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Archive by tag: Edward PosnettReturn
Jun 24, 2022

At the national diary archive in Pieve Santo Stefano, Tuscany, no journal is ever turned away – whether typed, scrawled or written on a bedsheet

When I was in my early 20s, I tried to keep a diary of my experiences as a student and teacher in Bologna. There was much to write about: I was teaching in one of the city’s largest secondary schools, attending lectures delivered by professors who seemed as ancient as the faculty’s medieval buildings and I was learning, painfully, that a certain British shabbiness is not considered a mark of sophistication in Italy, but its very opposite. Yet the diary contained none of this. It was, as the Italians say, uno sfogo, a vent, and, instead of bringing to life this fabulous city with its myriad characters, I detailed minor fluctuations in my mood and the messy breakdown of a short relationship. That, at least, is what I remember, for, on returning to the UK, I was so ashamed of the text that I burned it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that diary ever since visiting Italy’s Archivio Diaristico Nazionale or national diary archive. Nestled in the small town of Pieve Santo Stefano in Tuscany, it holds about 9,000 diaries, letters and memoirs. Its founder, the late Italian journalist Saverio Tutino, was a professional writer who wanted to find a home for his own voluminous diaries. But the spirit of the archive is decidedly egalitarian; it accepts every Italian text that it receives, regardless of literary merit. Within its collection you will find the writings of Italian contadini (peasants), immigrants, aristocrats, criminals, factory workers, victims of violence, business executives, drug addicts, partisans, fascists, communists, the semi-illiterate, the over-educated and, yes, students nursing literary ambitions. “Do you have a diary in a drawer?” Tutino asked readers of La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, in 1984. “Don’t let it become mouse food in the year 2000.”

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Apr 01, 2022

A mother and her young son follow pods of whales from Mexico to Alaska in this brave, lyrical memoir

Almost a decade ago a group of Canadian and British scientists made a remarkable observation about the social lives of sperm whales in the Sargasso and Caribbean seas. While mother whales dived deep to hunt for squid, others assumed the role of “allomothers”, caring for the calf at the water’s surface (the popular press referred to these whales as “babysitters”). The paper by the scientists was part of a growing body of eye-opening research into whales’ social behaviour, which centres on those close-knit groups called pods.

Pods, human as well as cetacean, come up repeatedly in Doreen Cunningham’s debut, Soundings, a striking, brave and often lyrical book that defies easy interpretation. It’s the story of a single mother and her two-year-old son, Max, and their journey to follow the whales that migrate from Baja California to the Arctic. But this is not really a work of natural history. Mother and son are in a state of turmoil and, like the whales they pursue, must navigate an environment that appears callous, if not hostile, and rely on friendship to get by. The experiences of the alienated pair are inseparable from their literary quarry, and as they travel up the Pacific coast, whale and human cultures seem to converge, eroding the gap between ourselves and our distant mammalian cousins.

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Jan 14, 2022

Insects may resemble ‘aliens on earth’ – but life as we know it couldn’t function without them, as this lucid homage shows

In Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder, a private safari group travels back in time from 2055 to the Late Cretaceous to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. It’s a perilous enterprise, not just because of the lethality of the quarry, but because minute changes in the ancient environment can lead to cataclysmic shifts in the present; clients must never stray from a floating path and only shoot specially marked dinosaurs. After killing a T rex, the party makes it back to 2055, but finds a world that has altered: there is a chemical smell in the air, language has changed and a fascist candidate is now president. Examining the muddy underside of his boot, one hunter discovers the cause of their transformed landscape: a crushed butterfly, “a small thing that could upset balances”.

A similar thread runs through Oliver Milman’s new book, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World, a chronicle of the precipitous decline of insects and an investigation into what it means for human life and the creatures that surround us. Like Bradbury’s short story, it invites us to shift our focus away from the large, iconic creatures of the animal kingdom and consider these minute invertebrates – those small things that “could upset balances” – and their hidden labour. If anything, The Insect Crisis is even bleaker than Bradbury’s work of science fiction, revealing the terrifying implications of the continued loss of insect life. It is a sombre book, a catalogue of loss and unravelling, but also a lucid homage to the fabulous utility of insects and a critique of our fixation with backbones.

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