Sunday 10 August 1997
The Guest by Charlotte Cory, Faber pounds 7.99. A defunct civic lottery has been to Cory's Knibden what the Flitch is to Dunmow: the town was built on it. A new variation on the theme of chance wealth is introduced to the place by an anonymous stranger, who comes there to die. His cryptic will requires an investigator to be appointed to delve into the town's secrets and solve an unspecified mystery. This in turn will reveal who is to inherit the estate left by the stranger. The narrator is Hester Jones, another stranger, who gets the sleuthing job. Knibden is a townscape peopled not so much with characters as "characters", like Dylan Thomas's Llarregub, Stanley Spencer's Cookham or - in a simile the novel itself authorises - the manor house in Cluedo. As Cory indulges her Dickensian talent for curious personal histories, the town's secrets are turned inside out. But the reader must be prepared for a meandering experience, beautifully written but not necessarily reaching a tidily knotted conclusion.
The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra, HarperCollins pounds 8.99. The Dennett- Dawkins reductionists have had a pretty good run lately, but here is a contrary view of life from the holistic scientist who wrote the influential Tao of Physics. It is really a restatement of the Gaia Hypothesis, first put forward by James Lovelock, that the world can be considered a living being. Capra goes on to flesh out the notion - derived from Gregory Bateson's pioneering Ecology of Mind - that cognition is a principle of nature, not a side-effect. More recent concepts such as gene-trading are introduced, and competitive evolution is adjusted in favour of co-operative bio-networks evolving symbiotically. The crucial difference between cyclical eco-systems and linear industrial ones is laid out: in the former, waste is absorbed elsewhere in the system; the ultimate product of the latter is waste itself.
When the Music Stops by Norman Lebrecht, Pocket Books pounds 7.99. With the Three Tenors, Gorecki's 3rd, Canto Gregoriano and Mark McCormack, classical music really was beginning to look like the new football. The fees which top performers command are astronomical: Von Karajan, the ex-Nazi conductor, died worth pounds 163 million; Pavarotti's annual earnings approach pounds 20 million. Lebrecht's case is that the cupidity of the promotable few threatens the welfare of the anonymous, violin-sawing many. The finances of this back- scratching, back-stabbing industry are top-heavy. The classical CD boom is now in bust mode, with releases falling off by half. Meanwhile, the aggressiveness of agents and promoters continues to erode the culture of public subsidy and performance which we all take for granted.
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