The grandfather could never pass a beggar in the street without giving something, remarking "I've been like that myself, m'boy, and may be again". Between bouts of top-hat-and-tails, Grampa had indeed been a hobo, riding the rails to the next adventure. He was in San Francisco in 1906 when the city was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire. We don't know if he was living it high at the time or currently without funds, but you may be sure he was kind and made himself useful in the disaster. My father was an only child and idolised this charismatic chancer. I'd love to know more about Grampa but you could see His Boy get sacked by the wrench of loss whenever he talked him, so we didn't like to press. My father is dead 15 years now, so that gate is closed.
ANNyway, in return for those books, I got the loan of Simon Winchester's Atlantic: a vast ocean of a million stories [reviewed Guardian, WaPo and everywhere else: Winchester's books will always get reviewed because he is One of Us]. I have finally finally finished reading this worthy tome after six weeks of titanic struggle. In the peculiarly fractal world of research and writing you can spend a couple of years and deliver 500 pages on the month of April 1906 in a few square kilometers of California OR the same effort can be spread over 300 million years and a fifth of the Earth's surface. The hook and connexion between these two books is Geology, which Winchester read at Oxford [St Catherine's College] and which found him employed briefly in Uganda looking for copper and out in the North Sea looking for oil. He reckoned he could write at least as well as, say, James/Jan Morris, and blagged himself a job as Junior at The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne's local rag. That experience was parlayed into a post with the Guardian, covering The Troubles in Ireland and wars and scandals elsewhere and thereafter.
I'm sorry but I think that Atlantic is too big and wet a mouthful to be easily chewed and digested. And the title of Winchester's book includes <snit alert!> a woeful Arts Block hyperbole: ocean of a million stories? It's only 160,000 words, so does not even cover 1000 stories. It reads a little scrappy because the scale transitions don't always work: the switches between, for example, the vast sigmoid curve of the mid-Atlantic ridge and Amerigo Vespucci bobbing about, or HMS Sheffield incandescent, on the surface too often come over as and now for something completely different. I suspect that the medium is wrong. Winchester is old school, older even than me, and has had a successful career writing chunky books. They get reviewed [see catty remark above] and that attention gets them sold and he makes a modest living on the royalties. We've been wrenched from that, essentially Victorian, model of writing and reading by Twitter, the blogosphere and the 6 minute youtube clip. It's much more difficult to monetise that medium, but it's even more, unsurpassably, difficult for a creative person in their 20s to get a contract to write a 500 page book. At least the index for Atlantic is reasonably comprehensive and functional.
It's like a bag of ideas and snippets that Winchester has been filing away for 30 years:
- Greenland, Venezuela, Namibia,
- Halifax, Cadiz, Cape Town
- Ailsa Craig, Martinique, Nantucket
- Cod, murex, silver
- Cabot, Maury, Cassius Dio
- Challenger, Beagle, Mary Celeste
- Hatteras, Bojador, Horn