Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

The Creation Of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner

For five thousand years humanity has suffered the many iniquities of patriarchy. Gerda Lerner’s groundbreaking book, published in 1986 to great acclaim, answers that most difficult of questions: why did patriarchy appear?

An established scholar, Lerner begins her story over 5,000 years ago, setting the scene – the problem of patriarchy, a few guidelines as to a possible solution – then in a series of mesmerising chapters outlining the evidence for her case. In her view, patriarchy evolved incrementally over at least five thousand years, as the conditions of living changed from those of hunter-gatherer groups to Neolithic settlements and eventually, around 3,000BC, to patriarchy itself. She looks at the actuality for women, including all the demoted identities: wife, concubine, slave and others. She also looks at the symbolic downfall of the Goddess and the worsening of patriarchy – already an extreme misogynist system – following the arrival of Hebrew monotheism.

For any person interested in why such a terrible institution should have appeared five thousand years ago, with such awful consequences for women – and some for men – this is an essential text. Lauded by many, Lerner puts all her wisdom into this superb book.

The Tree Wakers by Keith Claire

Following a chance conversation on one of Liz Williams’ facebook threads, I picked up a copy of Keith Claire’s children’s novel The Tree Wakers, which turns out to be a strange book indeed. This is a work set in Kew Gardens, a location I had transmuted in Monica Hatherley, so I was intrigued to see what an author of a different generation had done to the place.

Written in 1970, its age shows not through its attitudes or subject matter but through its language, which, for those not used to reading older works, will seem peculiar. Here’s an example:

“Harragong sat in a shimmering whirl of peacock feathers, with her chin on her knees. She was regarding them with tremendous, enthusiastic amusement. The warm brown eyes not only met theirs, but chuckled right through them. Alex felt that even when she sat still, she was moving.”

I’m not criticising this use of language, just noting its oddness…

The narrative follows two siblings, Alex and Brid, as they encounter the time-loop travelling Maborians. The author head-hops throughout the novel so that sometimes you have to read back to see who he is referring to. These two don’t do much until the end of the book – they’re essentially observers of the Maborian dilemma and the Maborian way – until, at the conclusion, they have to use themselves to create a time-bridge back to Maboria (the Kew Maborians are accidental exiles). Images and ideas are all wonderfully original. It’s a startling book, original, and with many charms. The language and writing style are old-fashioned and take a bit of getting used to, but it is worth the effort.

Fugitive Minds by Antonio Melechi

I picked this up second hand in Hay-on-Wye because it looked interesting, and parts of it certainly are… but alas not the whole thing. For all the fascinating cases described in Melechi’s tour of mental maladies and conditions, the book is essentially a list of them (most of the chapters are really short) with no overall thesis or even much by way of the author’s character. Adding shame and love at the end was a step too far. Though written in 2003, the majority of the cases hark back to the nineteenth century, though a few more recent are mentioned. I enjoyed a few chapters of this book, but I finished it wondering what the point was.

Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

I’ve been fascinated by human evolution for a long time, so Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ new book Kindred was a must-buy for me. Subtitled Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, it’s an up-to-date, wide ranging, in-depth look at everything we know about the Neanderthals as of spring this year.

As the author observes, following a decade of new discoveries – mostly in the field of genetics – this new decade is shaping up to be a good one for our long lost cousins. The author covers everything Neanderthal – discovery, fossilisation, site mechanics, species assessment and reassessment – before heading off into fields needing more nuance and interpretation: love, death and art. The chapter on death is particularly good. Sykes is a keen observer, stating probabilities where that is necessary, elsewhere unafraid of giving her own personal interpretation. The impression is of an author on top of her material, possessed of humanity, experience and insight.

The book overall is well written, albeit with a tendency for an occasional lapse – poor puns, for instance a particularly jarring dental one. Also the footnotes which litter the first half of the book become irritating quickly. These notes, most of which are incidental if not irrelevant, should have been numbered and relegated to pages at the back of the book. But overall, the style is okay.

I very much liked the author’s reassessment of the terrible masculine lapses of earlier archaeology. Not for her a male, Western view. The end of the book is a highly commendable look at how Neanderthals skills, minds and lives should be assessed from a human vantage, not a male, white, Western one. Non-Western hunter-gatherer individuals have for instance reinterpreted archaeological evidence, and in fact have found new evidence simply by looking at Neanderthal sites with “new” eyes.

An excellent book, highly recommended.

The Extraordinary Voyage Of Pytheas The Greek

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe

I picked this book up in Hay-on-Wye over the summer. In recent years I’ve bought quite a few books on remarkable voyages of exploration, and when I worked at Waterstones I had a similar historical phase. There’s something about tales of exploring the little-known planet which fascinates me.

Barry Cunliffe is an author well known to students of archaeology, his field of expertise focusing on north and west European areas. This book takes the reader back 2,400 years to the age when Greece was dominant in the Mediterranean and Rome was yet to rise in any significance. Pytheas was a residence of Marseilles, then a vital Greek trading settlement. The extraordinary voyage refers to a years-long exploration which Pytheas undertook of France, England and Scotland, including various Scottish isles, Iceland, then the north European coast possibly as far as the Baltic sea. Motives offered include the spirit of exploration and the search for sources of tin and amber.

What’s so admirable about this book is that, as it tells an exciting tale of ancient enquiry, it never fails to lose sight of the fact that our knowledge of Pytheas comes via a chain of many sources, some of whom believed Pytheas and some of whom did not. Thus the entire field of classical enquiry is thrown into an appropriately sceptical light. Cunliffe is particularly good when trying within reasonable limits to disentangle guesswork and authoritative source. On the whole though he is a Pytheas believer (unlike the grumpy Strabo, whom he regularly quotes).

Highly recommended to all fascinated by tales of exploration, whether ancient or relatively modern.

It’s All In The Mind by Julie Warren

It’s All In The Mind: the Life & Legacy of Larry Stephens by Julie Warren

As a fan of the highly esteemed Goon Show, I was delighted to see that a biography of Larry Stephens – a name I only knew from the Goons, and whom I’d assumed to be a minor player in the Grafton Arm scene – had been written and published. I bought it with some anticipation. But it turns out that Larry Stephens was far from being a bit part in the Goon Show story.

This biography – published by Unbound after a crowdfunding scheme – and written by Julie Warren, a family relative, is in two parts, the first of which covers Stephens’ childhood and WW2 experiences, the second of which covers his life as a comedy scriptwriter.

The first part is quite interesting: vivid, well researched and well written. But for me the book really comes into its own after the war, when Stephens, a talented pianist, discovers his aptitude for writing comedy. And he was in with the Goon crowd right from the beginning, along with Tony Hancock, Graham Stark and many other notables. In fact, the main message of this book is that Stephens’ contribution to post-war comedy has been greatly undervalued, mostly through lack of representation. Julie Warren’s final line is a paean to that: ‘He deserves to be remembered.’

In my novel Hairy London I exploited my own silly sense of humour, so similar to that of Spike and the Pythons, and until now I’d assumed that Spike was the main “crazy” of that crazy gang. But he was not. Yes, there was a difference in writing style – Spike chaotic but inspired, Stephens’ inspired and ordered – but Stephens’ imagination was almost as feverish as the man who gave us Eccles & co.

This biography is highly recommended to any Goon Show fan, but also to anybody interested in the history of British post-war comedy. Congratulations to the author for her excellent work!

Origins by Lewis Dartnell

Subtitled How The Earth Shaped Human History, this is a fascinating and very well written survey of how geology and landscape have shaped the course of human history. It’s aimed at the general reader, but doesn’t skimp on facts and theory. Comparisons with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens are for once not exaggerated.

Set into nine chapters, the work opens with the evolution of humanity in East Africa, showing how continental drift, deep magma events and climate all forged conditions in which human evolution occurred. Continental drift is the fascinating subject of the next chapter, followed by chapters covering ocean geography, fault lines, building materials, metal, the steppe and desert areas of the world, trade winds/currents and the age of Western explorers, and finally energy, this mostly coal and oil.

What this book excels at is showing how apparently random or unrelated events are actually created, initiated or corralled by geology – the shape of our environment, its long-term change, what it’s made of and where it is. This work is readable, accessible and enjoyable. Highly recommended.


This Is Your Brain On Music review

This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin

A couple of months ago I watched Stewart Copeland’s three-part tv series Adventures In Music, which aimed to get to the heart of what music is and why it means so much to us. The series was very enjoyable, and in one of the episodes there were interviews with Daniel Levitin, so I bought his book This Is Your Brain On Music.

I have to say, though it’s not a bad book, it is rather dry, and I did struggle with it. The opening three chapters (as the author observes) can be skipped by anyone reasonably au fait with music, while the rest, which is mostly neurology and brain science, is interesting enough but not terribly engaging. I confess I skipped a few sections.

It could be that a book simply isn’t the right vehicle for this topic. There was nothing specifically wrong here, but I found the continuing descriptions of brain operation to be a case of diminishing returns. Perhaps the book should be televised.

Interesting, then, but arid.


A Mithen Celebration

Recently I’ve been re-reading for research purposes a couple of books by Steven Mithen, so I thought the time was appropriate to write an appreciation of his enormous contribution to research into human evolution.

Professor of Archaeology at Reading University, his career has been decorated with many highlights. I first came across him when I stumbled upon a book entitled The Prehistory Of The Mind (1996), which turned out to be fascinating reading. Actually I didn’t get it at first, but after a second reading I realised what a remarkable description of the evolution of the human mind it was.

Mithen is known for his concept of cognitive fluidity, which, in a nutshell, suggests that “modular” aspects of the proto-human mind – in particular the social module, the language module, the technical module and the natural history module – all operated independently of one another during the long evolutionary process leading to homo sapiens. Slowly, these modules merged. Using supplementary ideas suggested by various other evolutionary scientists, Mithen’s book theorises that the language and social modules first merged, allowing the development of consciousness itself, which is a feature of the mind necessary for survival in highly complex social groups (cf Dunbar and Humphrey). The beauty of Mithen’s idea is that it explains the otherwise baffling: why cultural stasis marks hundreds of thousands of years of proto-human existence. This fact has always been difficult to explain. But if the mental modules were separate, no technical knowledge – for example how to sophisticate stone tools – could have been passed on, for example via language, leading to cultural stasis. All such knowledge would have been learned by imitation alone. The book is a brilliant description of the likely path of human mental evolution – an inspirational read.


A second work was the remarkable The Singing Neanderthals (2005). In this work Mithen delves deeper into one of the aspects of life not elaborated upon in his previous book: the evolution of language. This, of course, is a tricky and highly contentious area for debate, so Mithen’s contribution was always going to make fascinating reading. His essential thesis is this: proto-language was holistic, mimetic and musical. It consisted of sounds and gestures, which in one indivisible utterance described something. This was not compositional language like ours, which can be cut up into sections for infinite communicative possibilities. The brilliance of the work though is how Mithen develops this notion into a timeline for the separation of the proto-language into our kind of language and music, the latter of which, separated, became our vehicle for emotional expression. This book is another terrific, thought-provoking read.

singing n

Between the above two books came After The Ice (2003). In it, the impact of alterations in climate owing to the planet’s Milankovitch Cycles was developed into a global description of massive changes in human culture, not least the change from hunter-gatherer societies to those depending on agriculture. Cutting edge research about life during the Ice Age brings veracity to a very well written narrative. (This book would benefit from being read alongside Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel, I think.) What might be called “eye-witness accounts” bring a vivid feel to much of the book. It’s more of a survey of prehistory than the two theoretical earlier works, and it’s a wonderful read.

after i

None of these three books require any prior knowledge other than that human beings evolved and there needs to be an explanation of the process. What the reader brings is a sense of wonder and the desire to learn about our prehistory.

Highly regarded by his peers, and a terrific writer, Steven Mithen has opened up the possibilities which we have for developing a description of our evolution. All three of these books come highly recommended from me.

(A Prehistory Of The Mind here.)


Dilly by Mavis Batey

Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigmas is an account by Mavis Batey not only of the great code-breaker Alfred Dillwyn Knox, but of the whole wartime code-breaking effort centred in Bletchley Park. Mavis Batey was one of “Dilly’s girls,” in fact she was one of two particular women whose brilliance helped the mercurial and eccentric Dilly. This biography spends a little time on his upbringing and education, before heading off into his WW1 work, but it is really WW2, Bletchley Park and Enigma which it focuses on.

Written with sensitivity and charm, and with many personal anecdotes, it’s a great account of a man whose work made an enormous difference to our lives.