The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers (London, United Kingdom)

The London Review of Books has its own bookshop, and this revelation hit me en route to the British Museum. I had stepped out of Holborn tube station, right into an area which I inevitably associate with the Inns of Court and a somewhat Dickensian atmosphere. Still, I know enough about the Bloomsbury set (let’s not linger on this, though, lest another reading list gap rear its head) to get the tingling feeling of a literary time-traveller once the dome of St Paul’s is out of sight.

The LRB bookshop is of an ordered nature, all pristine books in neat lines of uncracked spines. The entrance area feels somewhat transitory, with wide windows framing the outside world which still feels too close for comfort. Downstairs, it’s a different, hushed, story, where time spent in the company of books is a slow affair.

My choice was largely inspired by the flashbacks which its title and cover brought about. When I was little, I was so fascinated by my father’s veterinary textbooks that I gobbled up whole chunks of what I couldn’t understand – as exemplified by a durable and proclaimed conviction that horses can suffer from amnesia (as opposed to anemia). Then, I started acquiring information about all sorts of animals – the mouflon and Przewalski’s horse being two particular favourites. So when I saw a book titled The Natural History of Unicorns, sporting a drawing of a very un-unicorn looking animal, I had to know.

As it turns out, in order to be a scholar of unicorns – and there is, believe it or not, such a thing as unicorn scholarship – you would have to be of that special kind of people who are willing to pursue chimeras. Thankfully, Chris Lavers, a Lecturer at the University of Nottingham, is one such person. History here is jumbled and hard to follow in a linear manner. It is like swimming in a vast expanse of stories and emerging with a sea shell which carries only a distant echo of the truth.

Ctesias, a Greek physician who lived in the court of the Persian king in fifth century BC, was fascinated by the unknown lands to the East – India. In Indica, a work which survives only in fragments or accounts, he describes a peculiar animal with one horn. It combines so many distinct traits that it could only be a composite of a number of animals. Thus, animals as different from each other as the rhinoceros, the chiru (Tibetan antelope), the kiang, the wild ass, and the yak, could have merged to form Ctesias’ beast.

Much later, when a unicorn pops up in the Bible, it is rather strange that its defining characteristic – namely, unicornity – is not elaborated upon. And here, there is a wonderful story. When the Bible text was translated from Hebrew into Greek, no scholar recognised the animal reem mentioned in the original, but it seemed to vaguely correspond to Ctesias’ descriptions. Thus, it was translated with a Greek word meaning monoceros, i.e. one-horn. The dominant Christian position thereafter was that the reem is the rhinoceros.  However, the original reem, that of the Hebrew text, turned out to be (as later revealed in Henry Rawlinson’s study of a Persian inscription), the now extinct aurochs – a two-horned animal.

Throughout time, the unicorn became more prominent in the Christian tradition. Physiologus, a (presumably) second-century text/predecessor of bestiaries, consists of descriptions of animals and fantastical creatures, and, of course, features the unicorn. The nature of stories in the text is allegorical, and the tale of the unicorn refers to a virgin who can trap the animal, and carries distinctly Christian connotations. This story, however, seems to be a modified version of ancient Eastern tales of the male meeting the female, and settling down after the due process of (sexual) taming is completed.  The religious later seeped out into the secular and chivalrous which, in an ironic return, was once more preoccupied with the charms of women. It’s a beautiful way to think about stories as they twist their way through the centuries, to then flow into others, and, ultimately, saturate human lives, not only in art, but in practice as well. Thus, in the Middle Ages, alicorn – the unicorn’s horn – became a desired and consequently very expensive possession, due to its supposed alexipharmic properties (i.e. as an antidote to poison). In reality, what was peddled as alicorn had very little to do with what we would now picture when we think of a unicorn. Just compare a photo of a narwhal with the white horse-like creatures of medieval tapestries.

In the eighteenth century, travellers encountered the idea of a one-horned animal in their explorations of India and Tibet. Lavers says: “Nikolai Przhevalsky eventually twigged that Himalayan unicorns existed wherever he happened not to be, a phenomenon nicely illustrated by the rajah’s phrase barra dûre!, a great way off!” Similarly, later exploits into Africa did not result in the discovery of unicorns – but the pursuit led to Harry Johnston finding the okapi in the Ituri rainforest. Unicorns don’t and can’t exist, was the adamant position. Until science, in the face of W. Franklin Dove, intervened to create a unicorned calf, by surgically manipulating its horn buds.

I have to admit complete and utter failure in all my attempts to arrange the facts, conclusions, and hypotheses of this book neatly and chronologically in my head. Coming to the natural history of unicorns as a lay lover of zoology, I relished the descriptions of the real animals, accompanied by pictures and stories. But what stuck with me above all is humanity’s power to transcend the constraints of its surrounding world through a combination of chance, foolishness, and imagination. A child sits down to watch a cartoon about a unicorn, surrounded by a biscuit tin, an ironing board, and the ghost of an aurochs. It’s the stuff of myth, really.

Longitude by Dava Sobel (London, United Kingdom)

A ‘previous concept’ post.

The great thing about big and famous cities is that they let you create personal cult artefacts out of your lived experience, as well as crane your neck like a tourist to see those made famous by others. This bookshop caught me on the way to the iconic Portobello Road, a place baggaged with plenty of cultural cool. Headed for the infamous blue door of Notting Hill (which is actually not there anymore, having been sold at an auction) or the blue plaque marking George Orwell’s old lodgings, you can easily miss the Book & Comic Exchange. Especially if you are used to books exuding a lot of lustre.

This second-hand bookshop is in no way glamorous – it is cramped, old, and does not beckon with baubles and the literary champagne of scribbled reviews of this and that recommended read. If you go in searching for a specific new title, most likely it won’t be there, or if it is, you won’t be able to locate it. What you can do, though, is while away ages deposing books from their shelves whilst literally rubbing shoulders with fellow literature aficionados.

Perhaps most tellingly, this place made me completely fail in terms of self-restraint. I walked out not with one, but three books. Still, given the wonderfully random collection of alluring titles, and the ridiculously affordable prices, it’s debatable whether it was lack of self-control or just good bibliophile investment.

The focus here is, of course, on the truly spontaneous choice. Longitude, by Dava Sobel, recounts the history of time-keeping, and its evolution towards ever sharper accuracy. This was propelled by the increasingly desperate need of seafarers to have a reliable way of telling their whereabouts. It is also inevitably linked to the story of the Englishman John Harrison and his life-long work, including overcoming all sorts of obstacles that stood in the way of creating the perfect marine chronometer.

My immediate attraction to this story about telling time aboard a ship comes from a lasting love of the sea/ocean, and the stories which this vast expanse of water has inspired. From the Bulgarian poet Hristo Fotev’s rhymes about the Black Sea, to Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco and We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, I sink in them all with Legolas’ lament, “Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm”. The ocean sea is so vast and immutable but relentlessly travelled that it is easy to forget it was ever different, that it too used to be wild and uncharted before it was domesticated. Even the greatest explorers got lost at sea.

Parallels and meridians slice the world in chunks; or they are rather like a net thrown over the globe, with humanity left to blunder around, trapped between the rough edges of its ropes. Finding longitude was not always a simple thing, and, annoyingly, it was inextricably linked to time(-keeping). It required setting time at the meridian of reference at local noon and comparing it to the (recorded) time in the home port, in order to calculate the distance from the latter, in degrees (one hour of difference between the two being equal to fifteen degrees of longitude).

John Harrison’s creation of a precise mechanical timekeeper came after years of only partially successful attempts to attain accuracy. Astronomy with its focus on the clockwork universe offered a way out of the difficulties – the sun, the stars, and the moon all seemed to hold promises, but the associated methods either depended on clear weather, rare celestial events, or knowledge that required advanced technology. Galileo saw a potential solution in observing the moons of Jupiter – this, however, required equipment that was not practicable on a ship. Interestingly, his idea later served to advance mapmaking, and prompted the comment of Louis XIV that he was losing more territory to his astronomers than to his enemies.

Then there were the ridiculous and cruel methods, such as the wounded dog theory. A substance called powder of sympathy was sprinkled on a weapon which had been used to injure a dog. The dog would then be sent off on the ship. Each sprinkle, which would be performed in the home port at certain pre-determined times, would supposedly cause the wounded dog to yelp in pain (while somehow healing its wounds, too), and, that way, the animal would announce the (home port) time through its suffering.

The big problem, of course, was that a ship which has lost its way often sails towards destruction. In 1707, a British naval fleet was obliterated by the rocks off the Isles of Scilly when the ships couldn’t calculate their bearings. More than 1,400 sailors died. In the wake of that disaster, Parliament passed the Longitude Act 1714, which established a Board of Longitude, meant to encourage and examine new methods. John Harrison, the hero of Longitude, is mysteriously lacking in formal education or apprenticeship to any famous clockmaker. He worked as a carpenter, and his mastery of that trade is evident in his wooden clocks. During the course of his life, he made numerous mechanical timekeepers which were presented to the Board. He could have claimed the prize at an early stage, but the reason for his many attempts and years and years of labour, was that he himself pointed out of the flaws of his works, in a desire to reach perfection. In the competition with those certain that a solution would come from the clockwork universe and not from lowly, earthly mechanics, Harrison and his timekeepers suffered great injustice. Until, of course, they were vindicated in the most fitting way – by the passage of time itself.

Dava Sobel has travelled to the Clockmakers Museum in Guildhall and to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, both of which house creations by Harrison. Her immersion in the story is enviable, and is most touching when she recalls the moment she finally sees the timepieces about which she has read so much.

Longitude immerses you in a tale of astronomy, clockmaking, voyages by sea, the stubborn determination of not one but many men, their mistakes, failures and triumphs. And all of this sprinkled with the absurdity of what could easily be fiction, but, miraculously, is not.

Walter Scott. His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (London, United Kingdom)

(A ‘past concept’ post)

Walking around on a lazy dusk-infused Saturday, I bumped into Heywood Hill, also known as the Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street. A look through the window promised wonders inside, and I knew I’d chanced upon something I’d been missing for quite some time. The blue plaque informed me that Nancy Mitford had worked there (a sigh for another gap in my reading history), and the bike perched against the fence added to the surreal feeling of having seen this place a million times before, in bits and pieces, and now it had assembled itself to become my own personal rabbit-hole.


Inside, Heywood Hill really is packed full of books, old and new. I pined (still am pining, actually) for a beautiful black-and-white edition of 101 Dalmatians. The bookshop is a place to slow down in the company of volumes stacked high on the floor, resting on tables, and spying from high shelves. I had the perfect long and undisturbed browse, accompanied only by the sound of creaking floorboards.

I tend to gravitate towards second-hand books. The thought that a book belonged to someone else is an exciting one. The one I picked up even has an ex libris, and a few typos are corrected in pencil. (A Billy Collins poem comes to mind.)


This book is a reminder of how entertaining biographical writing can be, and also of the charm of the now extinct ornate language of the previous century. In a meta-commentary on his own task, Pearson writes (in relation to Scott’s late-life work on a biography of Napoleon), “He had not the true biographer’s intense but impartial interest in the personality of his subject, and he could not make up his mind about Napoleon […] Such terms [virtue, greatness] however are wholly inconclusive when applied to the Napoleons of life, who are created by universal hallucination and reflect the absurdity, the idealism, the evil, the stupidity, the passions of humanity. The ordinary phrases by which we define a man as great, good, wicked, noble, vicious, moral, criminal, and so on, are meaningless when ascribed to creatures of peculiar circumstance and popular emotion, who are not personalities but phenomena.” A passage slightly unexpected in light of quite a few partial (and pretty entertaining) remarks earlier on from Pearson, yet it also underlines that this is an intimate story of a human being – a tale which, when it inevitably ends with death, leaves you shaken, having lost a friend all too soon.

Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771, and spent a good part of his childhood in the countryside, recovering from a powerless right leg (as well as from questionable treatments). He loved listening to stories and had a formidable imagination. One of the many great passages in the biography tells of an incident from his school days. Scott coveted the status of a boy who always answered questions in class first, and upon observing that the boy would fumble with a button on his waistcoat every time a question was asked, Scott decided to relieve his classmate from that aide-mémoire. The mischievous deed done and the next question asked, the boy was utterly confounded at the absence of the button and never recovered, which quite affected Scott’s conscience, especially when later the grown boy came to occupy an inferior legal position in Edinburgh, and even took to drinking. Pearson concludes: “The connection between button and bottle is too vague to found a moral on the tale”. Reader, you (and Sir Walter Scott) have been told.

Scott studied law and was admitted to the Bar in 1792, but law books were often put aside for Scottish ballads and German poetry. He fell deeply in love with Williamina Belsches, who decided to marry William Forbes despite her attachment to Scott, and the shock of this turn of events had a lasting effect on him. He later married Charlotte Charpentier, who overlooked Scott’s limp for his sense of humour, and whom he loved with the spent but lifelong affection of someone who had lived through one turbulent affair and did not hope or wish for another.

He started with poetry, and his first bestseller was a narrative poem. An interesting anecdote evokes an assembly where both Scott and Coleridge were present, the latter being constantly lauded by his admirers who would even go so far as to ask Scott to read one of his own works, for the specific purpose of highlighting its inferiority to Coleridge’s poems. One time, Scott repeated a couple of lines from what he had supposedly read in a provincial paper – those were received with coldness and some offensive comments. That is, until Coleridge declared “For God’s sake, let Mr Scott alone – I wrote the poem.” Scott was acquainted with a number of significant people of his time – Joana Baillie, Maria Edgworth, George IV (who was a fan), Goethe (with whom he corresponded and who apparently put everything else aside when a new Waverley novel appeared). Scott’s love of Scottish tales and ballads surrounded him with interesting and peculiar people with a strong connection to the land.  He thought Byron the superior poet with his “deep-seated knowledge of the human heart”; he also admired Jane Austen for her ability to portray daily life (so different from his own romanticism) in a way that is poignant in its acute truthfulness.

Scott was an extremely prolific novelist (and he only started in his early 40s), and wrote without pre-planning the plot.  He published the Waverley novels anonymously: “It was his humour to be the Great Unknown”. Yet despite the commercial success of a number of his works, and the fact that when he ran into financial troubles later, Scott wrote with the express desire to pay off his and his publishers’ debts, writing seemed to have a further, different power for him. In 1818, when suffering from the extreme pain of a persistent illness, Scott dictated The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose. Later he did not remember any of the characters or events in them.

In 1831, he went on a tour across Europe, and when he heard that Goethe, whom he had intended to visit at Weimar, had died, insisted on a swift return to Abbotsford, his own Scottish home which he had spent so much time planning, building and extending. He died there in 1832.

Walter Scott, his life and personality, spilled out of the pages into my own days and saturated them with the warmth of his interest in and love of people. He helped friends and dependents, and was a charitable man. Pearson writes, “Too selfish to take an interest in human beings, many people display an interest in the community, deluding themselves with the belief that institutions are of greater moment than individuals, the sabbath than the man. Scott was not of their number.” Which is why he was and remains so popular – there is that powerful romantic sentiment in his characters and plots which reveals, without moralising, the ambivalent power of human emotion. Even though Pearson kindly informed me that The Bride of Lammermoor is not exactly one of Scott’s best works, the context-deprived I of some years ago sat horrified but deeply touched as the last pages of the story fluttered away. Still, I do believe that even though Scott himself did not think highly of the Bride, he would not judge me for liking it.

The Danube Testament by Ingrid Mann (London, United Kingdom)

(A ‘previous concept’ post)

Now here’s something I hadn’t really thought about. This second blank page is even more intimidating, what with all its intolerance of any continued introductory blues and its expectations of neat verbosity. So, I’m jumping straight in…

My first spontaneous book trip was to Word on the Water, a boat/bookshop on the canal by Paddington station. I walk past it every day in the morning and evening – and what a treat it is to be coming back from work at dusk, in the springtime, to the sight of books being brought back in from where they have been luring strangers all day under the sounds of music over the water.

And it was only when I went in for the first time that I became acquainted with its two lovely assistants (only one of them pictured here).

But enough about the London bookbarge. There is a lot on the Internet about it and the fascinating people behind the idea. I’m moving on to the main thing – the book I picked up.

My first completely uninformed and unbiased book expedition in years didn’t start all too smoothly. As was to be expected, I caught sight of a few titles that I had always wanted to read but managed to resist the temptation.

One lengthy browse later, I came out with this.

I was initially drawn by the title, and somehow thought it fitting to pick a book referring to the Danube whilst in a boat on a London canal. Which is just a standard example of my self-indulgent fascination with personal associations, however remote. The Danube is only a couple of hours away from my Bulgarian home, and continues eastwards to flow into my beloved Black Sea. The journeys of border-spanning rivers have always intrigued me.

Set in and around Vienna, The Danube Testament has S. for narrator, a man who has lived through some terrible events, and struggles at the edge of sanity. In light of this, it is impossible to completely trust anything he shares. S.’s tone is light-hearted, even when things like infanticide are introduced. The many characters in his life are wonderfully diverse – his sister Eva, a martyr of circumstance; aunt Mia, an impressive, canasta-loving old lady; cousin Hannah, S.’s childhood crush/love, who now lives in the USA and is a doctor with a penchant for the unconventional; a conflicted priest; the psychiatrist Dr. Rosen. Most interestingly, untrustworthy as they are, S.’s stories about all these lives offer a chance to touch upon what is barely discernible, concealed as it is beneath the self-deception resulting from S.’s condition – the loneliness of the self, and perhaps most achingly, what struck me as the loneliness and misery which S. believes imposed upon everyone else, all hope for true connection lost. The narrative itself is a consequence of S.’s obsession with creative writing as a way of coping with problems. This really made me qualify and question my own ideas about the power of imagination.

I loved the intermingling of the idea of Old Europe, in some of S.’s little anecdotes, with the realities of the modern everyday – flights, deadlines, rock music. One of the most memorable stories was that of the city fathers of Marseille, who provided cups of poison to those wishing to end their lives if the latter could provide a good reason for doing so. So far, I have found absolutely nothing to back the historical veracity of this. Given that it is part of S.’s narrative, this is unsurprising, though. At the very end, the last chapter/appendix, which is a fiction story written by S., wiped away all the carefully crafted evasiveness and even humour of the preceding parts. The Danube just happens to be the rain-swollen backdrop to this testament imbibed with the anguish and the imposed escapism of illness. This could be the plight of any individual, and is therefore the plight of humanity as such.

Lastly, the story of the book itself is quite interesting. Its first edition apparently vanished, and copies are extremely rare. Mine is a second-hand first edition of the reissue by another publisher. Still, there are very few results for The Danube Testament online, which is a shame. And I have absolutely no idea who the author is. All that the blurb says is that “Ingrid Mann was born in Vienna”. If you do know more, please drop me a line – whether now or at whatever point in the future you happen to come across this.

I liked this book, if this is the appropriate verb to use for a story that often disturbs, raises questions without answers, and really stays with you, underneath all the hubbub of the day.

Two subsequent notes (13 April 2018): 

Months after writing this post, I received an email letting me know that Ingrid Mann had passed away on 17 August 2015, in New Jersey, US. This is a link to her obituary in the Bangor Daily News, which also outlines her story.

Unfortunately, in 2014/2015, Word on the Water lost its Paddington mooring. It can now be found at Granary Square (Regent’s Canal), near King’s Cross. Here’s a New York Times article about the story of the London Bookbarge.