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12 June 2024

From Simon Lister to Violet Moller: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Nature’s Ghosts by Sophie Yeo and Spycraft by Nadine Akkerman and Pete Langman.

By Michael Prodger, George Monaghan, Peter Williams and Pippa Bailey

Inside the Stargazer’s Palace by Violet Moller

One of the first men to practise science as we currently understand it was the 16th-century mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, whose revolutionary work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1543) put the Sun at the centre of the universe: it was the fruit of observation, measurement and technology. However, if Copernicus and the empirical method heralded the birth of modern science, the older, mystical tradition did not suddenly disappear. In her lucid account of this transformative age, the historian and podcaster Violet Moller shows how the two strands – the practical and the hermetic and magical – interacted and informed one another.

According to the experimental philosopher Paracelsus, searchers after knowledge “must turn to reading not the books of men but the larger book of nature”. Moller shows how this advice was followed in observatories, libraries and home laboratories in six centres across northern Europe by men as different as the magus John Dee in Mortlake, the astronomer Tycho Brahe on the Scandinavian island of Hven, and the cartographer Gerardus Mercator at Leuven. It was the work of such figures, often in the face of religious opposition, that would lead to scientific specialisation.
By Michael Prodger
Oneworld, 304pp, £25. Buy the book

Nature’s Ghosts by Sophie Yeo

“These days, no one is likely to mistake a flock of birds for a tornado.” Sophie Yeo’s new book disinters the world our distant ancestors would have known and protests our inclination towards “accepting the threadbare scene before us, forgetting the splendour of the original weave”. She tours, among other times and places, the heyday of the mammoth steppe, the cramped boat trips that brought wild boars and brown bears to Ireland, and rural Romanian farming practices.

As Yeo notes, the medieval pastures of Transylvania will not supply a blueprint for feeding the planet; pre-agrarian Britain, for instance, supported fewer than 10,000 humans. But her book “is not just about securing a meal or even an income: it is an alternative way of knowing the world”. She is looking for the sensation one might have standing in the centre of a stone circle, “of opening a line of communication with people whose faces I would never see and whose lives I could never truly understand”. A secondary delight is the detective work identifying which creatures changed the landscape – though one does begin to begrudge pollen and dung beetles their relentless helpfulness.
By George Monaghan
HaperNorth, 320pp, £22. Buy the book

Worrell by Simon Lister

Of the many comic-book-like cricketing heroes of the mid 20th century – Keith Miller, Denis Compton – the greatest might have been Frank Worrell. Alongside Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott, he was one of the “three Ws”, a trio of world-class Bajan batsmen; a player so elegant his strokes moved opponents to applause; and the first black man to captain the West Indies across a Test series. Following his death from leukaemia at 42, Worrell was also the first sportsman to receive a memorial service at Westminster Abbey.

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Simon Lister, author of Fire in Babylon, a history of the Windies’ golden period in the 1970s and 1980s, tracks Worrell’s life from Bridgetown to Jamaica, New York and Radcliffe in Lancashire, and famous Windies tours, including the first win at Lord’s when, as one supporter put it, “the empire collapsed right there. Not Churchill or Wellington could bring it back.” He depicts a Caribbean society still defined by colonial social structures and a postwar Britain desperate for cheer. He also shows how cricket, despite mirroring these divisions of class and race, also helped to weaken them by creating fellow feeling between opposing players and supporters. Worrell himself is an enigmatic figure – intelligent and forthright, yet plagued by doubts. 
By Peter Williams
Simon & Schuster, 416pp, £25. Buy the book

Spycraft by Nadine Akkerman and Pete Langman

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, espionage is the second oldest. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, conditions were just right for its development: Protestant England was under continual threat from Catholic Spain, Mary Queen of Scots was under house arrest, and treason – plots Ridolfi, Babington and Gunpowder – abounded. It was also when the first ambassadors, whose explicit task was intelligence gathering, took residence in courts. “Elizabethan England was thus a hotbed of conspiracy, shot through with spies and traitors,” write Nadine Akkerman and Pete Langman in Spycraft.

Much of a spy’s work was focused on letters: their counterfeiting, closure, encryption and deciphering; seals, invisible inks, cyphers and letterlocks. Spycraft details these and other methods of proto James Bonds, from how to hide a message inside an egg to the creation of the dag, a short pistol easily concealed in a book. Most enjoyable of all is the epilogue of instructions for invisible inks, codes and poisons, responsibility for the use of which “resides with the reader and the reader alone”
By Pippa Bailey
Yale University Press, 368pp, £20. Buy the book

[See also: From Iain Sinclair to Colombe Schneck: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency