Philip Larkin, in an obituary of Louis MacNeice said “he was… a town observer: his poetry was the poetry of our everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen and ice-cream soda, lawn-mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting. In addition he displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and lipsticked cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of ‘These Foolish Things’. We were grateful to him for having found a place in poetry for these properties, for intruding them in “the drunkenness of things being various”. Larkin’s analysis is neat, sharply observed, and has echoes of…


“Extractivism” is not a word much bandied about today; “populism” is. But the latter is misnomer: the project that brought Trump to power in America and will not disappear now that Biden is President is a one fomented by ultra right wing billionaires in the USA like Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers. After all, Biden told a 100 or so wealthy donors before the Election that he wasn’t going to demonise the rich: “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change”.

So-called populism exploits the disaffection of large sections of the populi and sets them against…


Frank Zappa once commented on the difference timbre makes to any melody, citing the notion of trying to play ‘Purple Haze’ on bagpipes (don’t try it — even thinking about it is bad enough). So if you take the same musical pattern and transform it with the timbres appropriate to any particular kind of music you get something very different. And very similar tunes can be disguised by very alien timbres and treatments.

Many tunes share the same rhythmic pattern even though you wouldn’t guess it when they arrive fully dressed.

I love the Band/Dylan ‘Endless Highway’ in the version…


It’s that time of year when gardeners can’t keep up with the burgeoning growth of their plants. We can only tackle one job at a time and behind your back everything else is growing at a phenomenal rate. The coronavirus is doing the same thing and there’s a link which I doubt many gardeners have reflected on.

My title is deliberately provocative: what has the lovely organic, homely garden got to do with this alien-sounding parallel processing, a term from computer chip technology?

Everything it turns out. The reason that the garden teems is that the way nature builds plants…


I have accidentally come across a very remarkable plant. Cobaea scandens is a climbing annual from Mexico that grows to three metres from seed. I first saw it two years ago on the TV programme Gardener’s World and was intrigued enough to buy some seeds. It grows in an ingenious way which I will explain in a moment but imagine my joy when I found out that Darwin, who wrote about it in his book On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1875), also thought that the plant is special. My intuition was confirmed.

Cobaea’s kinked tendrils climbing the bamboo stick

The plant has the tendrils…


How, in the 19th century, did a small, previously marginal, North West European country manage to install its Queen as Empress of India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire? Why didn’t the Mughal Emperor conquer Britain?

This, of course is a deliberate echo of Jared Diamond’s famous question: “Why did Pizarro come to capture Atahuallpa, instead of Atahuallpa’s coming to Spain to capture King Charles I?” It is surprising that Diamond’s geography-first method has not been applied to the singular case of Britain’s one-time role as the world’s greatest power. This is an interesting question per se…


That’s us — Great Britain, the UK — I’m talking about. If the term “Warfare State” is unfamiliar to you, as it will be to most I will explain. The term was coined by the historian David Edgerton; I have taken issue with many of the contentions in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation elsewhere but his concept of the warfare state is the vital key to understand the position of Britain in the world today.

A Vulcan bomber

In a familiar popular narrative, the defining element of post-war Britain is that it became a Welfare State. The Empire…


AI and Big Data are the future, obviously. Humans are such feeble things and, anyway, free will has been proven to be an illusion. But with all our personal data on the big databases someone knows our own mind better than we do ourselves, don’t they?

It’s obviously already happening. What do they know that I need? Today, Amazon picks Gloomsbury, a R4 comedy send up of Bloomsbury. I have never knowingly bought an audio book; I don’t do radio comedy. So where’s the link? I just bought Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians but the algorithm can’t tell why I made…


Do we really need farms to produce our food? For most of human history the question would have seemed absurd: it was farming — ie moving from being hunter-gathers to creating domesticated animals and crops — that opened the door to civilisation. But there’s a growing movement that suggests we should detach our food production from its ties to the land and, especially, animals. I first encountered the idea in the 1970s in a visionary passage by the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot, written in 1894 and looking forward to the year 2000:

The day will come when everyone will carry…


It has always seemed strange to me that we lost our manufacturing industry with barely a whimper of protest. Of course there were sit-ins, buy-outs, amalgamations, government bail-outs, but when it was over there was no attempt to learn lessons. The reaction of many to losing the British Empire was understandably good riddance but manufacturing industry: the trains, and boats and planes and cars we all loved?

But two books — which couldn’t have taken more diametrically opposed positions — have recently appeared that do delve into the causes of the UK’s industrial collapse: David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall…

Peter Forbes

I write about biomimicry and nanoscience in books and review science books for the Guardian and Independent. Teach Narrative Non-fiction at City University.

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