The History of England – Jane Austen

Although entitled The History of England this actually makes up quite a small proportion of this book which includes two pieces from Juvenilia, the other being Lesley Castle, both works were written when Austen was sixteen and show a remarkable talent even at such a young age. Jane Austen is not known for her comedic writing but both of these short works are very funny in completely different ways. This book was published as part of a set to mark fifty years of Penguin Classics in 1995.

The History of England

Subtitled “From the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian” this certainly lives up to the initial billing. Jane’s prejudices are specifically pro Yorkist and later pro Stuart and hence very anti Lancastrian and Tudor. This means that Henry VI, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I come out of this rather badly whilst Richard III unusually for the time gets a rather reasonable write up solely due to him being from the House of York. It is best to give some idea of the style of Jane’s writing by quoting a section and I have chosen the opening paragraph on Henry VIII.

It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, & myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign.

The complete disinterest in dates reminds me of the much later work by R J Yeatman and W C Sellar 1066 and all that, and I can’t help but wonder if they had come across the young Jane Austen’s effort before they wrote their larger but also funny summary of English history. The pictures used on the cover of this slim volume are the ones drawn by Jane’s sister Cassandra for the original manuscript of The History of England.

Lesley Castle

This much longer work is the start of an unfinished novel written in the form of letters between five ladies. There are ten letters and a short enclosed note in all in what was completed and I can only wish that she had written more as she has assembled such a disparate cast of characters that the interaction between them has so many possibilities. That there is also a wonderful bitchiness about the letters just adds to the amusement, I’d love to see it performed with each character reading out the letter as they wrote it with maybe the recipient reacting as though just reading it.

In such a short work we have Charlotte Lutterell being far more concerned with the potential waste of food that has been prepared for the wedding banquet of her sister. That the fact that the match is off because her sister’s fiancee has fallen off his horse and broken his neck is seen by her as a minor inconvenience, she also cannot understand why her concern over how they will eat all the food already prepared is not shared by her sister and the suggestion that at least some of it could be used for the funeral, whilst a practical suggestion, is not seen favourably by her. Her correspondence with Margaret Lesley, one of the two unmarried sisters living in the titular Lesley Castle also covers the surprise wedding of their widowed father and the subsequent difficult relationship between the girls and their new stepmother.

Margaret is apparently also incapable of regarding anybody else’s feelings as the extract below from the final letter between her and Charlotte when Margaret finally comes down to London from Lesley Castle which is up in Scotland.

In short, my Dear Charlotte, it is my sensibility for the sufferings of so many amiable Young Men, my Dislike of the extreme Admiration I meet with, and my Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops, that are the reasons why I cannot more fully enjoy the Amusements, so various and pleasing, of London. How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours! But ah! what little chance is there of so desirable an Event;

If asked to sum up Jane Austen’s well known novels in one word ‘humorous’ would be very low down on the list of possibilities, but these short works show that, at least as a teenager, she was possessed of a sharp and dark wit.

Longhand – Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton is best known as a comedy script writer and actor for TV and radio and his shows have been a constant favourite of mine since he started in the 1970’s especially the BBC Radio 4 long running series Old Harry’s Game which he writes and stars in as Satan. Not a particularly obvious subject for humour but as always with Hamilton he finds a new way of looking at the character and that is what imbues him with comedy. In this book, his second novel, he takes another mythological character and brings him to life in a surprising way telling his story and allowing him to debunk a lot of the myth around him.

We first meet our hero, for hero he is even if he doesn’t like it and for reasons that swiftly become clear he shuns publicity as much as he can, frantically writing a very long letter to the woman he loves because he has to leave her and for the first time in thousands of years feels that he has to tell her why. As you can see below the joy of the book is that we get the letter, the whole book, all 349 pages of it, is handwritten, with crossings out and edits just as Malcolm would have written it.

The reader finds out almost immediately that Malcolm is actually Heracles and has lived for thousands of years always having to move on as firstly he never ages so starts to look odd to people who know him for a long time but secondly, and as it turns out more importantly, Zeus is determined he will never be happy and has tormented him throughout the millennia. The letter he writes to his darling Bess over a period of three days is funny yet also tragic; it is without doubt a love letter but also a confession and Hamilton handles the emotional roller coaster perfectly. I found myself reading late into the night as I simply didn’t want to stop finding out more about Malcolm and Bess and the ways that he tries to disguise his enormous strength and immortality from all those around them.

I have read many versions of the Greek myths so knew Heracles’s story but it isn’t necessary to know any of that before reading this book, Hamilton takes us right through the tales mainly so Malcolm can explain why they are so wrong and what really happened. It’s a brilliant idea and, to me at least, a completely original approach to mythological story telling, Malcolm is so ordinary because he has to be but his back story is one of wanton destruction and tragedy, he so despises that aspect of his early life and just wants to be ‘normal’. With Bess he has found that normality he craves but as the letter explains he is being forced to abandon the happiness he now has and at a truly awful point in time.

By the end of the book you are totally invested in the tragic love story of Malcolm and Bess, a tale that fit right in with the classical Greek mythology that Hamilton has mined for his characters’ source. We never hear from Bess in the whole book, other characters are reported verbatim but Bess is always heard through the medium of Malcolm’s letter as he explains what had just happened in the hope that she will forgive him. Fortunately we know right from the beginning that she does and that she still loves him as there is one other letter included right at the front and that is typewritten ostensibly from a firm of solicitors to the publisher. I read this first as that is where it is placed but rereading it after finishing Malcolm’s letter you understand it better.

The book is published by Unbound, a crowd funded publishing house, and I subscribed to it before Andy Hamilton even started to write, based partly on the pitch that he made on the site but also as a fan of his work over many decades I knew that he would produce something well worth reading and he has certainly delivered. As a subscriber I received a signed copy on publication and my name is in the list of around five hundred people who supported the work through to publication.

Their Darkest Materials – Penelope Hemingway

20200908 Their Darkest Materials

With a title clearly inspired by the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman this book heads off in a completely different direction with a theme of death and destitution in the world of knitting and spinning (with a little bit of sewing thrown in). I use the word thrown advisably because although like the proverbial Curate’s Egg it is good in parts, it just feels like a lot of research notes have just been thrown into a mix and the book came out the other side.

The first few chapters are particularly random with a list of press cuttings and court reports where the person who died was either knitting at the time, had knitting about their person when they died or was knitting before they were executed. However as the book later makes clear the poor in the 17th and 18th centuries would normally have some knitting or possibly sewing on the go as it was portable and could be done in times when their normal work was not needing them and could in that way bring in some much needed extra income. The second chapter looks at knitting and spinning in fairy tales with a large section on the folk tale of Rumpelstiltskin but this topic is never referred to again and comes in between chapters one and three which really belong together.

After a while Hemingway gets into her stride and what is actually quite an interesting book emerges as she goes on to explore exploitation in workhouses, mills and something I had not come across before knitting and spinning schools. If Hemingway had expanded her research and written a book about these subjects, which she almost did, then we would have a fascinating work. I loved learning about the knitting and spinning schools of the north east of England and Wales where poor children could get a simple education and learn a trade whilst producing goods for sale which paid for school. In the best of them the children even earned a wage which would help keep the rest of their family from destitution.

The sections on the dark satanic mills as described by William Blake, whilst covering more familiar ground also added much that was new to me. Extracts from wage books show just how desperate things were with families barely able to keep their heads above water even with everyone from the youngest child to the oldest grandparent bringing in as much as they could by working all hours possible. This was well before unions and universal suffrage so the poor had no say in their lives and the mill owners, who could as property owners vote, made sure that laws to improve the lives of their workers struggled to get passed. It took years to get the ten hour limit applied to a workers day and even then it could be avoided by getting the work done at home rather than at a mill when the people were on piecework so paid by output not the time they took to get there.

There is also a chapter on the introduction of artificial dyes which spends most of its time covering the incarceration in an asylum of the wife of one of the pioneers. This sad tale was definitely new to me but it means that the chapter is far too short to tell the story of this revolution in colour which is wonderfully covered in Simon Garfield’s book Mauve, which I really must reread and review in this blog, instead we get a brief overview of the chemists work, which only fits in with the darkest materials theme because it focuses on the story of Mary Dawson.

The real problem with the book is the obvious lack of proof reading, the work is littered with spelling and typographical errors. Most of the spelling mistakes are missing letters in words whilst there are also a lot of words run together with the space between them omitted and numerous examples where sentences suddenly move to the next line part way across the page. There is also a lot of repetition so stories are told again a few chapters later or in one particularly bad example a paragraph is repeated directly after itself.

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It’s a pity that editing wasn’t done properly as there is definitely an interesting book in there but the sloppy way that it has been put together lets it down. It is clearly self published as the publisher is given at the start of the book as ‘At the Sign of the Pretty Baa Lamb Press’. Unfortunately if you follow the website link also given there then you find that the publisher is given as ‘Pretty Baa Lambs Press’, Lamb or Lambs doesn’t really matter but it is an indication of the lack of attention to accuracy in this publication which screams out for a decent editor.

Folio Society Poetry Miniatures

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Starting in 1991 the Folio Society introduced a short series of miniature books of poetry. This was back in the day when the society operated as membership scheme and to retain your membership you had to buy four books a year, you would also receive a free book each year you renewed your membership which was that years presentation volume. As an extra incentive to buy all your books in one go at the start of the membership year they would sometimes have an extra gift which was often available to buy in the annual collection and would only be on offer for free for a month or so; these books were that extra offer in the 1990’s. Obviously it made sense to get as much income as possible early on as the costs of publishing had been incurred and for cash flow reasons you need to offset that cost as quickly as possible as soon as a collection was announced so these books were an extra incentive to get that order in early. The books are bound in moire silk on boards and illustrated with wood engravings by various artists, they are roughly the same size although they vary slightly and they also all have gold coloured card slipcases.

1991 The Lady of Shalott – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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This edition simply consists of one of Tennyson’s best known poems beautifully printed with five wood engravings by Howard Phipps.The poem is a retelling of one of the Arthurian legends about the Lady of Shalott who whilst imprisoned in a tower up river from Camelot is cursed never to look out of the window. Unfortunately she sees Sir Lancelot in the reflection of a mirror and is drawn to the window to see him better. Leaving the tower the curse befalls her and she dies in a boat heading to Camelot. The version used is the 1842 revision which makes it less clear than the original 1833 version that she knew she would die if she left the tower and therefore was effectively committing suicide by doing so as this was very much against Victorian morality.

The book was reprinted in 1993, with this volume being the only one to have a second edition apart from the final book in the series.

Printed by The Bath Press and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 116 x 83 x 8mm, typeface 9 point Monotype Ehrhardt

1992 The Pied Piper of Hamelin – Robert Browning

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I must admit that until I owned this book I hadn’t realised that Browning wrote a version of the Pied Piper story, it had completely passed me by, in common with the rest of the series of books it is illustrated with lovely wood engravings, this time six of them by John Lawrence. For the most part the poem covers the most common version of the story although here the piper leads the children away immediately after he is cheated out of his payment for removing the rats and the townspeople are magically immobile so cannot prevent him doing so rather than returning later as I had read in an alternate telling. It also has a ending where instead of the children being led into the magical cave and never being seen again they do reappear but in Transylvania rather than Germany.

Printed by The Bath Press and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 116 x 85 x 7mm, typeface 9 point Monotype Blado

1993 The Garden & Other Poems – Andrew Marvell

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Andrew Marvell is the earliest of the featured poets in these little books as he was writing from the mid 1630’s onward and was a friend of John Milton. Along with ‘The Garden’ there are seven other poems, ‘The Picture of little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers’, ‘The Mower Against Gardens’, ‘Damon the Mower’, ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’, ‘The Mower’s Song’, ‘The Garden of Appleton House’ and probably his most famous work ‘To His Coy Mistress’, these are accompanied by nine wood engravings by Harry Brockway. The four Mower poems comprise a set covering the four seasons in a meadow and the man who works it, the first is dismissive of gardens planted by man in imitation of nature when all around him in his meadows there is beauty. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ doesn’t really fit in with the other works but due to its fame I can see why it was included at the end.

Printed by The Bath Press and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 115 x 85 x 7mm, typeface 9 point Monotype Fourmer

1994 Sir Patrick Spens & Other Ballads

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We are going back even further than Marvell in this collection of four old Scottish ballads illustrated with five wood engravings by Jane Lydbury but in this case no authors are known and there are multiple variants known of each of them. The versions chosen appear to be from the anthology by Francis James Child first published in 1860 but this isn’t confirmed in the book as no source is given for any of them. Apart from ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, there is ‘The Battle of Otterbourne’, ‘The Demon Lover’ and ‘Waly, Waly’, the final page consists of a useful glossary of the Scots dialect words used. As befits ballads these are best appreciated spoken out loud and I found myself doing just that whilst reading the book. If it wasn’t for the 1995 offering this would probably be my favourite book in the series.

Printed and bound by Mandarin Offset – Size 117 x 86 x 8mm, typeface 9 point Monotype Joanna

1995 The Raven – Edgar Allan Poe

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My personal favourite of these short works is this one and it is of course bound in black to honour The Raven and contains seven wood engravings by George Tute. I fell in love with this poem many decades ago, the rhythm of the words as you read them, again like the book of ballads this is best done out loud, drew me in at an early age and I visited the one surviving home of his in Philadelphia in the mid 1980’s when it was basically just an empty property. It still has no furniture in it but from the website it appears to have more going on there than thirty five years ago. The place being empty made me think of The Raven for some reason as you could imagine a man alone in the rooms at midnight being visited by that dark and terrible bird with it’s single word vocabulary that struck terror into the night.

Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’

Printed and bound by Mandarin Offset – Size 117 x 85 x 7mm, typeface 10 point Monotype Bulmer

1996 Fifty Folio Epigrams – edited by Sue Bradbury

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A distinct oddity in a series of poetry books, quite a few of the epigrams are taken from larger works but some, like the example by Max Beerbohm shown above are simply pithy quotes, the number of illustrations has also shot up from the earlier books and there are now eighteen wood engravings by Peter Forster. The collection is edited by Sue Bradbury who was Editorial Director at The Folio Society for many years and varies from Confucius to Dorothy Parker via Sophocles and W.C. Fields amongst many others. The Shakespeare quote by the way is from Richard II, Act 4, Scene 1.

Printed by BAS Printers and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 117 x 86 x 7mm, typeface 10 point Monotype Baskerville

1997 Fifty Folio Love Poems – edited by Sue Bradbury

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This collection is also edited by Sue Bradbury and none of the selections are longer than a page, along with them are thirty two wood engravings by Simon Brett, one of which is repeated. The selection must have been popular because it became the only the second of these little volumes to be reprinted, in this case in 1997. Shakespeare and The Bible are of course included along with that particularly prolific author Anon. I was particularly pleased to find in Budapest a statute to Anonymous in recognition of his or her massive contribution to literature. Some are deep and passionate but there are also funny ones to offset the seriousness.

Printed by The Burlington Press and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 116 x 84 x 8mm, typeface 11 point Monotype Van Dijck italic

The bibliographic details at the end of each entry above are taken from Folio 60 which is the most recent of the bibliography volumes produced by the Folio Society and which was printed in 2007.

Busman’s Honeymoon – Dorothy L Sayers

20200901 Busmans Honeymoon

I decided to top and tail the four major science works in August with something lighter, and a couple of detective fiction novels fitted the bill nicely, specifically Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and this book Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers. For those people not familiar with the origins of the title a busman’s holiday is where somebody takes a break from work but still ends up being involved in their career in some way for example a bus driver who holidays by taking a coach trip. Whilst Lord Peter Wimsey isn’t a professional detective, being instead an extremely wealthy junior member of the aristocracy with a talent for detection, it was of course inevitable that he would end up solving a crime on his honeymoon.

This book is the eleventh and final novel written by Sayers about Lord Peter and first published in 1937, there would be some later short stories but this is his last outing in a significant work and rounds off nicely the ongoing romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane which began in “Strong Poison”. Although Harriet is definitely not interested in getting to know Lord Peter any more than she has to at that time as he manages to prove her innocence on a charge of murder. There follows more novels involving the two characters as he eventually manages to persuade her to accept his proposal of marriage at the end of “Gaudy Night”. As a wedding present he buys her the house Tallboys that she loved as a child and they decide at the last minute to take their honeymoon there. Arrangements are made with the previous owner to collect the keys and retain the furniture for a month until they can replace it with their own but on arrival late in the evening he is nowhere to be found and the house is locked up. The first mystery is therefore where is Noakes?

They eventually get access to the house via some spare keys and spend the night before discovering the body of Noakes in the cellar but not with injuries that he would have received if he had for instance fallen down the stairs, in fact the injury that clearly killed him could not have occurred in the cellar at all so how did he die? Cue a cast of characters several of which could have done the deed or at least have a motive but no obvious murder weapon to be found. There are several twists as Lord Peter and the local police force come up with various options for who? and how?, all of which hit the main problem that the house was locked up from the inside so how would anyone get away after killing him? The book was adapted from a play of the same name first performed in 1936 and it still has set pieces that feel like a stage setting, especially the limited number of locations used and the gathering of the entire cast in the front room for the denouement.

It has to be said that Busman’s Honeymoon is by no means the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, for me that would either be “The Nine Tailors” or “Gaudy Night” but it did fulfil my requirements of a pleasant light read after the heavyweight works over the last few weeks. If you have never encountered Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter his faithful manservant I heartily recommend them although don’t start here, the first novel is “Whose Body?” written in 1923 which introduces the characters.

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – Galileo Galilei

20200825 Galileo

The final, and longest, book in my August reading marathon of important scientific works is also definitely the oldest and arguably the most significant in the leap of understanding passed on to those members of the public able to read a copy. Published originally in 1632 in Italian so that it was more accessible to the general public than it would have been if written in Latin it was immediately seen as an attack on the Catholic church as it presented as valid the then heretical Copernican system of the Sun at the centre of the Solar System rather than everything rotating around the Earth as taught by Aristotle and Ptolemy and adopted as clearly correct by the church as Earth should be the centre of Gods handiwork. Galileo was duly tried by the Inquisition and sentenced to life imprisonment at home and the book remained on the Catholic church’s list of banned works for over 200 years until 1835.

It is styled as a conversation over four days between three characters, Salviati is the instigator of the meetings and is clearly a Copernican, Simplicio is an adherent to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic systems and Sagredo is there initially to play devils advocate putting questions to both of the others but towards the end is obviously swayed by Salviati. Both Salviati and Sagredo are based on real people with those names who had been friends of Galileo but had both died many years before publication so could not be implicated by their names being used, whilst Simplicio appears to have got his name from the Italian word semplice which means simple minded. The choice of this name for the character backing the Ptolemaic system was also not lost on the Inquisition. Galileo was well aware that he was pushing at boundaries and originally got permission from the church to write a book about tides which grew into the final work covering far more than his original proposal, but even the characters acknowledge that this is potentially dangerous territory.

We are arguing for our own amusement, and are not obligated to any such strictness as one would be who was methodically treating a subject for professional reasons, with the intention of publishing it … it should be almost as if we had met to tell stories, so that it is permitted for me to relate anything which hearing yours may call to mind.

This edition was published by The Folio Society in 2013 using a translation originally done by Stillman Drake in 1953. It includes a modern introduction by Dava Sobel along with a foreword by Albert Einstein, which presumably dates back to the first publication of this translation. I did struggle a little with the verbose nature of the translation which whilst it may reflect Galileo’s original did also mean that I several times had to reread a sentence to make sure I followed the text correctly. This is not helpful when I was also trying to appreciate the leaps being made by Galileo whilst reminding myself that this was written decades before Newton formulated the Theory of Gravity so Galileo was truly groundbreaking in his explanations. His theoretically neutral but definitively pro-Copernican text starts from first principles with balls rolling down a slope to end up with not only the Earth rotating each 24 hours but also orbiting the Sun each year with the angle of the Earth’s axis also included to explain the equinoxes.

That is not to say that everything is correct as we would understand the cosmos now, Galileo has astronomical distances far too small, although much exceeding that of his contemporaries. A good example of this is the section of detailed calculations surrounding the two supernova that had been observed in the last few decades before he wrote the book. He is rightly dismissive of a book which aimed to prove that that these occurred within the orbit of the Moon so as to not disturb the changeless firmament which does so by carefully choosing between astronomical measurements of the period so as to find ones with sufficient error to support the authors position. However Galileo makes the same error in his selection by dismissing not only these examples but also any that would imply the nova occurred at an infinite distance from Earth which using the methods explained would actually have been the correct solution. Instead Galileo had decided that the stars were roughly six to eight times as far away as Saturn (then the furthest known planet) although some “could be two or three times further than that” to explain relative brightness and apparent size. He duly provides many pages of calculations regarding the sample set he has chosen, which are clearly there just to demolish the book and author he dislikes. Other ‘scientific’ books and papers from his time are likewise introduced and their methodology and reasoning torn apart. Galileo clearly wanted to leave no stone un-turned in his defence of Copernicus.

In the final section Galileo covers the subject that he originally stated was to be the main topic of the work, that is the tides and what causes them. Fortunately this makes up a tiny proportion of the whole book as sadly this is another area where he is in error by effectively ascribing them to the rotation of the Earth and the consequential ‘sloshing’ of the waters in the seas. The examples of mistakes given above are entirely understandable given the groundbreaking nature of the book and although I feel the translation could have been better this is still a book I thoroughly enjoyed as the insights presented by Galileo are not only good examples for today but give an understanding of the reasoning of the time and the turmoil between science and the Catholic church that would hold back scientific advances within its sphere of influence for decades if not centuries to come.

Galileo finally received an apology for his treatment at the hands of the church on the 31st October 1991 from Pope John Paul II over three hundred and fifty years too late.

The Voyage of the HMS Beagle – Charles Darwin

20200818 Voyage of the Beagle 1

At over 206,000 words this is the second of the three large books for my August scientific reading marathon. I chose it in preference to The Origin of Species (first published 1859) for several reasons, including the fact that it is a lot more readable, but mainly because in this you can see Darwin slowly edging towards the theory that would make him famous. This is especially true of the second edition (1845, the first edition was in 1839, twenty years before his more famous work), the text of which is used for this book as Darwin altered sections in light of his research and developing thoughts. Another reason is that I love the work of Robert Gibbings who illustrated this Heritage Press volume. Although called a journal which implies a diary like approach, and yes most of the entries do have the date at their start, it is not chronological. We do bounce around a bit for a few years as The Beagle was on a nearly five year surveying mission so tends to revisit places several times and Darwin to make things clearer and avoid the obvious repetition has entries that may be months or years apart but which are put together because geographically they make more sense that way. It actually took me a while to realise what was going on and it was only when I stepped back a couple of pages to refresh my memory that I spotted that the entry there was two years after the one I was reading.

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Throughout the text you can see Darwin edging towards evolution and the concept of gradual change in species. He also references many species which have the dubious distinction of being ‘described by Darwin but now extinct’ including a type of cattle in South America and on the Falkland Islands a species of wolf which he describes as a fox when he sees it and noted it’s decline.

Their numbers have rapidly decreased; they are already banished from that half of the island which lies to the eastward of the neck of land between St Salvador Bay and Berkeley Sound. Within a very few years after these islands shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the Earth.

This may well be the earliest documented use of the dodo as a reference point for extinction of a species.

When you think of Darwin’s voyage then most people automatically think about the Galapagos Islands but in truth he spent very little time there arriving on 15th September and on his way to Tahiti by 20th October 1835. Just over a month out of a almost five year voyage and they take up in this edition twenty seven pages out of almost five hundred despite having more illustrations than most other sections. What we do get is a basic description of what have become known as Darwin’s finches as he realises that the bill shapes on different islands vary dramatically in order to make best use of the food supplies found there. Despite the giant tortoises being the most famous residents and symbol of the archipelago it was the finches that really drove his realisation of what became known as evolution. He is also one of the first people to accurately describe the marine iguanas found exclusive on these islands and notice their diet of seaweed rather then the belief up until then that they were after fish.

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When reading the book one thing you notice is just how much time Darwin isn’t on board The Beagle, he goes off on long expeditions inland sometimes for weeks at a time whilst Captain Fitzroy is engaged on his duties creating charts for the admiralty. You therefore get long passages where he either makes circuits when the ship will be in one place for a period of time or he arranges to meet the vessel at a specified port further along the coast. The observations he makes away from the coastal areas add greatly to his geological studies and give fascinating diversions to life on board ship, but I suspect they are also inspired by his desire to be on solid ground due to the really bad seasickness he was prone to, which almost made him leave the expedition within a few weeks of the start. Science was greatly enhanced by his decision to keep going regardless but it was so close to being abandoned before he could make any of his discoveries.

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Towards the end of the book the Beagle goes to the Keeling Islands and it is here that Darwin comes up with a theory for how coral islands and reefs are formed and ultimately writes another book on the subject. This is one of the few passages where the text becomes difficult to follow as he references maps from the other book without the reader of this volume having access to them, but there is enough for you to understand the process proposed. Other than this section the book is extremely readable even in this full form. Most versions printed nowadays, including the Penguin Classics edition are heavily edited and have more than 25% removed coming out at less than 150,000 words, which is still a substantial work but I would rather read a complete edition.

The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene

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I bought this book in the July 2020 Folio Society sale specifically for this August science marathon which I have just realised I am reading in order of length. After the relatively short ‘The Double Helix’ last week I jump to the 432 pages of this volume, next weeks is a similar length and the final book to tackle is over 550 pages. If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that I do a reading marathon each August, previously I have read multiple books each week but this year I have decided to tackle major scientific works at the rate of one a week when normally I would have interleaved them with shorter and easier works. So what is the importance of ‘The Elegant Universe? Well it was originally published in 1999 and is one of the first books to attempt to summarise the issues between Einstein’s relativity theories and quantum mechanics and then go on to explain a possible solution to their inconsistencies using String Theory to a readership that is not composed solely of physicists. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize so definitely qualifies for my requirement to be a significant science work for this months readings and represents theoretical physics as I have previously read and reviewed the logical book for this subject namely Einstein’s own book on Relativity.

After a couple of brief introductions, one written in 2017 especially for this new edition, and a brief summary of the current understanding of elementary particles which makes up section one of the book Professor Greene dives straight in with two chapters on the General and Special Theories of Relativity, how these moved us on from the Newtonian Laws of Motion and the odd effects that are predicted by Einsteins equations. After this is a chapter giving a good introduction to Quantum Mechanics, which is a surprisingly easy read given the counter intuitive behaviours of forces and particles at this level of magnification. These are followed by a chapter entitled The Need for a New Theory where he looks specifically at the contradictions between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and the problems that are faced by physicists trying to unite the two in the search for the Theory of Everything. These four chapters make up the second section of the book and cover ground I was already familiar with however I have not read up on String Theory so from here on the theoretical physics was all new.

 

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The chapters get ever more complicated  as they try to explain the various aspects of String Theory, which by its very nature as the search for The Theory of Everything has to stretch from atomic level to cosmology. Professor Greene is very good at using analogies to express complex thoughts in a way the reader can approach them. For those who are fans of the Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine you will be pleased to find that String Theory allows for wormholes to exist. Spoiler alert – they probably don’t but at least there is some physics behind the idea as shown on the page spread above.

One potentially good way that the entire book is written is the ability of the reader to take it at their own pace and also to decide how deep they want to go. This is done by use of an extensive notes section at the back of the book which moves more complex discussions of points raised along with most of the mathematics out of the main body of the text. Now for me this became increasingly annoying as I had to keep two bookmarks to track where I was up to and to make skipping to the notes section easier but it does make the main text simpler to follow for the more lay reader who after all is probably the target audience.

Am I convinced by String Theory after finishing the book? The answer is probably no, there are far too many places where the solution to problems within the theory appear to be solved by the ‘with one giant leap our hero escapes’ methodology favoured by Flash Gordon short films from the 1930’s. Be it the ‘convenient’ choice of three holes in the six dimensions curved around a string so that the known three families of particles are predicted by approximate mathematical formulas. Or the super-symmetrical particles which are a cornerstone of most string theories (of which there are five versions which also doesn’t seem like a solid foundation) not being found as expected by the Large Hadron Collider so the assumptions of which they are based being changed so they ‘couldn’t have been discovered with current technology’ there are too many holes being papered over. Even assuming that the mathematics is finally worked out, and there is almost forty years of people trying, the idea that a mathematical model is also the physical construct is dubious to say the least and there is no need for the actual physical basis of the universe to match the mathematical representation for a theory to be valid in predicting motion and inter-reaction but String Theorists insist that this is the case.

Twenty years on from the book being written even those heavily involved in the physics back then are starting to have doubts about some of what is suggested. The most obvious candidate is super-symmetry. This is seen as one of the most important signatures that String Theory is correct and is number one on the list of things that ‘will prove or disprove the theory’ included in the book but few physicists now believe it is true as can be judged by this extract of a Royal Institution lecture by Dan Hooper, Head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the USA. Maybe String Theory will unravel, maybe it will be adapted to match experimental reality, who knows, but it is an fascinating subject and needs to be tackled to understand the fundamental basis of reality.

Read the book, it’s difficult, even with the solid background in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics that I have, but worth it. It will challenge your understanding of these subjects and that can only be a good thing, physics and mathematics rely on constantly pushing the boundaries and at least at the moment String Theory is the only game in town that attempts to mesh the Quantum Mechanics and what is happening at the smallest boundaries with Relativity and the physics of huge distances. It might be right, it might be wrong, but it will certainly push the boundaries of scientific endeavour for many years to come.

The Double Helix – James D Watson

For this years August reading marathon I have decided to tackle four of the most significant science books that I have on my shelves. Unlike previous years where I have needed to read multiple books in a week this year I only have one at a time but because of their very nature these books are not something you can quickly get through and rush onto the next one, also two of them are over 500 pages in length. Three are published by the Folio Society and the other by Heritage Press in America who often produced books of a similar quality until they ceased publishing.

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I’m starting with what is arguably the most significant scientific discovery of the twentieth century, the structure of DNA and how it could pass on genetic material. It is written by one of the three Nobel Prize winners for the discovery and provides a fascinating account of the race to be the first to crack how this mechanism worked and indeed what it was that did it. Now I freely admit that biology is easily my weakest science having dropped the subject at sixteen so was a little wary of this book and whether it was just going to go over my head but I need not have worried as Watson’s style pulls the reader along so that even in the technical parts I could keep up.

I hadn’t realised how quickly the science behind genetics changed in the early 1950’s or how competitive the search for the solution as to how genetic material was passed on became. Watson provides a good overview of the state of the science after the war where the general consensus was that the information had to be in proteins because they were more complex than DNA appeared to be so that had to be where something so important was encoded. Watson himself became interested in bacteriophages (phages for short) which are viruses which can have within them either DNA or the simpler RNA molecules surrounded by proteins and in 1951 started work at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge where he first met Francis Crick and the story begins. The original foreword which is included in this volume is by their departmental head Sir Lawrence Bragg who had himself won the Nobel Prize in 1915 for his work on X-Ray diffraction which was ultimately the way used to confirm the helical nature of DNA. Bragg says in his foreword regarding Watson’s style and tone in the book

He writes with Pepys like frankness. Those who figure in the book must read it in a very forgiving spirit. One must remember that his book is not a history, but an autobiographical contribution to the history which will someday be written. As the author himself says, the book is a record of impressions rather than historical facts.

Watson does indeed explain that he compiled the book from letters and diaries, which explains the large number of personal details such as dinners and his accommodation problems being included which all provide a more rounded narrative than the straight science. As for the Pepys like frankness, Bragg himself is subject to a few scathing comments especially when he specifically requires Crick and Watson to stop working on DNA and get on with what they were supposed to be doing. But his main target as a person obstructing their progress is Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant chemist and exponent of X-Ray crystalline photography and who took the images which ultimately confirmed Watson and Crick’s model. Franklin did not work with either Watson or Crick she was based in Kings College, London working with Maurice Wilkins or more accurately working against him according to this book as the two did not get on either personally or professionally so Watson’s impressions of her are strongly coloured by Wilkins’ opinions. Wilkins would ultimately share the Nobel prize with Crick and Watson in 1962, sadly Franklin had died of cancer in 1958 and posthumous prizes have only been awarded twice and have been specifically prohibited since 1974. Watson however has said that he thought she should have been included in 1962.

The tension mounts as Watson describes the various groups working on the genetic solution which ultimately comes down to three teams racing for the prize. Crick and Watson in Cambridge, Wilkins and Franklin in London and Linus Pauling in America. Ironically Pauling would also be a Nobel laureate in 1962 but he won the Peace prize for this campaign against nuclear testing. Wilkins and Franklin were the closest technically but due to their failure to work together were starting to trail but what really prompted Watson to get on with model building was Pauling who produced a paper which was close but which had a serious error in the chemistry and so produced the wrong result but Crick and Watson knew that once he realised his mistake it might be weeks rather than months before he fixed it and found the correct answer.

There have now been many more historical and less anecdotal accounts of the search for the structure of DNA, as predicted by Bragg in his introduction including another book by James Watson, which I also have, entitled DNA and written in 2003 to accompany a British TV series on DNA marking the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery. Watson was very young, only twenty four, when he and Crick made their breakthrough and that possibly also affected the style of this book. At the time of writing he is still alive, the only person involved who is, and at ninety two lives in his native America.

A better view of the cover design by Alice Stevenson based on a design by Gavin Morris.

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Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

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This is not a traditional review of Christie’s most famous book hence it’s inclusion in the ‘Book Tales’ category on the blog. How could I say anything about the story that has not already been said? Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that despite me being English my copy of the book featured above is an American Pocket Book edition and there is a very good reason  for that which gives a personal link to the story. Thirty three years ago I travelled on the Orient Express with my then girlfriend, who was American, and she brought a copy of this book for me which we both read whilst on the train.  Another thing you may notice is right at the bottom ‘Formally titled MURDER IN THE CALAIS COACH’ this is a reference to the habit Christie’s American publishers Dodd, Mead & Co. had of altering the titles of her books which does make any bibliography quite messy. Other examples (Original English title first) include:-

  • The Sittaford Mystery – The Murder at Hazelmoor
  • Lord Edgeware Dies – Thirteen at Dinner
  • Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – The Boomerang Clue
  • One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – The Patriotic Murders
  • Dumb Witness – Poirot Loses a Client

and many more.

Rereading the novel again, probably for the first time in three decades, I was struck by how well it was written. Even though I of course knew the solution, as does almost everyone with an interest in detective novels, it didn’t matter, I still enjoyed how Christie developed the story and Poirot’s slow realisation of just what a fantastic solution it is. It is also a ‘locked room mystery’ in that the train is stuck in a snowdrift on its way from Istanbul to Paris so the murderer could not have escaped from the train and it is also impossible for Poirot to verify any clues he may discover or even who anybody is with the outside world as they are completely cut off. The train gets stuck just after Vinkovci (spelt Vincovci in the book) which is now in Croatia so on the southern route on the map below just as the line turns north to head to Budapest.

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This poster is from the winter season of 1888/9, forty years before the book is set but gives a hint of the glamour associated with the journey. It’s a trip Christie made several times whilst visiting her husband on his archaeological digs in Iraq so she knew the operation well and the story of the Armstrong family with the kidnapping of the baby daughter and the subsequent deaths which is the background to this book is a straight borrowing from the Lindbergh case which had happened a couple of years earlier. Everyone reading this book when it first came out would have been familiar with the Lindbergh story which had been a worldwide sensation in 1932, to my mind it was somewhat tactless of Christie to so obviously take this tragic case and turn it into a murder mystery of her own, there are too many similarities to be comfortable if you know about the original.

I also included the poster in this blog as it was this, rather than Christie’s novel, which inspired a trip on what was left of the Orient Express back in the late 1980’s. By then, although it still left Paris at 9am each day it only made it to Bucharest and by the time it got there it was hardly an express and the glamour was long gone on the entire journey. By adding on extra trains from Bucharest to Belgrade and then on via Sofia to Istanbul I did manage to stay at least one night in all the cities listed in the poster heading. It was natural that we would read Murder On The Orient Express whilst travelling on it. Nowadays there is only the luxury private train that carries that name and recreates the glamour that Agatha Christie would have known in the 1920’s and 30’s when she was a passenger and which she used as the setting for, if not her best then certainly her best known work.

A somewhat scary flashback photo below, reading this very book whilst travelling between Paris and Munich on the first stage of our Orient Express journey back in 1987.

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