Primo Levi published The Periodic Table (Il Sistema Periodico) in 1975 in Italian, and in English in 1985. This being some years after he had published If This is a Man and its sequel The Truce, his accounts of his incarceration in Auschwitz.
The Periodic Table is a masterpiece. It is a collection of 21 reflections, each named after a chemical element. Levi doesn’t tell us why he chose the elements he did but he transforms the properties of each into an extraordinary personal narrative. He says of it ‘...this is not a chemical treatise…Nor is it an autobiography…but it is in some fashion a history.’ The Royal Institution of Great Britain placed it on their short-list of the best science books ever written and it must be required reading for every undergraduate chemistry course.
Levi was a chemist, novelist, poet, memoirist, and Shoah survivor¾ a giant of post WW2 Italian literature. He never confined himself to any of these categories and had continued to work as a chemist alongside his writing career until he retired from the paint factory he managed, in 1974. However, The Periodic Table is one work in which he manages to draw on all the disparate experiences of a rich, varied and traumatic life. In Argon, he reflects on his family and his Jewishness; in Zinc, the poignancy of young love. Iron, tells of his friend Sandro Delmastro: ‘…a loner…he had an elusive, untamed quality…’ Sandro, educated and a voracious reader who, at the same time, was at home hiking in the mountains and who became self-sufficient in the wild. Through his friendship with Sandro Levi also learned many of these survival skills; skills that were to be useful when they both—though not together—joined the resistance. However, skilled though they were they were unable to avoid capture. Tragically, Sandro was shot in the back of the neck by a burst of sub-machine gun fire while attempting to escape from his Fascist captors, while Levi was eventually sent to Auschwitz. In Vanadium Levi describes a chilling re-encounter with a Dr Müller, a fellow chemist who had charge of the laboratory in Auschwitz to which Levi had been assigned. But what drew me to TPT is Levi’s humanity and the way he deals with the bitterness he must have felt as a survivor of one of the worst episodes of genocide in history. I do wonder, though, about the label ‘survivor’ attaching to a someone who eventually took his own life. It’s beyond doubt that much of the trauma of Auschwitz will have haunted him and we know he suffered from bouts of serious depression that started in 1963. His death after a fall in 1987 was recorded as suicide, though there are some who doubt it and claim it was an accident.
However, of all these remarkable ‘histories’, Carbon is the tour de force. This is the work that seems to anticipate the growing awareness among environmentalists of the impact inherent in the carbon-based economies of the developed world. ‘I wanted to tell the story of an atom of carbon,’ Levi tells us. And in just a few pages, he liberates an atom of carbon from its long imprisonment with oxygen and calcium in limestone and elevates it to the ‘element of life’. So begins the remarkable story of the journey of an atom through time and space; through the mystery of life and death; though it is transformed it is never destroyed. At the same time, he is leading us on a journey through the imagination of a great writer.
He begins in a notional 1840, when a pickaxe-wielding labourer detaches his atom of carbon from a rock. It is kilned and starts its journey into and through the ‘world of things that change.’ It is inhaled and exhaled; dissolved and expelled; moved by the tides and blown by the winds until, once more in captivity, it embarks on what Levi calls ‘the organic adventure.’ Our atom finds a temporary place to rest in a leaf before undergoing the miracle of photosynthesis only finally to become part of that ‘impurity’ that itself threatens life on our planet—carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas. And in his final magnificent paragraph Levi describes how it will then be swallowed ‘in a glass of milk’ and be incorporated in a long chemical chain that will be broken down yet again. It will move from our bloodstream; it will ‘knock at the door of a nerve cell’; it ‘belongs to a brain’, his brain as the writer, now ours as readers. But its journey is not over; it will never be over, it cannot be destroyed. Once a part of us, then part of what we will become; part of what we will leave behind us when we are gone, when there’s nothing of us, not even ‘…this dot, here, this one.’
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (2000)
Penguin . Pb . 195pp . ISBN 0-14-118514-7
©Don Oldham 2019
Winter sun lay warm
on our backs. The grass
greened by the rainstorm
still wet as a tear.
From a leafless copse
came a rapid knock
the softening air.
And then the quiet.
But a shy rebuke,
A distant tap, faint
Compromised the calm.
There in his cassock
that sepia boy,
behind. In his eye
a pale not-quite stare,
was he there? Now
he’s in the grass and
in the air, somewhere
deep, deep in the sand,
deeper in the rock.
It winds through the walls,
through different grasses,
slowly it uncoils
itself to a flow
towards the marshes
creeping only by
the smallest measures
short of the beaches
finally to lie
on the dry reaches
ignored by the gulls.
The darkening sky,
the gathering squall;
all of yesterday
the air was alive;
now storm waters fill
the waiting floodplain,
coursing down until
the weaker banks give.
This is where tidal
into the wild sea.
With a heavy heart
I took Fore Street Hill.
From the deep twilight
casting its grace song
out over the still
air, a hidden bird.
I listened until
calmed—but not for long;
things became less clear,
dumbed and sequestered
in Mackerel Square
with a heavy heart.
a late leaf dances
on the morning wind.
Moving air stalls frost
but there are dry fields
where warmer air goes,
there among the shards
we believe were lost
but are just hidden
beneath the shadows
with the forgotten
and the abandoned.
Clamorous gulls call
out on the night air;
the slowing waves fall
on ancient pebbles;
a curve of moon there
half-hidden by cloud
low above cliffs where
by day gulls squabble.
Dreams end here because
we now hear aloud
our deepest thought as
murmurs on the swell.
The weather forecast says the wind
turned; it comes from the east today.
This weather was yours yesterday.
The molecules that make this moving air
have chilled your skin, stroked your hair.
I turn my face to the wind
and through its chill your warmth is there.
The slow build up to the storm deceived me.
The still air lay heavy on the roof. The roof supported
it. I was unmoved. Though apart we were each enclosed.
Then the other air came. It moved off the ocean,
soft breath gathered up into a roar.
Not a hat wind, a chair or a table wind - more.
It assailed the roof. So strong that on the ridge
the flashing lifted. So strong that the terra cotta finial,
blown from the pediment, fell
and smashed slates slid.
The world tilted.
We didn’t start with a promise. It seemed understood.
Anyway, what could we promise we hadn’t promised
to others before? It would have seemed like empty renewal
to say the same again. We lived an unspoken promise.
I used to think all we had was here, at home, contained.
But you gradually moved out parts of yourself like belongings;
books lent and not returned.
I’d given up shouting, reconciled to being alone.
Trying to be ready; trying to get the breathing right. Not too
loud, so I’d hear if you came.
It was hours before they came.
The roof held. Through last year’s storms it held good.
Others’ didn’t. Tiles were displaced, some fell; must have leaked too.
This one was sound though: sound enough, I thought.
Wasps wouldn’t nest in unsound eaves.
It would need to be dry for them. They were nesting when we
first summered here and we had to kill them.
Sometimes I can still hear their buzz in the dry air.
Burial in the rain
Rain. The rain none wanted;
not the farmers whose hay
lay in the fields to dry;
nor we, gathered here as
we mumbled our goodbyes.
The earth’s silent embrace waited.
But there is no sure and certain hope,
no mercy here, just birdsong
and flowers and mute trees
and the rain, still the rain.
This is a book about a cricket match. Now I realise that will sound unpromising to anyone who is not a devoted fan of this great game. I am and so is David Kynaston, so bear with me, it’s more than just that.
For a while now I’ve been an admirer of David Kynaston, the social historian who more than any other makes me feel he’s speaking directly to me. His magisterial history of Britain, Tales of a New Jerusalem from 1945 to 1979 is up to four volumes to date with the promise of more. What drew me to this study was that I wanted to know more about the world in which my parents were raising me, a war baby. I grew up with the new welfare state that the pioneering Labour government—following its landslide election victory of 1945—introduced, its shining example being the NHS. This great institution gave me vitamin enriched orange juice and vaccinations and continued my father’s rehabilitation; he’d been invalided out of the navy. On looking through Kynaston’s impressive list of publications, which includes his recent four volume (yes, again) history of the City of London as well as other heavy tomes, I was drawn to three intriguing titles all about cricket and I ordered one. When I collected WG’s Birthday Party I was almost disappointed to see that unlike most of his other books, it’s a slim volume, too slim as it turned out because it is a joy. Funny, packed with the kind of detail any cricket lover would appreciate; and poignant as well. But, as I said, it’s more than that.
Kynaston’s primary sources in Tales was the Mass Observation Project. Observers were appointed, anonymously, to record the conversations of people, in public places; pubs, clubs or in other places where they gathered. These voices were not those of the historians nor of those in power but of ordinary folk. He then uses this information to tell stories. And this small gem of a book is a story, too, but about cricket in the last few years of the Victorian era and one of its greatest figures. Wherever the game of cricket is played, the name W.G. Grace will resound.
In 1898 W.G. Grace, England’s foremost cricketer and by this time a legend in the game, would reach the age of fifty. To celebrate this the cricket authorities decided that the Gentlemen v Players match of that year would be rescheduled to start on the great man’s birthday. For cricket fans, this match was the fixture of the season. Test matches were infrequent, the county game in its infancy and the distinction between the Gentlemen (amateurs, usually from a privileged background) and Players (professionals, usually from more humble origins) was well defined. On the score cards the Gentlemen were allowed their initials and military ranks while for the Players it was surnames only; Players addressed the Gentlemen as ‘sir’ but again the Players were just surnames. W.G., as a qualified medical practitioner, was regarded as an amateur. No doubt today we would describe him as a ‘shamateur’; he amassed a comparative fortune from cricket and was notorious for his moneymaking acumen.
In telling us the story of this unique fixture Kynaston also tells us about how social class played such a part, as well. A bit of history: the fixture was first played in 1819 and the gulf in ability between the Gentlemen and the Players was stark. For many years the professionals prevailed including one notable match where it was arranged that the Players should defend four stumps each nine inches taller than usual. Despite this it was a rout. The Players only needing to bat once while the Gentlemen’s second innings amassed a mere 35 runs and the top scorer, with eight, was one Roger Kynaston (a relative?) who went on the become an MCC Secretary.
But back to this fixture. D. Kynaston takes us through all three days of this celebratory match one at a time; the weather (which, this being England, played its part); the crowds and the players—the inter- and intra-team rivalries—and paints a detailed picture of the ebbs and flows of a memorable occasion. And above it all—it was after all his birthday—looms the towering figure of W.G. but there were other characters who played their parts and other stories to tell. The Gentlemen had Capt. E.G. ‘Teddy’ Wynyard, a Boys’ Own hero if ever there was one:
A career soldier who had won the DSO…he was a man of many parts: in the Old Carthusian team that won the FA Cup in 1881; a prominent rugby and hockey player; an excellent figure skater; tobogganing champion of Europe in 1894; and recipient of the Humane Society’s medal after rescuing a Swiss peasant from under the ice on the lake at Davos. But he won his greatest renown on the cricket field…
And Andrew Stoddart, ‘…in every sense one of the most attractive cricketers of the day…an almost complete batsman…’ who opened the batting with W.G. The Gentlemen also had other double internationals; the all-rounder Johnny Dixon also represented England at football; and Samuel “Sammy” Woods was a rugby international dubbed ‘…the Father of Modern Wing Forward Play...”.
And on the other side of the Class divide the Players had their stars, too. Arthur Shrewsbury probably the best batsman in the country between the mid-1880s and mid-1890s. Lord Harris, not one given to extravagant praise for Players regarded an innings of Arthur’s against Australia on a rain affected track, overcoming Fred Spofforth, “The Demon Bowler’ as ‘...the finest innings I ever saw…’. Shrewsbury’s opening partner, William Gunn was also a double international, appearing for England at football. He went on to start the sports equipment and clothing company Gunn & Moore, still operating today.
However, despite several eccentric omissions by the selectors—Ranji, Fry and Jessop—the Gentlemen were likely to be formidable opponents.
By now W.G.’s record, even judging by today’s standards where much more cricket is played, was extraordinary. If not a giant physically, he was a large man, around 18 stone in his later years. Yet who would have known now that also his attention to personal hygiene was less than fastidious; his soft Gloucestershire burr was delivered in a high-pitched, even squeaky voice and his commitment to the fair play inherent in this great game was not always evident. Perhaps not exactly a cheat, he was at least an infamous manipulator (or intimidator) of umpires. There are many examples of his using all the means at his disposal to have decisions changed to his own advantage.
Inevitably, it was W.G.’s day but he didn’t have the stage all to himself. Cricket is a team game, but it also embodies a contest between bat and ball that leaves plenty of opportunity for individual, sometimes match-winning contributions. And this game was no exception, there were some virtuoso performances both from the Gentlemen and the Players. There was the fearsome pace of Kortright, the fast bowler; the power and flair of Gunn’s batting; the—at times—unplayable ‘turn’ from Hearne J.T. (his brother Hearne A. also played hence they were allowed their initials); and, inevitably, the contribution of the great man himself, W.G. The game, as Kynaston noted, ‘…transcended any set of statistics, for virtually all who saw W.G.’s jubilee match were certain that it would live in the memory.”
Within the next three years the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the death of the old Queen brought the Victorian era to an end. The brief lull of the Edwardian period saw the careers of many of the cricketers continue, both internationally and in the county game, until retirement. W.G. played on, finally bringing his First Class playing days to an end after scoring 74 at the Oval on his 58th birthday, though he continued to make appearances in club games.
Then in 1914 the catastrophe of Great War was loosed on the world. Several of those who played in this match were young enough to fight and here Kynaston strikes a more poignant note. Some perished in the war and some survived. The mercurial Stoddart took his own life. Also in 1914 W.G himself died after a series of strokes. Both during and after the war several of the Players found it hard to make much of a living when their playing days were over but some fared better—Gunn’s sports equipment company still bears his name even though the ownership has changed. While the last of the cricketers who played in the jubilee match died in 1958, Walter Rhodes, who, as 12th man fielded for both sides but didn’t appear on the scorecard, lived on until 1973.
Cricket has never been insulated from the wider forces at work in society but the dramatic changes during the period following WW2 (an area of special interest for Kynaston) was, perhaps the end of a kind of golden era in the game. The Gentlemen vs Players match struggled on until the sponsorship of a new form of the game was agreed by the cricket authorities, the limited overs contest. The abolition of amateur status followed and together these sounded its death knell in 1962 and the fixture was no more.
This gem of a book is more than just a fascinating story for cricket lovers told with humour and sometimes pathos by a true lover of this sport. Yes, it is an account of a memorable occasion in honour of one of the giants of the game, but it also records what was one of the last hurrahs of the Victorian era.
WG’s Birthday Party, David Kynaston, Bloomsbury, 2011 ISBN 978-1-4088-1208-2
©Don Oldham 2019