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An Immense World

In my assemblies with the pupils this week, I shared with them a few facts and figures that I gleaned from my summer book list, and I read them the introduction to Ed Yong’s ‘An Immense World’ because I had enjoyed it so much.  Although I would not describe this year as a bumper one for new ideas, I still enjoyed several interesting books and found enough new material to keep these blogs going for a few weeks yet.

You cannot really go wrong with Malcolm Gladwell, so his latest book ‘The Bomber Mafia’ seemed like a good place to start.  The Bomber Mafia were a group of US Air Force personnel who were the fathers of today’s precision bombs, seeking as they did to avoid civilian casualties by using technology such as the Norden bombsight to try to improve the accuracy of what they dropped from the sky.  They deplored the so-called area bombing of Germany by the RAF and the mentality of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris – a man described by Gladwell as a psychopath.

But when it came to the bombing of Japan in 1945, the Americans ignored the advice of the Bomber Mafia and turned instead to General Curtis E. LeMay, who decided that high altitude bombing would not work because of the impact of the Jetstream over Japan.  Instead, he ordered hundreds of B-29 Superfortress bombers to fly low over Japanese cities and drop napalm incendiary bombs to cause as much damage as possible.  LeMay is usually best remembered for saying during the Vietnam War that America was going to bomb the North Vietnamese back into the Stone Age – though he never actually said it, of course.

Gladwell writes that all war is absurd.  For thousands of years, he says, human beings have chosen to settle their differences by obliterating one another.  And when we are not obliterating one another, we spend an enormous amount of time and attention coming up with better ways to obliterate one another the next time around.  It’s all a little strange, if you think about it, he concludes.

I was completely unaware that American planes flew from India over the Himalayas to China during the war, where they could refuel before flying on to bomb Japan.  I was therefore surprised to read that over seven hundred of them crashed and the flying route was called ‘the aluminum (aluminium) trail’ because of all the debris scattered over the mountains.

Most of us have a working knowledge of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, but not many know that on the night of 9th March that year, according to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, conducted after the war, ‘Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.’  As many as one hundred thousand people died that night, yet there exists no government memorial in the country to what happened and few people in the wider world seem very interested.  To compound this sense of a lack of awareness, we are told that between March and August 1945, as many as one million Japanese people were killed by napalm bombs dropped on sixty-seven cities across the country.

My next offering was Graham Robb’s ‘France: An Adventure History’, though I confess that despite generally being a fan of the eclectic and obscure, this book was largely a step too far for me, ranging as it did from Caesar encountering unpassable hedges in Gaul via the search for a tree in the middle of France to the destruction of plastic cows on a roundabout near Rouen – which at least solved the mystery of why they are not there any more.  It was the Gilets Jaunes protesting against the blandness of French suburbia, apparently, that did for the artificial bovines.

I had read nearly three hundred pages before I felt the need to write anything down, but it is probably the sort of book that might be better on a second read, though I have only very rarely revisited a book for a repeat reading.  Mr Robb (who is probably Professor Robb) is clearly a very clever man who has travelled extensively in France and knows the country well.  His attempt to create a history of the country through a series of travelogues is commendable, even if it is not always the easiest of reads.  

At the outbreak of the First World War, he tells us, there were almost six million farms in France, almost forty per cent of which covered less than two-and-a-half acres – not much larger than a football pitch.  In 1913, 37.4% of the active population was engaged in agriculture.  That figure had fallen to 9.5% in 1975 and to 3.6% by 2010.  By then, the average farm covered 136 acres.

In the Second World War, of the soldiers who sailed from Dunkirk in 1940, a third of them were in fact French, leaving behind the 35,000 unsung fighters, who had heroically held off the Germans until the evacuation was complete.  Approximately 1,000 British soldiers died and 16,000 French.  Four years later, almost 60,000 French civilians were killed in American and British bombing raids on France in 1944.  The tonnage of Allied bombs dropped on France was seven times greater than that which fell on the United Kingdom during the Blitz.  Robb references an Englishman who had seen the destruction on both sides of the Channel and who said he found the German bombing of London ‘tentative and amateurish’ by comparison.

I shared with the pupils that although the cumulative total of kilometres cycled in the Tour de France is well over fifty million, only four riders have died: Tom Simpson of heart failure in 1967; Fabio Casartelli from a crash in 1995; Francisco Cepeda fell off the Galibier in 1935 after a puncture caused by an overheated wheel rim; and Adolphe Heliere died during a rest day in Nice in 1910 when he went swimming too soon after lunch.

I also described the joy of driving in France, which is said to be richer in roundabouts than any other country in the world.  No one knows the exact number: 50,000 is the usual upper estimate, which would make them as numerous as the mysterious sub-rectangular enclosures of the Iron Age Celts. Future archaeologists may find them just as perplexing.  They remain a mystery to many today, with different approaches to giving way to the left or the right, which depends on people’s ages because they changed the rules back in the day.  And you might as well wait for Godot as for a car to signal on a Gallic rond-point.

The final choice was Ed Yong’s ‘An Immense World’, a fascinating book about how other creatures sense the world differently from us.  It is perhaps not a surprise that dogs have a facial muscle that can raise their inner eyebrows, giving them a soulful, plaintive expression.  This muscle does not exist in wolves.  It is the result of centuries of domestication, in which dog faces were inadvertently reshaped to look a bit more like ours.  Those faces are now a bit easier to read, and better at triggering a nurturing response.  More surprising perhaps is that adults vary so much in their olfactory likes and dislikes that when the US Army tried to develop a stink bomb for crowd control purposes, they could not find a smell that was universally disgusting to all cultures.

The introduction alone is worth the price of the book, where Yong highlights what would happen if a series of creatures – human, elephant, bumblebee, bat, mouse, mosquito, rattlesnake, spider, owl and robin – all found themselves together in the same large room.  Perhaps surprisingly, the outcome is not as catastrophic as you might think, largely because each creature has its own view of the world that does not necessarily impinge on all of the others.  Humans, predictably, are guilty of seeing the world only through human eyes and perspectives, which makes it hard for us to appreciate the true complexity of the natural world – and, of course, our ever-increasing role in destroying it.

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