Product has been added to the basket

Book Reviews

The Dawn of Green – Manchester, Thirlmere and modern environmentalism

RitvoIn 1875, the people living around Thirlmere, in the English Lake District, became aware of strange goings-on. Strange men in deer-stalkers and tweeds were skulking behind bushes, making notes and pretending to be tourists. Who were they, and what could they want in this backwater?

The true identity of these furtive gentlemen became known rather sooner than their employers would have liked. They were sent by Manchester Corporation – geologists among them. Cottonopolis, then the industrial capital of the world, was running dry. Its huddled masses needed to flush their new water closets, and its even thirstier mills and dyeworks needed it soft. So the City Fathers had decided to buy a lake – and to do so, if possible, without driving up land prices.

Manchester was no stranger to grandiose water schemes; but Thirlmere was another proposition entirely. Thirlmere was a Lake, sanctified by poets and artists who had gone in search of paradise and then set about defending it against encroachment by the tide of filth washing up from the industrial North (attracted mostly by their own activities). The dispute that ensued – idyllic pastoral myth versus material progress – was, as Harriet Ritvo proves in this highly engaging history, the birth of the “green” consciousness. The Lake District was an environmental Jerusalem, fought over jealously by a fractious and schismatic cabal of interests who were only barely distracted from their main activity (squabbling among themselves) by the existence of a common enemy. Plus ça change.

Mutual incomprehension was obvious from the moment the unequal battle commenced. Manchester, which not only won over Thirlmere but went on to buy Haweswater too, regarded the preservationists as élitist Luddites content to see their privileges maintained at the expense of the unwashed. The Corporation by contrast was portrayed as hell-bent upon destroying England’s most precious assets in a rapacious pursuit of wealth - dressed up as concern for the welfare of those it had enslaved.

Crucially, however, what emerged for the first time was the idea of a sense of title to landscape that transcended mere ownership. The Earth, in effect, became everyone’s property. This was the “Dawn of Green”; but what also emerged in this episode were the twin weaknesses of Green argument - hysteria and hypocrisy. If these continue to go unaddressed, they will alas prove the twilight of Green.

Reviewed by: Ted Nield

HARRIET RITVO Published by: University of Chicago Press Publication date: 2009 ISBN 978-0-226-72082-1 List price: $26.00 237pp W:

The Address Book – our place in the scheme of things

RadfordAlmost everyone who reads popular science has read Tim Radford – probably in The Guardian, for which paper he has served both as Science Correspondent and Literary Editor. While changing one’s ‘beat’ is not that unusual in journalism, one would be hard-pressed to find another writer who could carry off these two widely divergent roles with equal aplomb. That he was able to affords some measure of why this book manages to be so apparently slight, and yet also so rich.

There is a genre of non-fiction – headed perhaps by Mr Bill Bryson – in which subject matter is almost of no account. Whether it be childhood memories, Australia, cultural history or the English language, what really matters is the author, and the opportunity to spend time inside a capacious mind – like having the chance to rummage around a hero’s study, and try out his baggy armchair.

Anyone fortunate enough to have worked in the same newsroom as Tim will relish this prospect. Before the Internet, we asked Tim. And on those rare occasions when he was stuck for a fact, Tim would rock back and say: “Hey chaps – anyone remember the dates of the Albigensian Heresy?”. Sadly we rarely repaid him with equal value.

Radford takes as his starting point the idea of location epitomised by every child’s experience of writing his name in an exercise book and following it with a hierarchy of address lines ending with “The Universe”. This enables him to examine what ‘place’ actually means at different scales and times; his childhood home in New Zealand; his former home in Hastings; his feelings as an adopted Sussex man; as an antipodean in another hemisphere, as a Francophile Russophile Westerner, as an Earthling. From native soils and their geology to the birth of time itself, this is a particularly personal take on a very grand subject indeed.

As we would expect, Radford’s broad culture is conveyed with a lightness of touch and that deft, easygoing charm that characterises all his writing. This is not principally a “science” book. In its own modest way it is a ‘genre-buster’ combining literature, science (with a lot of geology) with personal memoir. Like a true Renaissance Man, Radford sees no need of those disciplinary boundaries that so comfort others. His book encapsulates one man’s lifetime of experience, seamlessly integrating knowledge assimilated from all points of a highly personal compass.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

TIM RADFORD Published by: Fourth Estate Publication date: 2011 ISBN: 9780007255207 List price: £16.99 215pp W: