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Archive by tag: Zoe WilliamsReturn
May 13, 2022

The zoolologist, presenter and author surveys centuries of human-canine relations

While you doubtless don’t need to be reminded of the aeons we’ve known dogs and loved them, zoology has had a tendency to neglect them. “For decades in the 20th century,” Howard writes, “dogs were considered unworthy of rigorous study,” since focusing on them for insights into the animal kingdom was “like trying to understand the adaptations of a chicken’s egg by studying the crumbs of a wet cake”. Dogs were somehow rendered inauthentic, almost processed, by their emotional and physical proximity to us.

In fact, counters the author, not only do dogs warrant close study – “nothing else on Earth has such a wide range of variations within the same species category” – but every time we’ve done so, we’ve unearthed incomparable wisdom about ourselves. Except when we’ve been wrong: Rudolph Schenkel’s 1947 paper on wolves, hypothesising alpha behaviour and its attendant hierarchies, was applied for years in the fields of both dog and human behaviour, to produce everything from training doctrines (never let your dog enter a house ahead of you) to political theory (what happens when a Donald Trump meets a Kim Jong-un?). But the original study used the wrong kind of wolves (those in captivity behave differently, unsurprisingly), and besides, dogs and wolves are nothing like as similar as they’d have to be to make those kind of extrapolations.

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Jan 28, 2022

An all-encompassing book about bodies and exercise through the ages that leaves you hungry for more

A theatre director once told me that you should never ask what a play is about, just as you should never ask a prisoner what they’re in for: instead, you should ask, “What’s the inquiry?”. What’s the difference, you might wonder. Well, Bill Hayes’s Sweat is “about” a history of exercise, indeed, that’s its subtitle. Yet his inquiry would be better summarised: “What does my body and its acts and competencies say about who I am? What, for that matter, did Plato’s? And from everyone in between, what can I learn about the self?”

“Libraries, like gyms,” he writes, “have always been a refuge for me, just as gyms, like libraries, have always been places of learning.” There is a playfulness in Hayes’s writing, which reaches from a rich topsoil of endearing wordplay (“pas de dads”, he calls the sight of two middle-aged men playing squash) to the deepest layers of curiosity and empathy. He takes a profound, historian’s pleasure in tropes that echo across centuries – “The ancient Greek word for ‘gym rat’… literally translates as ‘palestra addict’”, to build an enthusiasm it’s impossible not to share. In one chapter, he learns boxing; it’s physically arduous, Plato had a thing or two to say about it (didn’t he always?), the diary is tearing along with pace and wit when Hayes leads the reader casually into the relationship that made him want to box in the first place. His boyfriend Steve – protective, capable, “always there. In our apartment, at my side, at the other end of the phone, a presence” – dies, suddenly, of a heart attack at the age of 43. It’s like being punched in the face. Hayes, by his own account, ends up medium-good at boxing, but as a storyteller, he’s Joe Frazier.

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Dec 15, 2021

A magpie tour of human history that takes in gluttony, abstinence and our preoccupation with the choices of the poor

Paul Freedman’s Why Food Matters opens with a lament on the lack of intellectualism – indeed, discourse – around food and drink. They are considered “eminently compatible with conversation, just not worthwhile as its objects”, and he puts this down to three things: “materiality, necessity and repetition contribute to the apparent banality of food”. While repetitiveness might well put off a passing intellectual, the same way housework is such a turn off for economists in the Adam Smith tradition, arguably materiality is the main block.

Appetite, like sex drive, is considered elementally base, bestial, ignominious. Physical desire stands opposed to cerebral or spiritual quest. We don’t describe in intricate detail the process and pleasure of satiation for the same reason we rarely talk in public about what actually happened in bed: yet sex gets a look in, intellectually, being so consequential, launching so many ships, wars, neuroses. It doesn’t have many consequences, does it, food?

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Jul 30, 2021

The outspoken MP is on a one-woman campaign to banish jargon, snobbery and tradition and make sure politics is for everyone

“Believe me,” writes Jess Phillips in Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics; My Life As an MP, “if you think you don’t belong in Parliament or in political life because you have never made a rousing speech or are crap at public speaking then you are wrong – you would be in good company in politics.” It’s not so much that the outspoken MP is disillusioned with Westminster. She’s enamoured of everything about the place, from the cornicing to the 90% of MPs who “genuinely want to make the world a better place”. That’s often the figure people use to make this point, that however self-serving politics looks, its participants are generally motivated by public duty. I would be interested to see the field work.

No, Phillips is not disappointed so much as indignant – on a one-woman campaign to strike out the mystique of politics, which is rooted variously in snobbery, the complications and jargon of process and tradition and the overall Hogwartsiness of the place. The debate is often not that erudite, and the number of truly great orators on the green benches is vanishingly small. I think she’s right, and furthermore, she herself is one of them. Yet both as a politician, and here as part-explainer, part-memoirist, she is peculiarly resistant to big ideas.

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Oct 28, 2020

Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett explore gender bias in these classic tales with a twist

It started with an algorithm. No, wait, the baby came first and then the algorithm. When creative technologist Jonathan Plackett and comic writer and artist Karrie Fransman had a daughter, they wondered if it would be possible to create a program that “swapped all gendered language in any text”, he to she, daughter to son and so on. Having built it, they applied it to the ur-narrative text, the fairytale, choosing the Fairy Books, edited by Andrew Lang, published at the back end of the 19th century and into the 20th. The result is blunt and impartial, deliberately so: there’s no finer human judgment applied story by story (is a pantaloon male or female? What about a ruffle?), it’s a straight computer-says-she switcheroo. The illustrations are quite special, particularly when they veer into fantasy. I loved the forest full of parrots in “Little Red Riding Hood”, the lizards and mice in “Cinder”.

Plainly, the core audience is the malleable young mind, a child at the age of such innocence that they haven’t yet internalised the gender prejudice all around them, and who will head into the world thinking of women as adventurers and men as very much in touch with their emotions. But more fascinating – particularly if your children are too old and cynical for such an enterprise – is to read it yourself for what jars, what surprises, what seems implausible, what repels.

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