28th October 1994 at 00:00
At the end of his provocative quest for an understanding of why there is "only one thing central to mankind - sex", The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (Penguin Pounds 7.99), Matt Ridley displays an uncharacteristic lack of confidence: "Half the ideas in this book are probably wrong."

Why, then, should we read it? Because it's an extraordinary melting-pot in which Darwinian science is laced with Kipling-style stories about the natural world - how the peacock got his tail; why the polar bear's coat turned white.

Ridley takes the current popularity of the Red Queen theory of progress - that all progress is relative because the faster you run, the more the world moves with you - and uses it as a model on which to base his ideas about evolution. Like a peacock, he dazzles us with his knowledge of the animal kingdom and with the range of his ideas. Whether they are proved wrong or not is immaterial; he makes us look at the world around us in a totally new way.

Martin Amis is another of the New Young Polymaths - one minute he's interviewing great literary sages such as V S Pritchett, the next he's trying to talk to Madonna. Visiting Nabokov and Other Excursions (Penguin Pounds 6.99) is a collection of his journalism, in which Mrs Nabokov shows him the imaginary butterflies drawn by her novelist husband on the margins of his manuscripts, Roman Polanski talks about women, fast cars - and the horrific violence that has dogged his life, and Amis himself survives a crash landing on a French field.

Dancing with death was the favoured pastime of Harry Houdini, the Edwardian escapologist. In The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (Mandarin Pounds 5.99), Ruth Brandon attempts to explain why anyone would want to jump into the freezing waters of the North Sea manacled by heavy chains and handcuffs.

When her book first appeared last year, it ruffled a few feathers with its insinuations about impotence and trickery. But it's an entertaining read with a real sense of the hushed atmosphere that must have attended those few minutes while the huge crowd waited with bated breath for Houdini to defy death once again.

Gavin Maxwell is known as the "otter man", but before he retreated into the wilds of Scotland where he adopted a family of otters and wrote Ring of Bright Water, he lived the life of a socialite, hunting, racing cars and frequenting the bars of the King's Road, Chelsea.

Douglas Botting first met him in 1957, when Maxwell had just returned from travelling with Wilfred Thesiger in the marshlands of Arabia. His Gavin Maxwell: A Life (HarperCollins Pounds 8.99) tells the story of this "troubled and tempestuous but often hilarious terrier of a man".

It's a useful exercise amid all this discussion about Britain's future within Europe to go back to studying the basics. Robert Bartlett's The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350 (Penguin Pounds 8.99) is an excellent guide to the process whereby a "European" culture emerged from Latin Christendom.

He traces the rise of the medieval knighthood, the changes to the landscape with the clearing of the woods, draining of the marshes and burgeoning market towns, the colonising endeavours of the Crusaders and how this meant that the diversity of local cultures in the 10th century was, by the 13th century, transformed into the more homogeneous world of Catholic Europe.

Proof of Matt Ridley's views about sex and human nature is amply provided by the citizens of the Roman Empire, if the French historian Florence Dupont is to be believed. In her study of Daily Life in Ancient Rome (Blackwell Pounds 12.99), she observes that: "The Roman household was a hotbed of sexual activity - except between married couples.

To the Romans, sexuality had nothing to do with culture; it was a pure manifestation of natural life, like the need for sleep or food." Her lively account, translated by Christopher Woodall, takes in what gladiators were for and the soldier's life as well as religious devotion and "games of love and banqueting".

Just in time for Hallowe'en comes The Virago Book of Witches, edited by Shahrukh Husain (Pounds 6.99). Her rich brew of cauldrons, incantations and strange encounters with the Devil shows how potent the notion of the wicked woman with magic powers has been from the epics of the Sumerians to the folk tales of the Hebrideans.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today