A foxy visitor from Ceredigion

June 9, 2019 1 Comment

Receiving post through the letterbox doesn’t give the anticipatory thrill it once did.  Personal messages are rare.  They’re outnumbered by personalised but corporate ones.  Today came a special invitation to view a retirement home in another part of Swansea, and the offer of discreet equipment to improve my hearing.  Neither of them arrived in response to any prompting from me.  Only a few of our friends still send holiday postcards, and I can’t remember the last time I received a personal letter.  The best you can hope for is a delivery of goods from an online retailer – but yet more ‘goods’ don’t hold much appeal to me these days, and in any case so many of their suppliers are rogues, with their ‘fulfilment centres’ and computer-enslaved workers.

But last month a book dropped on to the mat.  It was personally delivered, and contained a very short hand-written note, which said ‘I just happened to be here’. 

The book and the note were both written by Adam Somerset.  I don’t know Adam very well, but I know him well enough to know that he’s a curious person.  By that I don’t mean that he’s eccentric – even if he was, that would be no crime – but that he’s curious about many things.  Isaiah Berlin isn’t probably read much nowadays, but he’s famous for the striking contrast he once drew in an essay between the ‘fox’ and the ‘hedgehog’.  Actually, he borrowed it from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: ‘the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one important thing’.  The hedgehog, Berlin thought, sees the world through the lens of a single defining idea, while the fox is open to experiencing the world in all its multitudinous detail, without imposing an ideology or philosophy.

To judge from his new book of essays, Between the boundaries, Adam is a natural fox.  His interest is piqued by almost anything – except maybe sport.  (When I saw the title, my mind went straight to C.L.R. James’s West Indian masterpiece Beyond a boundary, but cricket fails to make an appearance.)  The Arab Spring, art and the Anthropocene, the alchemist John Dee, the Liberal Party, epidemics in the New World, importing plants from the New World, criticisms of the BBC, eccentricity and social class, maps and war, taxation and its avoidance, Australian artists, portraits of Dylan Thomas – all these and more are explored, with Wikipedian detail and sometimes sudden diversions. 

There are a few recurring themes, one being information technologies (Adam once worked in IT).  The most striking essay, ‘A visit to the cloud’, is set in an unknown location in ‘southern England’ to which Adam had somehow been granted access.  It’s frightening:

The site has every manner of safeguard built in.  The generators here too are ready and primed for the failure of the electricity grid.  A huge storeroom contains nothing but industrial-specification batteries for the collapse of the supply of oil.  These data centres are not just hubs for chat, shop and sexual witness.  The food supply is tight with only a few weeks’ stock in the pipeline.  The wires go dead and Europe has three or four days of civil society.  Then it is martial law and Britain becomes Mad Max.

(This was written before we heard about the odds in favour of ‘hard Brexit’, which will bring a different kind of supply crisis.)

At the foot of each essay are is its date (all the same date, that fateful year 2016) and location.  Places vary from London, Germany and Australia to Hay-on-Wye and Adam’s spiritual home, Ceredigion.  All of the pieces receive Adam’s distinctive treatment.

That treatment isn’t always straightforward.  Adam comes at a subject at an angle, and keeps it that way.  His writing style is indicative or declarative: typically, one paratactic sentence after the other tells us how things are.  They allow us to draw our own conclusions without always being led.  Sometimes you feel you’ve missed his point, and need to go back and start again from the beginning.

‘Waiting for a beaver’ is one of the best.  It starts with Gerald of Wales and his detailed observations of beavers in the river Teifi.  Next, a deviation into camel-milk chocolate from Dubai introduces a discussion of beavers as human-like builders, before another swerve into beaver-fur felt hats, as in Vermeer’s paintings.  The sentences pile up in Adam’s characteristic way:

The underfur is uniquely barbed, a quality that causes it to bind well when stewed in a mix of copper acetate and mercury-laced Arabic glue.  Pounded and dried it made the very best felt for the best hats.  This thatching quality of beaver fur made it superior by far to the next best substitute, the mixing of wool with rabbit fur.  The hat-makers of Europe first trapped and killed the beavers in their own locality to extinction.  The hunters moved on to the less populated regions.  In Scandinavia too they were also made extinct.  The opening of the Americas opened new areas of supply.

Then more on the destruction of beaver populations and their later reintroduction, and its wider beneficial effects on the environment.  Finally Adam reveals that he’s not in Wales at all, but Burgweinting, Franconia.  There’s a small epiphany as a beaver appears to him, and the piece ends with a hopeful coda of harmonious beaver-human co-existence.

This is the golden age of the essay.  The short form is back (in truth, it never went away), aided by the democratisation of publishing and dominance of the time-starved reader.  While most essays are online these days, there’s a case to be made for collecting them between covers in print form – especially if, as here, they’re of such high quality and held together by a common thread – the year 2016.  And probably we’re more likely to revisit them if they’re on our shelves rather than reabsorbed into the aether.  Adam’s certainly deserve to be re-read.

Adam Somerset, Between the boundaries; essays.  Cardigan: Parthian, 2019.

Comments (1)

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  1. Chris Edwards says:

    I suggest “there’s a case to be made for collecting [this blog] in print between covers”.

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