In 2011 it will be 200 years since Mary Anning, the twelve year old daughter of an impoverished carpenter, discovered a fossilised Icthyosaurus skeleton on the beach between Lyme Regis and Charmouth. Mary Anning’s role in precipitating the dinosaur craze and contributing to the dawn of palaeontology is a remarkable one. Friend of and collaborator with William Buckland, Louis Agassiz and Charles Lyall her personal and scientific achievements were astonishing for someone of her social situation and gender. Shelley Emling has just published a biography, The Fossil Hunter, which would make good companion read to Tracy Chevalier’s recent novel, Remarkable Creatures. One curious thing that I have noticed is that nearly all those who write about that time make much of all the superstitions associated with fossils before anyone knew what they actually were- they were associated with the devil and were thought to have healing properties. And that at the very same time as places such as Lyme became popular with society’s elite because Dr Richard Russell insisted that sea-water was a cure-all. Some superstitions are apparently of a rather superior sort!
As a Luddite by temperament and aptitude I still like the idea of books as potential termite food. I have just caught up with the second of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler novels and find it absorbing because of the depth of its characterisation- it is one of those rare crime/detective stories where my interest in the main players completely eclipses my concern with fathoming the central mystery- but also am pleased by the author’s rare ability to portray faith as it truly is for most people. In many modern novels religious belief is treated the way a vegan might handle a Mcdonald’s burger,with a mixture of tentativenesss and horror, but here it is pictured as a natural part of the emotional and ethical landscape of ordinary and decent human beings.
And concerning another old fashioned medium of communication, don’t miss the remaining episodes of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s ‘A History of Christianity’, which is coming to the end of its run on BBC2 soon.Certainly it is the best overview of Christianity broadcast in my life time. If you miss the series wait until the paperback comes out – it is slightly shorter than Lord of the Rings!