BOOK CLUB: Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard

GARETH LANGDON lauds Sean Christie’s excellent account of stowaways living on the margins of a quickly gentrifying Cape Town.

"Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard" by Sean Christie

Taking a ship is not like taking a taxi. If I get the chance, I will go, and after that you never know. I might not come back.

Cape Town is often lauded as a city of contrasts: white sandy beaches and rocky mountain outcrops. The green, leafy, English speaking South and the dry, arid, Afrikaans speaking North. The rich, safe suburbs and the dangerous poor squatter camps.

Poverty, as many have sadly noted, is as much a part of Cape Town’s landscape as Table Mountain or Camps Bay beach. So much so that many of the city’s most destitute and lost go unnoticed and forgotten, living out lives that are foreign to the privileged such as myself, camouflaged into the city’s intersections and park benches, pavements and grass embankments near highways. Few venture into the areas that the poor call home, unless it is to “clean up” and ask them to leave. Sean Christie is an exception to this rule.

In the excellent Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard: Life Among the Stowaways, Christie ventures deep into the underground world of African stowaways who call Cape Town’s and other coastal city’s bridges, highways, and forests their home. The foreshores and harbours of these places offer the perfect viewing point for those whose lives are dictated by the tides of ships coming in and out, offering escape routes and temporary shelter. Befriending one stowaway in particular, Adam, Christie infiltrates the exclusive culture of the stowaways who call themselves the Beachboys, and examines in personal detail some of the most destitute of Cape Town like few others have before. Christie drives Adam around in his Conquest, loans him money, his cellphone and laptop, food and even takes a lengthy trip with him to Dar es Salaam and back, a promise he had made a long time before and had never expected to keep. Through Adam, Christie is introduced to and allowed to talk openly and frankly various members of the Beachboys, and learns in great depth about their lives up to this point, and their hopes for the future.

The majority of the stowaways hail from Tanzania, but few actually still call it home. A big part of Beachboy culture is the belief that the ocean is your true home, the source of life, and unless you are out at sea you are not truly home. Naturally, this lifestyle often clashes with the realities of these men’s situations, many of whom have left families, daughters and sons behind in the various countries they have lived and worked illegally over their time as stowaways. Many of them have serious drug addictions, illnesses and injuries which go untreated. Their lives are hard and strenuous and the sea is their balm. Adam himself has a daughter, Aniya, who lives a healthy life with her mother Rochelle in Birmingham, England. The book captures a beautiful moment in Adam’s young life where, for the first time with Christie’s help, he is able to reach his daughter through Skype, having not seen her for several years. Christie writes the encounter adeptly, with Adam’s excitement about his daughter and the technology as totally foreign both brought to full view. As I read, I was reminded of my own complacency with the resources I have access to.

The danger of investigative journalism like Christie’s is that it can slip easily into the realm of limited self-awareness. Few explorations of this kind are conscious of their own bias, or privilege, when engaging with their subject. However, Christie cleverly avoids falling into this trap by interweaving memoir and investigation – a technique that Billy Kahora on the over-leaf calls “genre-busting”.

Christie speaks frankly about the personal experiences that led him to investigate the Beachboys, his own struggles with a lack of purpose and with alcohol. After completing his education and flitting between various writing gigs, other odd jobs and still not finding fulfillment, Christie embarks on his journey with Adam after an introduction through photographer David Southwood, whose pictures feature in the book. From his own platform of waywardness Christie is not simply describing the lives of the Beachboys, but constantly searching for possible parallels between their lives and his, and strives to assimilate the parts of their philosophy which he believes are able to guide him along his own winding path. He allows himself to experience the true nature of poverty on the trip down from Dar es Salaam, draining his bank account, sleeping rough and hopping the border. For the reader, there is a feeling both of admiration for Christie’s bravery and of excitement for the story – you really just want to know what will happen to them all in the end.

Sadly however, the book leaves little room for hope for the Beachboys. It concludes with the realisation that, for all the claims towards progress, Cape Town and South Africa at large remains a place of extreme contrast and poverty, and what was once a haven for the destitute Beachboy stowaways has, thanks to development and gentrification which purports to bring prosperity, has now become, ironically, unliveable. The Beachboys are pushed out of their makeshift homes by the sea in favour of glass and steel buildings along Cape Town’s foreshore, and new business and apartments for the privileged throughout Woodstock and Salt River. Without their views of the ocean, one is left to wonder what happens to a Beachboy culture so heavily steeped in salt water. Forced away from the water, what becomes of a Beachboy? Christie laments and accepts the conditions of his home city, and rather than offering some kind of solution or resolve, seems resigned to the fact that – like most Capetonians – there is not much to be done in the face of such enormous systemic and structural inadequacy when addressing poverty of this scale. One is left to wonder after reading, “How can I help?”, but also with a distinct feeling that this urge to help is misplaced and even condescending to a group of tough men who have found their own way of living, albeit one which contradicts our own limit understanding of how things should be. Although poor, many of these men are not unhappy. Half forced into and half choosing their stowaway lives, they have insights which, perhaps, many of the comfortable like you and I lack.

For Adam, home lies at sea and not, as you would expect, in Cape Town or Birmingham or Dar es Salaam. Pushed out and away from the land by years of rejection – from his father, from his mother, from the governments and citizens around him – Adam has found his peace and comfort in the water, his own kind of final frontier.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is a revealing, personal and touching read in its entirety and – especially for those familiar with the streets of Cape Town – a deep insight into the hidden worlds around and within us, poor or not.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is published by Jonathan Ball. Save R40 when you purchase online at Bridge Books (type AERO in the box that says “Discount” at checkout). You can collect your purchase in-store or get it delivered via courier (delivery fees still apply).

BOOK CLUB: Wings of Smoke

CHRISTINE COATES is enthralled by Jim Pascual Agustin’s disturbingly beautiful new collection of poems.

Wings of Smoke

There is something delicate and disturbing about the image of wings of smoke; something light and lovely, almost an apparition, but then the horror of wings actually burning. Jim Pascual Agustin invites ways of seeing like the birds flying in and out of this beautiful collection. The small sparrows (their breath, their wings), the fighting cocks kept under the floorboards of a childhood home, a yellow-billed kite, a seagull, crows, a headless chicken. The feathers of the many birds are both delicate and smouldering, but there are also stones, pebbles to follow, scattered throughout the text; skin, mud, light are all visceral, concrete images. It’s the footless wagtail at the end that breaks one’s heart.

In “Stretching the Fabric”, Agustin gathers what he loves under the canopy of this first section. In “Open Air Cinema in the Rain” he walks with his beloved in Sagada, the Philippines Northern Mountain Province. He telescopes from an intimate moment to the bigger picture; the couple are outdoors and yet the reader is right there with them:

We stretch the fabric
between us, plucking
and dropping seed after seed,
remembering the ridiculous
fear we felt when the sound
of hooves on damp ground
invaded our meandering.

Then he reverses it – inside, the outside becomes part of the intimacy:

Now in your room we laugh
at what forced us to hold
hands together. Outside,
a movie plays to a silent crowd
in the plaza. Lightning
competing with the show,
then a downpour.

The delicacy of the images are like painted watercolours, a haiku within the poem:

then a downpour. Umbrellas
like black mushrooms
sprout on the benches.

In “A View of Crows”, inside and outside are again interchanged, but with heightened anxiety, of not being in control, of someone else determining his fate. The minibus-taxi, a satellite hurtling through space, inside is loaded with shadows – then the moment when the poem takes one’s breath:

Then
you notice them, clear from the fog, framed
by the back window: crows.

The space metaphor occurs again where the speaker’s unborn children are cosmic travellers in the womb; contained and safe. In “Sound of the Sun”, the unborn twins are

nothing but quivering
dots of light that came together
then broke apart over and over
in the watery world of ultrasound.
Floating, no, swimming
in your separate oceans,
each as big as a bowl of rice.

The seeing that comes before words, the poet learns new words to explain the world, finds words through experience to make poetry;

Swaddled, a word I never knew
until I held you.

In “Breath of Sparrows” the poet dreams of Mandela as a tree. He wants to ask the name of the tree, but realises there is no need to know, no need to name anything; the wings of the sparrows and their breath say it all:

The breath of sparrows
like his own. There was no need to name
the tree, no need to name anything
at all at that moment. I bid him thanks
before leaving, my footsteps drowning
in sparrow wings.

The wind moves around branches as words come and go along the lines of poetry. This is the poet as master, showing the reader, not spelling it out.

In “Born and Died, Lived”, a portrait of his grandmother, Agustin explores what he knows and what he needs to know, ways he can never imagine her, ways he does; catching a butterfly in a net, a white flag on a wash line, her wings lace, her back studded with diamonds. The pebbles lead the reader to make sense of the images – mud is associated with love; like the grandmother’s skirt or her skin. In “Unbearable” he draws another intimate portrait, again noting what is said and what is left unsaid, with gentle sensitivity.

“Midnight Bugs” surprises the reader; one thing turns to another as the bugs, crawling up on the outside of a window, become the shells inside on a glass table top. “Bladed Spurs”, a childhood memory, where what is heard and what is not heard, what needs to see, what is being seen is remembered. The boy sees the fighting cocks kept below the wooden floorboards of the house, but they don’t see him. He imagines them hearing the family screams and fights, and yet, when the roosters need to see, when they fight, their line of vision is “improved” by the father:

its comb. “It covers an eye
when it flops down too long,”
he explained, “a handicap
in a fight.” The rooster’s heart
against my hands,
the burning heat of skin
beneath feathers
with a metallic shine.

“The Consequences of Seeing” the loon with a mirror tries to capture light in a jar. Is the poet a fool? No, this poet is a master of capturing light in a jar. Agustin, the artist who sees, looks, “grips everyone’s hearts”; his way of seeing acts as the function of poetry, to make us immune to the sudden darkness:

It made her laugh and fall
in love, immune
to the sudden darkness.

In “shadows the shape of knives”, the poet explores loss; what cuts us, cuts into. In “Ghost Train” he again searches for what is seen and what is not:

the strip where the elastic
of my underwear leaves a fine
texture like ghost train
tracks. Neither of us has seen
a coach derail except in movies.

In “Do Millipedes Bleed?” the harsh glare of the light bulb does not blind the poet. When he looks closely he sees. Seeing saves lives:

Then up close I see
it is hunched over
a drop of water,
drinking. Tiny feelers
waving back and forth
in a gentle rhythm

There is anxiety about travel in Cape Town; danger, blackness, teethmarks on leather, knife-cuts on his journey; even the mountain cuts the sky. Here the centipedes are poisonous. The birds that brought joy earlier are now lost, killed against a mesh fence. He has to bury the francolin; what he sees may bring nightmares.

I cover the hole. Sandy soil seeps
between fine patterns of white and gray
feathers, red claws to scratch
the door in my sleep.

The poet is plagued with insecurities, unseen problems as in “With Hazards On” and “Batibat/Bangungot”, an Ilocano myth of a night demon, or the anxiety of who will take care of his family if he dies without insurance. In “Strands of Moss”, written for a poet friend, he worries about unseen things on which one may slip. Yet the silent moss is also moss that breaks free and the reader marvels at the beauty of the imagery as at the brilliant green.

The section “wings of smoke” is a string of prayer flags; each haiku is beautiful, burning. The first is for Tatay, and the image of mud again conveys a memory of love:

feet heavy with mud
shiny bald moon draped with cloud
my teacher’s laughter

The poet explores getting to know oneself in the dark, having one’s wings clipped. Each haiku a shining white pebble tracing the way through the dark.

The last section, “a blanket over each cage”, is a fabric of another kind; things that are covered up, not spoken, what we won’t see, can’t see. The poet explores the fear and horror of war, the contradictions and disparities of society, his own complicity in killing one of the birds he loves. He expresses his deeply-felt frustration as a poet who, like a headless chicken, is voiceless against super powers. And yet he speaks truth to power. The most poignant moment for this reader is “Sticks for Legs”:

A wagtail flicks its narrow
tail feathers up and down
as it shuffles in jerks
on the bricks, like in early
animated movies in black
and white.

And then one realises the wagtail has no feet/claws:

On sand, it would leave
no more than dots,
navigating an invisible maze
on the ground.

And yet, like a maimed soldier, it survives in midst of danger. Poetry helps this poet survive in dangerous times.

Included under this blanket is “Grandfather Exhales”, a poem of loss. The images of butterfly, skin, petals link back to his grandmother. The white stones lead to hope; the stones and the soft breath, like the breath of sparrows earlier, when Mandela died.

Agustin’s ways of seeing; the delicate balance of life and death, the fine line between light and dark, finding beauty in tragedy, light in a bottle all demonstrate that sometimes the most tragic things provide the artist with beautiful subject matter. Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is a thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

For this reader Agustin is one of the finest poets writing in South Africa today.

Wings of Smoke is published by The Onslaught Press.

BOOK CLUB: Emily Hobhouse

Professor Bill Nasson reviews two fine books on the Boer War campaigner Emily Hobhouse, The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War by Robert Eales, and Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits.

In the early 1970s, the South African Navy acquired a new French submarine which it surprisingly named the SAS Emily Hobhouse. Then, with the coming of a New South Africa in 1994, it was plus la change for the bonsai fleet of Simon’s Town. Liberated from the mud of its symbolic European imperial past, the poor old Emily Hobhouse was renamed to see out the rest of its life as the SAS umKhonto, the Zulu word for assegaai or spear. That was also a little odd. After all, whatever his regal place in national history, it has never been that of Shaka of the Sea.

Emily Hobhouse’s position in South African political history is based largely on the honour and affection with which she has come to be regarded by this country’s Afrikaner people. Equally, the standing of umKhonto weSizwe or MK is based on the rosy view of its admirers of the heroic place which mainland guerrilla fighters occupied in the armoury of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle. While their symbolic association with the navy was bemusingly inappropriate in both instances, you might think no great surprise there, given South Africa’s champion political habit of getting such things wrong.

Trust one lot of its nationalist rulers to brand a warship after an English humanitarian liberal proto-feminist and pacifist. And for their post-apartheid successors to ditch the name of a female human rights campaigner in favour of something more martial-sounding – the thudding boots of goose-stepping irregular warriors. Thinking of the political anointing of Emily Hobhouse and of her subsequent political scuttling brings to mind the unforgettable words of the poet and satirist, Roy Campbell, who in 1928 declared, despairingly, ‘South Africa, renowned far and wide, for politics, and little else beside’. Were she to have lived on miraculously, one cannot but wonder what the remarkable Miss Hobhouse would have made of twentieth-century South Africa in its successive post-1910, post-1948, and post-1994 guises?

Although Emily Hobhouse tried to reform hard-drinking miners in the American west in the 1890s, and journeyed to Germany and Belgium on a peace mission in the thick of the First World War in June 1916, it was in South Africa that she made her name through her exposure of the horrendous conditions in the civilian concentration camps established by the British in their imperial war of 1899-1902 against the defiant republican Boers. It was this unpatriotic trouble-making that landed her in hot water, prompting Joseph Chamberlain, Britain’s Colonial Secretary, to regard her as a wholesale threat to the British Empire, and enraging the British Army’s commander-in-chief in South Africa, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener. A famously confirmed bachelor, he rounded on Hobhouse repeatedly, ordering the deportation from South Africa of ‘that bloody woman’.

Concerned with bringing the courageous and tragic story of Emily Hobhouse back to shimmering life, these two attractive, well-written, and deeply sympathetic books illuminate her turbulent wartime years in South Africa, the country that, as Robert Eales puts it poignantly, ‘would never leave her’. Portraying Hobhouse the radical humanitarian as a blend of Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale, The Compassionate Englishwoman and Emily Hobhouse are complementary as well as slightly contrasting biographies, as Elsabe Brits also tells the neglected story of her anti-war activities during 1914-18, a stand for which she was damned as treasonous by some British parliamentarians. Hers is the more expansive and rounded of these new volumes.

Robert Eales, a retired South African businessman living in Australia – and, in that sense, a classic ‘gentleman scholar’ – has written a moving account of an indefatigable figure who found herself on the wrong side of history, criss-crossing a war-torn country to investigate, to expose, and to try to alleviate the Boer concentration camp crisis. The author provides a scholarly, well-paced portrait of his heroine, who seethes and spits under the oppressive shadow of her country’s men of war, bearing witness unflinchingly as Britain’s reluctant conscience. His book abounds in its meticulous recording of episodes and thumb-nail sketches of a mixed gallery of characters, including not merely the usual suspects (Milner, Kruger, Roberts, Kitchener), but also Arthur Conan Doyle and Joshua Rowntree.

In telling a soaring story of pioneering feminism, obstinacy, and fearlessness, The Compassionate Englishwoman can also be a little frustrating at times as Dr. Eales is inclined to mull over what cannot actually be known. Thus, on the issue of Hobhouse’s overlooking of conditions in British concentration camps for black refugees, we are told that while we can ‘only speculate’, it may well have ‘troubled her’ on the grounds of what she perhaps ‘suspected’. Ever woken up at night wondering what class of ship cabin Hobhouse used in her travels between Britain and South Africa? No, me neither, but the author tells us anyway – a first-class berth which may possibly not have been her preferred choice.

Translated with flair from Afrikaans by Linde Dietrich, Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor, by the scholarly journalist, Elsabe Brits, is a thickly-researched life story which seeks to weave together this ‘bloody’ woman’s public persona and her – often heartbreaking – personal life. While there is no shortage of sentimentality and a recounting of moral episodes in black-and white values, Emily Hobhouse reproduces much which is captivating, including rare sketches of its subject, photographs of her jewellery and clothing, and her affectionate water-colour paintings of ravaged farmhouses.

Ms Brits is also informative on the more private thoughts, feelings, and dilemmas of this highly-strung and mostly solitary figure, drawing on a rich patchwork of evidence to show that beneath the crust of her immersion ‘in the great issues of the time’, there lurked ‘a vulnerable Emily who yearned to be loved’. This author grasps, as do all good biographers, that snatches of commonplace detail and gentle insight can attract the reader far more than grand theories about constructing life history narratives.

Some readers may be less attracted by the peculiar volume layout and page design which the publisher has hit on for some unfathomable reason – to appeal to adults stuck in early adolescence, perhaps? Emily Hobhouse is a sprawling book, with something of the frantic feel of a school-level ‘show and tell’ compendium. Much of its fascinating and highly informative material is conveyed through boxes, inserts, snippets and high-lighted quotations, jostling amongst squares, circles and triangles coloured green, red, orange, and purple. In some places, the placing of grainy grey images or faded archival text against a dark background hue seems to require a magnifying glass or a flashlight – or even both. In this respect, the gaunt, bony, Victorian story of Emily Hobhouse has not been well-served by its Marvel Comics presentation. Still, who knows, if you like this sort of flash look in books, then this is the sort of look that you will like. But in any event, be sure not to be put off by it, for you would be missing a unique feminine – and feminist – story of resilient idealism and tough realism.

Both of these fine books have a slightly strained tendency to depict Emily Hobhouse as a historical figure ahead of her time, or distinctively modern in her passionate identity as a pacifist, feminist, and campaigner against oppression and injustice. Quite rightly, Emily Hobhouse depicts this with considerable verve and confidence, providing readers with an engrossing picture of a great transformational woman, tilting at the towering windmills of masculinity to the very end of her life. Elsabe Brits is particularly good on the exceptional talents, moral sensibilities and compassionate motivations of this daughter of a Cornish Anglican vicar, arguing for an appreciation of Hobhouse’s significance beyond that of her duties in 1901 for the Women and Children Distress Fund in bringing the scandal of the camps to the attention of the British public.

Highly literary, Emily Hobhouse certainly had a universal air about her, preoccupied as she was with the big ideas of humanity – the meaning of justice, the value of life, the universality of women’s rights, the common right to freedom, the ethical basis of civilisation, and so on. As a liberal humanist, she had a wide reach and her measure of what was right or wrong was largely universal – as Hobhouse asserted to the post-1902 Afrikaners with characteristic bluntness, ‘should not the justice and liberties you love so well, extend to all’ .

At the same time, due account still needs to be taken of the fact that Hobhouse was also a public woman of her historical time. Her strident advocacy of women’s rights and of equal citizenship for men and women reflected her support of the female suffrage movement in Edwardian Britain. Her starchy battles for temperance were rooted in the puritanical middle-class moralising of the Victorian age. Arguably most importantly, when it came to British imperialism, Hobhouse was always more a critic of empire than an anti-imperialist. Inescapably, a patrician woman of empire, despite her fervent sympathy with the suffering of the Boer people, she never disowned the empire that had caused it. For Hobhouse, Britain’s failure in the 1899-1902 war was that of having fallen short of its lofty ideals of civilisation, justice and humanity.

Indeed, her famous 1913 speech to an Afrikaner audience at the unveiling of the commemorative Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein was studded with references to the British and their high imperial mission, for all that it had gone astray in its recent shameful handling of affairs in South Africa. In her otherwise admirably acute and sensitive chapter on these proceedings, Elsabe Brits rather glosses over this theme in favour of underlining again Hobhouse’s cry of recognition of what Boer women had endured, as ‘they gave themselves, not borne on by the excitement and joy of active battle, as men do; but passively, with open eyes, in the long-drawn agony of painful months and days…the brave South African women… affirmed for all times and for all peoples the power of Woman to sacrifice life and more than life for the common weal’.

Nonetheless, Emily Hobhouse never loses sight of its subject’s radical liberalism, reminding us of her dawning disillusion with the nature of the Afrikaner political recovery which followed military defeat in 1902, and of her conclusion shortly before her death in 1926 that South Africa’s segregation was “the wrong policy and one which can only lead to discontent and ultimate disaster”. In Bloemfontein 13 years earlier, her speech had warned that rapacious capitalism and national pride was all too often accompanied by a deterioration of national character. How more prophetic could Emily Hobhouse possibly have been? The history of that French submarine is surely some proof. Winston Churchill once described South Africa as a land of lies. It is also, truly, a land of ironies. Remembering her in the name of a town in the Eastern Free State is one thing. Naming a Daphne class submarine after an unshakeable pacifist is quite another.

The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War is published by UCT Press. Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, published in 2016 by Penguin.

BOOK CLUB: Stranger Than We Can Imagine

GARETH LANGDON is impressed by John Higgs’ riveting account of the 20th century.Stranger Than We Can Imagine - John Higgs

I first encountered the literature of the 20th century when I was in my third year of university, floundering through an English BA at the University of Cape Town. I remember cracking open The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that other book by James Joyce that isn’t the impenetrable Ulysses. I was immediately taken by the richness of the work but also by the strange disjointedness of the narrative – how the stream of consciousness technique he used at once made perfect sense and no sense at all. During a particularly messy time in my life, I found this kind of narrative almost soothing – a semantic echo of what was going on in my own jumbled head. I remained fascinated with work from this time throughout my undergraduate and graduate careers, and to this day anything 20th century gets my juices well and truly flowing. I find art and literature from this time comforting. It makes me feel less alone.

The 20th century is considered by many to be the most turbulent time in human history. It started with a world war, saw the rise of communism and fascism and then another world war, disillusionment with religion and some of the most significant advances in science, medicine and industry that changed the shape of our psyches forever – a veritable explosion of confusion, enlightenment, death and fear that ripples through our lives today.

In his clear-headed and thorough inquiry, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs carefully unpacks the major events of the 20th century that shaped the art, literature and science we take as foundational to this day, and examines some of the psychological effects of things like Einstein’s relativity and Nietzsche’s dead God on our lives.

Central to Higgs’ unpacking is the idea of the omphalos, in his words a “universal symbol common to almost all cultures but with different locations.” In Higgs’ figuring, the chaos of the 20th century can be best understood in the context of the disruption of various omphali. Western culture was now faced with a loss – the loss of a single benevolent God, the loss of the sovereignty of kings and queens and the loss of a single art for explaining everything around them. Various attempts at explaining existence gave rise to new but fleeting omphali, perhaps most notably fascism, embodied in that haunting spectre of the 20th century: Nazism.

The question of “Why?” lived on everyone’s tongue throughout the 20th century. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Why is there so much killing?

While he speaks fondly of the various artistic movements and scientific advances that arose across the century, from chemistry to cubism, Higgs brings it back always to what birthed these new ideas. Humans no longer had a central location from which to tether their existence and give it meaning. There was no answer to the “Why?” anymore. We were now quite small, floating on a rock in the middle of an ever expanding universe. Time itself was not even beyond reproach and left us flailing, albeit with our paintbrushes sometimes striking the canvas in new ways, or our pens giving birth to the likes of Ulysses or To the Lighthouse and indeed, the Beatles and rock ‘n roll.

For experienced readers of the period, John Higgs’ work is 20th Century Lite – a brief romp through the major events that shaped us, and continue to shape us. It is academic yet accessible, and also strikingly clear, leading critics to describe it as “like being shot with a diamond.” While it is ambitious to try and capture everything that mattered during the last 100 years, Higgs drops in at key moments and elucidates them brilliantly enough that the reader closes the book feeling rather well educated.

If you want to understand how we got to where we are today as a species – philosophically, scientifically and artistically – then Stranger Than We Can Imagine is, without question, required reading. Drastically undersold by the Financial Times as “A brilliantly stimulating tale”, Higgs’ work is much more than that. It is a telescope into the past that, ironically, helps situate us exactly where we are in the present.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.