Wow, What a Book #3, #4, #whatever

Well, Saturday already. Seems only yesterday it was Friday *sigh* I suppose I’d better get on with it.

I don’t think I’ll do ten of these after all, because I rather run the risk of listing books just because I like them, rather than because they have had a real and measurable influence on me. So today I present the final three.

1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

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I read this book when I was in my mid twenties, and it really did open my eyes to what we as a species were doing to the planet. Up until that point, I had not really understood the impact that we were having on the environment. Shocked, I became interested in learning more, and then even more shocked as I learned what food and drink manufacturers put in their products for us to consume. At that time, one of them was the nasty compound dropped by the Americans on Vietnam during the Vietnamese War; a defoliant that was known to be carcinogenic.

It was used as orange food colouring.

I got hold of a list of all the ‘E’ numbers that were permitted additives, and which the industry certainly didn’t want us to know about. Certain ones were very nasty indeed. It was at this point that I became very keen on reading the labels on food and drink packaging.

I became involved with various pressure groups, such as Greenpeace.

That book changed my life.

2. The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham.

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In some ways, this could lay claim to be the book that has had the greatest influence on my adult life, but in a different way to Silent Spring.

I’d always tried to be a reasonably decent human being, but reading this made me rethink the way that I wanted my life to be. It is the story of a man who returns from the first world war and begins to question his place in society. He finds the trappings of modern western life, and its values, empty and meaningless – its focus on making money, selfishness and greed. He then searches for something meaningful in his own life, through education, religion and travel, and explores his relationships to others.

The message in this book immediately resonated with me; that there is much more to life than the pursuit of money, essential though some of it it might be to my survival. Other people mattered. Helping others was important. What is called the spiritual life, whether or not you believe in a god or not, was an important part of us all.

5. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.

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Are you serious? you ask. How could this book be an influence on your life? One of the first science fiction books, and admirable for that, but an influence?

Well, it is easily told, and the answer will probably surprise you. This book provided the initial impetus for me to become a vegetarian.

Yes, a vegetarian. There is a passage in the book where the narrator recoils with disgust as the Martians take the blood from still-living humans for their nutrition, but then comments that it was probably the same reaction as an intelligent rabbit would feel observing our own eating habits. That made me consider whether it was necessary for me to eat meat, and I came to the conclusion that no, it was not.

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Coffee; my drug of choice!

At least, the first thing in the morning, it is.

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I just don’t understand why it is that having a perfectly average 7 or 8 hours of sleep each night should turn me from a (relatively) normal and functioning human being, into an extra from ‘Return of the Neanderthal’ – and a non-speaking extra at that, other than the occasional ‘ug’ or snarl.

Of course, if I get less than 7 or 8 hours, then I resemble something that hasn’t even made it as far up the evolutionary ladder as the Neanderthals; some sort of fairly large and irritable beast with too many pointed teeth and a lamentable lack of patience, perhaps.

Just left to my own devices, this would not auger well for my marriage, my blood pressure, or even for the local society and environment.

But if modern medicine can work wonders in curing all sorts of previously fatal diseases, then caffeine of just the right dose seems to be the medicinal panacea for morning.

And being just a layman when it comes to the world of caffeine, I have a childlike wonder at its effects.

I am especially impressed by the strength of the espresso that you get served in cafes in Spain or France, and hence at its effectiveness. The customer crawls in and somehow climbs up onto a bar stool, using their final reserves of energy, croaks out a request for ‘espresso!’, then uses the last of their strength to lift the tiny cup to their lips…they drink…and Bingo! They leap suddenly into the air as if energised by a bolt of electricity, and then rush out of the cafe, singing lustily, to do a 16 hour day’s work.

And proper Turkish coffee, an extremely effective if much tastier substitute for asphalt, just has me in awe. Are there really people who are able to drink this each day? Every day?

Superhuman.

I doff my cap to them.

I take mine a little weaker than that, I admit, but I do like it relatively strong, and without milk or sugar – exactly the way that nature intended it.

Naturally, instant coffee just does not cut it, although I do admit than it can be effective at combating fatigue; many years ago when I worked in the Middle East, I noticed that one or two of the men who worked shifts at our company would eat the occasional mouthful of instant coffee powder when they were tired, presumably to help them get through the following few hours.

But despite that, I just have not found an instant coffee that seems drinkable. Nothing can match the real thing, for me.

And lest you fear that I am doing myself irreparable damage by flooding my system with strong coffee throughout the day, let me just say here that for me it is an early morning ritual only, and after that I drink tea (a good Darjeeling, naturally!).

But now it is lunchtime. I have got through another morning.

Thank you, coffee. Thank you.

Where’s that damned kettle?

Happy Holi!

Happy Holi to all of my Indian readers!

And, of course, to everyone else, too!

Holi is the Hindu spring festival, and is celebrated primarily in the north of India, as well as in Nepal. It is not generally observed much in the south, since spring was confiscated ages ago and there they have seasons defined by being either wet or dry, or fairly hot as opposed to very hot.

I was in India for Holi in both 2004 and 2005. The first year, I was assured by everyone I met (both Indian and foreigner) that I would be wise to hide in my room for the duration of Holi, and so that was what I did. The following year, I decided that I would join in, come what may.

March 25th 2005. Holi; eve.

This year Holi coincides exactly with Easter, which seems odd but makes perfect sense, really. They are both spring festivals, and we’ve just passed the equinox. You wouldn’t have any idea that it’s Easter here, though. The whole thing started today, as all the shops started closing early from Midday, and a few children who couldn’t wait began stalking the streets like miniature ragged versions of Clint Eastwood. By nightfall, a fair amount of alcohol and bhang – cannabis in an edible form, a speciality of Holi – had been consumed and, despite being invited to the evening celebration by a couple of Indian friends, my friend and I decided to stay in the Guest House.

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A huge bonfire had been built in the middle of the dried up river, and by 9pm a huge crowd had gathered on the bridge (being India, all male and predominantly young) with lighted firebrands and a goodly amount of noise. After a while the shouting began to resemble more and more the chanting at a football match, the bonfire was lit and people swarmed across the bridge swinging their torches round and around. At this point, we felt that our vantage point on the roof was perfectly adequate.

March 26th 2005. Holi; Day one.

The following morning the fun really started. This is when there is license to soak everyone and everything in dye and gulal (powder): people, cars, rickshaws, passing dogs, whatever. The first few hours of the morning really are not a good time to be out, since this is when the mud and other unpleasantness’s (stones, dung) are quite often used as missiles We nipped down the road when the coast was clear for breakfast, then holed up until lunchtime back at the guesthouse. At lunchtime we returned to the same cafe, since very few were open and this is the nearest in any case. Soon a party of Indians arrived, some of whom we knew, who screeched to a halt in a car, came in loaded with beer and whisky, got the bhang out and very loudly invited us to join them. We made our excuses and left as soon as we could.

At this stage, I had already had a couple of hits from the kids (all of which seemed good-natured) and so I went over to the Foundation where I was working, where I had been invited to join in the festivities in the afternoon. As I approached the village, it became clear that I was not even going to reach the Foundation without much celebration (I guess that’s the best word). A few soakings from kids, then as soon as I plunged into the alleyway that led to the Foundation, A group of men emerged from a house, there was a fair amount of liquid dye squirted around, then handshakes and we swapped gulal markings (on each other’s foreheads, like cast marks) and I was presented with a piece of buttered toast soaked in milk for Holi – I had this last year, it’s actually rather nice! This activity then escalated until I reached the Foundation, where I walked into what felt like a carefully laid ambush, but was actually just the on-going hi jinks.

In no time at all, I was soaked from head to foot in dye and gulal. All the Foundation kids were there, plus the adults, and it also seemed as though half the village were charging in and out. Colours were flying in all directions, people rubbed handfuls of the stuff into each other’s faces and hair, handfuls of powder were dabbed on feet, on foreheads. We rubbed foreheads together, spreading the powder further and someone tipped a whole bucket of blue dye over me from behind. A man from the village, who was the father of one of the children in the school, swapped gulal marks with me and said ‘now I am your son.’ I probably should have replied ‘and I am your father’ but I just smiled and said that I was honoured. It seemed okay, because he beamed and gave me a great bear hug.

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After an hour or so of this, it begins to wind down and the kids are slowly introduced to soap at the pump. Eventually we return to the guest house and I spend an extremely long time in the shower trying to remove the worst of the dye. Most of it eventually comes out, but I suspect the turquoise will be on me when I return to England. Goodness, I’ve got dye in the parts that other beers can’t reach!

By then it is evening, and we decide to try the other cafe that is open, since the party still seems to be going full-pelt in our usual one. We go in and, whilst impressed at the variety and quantity of insect life that it is possible to fit into one small cafe, decide that perhaps it is not the place to eat. We return to the first cafe, where there is an equally impressive array of human detritus – stoned, drunk and asleep. We eat, we go.

March 27th 2005. Holi; day two. Easter Sunday. Whatever.

I go into town after breakfast, where there is a little desultory squirting going on (don’t titter), but mainly people (at least young males) seem to be gathering in groups. There is one on the Tibetan Market ground and one on the river bed by the bridge. I’m not sure of the significance, but it seems to involve small bonfires and noise. Not much else seems to be happening.

After lunch, I walk over to the Foundation. It is still very quiet as I walk over, the bridge almost deserted and the only noise from some parties in the distance. As I walk towards the Foundation, the noise level rises and I turn the corner to see the afternoon’s entertainment in full swing, on the open ground in front of the Foundation.

A clay pot is suspended from a rope that hangs between two poles, containing coloured water and a load of rupee coins. Beneath it are twenty or thirty village lads engaged in attempting to reach it. This they have to do by means of making a human pyramid. To be successful, it must reach three persons high. To complicate matters ever so slightly, an equal number of lads hurl dye, water, mud and straw, etc, at them as they climb. The passage of time is enlivened whenever a rickshaw or bicycle attempt to get past, with predictable results. One group of three on a motorbike particularly unwisely decide to hoot imperiously at the group as it approaches. It and its riders immediately disappear beneath a deluge of water, dye, straw, mud, etc.

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It takes two to three hours before one lad successfully reaches the pot, hanging by one hand from the rope and tipping out the dye and rupees onto the crowd below. The waiting children swoop, and everybody slowly drifts away.

Bumping into a friend in the evening, it turns out that she spent the afternoon at a teacher’s house (she works at a school) where it was music, dancing and feasting. Lots of decorum. Really not the same.

My Father in India

They didn’t talk about it.

It wasn’t as bad as the First World War, when men who had nervous breakdowns were frequently shot for cowardice, but the men of the generation who fought in the Second World War were still reluctant to talk about the hardships they had faced and the horrors they had seen.

When my father did talk to me about it, and it was very rare that he would, it was generally to joke about the fun that he’d had on leave, or, after my first visit to India, to ask about places that he remembered from Delhi.

He had seen fighting in Burma, and stayed in India right up to the time of Partition. He certainly wasn’t going to talk about either of those. When pushed, he’d clam up about Burma, and would only say that what he’d seen in India at the time of Partition was horrible.

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I daresay he told me one or two things that I have forgotten; things that didn’t mean much to me at the time. Perhaps he told me where he had been when he was on leave and was photographed rowing a boat on a lake in the hills; almost certainly in the North of India. Nainital, perhaps? I have been there myself, now, and I’m not certain. If he had told me before I’d been out there, the name would have meant nothing to me, and so I wouldn’t have remembered it.

And by then it was too late to ask him, because he died before I returned for my second visit.

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Once he had returned to England, he never went back to India, and I certainly never had the impression that he wanted to. I guess that the bad memories must have outweighed the good ones.

I have a dictionary that he bought in Delhi, stamped inside the cover ‘Cambridge Book Depot, New Delhi’ with the price scribbled in pencil; Rs 3/12, and his signature. I also had some old Indian coins, once, that he had given me, but I’m not sure where they are now. Other than the photographs, I’m not aware that he brought anything else back. Certainly, there were never any ‘curios’. Although a part of me wonders whether there might have been once, and whether my mother, a staunch Christian, might have thrown them out after they married. But that is pure conjecture.

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And he was interested enough to read books on India’s history. I was surprised, occasionally, on the depth of his knowledge on the subject. He was, though, always interested in history, so I suppose that I shouldn’t have been really, and if he hadn’t have been born working class, I daresay that he might have had a university education, because he excelled at school.

Most of the photos are in fairly poor condition, although I have attempted to improve a couple of the ones that were particularly bad.

It seems strange to think of soldiers as tourists, but whilst they were on leave in India, that is, of course, exactly what they were. There are one or two photos in his collection that were taken of places I have been. One of them is of a view inside the Red Fort of Delhi that differs only in the size of the tree in the picture from one that I took in 1989.

He must have stood in exactly the same spot to take that picture, some 45 years before.

What does this small slice of family history mean for me?

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It does mean that there is a slight family connection to India, if not in the way that usually comes to mind. He had no family there, and had no responsibilities beyond his army duties, but just the fact of his living out there for a number of years, gives me this connection. Or so I like to think of it.

In the end, India wove its magic over me – nothing much to do with Dad, I suppose, although I expect that was in the mix somewhere. I think that part of why I may have gone out there the first time, was to follow in his footsteps. And now my family can say that they have a connection to India through the time that I have spent out there as well.

Desert Island Books

There is a weekly program on BBC radio that has been running for almost seventy five years now, called Desert Island Discs. The format is that a well-known, or not so well-known, person is interviewed for forty five minutes on the premise that they are to be stranded on a desert island, and that they can take eight pieces of music with them, so which ones would they choose and why? They are also asked to select a favourite book and a luxury item, and are given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. This, then, is my take on it, substituting books for pieces of music. The obvious advantage of this is that I don’t have to rescue a gramophone from the shipwreck as I crawl through the surf towards safety. The disadvantage becomes obvious just as soon as I look at our bookshelves or glance through my Goodreads lists. What not to take?

So, I bite the bullet. I think that I’ll do this in a kind of chronological order, and the first choice actually proves to be an easy one; it is The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. I still have the copy that my father bought for me when I was seven, and this book was probably the first one that I read that had real substance. The story can still captivate me and although there is some surprisingly deep writing for a children’s book of the time (The chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, especially), there is an enchanting innocence flowing through the book, too.

The second book would be The Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. I discovered Hesse when I was eighteen and, having ploughed through the mountain of crime novels that we had in our household, this was the first modern ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ work that I had read by choice. At that time I had, of course, been introduced to works such as ‘Sons and Lovers’ and Shakespeare and Dickens, at school, but this was the first time that I had read a book that really seemed to resonate with my life. There are other works by Hesse that are better, and which I enjoy more, but this was probably the single work that changed the way that I read as an adult. A very short, but deceptively deep and complex book, the Journey to the East is ostensibly the story of a movement in Germany in the early years of the last century, based on spirituality and not a few drugs, and charting the spiritual progress of the narrator within this movement. It still has the power to speak to people today, and not just to old hippies!

The third book would be SeleFeatured imagected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I picked up a copy of this second hand when I was really beginning to discover poetry, and was captivated by the long poem Zima Junction, in which he describes  a visit that he makes as an adult to his family home in the small Siberian town of the same name.  Descriptions of eccentric family, strawberry picking, meals and drinking, cart rides in rainstorms…by the end of the poem you feel that you know and understand the countryside and the society there. It is a poem that I continually go back to re-read.

The fourth book would be The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien. This is another book that I discovered in my late teens. All of my friends and acquaintances at that time were either devouring this book, or Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and this happened to be the one that I picked up. And, having picked it up, I really did sit up reading it through the night, taking a short nap the following morning and then reading through to the end that evening. I don’t suppose I need to describe it to anyone, since the plot is known to most, either through the book or through the Peter Jackson movies. There is a tendency to denigrate the story in many quarters, yet I feel that this has a lot to do with the fact that elves and dragons are not to everyone’s grown up tastes. The story, though, is well constructed and true to its author’s created world. It is just a damned good page-turner, really.

I have to include a travel book in my list, since I read so many of them, and this is the hardest choice that I would have to make. However, the fifth book would be The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. When it was released, there was so much praise for it from almost every reviewer who read it, that it seemed impossible that it could ever live up to the hype. But it does. It is a beautiful evocation of all sorts of ancient paths around the world, from Neolithic footprints in the sea to desert trails. It is also a book that should be embraced by anyone with sympathies for the slow book movement.

The sixth book is Devices and Desires by P D James. Although it is not the best murder mystery that I have ever read, or even, perhaps, her best, it was a surprise when I discovered it to find that there were more exciting ways to write in that genre than the ones that I had read before; Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and others. I read the first chapter and suddenly literary murder seemed dark and terrible, whereas before it always seemed a bit of a jolly game and an intellectual puzzle.

The seventh book is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. One of those books that is technically written for young adults, it is a powerful, emotional rollercoaster of a read. As the Second World War looms, Liesel arrives at her foster home in a suburb of Munich. She has seen her brother die, and been left by her mother who can no longer care for her. Now she has a new family; the foul-mouthed Rosa and her husband Hans. As the family and their neighbours try to survive amidst the increasing horrors of the war, an unexpected visitor comes to stay – Max, a Jew fleeing the slaughter. Funny, sad, devastating and hopeful, often all at once, with a cast of characters you will fall in love with, the book builds to a very powerful climax.

The eighth book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the hype and hysteria currently surrounding the release of Go Set a Watchman, but is because I only got around to reading it this year, and found it to be far better than I had imagined it could ever be. And, talking of that hype, in Atticus Finch I discovered a literary hero.

My luxury would be unlimited reams of writing paper and pens. And the book? Uh, I think we’ve covered that one. Perhaps, since I’ve changed the pieces of music to books, I should substitute the choice of a piece of music for the book that the BBC guests choose, but then I’d be back to dragging that gramophone through the surf, and so I really can’t be bothered. It would only spoil the peace and quiet of the island.

‘Thank you, Mick.’

‘No, thank you, Kirsty.’