Review — “The Green Roads of England” — R Hippisley Cox

The Green Roads of EnglandThe Green Roads of England

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable little book, made more interesting by describing  areas local to me. Because I am local, I think I enjoyed the books a little more than a reader with no local knowledge might. I note this as the last couple of chapters — where the roads discussed were in Berkshire, Hertfordshire and east, and in Gloucester and north — weren’t quite as interesting to me as the early chapters, which centered around Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset — the Wessex Ridgeway is closer to my interests than the roads to the east. If you don’t know any of the areas discussed in the book, you might find it all a bit overwhelming, as names of towns and villages and roads and hill forts tumble in succession — especially as there are few detailed maps within the text to act as a guide.

I feel maps are what the book sorely lacked. Yes, there are a few summary maps at the end of the book, but these aren’t large enough in scale to highlight details discussed in the book. The text is illustrated with pencil sketches of local countryside and plans of hill forts, but these felt superfluous. Yes, the hill forts might be important in helping assess the route of the old roads, but in a book that was short of maps, the sketches and plans seemed an unnecessary frivolity that diverted from useful cartography, no matter how basic.

I haven’t been able to find much about Hippisley Cox on the Web, so I don’t know his standing as an expert on roads, trackways or archeology; and a comment in the last chapter leads me to think he was an enthusiastic amateur. The interesting hypothetical tidbits he tosses into early chapters might, therefore, be entirely unfounded — however, they are, nonetheless, intriguing, and accord with some recent thoughts of my own.

If you are intrigued by roads, byways, and tracks, there’s much of interest in this book, particularly if you’re a native of, or a regular visitor, to the areas which Hippisley Cox describes. Was Avebury the hub of the southern, prehistoric road network? I’m still unsure, but it was fun to retrace some old routes.

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Review – “Total Man” – Stan Gooch

Total ManTotal Man by Stan Gooch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the one of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition. This was so long I started it last year and only finished this year!]

When I first read this back in 1977, I remember finding it interesting – but this time it has been most dull. And long! At nearly 600 pages, it could easily have been much (much) shorter. Back then, this would have been one of my first introductions to psychology, and  popular science, and it was also full of notions that seemed novel and interesting: essentially explaining “The Divided Self” as instantiated in brain structures and through them in culture, left hand and right hand, female and male, psychotic and neurotic, conscious and subconcious; a lot of polarities compared and contrasted (but with many fuzzy bits pruned).

Reading it this time, however, in a less innocent and more critical mode, I couldn’t help noticing quite how ridiculously speculative it all is, with lots of “if this is the case”, “if we were to suppose”, “if we can conclude”. If you ignore the hypothetical nature of the claims and just focus on the claims generated by the hypotheticals, it can all seem quite plausible, but the long chains of inferences seems a little weak to carry the bridge across the Gulf of Possible Nonsense.

As to the hypothetical nature of the arguments, you will find (opening the book at random) chains of sentences like this: “This is probably a serious misconception”… “was probably after all first on the scene”…. “Is it not far more likely“… “This is perhaps yet one of the further meanings”… “To generalise at this point”… “This claim is somewhat borne out”… “the difference may be perceived” “For reasons …by no means entirely clear“… “the possible exceptions to this statement”… “one has suggested…” (My italics) Webs of speculation feed into mazes of conjecture that terminate in knots of problematic conclusions. Because the conclusions rest upon so many interlinked hypotheticals, I began to find myself asking, “but what if it isn’t likely, or probable, or not borne out at all”, and so on.

The book is also structured in a way that hinders reading. Footnotes abound, but these are often additional speculations or clarifications associated with points just made. Many, many of these could have been added within the flow of the text, and in some cases might have helped the argument. As it was, I found myself breaking the flow of reading to jump to another point, and then having to regain my rhythm. Additionally, almost out of the blue, towards the end of the books and after spending 500 pages  describing Systems A and B — their polarity, their links, their conflicts, their associations with psychology — System C pops up. That a System C should exist after the previous speculations kind of makes sense — a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of A and B. But there has been little to prepare the reader for this kind of synthesis, although, of course, it explains the Total Man of the title. Yet, one also feels that this is also a way to marry Gooch’s theories with other world views involving trinities, which couldn’t be ignored if as he used culture, religion and literature as evidence.

The book also became vehicle for other pet theories of Gooch’s that appeared in later books. One is tempted to think that he wanted to get these ideas out in some form in case he never got another book deal. For example, there is a very (very) long section on the differences and conflicts between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons that takes up nearly eighty pages — and yet by the end of it I had lost the thread of Gooch’s argument. This conflict was to become the subject of his “The Neanderthal Question” (and other later books). Similarly, there’s a short (and, again, confusing) section on probability and chance (when discussing the I Ching) that he expanded in his “The Paranormal” to even more confusing effect.

The book isn’t entirely without merit, and introduced me, 40 years ago, when I was young and not so widely-read, to a lot topics and notions. But it is a slog, and it is not well-structured, so come prepared for the long knitting session involved in handling the skein of suppositions.

Review – “The Private Future” – Martin Pawley

The Private FutureThe Private Future by Martin Pawley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the first of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition.]

When Martin Pawley died in 2008, obituaries were quick to latch onto the seeming far-sightedness of The Private Future. This book of “social prophecy”, The Guardian said, provided evidence of “how penetrating Pawley’s vision could be”. It was, for The Independent “one of his prescient books”. Published in hardback in 1973, the paperback edition of 1974 has emblazoned on the front cover, “With all the force of FUTURE SHOCK” in an attempt to ride the coat tails of Toffler’s publishing wonder, a serious book of cultural analysis that became an international best-seller. The paperback of Pawley’s book was soon remaindered, however; I picked it up in a bargain bin at Woolworth’s in 1976 or so.

The book contends that individuals in Western culture are becoming more private. People are becoming islands unto themselves as family and community broke down. What was the cause of this breakdown? Here, the book becomes less prescient, and instead fits into a general pattern of cultural analysis of the fifties and sixties. Among the causes are, of course, consumerism, and the rise of popular culture and the media that carried that culture – cinema, television and radio. “Can these shoals of anonymous commuters,” he wonders, “fed on sports reports and salacious advertising really be called communities? Are these thinly populated, fenced-off brick boxes really the homes of families? Do ten or twenty million of them amount to a society? Surely not.” (p.8) The tenor is very 1970s: “shoals of anonymous commuters”, “fenced off brick boxes”, “sports reports and salacious advertising” – against popular culture, against space, light and suburban homes for the masses, and reducing people to anonymous “shoals”.

Although The Guardian might regard Pawley as “prescient”, his critique is of the extant society, the future he foresaw was very much his now. The conditions for the private future were already there – the future would merely bring further privatisation and the withering of community. This is not a vision for now. As Pawley notes “The conditions of life have changed dramatically over the last thirty years… ” (p.16). And the society these changes have brought about – in which families have become smaller as children leave home and elders move to retirement homes or nursing homes, in which there are no connections with shop assistants, because ” with modern objects like fridges and freezers, [there is] no need to visit shops as often” – is the society Pawley is describing in the 1970s.

The book itself is rather slim, 200 pages in the paperback edition, and is more polemic than penetrating analysis. There is no bibliographic information, and few references to other sociologists or hard data; the book stands or falls on the basis of Pawley’s insights, rather than evidence adduced from other sources. The books rambles somewhat – for example, because of the concentration on consumerism as a facet of privatisation, there is anti-capitalist rant, yet this somehow feels shoe-horned into the argument. The book is also sometimes contradictory – for example, you might wonder if Pawley desires the private future, rather than being against it. And is he for or against freedom and emancipation? You would think he would be for both things. Yet he rails against the washing machines and fridges that enable women more free time (and thus to work and to become politically involved) because they do not require somebody (usually, in the 1960s, a wife) to visit shops, or otherwise be involved in the community.

How prescient, then, was Pawley? How penetrating was his vision? Interestingly, both The Guardian and The Independent were making their comments after Pawley’s death in 2008. Who could have foreseen <i>then</i> quite the power of the social networks </>now</i>? It was easy to concentrate on headphones and the Walkman and the iPod, and view them as symbols of self-sufficiency, of inwardness, of privatisation. And yet, even then, we were already 30 years on from Pawley’s book. Some elements of those notions might have been true. Yet the idea that there were no longer communities, families or other social groupings seems a little misplaced. Certainly, some types of community might have declined – trades unions certainly, the nuclear family to an extent – yet, even in the mid-2000s, other communities had developed, some internet-based (chatrooms, newsgroups), some around media and popular culture (people sharing discussions at work about television programs), some around formal and informal groupings in the real world (membership of the National Trust, for example). With more leisure time (because of those fridges and washing machines) came more time to appreciate nature, or history, or architecture, and to develop local communities based around these pursuits.

All of the above are, I feel, still true. Technology, capitalism, the individualist drive within us, the desire for freedom and liberation might well lead to the decline of some forms of community, but these things also lead to the growth of new communities and the re-organisation of others. The drive to feel part of a community, to be shaped by a community, to take part in community is still there within us, and is now partly driven by social media. Yes, this media is currently divisive, but it enables the creation of communities and cultures that shape and are shaped by us. Yes, it creates echo chambers, but what are these but the reflections of particular communities that still exist “out there” IRL, as we used to say (lol). And, yes, we might interact <i>in private</i> with the devices that enable these communities, as private individuals, but community still exists in these new forms, through these media, just as family continues to exist in new,  changed and sometimes radical, forms.

Reading The Private Future forty years on is not, then, to rediscover a hidden classic that explains the world as it is now. It is a book that attempted to explain some aspects of the world as it was then, a book that seemed unsure if it wanted to stop the process it foresaw or celebrate it. It is, however, in its own, dated, way, an interesting read. It is now a history of the way some aspects of the world once were, and might have become – a retro what-if for a world that quickly changed after the book was written to become something else, somewhere else with different people in it.

A two star review may seem paltry, but in the Goodreads world, that means I thought “it was Ok”.  And if you are interested in sociology, cultural studies, history or politics, and discover this book second-hand, pick it up. You might find yourself intrigued by what it was saying about the private then.

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A Year (and a bit) of Manic Editing

As I noted in an earlier post, things have been a bit slow on this blog for over a year now. This is because I have been editing books, preparing to send manuscripts to agents, sending them to agents, doing more editing, getting other books ready for self-publishing, and so on. And as I write every day for a living (I’m a technical author by trade), I’ve had no time to add blog-posting to the authorial mix. However, I’m hoping that I might temporarily find more time as I’ve just self-published a novel, so I’m not currently editing or writing … well, not for a couple of days, at least…

I talked about History of a Mystery: Fifty Years of the Warminster Thing in that earlier post. In addition to that book, I have published two other books over the last eighteen months.

The first of the books published was The Dead John Miscellany. Six years ago now, one of my best friends, and my co-author on In Alien Heat, died. He had made me executor of his estate, and I knew he wrote stories, poems and lyrics. I also knew he was reluctant to share them, as he could never finish editing them, and anyway thought they could never match the standard of his heroes. I also knew that though many of his friends knew he wrote, few had seen the results of that writing. I decided, therefore, to self-publish a book of his writing that I could give to the other beneficiaries, and also sell on Amazon. After all, should it by any chance sell a million, the beneficiaries would be even better off than John expected!

I finally got around to collating and editing the notebooks and scraps I had found in spring and summer last year. I worked out which were the best drafts, or, at least, which pages from various drafts made the best final draft to my eye and ear. My wife and I then typed them up, formatted them and prepared them for self-publishing. One decision I made early on was to not include in the poetry section the lyrics that John had written for a band we were both part of when we were young. A teenager of the 70s, John had long been an admirer of lyricists, starting with Marc Bolan, and then Pete Sinfield, Peter Hammill, Tom Waits, Mike Scott, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, and so on. The lyrics were to have, then, their own section.

After about six months of editing, drafting, editing, and drafting again, I finally published the book. The beneficiaries were very happy to finally see his writing, and various of his friends bought a copy of the book. I think John would both hate me, and be secretly pleased, were he not an atheist who is utterly dead.

So what is John’s writing like? Odd and elliptical, full of symbolism and ritual, and making oblique references to the I Ching, religion, sirens and funerary rites. Everything has an air of elusive and illusive mystery. There is one particular obsession I will not reveal, preferring instead to leave the reader to discover.

After The Dead John Miscellany, I worked on the aforementioned History of a Mystery for six months.

Then, having chased a couple of novels around agents, and realising that I wasn’t getting any younger and that preparing and chasing manuscripts around agents was actually preventing me writing another novel, I decided to self-publish the first book in what has become a series of six (or seven) novels.

This first novel, Sorrow Mystica (Dereham Connections: Node 2) had already been drafted many times before being sent to agents. This did not, of course, prevent it being checked and edited twice more; and then, when I went through the process of publishing to CreateSpace, I checked and rechecked the proof about twenty times (and found ugliness on each occasion!). Finally, this week, I decided that I could check no more without going insane, so released it to the world. Sorrow Mystica is a tale of UFOs, human and alien relationships, deceit and obsession.

The imaginary town of Dereham in an imaginary corner of Wiltshire is one of the settings for Sorrow Mystica, and is the location for other books in the Dereham Connections series.

You can get the latest information on Sorrow Mystica and the rest of the Dereham Connections at the Come to Dereham blog.

Fifty Years of Mystery

This blog has rather been in the doldrums since before Christmas. In part, Christmas can be blamed; but I was also tidying up drafts in preparation for (self-) publishing a new book about the Warminster mystery.

The mystery was 50 years old on Christmas day 2014. Until the 1960s, Warminster had never been famous for much. It is an army town, home to the Land Warfare Centre (formerly the School of Infantry). Salisbury Plain, to the north of the town, is used for military manoeuvres and training, including live firing. Very few luminaries had come from the town, and very little had happened there. In the 1960s, that was to change. Warminster was to become famous – notorious even – for its UFO sightings. These UFOs were described in the books of Arthur Shuttlewood, a local journalist. However, these books can only be found, if at all, second-hand, and only take the story of the mystery up until the late 1970s. Much has happened since then that needed recording — not so much UFO sightings, but information on what happened to those who documented the mystery, and the mystery’s slow re-emergence from the half-light of forgotten memories.

The mystery is being discussed and celebrated at a conference in Warminster in August this year (2015). It was in August 1965, during the summer holidays, that the town was first invaded by hordes of curious skywatchers who camped on the hills surrounding the town to look for the mysterious lights and listen out for the strange sounds they had learned about through TV, radio and newspapers, caused by a phenomenon the locals called the Thing.

To provide an introduction to the Warminster mystery — for those who might be new to it or revisiting it after many years — Kevin Goodman and I have written a new book that describes the fifty years of the mystery. The book reviews what happened during the crazy, exciting years of the Warminster mystery, and also what has happened since the mystery faded away. It is not a long list of sighting reports; it is a short history of the events — the lights and sounds — and the media reports and characters that shaped the Thing.


For information on the Warminster mystery, see the UFO Warminster Website.

The Warminster mystery is described in the following currently in-print books:

History of a Mystery: Fifty Years of the Warminster Thing

In Alien Heat: The Warminster Mystery Revisited

UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact

For information on out-of-print books that discuss the Warminster mystery, see the Books page of the UFO Warminster Website.


 

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Review: The Ozone Layer: A Philosophy of Science Perspective

The Ozone Layer: A Philosophy of Science Perspective
The Ozone Layer: A Philosophy of Science Perspective by Maureen Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This reads very much like the thesis from which it seems to have been derived. It is not an easy ready, and feels overly repetitious, and even a little stuctureless. A “question-and-answer” chapter didn’t work particularly well. There were also far too many exclamation marks! and analogies that even the author confesses to not being particularly valid.

Nonetheless, it is a useful introduction to the science of chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone layer, and contains interesting discussions on the philosophy of science; particularly approaches to Popperian falsification that will require a revisit to The Logic of Scientific Discover and Conjectures and Refutations The Growth of Scientific Knowledge – – just as well I had them pencilled in for this year! A chapter on scientific consensus was also interesting, and provided references for further reading.

So – a book with some areas of interest for those with an eye to philosophy of science, a useful introduction to the science, but a text that could have used tighter editing, I feel.

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