The Observer from London, Greater London, England on February 14, 1993 · 59
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The Observer from London, Greater London, England · 59

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Sunday, February 14, 1993
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SUNDAY 14 FEBRUARY 1 993 THE OBSERVER 59 BESTSELLER Monsters and mutant rats and the skull i beneath the skin Andrew Bitten talks to hero of the fangzines,James Herbert, about wolves, dead babies, rapist-munching monsters and redemption. Marble index of a mind John Naughton ISAAC NEWTON: Adventurer in Thought by A. Rupert Hall Blackwell 19.95 FESTSCHRIFTEN are usually published by academic presses on the occasion of their subjects' 65th birthdays tactful timing that allows contributors to bask in the reflected glory of a presence unlikely to be much longer a threat to them. It was generous, then, of Clive Barker and Stephen King to write essays for By Horror Haunted, a collection of tributes to James Herbert, the best-selling of Britain's horror novelists. At 49, Herbert still has plenty of time to steal sales from them. The generosity of the book's publisher, Hodder and Stough-ton, turned out to be even greater. After 16 years in which Hodder sold 11 million of his paperbacks in Britain, Herbert, a former advertising art director, has signed a 1.7 million, two-novel contract with Harper Collins. A small consolation for Hodder, which has also recently lost Jeffrey Archer to Harper Collins, is that Herbert's sixteenth novel, Portent, is now in its eleventh week in the top 10 bestseller list. The general level of criticism in By Horror Haunted is low. The interviews with Herbert it contains are conducted by journalists from horror fan magazines (fangzines, as they call themselves) who never quite recover from being admitted to the presence of the master. The Festschrift is, however, graced by a couple of short stories by Herbert himself. One is called simply 'They Don't Like Us' and describes in the first person an outsider's attempts to get served in a pub: 'They don't like us, see? We're not their kind. In fact to them we're not even people.' Written for an anthology of anti-racist writing, it is a serviceable allegory of a certain shunning of the macabre imagination of James Herbert. His hard times at the hands of the posher papers started with The Observer's review of The Rats in 1974. 'By page 20 the rats are slurping up the sleeping baby after the brave 'bow-wow has fought to the death to protect its charge,' wrote Henry Tilney. 'Enough to make a rodent retch, undeniably and In Brief The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracian (Helnemann C8.99). For most British readers, this collection of maxims by a seventeenth-century Spanish priest will be a revelation and a delight, albeit of an alarming kind. Nobody survived in the public life of Grecian's time by being unworldly, and these maxims, each accompanied by a paragraph of explanation, are a ruthless survival guide. Gracian can be straightforwardly practical ('Never compete with someone who has nothing to lose'), shrewd ('Don't take payment in politeness'), brutally cynical ('Let someone else take the hit') or cynically brutal ('Don't let your sympathy for the unfortunate make you become one of them'). Above all, it is clear that nothing has changed: "You should never hold anyone greatly in your debt, especially not the powerful.' Nobody entering the worlds of business, the media or politics should be without this handily pocket-sized volume. Prisoner's Dilemma by William Poundston (Oxford 7.99). The dilemma (there are many variations) goes something like this: two men suspected of a major crime are arrested and kept in separate cells with no means of communication. If neither confesses, they will be released. If one confesses, he will receive a short prison sentence and the other will be executed. If both confess, they will receive life sentences. Each reasons that he does better to confess whether the other man confesses or not. Therefore each confesses. Both have behaved logically and ended up with an outcome worse than if they had illogically co-operated. This endlessly controversial problem is at the centre of a book about Game Theory, nuclear strategy, and one John von Neumann, a man who was profoundly involved with the development of both. Pound- , stone is one of the best writers of popular science, and this is a stimulating and disconcerting account of the grey area where science and politics meet. It also contains a couple of party games guaranteed to ruin any party. enough to make any human pitch the book aside.' When Herbert went into his local W. H. Smith's and asked if they had the book, they replied no, and nor were they likely to. The Rats obstinately went on to sell a million copies in Britain. 'Smith's more than made up for saying that,' he says. In his house in Sussex, with its unbroken views of the South Downs and its indoor swimming pool (bought on the back of his 30 million world sales), Herbert need not worry too much that he still lacks literary cachet. 'I'm not into high literature, but I think all my books are literate,' he says. 'Susan Hill writes ghost stories I make no comment about those ghost stories, but because she is part of the literati they are elevated.' If a measure of an author's importance to a genre is the degree to which he expands it, then Herbert outpaces Hill in 'I wanted to show what it was really like to have jour kg chewed by a mutant creature. 3 more than sales. The Rats irrevocably mutated British horror. Vampires and werewolves were pensioned off literally so in his comic novel Creed, in which Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman are discovered partying in a disused old people's home. Simultaneously, he tore horror from the grip of the bourgeoisie. 'Horror novels were written by upper-middle-class writers like Dennis Wheatley. I made horror accessible by writing about working-class characters,' he says. In place of Alucard and exorcism at the vicarage, came the explicit violence that Tilney deplored. 'It flowed naturally from the pen,' Herbert admits, 'but I also wanted to show what it was really like to have your leg chewed by a mutant creature. I was very much against the Tom and Jerry and John Wayne types of violence where no one is ever really hurt, and Indians are killed without any suggestion that they may be Love inspired by a silver-voiced singer Andrew Porter ELISABETH SCHUMANN by Gerd Puritz, translated by Joy Puritz AndriDeutsch25 ELISABETH SCHUMANN was a bewitching singer. I count her last London recitals, 40 years ago, among the musical peaks of my life. Older friends recall her in the theatre; generations of musicians who could be my grandchildren, knowing only her records (she made many), love her as I do. She's a touchstone. Photographs as Sophie, Susanna, Zerlina give an idea of her captivating personality. The records reveal it. A personal memory: in 1951, at tea in the Mermaid after Schumann's recital there, Kirsten Flagstad met her and confessed that she had not heard her before. 'It is too late,' Schumann wistfully replied. But it wasn't. She had sung 20 songs Mozart, Beethoven, Arne, Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf with an ease and purity of silver tone, an instinctive, irresistible charm of timing and words that no one who heard Murmurs in the gunmen's shadow Adam Thorpe A RAGE FOR ORDER: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles edited by Frank Ormsby Btachtaffe 12.95 'TROUBLES' was a term banned in the presence of the City Limits radical, I recall; it suggested troublesome children. Not sexy enough, a touch colonial. For poets, equally fine-tuned to the full semantic spectrum of a word, but relishing it, that kind of curmudgeonly correctness is boring. There is something about the word 'Troubles' a certain sadness, a suggestion of inward sickness, a feeling that, like toothache, it could go on and on, along with a certain understated quality, like something husbands and fathers, and perhaps keep a dog back in the tepee.' Herbert was brought up a Catholic, a fact honoured more in his books' titles The Jonah, Shrine, Sepulchre, Creed) than in their plots, where a woozy, sci-fi preternaturalism prevails. He claims, however, that although he does not let his own daughters read them until they are IS, his books are moral works about 'redemption'. 'The subtext of The Rats was successive governments' neglect of the East End of my childhood: the house I lived in was an old slum that had to be pulled down. On one level it was just a story about mutant rats and people picked it up as schlock-horror. That's fine with me, but it was packed with metaphor and subtext. I had to write two sequels because the people who were responsible for those horrors and remember they were created by nuclear weapons had to be wiped out themselves.' The sex in his novels follows a similar system of vigilante justice. Casual sex is ridiculed; violent sex is punished: 'I don't have monsters tearing off girls' clothes. But in Domain a girl was raped and the guy who did it was eaten up by a monster.' Typically, as in the didactically eco-conscious Portent, romantic love redeems the loner hero. His books, written in felt-tip on jumbo pads, are episodic, untidily plotted and miss simple tricks like distinguishing characters by dialogue (everyone in Portent, for instance, says 'like I said' rather than 'as I said'). They are, however, exciting, not unintelligent, and speak to our semi-conscious understanding of the short ripping-distance between skin and skull. Life, as he says, is fragile: 'I worry about the many things that could happen to the people I love. The books are full of that neurosis and I guess people tune into that. I have a dread of sounding pretentious and try not to talk too much about what I do. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to point it out: I'm not just in it for the gore.' them can ever forget. In 1952 she was about to move from New York to London, where we loved her, but death (she was only 63) painfully claimed her. She was born in 1888, joined the Hamburg Opera in 1909, the Vienna Opera (as Strauss's protegee) in 1919, sang at the Met in 1914, at Covent Garden from 1924 on. Her biography has been written Elisabeth Schumann: Glamorous murmured quietly in a pub that perfectly reflects the tenor of the poetry produced under its shadow, and gathered here. There is, in A Rage for Order, little raging. In general, the poems are querulous, haunted, humane, afflicted. These are poets who would much rather have peace than a grand Subject. Derek Mahon's superb poem, from which the title is taken, is the last word on these sort of 'desperate ironies'. Frank Ormsby has cleverly chosen Heaney's 'Bogland' as a scene-setter. In this 'bottomless' wet landscape, history (and Herbert: 'I'm not into high literature, but I think all my books are by her son by the first of her three husbands, the architect Walther Puritz. There were 10 men in her life, we learn late in the book. Gerd tells us about four of them: the husbands embarked on with rapture but eventually found unsatisfactory, and Otto Klemperer, with whom Frau Puritz tempestuously eloped in 1912. That cost him his Hamburg post, but Schumann could be forgiven anything. The book was begun, long ago, by mother and son together, and contains much childhood memories, marital memories that must be auto- in Vienna, with Sorry, in 1932. hatreds) are eerily preserved, like the skeleton of the Great Irish Elk echoed later in the hunger-strikers who, in Richard Murphy's poem, 'die for a future buried in the past'. The anthology is ordered, appropriately, into six sections historical origins, the elegiac, the relationship between Northern Ireland and Britain and so forth which yields some stimulating juxtapositions, though running titles might have been useful to the casual dipper. And dip one can, for on almost every page lies a remarkable poem. The context brings an alertness, of course; as when sitting on a tube train during a bombing campaign, one's senses aren't so much lulled as pricked. In Padraic Fiacc's fine 'Enemy Encounter', the biography. The war parted them. Loyal to her Jewish lover, after the anschluss Schumann left Vienna (her first-lady post there, her famous apartment in the Stallburg, her Garmisch house), got him out, married him (with misgivings), and supported him, while Gerd joined the Luftwaffe. But the mother-son bond was unbroken, and it forms a shining thread through the book. Schumann's lively, lifelong letters to the Dresden mezzo Helene Jung, a friend from Hamburg days, form another thread. The life is simply written (and the Deutsch editor has passed some solecisms). It won't satisfy scholars: Schumann's debut a 1908 Berlin Aennchen in Der Freischiitz unrecorded by Opera Grove has no exact dating, and there are no tables of roles, dates, appearances. But it's a moving book honest and direct, as she was. At the height of the affair with Klemperer, on days when she couldn't meet him she thought 'Thank God for the telephone! How on earth did Goethe cope without one?' Money cares in the years from 1938 to 1952 very first word is a false alarm: Dumping (left over from the autumn) I come on a British Army Soldier Michael Longley's bloody passage from the Odyssey, 'The Butchers', reeks with political potency, while Conor Carson speaks as only a schoolchild can, with direct unabashed anguish. There are English poets here, too Larkin, Harrison, Motion and an untypical Robert Lowell on a mother identifying her bomb-blasted son only by the 'joke trick matches' in his pocket: The police were unhurried and wonderful, they let me go on trying to strike a match . . . I just wouldn't stop you cling to anything The flat delivery is not typical of this anthology: one of the literate. 'Photograph by Jane Bourn. make sad reading; one of the world's greatest singers went unrewarded. The testimony is consistent: of joy given to the public and to the critics; to prisoners of war who had a Schumann record in their Japanese camps; to Ada Galsworthy, the novelist's widow, who as 'an old woman always greatly devoted to music' was moved to thank Schumann, in 1938, for a recital that gave me more pleasure than any singing I have ever heard. I have never heard the exact middle of each note touched so surely and musically, never known such perfectly lovely phrasing, never heard such wonderful endings to every song ... I had for a moment the feeling that if you had put forward the toe of your shoe, the whole audience would have moved forward to kiss it! Everyone who has heard Elisabeth Schumann, alive or on record, knows that feeling. Her son's book tells of a fallible but adorable woman and an infallibfe, unforgettable musician. glories of Northern Irish poetry (as distinct from poetry about Northern Ireland) is its lyrical relish, its refusal to sacrifice sound for fury. Heaney, of course, whose opening line to 'The Tollund Man' ('Some day I will go to Aarhus') still sends tingles down my back, is well represented; as are John Hewitt, Tom Paulin, Paul Muldoon, and many others. But even a poem like Paul Durcan's 'In Memory: the Miami Showband: Massacred 31 July 1975' manages to confront a whining fanatic in a pub within the context of a lyrical elegy and shuts him up. The awareness that it's not that easy is what makes this poetry of the Troubles so complex and fine a gathering. I suppose the gunmen will be reading other things. NEWTON was, as Rupert Hall says, 'the greatest mind in British history'. Alexander Pope's proposed epitaph 'Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:God said, Let Newton be! and all was light' got it right, though it was rejected as the inscription on Newton's tomb. He solved the problem that had defied astronomers for 2,000 years the movements of the planets in space. With a mathematical analysis that is still astonishing in its completeness, he showed how an inverse-square law of gravitational attraction is bound to result in an elliptical motion, and thereby forced the planets to obey those laws which Kepler had painstakingly deduced from Tycho Brahe's observations. In doing so, Newton showed that the most powerful forces in nature could be described in mathematical terms. His concept of universal gravitation brought the whole universe under one basic law. No longer was there one law of behaviour for celestial bodies and another for terrestrial ones. After Newton, physics was universal. He also laid the foundation of the science of optics, and invented the mathematics needed to crack the problem of planetary motion. Many of his predecessors had suspected that the sun exerted an attractive force; they even suspected that it might follow an inverse-square law and that the path such a body should follow would be an ellipse. But no one could prove it. That they failed is not surprising, because solving the problem required a radically new mathematical technique: as a planet moved in an elliptical orbit, its distance from the sun would continually change, with the result that the attractive force would also continually change. A mathematics was needed which could deal with changing quantities and the invention of such a technique the calculus was one of Newton's greatest achievements. The strange thing about him and the challenge to biographers is that while he left behind a huge number of manuscripts, notebooks and other material, we know very little about him as a person. The only detailed account of his personal life and habits written by Humphrey Newton (no relation, funnily enough), who was his copyist for five years is uninformative. As Professor Hall points out, we do not even know if he ever washed or took a bath. So the facts available on Newton's personal life are extraordinarily sparse. He was born the posthumous son of a Lincolnshire yeoman Stephen KING IF YOU'RE SITTING COMFORTABLY, YOU ..WON'T BE AFTER YOU'VE HEARD HER CONFESSION... 14.99 HARDCOVER AVAILABLE AT WH SMITH AND ALL GOOD BOOKSHOPS Hodder & St.ought.oii Publishers farmer. His mother married again and he was brought up at Woolsthorpe by his maternal grandmother. He grew up to be a secretive and solitary man who had little contact with women. From this patchy background, elaborate Freudian and Oedipal conjectures have been woven most notably by Frank Manuel in his well-known 'psyche-biography' but it is impossible at this distance to assess the plausibility of such efforts. Professor Hall will have no truck with psychobiography. 'I believe it imprudent to try to interpret Newton's life and writings in terms of single factors', he writes, 'whether these be his infantile experiences, his reading of the strange books of the alchemists, his faith in God or even his confidence in number and measure. There is no single key to understanding Newton, no single source or stream of knowledge to which he applied his unique mental powers.' He is a documents man, as befits someone who has edited Newton's voluminous correspondence, and his biography sticks very closely to primary sources. His account of Newton's life and career is severely chronological; likewise his record of Newton's thought-processes is scrupulously tied to a detailed reading of the surviving manuscripts. Here and there there are flashes of speculation, but basically this is a work of restrained scholarship rather than the product of 'a novelist on oath'. The result is a biography which is conscientious yet strangely unsatisfying. But that is par for the course with Newton. He was a maddening blend of liberation and sublimation. He transcended the intellectual bounds of his age like no man before or since while at the same time never questioning some of its entrenched certainties. Keynes described him as 'profoundly neurotic'. Newton's deepest instincts were, he wrote, 'occult, esoteric, semantic with profound shrinking from the world, a paralysing fear of exposing his thoughts, his beliefs, his discoveries in all nakedness to the inspection and criticism of the world'. Yet this neurotic Fellow of Trinity altered forever mankind's view of nature and our place in it. In the absence of an explanation for such genius, one can only gaze on his statue in the Ante-chapel and ponder, as Wordsworth did in his time: Newton, with his prism and silent face, The marble index of a mind for ever Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

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