD IS 50: Critics, Movie, Lost Play, Estate

(Left): Read the very first review of 'On The Road' in the New York Times (Sept 5th, 1957) by Gilbert Millstein. It's a crackerjack of a review, beautifully expressed and written, very prescient. It's the most famous review in the history of the newspaper. (Right): Kerouac postage stamp.

Not everybody likes 'On The Road'. Check out these criticisms and critiques.

America's first king of the road: Fifty years ago Jack Kerouac's dazzling novel 'On the R oad' became the blueprint for the Beat generation and shaped America's youth culture for decades. It influenced scores of artists, musicians and film-makers, but how does it resonate with young people today?’ Sean O'Hagan [The Observer. August 5 2007]

Road Rules: ‘The novel that launched the Beats, the hippies and designer jeans turns 50. But this legendary 'joyride' is actually the saddest book you'll ever read—even with God on every page. Time for another look.’. By David Gates [Newsweek. April 13th 2007]. See also Gates' 1999 article in Salon Breaking Up With The Beats: 'Kerouac and company were my firfst literary loves - but I had to get off their road.'

Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think)
by John Leland [Viking] In Why Kerouac Matters you make the against-the-grain argument that On the Road is not an ode to permanent adolescent transience and rebellion but rather a guide in moving toward adult responsibility. Could you explain?

Leland: Like any good book, On the Road sustains at least two threads. The one that gets the most attention is the book of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), the wild, yea-saying overburst of American joy who sounds an irresistible call to adventure. Dean is the circus that every boy dreams of joining. Dean’s road is pure carnal excitement, all speed and jazz and sex. But there's also the book of Sal Paradise, the narrator, who follows Dean out onto the road but then ultimately outgrows him, finishing the book off the road. Sal comes to recognize Dean's road as destructive and limiting--as long as Dean keeps going through the same motions, leaving a new baby and a new ex-wife in every town, he isn't really on the road, he's stuck in a rut. Sal, by contrast, is learning to be a man and a writer, searching for meaning and a home. For all its frantic adventures, the book ends with Sal nesting with his new love, Laura (Joan Haverty, Kerouac's second wife) and ready to write the book we're still reading.

Jack Kerouac's photo from his Navy file

The latest news is that the movie (IMDB) is to be directed by Walter Salles based on a screenplay by Joe Rivera (director and writer of The Motorcycle Diaries). Rivera confirms he has written the script. Salles wants the cast to consist of unknowns; Carolyn Cassady says she is to be played by Kirsten Dunst. There is a detailed Wikipedia stub describing the long and troubled road that Coppola has gone down in his attempts to produce the film since he first bought the film rights in 1968 ! Zoetrope have been scouting locations in the Cincinnatti area but the company refuses to confirm or deny whether they will be filming there.

Written in 1957 and newly rediscovered in December 2004, this three-act play was first published by Thunder's Mouth Press in the US in 2005 and by One World Classics in the UK in 2007 (Edition pictured).

According to Dan Glaister in The Guardian 'The
play recounts a day in the life of the hard-drinking, drug-fuelled life of Jack Duluoz, Kerouac's alter-ego. "Kerouac wrote the play in one night when he returned to his home in Florida after the publication of On The Road," said Kerouac's biographer and family friend Gerald Nicosia... Although the play was never published or performed, the third act became the basis for a film, 'Pull My Daisy', starring Allen Ginsberg.

'Kerouac's agent, Sterling Lord, said Kerouac had sent it to several producers but it was turned down…Kerouac even sent the play to Marlon Brando, Mr Lord said. Kerouac was desperate to collaborate with the actor, and wrote a letter to him in 1957 urging Brando to appear in a play adaptation of ‘On the Road’. Brando never responded, and the two only met once, in 1960, when Kerouac enrolled in the Actor's Studio. But his foray into acting was shortlived. After 15 minutes he asked, "Don't they give you any drinks in this place?" Spotting Brando he invited him for a drink. Brando refused.'

THE KEROUAC ESTATE: In August 21, 2001, the Berg collection of the NY Public Library bought the Jack Kerouac Estate for an undisclosed amount of money. The large archive, which was meticulously organized and preserved by Kerouac, contains manuscripts, notebooks, letters, journals, photographs, and personal items saved from the time he was 11 through his death in 1969 at age 47. Selections from the archive will be on display in Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road, an exhibition on view at The New York Public Library November 9, 2007 through March 16, 2008.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

'ON THE ROAD' IS 50: A Digital Moment

I thought wouldn't it be good to reread 'On The Road' and draw a detailed pencil map of the journey as I went along and use this as part of my postings. I'd got some miles along the journey, making notes and consulting my Times Atlas when I decided to check a few things on the net and discovered the Google Earth 'On The Road with Jack Keroauc.' A true digital moment of wonder - AHA! I put the pencil aside.

Produecd by Dorseyland, who describes him-or-herself as 'Master Educator' (who could disagree), the site is titled 'A jazz journey through the remarkable life of American novelist, poet, boddhisattva and bebop saint Jack Kerouac in 158 placemarks'. How cool is that.

Here you can not only follow in detail Kerouac's steps across the vast land that is America on his first legendary coast to coast experience, each stop carefully flagged with accompanying pop-up box of text but you can also pull back to a certain altitude and actually see the string of little K flags stretching back, across and over the curve of the earth. A beautiful piece of work demonstrating the huge potential of this software. Already Dorseyland is getting valuable feedback, which has meant shifting the flags. In other words its a wikimap. There are also a simple set of valuable links. Great work.

Friday, September 14, 2007


(Left): 'A Pound of Paper' by John Baxter [Ted Smart. London. 2002]. Jacket illustration by Jackie Parson. Best known for his string of major film biographies on the likes of De Niro and George Lucas, this entertaining book by John Baxter takes us deep into the world of book collecting and book selling and is replete with chance discoveries, major windfalls, bitter disappointments and interesting digressions. A bibliophiles delight. Also highly enjoyable is his 'We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light' [Bantam 2006], full of scurrilous and delightfully indiscreet stories

The Generalist Archive is undergoing a major overhaul at present. As a result, I am once more face to face with physical fact of the sheer volume of books I own - piled, shelved and boxed in more or less every room of my house plus in two storage places. Still have the dream of establishing this magic library in its own premises someday, somewhere and making it available to all.

This led me to think about the fact that my whole life can be measured out in books from the earliest age. Each book is like a memory bubble in the fact that I can most times remember when I first read it and where I was. Thus the memories of the book itself is mingled with my own life and times. Long may it continue.

I buy the majority of my books secondhand and rummaging through the shelves of bookshops, charity shops, boot sales and the like is one of my great pleasures in life. I buy in bulk as often one of the excellent Lewes booksellers has bought up someone's entire library on their demise. Thus my library is made up of sections of many other people's libraries, the books often containing tickets, lost letters and other momentos and page markers. Many are inscribed, underlined and full of notations. Every week brings its treasures.

I have always got my nose in a book. People often say to me they find it hard to read as there are too many distractions in the modern world. The biggest enemy of reading, to my mind, is television. It's too easy just to switch it on and sit back when, without the screen, a book provides an welcome alternative. Paper is softer on the eye than tv and books are more inspiring.

I have books stationed everywhere and am I often reading at least six books at once, each of which suits my differing moods; a more or less equal mix of fiction and non-fiction. A generalist has to read as widely as possible in order to make connections across disparate fields of study and imagination.

To add to all these joys is another that is the best of all - introducing the books you love to others. There must already be several hundred books mentioned or recommended in this blog so far and there are many thousands to come. This virtual library will, I hope, spread the word.A life measured out in books. I wouldn't have it any other way.

(Above): This revised edition of 'Bizarre Books' by Russell Ashe and Brian Lake
[ Jarndyce Books/London 2002]
is a delightful survey of some of the world's most unusual books and authors. It includes 'Dirt: A Social History as Seen Through the Uses and Abuses of Dirt', 'Office Gynecology', 'Our Lady of the Potatoes' by Duncan Sprott and 'The Earthworms of Ontario'.


Alberto Manguel's 'A Reading Diary' [Canongate Books. Edinburgh. 2004] has rapidly and recently become one of my favourite books for a variety of reasons.

He explains the genesis of the book as follows: 'A couple of years go, after my fifty-third borthday, I decided to reread a few of my favourite old books, and I was struck, once again, how their many-layered and complex world of the past seemed to reflect the dismal chaos of the world I was living in. A passage in a novel would suddenly illuminate an article in the daily paper; a half-forgotten episode would be recalled by a certain scene; a single word would prompt a long reflection. I decided to keep a record of those moments.

'It occurred to me then that, rereading a book a month, I might complete, in a year, something between a personal diary and a commonplace book: a volume of notes, reflections, impressions of travel, sketches of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by my reading.'

Thus the the book is made up of 12 chapters, each centered round a reread book - The Island of Dr Moreau and Don Quixote are two that come to mind. Each chapter consists of brief texts of various lengths which take you variously into the book, intro a connection triggered by the book, into the author's other thoughts, into the landscape the writer is passing through. It includes the quotes and thoughts of others and also lots of lists of which Manguel is quite fond.

In the hands of another writer such a book could be mawkish and pretentious but Manguel brings grace, erudition and style to the enterprise. It is a truly delightful and inspiring book
that I shall return to again and again for inspiration and ideas.

Alberto Adrian Manguel was born in Buenos Aires on March 13th, 1948. His grandfather (who came from Mongolia) kidnapped his grandmother (daughter of one of the Tsar's gardeners) at the age of sixteen. The young Manguel was raised in Israel where his father was the Argentine ambassador. He has lived in Tahiti and England and 1984 he became a Canadian citizen. He currently lives in France. An acclaimed essayist and novelist, he is also a prize winning translator and has edited ten anthologies.

At the age of 16, he was working in a bookshop in Buenos Aires when he was approached by a blind writer and asked if he would be interested in a part-time job reading to him aloud. The writer was the legendary Jorge Luis Borges and 'With Borges' [Telegram Books 2006] is Manguel's beautifully written account of the several years he spent in his company and of the lasting effect Borges had on him. Just 74pp long, its is little masterpiece on the magical mind and memory of one of the world's great modern writers.

UPDATE: Since writing the above piece have also discovered another Manguel masterpiece 'The History of Reading' in the first chapter of which he describes his personal reading history up to and including his experiences with Borges outlined above.

I found the book as a whole too rich a dish to devour in one sitting. I came away, having read the first five or six chapters, with three important ideas to think about.

Firstly, many of the Ancient Greeeks had prodigious memories and were against writing things down as a result Secondly, it wasn't until the tenth century that silent reading became the norm in the West. 'Previously', says Manguel, 'normal reading was performed out loud.'

Thirdly and most interesting of all, it turns out that the act of reading itself is a fascinating and intricate one. Manguel writes: 'How does the act of apprehending letters relate to a process that involves not only sight and perception but inference, judgement, memory, recognition, knowledge, experience, practice?...all these elements necessary to perform the act of reading lent it an astounding complexity, which required for its successful performance, the co-ordination of hundreds of different skills. And not only these skills but the time, place, and tablet, scroll, page or screen on which the act is performed affect the reading.'

A truly fascinating book which requires further investigation.

Footnote: One of Manguel's other extraordinary works is 'The Dictionary of Imaginary Places', co-written with Gianni Guadalupi, a huge encyclopaedic work fully illustrated with charts and maps, more of which anon.


Everyone loves a pirate tale, witness the massive global boffo box office recption for Johnny Depp's 'Pirate of the Caribbean' series. Most of us will trace this fascination back to reading 'Treasure Island' when we were kids, although whether kids still read Stevenson's classic book today is another matter.

Out of all the various pirate tales and sagas I have raid in the many years since 'Long John Silver' by Bjorn Larsen [Harvill Press'London. 1999] is the finest. Sub-titled 'The true and essential History of my Life of Liberty and Adventure as a Gentleman of Fortune and Enemy of Mankind' this is that rare thing: a rip-roaring tale of great literary quality in which the fictional John Silver is brought to life as a real person, who as the book opens is sitting down to write his memoirs at the end of his life.

Chapter 2 begin: 'I can still feel the surgeon's knife slicing into my flesh as if it were butter' and from that moment on we are caught in a series of riveting adventures that are brought to life so vividly that one has to catch one's breath. It bears comparison with William Golding's trilogy and Joseph Conrad's masterful 'The Nigger of the Narcissus.' We meet the legendary Captain Flint and the writer Daniel Defoe in the course of Silver's adventures and the book cleverly throws a new lights on the fictional 'Treasure Island' in way that makes us believe that, for the first time, we are getting the real story. There are no cartoon cliches here
rather a complete and graphic evocation of a world steeped in pain, punishment and privation in which only thr strong survive.

Larson is a Swedish sailor-writer steeped in British 18th century sea-lore, who lived in a his racing yacht Rustica for six years. All his knowledge and understand of the ocean, of shipboard life is here. A brilliant tale well told.

Yukio Mishima is infamous as the Japanese writer who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after trying to stage an unsuccessful military coup, a story brilliantly filmed by Paul Schrader in his eponymous movie 'Mishima' - possibly his finest work. Most people including myself know little else.

From this book's 'A Note about the Author' I learnt that Mishima was born in Tokyo in 1925, graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1947, and published his first novel the following year. He was considered the most spectacularly gifted young writer in Japan. He went on to a write 13 more novels, from which ten films have been made, 33 plays, countless short stories and a travel book.

'The Sound of Waves' (Perigree Books. New York. 1956) was filmed twice but just reading fills one's mind with pictures. It is a deceptively simple story set of an idyllic island of first love between Shinji, a fisher boy and Hatsue, the daughter of the most powerful man in the community. A genuinely beautiful tale.

The Czech writer Karel Čapek was the man who invented the word 'robot' in his work of science fiction
'R.U.R' (Which stands for Rossum's Universal Robots). Needless to say, the robots get out of hand.

A similar theme is explored in 'War With the Newts',
a genuinely creepy and scary work of the imagination.
It begins like 'King Kong' with a old sea captain sailing the relatively uncharted regions of the eastern Pacific where, in an isolated bay live strange creatures. The captain befriends these unusual black newt-like creatures who he discovers area capable of being trained to fish for pearls.

The captain then has the idea of developing this industry by shipping newts in tanks to different islands and expanding his operation. With the help of a businessman this soon turns into a huge operation and, as a result, the newt population expands exponentially.

The newts have the ability to undertake large-scale construction operations under the ocean and before long most of the world's countries (except the landlocked ones) have a force of newts busily resculpting and extending the land mass of the continents. Needless to say, in the end, it all goes badly wrong.

Born just seven years after his fellow bohemian Franz Kafka, Čapek's imagination is equally disturbing, mixing brilliant and believable fantasy with dark apocalyptic visions. Written in the shadow of the Nazi threat and first published in 1936 'War with Newts' resonates in today's disturbing times.

The Penguin edition contains an excellent introduction by Ivan Klima, which concludes: 'Čapek's entire work testifies to the contradiction faced by a seeing, knowing creative spirit, a spirit that longs to purify and enlighten the world but fears its own imperfection and limitations, fears what people will do with his visions. This dilemma will undoubtedly haunt mankind forever. Čapek's work illuminates it with the power of personal experience.'

Sunday, September 09, 2007


An Investigation by
The Generalist

'The missile-defence debate, dormant since Ronald Reagan’s "Star Wars", was revived in 1998 when North Korea test-fired a rocket over Japan. Gone was the familiar nuclear stalemate between two superpowers; suddenly, unpredictable "rogue states" seemed the main threat. Congress declared that an anti-missile shield should be built as soon as possible, while detractors balked at the project's gigantic cost and its doubtful feasibility. On taking office George Bush vowed to make the missile-shield his defence priority and proceeded to distress foreign allies by withdrawing America from its anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia. Distracted by the attacks of September 11th 2001, but undeterred by enormous technical problems, America deployed the first bits of a missile-defence system in 2004. A plan to extend the system to Europe has sparked a row with Russia which is eerily reminiscent of the cold-war era.'

Source: 'Missile Defence' []

News of a recent conference organised by CND has reached The Generalist. Entitled 'US Missile Defence - towards a new Cold War?' it was attended by more than 120 people from seven different countries, all concerned about the possible escalation of the arms race that could be triggered by the Bush government's plans to extend its missile defense system into Europe.

In the shorthand summary of the conference I received, the notes said: 'MEDIA don’t mention NMD. - No reports of US plans, bases in UK, etc. Czechs’ know nothing of UK opposition, few in UK outside Peace movt know about Menwith Hill & Fylingdales.' So this and the next seven posts are devoted to making this information more widely known, beginning with the current situation in the UK, which centres around the following two establishments.


Menwith Hill Station was opened by U.S. Army in 1960 on 545 acres of land acquired by the British War Office in 1954 and leased to the United States. Under the U.S. Army, the station monitored High Frequency radio communications. It is now operated by the United States Air Force and has grown to become the world's largest intelligence-gathering ground station outside the US. Nominally a British Royal Air Force facility, only physical security and UK liaison functions are carried out by MoD personnel. The vast majority of staff are British GCHQ personnel, American civil service employees, government contractors, as well as U.S. military personnel. Menwith Hill is highly recognisable by its several dozen radomes ('golf balls'), each containing a satellite dish. Many of these are used for signals interception from communications satellites: they are commonly thought to be part of the ECHELON system. Other parts of the site are thought to be used by the Space Based Infrared System employed by the US National Missile Defence program. The latter use of the base, alongside the joint US/UK radar station at RAF Fylingdales is particularly controversial.

Source: Wikipedia

Menwith Hill: The Original Big Brother

Bob Cryer's Last Speech to the House of Commons:'In May 1994 Peace Campaigners throughout Britain were terribly saddened to hear the news of Bob Cryer's death in a road accident. Among many achievements in an outstanding parliamentary career he was always a totally committed supporter of the peace movement. His support of the campaign against the Menwith Hill Spy station, its activities and implications, was invaluable and is sorely missed. This speech, in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons was a succinct rendering of the questions at the heart of the campaign. It is printed here in full, including the minister's reply on which you may make your own judgement.'

Tuesday July 3, 2001: More than 100 Greenpeace activists have occupied parts of RAF Menwith Hill. Here's the Guardian's guide to the best sites on the subject


RAF Fylingdales is a British Royal Air Force station on Lockton High Moor in the North York Moors, England. It is a radar base and part of the United States-controlled Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). Under the special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom, data collected at RAF Fylingdales is shared between the two countries. Its primary purpose is to give the British and US governments warning of an impending ballistic missile attack.

While the base remains a British asset operated and commanded by the Royal Air Force, it also forms one of three stations in the United States BMEWS network (the United States also funds the cost of the radar units). The other two stations in the network are Thule Air Base, Greenland and Clear Air Force Station, Alaska.

The primary radars of RAF Fylingdales are Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) (phased array) radars, mounted on each face of a truncated tetrahedron, typically referred to as the "pyramid". This makes Fylingdales unique amongst its peers in that it covers a full 360 degrees. Each of the three arrays has a tracking range of 3,000+ miles.

Source: Wikipedia

Station Commander Chris Knapman

BBC: Inside RAF Fylingdales

See: Yorkshire CND



17 October 2004
Star Wars deal places US missiles on UK soil
By Francis Elliott and Severin Carrell
The Independent on Sunday

Tony Blair has secretly agreed to allow President Bush to site US missiles on British soil as part of the new US "son of Star Wars" programme, The Independent on Sunday can reveal. Downing Street has given an agreement in principle to the Pentagon to station interceptor missiles at RAF Fylingdales, North Yorkshire...

The siting of the interceptors on British soil would represent the most significant new military US presence in this country since the withdrawal of cruise missiles 13 years ago.

Mr Blair and Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, refuse to be drawn on how far Britain is prepared to co-operate in the programme, insisting that the US has made no formal request to site missiles here.

This newspaper has learnt, however, that an offer to site missiles in Yorkshire was made in a meeting in Washington in May this year and that preparations are well under way to overcome public and parliamentary opposition.

The meeting, one of a series held to discuss US-UK collaboration on the programme, was attended by senior officials from the British embassy, a deputy to John Bolton, the Pentagon's secretary for arms control, and staff from the US State Department.

British diplomats gave an agreement "in principle" to siting interceptors at RAF Fylingdales, but asked that no formal request be made until after the next general election.

[Full Story here]

17 October 2004
Blair brings 'son of Star Wars' to UK
Brian Brady
The Scotsman

STAR Wars missiles designed to shoot down incoming nuclear weapons will 'inevitably' be based on British soil following a far-reaching defence agreement between Tony Blair and George Bush, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that it has signed a £30m agreement to help develop and test a new generation of ballistic weapons, dubbed 'son of Star Wars' and designed to intercept attacks from rogue states and terrorist groups.

But in an even more significant move, it is understood the Prime Minister has given his consent 'in principle' to the siting of American missile interceptor batteries in Britain, probably at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.

[Full story here]

18 October 2004
Details of missile deal kept secret
Richard Norton-Taylor
The Guardian

Ministers have bowed to a US request that details of a deal on the deployment in Britain of a US missile defence system should be kept secret. In a little-noticed written statement to the Commons last week, the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, said a copy of a new memorandum of understanding on the "Son of Star Wars" programme was being put in the Commons library but with parts missing after a US request. Britain is allowing the US to upgrade the early-warning radar station in Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, and to extend the US satellite ground station at Menwith Hill, in the same county, to play a part in tracking missiles. US and British officials have been discussing the deployment of US interceptor missiles in Britain. The Ministry of Defence yesterday denied receiving an approach from the US, but it is understood that the countries have agreed not to announce any provocative move until after the British election.

Feb 23rd, 2007

Britain is bidding to host the new phase of America's missile-defence shield in Europe. Expect fireworks

Tony Blair has been discreetly waging a campaign since last autumn to secure the missile-interceptor site for Britain, The Economist has learned. The prime minister has led the lobbying in person, apparently convinced that missile-defence technology—long derided in polite European circles as an expensive “Star Wars” fantasy—now works. Mr Blair believes that hosting the interceptors will make Britain as well as America more secure.

Indications are that the interceptors would not be housed at Fylingdales, in Yorkshire, but in new silos at another existing American base in Britain. America would pay for their installation and for the missiles, which cost $40m (£20.5m) each. The two governments have yet to negotiate who would have final control over whether to fire the interceptors.

See full text: 'Bombs bursting in air' [The Economist. Feb 23rd 2007]

4 July 2007 BBC News

Writer backs US spy base protest

Alan Bennett

Writer Alan Bennett returned to his Yorkshire roots on Wednesday to support protests against the Menwith Hill US surveillance base near Harrogate. The protesters, who also included comedian Mark Steel, are opposed to US military bases on British soil.

There has been a demonstration outside the base every 4 July - America's Independence Day - for 20 years.

The Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB) said: "We will not be silenced." Veteran campaigner Lindis Percy said: "Menwith Hill epitomises all that is wrong in the unhealthy, dependent and moribund relationship between the US and UK governments... Change is well overdue."

There was one arrest for a public order offence, said the police.

July 25th 2007 BBC News

Britain has agreed to a US request for the RAF Menwith Hill monitoring station in North Yorkshire to be used as part of its missile defence system.

Mr Browne also said a radar upgrade at RAF Fylingdales near Whitby, started in 2003 by the US, was complete. The Fylingdales radar is expected to switch operations to the new equipment next month.

Mr Browne said the work at RAF Menwith Hill would support the existing UK-US missile warning mission and enable satellite data to be passed into the new US missile defence system.

The receiving antenna equipment already exists at RAF Menwith Hill and installing communications hardware is the only extra work required. [Full Text here]

July 31, 2007

Des Browne MP

Brown's contempt for democracy has dragged Britain into a new cold war

George Monbiot

The prime minister has broken his word and put us all at risk by allowing a US missile defence base on the North York Moors

'In one short statement to parliament last week the defence secretary, Des Browne, broke the promises of two prime ministers, potentially misled the house, helped bury an international treaty and dragged Britain into a new cold war. Pretty good going for three stodgy paragraphs.

'You probably missed it, but it's not your fault. In the 48 hours before parliament broke up for the summer, the government made 46 policy announcements. It's a long-standing British tradition: as the MPs and lobby correspondents are packing their bags for the long summer break (they don't return until October), the government rattles out a series of important decisions that cannot be debated. Gordon Brown's promise to respect parliamentary democracy didn't last very long.

'Thus, without consultation or discussion, the defence secretary announced that Menwith Hill, the listening station west of Harrogate, will be used by the United States for its missile defence system. Having been dragged by the Bush administration into two incipient military defeats, the British government has now embraced another of its global delusions.'


'....members of parliament... have long been demanding a debate. In February, Tony Blair agreed that they would have one. "I am sure that we will have the discussion in the house and, indeed, outside the house ... When we have a proposition to put, we will come back and put it."

In April, Des Browne told MPs that "the UK has received no request from the US to use RAF Menwith Hill for missile-defence-related activities". That, until last week, was all that parliament knew. Now we discover that the proposition had been made and accepted before MPs had a chance to discuss it. Browne was in the house on Wednesday, when he made some announcements about aircraft carriers and the military budget. These - because they were delivered in person - could be discussed, though (shamefully) neither of them provoked any opposition. But knowing that the Menwith Hill decision would be furiously opposed, Browne released it in the form of a written statement, which cannot be debated.'

[Full text here]

Friday, September 07, 2007


The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983 to use ground-based and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. The initiative focused on strategic defense rather than the prior strategic offence doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD). Though it was never fully developed or deployed, the research and technologies of SDI paved the way for some anti-ballistic missile systems of today. The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was set up in 1984 within the United States Department of Defense. It gained the popular name Star Wars after the 1977 science fiction film.’ – Wikipedia

Naturally, I had to get involved. Some five years before I had been inside George Lucas' Star Wars empire in LA and the Industrial Light & Magic HQ north of San Fran, whilst producing a 'Making of..' newststand special on 'The Empire Strikes Back' (recounted elsewhere in this blog).

Now I was consulting to Greenpeace - my first project for the organisation - pulling together what was essentially a designed-up clippings book pulling together keynote articles and headlines from the debate that ensued from Reagan's announcement, this to be used for general international lobbying purposes. Naturally, when searching for a logo, we became the Rebel Alliance.

This was to be just a small part of a multimedia project incorporating a video, record, newspaper and merchandising.
Correspondence in the archive reveals letters to the likes of Thomas Dolby and Douglas Adams and to tv production companies. Nothing got off the ground in the end.

At the time I was developing the idea of 'Creative Protest' - in essence taking a much more professional approach to creativity and media in relation to campaigning.

STAR WARS TO OUR WARS: The Achilles Heel

Reagan had assembled a large committee of eminent scientists to advise him on Star Wars. One of them very publicly resigned. He was the man I wanted to meet.

I first saw him on some late-night tv news show, discovered he was coming to London to deliver a paper at a software engineering conference at Imperial College and take part in a discussion on Friday 30th August on 'The Technical feasibility of software for strategic defense initiatives.' I interviewed him after his presentation and wrote the following piece for Time Out magazine, which appeared on Sept 18th.

'The unlikeliest and sternest critic of Reagan's Star Wars programme is Professor David L Pamas, a short, irascible, bespectacled, ginger-bearded professor of computer science, wearing a navy blazer and brown boat shoes with fraying laces.

In London for the Eighth International Conference on Software Engineering, Professor Parnas does not object to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on moral grounds. He has worked on de­fence-related projects at the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington for some 20 years and is not a liberal. His objection is that it won't work.

Software engineering is a field in which he's considered a giant by his peers and explains the importance one should attach to the fact that he recent­ly resigned from the SDI computer panel, the first scientist on the project to do so. His resignation letter read, in part, 'I do not believe that further work by the panel will be useful and I cannot in good conscience, accept further pay­ment for useless effort

In an exclusive interview and in his barnstorming speech to the Conferen­ce, crackling with intelligence and hum­our, Professor Parnas outlined his argu­ments. He knows from experience that in a complex engineering project the computer software is always the most unreliable part. He says: 'You never know when you've got the last import­ant bug out, so what is our basis for confidence in SDI when all defence sy­stems fail first time? Realistic testing would require a series of nuclear wars.'

Parnas thinks analogies to the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle programs are misconceived. The software for SDI is much more difficult, he says, though not perhaps the longest pro­gram ever produced as some have sug­gested. 'On Apollo we could predict the behaviour of the moon and there were no decoy moons to confuse us. With the Shuttle there were manual fall­backs and no surprise launches. With SDI we have no reliable information on targets.'

Nor does Parnas accept the compari­son of the Manhattan Project which, unlike SDI, was based on theoretical principles that had already been made. He believes that if Reagan had pro­posed Faster Than Light Flight — a scientific impossibility — that half the defence scientists and corporations in the US would have signed up for con­sultancy fees ($10,000 a day is the going rate on SDI) and lavish research grants. When accused of negative thinking he says: 'Pessimists have been wrong before. So have optimists.'

Parnas first heard talk of an SDI-type system at the Los Angeles aerospace factories in the '60s. He remembers the first US ABM system called Start (ne­gotiated away at the SALT talks) and the US Navy's Advanced Avionics Digi­tal Computer, a misconceived project that took three years to kill off. He has also witnessed first-hand the problems with ADA, the Department of Defense project to produce a common computer language for all its forces.

Parnas says: 'Personally, I would feel safer if they spent the money on tanks.' Pretty soon the defence establish­ment is going to have to start listening.

STAR WARS TO OUR WARS: Letters to The Times

Eleven days before I met Parnas, The Times a top-of-the-page opinion piece by Lord Chalfont, entitled 'Star Wars: the high cost of staying out.' It was, in a fact a big puff for his soberly titled book 'Star Wars- Suicide or Survival' It was stuffed full of erroneous statements to the point where I felt driven to write to the paper.

Worth pointing out that in those days, a letter in the Times still carried some weight.

Much to my surprise the letter was printed on September 2nd: [click image to read in full]

The following days I scanned the letters page for any follow-on correspondence but nothing appeared until Friday September 6th. I was in my bed, reading the morning paper with a cup of tea when I let out a huge whoop and a holler. My letter had hit a sensitive spot.

In that day's Times the lead letter was a large two-column rebuttal which concluded: 'But as a fellow citizen of the earth I am in complete opposition to Mr May on the morality of SDI.'

The writer ?
George A. Keyworth, Science Adviser to the President, The White House, Washington DC.

I quickly wrote a response to Keyworth's letter and received the following note from the Editor of the day: