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Archive by tag: Madoc CairnsReturn
Jun 06, 2022

This enlightening book reveals the importance of scales and rulers to humanity’s survival and how measurement can be used for inhumane purposes

Once upon a time there was no time at all. And no weight, no mass, no height, no volume. None of the gauges and instruments we use to make sense of the world around us existed. They hadn’t been invented yet. And although the physical properties measurements refer to existed before the names humans coined to describe them, James Vincent notes in Beyond Measure, the point at which people developed systems to quantify the physical world around them was a moment of transformation for our species. Thirty-two thousand years later, that transformation is still unfolding, as measurement embeds itself ever further into our lives, from work to health, love to death: the world made data.

A Fitbit is some distance from a bone ruler, and the gap marks a huge expenditure of energy across a vast expanse of time during which generations laboured over finer and finer gradations of measurement. What motivation could there possibly be for this kind of devotion? In the first instance, Vincent says, the simplest imaginable: survival.

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May 03, 2022

The stories of three notable dissidents are the springboard for a fascinating study of exile and its effects

When Louise Michel – teacher, anarchist, and revolutionary-in-exile – arrived in London after seven years banishment in the South Pacific, she brought five cats with her. Escorted from the ship under the coats of sympathisers, the oceanian felines, exhausted from their 10,000-mile journey, recovered quickly when presented with “an enormous bowl of milk” under the doting eye of their mistress. Back in Paris a few years later – cats in tow – Michel tried to explain her solicitude for the fragile animals. Taken from New Caledonia, her place of exile, to France, the land of her birth, the cats represented to Michel something elusive, precious, instinctual; hard to find, easy to lose. They reminded her, she said, of home.

And although William Atkins’s Exiles is framed by the pain and self-discovery of exile, it’s home that draws his subjects out; raises them up; and pulls them back, in the end, to where they began. Exile isn’t, as Atkins shrewdly comments on Ovid’s poems on the theme, a place so much as a process, a movement. All three of Atkins’s subjects – Michel; Russian anthropologist Lev Shternberg, and deposed African king Dinuzulu – discover that it’s a movement that can last a whole life. As another of the book’s luminaries, Victor Hugo, notes: once an exile, always an exile. You can go back to the place you started from. But you can never go home.

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Mar 13, 2022

A genius, a seducer, a self-destructive wreck… the firebrand author, historian and critic was a complex, fragile human being, as John L Williams’s biography reveals

CLR James died on a May morning in 1989. He’d had a lot of practise. For years previously the sad news had been broken to those who called on the old revolutionary, sportsman and critic unannounced: “CLR James is dead.”

For James it had become, John L Williams tells us in his new biography, something of a catchphrase. Much about Cyril Lionel Robert James – CLR to his disciples; “Nello” to intimates, Jimmy Johnson to the FBI – is contained in the gag. His love of mischief, his sometimes shocking asociality, a hint of his chronic health problems. And it reveals something else too: his extraordinary appetite for drama.

CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries by John L Williams is published by Constable (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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