books sustainability

Book review: Alias Papa, by Barbara Wood

Alias Papa is a biography by Fritz Schumacher’s daughter Barbara. It’s a straightforward chronological account of the man and his ideas, from his childhood in Germany, his peripatetic early adulthood, through to his career as an economist and finally as an early environmental spokesman.

Along with the facts of his life, Wood devotes considerable attention to how his thinking evolved, both economic, political and spiritual. Schumacher had an extraordinary mind, and the book does a wonderful job of exploring it. This was a man who was a passionate atheist as a young man, who embraced Buddhism and ended his life as a Catholic. He was a mathematical wizard who saw numbers visually in his mind, who read voraciously and spent his whole life knowing he was the smartest person in the room. But he also baked bread, made compost, and was fascinated by mysticism and astrology. Wood follows his spiritual journey, his political evolutions, the breakthroughs and epiphanies in his economics and his philosophy, which gradually became one. Being of independent mind, Schumacher seemed able to incorporate the best bits of other philosophies without embracing them wholesale, something I rather admire.

Luckily for posterity, Fritz was a dedicated letter-writer and never threw anything away, and carried on lifelong discussions with friends about all kinds of topics. Wood makes great use of his letters, whether they’re written to his parents in Germany, to intellectual associates, or to newspaper editors. That letter archive is a real strength, but Schumacher’s own voice is the only other voice in the book besides Wood’s. Although the author spoke to friends and contemporaries, their memories and impressions are rarely quoted, which is a bit of a shame. I would have valued the opinions of others in their own words, and it would have given a range of perspectives and filled out the picture.

As someone with an active imagination, I also found myself chafing at the lack of visual description. With some notable exceptions such as Fritz and Muschi’s wedding day, the book is surprising low on descriptive details. The reader gets the historical facts, but not the wherewithal to assemble them into a picture of what the people or places were like, and so it rarely comes to life.

In the same way, the human drama gets passed over in the telling. There are moments in the story that are really quite tense, or should be – Fritz’s internment for example, or a time when Muschi has to rush to Germany to pick up their son before the war closes the border. Wood manages to reveal the outcome of these problems first, and then explain how it happened, thus robbing the story of any dramatic tension. The tone is informative, historical, and somehow forgets that every life is a story.

As such, Alias Papa is not a particularly scintillating biography, but it’s not a bad one either. It just tends towards history and fact rather than human interest. Wood has done her research and presents a very balanced view. She doesn’t gloss over her Father’s faults, most notably his arrogance and impatience with people he considered intellectually beneath him. In fact, Wood works so hard to scrub her own daughterly bias from the book that she neglects to mention her own birth, although she makes up for that later in the book when she is a little older. In one instance the author accompanies her Father on a trip to Africa, and those sections offer insights of a different kind, both positive and negative.

In short, to borrow Keynes’ description of what Schumacher could do with figures, Alias Papa gets all the facts in the right places, but doesn’t quite “make them sing”.

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