A New Map of Wonders, Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations, Soonish
Image credit: DREAMSTIME
This month’s selection considers wonders of nature, architecture and technology.
A New Map of Wonders
By Caspar Henderson £20, ISBN 9781783781331
Sometimes it takes extreme or unusual circumstances to make ordinary things seems wonderful. Never a truer word has been spoken, or alluded so perfectly to the fact that the ordinary is, in fact, quite wonderful. Last month, just as the weather was starting to turn, I was cycling into work across a fairly average field when I witnessed something truly wonderful – that is, something which filled me with wonder. The field around me, draped in early morning dew and bathed in the light from the slowing rising sun, was filled with hundreds of glittering, iridescent, cobwebs. These ordinary objects – dewdrops, unsullied spider webs and the rising sun – had connected for a brief, perfect moment in time, to create a breathtakingly beautiful scene, and I stopped for a moment to bathe in the wonder that surrounded me. Each subsequent early morning’s ramble through the field thus far has been too cloudy, too dry or too warm to recreate this moment and so in comparison, quite disappointing.
‘A New Map of Wonders’, written by journalist Caspar Henderson, owes its existence to a similar experience, a time in which the heavens aligned to create a scene which momentarily struck the author with a sense of wonder. For Henderson, this was the presence of a brilliant yet mysterious pool of early morning sunlight playfully cast across his kitchen ceiling. A little investigation soon revealed the source – the slow-rising sun bouncing randomly off several reflective surfaces before streaming through the undulating branches of a nearby tree – but did nothing to take away the wonder of the moment. This experience inspired Henderson to think more closely about the nature of wonder, that elusive, mysterious reaction that, despite being so easily destroyed, imparts a sense of meaning in the eye of the beholder, and is so often a condition used in defining a life well lived.
This book is, quite literally, a ‘map of wonders’, which charts the course for a journey through all that is fascinating and awe-inspiring in the world. At the helm of the ship sits Henderson, who, despite having spent the majority of his time writing this book in his own garden shed, delves into an exploration of wonder with all the passion and wanderlust of a modern-day Christopher Columbus. Henderson plots the ordinary, before giving it an extraordinary spin, providing evidence of the innumerable wonders hidden in plain sight.
From light itself comes the mind-bending concept of the speed of light, as well as light refraction, the simple beauty of dappled sunlight, such as that on the ceiling of Henderson’s kitchen, and that most precious of wonders, the rainbow. Explaining the awe-inspiring, Henderson says, does not make it any less wonderful, with full moons, rainbows and meteor showers continuing to delight and amaze people the world over despite their well-documented scientific explanations.
The book is mapped out using the old idea of seven wonders, a plan which, Henderson says, is both familial and manageable, and explores each wonder in turn through the principle of emergence, in which the first wonder is implicated in the second and so on with light giving way to life, love and learning. Often rooted in physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering, the book draws too on philosophy, religion, culture and history and how these elements combine and contrast to help give meaning to the world. Through this Henderson explores the origins of the universe, the behaviour of light, and the intricacies of the human body, delving into wonders past and present, before paving the way for those yet to come with the emergence of technology, and the predication of a change in all that we consider wonderful.
‘A New Map of Wonders’ is a literary depiction of life’s modern miracles; the scene is one of chaotic harmony, imparted through a voice that though playful and humorous, is always tenderly sincere. The result is a beautiful, enlightening book that is sure to inspire even the most jaded of readers to take a different look at the world around them. Any attempt to put into words the nature of wonder itself seems bound to fail, but this is, without a doubt, a glittering success.
Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations
By Simon Jenkins, £25, ISBN 780241978986
We normally rush through them without stopping or looking up, always in a hurry to catch that elusive 10.55 to King’s Cross or get back home after a journey. It is a shame, for in many cases railway stations are so much more than purely utilitarian structures where one boards and gets off trains. More often than not, they are also hubs of local history, architecture and engineering.
Like the station house at Tsarskoye Selo, one of Russia’s first, which also functioned as a concert hall (according to some etymologists, it was from its vokalniy zal or ‘vocal hall’, and not from London’s Vauxhall, that the Russian word for train station, vokzal, originated), they served as venues for meetings, rallies, state funerals and – remembering Lenin’s historic speech at Petrograd’s Finlandskiy Station on his return in a sealed car from Germany – even revolutions.
Emile Zola spoke of the “poetry of stations” that “our artists must find as their fathers found that of forest and rivers”. Boris Pasternak called vokzal “a safe house of my separations and meetings”. And Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov described stations as “alienation zones” – a kind of ‘neither here nor there’ territory, where you are already removed from the routine of your everyday life, but not quite on the road yet.
“The station was truly a gateway through which people passed in endless profusion on a variety of missions – a place of motion and emotion, arrival and departure, joy and sorrow, parting and reunion,” summed up Jeffrey Richards and John M MacKenzie in their informative book ‘The Railway Station. A Social History’.
Coming back to the title in review, the publication of ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ – an uplifting and beautifully presented paean to the fascinating feature of British life that railway stations represent – has been long overdue. And no other contemporary writer and historian could do it better than Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, founder of the Railway Heritage Trust, author and compiler of two best-selling volumes: ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ and ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’.
“I see the station ... not just as a building but as a social phenomenon, a place where people perform the timeless rituals not just of travelling, but of congregating, working, playing, greeting and parting,” writes Jenkins in an introduction that, among other things, introduces the reader to the so-called ‘railway mania’ of the 1840s, when many of the “substantial” British train stations were built, and to the civil engineers, entrepreneurs and architects (David Mocatta, Charles Driver, Francis Thompson, George Andrews, to name just a few) behind those railway “enclaves ...that developed a society of their own”.
The great British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel also participated in designing the stations, like those in Bath, Bristol and London (Paddington). Jenkins describes how “Brunel would sketch a design during a stopover at an inn and hand it to his master mason to execute.”
Jenkins also writes with bitterness about the decline in station-building after the Second World War, triggered by the nationalisation of Britain’s railways and culminating with the demolition of the Euston Arch in 1961.
The body of the book is reserved for photos and detailed descriptions of Britain’s 100 best (from the author’s point of view) stations. This section opens with Jenkins’s own personal ‘top ten’ and a nostalgic list of the “stations no more,” demolished in the 20th century, which reads like an obituary.
Of course, each of us could come up with our own list of favourite stations. Here’s mine: new London St Pancras, with its bustling European concourse and the Eurostar terminal; London King’s Cross, with its stunning roof by Joseph Cubitt; Edinburgh Waverley, with its tunnels and secret passages, which Jenkins aptly calls “a nervous breakdown of a station”; Berwick-upon-Tweed, with its distinct ‘neither here nor there’ feel; and Letchworth Garden City (where I live), with its almost doll-house-like grace and beauty.
What are Jenkins’s top ten then? Read this superb book to find out!
Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies that’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything
By Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, £22, ISBN 9781846148996
Wife and husband team Kelly and Zach Weinersmith set out their stall at the start of this light-hearted but thorough run through technologies that are set to have a massive impact on the world in the near future. Their guiding principle, they explain, is to let the reader imagine they’re sitting at a bar and someone asks them “Hey, what’s the deal on nuclear fusion power?” How do you answer that, and communicate the excitement, theoretical benefits and potential obstacles – not to mention the science behind it – without boring the listener enough to get them to try and swiftly change the subject?
As the multitude of science and technology professionals who’ve found themselves in this unenviable position know all too well, the sweet spot is a hard one to hit. To their credit, the Weinersmiths get it almost perfect in ‘Soonish’, which looks at developments in ten emerging fields, handily ordered in scale from outer space through power plants down to the human body.
Dr Kelly Weinersmith is a researcher on the staff of the BioSciences Department at Rice University, her husband Zach is the cartoonist behind, among other things, the long-running webcomic ‘Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’. Interspersing the technical commentary with cartoons that often refer in a tongue-in-cheek way to how the pair went about researching the narrative gives the reader a touch of light relief as well as an insight into the workings of the popular technology genre of non-fiction.
Along the way they examine where we are with everything from interplanetary travel to that elusive flying car in a style that manages to be both entertaining and informative at the same time. Lightening heavyweight science and technology with a small dose of humour can grate when it’s done with a heavy hand. Here the touch is light, if resolutely American in style, and helps to get the message across rather than distracting from it.
Don’t expect one of those relentlessly positive exercises in crystal-ball gazing that describes how a flying car in every garage is just around the corner. ‘Soonish’ embraces a comfortable degree of cynicism, encapsulated in a series of ‘Concerns’ sections that act as a warning of what could happen if we get what we want.
From the IET Archives
The Early Days of the IET in China and Hong Kong
The photograph above shows the current IET team in its China representative office in Beijing. This office opened in 2005 but very few people will know that the IET’s representation in China and Hong Kong goes back over 100 years to 1914.
The IET’s first presence in China and Hong Kong was an IEE Local Centre located in Hong Kong from 1914 to around 1921. After the Hong Kong Centre closed, a China Local Centre (based in Shanghai) was sanctioned by the IEE Council in 1923. This Local Centre was open until 1950, just after the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The IET Archives has an amazing file of China Local Centre correspondence covering 1935-1950 that sheds light on the difficulties faced by members in Shanghai during a period of great upheaval in Chinese history.
A letter written by JA McKinney, the China Local Centre honorary secretary and treasurer on 26 September 1945, and sent to London shortly after the Second Sino-Japanese War which ended 2 September 1945 says: “I was released from internment some few days ago and am now back in my old position with the Shanghai Power Company. Members of the Centre have been generally dispersed, but there are many in Shanghai and surrounding districts; up to the present I have made no attempt to get them together. You will understand at the present time during the transition period, the town is rather in turmoil and nothing much can be done for at least a few months. However, I will keep you informed of progress.”
These records once again demonstrate the broad range of social and historical contextual information that can be found tucked away in the IET’s files.
More at bit.ly/IET-Archives