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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.

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Tuesday, 26 January 2016


I don't know if I have ever read a war novel before, and I can't say what attracted me to this book when I saw it on the shelf in my local library. Maybe the name? I wondered what a Swiss mountain might have to do with the Vietnam war. And then the usual commendations on the back cover made me think this might be a little different. And I was looking for something out of my usual range of reading, so why not give it a try?

Image result for marlantes matterhornThe story follows Mellas a young 2nd lieutenant drafted into the war in Vietnam. He is an educated and thoughtful man, inclined to self-doubt and introspection, by no means a typical war hero. And in fact there are no heroes in this book, though there are many acts of heroism - on reflection, maybe they are all heroes? Visceral is the word that comes to mind when I try to encapsulate the novel to myself. Marlantes makes no concession to the reader's sensibilities, cultural background or moral framework, but the result is, for me, a work of stunning authenticity. As the novel progressed I found myself becoming accustomed to descriptions of squalor, casual violence, racism, cynical disregard for normal standards of behaviour, self-serving behaviour, and simple human suffering - just as, no doubt, troops in combat become inured to all these things. I started to wonder if in fact, given the same circumstances, my response would be any different? I now feel confident that it would not be and I doubt in fact if I would cope even so well as these young men do. And that is a key point - these are essentially boys, thrown into a conflict they do not understand, with no objectives they can relate to, and lacking any moral certainties. It is remarkable to me that any of them emerged still sane. I have, until now, been fairly sceptical about the concept of post-traumatic stress affecting veterans of war- I just had no idea until I read this book what war consisted of!

Marantes describes the action in the book so matter of factly and in such chilling detail that it can only be based on his own experience. maybe the writing is an exercise in catharsis for him? But this is not by any means an all-action gung-ho adventure; far from it. All the characters, at various points, reflect on their own and their comrades behaviour and their vulnerability is apparent beneath the veneer of cynical language. Their fear is tangible, their devotion to each other and their unit remarkable, and their occasional acts of bravery are inspiring. Mellas eventually comes to realise that only by making the best choices he can for his comrades in their particular situation can he make any sense of his life - wider responsibilities are irrelevant.

This is a novel set in the Vietnam war, but it could be about any war anywhere. It really should be compulsory reading for all politicians who have the power and responsibility to choose whether or not to contemplate warfare. It is a worthwhile read for anybody who has never been in battle, in fact for anybody who is interested in human nature.

Friday, 22 January 2016

What are the impacts of climate change near you?

The British Isles are perched at the western edge of the Eurasian land mass and experience a temperate climate, dominated by the influence of the Atlantic Ocean. British people are notorious for talking about their weather, which is extremely changeable, but rarely think about climate. This paper will however argue that there is clear evidence that the climate of the British Isles is changing and that the impact of this change can be seen now in the behaviour of the natural world. It will be suggested that there is evidence of a northward 'drift' in species range and that this tendency is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as the world warms.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a highly reputable wildlife organisation, in a report published in November 2015 (1) highlighted the following points:
  • Wildlife will only be able to follow suitable climate if there is enough appropriate habitat available. One third of Europe's bumblebee species could lose 80 per cent of their current range by 2100.
  • In the North Sea, climate change is impacting on sea conditions, with knock-on changes in plankton communities. Climate change is a factor in the 70 per cent decline in kittiwake populations in the UK.
  • As the climate changes, wildlife is having to move to follow suitable conditions northwards. As a result of these range changes, species are colonising new areas.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which gives independent evidence-based advice to the UK Government, reported (2) that:
  • The increase in average temperatures experienced in the UK over the last few decades has already had a noticeable impact on wildlife.
  • New species are arriving in southern Britain from mainland Europe and many groups of native species are steadily shifting their distributions northwards to remain within their viable ‘climate space’
  • Some species may experience a shrinking in the area of suitable climate space. This is particularly the case for mosses, which mostly favour wet and cold conditions.
  • Wildlife will only be able to benefit from expansions in climate space if there is enough habitat in the right area and in good ecological condition to colonise.
These may seem to be inconsequential effects when set against global issues like rising sea levels and increased extreme weather events, but they are not because they reflect what is almost certainly happening worldwide to wildlife populations. The main point is that climate change impacts directly on wildlife, often in unpredictable ways.

The stock of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere has now reached 400 ppm (3) and the flow of emissions continues to exceed storage, so CO2 will increase in the medium term, whatever action occurs on emissions, and global warming will continue. Looking at the evidence for Britain, the Department of Energy and Climate Change reported (4) in 2013 that the spring of 2011 was the warmest such season on the long standing Central England Temperature (CET) record and the year was the second warmest. During the 20th century, the annual mean central England temperature increased by about 1.0 °C. The last decade was exceptionally warm in central England, on average about 0.7 °C warmer than the 1961-1990 average. The temperature increase in Britain was actually slightly above the global increase for the same period.

The natural world is a system of incredible complexity, even in a group of small islands such as Britain. Feedback in the system operates at multiple levels which makes prediction of consequences very difficult if not impossible. We can say for sure that Britain will get warmer but what the direct effects on wildlife, and the indirect effects on humans, will be, we cannot say.

In conclusion this paper has shown clear evidence that temperatures in Britain are rising as CO2 increases globally, and that this is having an impact on wildlife. The impact will continue, and the consequences may get greater, for the foreseeable future. Adaptation is taking place but the rate of change may be too fast for some species. The consequences of change are unpredictable because of the immense complexity of the natural ecosystem. Changes seen here in Britain are a microcosm of changes which people can expect to impact on them worldwide.


(1) “Climate Change: a hot topic for the UK's wildlife and public”. November 2015 on the website of the RSPB at http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/details.aspx?id=409213

(2) “Preparing for the Impacts of Climate Change on the UK's Natural Environment” by David Thompson, Committee on Climate Change, December 2015. On the CCC website at https://www.theccc.org.uk/2015/12/02/preparing-for-the-impacts-of-climate-change-on-our-natural-environment/

(3) “ A Global Milestone: CO2 passes 400ppm” by Brian Kahn at Climate Central on the Climate Central website at http://www.climatecentral.org/news/co2-400-ppm-global-record-18965

(4) “Central England and Global Surface Temperature” A report of the department of Energy and Climate Change, August 2013 on Government website at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/229814/surface_temperature_summary_report.pdf

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Climate literacy

Image result for Burch Harris climate
I have been reading a powerful and important book called "Understanding Climate Change: Science, Policy, and Practice" by Sarah Burch and Sara Harris. It introduced me to the concept of climate literacy which seems to me to be a very useful one. As I understand the concept it is not only about having information on climate change, its causes, effects and consequences, but having an understanding sufficient to critically examine claims, assertions, speculations, and proposed responses. In other words a climate literate person is in a position to actively contribute to the ongoing debate and advocate action. It is regrettable that much discussion on this subject, apart from the scientific community, seems so far to have been ill-informed or partisan, or both.

Those who are climate literate know that we are now well beyond the stage of demonstrating human culpability in global warming. The issues to be confronted now are mitigation and adaptation. Can anything be done to reduce the rate of warming and bring it to a halt sooner? Given that warming will continue in the medium term, whatever action is taken, how may human societies protect themselves from its harmful effects? These are questions upon which scientists are uniquely qualified to advise and it behoves politicians to heed their advice.

In their book, Burch and Harris assert that "Tackling the climate change challenge requires the creation of a compelling vision of a desirable future, not just recapturing a mythical past or 'tinkering around the edges' of our current development path." This seems to me to be a rather profound insight as it speaks directly to what we know about human nature - people rarely change their behaviour in response to threat; they need to have a clear view of how they personally will be better off. A huge shift in cultural tectonics is needed but when has the world ever been better placed, given the ubiquity of modern communications, to achieve such a shift?

Thursday, 14 January 2016

A slippy word

What role should science play in decision making and why?

'Should' is a slippy word. I feel confident that as you read it, in the context of the question above, your understanding will be different from mine. Does it mean 'must' be involved? Does it mean prioritising scientific advice? Does it mean actually being decision makers? And whose 'science' are we talking about?

I 'should' of course take more exercise, and eat healthier food, and drink less alcohol. As humans in society we 'should' be more compassionate, more tolerant, more open-minded, and less constrained by our cultural heritage. Scientists as a group would no doubt feel that they 'should' be heard by decision takers, but so would those for whom religion is important, those who are disadvantaged by poverty, or gender, or skin colour. Decision making is a political activity and politicians are notoriously unwilling to look beyond their medium term self-interest. In fact, to be honest, so are we all. 

And do the public in fact want decision making to be driven by science? A recent IPSOS/Mori poll (https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Infographics/pas-2014-summary-infographic.pdf) suggests that only 55% of those surveyed felt that the benefits of science outweighed any harmful effects. Only 45% felt well informed about science. These findings in an 'advanced' western society, so what price elsewhere?

There is evidence that scientific opinion is heard and understood by politicians, but action is a different matter; procrastination is a more likely outcome unless there is an immediate crisis, with potentially disadvantageous consequences, to be resolved. It seems to me that the best scientists as a whole can expect is that they will be heard as one voice amongst many competing for attention. It is important though to keep shouting or else those many for whom rationality is an unfamiliar concept may win the day.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Luxor to Aswan

Herodotus wrote: "For any one who sees Egypt, without having heard a word about it before, must perceive, if he has only common powers of observation, that the Egypt to which the Greeks go in their ships is an acquired country, the gift of the Nile." From the air the truth of this observation is very apparent. At least for much of its length Egypt consists of a narrow ribbon of green, heavily cultivated land bordering both sides of the Nile and, beyond, the apparently endless empty expanse of desert. 

To think of Egypt is to think of the great pharaonic monuments - Karnak, Gizan Pyramids, Abu Simbel, Theban Necropolis .... These are indeed impressive structures but also ponderous, formal and in a way depressing as they testify to the colossal egos of the great pharaohs.

There seems to have been little scope for the true artist to express himself amidst all this stone immensity but artists there were indeed, and their work can still be found. For example battle scenes at the Ramesseum and The Habu Temple have a vivid flowing quality, a real sense of action, that any artist would be proud of. 

And at Deir El Medina there are painted tombs which convey to the visitor a real sense of the way of life of the people buried there - they are genuinely beautiful.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Pleasure and reward

Image result for salley vickers dancing backwardsWhat a very versatile writer Salley Vickers is. After about fifty pages of "Dancing Backwards" I was convinced that this was a 'comic' novel, and in a way it is, but the writer's more serious intent gradually became clear. I suppose that the common denominator in Vickers' books is the quest for personal authenticity - at least that is how they seem to me. But this is very different in style, if not in purpose, from say "Where Three Roads Meet" my favourite of Vickers' fiction so far. Different also from "Instances of the Number 3" which is the one that recurs most frequently to my memory.

Violet, the 'heroine', is a woman of late middle age, still physically attractive we gather but recovering from the recent death of her husband and on a transatlantic voyage to New York to renew acquaintance with an old friend. I'm not sure that Violet is quite plausible - isn't she too intelligent and experienced to be quite so ready to accommodate herself to other people? Still she is decidedly likeable and seems to have a gift for drawing out other people. During the course of the voyage she reflects on the events of her early years which have significantly contributed to her becoming the person she is now, and gradually comes to realise where and why things went wrong. She also takes up dancing which is clearly a metaphor for her self-emancipation. 

The novel is populated with a cast of interesting, if rather two-dimensional, characters who interact in ways to reinforce the message that we must be honest with and about ourselves, and that if we are unhappy we only have ourselves to blame. It put me in mind of "The History of Mr Polly" - if you don't like your life then you can change it! Vickers is clearly erudite but never pretentious. I particularly like Violet's occasional literary references which are generally not picked up by her interlocutors. 

This is an easy and rewarding book to read - it made me smile, and it made me think. No small feat!