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.