In Pat Shipman’s recent book, The Invaders (Harvard University Press, 2015), she argues that our last close relative, the Neanderthals, were driven to extinction not solely by climate change – though that played its part – but by the incursion of an invasive species: homo sapiens. We modern humans – the invaders of Pat’s title – completely changed the ecosystem when we arrived in Eurasia between 45 and 50 thousand years ago and made life much tougher for our Neanderthal cousins. One of our critical advantages, Shipman believes, may have been that we domesticated the wolf as a hunting companion much earlier than previously thought, as early as 32,000 years ago.
Last week Indian-American novelist Akhil Sharma won the Folio Prize for his novel Family Life. I met Akhil when he visited London last spring to talk about his eagerly awaited second book. Akhil was born in New Delhi and migrated to the US in the late seventies. Having initially pursued a career in investment banking, he came to prominence as a writer in 2001 with his first acclaimed novel, An Obedient Father, which won that year’s Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award (available from Faber). Akhil Sharma was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007, so expectations around his second novel were considerable, but the process of writing that book was for Akhil a long and painful one – as you’ll hear in this interview, he likens the many drafts the book went through to a war of attrition. It’s testament to Akhil’s skill that the reader is unaware of those years of labour, as she races through the story of Ajay Mishra who, like his creator, came to America aged eight, and like his creator had a brother who was left permanently brain-damaged by a terrible swimming pool accident, which changed the lives of everyone in the family beyond recognition. It’s a story of immigration and of illness, yes, but perhaps most of all, as the title puts it with disarming simplicity, a story of family life, warts and all, told with humour, warmth, and a complete absence of sentimentality. This novel comes with a reputation of having been a dozen years in the making, so my first question for Akhil was about the transition from those years at his desk to at last going out into the world to talk about it.
I had the pleasure of chairing Rosamund Bartlett‘s event at the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday afternoon in which she talked about Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, and the experience of producing the first new translation of the novel for Oxford World’s Classics in almost a century.
For people who didn’t make it to the event, I thought I would repost this interview I did with Rosamund last summer in my (fledgling) Conversations with Translators series.
“Evolutionary success is not a birthright nor is it a guarantor of survival in perpetuity. Natural selection wrought the living ape species, and like all animals their time on Earth is limited by changing environments, the emergence of competing species, predators, and the like. Some species cope well in a variety of environments. Such generalists are often abundant and hang around for many millions of years. Other species lack such evolved-in versatility. Nearly all of the billions of creatures that have ever lived are now extinct, and the vast majority of ape species are just a few more members of the club. We may some day join them. But until that distant day comes, this Earth is all we have, and the four great apes will be our only extended family. Along with their very distant relatives, dolphins and elephants, they are the most socially complex creatures with whom we share our world.”
Craig Standford, Planet without Apes
Professor Craig Stanford’s recent book, Planet without Apes (Harvard University Press), looks at the plight of our four closest relatives – the chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and orang utan – all of which have been driven to the brink of extinction through the destruction of their habitat, poaching, and disease. (2011 estimates put their combined numbers in the wild at between 300 and 400,000.) Craig’s message in the book is not despairing, but it is stark – urgent, coordinated action is needed if we are to avoid eradicating within decades these highly social animals whose intelligence and culture we have only recently begun to understand.
[Picture credits: chimpanzee – Craig Stanford; author in Uganda – Erin Moore. Reproduced with thanks.]
(This is the first in a projected new series of “five-minute podcasts”: I’m aware that I overshot that limit in this instance but the magic five minutes is probably a goal to work towards rather than a target to expect to hit first time… I could easily have asked Craig questions for an hour – I’ve long been interested in primatology – but I’m hoping to expand the podcast audience by giving listeners just enough to whet their appetite and also reason to go and explore the books discussed.)
I thought this might be an appropriate time to re-post my interview with Graham Farmelo from December 2013 about Winston Churchill’s interest in science and in particular nuclear weapons. Click on the player above to listen to the interview. Here’s what I said about the book in my introduction:
I first became aware of Graham’s work a decade ago at Granta, where he had that rarest of things, a bestseller about equations, called It Must Be Beautiful. I interviewed him a few years ago for the Faber podcast when his biography of fellow physicist Paul Dirac came out; that book, entitled The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Award and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize. Graham and I met up again recently at Faber’s offices in Bloomsbury to talk about his new book, Churchill’s Bomb, a fascinating and pacy story of how Britain became a nuclear power, seen through the lens of Winston Churchill’s career.
Graham shows that Churchill’s interest in science – especially as it applied to the changing nature of warfare – ran all the way through his career. He was a devoted reader and sometime friend of that great speculator on the future, H.G. Wells. And Churchill himself pondered the nuclear question in his writing. In 1937, He contemplated the destructive potential that science’s mastery of nature held out – at a time when many scientists still doubted a nuclear bomb was achievable – and asked “Are we fit for it?”
Churchill’s Bomb provides an absorbing exploration of what happens when scientists encounter the pragmatic world of politics, and of whether politicians can cope with the power that scientists were increasingly able to place in their hands. As Graham says in this interview: ‘the availability of nuclear energy at the time when the world was plunged into its biggest conflict was one of the cruellest tricks that fate played on the human race in the twentieth century’. The book is also the story of how the centre of nuclear physics shifted from Britain to the United States, and the coming into being of post-war geopolitics in which nuclear capability would loom so large.
One of the most enjoyable interviews I recorded last year was with poet David Harsent. I’ve long been an admirer of David’s work; since I first encountered in the early 1990s, in fact, when David was on the long-departed Oxford Poets list and I was the junior editor, whose duties were mainly putting things in envelopes. Around the same time, I saw a TV production of Birtwistle’s Gawain, for which David wrote the libretto, which also made a deep impression on me. So I was delighted by the news a couple of weeks ago that David had won this year’s T.S. Eliot prize for his latest collection, Fire Songs.
Click on the link above to listen to the first part of our conversation. Here’s what I said about the book in the introduction to the podcast:
Reviewing his previous collection, Night, in the Independent, Fiona Sampson said: ‘Truly significant poets write like no one else, and David Harsent is both sui generis and unsurpassed.’ If anything, I would say that this new collection attains even greater heights – heights of linguistic concentration, haunting imagery – by turn dreamlike and nightmarish – thematic complexity in the interweaving of the book’s recurring preoccupations, and sheer visceral power.
In recent years, we have grown increasingly familiar with the destructive force of water, the nightmare of a world slowly drowning more common than an overheating world consumed by flames. But, although water and fire sometimes coexist in this book, it is the power of the latter which runs insistently through it: Fires manmade and natural; fires that erase and destroy and transform.
If fire is inescapable, the recurrent figure of the rat in Fire Songs is ineradicable – ‘survivor of fire and flood’, as Harsent says. It’s a creature that occupies the margin of our dreams, and emerges unscathed after the apocalypse with designs on inheriting the earth.
Rapacious like us prolific like us omnivorous like us prodigal like us
Unremitting like us like us a killer of its own kind
In this first part of the interview, we talk about fire, war and its aftermath, and the rat. In the second part, we go on to discuss three poems David wrote in response to his experience of living with tinnitus, and conclude with a discussion of religion – in particular the disquieting figure of the Trickster Christ – and a complete reading of the first of the Fire Songs.
Here, in tribute to P.D. James, who died last week, is my interview with her from 2011 in which she looks back over her career.
To coincide with his giving this year’s Reith Lectures, I thought I would re-release this interview with Atul Gawande from 2011, in which I spoke to him about The Checklist Manifesto and how something as simple as a checklist could have dramatic, positive benefits in healthcare.
“We have people at the frontline who have great expertise – we couldn’t have people in medicine who are better trained, working harder, or given more technology to get their jobs done – and yet the puzzle is that for many of the steps along the way, such as in surgery, we have seven million people a year globally left disabled or dead through complications. At least half the time, we know that it’s from failures to use knowledge that already exists, steps in care that could have avoided it. And so understanding how we close the gaps, not just of ignorance but, for want of a better word, what we have to call ineptitude, is fundamental.”
In the December edition of Le Monde diplomatique, Rafael Barajas and fellow journalist Pedro Miguel have written about Mexico’s current state of crisis after the disappearance of 43 students from a rural teacher training college in September. It appears that they were handed over by the police to organized criminals who subsequently killed them.
If such horrific things are possible, then President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Mexico has become a terrorist state, Barajas and Miguel argue, concerned principally with defending the interests of those who gain from the multi-billion dollar drugs trade against the people, using violence and intimidation to make the lives of many ordinary Mexicans unbearable. ‘Beheadings’, Rafael told me, ‘have become a part of our daily news. So when I rang him in Mexico City on 25 November, I began by asking why – against this backdrop of violence and brutality – the disappearance of these 43 students had provoked such outrage.