BOOK OF THE WEEK
How stones, faeces and nuclear power form the bedrock of human accomplishment
Collecting Stones from a Beach
by Professor Stafford McQueen
HB, 994pp, Cambridge University Press $94
Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
Stafford McQueen is a poet, teacher and quantum physicist. Quantum physicist first, he worked with Stephen Hawking in the late 1960s on black hole theory. After co-developing this theory, he taught it to privileged, floppy-haired, upper class students at Cambridge. Later, he became one of the first modern physicists to appreciate the linkage between poetry, art and science. Collecting Stones from a Beach is proof-pudding of that linkage, containing as it does poetry, art and cutting edge science.
Very early on in this delightful book, McQueen explains that collecting stones from a beach will, if carried out regularly, lighten that beach over a considerable period of time. However, as the stones cannot be ‘unmade’, that is to say, dispersed beyond the confines of this planet (unless loaded into a modified Saturn V and blasted towards Mars), he then beautifully points out that redistributing the stones elsewhere on this planet – for instance, to one’s mantelpiece – achieves a kind of Malthusian balance. In other words, the mantelpiece accepts the weight that has been removed from the beach, resulting in a Gaian equilibrium of harmony.
McQueen rightly desists from delving into the obvious fact that the mantelpiece would inevitably collapse if too many stones were placed upon it. A surprising omission, one may think, but in my view the inclusion of tedious structural engineering principles and boring health and safety policy would have detracted from his beautifully vacuous and flowery prose. His truly wonderful mantelpiece metaphor is but one of many in this singularly unique book, a book of stones, dreams, faeces and blustery days on the English North Sea coastline.
Throughout the book, McQueen likens these billions of tonnes of stones to the billions of tonnes of faeces that mankind has shed from its body temple throughout the millennia. His defecation analogy occurs repeatedly throughout the book, a powerful leitmotif of mankind’s entropic fragility. We can observe this theme in the preface, where McQueen indulges our fancies with just one of many marvellous poems:
Stones are everywhere, they are
On the beach
And within us
And elsewhere too
Yet these stones belong
To nobody but the Earth
Spewed out from the crust of
The planet like so much
Cooling after aeons
Then crumbling to form
On a beach
Like rabbit droppings
I myself visited Dungeness beach in Kent – the beach that inspired this poem – two years ago when researching the first volume of my latest book Great British Nuclear Power Stations, a personal travelogue of these leviathans of the atomic age.
Stumbling along the stony beach, and nodding pleasantly at the day-trippers, the massive bulk of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station looming impassively ahead, I was – like Thomas Pynchon – thankful to be famous and yet unrecognised. Anonymity gives one such an advantage; for instance, when it comes to teasing information from a reluctant female employee of British Nuclear Fuels Limited. Assuming the demotic also helps – she was completely taken in by my impersonation of a drooling and imbecilic local. Had I been publicly recognisable, the employee in question would have gushed with unashamed embarrassment, and given me far more information – much of it useless – than I required for my research.
As it happens, it was only after I was released by the rather violent security guards (security guards too stupid to recognise me – don’t they read The Guardian?) for attempting to climb the perimeter fence that I was confirmed as being on a mission of research, not terrorism.
Later, as I dragged my battered body back to my hotel, I squinted at the swollen orb of the setting sun through bruised and swollen eye sockets. Our solar furnace reminded me of the immense power contained within Dungeness’s mass of concrete and steel; a power I would have been happy to see released in the form of an uncontrollable and catastrophic nuclear meltdown, obliterating not only myself and half of southern England, but (most importantly) the nearby house of Professor Stafford McQueen, preferably with him in it.
Digression aside, McQueens’s fine book proves beyond all doubt that years of academic contemplation can lay a beguiling curate’s egg.
Tim McLaughlin is a writer living in Romford. His Great British Nuclear Power Stations (Part 1 – Essex to South Wales) will be published in October by Macmillan.