Monday, March 20, 2017


'A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self, We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.'
- Albert Einstein
A remarkable documentary shot by Yann Arthus-Bertrand consisting almost entirely of aerial footage from 54 countries on our planet.
Planet Ocean a film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand & Michael Pitiot

HUMAN  Vol 1 and Vol 2

Currently appears to be only available in full on Netflix. Trailer on YouTube

Friday, March 10, 2017


 Over the years THE GENERALIST has published many stories challenging the notion that everything is going on-line and that newspapers and books will disappear. An important contribution to this debate is 'Print Is Dead. Long Live Print' by Michael Rosenwald, published in the Columbia Journalism Review [Fall/Winter 2016]

Knight Ridder's Roger Fidler with his 1994 tablet (left) and
Apple's 2010 iPad (right)
It focuses on Roger Fidler, who is described as the 'forefather of digital journalism, as he conceived of a digital tablet on which you could read electronic newspapers back in the early 1980s. He now believes that this is entirely the wrong direction.

“I have come to realize that replicating print in a digital device is much more difficult than what anybody, including me, imagined,”

The story's other important source is Iris Chyi, a University of Texas associate professor and author of  Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Struggles Toward Inferiority. 

Here's a snatch from “Are newspapers steak? And online is noodles?” by Steve Dempsey in The Sunday Independent (25th Oct 2015), which has the biggest newspaper circulation in Ireland. According to Chyi, newspapers are so bad at digital publishing that they should write off their forays into the internet, and focus all their energies on print.
'Chyi suggests that newspaper executives drank too much of the dotcom Kool Aid. Drunk on digital, they focused on unsustainable online growth and failed to protect their core print product. As a result, they now find themselves in a self-fulfilling vicious cycle, where they are undermining print through cutbacks and lack of investment.

Chyi also posits that publishers have failed to distinguish themselves in the digital age. News outlets worldwide have consistently produced homogenous news content, which is distributed it through a plethora of platforms - apps, websites and social media - to an audience that's already suffering from information overload.'
A more recent piece Would you believe it? Print remains a favourite with readers by veteran media correspondent Roy Greenslade [The Guardian/ 31st Jan 2017] refers to research done by Neil Thurman at City, University of London,

His study, 'Newspaper consumption in the mobile age', shows that 89% of newspaper reading is still in newsprint, with just 7% via mobile devices and 4% on PCs. Greenslade claims that is 'the first research to comprehensively account for the time spent reading newspapers via mobile devices.'
'Although online editions have doubled or tripled the number of readers that national newspapers reach, Thurman argues that this increased exposure disguises huge differences in attention paid by print and online readers.
He said: “My research shows that while print newspapers are read for an average of 40 minutes per day, online visitors to the websites and apps of those same newspapers spend an average of just 30 seconds per day."



THE END OF PAPER ? [9 Sept 2008]

Monday, March 06, 2017


    Jeremy Leggett is a challenging person who is a new energy pioneer and insider. He is also a chronicler of the carbon revolution, of peak oil, of climate change.

    THE GENERALIST knew him back in the late '80s when Jeremy was working at the School of Mines, situated behind the Albert Hall, studying ways of using satellite reconnaissance as a mechanism to encourage nuclear disarmament by increasing transparency. 

    In 1988, I was drafted by the pop manager Simon Fuller to work (on the sleeve notes?) for an anti-nuclear record called 'No Winners'  being put together by Paul Hardcastle, who'd had a massive hit with '19'. The consultant on this protest/awareness record was JL. Some of the proceeds went to Greenpeace,

    Since those days, Leggett has done some excellent things - establishing Solar Century, a pioneering company -  and  Solar Aid, a charity supplying solar lamps to Africa amongst them.

    'SolarAid is extremely proud to have launched ‘the world’s most affordable solar light’.
    After years in development, this little light, called the SM100, is now being distributed across Africa via our social enterprise, SunnyMoney.'

    He is also Non-Exec Chairman of Carbon Tracker which is 'an independent financial think tank which provides in-depth analysis on the impact of climate change on capital markets and investment in fossil fuels, mapping risk, opportunity and the route to a low carbon future.

    He has been right on the front of the wave of what he calls 'The Carbon War', documenting the unfolding of the new energy revolution. You can download this in e-book form from his website and sign up to receive ongoing newsletters with new instalments of the story.

    What is significant now is that, since Trump, Leggett has widened his parameters and broadened his focus. This is what he says about it:
    'Suddenly believers in the possibility of a better civilization, one rooted in increasing human co-operation and harmony, find ourselves in a world where demagogues can now realistically plot the polar opposite: a new despotism rooted in rising isolationist nationalism and human conflict. 
    The more we dig into how the demagogues and their supporters have organised their recent successes, in particular in using technology to manipulate voter beliefs on an industrial scale, the more terrified many of us find ourselves. 
    Yet at the same time, tantalisingly, our visions of a better civilization, one appropriate for common security and prosperity among nations in the 21st century, seem more feasible today than they have ever been, at least in some of their component parts. In this struggle between two vastly different world views, a kind of global civil war seems t o have broken out in the last 9 months or so.
    I am changing this blog to reflect these changed times. For years now I have been chronicling only two relevant themes: climate and energy. Starting with this blog, I will be covering seven. After the evidence of Donald Trump’s opening month as US President, I no longer think it is valid to consider climate and energy separately from the bigger global picture.
     I invite the reader to consider my seven chosen themes as dials, each of which will need to be turned up near to full positive in the next decade. They are labelled climate, energy, tech, truth, inequality, reform, and conflict.

    This list is not comprehensive in capturing the struggle between appropriate civilization and new despotism. But I contend that if most of these particular dials are turned down anywhere near full negative, demagogues will have found their road to new despotism, and we can expect a future based on unbreakable police states.'


    Publisher: Vintage Books
    Publisher; Chicago University Press

    UPDATED: 19TH MARCH 2017

    These two remarkable books, both published for the first time in 2017, have preoccupied me over the last couple of months. The last time I was reading Camus and Sartre was back in 1968 and now their words and history seem highly relevant and exciting in the weird world of today.

    'At the Existentialist Cafe' is a wonderful, warm and above all clearly-written popular history of the existentialist scene in Paris and elsewhere, fronted by the incredible and admirable duo of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. If like me you knew little about them this is the book to engage and inspire you to investigate their life and works. Sarah Bakewell was a teenage existentialist and brings that energy to her retelling and explanations of the arcane points of the various philosophical streams of thought at play within the matrix. One of the most delightful surprises of the book for me was the discovery of the Phenomenologists - Husserl, Heidegger and Merlau-Ponty. The latter sought to unite philosphy and psychology and taught in both fields. He believed that child psychology was essential to philosophy and wrote: 'We cannot understand our experience if we don't think of ourselves in part as overgrown babies.' [I heard comedian/activist Mark Thomas on the radio yesterday describing Trump as a 'narcissistic baby'].

    'Looking for the Outsider' by Alice Kaplan is equally absorbing, telling as it does the life story of Camus' most famous book [also known as The Stranger] which established his reputation. It is remarkable how Camus, who came from a working-class Algerian family, composed this ground-breaking novel in a one-room flat in Montmartre and, without reputation or oeuvre, saw it picked up by Gallimard the best literary publisher in France at that time.

    Camus, who was often likened to a young Humphrey Bogart, had come out of the war with a grand reputation as a journalist and editor of 'Combat' the main newspaper of the French underground. A stellar rise in his readership and celebrity led him to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for a body of work that has lasting significance.  Like James Dean, his early death in a car accident in 1960, turned him into a cultural icon.

    Kaplan's focus on 'The Stranger' provides a fresh and interesting perspective on Camus and a investigates a book that has intrigued readers, writers and academics alike due to its mysterious
    central figure Meursault. Kaplan explains that the book's first person narrative lets the reader into the narrator's head but, she says, 'there's no way to feel close...It's natural to hunger for an understanding when it's withheld.' This scholarly book, impeccably researched, is immensely readable and brings to life the war-torn world that forms the backdrop to the main narrative.

    Like many others of my generation, I read 'The Outsider' when I was in my teens. It has the advantage of being short and of appearing to be a simple story and easy to read. In fact, the story is emotionally very deep and raises important moral questions. It's very difficult now to appreciate the impact the book had at the time. In each age it takes on a different perspective. Camus said that it was a book he found in himself that existed before he wrote it. His writing style was, like Sartre, influenced by hard-boiled American crime fiction, in Camus' case particularly 'The Postman Rings Twice'.

    In our time, a story of a white man shooting an Arab has new references. Camus was of French and Algerian descent and the book takes place in Oran. Algeria was, in many ways, the starting point for the turmoil that has engulfed much of North Africa and the Middle East. The remarkable movie 'The Battle of Algiers' by Pontecorvo  shows it all.

    Camus, incidentally was an Absurdist not an Existentialist, although he was grouped under the E label. Absurdism is a school of thought which states that humanity's efforts to find inherent meaning in our world will ultimately fail and are therefore absurd. Camus believed that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.


    Have just finished reading 'The Meursault Investigation' by Kamel Daoud. A truly wonderful debut novel by an Algerian journalist and editor that has been widely celebrated as an extraordinary work since its first publication in French (2013) and English (2015). A hip way of explaining the book is to say it riffs on the Camus novel. The Arab who is killed on the beach was never named in the original. In this book, the dead man's brother tells his story to an investigator in a bar which is empty except for a deaf mute. It interweaves not only all aspects of the crime itself but is very much imbued with the modern history of Algeria and Camus' status and meaning as a French Algerian. Like the original, the book appears to be simple but the complexity of the narrative, the elegance of the language and the sheer brilliance of the conception is impressive. The voice of he narrator is so strong and vivid, poised on the edge of explosive emotions. It provides a way for Daoud to address so many issues that it would have been hard to express in other ways. A truly great book that Camus' himself I am sure would have admired.
    You can enjoy the NRP podcast with the author here
    A movie of the book is due in 2017 (?)

    Also enjoyed Luchino Visconti's wonderful film of Camus' book, starring Marcello Mastroianni which can be watched in full on YouTube here.

    See also: Short documentary film Sartre vs Camus on Open Culture site.

    Friday, March 03, 2017


    There is no question that Werner Herzog is one of the world's greatest and most challenging of film directors. Now in his mid-70s, he has created 'Lo and Behold' subtitled 'Reveries of a Connected World '.

    This powerful and unique documentary is a profound investigation into and meditation on the internet. Divided into ten chapters, each looking at a different aspect and featuring a key speaker who Herzog interviews in his inimitable style, asking questions that no-one else has thought of asking - such as 'Does the Internet Dream of itself'.

    The film grew out of a commission Herzog was given to make a short YouTube video
    'From One Second to the Next' about the dangers of texting and driving. Annually, one out of four car accidents in the US are caused by texting while driving.
    This film is now required viewing for all new drivers in the US as part of the process of obtaining a driving licence.

    A major internet company Netscout then invited Herzog to make a whole series of short films on other aspects of the internet. It was very quickly clear to Herzog that it should instead be a film larger in scope. Before examining the film itself in more detail, it is interesting to explore the several interviews available on a second disc about the making of the film and Herzog's attitude towards digital technology.


    As you may know, Herzog grew up in one of the most remote valleys of the Bavarian Alps in a house that had no running water or electricity and no telephone or radio. He did not even know that cinema existed until the age of 11 when a travelling projectionist turned up at the little local school and he saw films for the first time. A few years later, he remembers watching a 'Fu Manchu' movie with his chums, as the first time that he began to think about how films were put together. From 16 to 18 he worked night shifts as a welder and saved enough money to start making films. He had his own production company when he was 21 and he'd already produced 10 films before 'Aguirre: The Wrath of God' made him internationally famous in 1972. He knew that it would be a difficult life so he had to ask himself would he accept his destiny or not. To be a successful film maker, he says "you have to know the heart of men". His favourite motto is: "Do the Doable"

    By and large, Herzog wants to examine the world his way and try and try and stay old-fashioned. "I live right here and, for cultural reasons I do not want to have a smart phone." He says he does use the internet sometimes for quick shallow information, sometimes sends e-mails, uses Skype to talk to his family and has a basic mobile for emergencies which he has rarely used. He likes to read.

    As a result of this film he is now on the radar of younger people around the world who think his work has relevance for them. His other recent film  'Into the Inferno', a documentary on volcanoes, was released in 180 countries simultaneously in 2016 on Netflix.

    He believes he has attracted attention on the web because people recognised that there was "somebody authentic out there" amongst all the very ephemeral. He is interested in the representation of the self on social media like Facebook. It's what he calls the "embellished self". People have set up social media sites under his name and there are many impersonations of his voice. Such media "trigger satire" but he is cool about it all. "I have a sense of humorous irony", he says. "These are very interesting times". When asked if he thought the Internet was lessening or widening our life experience he focused on computer and smart phone addiction which be believes to be an increasing problem. "It is known that it [gaming addiction] can be as severe as addiction to heroin". He wanted to go and film in China where they have rigorous boot camps for such addicts.


    As mentioned earlier 'Lo and Behold' is a film of 12 chapters, each focusing on interviews with key individuals in many fields. Interestingly, he says, for him, "it's always a conversation, never an interview". He never has a list of questions but acts spontaneously. His cast of interviewees are carefully chosen. "I have an eye for those who can get something across on the screen."

    1. The Early Days: The film gets off to a grand start at the campus of the University of California, the ground zero of the internet revolution, with Leonard Kleinrock (internet pioneer) walking smartly down a corridor and unlocking the door of a room which has become  a shrine. [They reconstructed the room 20 years ago with furniture hey wound in the basement].

    Here he shows us the first piece of the internet - a minicomputer packet switch built to military standards. He opens it up to show us the modems, CPU, logic, memory, power supply. he says " It's ugly and beautiful with an old odour" From this room, the first ever message was sent over the Arpanet on October 29th 1969 to the Stanford Research Institute 400 miles to the north. The first message was meant to be LOG IN, transmitted one letter at a time,  but the computer crashed on the G meaning the first word transmitted on the internet was LO.

    2. The Glory of the Net is various aspects of the possibilities of big data, brining hundreds of thousands of people together to focus on problem-solving. We see a team of football-playing robots and learn something about driverless cars

    3 The Dark Side: A weird Herzog episode. The surviving family of a young girl was killed in a gruesome accident and pictures of her decapitated head were sirculated on the web.  The methoer says that she always believed the internet was a manifestation of the anti-Christ running through everybody on earth.

    Life Without The Net is a profile of the people of Green Bank, West Virginia, home to the world's largest steerable radio telescope. Because it is so sensitive, there are no cell phones or Wi-fi in the locale./ It has become a home to many people who are suffering from conditions they believe are caused by microwave radiation. One women before she came to Green Bank was living in a Faraday cage.

    5. The End of the Web focuses on the possible destruction of the internet due to the effects of massive solar flares, which happen every few hundred years or so, the last being the Carrington event  in 1859. The interviewee is the remarkable looking Dr Lucianne Walkowicz, an astrophysicist and artist at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago who works on NASA's Kepler mission, studying starspots and "the tempestuous tantrums of stellar flares.". In the film she is wearing a full sleeveless Star Trek- style outfit, which reveals the tattoos on her arms, which are copied from prehistoric cave paintings (the subject of a previous Herzog movie, incidentally).

    6. Earthly Invaders is about hacking and cyber security, starting at the Las Vegas Defcom event for the hacker community, attracting 20,000 visitors including members of the FBI, CIA and foreign secret services. The star of this segment is the world's most famous hacker Kevin Mitnik who spent five years in federal prison and now earns a lot consulting to companies on cyber security. He explains the weakest link: any one person in the company who can be tricked into releasing passwords and codes,

    The other interesting interviewee is Sean Curry, a security analyst who works for Sandia, a corporation that, amongst other things, majors in cyber security and looking after nuclear weapons stockpiles. Sean keeps saying that he just can't tell us certain things but its clear that cyberwar is raging and we haven't even really noticed.

    7. Internet on Mars features a interview with the legendary Elon Musk who, apart from founding PayPal, building the Tesla electric car company and the largest battery factory in the world, is also
    planning to try and establish a colony on Mars. According to Herzog he is a complete introvert. When asked if he dreams there is a very long pause before he says: "I don't remember the good dreams. The dreams I remember are the nightmares." We then switch to meeting two brain scientists who work with MRI scans to map brain activity. "Does the internet dream of itself? Herzog artifully asks.

    8. Artificial Intelligence: Here we see some advanced robots called CHIMP which are quite scary; they could have perhaps stopped the explosion at Fukushima. The interviewee says that robots are nowhere near the point where insects are. He says it will be a great day when we do. It is clear AI is bringing about a revolution in technology which will require a new theology, a shift in morals and a new definition of what it means to be human.

    9. The Internet of Me: The move towards an environment in which every object is wired and the internet becomes invisible. One of the speakers claims that computers are the worst enemy of deep
    creative thinking. We are living in a digital dark age because all our records will be lost.

    10. The Future: We're back with the brain scientists who talk about the universality of an alphabet of human thoughts, a vocabulary that doesn't distinguish between things that are seen and things that are read. Its all one language. In the future, instead of having an MRI scanner costing $2 million and weighing 16,000 lbs, we might all be wearing EMG caps which we can use to tweet thoughts telepathically at the touch of a button.

    The final quotes come from a scientist whose name escapes me. He says he refuses to make predictions for anything less than two trillion years from now. He says: "One of the wonderful things about the future is you don't know where it's going to go." Most predictions of the future miss the most important things, the Internet being a classic example. He believes that "becoming your own filter will be the challenge of the future because the filter is not provided for you. There's no control on the internet. No matter what governments do, no matter what industries do, the internet is going to propagate out of control and people will have to be their own controls".

    He concludes: "Will our children's children's children need the companionship of humans or wull they have evolved in a world where that';s not important. It sounds awful doesn't it but maybe it will be find. Maybe the companionship of robots maybe the companionship of an intelligent internet will be sufficient. who am I to say?"

    Tuesday, February 28, 2017


    Top: Flyer for 30th Anniversary of the Headstrong Club in Lewes
    Above: Logo for the re-founding of the Headstrong Club in January 1987 plus Sussex Express front-page story on the event with photo of Rachel and David Powell, Bernard Crick and my younger self toasting Paine on the 250th Anniversary of his birth.

    THE GENERALIST has been absorbed for the last six weeks or so due to research and preparations for a significant event in Tom Paine's connection with Lewes - the 30th Anniversary of the revived Headstrong Club. This debating (or arguing!) club was established in Paine's time at the White Hart Hotel in the town. It was reestablished in January 1987 by David Powell, a biographer of Paine, and yours truly, with the help of others, in the same room in the White Hart, with Bernard Crick (biographer of Orwell) giving the encomium. Thirty years later, some 70 people gathered upstairs at the Elephant & Castle to mark the occasion, to celebrate Paine's birthday and also to pay tribute to David Powell, who died last May and is sadly missed. THE GENERALIST acted as MC, wearing a borrowed tricorn hat and running a PowerPoint presentation. It's a style that could catch on - or not.

    In parallel with this, THE GENERALIST was reading this remarkable and fascinating book in which Tom Paine plays a starring role but is offstage for most of the drama. Janet Polasky has spent much of her academic life studying the revolutionary period 1776-1804 which encompasses the American and French Revolutions. These it turns out are only the biggest and most well-known revolutions. In fact, there were various levels of unrest down both sides of the Atlantic -  hence the subtitle : 'The Call for Liberty in the Atlantic World' -  and there was a network of travelling revolutionaries who were trying to link them all together, believing that they were all  part of a larger vision that was transforming the world. Translators and printers formed a sedentary part of this network, which communicated through a paper internet.

    In Polasky's book, each chapter focuses on a different aspect of this - pamphlets & broadsheets, papers, letters, travel reports - read and discussed on networks of coffee shops and taverns. Paine was the most famous of these communicators but Polasky introduces us to some 50 more people whose achievements were significant and whose names deserve greater recognition. Her book succeeds in offering us a widescreen vision of this remarkable period when many peoples and populations were struggling to overcome border controls. Does that ring a contemporary bell with you dear readers?

    For many other Paine stories on The Generalist use search box at top left.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2016


    "Compared to the nature of what is happening in the environment, terrorism, elections, and so on are epiphenomena. They are minor compared to the absolutely tectonic scale of the changes that we are now facing."
     'Between the Walls of Archives and Horizons of  Imagination: An Interview  with Amitav Ghosh by Mahmood Kooria [Itinerario / Volume 36/ Issue 03 /  December 2012]

    'Climate change..., is the unintended consequence of the very existence of human beings as a species. Although different groups of people have contributed to it in vastly different measure, global warming is ultimately the product of the totality of human actions over time. Every human being who has ever lived has played a part in making us the dominant species on this planet, and in this sense every human being, past and present, has contributed to the present cycle of climate change.'

    Portrait of Amitav Ghosh by Ulf Andersen.

    Amitav Ghosh is a prize-winning best-selling novelist whose work centres on the cultures surrounding the Indian Ocean. He has said: "I realise in hindsight that this is really what always interested me most: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the connections and the cross-connections between these regions". His best-known work is perhaps his Ibis trilogy - 'Sea of Poppies', 'River of Smoke' and 'Flood of Fire' - based on the history of the Opium Wars:

    Born in Calcutta, he was schooled in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and northern India. He studied both history and anthropology at two different learning institutions in Delhi. He got a scholarship in social anthropology at Oxford and did his field work in Alexandria, exploring the historic links between Egypt and India which inspired his book 'In An Antique Land'. Gosh knows five languages: Bengali, Hindi, French, Arabic, and English.

    He has now written 'The Great Derangement', a non-fiction book based on four lectures he gave at the University of Chicago, an academic centre for the study of the Anthropocene. It may be one of the best books yet written on climate change. It is certainly scary. It divides into three sections simply titled: Stories, History, Politics. The sections are anything but simple, ranging as they do across very large canvases, drawing on information, ideas and metaphors from many fields of knowledge.



    One of the major themes of 'Stories' is the fact that the subject of climate change has been absent from mainstream literary fiction apart from a few notable exceptions. The main body of existing fictional work on this theme is in the genre of science fiction under the group name "cli-fi".

    Ghosh's ancestors were ecological refugees from what is now Bangladesh, forced off their land by flooding. Ghosh based one of his novels on the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal Delta, also subject to inundations. Thus he already had a better sense than many of what climate change actually means in reality

    This was reinforced by a rare and unexpected event back in March 1978 when he was a student in Delhi. On this day a storm broke out and Ghosh decided to walk home by a route he rarely took. Turning a corner, he was confronted by a tornado heading down the street in his direction. Quickly seeking shelter, he survived the destructive winds which killed 30 people. He writes:
     'This was, in effect, the first tornado to hit Delhi— and indeed the entire region— in recorded meteorological history. And somehow I, who almost never took that road, who rarely visited that part of the university, had found myself in its path. Only much later did I realize that the tornado’s eye had passed directly over me. It seemed to me that there was something eerily apt about that metaphor: what had happened at that moment was strangely like a species of visual contact, of beholding and being beheld. And in that instant of contact something was planted deep in my mind, something irreducibly mysterious, something quite apart from the danger that I had been in and the destruction that I had witnessed; something that was not a property of the thing itself but of the manner in which it had intersected with my life.'
     This improbable event might have offered Ghosh great material for fiction but he realised that events that are improbable will not be believed by the readers. This was not always the case. Earlier fictions like the Arabian Nights and The Decameron were full of unlikely events which at the time were the essence of storytelling.The modern novel, says Ghosh, was 'midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.'  The novelistic universe was rationalised to form narratives that, says the literary theorist Franco Moretti, provided a pleasure 'compatible with the regularities of bourgeois life'.

    The same process happened in many of the sciences including geology and paleontology. In the contest to explain the evolution of the planet and the life upon it there were two main narratives - catastrophism and gradualism. The latter won out for many years but it is now clear that the former had and has an equally important role to play. Ghosh writes:

    'And it appears that we are now in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normalcy, highly improbable: flash floods, hundred- year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring down from breached glacial lakes, and, yes, freakish tornadoes.

    He later continues: '... the age of global warming defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense: the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability. Indeed, it has even been proposed that this era should be named the “catastrophozoic” ... It is certain ...that these are not ordinary times: the events that mark them are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.'

    '....the freakish weather events of today, despite their radically nonhuman nature, are nonetheless animated by cumulative human actions. In that sense, the events set in motion by global warming have a more intimate connection with humans than did the climatic phenomena of the past— this is because we have all contributed in some measure, great or small, to their making. They are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.

    If whole societies and polities are to adapt then the necessary decisions will need to be made collectively, within political institutions, as happens in wartime or national emergencies. After all, isn’t that what politics, in its most fundamental form, is about? Collective survival and the preservation of the body politic? Yet, to look around the world today is to recognize that with some notable exceptions, like Holland and China, there exist very few polities or public institutions that are capable of implementing, or even contemplating, a managed retreat from vulnerable locations. 

    These thoughts and quotes do not do justice to the full complexity of Ghosh's thinking in this 81-page section but it does give you some sense of where he is coming from and where he is taking us.


    Source: ADB

    Ghosh's second section is devoted principally to the central role of Asia in this climate change saga. The following quotes from this chapter cut to the essence of the problems.
    Asia’s centrality to global warming rests, in the first instance, upon numbers..., if we consider the location of those who are most at threat from the changes that are now under way across the planet... The great majority of potential victims are in Asia. 
    The Bengal Delta..formed by the confluence of two of the world’s mightiest rivers, the Ganges and the one of the most densely populated parts of the world, with more than 250 million people living in an area about a quarter the size of Nigeria.
    Moreover, in Bengal, as in other Asian deltas, for example, those of the Irrawaddy, the Indus, and the Mekong, another factor has magnified the effects of sea- level rise: this is that delta regions across Asia (and elsewhere in the world) are subsiding much faster than the oceans are rising.
     The ongoing changes in climate pose a dire threat also to the interior of the continent where millions of lives and livelihoods are already in jeopardy because of droughts, periodic flooding, and extreme weather events. No less than 24 percent of India’s arable land is slowly turning into desert,
    Fearsome as these risks are, they are dwarfed by Asia’s accelerating water crisis...In terms of numbers, the consequences are beyond imagining: the lives and livelihoods of half a billion people in South and Southeast Asia are at risk. Needless to add, the burden of these impacts will be borne largely by the region’s poorest people, and among them disproportionately by women. 
    The brute fact is that no strategy can work globally unless it works in Asia and is adopted by large numbers of Asians.... it was the rapid and expanding industrialization of Asia’s most populous nations, beginning in the 1980s, that brought the climate crisis to a head. 
    The West’s largest contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases came about through the continuous expansion of the carbon footprint of what was about 30 percent of the world’s population at the beginning of the twentieth century. 
    Asia’s contribution, on the other hand, came about through a sudden but very small expansion in the footprint of a much larger number of people, perhaps as much as half of a greatly expanded global population, late in the twentieth century.
    Ghosh concludes: '... the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population. Asia’s historical experience demonstrates that our planet will not allow these patterns of living to be adopted by every human being. Every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator— not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.
     Ghosh quotes two eminent figures who recognised this many years ago. Ghandi said in 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."
    The other was the Burmese statesman U Thant, who served as the secretary- general of the United Nations from 1962 to 1971 and was instrumental in establishing the United Nations Environment Programme. In 1971, he issued a warning that seems strangely prescient today:
    “As we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: ‘With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,’ or, ‘They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.’”
    Ghosh then proceeds to lead us through a complete rewrite of the whole western perspective on the history of energy, technology and ideas. He talks of the early modern period being from the 16th to early 19th century,  during which there was a rapid and parallel change across the Eurasian landscape and much of the rest of the world. The new carbon economy began in England with the steam engine and the spinning jenny and radiated out. This was happening during a period of climatic disruption. 
    He describes the early use of natural gas for heating and lighting in China, using a network of bamboo tubes. He also makes  a good historical case that Burma's oil industry was, at one time, the largest in the world, and represented the first step towards the modern oil industry. 


    Ghosh begins by stating that climate change is a challenge to the most important political concept of the modern era: freedom.

    He says we've embraced the idea that writers and artists are 'able to look ahead, not just in aesthetic matters but also in regard to public affairs' and, as a result, they have been at the 'forefront of every political movement around the world'. The big BUT is, he says, that very few literary minds have been 'alive to the archaic voice of the earth and the atmosphere'. He names some of those few, Ballard, Atwood, McEwan, Vonnegut, Lessing, McCarthy and TC Boyle.
    '...the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities. And to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide. We need, rather, to envision what it might be.'
    On another front he says that today everybody with a computer and a web connection is an activist but that this politicisation 'has not translated into a wider engagement with the crisis of climate change' particularly in many Asian countries where climate change is not a significant issue.

    Ghosh believes that the realm of actual government is controlled by 'largely invisible establishments that are guided by imperatives of their own'. Later he refers to the 'interlocking complex of companies and institutions of government' which has come to be known as the 'deep state'. He names companies like Exxon and 'energy billionaires' as being the main funders of climate change denial. The industrial economy cannot be fought, he believes, by the 'politics of sincerity'.

    He writes that, in the Amglosphere - US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand -   are some of the most vigorous environmental movements in the world. Those same countries are all members of the Five Eyes alliance, sharing intelligence and surveillance structures. In the US climate change activists are now among the prime targets for what he sees as 'a rapidly growing surveillance industrial complex'. Climate change, he believes, 'will provide an alibi for ever greater military intrusion into every kind of geographic and military space.'

    Paradoxically, the one arm of government that has 'clearly and completely seized the idea that climate change is real is the US Department of Defense'. He claims that the UK and US governments have directed their militaries to rapidly prepare for climate change and its impacts in order to try maintain the status quo. 

    'The climate crisis', writes Ghosh 'holds the potential of drastically reordering the global distribution of power as well as wealth.' It is also a "threat multiplier".

    He hails 2015 as a momentous year due to the Paris Agreement and the publication of Pope Francis encyclical letter 'Laudato Si'; the latter insists that we '...must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.'  Both documents are a vindication of the findings of climate scientists.

    Ghosh sees the most promising development as being the increasing involvement of religious groups anmd leaders in the politics of climate chance but warns that the time horizon for taking action is very narrow.
    If religious groupings around the world can join hands with popular movements, they may well be able to provide the momentum that is needed for the world to move forward on drastically reducing emissions without sacrificing considerations of equity. That many climate activists are already proceeding in this direction is, to me, yet another sign of hope.
    Ghosh concludes: 'The struggle for action will no doubt be difficult and hard-fought, and no matter what it achieves, it is already too late to avoid some serious disruptions of the global climate...
    'I would like to believe that out of this struggle will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes than those that preceded it; that they will be able to transcend the isolation in which humanity was entrapped in the time of its derangement; that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art and literature.'
     This is a brave, outspoken and heartfelt book of great value. We need to absorb many of these thoughts and ideas and get together as a force for global change and face the challenge of the Great Derangement. 

    Be the change that you want to see.

    Friday, December 09, 2016

    CULT BOOKS 2016

    THE GENERALIST is pleased to present the latest crop of novels that I have digested in recent months. They all come recommended. The majority are second-hand books, found at random, enjoyable surprises - none more so than this great 1973 Quarto paperback edition of Jack Kerouac's first novel 'The Town And The City' with a great cover artwork by Ron Kirby.

    As regular readers will know I am huge fan of The Beats in general and JK in particular but for some reason had never tackled this novel before, first published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the US in 1950. Heavily influenced by the American writer Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac's debut novel is a sprawling 500pp family saga and is loosely based on his real life in two locations - Lowell, Massachusetts and New York, where the Beats first found each other. The majority of the book's characters are based on his family and friends.

    A hugely ambitious book, he started it in 1945 and produced a 1,100 page manuscript by 1948 at the age of 26. Like his character Pete Martin, Kerouac joined the merchant marine and sailed to Greenland.
    Official Navy mugshot of Kerouac
    around the time of his 21st birthday.

    The early chapters are idyllic and brought to life with tremendous skill. The blurb writer of this edition puts it well: 'The unique voice of Kerouac's panoramic consciousness reverberates through these pages, questioning, wondering and clarifying.' The happy family life in an iconic small town is torn apart by the World War and the old sureties are shredded, reflecting Kerouac's own pathway. It's an emotional journey and one that prefigures the string of Beat novels Kerouac is famous for. The novel concludes with his alter ego alone on a highway in a rainy night: ' He was on the road again, travelling the continent westward, going off to further and further years, alone by the waters of life, alone, looking towards the lights of the river's cape, towards tapers, burning warmly in the towns, looking down along the shore to remembrance of the dearness if his father and of all life.,'  Perfect.

    Three great reads by writers new to me. Arturo Pérez-Reverte  was a war correspondent for 20 years before becoming a best-selling novelist. 'The Queen of the South' is a rattling yarn about the rise to power of Teresa Mendoza, who escapes the Mexican cartels to become a godmother of the drug trade in the Mediterranean. APR obviously loved hanging out with the helicopter pilots of the Customs and the book is made real by his assiduous journalistic skills.

    'Shantaram' by Gregory David Roberts is a 1,000pp gripping saga based on the author's true-life adventures. In the 1980s, Roberts was a heroin addict who became an armed robber. He escaped from a high security Australian prison and found his way to Mumbai where he lived in the giant shanty towns featured in 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Here he established a free-health clinic and  became a street soldier for the mafia. He also got involved with Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. 

    According to Wikipedia: 'In 1990, Roberts was captured in Frankfurt after being caught smuggling heroin into the country. He was extradited to Australia and served a further six years in prison, two of which were spent in solitary confinement. According to Roberts, he escaped prison again during that time, but relented and smuggled himself back into jail. His intention was to serve the rest of his sentence to give himself the chance to be reunited with his family. During his second stay in Australian prison, he began writing Shantaram. The manuscript was destroyed by prison wardens, twice, while Roberts was writing it.'

    The book is a conflation of his real-life adventures and invented narratives. He's a wonderful and absorbing story-teller and this book is a great if you just want to shut off from the world for a week. 
    I'm saving his equally large follow-up novel 'The Mountain Shadow' for just such an occasion.

    Joseph Kanon's 'Istanbul Passage' is a masterclass spy novel set in the immediate postwar period of the late '40s, in a world of uncertainty and intrigue.Le Carré and a few others may have staked out a claim to this territory but Kanon can match their narrative skills, character building and intricate plotting. The story twists and turns as the book's main character American businessman Leon Bauer tries to keep his cool and hold on to his integrity whilst evading secret police and indulging in an illicit sexual affair. All of this plays out against a finely-realised backdrop of one the world's most enchanting cities. One can almost hear the chants of the muezzins and the waters of the Bosphorus lapping against yet another washed-up corpse.

    Having been a William Gibson reader since the cyberspace days, having interviewed the man on several occasions, a new WG book is always worth investigating. Which is not to say they're always easy reading.                                                                                                                               'The Peripheral' I found strangely baffling on many levels but when I tried not to understand it all, I enjoyed the experience. The back blurb claims that the book is set in a pre-Apocalyptic America and a curiously empty Post-Apocalyptic London. There's a lot of levels, lots of newtech. A worthy addition to the Gibson oeuvre.
    The author of a string of unusual novels, Michael Faber's imagination had not strayed into interstellar space before 'The Book of Strange New Things'. Peter, a kind of chaplain, is sent up to some far off space base owned by some corporation [like in 'Moon']. Pete's job is to liaise with the planet's indigenous inhabitants - Oasans - who love Jesus and live in a special settlement not too far from the base but far enough to require a long drive in some kind of shuttle. He is also trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend/wife who he will not see for many years. Things are not going well back on Earth. MF magic's up this whole deep-space world in 3-D.  Your imagination can fill in lots of the details. Haunting and other-worldly. I felt I was there.

    THE GENERALIST loves American paperbacks and these two Cormac McCarthy novels are just about as good as it gets, design-wise. Eleven out of 10 for look and feel. Good readable type.
    I began my journey into McCarthy's work via the three-volume Border trilogy 'All The Pretty Horses', 'The Crossing', 'Cities of the Plain' followed by 'No Country For Old Men' and 'The Road'. Now I'm working backwards.
    This cover of 'Blood Meridian' carries the mother of all cover quotes. from one of my favourite writers Michael Herr [See PP]:
    "A classic American novel of regeneration through violence. McCarthy can only be compared with our greatest writers, with Melville and Faulkner and this is his masterpiece."
    What can I say: It's another of Cormac's long, long journeys by a dark nightmare crew riding across vast landscapes, each marked by bad encounters that generally involve  slaying everyone in sight. There's little but violence or horrifying fights for survival. It's riveting. I'm saving 'Suttree' for later.
    I've written about the Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago before somewhere (see PP) You have to get used to him. For a start, there are no chapters or paragraphs, just one whole scroll of continuous text. In other words, you need a bookmark. Saramago has a strange, unique and somewhat dark imagination. 'Seeing' is, to my mind, very contemporary for the following reason. The plot is reasonably simple. In this imaginative real-life country, the population are allowed to vote on National Election Day. On this particular occasion, only a small handful of voters arrive to vote. An extension is announced. When they look at the final ballot papers, 70% of them are blank. The government calls for another election. The blank votes rise to 83%. The plot develops from there.

    I have a particular love of certain kinds of mystery stories and 'The Prophecies', a novel by Chief Druid Philip Carr-Gomm hits middle stump. 

    I like stories that begin with someone looking for inspiration who decides to go to Paris, browses the booksellers by the Seine and finds an unusual book by a woman who turns out to have been a clairvoyant and to have predicted many aspects of the Second World War. 

    Not knowing whether she was still alive, C-G (for it is he) discovers that her home in Brittany is now a B&B, swiftly makes a booking, takes the train to Rennes, hires a car, finds the house and learns that he is to sleep in a room called the 'Chambre des Druides' The next day, he also discovers that this magnetic female spiritualist took a German lover during the war. She was also a friend of the Abbé Gillard who, also during the war, began building a church of the Holy Grail in the nearby village.

    From these actual factual beginnings, C-G crafts a story that interweaves fact and fancy and which grabbed my imagination. I sat down and read it straight through in the course of a day. I loved the original b&w 1970s tv version of 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' which inspired 'The Da Vinci Code'. 'The Prophecies' has a similar presence,