Review: The Address Book – Tim Radford

Like many school children of my era, when writing my name and address in a book I would extend the address to include cosmic information such as,

. . .  Great Britain
Outer Space
The Universe

In his book,  The Address Book, Tim Radford has taken that concept and written a set of extended essays on the concept of place, resulting in a fascinating meditation on our place in the world around us.  Starting with a chapter headed The Number and The Street, he meanders through The Town, The Country, The Nation and so on right through to The Solar System, The Galaxy and The Universe.

This could seem an artificial concept which would soon run out of steam, but Tim Radford begins well and takes his readers with him as they explore their own place in the Universe and make his meditation their own.  I can’t say I agree with his views throughout but at least he provoked a dialogue in me which made me think about my own sense of place and reflect on my own feelings for town, county, nation and panet.

Most of us feel a sense of affection to the place we live, and Tim takes an obvious delight in the town he lived in for 23 years, the Sussex town of Hastings.  I was reminded of Louise Dean’s book, The Old Romantic which is set in this rather run-down coastal town.  In an interview on BBC Radio 4, Louise Dean said,

Hastings has been on its uppers for many, many years – there are rumours, very much exagerrated, about Hastings having a revival . . . but its still humble and humbling, and fascinating and unkempt and wayward, and in some ways its very much a character itself.

Tim Radford says something similar.

The appeal of old Hastings had a great deal to do with its long-term impoverishment, its place at the bottom of the pecking order.

Hastings Old Town

If ever there was somewhere to inspire a writer, Hastings must be that place, with its run-downs estates, its genteel “old town”, the coach-loads of day-trippers on the sea-front and the strangely cosmopolitan population (Hastings has always attracted drifters of all nationalities).

In an odd addendum to this chapter on “The Town”, Tim suddenly tells us that it took him a year to write the chapter but that he has now moved with his family to Eastbourne, about 20 miles up the coast from Hastings.  He writes, “the reasons for the move are not important; what matters is that we felt no great wrench, no dislocation and no sense of loss as we made it”.  I can’t be the only reader who finds this a funny end to a chapter – it throws away the previous 20 pages in which Tim has been writing about the long-term influences of places we live in.  In casting off poor old Hastings in a few dismissive phrases Tim seems to undo his previous enthusiasm which made us want to go and take a look at the place.

We then move on to “The County” and find ourselves still in Sussex.  No doubt all counties have a unique flavour to them but Sussex certainly has its share of writers willing to claim it as their favoured home, not least Rudyard Kipling.  Tim notes that the landscape of Rudyard Kipling’s stories from his time at his home in Burwash “seems to be palpably, inescapably Sussex”, for without being particularly specific his “obvious fascination with a spirit of place, that sharp but intangible sense that here felt very different from there“.  In England the “county” can mean as much as the town, with some counties such as Yorkshire evoking a sense of allegiance and loyalty from its residents as strong as that felt for nations.

Moving up a level, Tim writes in his next chapter of  “The Country”.   He writes as someone who emigrated to England in 1961 having spent his childhood and youth in Auckland, New Zealand.  He describes the English of that time as a people “who lived in grimy, draughty, damp and usually freezing houses, often without bathrooms, who wore the same shirts for a week (changing the collar from time to time) and who inhaled a mixture of soot, sulpher, pollen, cigarette tobacco and the aroma of stale frying fat”.

He writes in this vein for a further page or so, “cold, grubby, war-damaged and depressed”, “endured crowded public transport, perpetuated prepostrous class attitudes and deferred to a dismissive bureaucracy”, “enjoyed the illusion but not the reality of great maritime resources”, “its cafés unwelcoming with bitter coffee and nauseating provender”, etc, etc.  Sometimes a writer gets into a groove and can’t seem to get out of it.  I lived through that era and remember it as an era of optimism and new prosperity.  I went, in clean clothes, to a bright, modern primary school building with picture windows and I lived in a pretty suburban home with cherry tress in the garden.  Perhaps Tim watched too many 1940s black and white films before he wrote this chapter.

Millet, The Angelus

We then move on to “The Nation” and “The Continent”.  Tim’s earliest impressions of Europe (from his New Zealand home) were gained from paintings like Millet’s The Angelus, in which an elderly couple, “heads bowed as if in prayer, standing in a potato field . . . the landscape is flat, and there is the spire of a church in the distance”.  Paintings like this, set on the great European plain, helped Tim to understand, “the intricate set of connections that stretch across national and regional borders. . . ”  and also a confirmation of the global nature of his childhood Catholic education.  He goes on to discuss other European connections – Millet with Zola, Marx with the Bible, plenty with hunger.  He goes on to mention the great heritage of European literature and writes “books were the making of modern Europe”, with the printed book reintroducing Europeans to the ancient past  while enabling them to communicate renaissance learning across the continent.

In Tim’s following chapters, The Hemisphere, The Planet, The Solar System, The Galaxy we move on to more scientific ground covering the history of geographic and cosmic discoveries, from Galileo and Coperinicus to Edwin Hubble and his great telescope.  In his final chapter, The Universe we deal with the unanswerable topics, but the words to describe them are strangely unsatisfying:  “magnetic monopole”, “cosmic inflation”, “supersymmetry” are unenlightening to those without a scientific bias in their interests.  Are we any the wiser having read contemporary theory about the origin and final destination of the universe?  I think I echo Tim’s final words, “We are all displaced persons: even the luckiest of us are in some sense asylum seekers, refugees on a journey from somewhere to nowhere, creatures with a sense of a lost Eden, convinced that there must be a heaven, a place where we belong“.

The Address Book has been an interesting read, a reminder that a set of essays can be as readable as any novel.  It provoked my own thought processes while I read it and while I don’t agree with everything Tim Radford has written I would definitely recommend his book to anyone who has an interest in our place in the universe.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Address Book – Tim Radford

  1. I’m in total agreement concerning your comment that a set of essays can be as readable as a novel, currently reading Italo Calvino’s 6 memos for the next millennium & finding it not only fascinating but a great read.


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