Reviews Roundup | 6 February

The critics' verdicts on Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, Sherill Tippins and Ray Jayawardhana.

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Phillip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott

Farmageddon may at first appear to be another “enviro-shocker”: a bloody guilt trip, taking the reader from one gruesome factory to another, with little respite, but Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott have instead delivered a journey through a world of intensified farming, with plenty of possible solutions.

Farmageddon stands out from other books of its genre because it doesn’t rest heavily on visceral details from industrial farming and its impact on animals. Instead, according to Alex Renton of the Evening Standard, “Lymbery turns out to be a humanist animal-lover ... He lays out a sad and comprehensive case against modern, industrial farming but his argument is about much more than the welfare of animals and the difficult question of what moral duties we have to them. It is about whether the rich world’s lust for cheap meat is going to destroy the planet and starve us”. The book promises an insight into the impact of overconsumption of cheap foods by the rich, on the living standards of the poor, now and in the future.

However, Ross Clark of the Times claims that a consideration of the costs of a food revolution is precisely what is severely lacking in the book: “Much as Lymbery tries to convince us that Western consumers are enjoying their cheap meat on the backs of the world’s poor, there is much evidence to suggest that industrialised farming is helping to improve nutrition worldwide.”

A number of critics have highlighted Lymbery’s background as a campaigner and activist for Compassion in World Farming. The Guardian’s Tristam Stuart praises the authors for being pragmatic in their approach to the urgent problems in the food industry, resulting in a punchy, accessible book: “Lymbery brings to this essential subject the perspective of a seasoned campaigner – he is informed enough to be appalled, and moderate enough to persuade us to take responsibility for the system that feeds us.”

The Observer’s Lucy Seigle praises the book for its wider perspective, provided by Oakeshott, refining Lymbery’s arguments by challenging any prejudices about intensified meat production: “The overriding effect is the wholesale destruction of the myths that are used to sell intensive agriculture to populations around the world ... In fact, Farmageddon also lays out enough evidence to challenge complicity.”

Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins

At a crossroads for the future of New York City’s infamous Chelsea Hotel, Inside the Dream Palace is a poignant biography of a building and its ecosystem. The home for over a century of songwriting, drugtaking, sex, and suicide; the haven of artists of all kinds in need of space or inspiration has finally received an epitaph, before it is redeveloped for a new generation. The book, however, has received a mixture of criticism and, disappointingly for gossip-hungry readers, not for any slanderous accounts of the inhabitants.

Ada Calhoun of the New York Times writes about the lack of any new or revolutionary material; the book's want of scandalous and long-awaited anecdotes from the kind of exclusive interviews one would expect after years of research. However, the Independent’s Charlotte Raven relishes the biography’s inescapable sauciness: “Tippen tries to distinguish fact from fiction, but happily, her history still reads like a tall tale; as gossipy as any of the Chelsea denizens.”

Commended by Calhoun is Tippins's “measured tone” through the blaze of high-strung bohemia, with due respect for what she describes as Tippins's role as “a quiet authority [with] the soothing vibe of shepherd to an acid trip”. Yet Peter Conrad criticises her as “startlingly moralistic” for the very same reason, “given the funkiness of her subject”.

Despite questions about the author’s standpoint and “cool”, the book cannot be faulted for the interest it has provoked in the hotel’s future, and for those who are made to relive its past through precious anecdotes, for better or for worse. 

Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Ray Jayawardhana

“Whenever anything cool happens in the universe, neutrinos are usually involved.” The recent celebrity of an otherwise silent particle, the neutrino, has been warmly welcomed to the astrophysics stage after decades of scepticism.

Dubbed an “astrophysics detective thriller”, Jayawardhana tells the contentious tales of the discoveries surrounding neutrinos - elusive, tiny, human-neutral particles that have historically been blamed for or credited with the inexplicable - and what they implicate for the future of our understanding of the universe.

The book has been upheld by Robert McKie, writing in the Observer, as a clear and vibrant detangling of the hunt; its eccentric huntsmen leading the way. While most have praised this character-led history of the particle’s research, the Economist criticises the book for at times sounding “a little too much like a professional CV”, in contrast with its contemporary, The Perfect Wave by Heinrich Päs, which is richer in theory and scientific explanation.

According to the Boston Globe’s Jennifer Latson, the book’s strength lies in its “lively and endearingly nerdy” voice, coupled with an excitement for the future, as Jayawardhana details the next generation of investigation into many realms of physics, exploring the possibilities of tracking the particles and where they could lead us theoretically and commercially.

Since its launch at the end of 2013, the book has received much praise, with its entertaining storytelling by Jayawardhana - an award-winning science writer and celebrated researcher - applauded widely.

Photo: VIktor Drachev/Getty Images
Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.