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BARBICAN LIFE


John Steinbeck


It was after reading Steinbeck’s account that I wanted to go and see the fall in Montana for myself. Through his eyes, I saw the difference between people in towns and people in the country, and for the first time, to my shame, I wanted actually to meet more Americans!


Thanks in great part to Charlie, my wish came true in the Yosemite Valley, in the streets and offices of Washington DC, and at the dinner tables of LA and San Francisco over the ensuing years, and I am the richer for that experience. Now I even listen to them without going to their country. Just watch the more intelligent Americans, Indians, and all other varieties of weird and wonderful thinking people on www.TED.org – it is safe, short, and quietly contagious. Today I listened to Bill Gates on Malaria and Education, and Nandan


hope he brings his cheque book. The inhabitants of our planet continue to inspire faith and hope – because they get up and do what they believe in, and it is exhilarating when they do it well. It is most effective when they also communicate it well, when we catch the ‘bug’ that infects them.


Steinbeck did what he thought was right, in going around America, and what he wrote is as valid today as it was in 1962. Being misdirected in Maine on his way to the best lobster, reflecting on the tendency of Governments to make people feel small, by ignoring what they think, or, how ordinary folks in the Midwest seemed to have no need for culture, Steinbeck infused his account of America with his inner self. It is this heart that makes a difference, I find myself thinking, moving slowly in my Barbican flat, keeping house.


Rachel Carson


Nilekani on the ideas which will make India move forward. I wrote in the last issue about his efforts to scan the eyes of Indian government grant recipients, to end corruption - the’ cuts’ taken by middle men. He is actually doing something about what he believes in, as indeed is Gates. Baroness Jenkins announced at the Conservative Party conference that Gates was coming to speak to her new overseas aid group. Great - I


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If Rachel Carson had not written Silent Spring, and if the New York Times had not serialised it over three weeks, Steinbeck would have stayed on that list for longer, I reckon. But it was heart (and lots of luck) that made Carson’s book a success as well, in October 1962.


If you recall, this is the watershed book on pesticides which changed US federal government regulations. When Lewis Herber wrote ‘Our Synthetic Environment’ which came out a few months earlier, it was a flop, though in its first twenty pages he had made the same points, thoroughly.


So what was it about Carson’s book that made it a best seller? It


was a single topic book, I would contend, and in it her heart showed. Within a year of its publication her book created a new generation of environmental activists. Her terrifyingly eloquent portrait of what it would be like to live in an increasingly toxic landscape painted a picture dense with images of ‘dislocation’ caused to the ‘web of nature’. The public shared her views. Does this make it good science? Well, if it makes governments change laws, then perhaps it passes collective scrunity. What does it matter, that the underlying vision is borrowed from the 18th century Christian theology that it is the Divine Will that makes the intricate web of life, with each creature balanced in its proper place? Or was it this very thing which resonated silently amongst us? We are unlikely to know – but anyone who reads Silent Spring even today will not miss the presence of Ms Carson on every page.


It is not surprising that both Steinbeck and Carson found their ways on to American stamps. Travel has changed, though, since Steinbeck’s time. We are less wide eyed now. Strangers arriving in the American Midwest in 1962 brought new possibilities with their very presence – a glimpse of the unknown, and therefore exciting. Information about every place on earth is available on the internet now. Somehow this fosters the dangerous illusion that just by seeing what is on the net, people will learn things. Is travel now defunct? Is the role of the teacher threatened? In his 2008 TED presentation on Education, Bill Gates said that the people who taught well engaged their pupils, and this could be captured on video, and shown to those who needed to learn it. By discussing what he could do better, the worst teacher, he said, could improve his performance. Not so, Mr Gates. The teacher who moves around his class, talking animatedly, is doing so about a single topic which his pupils can grasp – he is engaging pupils, adding information in different ways for different learning styles, anticipating questions, making the subject come


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