Review: Between the Boundaries is evidence of a magpie mind allowed to fly free

A London Taxi cab (left) and John Dee (right).

Jon Gower

Theatre-goers in Wales will know that author Adam Somerset is one of the art form’s most diligent and perceptive critics, driving long miles to garner reviews from all four corners.  So it may come as some surprise that this, his first collection of essays, contains nary a single mention of theatre.

Rather, it ranges about as widely as it is possible to do, as he chronicles a year of restless intellectual enquiry.  So we have lively accounts of anything from the jobs- threatening growth of Artificial Intelligence through the future of the BBC and the history of German colonialism to the reintroduction of beavers into UK rivers.

The essays are often couched in the language of reportage as he visits museums, attends lectures, as he follows both his nose and his interests.

It happened that the year in question, 2016, was a pivotal year in British politics, described by the subject of one of the essays, the historian Peter Hennessy as “A caesura in our national history and our place in the world, a guillotine moment.”  Which accounts for essays which examine the way that guillotine falls, asking which heads might roll.

Chris Bickerton, lecturing in the LSE about the European Union a week before the fateful referendum, notes that in Britain allegiance to party by class has evaporated and suggests that “Political competition is increasingly structured around twin poles of populism and technocracy.”  Somerset joins the thirty thousand protesters walking down Whitehall to throng Parliament Square where “speaker after speaker has pointed a finger rightward.  The platform is set against Westminster Abbey, so the rightward finger is geographical, not political.  The object is Parliament. ‘We,’ thunder the voices, ‘are a parliamentary democracy.’”

The voices raised are mainly young, with nine-tenths of the crowd aged under the age of thirty, the future’s disenfranchised.  The relationship between Europe and Britain is a key strand of the book, surfacing in essays about art as well as the more overtly political ponderings.

Polymath

One of the most compelling portraits in its pages is that of Doctor John Dee, grandson of Bedo Ddu who came from Pilleth in Radnorshire.  The Dees were part of that cultivated exodus of Welsh folk who travelled to the courts and opportunities of Tudor London, following the coronation of Henry Tudor as Henry VII.

Rowland Dee and Johanna Wild’s son John had the sort of fierce intellect that turbo-charged him through the groves of academe.  He entered Cambridge at the age of fifteen and a mere four years later was made a fellow of St. John’s College.  Later on, when he lectured about Euclid in Paris there were so many eager spectators that they clung on to the windows just as they did on his every word.

Dee went on to be a full-blown Renaissance polymath, who had the ear of the Queen and her key ministers, advising about navigation, astronomy and health.  He worked eighteen hours a day, getting by on four hours of sleep which gave him plenty of time to explore mathematics, cryptography, alchemy, military history and music, to mention just a few of his avid interests.

Another was the summoning of angels, which he saw as entirely compatible with his experiments in empirical science, such as using mathematics to re-imagine the route taken by the Greek navy during the Trojan war.

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Ideas

It might be fanciful to see the same sort of questing, restless spirit in Somerset, but it’s there, in the enthusiasms that take him from reading a passage in a book in the National Library on Bronglais Hill in Aberystwyth to the Art Gallery of South Australia in search of an unheralded artist called Clarice Beckett.

It’s there in the astonishing array of ideas marshalled in the book, such as the contention that over the next forty years half of all work worldwide is ripe for automation, or the bizarre addition to London tourism that is the “Kleptocracy Tour” which visits the most gilded streets and squares of the city, naming the rich owners of the most prestigious addresses and glitziest buildings as they go.

The book is shot through with this sort of stuff, evidence aplenty of a magpie mind allowed to fully fly free, thither and hither gathering shiny new ideas, especially from the world of technology, for Somerset visits data farms and ponders the dawn of the Anthropocene, the geological era where man is the key shaping force, engages with search engines and puts his head into the Cloud, where so many ideas and human documentation now reside.

Some of the watchwords for the collection are there in the introduction where it says that borders are “underpinned by law and by arms” and “are argued over and amendable” whereas boundaries are “slacker and looser but as ubiquitous, potent and disputable.”

These potent essays blur the boundaries between science and art and, indeed, between the essay and the cultural diary.  They are impulsive in the best way, following the author’s need to find out more, to understand things.

In that sense ‘Between the Boundaries’ is a sort of retrospective almanac, chronicling a year of change on so many fronts in prose which is chatty, alive and brisk with information.

Craziness

You’ll finish reading it with so many things you’ll want to impart to others, so here’s my favourite.  Researchers at University College London have found that taxi drivers’ brains grow and adapt to store ever more detailed mental maps of the city and that “MRI scans reveal taxi drivers to have larger hippocampi than other people.”

It’s the sort of thing that makes you want to ring for a cab just to be able to share this nugget with the driver, just as ‘Between the Boundaries’ helps you see the world afresh, making connections between very disparate things in a world that seems to speed up in almost every single way, spiralling away beyond all human ken.

This fine little book gives us pause, a bit of time to take stock, as all that craziness happens out there.

Between the Boundaries by Adam Somerset is published by Parthian and costs £8.99. You can buy it here.

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