NF catch-up

The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl

Translated by F H Lyon

This was our book group choice for this month, with a sea theme linking from last month’s read, The Old Man & the Sea – yes, we’re playing word association football with our titles at the moment. It was a hit with everyone. We all had vague recollections that it was about a group of intrepid explorers sailing across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa raft, but we had no idea what a big adventure it was for the six chaps involved, or that the voyage was in 1947! It was led by Norwegian, Heyerdahl, who seemed to have no problems at all recruiting another five crew members, five Norwegians and one Swede, none of whom were sailors, but were up for it!

However, I’m jumping ahead a bit. The book starts with Heyerdahl explaining his Polynesian migration theory – in that he thought that many of the Polynesians came from South America, sailing across the Pacific in Pre-Columbian times to the many islands on balsa wood rafts, something thought impossible by academia at the time. He decided to test his theory, and the Kon-Tiki expedition was conceived, taking its name from an Inca god, the raft would be built according to extant Peruvian plans.

Next he had to get funding and build the raft. They arrived in Peru as the rainy season started, meaning it was impossible to get the kind of balsa logs they needed from the inland jungle. But Heyerdahl engineered a plan through force of personality, and they went into the jungle to get the logs and floated them down to the port of Callao, where he’d persuaded the Peruvian navy to let him build the raft. After all that, the voyage was plain-sailing!

This was a great non-fiction choice for our book group. Entertaining, not difficult to read, full of adventure, anthropology, and not forgetting the sharks, giving plenty to discuss. The edition I read had a 1996 epilogue added from Heyerdahl, recounting his onward story with brief details of his further voyages and work.

Source: Bought. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link, (free UK P&P). Flamingo paperback, 266 pages + plates & index.

Chaise Longue by Baxter Dury

Dury is the son of Ian, the jazz-punk icon, and his account of his childhood is extremely funny, often quite alarming, and one of a kind! After his parents split, well, his dad abandoned his mother and sister Jessica, Baxter bounced back and forth between the two. Spending normal periods with his mum, an artist, and later her new partner Clive in suburban Northwest London, Bucks or Herts, or slumming it at whichever flat his dad was living in, usually sleeping on the chaise longue, while Dury-père’s coterie carried on as if he wasn’t there. On one occasion, Baxter took his friend Patrick to meet his father…

Structurally, Dad’s flat was impressive with a sixty-foot balcony overlooking the Thames. Internally, it was a shithole. It had a damp, bohemian man odour to it. Dad’s girlfriend at the time, Anthea Cocktail, had made lots of cheap beded curtains that cascaded down as you entered. She was named after a Brompton cocktail, a form of euthaniasia (vodka, heroin, cocaine) popular in 1920s old people’s homes. She like to throw furniture, and on a few occasions herself, into the river after an argument. […]

Dad was sitting with the Sulphate Strangler, a six-foot-seven malodorous giant, on his church pew on the balcony.

Sometimes, Ian wasn’t there either, often leaving Baxter in the care of Pete, the stinky ‘Sulphate Strangler’, who actually fed him meat and two veg, but was also the source of much booze, weed and later, ‘jellies’. As punk waned and his musical career followed, Dury moved from punk into acting, mostly in bad European indie films, and took Baxter and the Sulphate Strangler with him on one trip filming in Hamburg. They were staying in the Four Seasons hotel, where Ian disgraced himself insulting an elderly waiter about the war – they were moved to an apartment!

Dad’s debut album. Baxter is on the left.

It’s clear that his father loved Baxter and his sister after a fashion, but his constant need for attention infantilised him somewhat and made him impossible to be with in the long term. Baxter begins his memoir with his father’s last days, expressing their relationship as ‘good considering how complicated he could be.’

I haven’t really covered Baxter’s schooldays, such as they were – he hardly went! He fell in with some wronguns, was disruptive in class and played truant all the time. Yet he had good friends in his neighbours at home, particularly two Pakistani boys – it wasn’t until his mother moved them to the Home Counties and his friends came to visit, that he experienced racism aimed at them – it had never been an issue in their part of London.

At 211 pages of big font, this memoir can easily be read in a single sitting. It’s funny and crazy, but moving. I loved it.

Source: Own shelves. Corsair paperback, 211 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

The Curious History of Weights & Measures by Claire Cock-Starkey

This is a lovely small hardback from Bodleian Publishing, about exactly what its title states, illustrated with some super vintage diagrams. Cock-Starkey is a specialist at miscellany books, having contributed to the popular Schott’s Almanac series in the noughties, and since publishing many under her own name about subjects as diverse as punctuation, and how to skin a lion (a collection of outmoded advice).

In Weights & Measures, after the introduction, she divides this subject into several headings – Weights, Length & Area, Volume, Culinary & Informal Measures, and Scales & Scores, with conversion tables, notes and further reading etc. appended at the end.

It is chock full of interesting facts – here are just a few:

  • Henry VIII decreed the standard ‘hand’ for measuring horses’ height as 4 inches in 1540, as the height decided the horse’s value.
  • ‘Fathom’ is derived from the Old Saxon word for outstretched arms, fathmos.
  • The ‘Mile’ comes from the Romans, and all Roman Roads were measured from the ‘Golden Milestone’ in the forum – hence ‘all roads lead to Rome’.
  • The first glass bottles for storing wine were individually blown, and their size depended on the blower’s lung capacity.
  • The Americans seem to have standardised on the volume measure of the cup for cooking rather than weighing as the first settlers were poor and didn’t have scales.
  • There is a bigger bottle size than the nebuchadnezzar (15l) – the solomon is 18l

Some measures crop up all over the place – the tiny grain, a unit of weight based on the carob seed or barley grain is all over apothecaries systems, avoirdupois too. I enjoyed reading about all the sizes of barrels and bottles in particular. I was disappointed that there was no room for a ‘cran’ though – a basket measure of herrings, and I remain perplexed at why Americans have a smaller pint than us. I was delighted that the Bristol Stool Scale made an appearance in the last section though – yes, poo will always entertain!

There is no room for much scientific discussion in this book, nor currency, SI units and scientific measures like Newtons or decibels. It’s not that kind of book. It’s more about the derivation of the various units, their cultural origins and how they became standardised.

It’s definitely a book to dip into. Read more than a few chapters about different, say, volume measures, and your head will be reeling and the text will become rather dry. But a few sections at a time is great fun – and very educational.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Bodelian Publishing hardback 194 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

12 thoughts on “NF catch-up

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was absolutely brilliant, and miraculously, he seems to have come through it alright!

  1. Calmgrove says:

    What a lovely varied miscellany, Annabel! The Heyerdahl expedition I remember reading about in one of my mother’s hardbacks back in the 60s, and though now I know that his theory has long been discredited it nevertheless was a marvellously imaginative undertaking, inspiring Tim Severin’s attempts to recreate St Brendan’s voyage, the expeditions of Odysseus and of Jason in the Argo and much else.

    Did you see Andy Serkis as Dury in the biopic of the musician? I seem to recall it was partly inspired by Baxter’s recollections. As for your last review, I hadn’t realised that the Miscellany ‘series’ was still going but it reminds me I haven’t yet reviewed one of those volumes about Stonehenge which I must still have somewhere on my shelves. (By the way, I’ve scheduled a review of The Chase in a week or so’s time, it was definitely great fun, thanks!)

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Heyerdahl was huge fun, madmen the lot of them! I didn’t realise his theory had been further discredited. I’ve not read Tim Severin, but will mention him to my bookgroup as we were all keen to read more of this kind of book.
      I will look out the Serkis (the best casting possible!) biopic – missed that in life’s melee.
      The Miscellany books aren’t still going, but she continues to produce themed ones under her own name.
      The Chase was a great palette-cleanser of a fun thriller, so I’ll look out for your review!

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I follow Claire Cock-Starkey on Twitter and she’s always posting interesting facts. I’ve never tried one of her books, though. Sounds like the kind of thing to keep as a bedside book.

    The Kon-Tiki Expedition sounds like a fun one to do with a book club. We rarely choose nonfiction in mine and if we do it tends to be memoirs, though we did enjoy Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island the other month.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She’s (sadly) cornered the market in nice list books, a concept I was working on for myself when Schott’s Miscellany first came out. This was a definite good dipper. I’ll find her on Twitter.
      Kon-Tiki was such a good book group read. Yes it was very boy’s own, but I think their wives were sensible in not going! This had the mix of travel, anthropology, adventure and a bit of memoir.

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    I love Heyerdahl’s stuff and have done since I was a teenager, but second Tim Severin as another really good writer and researcher on similar topics. I read quite a big book on measurement recently, as you know, but enjoyed her book on punctuation a while ago. And Baxter has some great tales to tell – I have transcribed interviews with him a couple of times and always good value.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m keen to read some Severin now, having had several recommendations for him.
      I think I preferred the sound of your book on measurement to this one, but there was much to enjoy in it.
      Baxter sounds such a character – loved that book, and have now watched the Dury biopic which was great fun.

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