Sunday, 29 March 2015

Food for thought

EAT FAT – Richard Klein.  Picador, MacMillan Publishers Limited 1996,  pp 247 (illus)

This review was written on March 19th 2015

This book by the author is in praise of fat, both the noun and the adjective.  The noun refers to fat in our food and the adjective to overweight or obesity. Klein deplores the negative attitudes in Western Society to obesity and attributes the alleged sense of guilt and poor self esteem of fat people to the public’s distain of and discrimination against them. He exaggerates the degree of public disapproval of the obese in stating that fat phobia is widespread.  He also exaggerates the devotion of western society to thinness since Twiggy and the anorexic look has become chic and he ignores the fact that the great majority of people do not wish to be cadaverously thin but rather wish to achieve a normal or near normal weight as defined by western nutritionists.

He pleads with us to love fat people and to perceive beauty in the obese.  He believes this change in public attitudes can be achieved by a mantra or the simple process of verbal rhythm, although it is not clear what he means by this process. He admits that such a change will be brought about with great difficulty because of public attitudes. The text is full of contradictions and selected references to other authors, some of whom are quite as iconoclastic and just as capable of bizarre views as himself.

Politicians who are fat are more forceful and more likely to succeed, and he mentions Kohl, Churchill, Taft and the French Louis the fourteenth. He forgets de Gaulle, Adenaure and even our own Dev who have made their mark despite lacking evidence of overweight.

Fat women have a stronger libido and enjoy sex more than their slimmer sisters, although sadly I cannot confirm this contention because of lack of personal experience. Elsewhere he states that they are slower to get started than the more excited thin but once they get going they are more difficult to stop. On the other hand he contends that being fat makes it easier for women to opt out of sexual activity with men while providing a stronger source of erotic activity among their own sex.

He writes, in referring to the food expert MFK Fisher, about the beastlike satisfaction of the belly as profoundly human, because deeply animal; the impulse must at times let us, whether male or female, to be attracted by a bloated beast.

Fat women are more masculine and men more feminine, so that the stereotype of the fat woman will often be more capable of repairing the washing machine or replacing your spark plug. He acknowledges that a high fat intake may predispose to coronary disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol disturbances, and yet he manages to confuse the reader by quoting research which allegedly shows that beef and high fat chocolate improve ones blood cholesterol.  And anyhow he believes that quality of life is more important than longevity, implying that gorging yourself is a positive factor in achieving happiness.

He muses about the increasing prevalence of obesity in America and the West.  He considers it a mystery and postulates some ill defined cultural or biological change in Western Society.  I, on the other hand, attribute the American trend to bad eating habits which are a feature of affluence, increasing leisure with its associated boredom and addiction to popcorn and TV, and reduced physical exercise and physical work.  He does not postulate the possibility of increasing sex among females despite their alleged sexual propensity to prefer their own sex. Despite his perception of increasing obesity in America, he states that Americans were “exceedingly fat” at the end of the nineteenth century, and gives as an example Diamond Jim Barry who weighed in at forty stone.

I wonder if Mr Klein has his tongue in his cheek.  Or does his urge to write have a more mundane basis such as the hard cash he and his publishers derive from their contributions to the welfare of humanity? Anyhow, even if my criticism of his views are not always valid, his book is certain to attract some readers even if they find much of his ideas contradictory and his views lacking in scientific basis. Does his book sell like hot cakes to the 40% of American women and the 25% of American men who are categorised as fat and who apparently are badly in need of a push to their self esteem. It would be interesting to know if his book becomes a best seller.

His book Cigarettes are Sublime followed more recently and is available on Kindle but I could not find his ‘’classical’’ work on obesity in the same source. It would be interesting to know how rather bizarre publications such as EAT FAT appeal to and attract the casual reader and the ordinary public. Cigarettes are Sublime was apparently published in 2012. It comes at 658,771 in Kindle sales rank but I could not find EAT FAT on Kindle.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

If Trees Could Talk

If Trees Could Talk – Wicklow trees and woodlands over four centuries. by Michael Carey. Coford, 2009. pp 295. Illustrated.

This review was written on June 18th 2012

This book was presented to me by the Irish Tree Society on the occasion of my 90th Birthday. It is a hardback, beautifully illustrated with photos, maps and designs, and it provides a valuable account over the last four centuries of the silvicultural history of Wicklow, our must heavily wooded county in Ireland. Surely no city in these islands has such a close neighbour so rich in mountain, forest, lake, sea and sky, and with so many historical associations and so accessible to its citizens. And yet despite its closeness to Dublin with its population of more than one and a half million, it remains largely unspoilt.

The eastern part of the county along the seacoast is flat, the centre is mountainous along its entire length and the western side drifts slowly down from the uplands to the central plain of Ireland in Kildare and Carlow. There are only two crossings east/west suitable for motor traffic in the entire county because of its mountainous spine; and these are hardly motorways. Heavy traffic north/south is confined to the motorway on the eastern side and the main road to Carlow and Wexford on the western side. Do these physical and georaphical features partly account for the relative remoteness of much of the county?

Mount Usher
The central mountainous part is heavily treed as is evident if one travels by train from Arklow in the south to Wicklow town further north. The train follows the Avonmore River along its course into the hills at Rathdrum and for a distance of about three miles is enveloped in forest. Later, as the train leaves Wicklow town it travels north to Greystones and Dublin along the shoreline of the Irish Sea for a distance of five miles or more.  I recently took the train to Arklow for the first time in some years and as I travelled, first along the seashore and then through dense forest, I was reminded of the excitement which was part of train travel during my boyhood.

A curious tree in Powerscourt Estate
The silvicultural history of the county is reflected in the changing political and social history of its citizens over the centuries. Many of our great estates were established there during the various turbulent land changes and plantations over the centuries and perhaps the greatest changes in land ownership has occurred during the last century or so as the great estates have slowly but inexorably given away to the decline of the numbers and influence of the landed gentry, a decline which was inevitable after the many land acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first section is headed The Woodland Resource. The history of the resource in terms of trees and the extent of woodlands is based on aspects of archaeology, pollen analysis, documentary records, ecological surveys, place names and iconography. It is based on various surveys conducted over the centuries, including the Ordnance Survey of 1835-40 and the first census in Ireland in 1841.

The second section deals with tree planting in the county over the
Granddaughter Rosie runs through a tree in Kilmacurragh
 centuries. We learn of the great estates which evolved during the plantations which were a feature of our turbulent history during previous centuries. These included the great Fitzwilliam estate, the Rosanna estate in Ashford, the Downshire estate, Charleville, Kilmacurragh, Kilruddery, Powerscourt, La Touche in Bellevue and Mount Usher.

The third section deals with the woodland industries which were associated with forestry and which were important in relation to house and ship building, the provision of fuel, and pipe and barrel production, leather tanning and iron and charcoal smelting. Because of its particular importance and its extent, the Fitzwilliam estate receives particular attention from the author in terms of the industries associated with its management and its extensive plantations. We are still left with about 60 hectares of old oak as part of the Coolattin forest and now cared for by Coillte. It was a remnant rescued from the developers of the extensive mature oak forest which was felled by them about twenty years ago. These remaining old oaks survived thanks to local pressure as well as the influence of the Irish Tree Society and Charlie Haughey who was Taoiseach at the time of the dissolution of the estate 

Michael Carey refers to Avondale, the home of Charles Stewart Parnell and his forbears, and of its importance as the headquarters of Irish forestry in terms of silvicultural education, research and reputation. It is here and in its connecting establishments that the professional aspects of the forestry industry in Ireland are based and it is in Avondale that the public are welcomed to enjoy its wide variety of trees and to learn of the workings of the tree industry and its importance to the welfare of our country.

Granddaughter Molly and friend in the Garden of Ireland
If for no other reason, the illustrations alone would justify having the book in one’s library. The pictures of remarkable trees are outstanding, as are the maps. The many photos of scenery, houses and other artefacts complete a full and attractive account, historical, political, social as well as silvicultural, which justifies the sobriquet of Wicklow as the so called Garden of Ireland.

Saturday, 14 March 2015



This book review was published by RM in the Irish Times in January 2000
This book traces the history of the Sinn Fein party from its origin in 1902 to the present day, not from 1916-1922.

There is still an extraordinary interest in the Irish revolution if one is to judge by the continued proliferation of its literature, but many people have a skewed knowledge of its history, thanks to the unbalanced contemporary emphasis on certain aspects and personalities.  This book provides important and comprehensive insights into the political background of the times. I found it informative and eminently readable. It provides an extensive bibliography, is based on considerable research using both primary and secondary sources, and, while Sinn Fein remains the principal theme, the author does not neglect the relationship between the political movement, the military and other aspects of the times.

Newspaper article after the 1916 rising.
The author is particularly concerned with the movement’s early phase from 1902 to 1917 and with its dominant role in the political evolution of Irish freedom from 1917 to 1922.  His accounts of post-Treaty Sinn Fein are informative and are not without interest and relevance in relation to recent developments in the North.  This period is dealt with more briefly but will no doubt receive more attention from future historians.
The story of Sinn Fein is complex.  It meant different things to different people and at different times.  Although established in 1902 by and closely associated with Arthur Griffith and his few supporters, the Sinn Fein movement soon became an amalgam of individuals, parties and splinter groups representing all shades of nationalist opinion from the moderate devolutionist to the most extreme separatist. To some it was simply a symbol of the nationalist movement.  To its opponents the title had a pejorative connotation.
The first Dail - 1919 (Dad is 3rd from left, 2nd row behind seated members)
In the spring of 1917 various groups combined to form a single nationalist party, a decision confirmed in October 1917 by the appointment of the Sinn Fein executive, with Eamon de Valera as its president.  From then to 1919, Sinn Fein prospered and played the dominant role in furthering the cause of separatism by its sweeping successes in the 1918 general election.  After the setting up of the first Dail and its cabinet, its influence began to wane and its importance was further diminished by the military when the War of Independence commenced at the end of 1919.

The author refers to the disdain the soldiers had for politicians as the military profile was enhanced among separatists during the War of Independence and as the members of Sinn Fein receded into the background and often into prison. De Valera’s absence in America from April 1918 to Christmas 1919, with his remote involvement in the political ambience of the time and his reluctance to share his views with others  diminished the influence of the  politicians.  While a certain conflict was perceived to exist between the military and the politicians, in fact many of the military leaders were also members of the Dail and of the cabinet, and any significant conflict was illusory, at least until the Treaty was ratified.

Sinn Fein election poster 1918
The adoption of proportional representation in the second and subsequent Dail elections, replacing the straight non-transferable system of the first Dail, revealed the more realistic and less sweeping support for Sinn Fein among the electorate than was initially apparent.  The members of the first and second Dala were largely chosen because of their prominence in Sinn Fein and the army.  By passing the Treaty by a narrow majority, they did not reflect the views of the electorate, the great majority of whom were in favour of the Treaty’s acceptance. 

Some excellent contemporary cartoons are included nor is humour neglected when we read the quotes of some of the more passionate patriots who appeared to confound matters of divinity with those of politics.   This is the first standard work on Sinn Fein.  It is essential reading for those who wish to understand the genesis of the freedom which Ireland achieved early in this century.

Friday, 6 March 2015


Disraeli. R.W.Davis. Hutchinson & Co. 1976. 

This review was written on October 20th 2011

I borrowed this relatively short biography from the RDS Library hoping to learn more about the Tory Party’s persistent resistance to Gladstone and his long-term attempts to achieve Home Rule for Ireland from the late 19th century to the beginning of the Great War in 1914. Disraeli was Gladstone's greatest opponent in the earliest days on the Home Rule issue. He was a great favourite of Queen Victoria just as she disapproved of Gladstone and his commitment to Home Rule and his less than enthusiastic support of the Empire. I recall as a child during my summer holidays in the Gaelteacht in Dingle the seomra, the tidy and carefully kept small room in the more prosperous houses of the area with their many mementoes, trinkets, china and gifts sent from their emigrant brethren who had emigrated to the States and the British colonies. Invariably they included pictures or prints of Gladstone and Pope Pius XII. Even in the more impoverished cottages these pictures could be found. The native Irish in these parts of the West had a great reverence for these two men. 

J.W.Plumb, who wrote the introduction to the book, finished the review:

--- Davis has written a biography of great insight. He does not spare Disraeli – the financial chicanery, the subterfuges or the opportunism. Survival was all to Disraeli.  He survived and triumphed and the story of how he did it is fascinating reading.

The Disraeli story only covers Gladstone’s earlier years. Disraeli  was born in 1804 and died at the age of 76 in 1880. His time as prime minister at the head of the conservatives was relatively short. One short period for a year or two, and later about 7 years shortly before his death. There is little in the biography about Home Rule but there is clear evidence otherwise that Disraeli was very opposed to Irish nationalism and was very anti-Catholic.  He proclaimed himself a great supporter of the Established Church and was in general against all other persuasions, including Dissenters and High Church supporters. He was born a Jew (his father was Issac D'israeli) but changed with his siblings to the Protestant faith. He did not conceal his Jewish origin nor did he refer to it unnecessarily and he was an exponent of greater tolerance of the Jews in Britain.

A Punch Cartoon: Disraeli and Gladstone
He was ambitious since youth and well educated, largely through his own studies and through access to his father’s great library. His father was a writer and an academic and was very wealthy. According to Disraeli his antecedents were Italian and of great distinction but there is little evidence to support this assertion.  Disraeli as a young man was foppish in his habits and dress; he was egotistical, ambitious and erratic, and was involved in some dubious and serious financial problems due to poor judgement about investment. He had an early interest in becoming a member of parliament and was to say to his audience in later years ‘I love power. I love to live in the eyes of the country'.

For the ordinary student of history it is not possible to understand the confused state of the political parties during the earlier years of the 19th century. While there was evidence of the origins of the Whigs ( later the Liberals and Labour parties)  and the Tory or conservative party, it was apparently only by the late 19th century that the present day more compact Liberal, Labour and Tory parties came to pass. It was equally difficult, at least in this biography, to understand the policies of the different major and splinter groups who were involved in such aspects of the political scene as free trade, Protectionism, Reform, the dominance of the Anglican Church, the Empire, foreign policy and Ireland.  Rather than expect to learn about the politics in Britain during Disraeli's lifetime, it is best said that the book, at least for the casual reader without a great knowledge of the period, is most interesting as a personal account of Disraeli as a man and a political figure.

He was first elected to parliament in 1837 and soon came to be admired as a great and stirring orator by some, and not afraid to flail his opponents with his tongue, thus adding to more than a few enemies.  He was opportunistic in his policies - he could change his views conveniently when the situation demanded it. As regards Ireland, he was sympathetic with the Irish in his earlier years but he eventually strongly opposed such issues as the financial support of Maynooth and other financial endowments for Catholics in Ireland. However, when he needed the support of the 50 odd Irish MPs his attitude to Ireland could be a little more benign.

His greatest domestic contribution to the electorate was his success in alleviating the distress of the poor and the workers who were ground down by the burgeoning industries which were a feature of the mid-19th century. Despite the traditions of the conservatives in parliament, it was clear that Disraeli and his political colleagues and supporters did much to alleviate the underprivileged through appropriate reform of the working and social conditions of the poor. As somebody said ‘political expediency was always his touchstone’ but surely this can be said of many politicians. Another commentator said ‘He was not sympathetic to the downtrodden’.

Disraeli had another important career as a novelist. His plots were based on the political and social life of his time and his characters were frequently based on well known politicians, prominent members of the public, other acquaintances and members of his family. It is apparently clear from his characters who were those he admired and those who were his enemies. He was clearly a gifted novelist and could turn to writing a successful novel when he was not too preoccupied by his political affairs. He had a number of ‘best sellers’ to his credit.

His personal life was happy after he met and married Mary Ann who was 13 years older than he and who was devoted to Disraeli. She may well have deserved the sobriquet which was famously expressed by somebody who said she was more like a mistress than a wife. Her death some years before him was his great loss but he must have got some comfort from his last ten year association with Queen Victoria who was devoted to him and who had been attracted by his fulsome and sympathetic relationship with her. He did much to alleviate her distress following the early death of Prince Albert.

There is an extensive bibliography in the book on Disraeli and his time. When this book was published in 1976 the most recommended source for scholars was the six volume The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield by W.E.Monypenny and G.E.Buckle published in 1910-1920.