Friday, March 13, 2020

Two at a time

A long-established habit of mine is to have two books on the go at the same time. More often than not one of them will be fiction, but then that’s not always the case. Whatever the combination might be at any one time I often tend to find that the two different texts interact with one another in unpredictable ways. And what’s more their subject matter or themes can often connect with what I’m writing about in my professional life, and I suppose that’s down to the sense I’m actively making in the moment, as it were. Reason aside, it feels like a productive way of proceeding. But then there’s always room for exceptions, and the two I’ve just completed over the last few days have combined in altogether surprising ways and ways that don’t relate to anything I’m writing about at all. Michel Serres’ book Hominescence, which I commented on before, is a really engaging overview of those recent shifts that have led to a changed experience of what it means to be human, to be globally connected and to have become an all-powerful species on the planet. And then Europe: the first 100 million years, by palaeontologist Tim Flannery, traces the long and diverse history of fauna on our continent – including for example wisent, aurochs, elephants, big cats and a long succession of hominids and hybrids. Of course, Flannery works on a larger timescale in which periods of interdependence, species dominance and extinction move across the landscape of Europe like shadows cast by moving cloud. In some senses you could say that Hominescence expands on Flannery’s final chapters, and certainly some of Serres’ ethical considerations gain traction when we consider the variety of rewilding projects and ecological conundrums that are described in the Europe book. But what unites the two authors is actually a sense of optimism. Flannery is stronger on detail when it comes to climate change but he still believes that humans can turn things around. And although there’s a wistful tone to Serres’ recollections of pre-war France there’s still a strong commitment to the future possibilities of global connection. And now that very idea of inter-connected humanity comes to the fore when considering responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. It could well be a test case for hominescence. Can we work together across national and political boundaries to do what is best? Only time will tell. And in the meantime it’s a case of what to read next and that will become even more significant to me if we decide to increase social distance. What better way to spend the time; two at a time.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Meeting the King

The only time I met a king was when I was trekking in Zanskar in Northern India - and even that's not quite true because although his father was a king, Phunstok Dawa could not claim that rank. He wasn't that easy to track down. We picked our way through the rocky backstreets of old Padum and had to ask passers-by for directions on several occasions. When we eventually found him we were given a very warm welcome, invited into his house and served tea and biscuits. Phunstok had a joyful manner and relished the opportunity to reminisce about his past, recalling for our benefit a lifetime of encounters with intrepid English travellers, adventurers, researchers and even a BBC film crew. Most of this occurred before the road reached remote Padum and consequently quite a while before the advent of mass tourism. He told us that as a young man he had made some important friendships and asked us if we could help him track down some of them. We tried hard to memorise their names but because of language and accent we were never exactly sure whether we'd got it right. I remember jotting down some possible names in a notebook and promising that I'd try my best. Phunstok had email and by walking down to the internet cafe in the newer part of the town he could use it, but he wasn't entirely confident that he could remember the address. As it turned out he probably got it wrong, but that's a longer story. Back home in England I tried a number of searches with little success. In amongst the names was someone, perhaps associated with the West Country or Bristol, whose surname was Crowther, Crowley or Crowden and he lay claim to being the first European to spend the winter in Zanskar since the Hungarian linguist Cosma de Koros! Cosma was there in 1826 working on the first dictionary of the Tibetan language (incidentally you can still visit the place where he stayed and it's a particularly remote perch overlooking a deep valley). Anyway after several attempts I located someone - just about the right sort of age - an author and poet by the name of James Crowden and that turned out to be our man. He was quick to get back on email and we worked out that it was nearly 45 years since his long stay in Zanskar! I remember saying that I hoped he'd write it all up and he soon got back to say that he was working on it. James also planned to go out and visit Phunstok, but I don't know whether he's managed to do that yet. But the good news is that the book is now in print. It's called The Frozen River: Seeking silence in the Himalaya. Phunstok is an educated man, a former teacher and I hope he gets to see a copy! I have fond memories of meeting 'the king'.