Acting Out: Coping with Big City Schools
by Roland Betts
Little, Brown, 264 pp., $8.95
Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons
by Gerald Durrell
Simon & Schuster, 190 pp., $9.95
Spooks: The Haunting of AmericaThe Private Use of Secret Agents
by Jim Hougan
Morrow, 478 pp., $12.95
by Irving Howe
Viking, 214 pp., $10.00
The Year of the Ant
by George Ordish
Scribner’s, 139 pp., $9.95
The History of Australia: The Twentieth Century, 1901-1975
by Russel Ward
Harper & Row, 515 pp., $19.95
Sun, Moon and Standing Stones
by John Edwin Wood
Oxford University Press, 217 pp., $14.95
“Everything in New York is locked,” this regrettably accurate book begins, and “Schools are no exception.” Betts, a fugitive after ten years as teacher and administrator, suggests that acting out is appropriate in a system that won’t pass any test, and his humorous, anecdotal observations will easily slide into place, alongside roll books and lunch debris, in urban teachers’ rooms. For Betts knows what teachers’ colleges rarely mention: that the head custodian and payroll secretary carry more weight than the principal, that tenure now is an endurance test, that PA systems are as disruptive as classroom fights, and that in some schools the Board of Education is a wooden paddle. Furthermore, he justly gives bathrooms and corridors their extracurricular credits, and devotes whole chapters to daily preoccupations like clothes, smells, and the teachers who never get air time: rookies (“Beginning to teach is like coming into puberty a second time”) and substitutes, including the nearlegendary West Side wonder, No Drawers. Albert Shanker is criticized for his inflexibility, both by Betts and by John Holt, who has written an admiring introduction. But Acting Out is essentially exasperated recapitulation rather than outraged exposé. A sad and funny book, keen-edged and, like the kids who can’t read on grade level, likely to be passed along.
Gerald Durrell belongs to that legion of conservationists supporting captive breeding of endangered species, a policy successfully employed at his New Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust after roundup expeditions like the one described in this book. “We looked not unlike the strangely ill-assorted collection of individuals that the Bellman had taken with him to hunt the Snark.” Along with his trusty colleagues, Durrell explored Mauritius, east of Madagascar, for small, breedable colonies of geckos, skinks, boas, bats, and pigeons. The elusive, appealing bats look “like strange, indignant, miniature flying teddy bears”; the cyclamen-pink pigeons, easier to catch, emerge as more memorable couples—the male bows “with a loud, husky chant,” and the vacant female resembles “a Regency maiden about to have the vapours.” As usual, Durrell captures small moments of enchantment along with his zoological specimens, and the unscheduled events add immeasurably: a perilous rock climb where a previous explorer almost lost his “unwhisperables,” a night spent chasing giant landsnails away from the food supply, and an overlong exposure to Jak fruit, ugly, knobby bat bait which exudes a lingering, near-lethal smell.
Spooks is an encyclopedia about the private use of secret agents by multinational corporations and the rich, compiled (with considerable secrecy) by the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. He begins with Mitch WerBell (The Wizard of Whispering Death), an OSS veteran, who now operates The Farm in Georgia, a clandestine factory devoted to perfecting the tools and techniques of sniping, counterinsurgency, and the coup d’état. WerBell invented the fantastic silencer for the lightweight machine-pistol that fires 14 rounds per second, whispering phyyt, phyyt. He found a group of multimillionaires to put up the money for his corporation (many are named herein), sold arms to Idi Amin, Arabs, Jews, any other comers.
Hougan is exhilarating on the mystique of Spooks, showing how they ape movies, TV, and books—life imitating art imitating life. He looks into Fidelifacts, Audio Intelligence Devices, the National Intelligence Agency, and hundreds of similar spook agencies, many of them staffed by former federal and CIA agents now using their intelligence skills against the public. Some are hired by millionaires to smuggle priceless art works into the US. Others take on industrial espionage jobs against unions. Hougan raises such questions as: Did bugging expert Bernard Spindel, an intimate of Jimmy Hoffa who was birddogged by Bobby Kennedy, bug Jack Kennedy in bed with Marilyn Monroe? Spindel said he did, and his wife says he did. She also claims that Spindel was subsequently “framed by the Justice Department and…institutionally murdered” in prison.
Hougan’s speculations on this clammy subject are intriguing and get less and less farfetched as he goes along. Was old Kennedy hand Walter Sheridan (a candidate for “Deep Throat”) part of a plan to frustrate Watergate burglars and did he have a bug on the old Kennedy presidential taping system that Nixon was using? How did Deep Throat get such thorough information on Nixon’s cash flow otherwise? Hougan goes on to discuss “wet jobs” (assassinations), Caribbean invasions, Vesco wheeling and (double?) dealing, the death of wireman Bobby Hall, Howard Hughes as spook-employer supreme, new thoughts on the Kennedy assassination, the role of spooks for multinationals like ITT. Drawing on the reports of congressional committees and on interviews with “people at home in the twilight zone,” Hougan plausibly suggests that “the clumsy aberrations of the past ten years have been rationalized and streamlined” and that sophisticated secret agent techniques “have become an ‘invisible commonplace’ of the private sector.”
A brief, searching examination of the constant revolutionary who was Lenin’s accomplice and the arch-foe of Stalin. Howe, deeply admiring and sternly critical, traces Trotsky’s intellectual development from his youthful distress at the mistreatment of peasants and his cultural awakening in cosmopolitan Odessa (which made him, atypically, “a man of the West”) to—in Trotsky’s words—”my first political test,” a demonstration against injustice to a classmate. Recalling the incident, Trotsky makes use, Howe notes, of “moral criteria by no means simply derived from or reducible to class distinctions”—the beginning, perhaps, of a lifelong inner struggle between “the stern clamorings of authoritarian command” and a softer, more compassionate and idealistic self.
We see him later, as an emigre, denouncing Lenin’s model of a conspiratorial party of elite intellectuals—a view that, as an orthodox Bolshevik, he was subsequently to renounce and then, faced with. Stalinist bureaucracy, to re-embrace. We see him develop, for backward Russia, his theory of a onestep “permanent revolution,” bourgeois-democratic and socialist, spearheaded by the working class in the absence of an aroused, reformist bourgeoisie (a theory partly borne out in Russia but not, Howe is at pains to establish, in the “underdeveloped” world). During the revolution, an intransigent Trotsky condemns an opponent to “the dustbin of history” (“sad and terrible words,” Howe remarks, looking forward). As the new government’s minister of war, he creates and leads (without military experience) a victorious army—and, by his arrogance, makes enemies-in-waiting.
Howe takes up in turn the economic policy disputes, the tragic Kronstadt rebellion, Stalin’s rise, and the shortcomings of both Left and Right Opposition. He sees Trotsky, unyielding in exile, as “a towering example of what a man can be”—and subjects his writings to stringent analysis. This is a tough-minded and fair introduction both to the life of Trotsky and to issues surrounding “Trotskyism.”
In one of a series of books on the Year of…, George Ordish’s month-by-month examination of wood ant society focuses on two particular nests and especially—in one-queen Nest A—on Labora, a busy worker who devotes herself to a variety of tasks: feeding and cleaning the queen, tending the eggs, foraging outside the nest, and otherwise lending a hand wherever needed. Often Ordish himself seems to be plugging away with the ants’ grim industriousness; at the same time the convention of this series of centering on one individual, presumably for something like human interest, seems especially artificial in the case of ants, of whom it’s often said that the colony functions as the animal and the individuals merely as cells. But as Ordish sensibly remarks, whether you regard the ant or the nest as the animal is unimportant, being only a question of the meaning you attach to the word.
In the same reasonable vein he brings up the frequently noted parallels to human activities—the ants keep and “milk” aphid “cattle,” they take slaves and make war, their working class can be undermined by addiction to a narcotic secreted by the insidious outsider Xenodusa cava (a beetle)—but reminds us each time of the limitations of the comparison (ants don’t herd aphids), the superficiality of the resemblance, and the role of instinct, chemicals, and specific genes in determining the ants’ behavior. So too, he says, the ants’ particular operations are not, as touted, all that efficient—but then have you ever watched inexperienced movers carry a bureau down a twisting staircase?
To get back to Labora, as Ordish does in a disarming surprise ending, the killing of the original queen by invading robber ants triggers her own ovaries to develop and produce eggs; thus Labora saves the colony from extinction and assumes the throne herself like any worthy fairy-tale heroine.
Australia still awaits its Macaulay or Froude, but meanwhile students and other interested readers can profit from Russel Ward’s close, sharp chronicle of events since the continent’s six colonies became a Commonwealth in 1900. True nationhood, he emphasizes, was delayed by a colonialist mentality that routinely elevated British interests—and culture—over Australian. Strikingly, Australia failed to ratify the 1931 Statute of Westminster, granting it the power to conduct its own foreign affairs, until World War II—while the elite Adelaide Club, whose members made some of the country’s finest wine, served only French and other foreign vintages.
The persistence of deference despite Australia’s early distinction as a “working man’s paradise” is one of the ironies that give an edge to Ward’s account. Another, no less forthrightly acknowledged, is the exclusionary policy that, until very recently, kept ostensibly progressive Australia 100 percent white. Indeed, “the more democratic, the more radical, the more ‘progressive’ a person was in other ways, the more strongly racist he was likely to be.” Ward’s zest for combat also enlivens his detailed report of elections, public issues, and political brawls, which is further heightened by his appreciation for the personalities involved. “Even his worst enemies,” he writes of Labor politician Billy Hughes, “were half-charmed by his murderous wit, the sheer effrontery of his opportunism, and the broad larrikin streak of his character.”
Only in the Sixties do ephemeral matters begin to obscure the lines of development. Overall Ward is partisan, caustic, systematic, precise—by contrast, too, with Fred Alexander’s blander, more generalized Australia Since Federation (Rev. 1972)—and he has produced, as a result, a standard reference with bite. Coming next year: the nineteenth century.
Evidence that the stones of Stonehenge (and some 900 other circles of stones found in Britain) were used to clock the seasons and, later, the tides is convincingly brought forth in this scholarly and articulate summary. The author, deputy director of the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment and a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute, clearly combines mathematical knowledge with the archaeological findings to build a case for the geometrical and scientific prowess of Neolithic and early Bronze Age peoples. He shows how simple empirical methods could have been used to construct circles, ellipses, or combinations of these, and how land could be leveled with considerable accuracy. Particular stones were positioned to catch the sun or moon at first rising or last descent. Sometimes the stones would be aligned with a horizon landmark—a notch or slope in a hill—thus achieving greater accuracy. The sites would have religious significance, and may even have been presided over by an elite priestly class. But the henges served the practical purposes of early farmers and seagoers.
All these ideas were scandal and heresy in the Sixties. Gradually the work of innovators, especially that of Alexander Thom, an engineer equipped with a variety of statistical arguments, lent credibility to this thesis. Fred Hoyle contributed further support with the hypothesis that certain holes at Stonehenge could be used to predict eclipses. Today most authorities accept that the henges and other megalithic sites were used to calculate summer or winter solstices or spring and fall equinoxes. The more avant-garde suggest that successive groups around the third millennium BC devised monthly calenders, used a standard of measurement (the megalithic yard—0.83 meter), and could predict eclipses and tides. These are exhilarating ideas and in harmony with a growing climate of opinion that while human knowledge has accumulated, human intelligence has not altered. Wood’s book suggests that ancient man had the brains and modern man is beginning to figure out what he did with them.
Copyright © 1978 by Kirkus Service, Inc., a subsidiary of The New York Review of Books. (Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)