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Published by Quartet Books ISBN 978-0-7043-7215-3

mr coles coverSimon Astaire’s third book is tighter and more textural than his two previous novels. However, Mr Coles shares similarities with Private Privilege and And You Are? in that once you start reading it, it is un-put-downable, and darkly entertaining.

Mr Coles is an original novel exploring the nature of child abuse from inside the confines of a boys prep school. We are drawn into the covert practice of teachers using the children in their care for their own gratification.

The titular character is a drunken soak, sexually obsessed with several of his pre-pubescent pupils, one boy in particular, and starts the rotten process of grooming them. The poison pedagogy handed down by Mr Coles to his victims seeps into the school like a creeping sickness.

This intriguing story illustrates that the perpetrators of sexual abuse are often victims too. Mr Coles is sexually harassed by the Headmasters wife in ways that are repugnant to him.  Yet, he feels powerless over her repeated advances, just as his students are powerless over him.
 
Astaire takes you on a multi-layered journey of the mind, body and soul. We learn through his first person narrative the ways of an alcoholic as we share in Mr Coles's queasy daily rituals and denials, which are infused with blood, sweat, tears, spit, piss and vomit.  He is a seething mass of obsessions; irascible, rude, and driven by a naked ambition to be the Headmaster of all the boys he surveys. His sordid reality is only somewhat constrained by the routine of the academic day.

Read more: Mr Coles by Simon Astaire

 

28 June 2011

By Drs Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz. Published by Third World Network, 2011. ISBN 978-967-5414-42-4. 48pp, £6 or free download (www.twnside.org.sg)

pusztai coverIn this handy booklet Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz explain why a framework for the assessment of the safety of GM food is essential.

Arpad Pusztai is largely responsible for the cautionary approach to GM food. He was the leading scientist at a top nutrition institute appointed by the UK Government in 1996 to set up an independent risk assessment of GM food.

By 1998 Pusztai had discovered that GM potatoes containing an added plant protein caused significant changes to multiple organs and the immune function of healthy, young male rats. No adverse effects were found in the rats fed non-GM potatoes or large amounts of the protein. This could only mean there was something wrong with GM potatoes.

Pusztai’s findings created a furore, resulting in Scotland's Rowett Institute sacking him from his 35-year post. Hounded by the press and legally gagged by his former employer, Pusztai was vindicated when The Lancet published his results in 1999. The Royal Society's former vice-president responded with threats to its editor and it dismissed Pusztai and his colleague, Prof Stanley Ewan’s ‘claims’ as fraud. Why? A Royal Society report published in 1998 praised the potential of GM plants for food use. Four of its co-authors, including former vice-President Sir Brian Heap, were subsequently involved in a Royal Society working group that discredited Pusztai, prompting accusations of bias.

Read more: Potential Health Effects of Foods Derived from Genetically Modified Plants: What are the Issues?

Jeffrey Smith’s Genetic Roulette is an impressive hardback book collating all the available evidence on the health risks of genetically modified organisms that have been introduced as ‘food additives’ into the human and animal food chain.

genetic roulette imageDivided into three easy to navigate sections, and following his highly acclaimed first book Seeds of Deception, Genetic Roulette painstakingly uncovers the headlines to reveal the bigger picture on GM crops with technical details for those who want them.

Section one explores the range of evidence of adverse reactions in humans and animals exposed to GM crops.  For example, rats fed Monsanto’s MON863 corn showed significant changes in blood cells, livers and kidneys, workers picking GM cotton suffered severe allergies, twelve cows fed Syngenta’s corn died, and GM peas caused an inflammatory response in mice causing commercialization of the product to be halted.   

In section two, we learn that food regulators around the world have been hijacked by the biotechnology industry.  For instance, in the US, the FDA has allowed biotech companies make all the important decisions on how safe the new GM proteins are to speed them market. The result is that over 75% of processed foods contain unlabelled and untested foods such as GM soy is putting people, especially children, at risk of allergic reactions.

In section three, we discover that the safety assessments by the biotech companies are not competent to test for the health problems presented in the previous sections.  This is backed up by the testimonies of a growing number of high profile scientists who have been asked to assess the safety data on GM crops and found it lacking.

Read more: Genetic Roulette

Sam Burcher joins the audience to hear Lester Brown explain what the climate meeting in Copenhagen should really be about.

lester brownLester Brown is a prolific figure of the modern environmental movement. He is the president of the Earth Policy Institute, an advisor to former US president Bill Clinton, the holder of 23 honorary degrees, an author, and a self-effacing and captivating public speaker.

At a recent lecture in London [1] he amused the crowd by saying that his late friend and colleague Paul Simon said, 'Lester has written the kind of book that once you put it down you can't pick it up again.' The book he was referring to is Plan B Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Now in its fourth edition, Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization reflects on the collapse of earlier societies such as the Sumerians and the Mayans whose decline is thought to be due to shrinking harvests and food supplies.

He cites the main trends that undermine our current crises in declining food security and food economies as; soil quality - both the salination and erosion of soil - the depletion of once abundant aquifers and falling water tables, the collapsing fisheries, and grassland deterioration. He said that the failure to turn these trends around is compounded by our 21st Century global civilization that is still struggling to connect socio-economic and environmental decline with climate change.

Read more: Plan B to Save the Environment and Feed the World

Sam Burcher reviews Simon Astaire’s latest novel And You Are…..?

and you are coverThis sequel follows seamlessly and swiftly on the heels of Simon Astaire's debut novel Private Privilege. Sam, the central character, has graduated with dishonour from his emotionally deprived public school, and is ready and willing to face the challenges of young adulthood.

Women and girls rule Sam’s world. And, there is an innate sensitivity with which the multifarious cast of female characters is handled. We are left in no doubt that women are to be protected and loved, but confused about how seriously to take them beyond being beautiful, pretty, or hags. However, there are signposts to strong women who are successful, and in whichever form they appear, their presence is valued.

As an agent to the stars, the author draws deeply on his own ethnographic experience of Hollywood to entertain us.  He cleverly plays with time to measure just the right amount of reverie for the grand days of a Hollywood past and the book’s present. Indeed, this mix of fact and fiction acts as a powerful stimulus to the reader’s imagination.

There are plenty of laughs as well as an eclectic coterie of friends, acquaintances, a snake and Telly Savalas. On the other hand, the emotional darkness of the first novel remains. Only this time, the grief of a boy’s separation from everything that is familiar to him is disguised as the death of his older brother.  His grief finds company with lonely Hollywood actors, who despite their fame are drinking alone at the bar.  Perhaps no one is as lonely as the stars.

Read more: And You Are.......?

Private Privilege Cover-1

Sam Burcher reviews a contemporary novel based on private school education.

In his debut novel Private Privilege, old-Harrovian Simon Astaire's alma mater is thinly veiled as Montgomery House. It is through this medium that I found myself vicariously returning to a world of Sunday exeats, black tails and boaters, and bumpy rides on the Metropolitan line to Middlesex on London's outermost margins for Speech Day.

I can never be sure what happened to my brother Julien during his time at Harrow, which was concurrent with the story told here, because he seldom talks about it. However, Astaire's peripatetic take has undoubtedly demystified some of my private perceptions of public school education.


The books central character Samuel Alexander, note the initials match the author's, is sent away from home at 13 to begin a life at Montgomery. From day one he is greeted with an oppressive regime of fagging, toshing, and bullying by older boys as the norm. It's not surprising that this shockingly loveless environment brings out the worst in the parentless, peer patrolled community. Calculated acts of rebellion such as graffiti, theft, truancy, and drug taking intensify to arson and even suicide, all of which are hushed up by the school.

Tellingly, this sort of behaviour is characteristic of any socially deprived group. Even if Astaire has used poetic license to exaggerate the frequency of the rage against the machine, the real tragedy here is its reliance on one final and punitive model for coping with troubled children. Those caught in acts of sabotage are subject to instant expulsion, and ultimately seen as pariahs that have cast an irredeemable stain on the good name of their family and the school.

Read more: A Very Private Privilege