Distant pangs

A few thoughts on Open Lands, by Mark Taplin

In 1992 the United States and Russia agreed to let their citizens travel without restrictions within each others’ countries, quite a development given that the Soviet Union only ceased to exist in December 1991 and there was still plenty of Cold War hangover on both sides.

Cool

Mr Taplin, a cultural attache at the US embassy in Moscow in the 1980s, took the opportunity to go to some places that were previously forbidden and to write about what he found. Part travelogue, part economic study of a country in crisis, and part ethnographic investigation of a diversity of ex-Soviet characters, this book is the result.

It is great on people. The impoverished vulcanologist of Kamchatka and his fish-soup making wife, the tin-pot secessionists of Kabardino-Balkaria, the over-organising tour guide in Tuva, all could be characters from the modern equivalent of a 19th century Russian novel. Perhaps an undiscovered Gogol, with that blend of stoicism and fatalism in the face of the plainly unacceptable or surreal that is both Russia’s iconic national personality trait and the demand that it makes of all visitors.

It is also a great blend of history and modernity. Mr Taplin takes the opportunity to review the history of places that he visits, and illustrate then with personal stories of the people across whom he comes. And he combines this with stories from his own road as he tries to make sense of what the history means for the present day.

Thinking big

It is also great on dreaming. To his credit, and perhaps demonstrating the book’s appeal to those who like to venture from the trail, Mr Taplin makes attempts to follow long forgotten paths in an effort to bring meaning to what could otherwise be seen as a depressing tour of some low priority provincial Russian regions.

Most entertainingly, but also ludicrously, he hatches in Moscow (seven time zones away) a plan to follow the trail blazed by George Kennan, the explorer not the diplomat, who visited Kamchatka in 1865 and (p 245):

ascended the Abacha River in a whaleboat; climbed over the mountain range behind the capital on horseback; rafted down the Kamchatka River to Klyuchi, a village at the foot of Kamchatka’s highest volcanoes; trudged over the high ridges of the Middle Range; struggled up the trackless west coast of the peninsula  and then wintered among the nomadic Koryaks, who carried Kennan and his companions across the frozen tundra in dogsleds, sheltering them in sooty teepees.

If this all seems a bit dramatic in the light of modern cruise shipping to Kamchatka, these sorts of impossible itineraries do rather seem to have been de rigueur for real explorers back in the day. I recently read Turkestan Solo, in which Ella Maillart, a Geneva-born hardcore explorer, describes amongst other things her crossing of the Kyzylkum Desert in western Uzbekistan by camel in winter on an expedition she put together on the hop and on a shoestring in the 1930s. They bred them tough back then, apparently.

The net result for Mr Taplin is less glamourous. He ends up on a horrifying truck ride with a coterie of serving military folks with a sideline in smuggling, some charmless days in the truly charmless Klyuchi including being, in a marvelous Sovietic twist, a near neighbour to Stalin’s granddaughter, and an effective exile back to Moscow courtesy of local officials for whom the end of the Cold War still seems to be news. For extra colour we have the mysterious figure of Leonid, whose overweening blandishments and toady assistance mark him out immediately to readers of spy novels as a sympathiser with the authorities and someone definitely not to be trusted.

Lessons

There are many possible morals to the story. The boringness of the previously forbidden places particularly struck me, hardening my prejudices against the abuse that eventually emerges from powerful systems that are not transparent or open to external challenge. Why they would bother to make these places closed to foreigners, or for that matter to Russians, is a question best left to the historians. I recall a story of Eric Newby’s about being forbidden for security reasons to take photos of bridges on his Big Red Train
Ride, despite the fact that all details including photographs of the bridges were published in a book that was freely available in the West and that he even carried with him. I remember holding my camera with particular caution around unimportant railyards on the train, suggesting that this secretiveness was still part of the atmosphere in the early 2000s.

Even when Mr Taplin does go somewhere that seems intrinsically interesting, dreariness is his constant companion. The book has a set of reviewers with whom I make particularly poor company. No less an authority than the Economist describes the book as identifying in particular the “soul destroying ugliness” that communism foisted on its subdued populace. Every traveller to Russia will recall some incident like that that befell Mr Taplin in the cafes of Vladivostok, and all budding Kremlinologists will recognise the political machinations of that far-eastern town as typical of the madness that descends when “democracy” is grafted on to autocracy and has not yet had time to grow firm roots.

Despite the bleakness of the future in prospect for Russia’s farflung provinces, there is
something positive in this account also. Laughing and crying are never far apart in Russia, and it seems as if Mr Taplin is partly trying to find out why it is that he is sufficiently interested to even bother to visit these outposts of fading empire.

Perhaps he is captured by the same romantic travelling spirit that defines all problems as challenges, all grotty bedding-down places as experiences, all inedible chow as an opportunity to discover a new cuisine, and all uncomfortable journeys as chances to see the world a new way. It is the dream that some cleaner, more magical dream is just around the next bend, that a visitor can peel back the facade of crumbling infrastructure and ruined lives and reveal the delight and cleanliness of an upcoming civilisation rampant. It is probably also a reminder of how pampered one quickly becomes in the feedback-form-filling west.

Which is just as well. Because without this superimposed meaning, the unremitting poverty, decay and despair could make it rather hard to cope with a journey like this one: the underlying thought of all travellers being “at least I don’t have to stay”.

Last line

Overall Open Lands is an excellent addition to my library, such as it is, an interesting record of how it was in the mid 1990s as the support systems that sustained economic life in previously-important parts of Russia broke down, and excellent vanity travelling for places that I may not reach for some years. So thanks to the Wellington man who commented on a previous post pointing me in its direction.

In particular, I have always been interested in the border between Russia and Mongolia in Tuva, a line on the map where two forgotten places meet. It was reported as being impassable in the early 1990s when I was near there (although there was no risk that I would actually go in any case), but now I have heard that some folks on the Mongol Rally pass through, which is clearly the sign that mass tourism is just around the corner.

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On pre-echoes and their practical relevance

A sort of book review of Tiziano Terzani’s book, “A Fortune Teller Told Me”

Told by a fortune teller in the 1970s not to fly at all during 1993, Mr Terzani, an Asia-based journalist for significant Western newspapers had a long time to consider his dilemma . Did he follow the advice of this prognosticator, change his professional life profoundly for a year, and implicitly accept that his western, scientific scepticism of those who predict futures was not the full story. Or did he ignore the advice, scoff at what might have been his fate, and continue to scoot about the place on planes?

The result of his decision forms the background for this thoughtful, charming and brilliant book, recently re-read after being unexpectedly found on a friend’s bookshelf. First published in 1997, it is many things: a brilliant literary travelogue through the countries of South-East Asia, a meditation on globalisation and the consequences of economic development, and an exploration of the world of fate and fortune-tellers – a personal tour through the layer of mysticism and superstition that underlies society, particularly in the east.

Mr Terzani venerates the past. He struggles to review the present dispassionately because he sees economic progress as fundamentally compromising traditions he has long respected – in his view progress evens out the differences in the world and makes the world a less interesting, less human place. And he is therefore fundamentally sceptical as to whether the future is a cause for hope or for despair.

I particularly like mysticism as a counter-point to our age of common sense, and cause and effect. It seems to me that practicalities too often intervene before motivation, by which I mean that ideas are killed by a thousands tut-tuts because it is thought that they won’t work even before the question is asked about whether we really want to pursue these ideas or not. The fact that there is no alternative is not a good argument for anything: it undermines the very creativity and participation that is helpful in resolving our societal dilemmas.

The effect of all this rationalism is that there are fewer and fewer places for non-rational thinking to hide in the world. Religion, art, dreams, superstition. These are powerful expressions of the limits of human reasoning, and the importance of surprise, principles, and unpredictable connections between ideas to our continued ability to flourish.

So, to my mind, all power to art, unpredictability, dreaming, foolishness, and creative thinking in the world. Boo to too much rationalism, over-assessment of the inherently unpredictable, and the intellectual arrogance of decision-makers choosing before they really understand. More scratch and sniff. Less wait and see.

To that end, I present my theory of pre-echoes. The idea is simple: once you have decided to do something, other people can get an idea of what is going to happen in the future as a result of your intention. So I am driving from Wellington to Auckland, and a friend sends me a message asking if she just saw me crossing Fort Street in downtown Auckland. I haven’t got there yet, but the pre-echo of my future arrival was already detectable. Or your mother suddenly pops into your mind, and a minute later she calls you. A coincidence from one point of view, but a pre-echo from another – you know that she is going to call because she has decided to. I think of it as like a radio on some distance away on a windy day. Sometimes you can just catch enough to know the name of the tune, sometimes events intervene to prevent it.

This is clearly a rather whimsical idea. Since it is impossible (I think) to test, it is fundamentally unscientific. I am surprised by many things every day, despite the existence of pre-echoes, and so clearly my theory is either not foolproof or it needs substantial refinement to fit the facts as I encounter them. My theory is also not especially helpful for predicting future events – another standard test of the quality of theories. It does not prevent people changing their mind or limit the ability of free-will. And I know not what the transmission mechanism is from someone else’s made-up mind to my own.

If I were in a mood to defend the science of my theory, I might note that science has moved along rather a lot over time and in surprising directions. The earth (not the sun) was once thought the centre of the galaxy, cholera was once thought to be caused by dirty air, radiation only showed up at the turn of the nineteenth century, vitamins remained a mystery until the 1950s, things thought impossible (space travel, mobile phones, decent coffee at petrol stations) have become reality. No reason to doubt, therefore, that science will stumble across pre-echoes at some point.

All of this science talk is all very well, but that is not, of course, the point of my pre-echo story. Pre-echoes come from a different world that exists alongside the world that we all accept as real every day. A world where time’s arrow does not necessarily travel in a single direction. A world where what would be called magic and dreams have a function and an effect. A world where things are connected in much more complex ways than the cause and effect story that we imbibe with our mother’s milk. A world, let’s face it, rather more intriguing and mysterious than the one we actually inhabit.

It is the same world from which come basic western superstitions. Some that I respect, for better or worse, are the importance of the 1st of the month for luck in the month following, a fear of doing anything too important on Friday the 13th, casting some salt over my left shoulder if I drop any on the floor, saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, and wishing on rainbows and over birthday candles.

Happily for me and my theory, Mr Terzani talks about something similar, referring to the thoughts of the prince soon to become Buddha in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha when sitting on a hill looking at a river:

It strikes him that once the measurement of time is waived, the past and the future are ever-present – like the river, which at one and the same moment exists not only where he sees it to be, but also at its source and at its mouth. The water which has yet to pass is tomorrow, but it already exists upstream; and that which has passed is yesterday, but it still exists, elsewhere, downstream.

There are eddies and tributaries, dams and irrigation schemes, but that does not affect the basic point about the connectedness of what we call the past, present and future, and the powerfulness of the idea that our concept of time is not the complete answer.

Mr Terzani goes on, while looking at a river intersection in Laos:

It seemed to me that that conjunction and mingling of muddy waters was, like life – mine included – made up of so many streams. It seemed that past, present and future were no longer distinguishable one from another: they were all there, in that relentless flow. Fifty-five years had slipped away like the great river rolling towards the China Sea; the rest of my time on earth was already welling up in the Himalayan slopes, already underway moving towards me along the same channel, clearly defined and counted to the last hour. If I had had a higher perch than that hill I might have been able to see more of the river, in both directions. And thus could I have seen more past, more future?

This connection of past, present and future is a powerful theme throughout the book as Mr Terzani consults the most famed fortune-teller he can find in every country that he visits. As a journalist, he reports the differences and similarities in how they ply their craft, and gives his views on whether they actually have any unique capabilities. Rationally speaking, he assesses if they are sufficiently accurate in telling him his own past (something they all do as part of the process) that he can ascribe them some credibility as advisers on what is going to happen in the future.

As the book goes on and the number of fortune-tellers grows, he sadly concludes that most are in a business like any other, i.e., selling predictions of the future that others are willing to pay for. They have a standard patter, and present a hodge-podge of culturally-influenced generalisations that are true enough for enough people to sound profound, while any firm predictions are couched in such a way that they can not be obviously wrong. But predicting the future is not really the point of fortune-tellers, in his view. They are not actually selling predictions. They are selling a combination of reassurance and warning, helping people feel better about their pasts, and more secure or cautious – depending on the story – about their futures.

But intriguingly, Mr Terzani also continues to accept that there might be something in it. That there might be some fortune-tellers who really can do as they say on the tin. He quotes from a London-based fortune-teller called Norman, responding to the question of whether he can really predict the future:

‘Not 100 per cent, otherwise we would no longer have any responsibility for our actions’, he said. ‘The cards read the shadows of things, of events. What I can do is help people to change the position of the light, and then, with free will, they can change the shadows. That I really do believe: you can change the shadows.’

Which feels a bit to me like my pre-echo theory. Sometimes you can pick up the shadows of future events, without really knowing how or why.

Fascinatingly, it turns out that the author did in fact avoid an air crash by following the advice he was given 16 years prior. A helicopter he was meant to be on crashed near Siem Reap, Cambodia in March 1994.

There is also an interesting minor riff on the complexity of cause and effect throughout the book. Once the web of influences becomes sufficiently complicated, any event can start to look like magic, and disentangling what is actually responsible is more an act of story-telling than it is of science.

The chain of cause and effect that links human affairs is endless, and that means they remain without a real explanation. I was on that ship as the result of an infinite series of ‘becauses’, of which it was impossible to establish the first. That is the maddening thing about destiny – and the wonderful thing.

There is always an inexplicable bridge of San Luis Rey, where different people with different stories, coming from different places, meet by chance at the moment when the bridge collapses, to die together in the abyss. But the first step of each of the journeys which end in the assignation cannot be retraced.

In my case, any starting point that I might fix – the fortune-teller in Hong Kong, the escape from death in Cambodia, the decision in Laos, even my own birth – was not it. Perhaps because, when you come down to it, there really is no beginning.

It seems to me this question comes down, as usual with interesting things, to a question of underlying beliefs. Perhaps human action is like the weather, i.e., something that is very complex but fundamentally based on a few, knowable rules. If it is, then we could look forward to a time when the future can be predicted with total accuracy. All that is needed is enough information on the right things and sufficient computing power and time.

Mr Terzani meets a meteorologist who says that his science has almost reached this point. At present, the meterologist says that scientists can predict the weather with 99 percent accuracy for the next three days (I am not sure this is true of the weather forecasters I rely on, but however). The next step, says the meteorologist, is mastering the theory of chaos, and this will enable exact weather predictions two or three years in advance.

“Why can you not predict human actions”, inquires Mr Terzani, perhaps archly. “They too have complex causes and effects”.

Back from a cold place

The Coldest March – A review of the book by Susan Solomon

There is something at once compelling and horrifying about the stories from the heroic age of polar exploration. Perhaps the compulsion is the horror. A few absurdly hardy men, an indifferent, hazardous environment, a minimum three year stay at a tiny outpost of civilisation built on the shores of a frozen sea, and all to get the opportunity to spend three or four months hiking across the un-mapped interior, fighting every day against starvation and the cold, to see who will be the first to reach a point on the globe that looks no different from any other.

The mindset of explorers is hard to explain or to justify – the huge imbalance between apparent risks and reward, and the enormous effort required to undertake an expedition with deeply uncertain outcomes seem near assured to induce a bout of head-shaking amongst the mums of the world. Climbing mountains, visiting space, or plumbing the depths of the world’s oceans have similar characteristics. One gets the impression that the scientific goals, while worthy and important and looming large in the story of Antarctic especially, are a justification after the fact. Really the reason why is just because we want to see if we can do it, and in particular to see who can do it first.

There are many excellent accounts of and books on Antarctic exploration in the early years of the twentieth century. Amongst them are Scott’s diaries, Shackleton’s “South”, Roland Huntford’s biography of Shackleton and his account of the race between Scott and Amundsen, Apsley Cherry-Gerard’s “The Worst Journey in the World”, Douglas Mawson’s “The Home of the Blizzard”, and (from a little later on) Admiral Richard Byrd’s “Alone”.

One could be forgiven for thinking that there wouldn’t be much to add to this impressive record, particularly in the case of Scott’s last expedition, whose arc is so well known: the first expedition with Shackleton – later his rival, the long preparations for the second, the hard trudge to the South Pole only to find that Amundsen had beaten them there by a month, and then the walk back towards safety, fatal to all hands, with the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers found in the tent that was their final camp, and the bodies of Evans and Oates never found where they fell earlier on the trek.

The competing hypotheses for what went wrong are also well-known, chief among them incompetence (especially by Scott – the competing views of history have him as either a true hero in the classic British mold, or a noted bumbler whose hopelessness determined his fate), disease (scurvy), poor preparation (wrong equipment, not enough dogs, poor rations), poor execution (too much walking, too much time spent on science), or bald misfortune.

Like authors before her, Ms Solomon reviews the main elements of Scott’s polar story, and wants to put forward her view of what went wrong. But, as an Antarctic weather expert, she has another hypothesis to test. She says that, while in Antarctica for her research on the ozone layer, she grew interested in the question of whether unseasonably cold weather in the March of Scott’s return trek could provide another explanation for some of his miseries and ultimately his demise.

Armed with new weather data from automatic stations placed in the 1980s along the path Scott took, and with all the data from Scott’s expedition carefully analysed by Dr George Simpson, Scott’s meteorologist, in his report of 1919, she finds support for her view: an unpredictably cold March was a major contribution to the untimely death of Captain Scott and his party. This is a clear-eyed reassessment of Scott’s story, not a hagiography. Ms Solomon does not shirk from pointing out Scott’s mistakes and failures – indeed, Scott himself was forthright about his errors – but Ms Solomon’s argument that weather played a fatal role is calmly argued and carefully supported through the text.

Along the way, Ms Solomon provides an education into important aspects of the Antarctic environment, and unearths some genuinely new insights and ideas about what might have happened down at the bottom of the world nearly a hundred years ago. I will leave you to read the book for yourself but the ending struck me as particularly inspired – a genuinely new take on a well-known story: a twist in the tail, if you will, informed by the new information from the weather record.

As well as a lot of new data, Ms Solomon brings one clever approach to the narrative. At the start of each chapter she presents a scene of a mythical, modern-day Antarctic visitor that demonstrates key information on Antartica and the main challenges facing a traveller walking to the South Pole pulling a heavy sledge, e.g., the basic geography, the impact of different temperatures on the ease of travelling across the surface, what counts as appropriate clothing, the effects of blizzards, or the dangers of frostbite. These scenes at the start of every chapter could easily come across as superficial or trite, but actually they really work to bring home the reality of the difficulties faced by Scott in getting through, and the unfairness of many criticisms levelled at him after his death (one expects mostly by those who had never experienced the environment themselves). These vignettes make it clear how tenuous the continuation of human life is in Antarctica. Even very tiny mis-steps lead inexorably to catastrophe.

Overall this book is an excellent addition to the stories of Antarctica. A compelling reminder of Scott’s herioc journeys, and the fine line between success and failure in any great endeavour, but also a genuinely new take on a very well-rehearsed historical issue, complementing the first-hand accounts of the explorers with analysis that has only become possible with modern weather data.

Ms Solomon’s book perhaps contributes to a reassessment of Scott, who was lionised in the first years after his death, and then came to be seen as an amateur who essentially killed himself and his party through his ineptitude and poor decision-making. These two views of the man still compete for attention today. No one element can be said to be the cause of the tragedy. There are many things that could have, should have or would have been done but for. Yes, if Scott had moved more quickly and started earlier on the polar hike (like Amundsen with more dogs and no ponies, which prevented a start in October), or yes if the diet of the party and its equipping and preparation had been better (more time on skis, better sleeping bags), or if Scott had consistently made choices with higher margins for error rather than choices that should have been okay but were not, then the outcomes could have been different.

But the polar party did keep generally to their planned timeframe. They expected to be returning across the last few hundred miles of the barrier in March as the winter came quickly on. And so they made very careful scientific assessment of what weather they should expect. As Ms Solomon shows, nothing in that assessment was seriously awry, and nothing could have led them to expect the weather that they ultimately encountered. As Ms Solomon concludes, the weather took their lives.

This book also inspired me to look more closely at the details of Cherry-Gerard’s wait at One Ton Camp at 80D South depot for Scott’s polar party, who were then struggling to what would be their deaths a mere 100 miles further south. To my mind this episode goes down in history as amongst the greatest moments in polar exploration. My personal list also includes Shackleton’s decision to turn around less than 100 miles from the Pole in 1909 when it was clear that he could be the first to the Pole but only at the price of his life and those of his party, Oates walking out of the tent to his death on the return journey with Scott, in a indescribably noble attempt (on his own birthday, no less) to save the lives of those he was travelling with, on the basis that he thought was slowing them down through his sickness, and Douglas Mawson’s nightmarish sledging expedition with two comrades in 1912 when one fell into a crevasse with much of the expedition’s food and equipment, and the other comrade died from what is now suspected to have been vitamin poisoning from eating dog liver, leaving Mawson, terribly unwell himself, to struggle back the last 100 miles alone.

Apsley Cherry-Gerard questioned many times in the course of his post-polar life whether, had he broken his orders and headed further south, he might have saved Scott and the then three remaining members of his polar party. Surely the physical challenges associated with such a mercy dash were enormous – Cherry-Gerard had no idea where Scott was, strictly limited cooking fuel and food for himself, his companion Dimitri Gerof the dog wrangler, and the dogs they travelled with, and unique difficulties with the cold environment (his glasses were not the ideal equipment in freezing conditions since they soon frosted up from condensation, rendering him effectively blind). In addition, by the time they reached One Ton Camp Dmitri was ill and the dogs were in a poor way. So even if he had gone further south in direct contravention of his orders, getting back could have been a very dicey proposition. In addition, the polar party were not expected at One Ton camp until March 10 at the earliest, and so, at the time when he had to consider the issue, there were no concerns at all for the welfare of Scott and his group.

As far as I can figure it, the distances are as set out below. You can see how achingly close the two groups were – from my reading a decent day’s marching was 12-15 miles, and in a good day with dogs pulling the sledges a party could cover as much as 30 miles. One degree of latitude is 69 miles.

Date Cherry-Gerard location Scott’s party location Distance between
Feb 26 77D52′ (Hut Point)
March 3 79D29′ (One Ton Depot)
March 5 79D29′ Near 81D S ~ 105 miles
March 8 79D29′ 80D45′ S ~ 87 miles
March 10 Left for Hut Point 80D31′ S ~ 71 miles

Scott, Wilson and Bowers died around 29 March 1912 at about 79D40 – around 11 miles from the supplies at One Ton camp, and only a few days good marching for healthy men from the safety of Hut Point.

Things your parents probably didn’t know

A few thoughts on Sex, A Natural History, by Joann Ellison Rodgers

There is a lot that I do not know.

I think it is very helpful to be reminded about that from time to time. This is partly, I am sure, why I read non-fiction. And on the subject of sex I am particularly clueless (something to which, mercifully, only relatively few of you are witness). So this seems like a bonza of a book, chock full of updates on the state of scientific knowledge on a subject of crucial importance but where most of us (notice what I did there?) are lacking in a few clues.

And in many ways it delivers. In its five hundred pages are a chapter on genes and theories on why sex exists, one on what your bits are up to during sex, one on what your brain is doing, some stuff on first meetings, on how dating works, on aphrodisiacs, committment, sexual deviance, and alternatives to the standard model. A bewildering variety of interesting issues. And covered not just from a human point of view – you may be alarmed or amazed by how similar human sexual activity is to that of other animals.

It is also, I think, about 10% too long, a bit repetitive, and generally a little under-edited in parts. Sometimes it felt like a reference book than one of popular science. A few more sub-headings would have helped to understand where we were at. Some of the pointy-headed scientific stuff (particularly on genes) was way over my head. And it might have even benefited from a summary in each chapter of the key points. But then these days I struggle to stay attentive sufficiently long to follow complex argument. So perhaps you might not have such trouble.

The book often comes across as unduly rational and practical on issues that are much more complex and emotional in real (human) life than in the case of scientists observing animal sexual behaviour in the lab. This makes the book interesting at a theoretic level, but practically not that helpful or insightful at predicting actual human behaviour. In particular, humans come across as highly unusual amongst animals in that they mostly end up in stable long-term relationships with one other person that are the basis for bringing up children, and those children remain dependent on their parents for an inordinately long period of time. It is fine, and all very interesting, to point out why this might or might have been the winning approach from an evolutionary point of view, or from the point of view of the genes or gametes involved. But it does rather trivialise all the other parts of the sex equation that real humans face up to in real life day to day, and the kinds of issues that are relevant in their sexual and relationship decision-making.

I also personally struggle with theories that hark back to caveman times to explain anything, i.e., evolved approach x to issue y would have been optimal for stone-age people for reason z. It just seems like the justifications could be entirely made up. The real world has a way of being much more complex, and no one can tell either way what Barney and Betty (or Wilma) were up to back then anyway.

The most interesting parts were the ones that described how people actually behave, especially in first meetings, in flirting and dating, and the chapter about people with non-standard heterosexual desires. The former because I can see around me every day in every bar the behaviours described, and see them in myself as much as I hate to admit that I am both predictable and typical. And the latter because everyone is curious about deviance, and I suspect, at least in the case of sex, that we are all doing things we would rather no one apart from our partner ever found out about. And even with him/her we might be a bit squeamish about discussing it in the cold light of day.

Plus it has “SEX” written across the cover in large letters. Which means that no matter where you are when you read it, people wonder (but do not ask) what you are up to. Fun times.