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Wild at heart: Literary tigers from William Blake to Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest

Like so many books about tigers, The Night Guest, by Australian first-time novelist Fiona McFarlane, is a battle to preserve the order and civility of the household from the madness and barbarity outside.

The Night Guest
Fiona McFarlane
Sceptre, 288pp, £14.99

From William Blake to Judith Kerr, writers have deployed tigers in literature to represent wildness, energy and disruption. Blake’s sublime, forest-dwelling feline was the antithesis of his meek and gentle lamb – “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” – while in Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the big cat threatens to consume every means of sustenance, displacing the family who had initially welcomed it in (mirroring Kerr’s experiences of Nazi Germany).

Ever since Disney gave him a voice, A A Milne’s ebullient Tigger has become a figure of childish amusement, when really he’s an incorrigible pest. He wakes Pooh Bear in the small hours of the morning, gets himself stuck in a tree and nearly drowns poor Eeyore. Like Kipling’s Shere Khan, he expects those around him to bend to his will.

The first-time novelist Fiona McFarlane has pitted a tiger against a lamb in the form of her two central characters, Frida Young and Ruth Field. Ruth is a widowed pensioner, living out her dotage on the south Australian coast. One night she hears a tiger romping through her kitchen. The following morning Frida appears, “as if blown in from the sea”, a “government carer” sent free of charge to be “[her] right arm”.

The significance of the tiger is never fully explained or fixed in place: does it symbolise the threat posed by Frida, or is it Ruth’s senility, her independence or lost youth? As in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, much of the novel is taken up with power struggles and territorial disputes. Frida moves in. She brings chemicals to get rid of the smell of the sea, puts up banisters and urges Ruth to sell her car, making her dependent and weakening her resolve. But Ruth is never straightforwardly meek. She questions, debates, resists and loves the roughness of swearing (despite having given elocution lessons before she retired). She remembers fondly her childhood in the Fijian jungle, where her parents were missionaries and she fell in love with a young, passionate doctor – the opposite of the steady man she eventually married.

Like so many books about tigers, The Night Guest is a battle to preserve internal order and civility from the madness and barbarity lurking outside. It is a domestic drama, but given that Ruth’s mind leads her to internalise events – “If I see one car in the next ten seconds, she thought, I’ll tell her to go away” – it is an inward struggle too. McFarlane beautifully captures the protracted loss of Ruth’s faculties, one day at a time, like the tide eroding the shore.

In T S Eliot’s “Gerontion”, written in 1920, the tiger takes on a new mantle. “In the juvenescence of the year/Came Christ the tiger”, says the aged narrator, “Us he devours … Tenants of the house”. The Night Guest takes place in the Pacific springtime, November, when casuarina trees, humpback whales and golden wattle blossoms appear along the coast. The book builds to a breathtaking final scene, in which the dry desert of Ruth’s bewildered mind bursts forth into animal majesty and the full extent of Frida’s machinations become clear.

“Long live the tiger!” Ruth cries.

Image: Henri Rousseau's Dream (1997) by Frances Broomfield

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt