The Great Arc – John Keay

I’ve seen many a ‘trig point’ whilst walking the hills of Britain, these mainly concrete structures on top of high points were used for accurate mapping, specifically to get the correct height of hills and mountains, but quite how they were used was not something I particularly thought about before reading this book. The story John Keay tells is of an epic fifty year project to both start the accurate mapping of India but more importantly to create the longest ‘Great Arc of the Meridian’ a accurate calculation of the curvature of the Earth and it’s variation as you move from the equator to the north pole, one of the most outstanding scientific endeavours of the first half of the 19th century. Started in 1800 by a team led by William Lambton and ultimately completed by George Everest (pronounced ‘eve rest’ not ‘ever rest’ as he and his descendants would repeatedly tell people) the sheer scale of the project can be seen on the map below as a series of phenomenally precise triangles stretch all the way from the southern tip to India right up to the foothills of the Himalayas.

The basic concept is quite simple, first establish a baseline whose length is exactly known but is also long enough to mean that a high point visible from both ends will form a significantly different angle when this is measured by a theodolite from these two points. Using trigonometry you can then calculate the position of this third point and the length of the two inferred sides of the triangle formed. One of these ‘new’ sides can then become the base of another triangle, a new high point selected, measured and so on. It had already been established that the Earth wasn’t round like a ball but more like a grapefruit so flatter at the poles than at the equator but by just how much was it flatter. Measurements had been taken of the length of a degree (1/360 of the circumference of the Earth) and it had been found that in Ecuador (on the equator) it was approximately 111km whilst in Lapland it was around 110km so a whole kilometre shorter.

The problem lies in accurate measurement of a long enough distance, nowadays it is relatively easy but over two hundred years ago the equipment was a lot more primitive and Lambton had to use what was called a chain but was a lot more sophisticated than that. His was made up of forty bars of blistered steel each two and a half feet long and each attached to the next one using a brass hinge, using this he had a measure of one hundred feet (30.48 metres) that he knew to be correct, the problem comes when he needed a long enough base to his first triangle which he decided was a seven and a half mile long (12.07 km) flat stretch of land that needed to be cleared and levelled as much as possible near Madras. Which means that he had to use his chain four hundred times, precisely starting where the previous measure had finished, in a perfect straight line and allow for the expansion of the steel as its temperature rose under the Indian sun even though he only took measurements in the early part of the day. It would take fifty seven days to complete the seven and a half miles and the markers for the two end points can still be seen. From this line he could head north.

Now you have probably seen surveyors with theodolites at building sites but nothing like the giant piece of equipment Lambton used. It needed to be this size not only for stability but to allow for the large brass dials which would make the scale large enough to read extremely accurate measurements of the angles and even then the dials were fitted with microscopes so that the precise figure could be attained. Lugging this massive instrument across India, through jungles, deserts, up mountains and all sorts of other terrain never mind crossing rivers along with all the other equipment, food and tented accommodation for the entire vast team for months at a time was a stupendous achievement with people falling ill or dying both of sickness and animal attacks throughout the fifty years of the survey. Each time it was set up it had to be on a high point with other members of the team at another high point with a marker, initially flags and then later on lights and sometimes it would take weeks for the marker team to reach the next point, it was very slow progress with trees and in some cases houses or parts of whole villages having to be cut down or purchased and then flattened to provide clear sight lines from one point to the next. Six years after starting out a new base line was measured to check the calculated length with reality and amazingly over the six miles (9.66 km) checked the error was just 7.6 inches (19.3 cm) or to put it another way he was out by just 0.0000002%.

William Lambton eventually retired and was replaced by George Everest who carried the survey up to the foothills of the Himalayas but not into Nepal as that kingdom was going through one of its reclusive periods and they were not allowed in even to do scientific work. Besides it was known that the theodolite could see vast distances, possibly even into women’s quarters, and even worse the image seen was inverted and no man wanted his wife, or wives, seen upside down so they were often attacked by villagers or blocked by local rulers from coming through certain parts of India. This added to the geographic, animal and disease problems really slowed progress but Everest was not a man to put up with resistance to his survey and he pressed on regardless. He never saw the mountain that was to be named after him when it was determined to be the world’s highest peak; but nowadays whilst everyone has heard of Mount Everest, who has heard of George Everest? Tragically especially ignored is the brilliant William Lambton who started this magnificent survey so this book is important to raise their profile again. It is also a fascinating description of the hardships endured by the teams who did this amazing project. John Keay has produced a highly readable account of the survey which whilst including details as to how the work was done never gets bogged down in the mathematics which is a trap that would have been so easy to fall into. It was first published in 2000, mine is the 2001 paperback published by Harper Collins and is still easily available and I highly recommend it.

Good Morning Nantwich – Phill Jupitus

OK, I picked this book up because it had Nantwich in the title and that is the town in Cheshire that I was born in. I was also intrigued by a book by Phill Jupitus whom I was familiar with from the TV shows ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, where he was a team captain for pretty well every show, and his occasional appearances on ‘QI’ and ‘Have I Got News For You’ along with the BBC Radio 4 stalwarts ‘The News Quiz’ and ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ but I had no idea he had even done any radio presenting never mind being a breakfast show DJ for five years. On the first point of attraction Nantwich is never mentioned by Phill in the entire book and its sole appearance is the last line of the foreword by fellow DJ Lauren Laverne.

I also hope that this book gives you an insight into the man behind the mic, some tales that make you laugh and an insight into the way a man’s love of broadcasting might drive him to madness and beyond. Possibly to Nantwich.

My lack of knowledge of his radio broadcasting career is explained by the fact that in the 1990’s, when he started as an occasional broadcaster it was for a London based station that I couldn’t pick up and by the time that he appeared on national radio in 2002 it was for a newly launched digital only station ‘6 Music’ and at the time like almost everybody else in the country I didn’t own a digital radio as they were almost impossible to source. This partly explains the dire listening figures for his show but as Phill admits the style of the show probably put off quite a few potential listeners as it was very much a take it or leave it approach to what listeners could expect and if you didn’t like it well you could go elsewhere, he was doing it his way or not at all.

The book is actually fascinating as he not only covers his career on radio and especially his time on ‘6 Music’ but also looks at the history of breakfast shows, and compares the various styles that have been employed over the years including one very funny chapter where he makes himself to listen to a four hour show on an unnamed channel and truly hates the entire experience as it was so forced and formulaic. The humour is all the greater as I found myself hearing him reading the chapter in my mind and just getting more and more irate as he documents the show, down to the adverts and each record played along with the inane and several times genuinely offensive banter between the two presenters. Compare and contrast with the gentle style of that master of breakfast radio Terry Wogan who for twenty seven years held together a dedicated group of listeners in their millions and somebody that Jupitus genuinely admired although he had no intention of remotely copying on his own show, he was looking for something more like the shows done by the great late night broadcaster John Peel although not quite as eclectic in musical choice as he simply wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with it.

The more Jupitus mentions his musical and broadcasting heroes the more he and I agreed and we certainly had the similar exposure to music growing up as I am just fourteen days older than him and whilst he had far more opportunity to hear new things as he grew up in Greater London, a shared addiction to John Peel’s show meant that we certainly heard a lot of the weird and wonderful at the same time. Each chapter of the book concludes with a list of ten songs that has a sort of link to the chapter although at times this could be a little tenuous but it does give an idea as to the wide spread of his musical tastes. His final breakfast show broadcast was done from his own home which had the advantage that he could sleep in for an extra hour and three quarters and was also a nod to John Peel who had broadcast regularly from home where he had access to one of the largest private record collections in the world. Whilst Jupitus’s collection wasn’t in the same league he also played a lot of his own records in his final three hours as a breakfast DJ.

It’s a good book and a lot more interesting than I expected, after all reading about a radio career that you didn’t even know existed for 296 pages is a bit of a stretch, but in fact the book flew by and it just took two days to read and another one to write up. All in all I forgive the author for the Nantwich tag without which I would probably never have picked the book up. As for Jupitus in the ten years since he wrote this book he has never done a regular radio show and has no plans to do so.

The Yellow Wall-Paper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The story that provides the title of this collection of three short stories is easily Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s best known work, it is beautifully written and is also a very difficult read. It deals with the descent into madness of a woman who suffered from a severe bout of postpartum psychosis, a range of mental illnesses which occur soon after childbirth. Gilman was perfectly aware of how this could be as she suffered from very bad attack of some form of postpartum psychosis after the birth of her first child so the story can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Unfortunately for Gilman this collapse of her mental health wasn’t recognised by the medical profession back in 1885 when she had her daughter and she was largely seen as simply needing to pull herself together and rest and recuperate physically after the birth, but in fact she didn’t really start to recover her mental well being until 1888 by which time she had separated from her first husband and was resting in Rhode Island with a female friend.

It was in 1890 that she wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper and the story is told first person from the point of view of the unnamed female narrator as she gradually becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper in the bedroom she is in. At first all seems well, her husband, who is also a doctor ‘treating’ her condition has taken a large house in the country for three months to see if the air would help her recover from the psychosis she is suffering from but slowly she reveals to the reader, if not herself, the true position she is in. The room that he puts her in is a large one in the attic that has a bed screwed to the floor and initially no other furniture so some random pieces are brought up from the rooms below. There is also a gate at the top of the stairs up to this room so initially she assumes that the room had been for the children of a previous resident but it gradually becomes clear to the reader that she is a prisoner in this room, with its terrible, faded and partly pulled off the walls wallpaper. Oh the wallpaper, the pattern is odd, not quite matching and making a satisfying design but maddeningly elusive and the missing pieces along with the faded patches make finding the pattern even more difficult. The colour is also coming away from the paper, brushing up against it leaves yellow stains on your clothing and that blurring makes it even more difficult to interpret.

The colour is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

She is also told to rest after meals and not to do any work, even writing is forbidden so she hides her notes on the changes of the wallpaper that she perceives in different lighting conditions. This was also the fate of Gilman herself, a writer told not to write and this greatly prolonged her own mental collapse. Gradually, as the weeks progress, our narrator starts to see movement behind the wallpaper and is convinced that some malevolent creature is behind the paper, small at first but the creature grows as the nights pass until she sees a woman loping behind the paper and determines to release her. This has to be one of the most disturbing short stories I have ever read, you are drawn totally into this woman’s world and you can feel the paranoia rising. The Yellow Wall-Paper is rightly regarded as a classic of feminist literature and a few years later Gilman sent a copy to her own doctor to try to persuade him away from the stifling treatment she had received at his hands.

The other two stories in the book are also interesting, ‘The Rocking Chair’ is another beautifully written story where two friends take rooms in an old property having been drawn to it by the sight of a beautiful young woman rocking in a chair by the window, but all is not as it seems. The girl is almost never seen by either of the two men although one catches a glimpse of her one day but both of them are convinced that the other has been talking to her, indeed they have each seen the other standing by her at the window when approaching the house. Both are disturbed at night by the incessant rocking of the chair which is in one of their rooms but both deny having been in the chair at night. What is going on and what will be the ultimate result of their gradual loss of friendship for each other as they refuse to believe the others story of not seeing the girl?

The final story is for me the weakest of the three, ‘Old Water’ is another story of obsession this time of a young poet for the daughter of an acquaintance. The daughter is however not in the least interested in him as she likes sports and the outdoor life and his attempts to join in with her simply highlights his inadequacies in her eyes. You know it isn’t going to end well but the final twist is unexpected but strangely satisfying as a conclusion.

I hadn’t heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman before but I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

The Midnight Folk – John Masefield

John Masefield was the UK Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967 the second longest period of time of any of the holders of this office since its creation in 1668, he is only exceeded by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. However this book is not a collection of poems, but is instead a wonderfully imaginative work for children written in 1927 and still in print to this day. My copy was published in this Puffin edition in March 1963 and is beautifully illustrated by Rowland Hilder with not only large pictures but smaller images within the text. Masefield packs in the characters in this story from pirates, witches and wizards, talking animals, mermaids, King Arthur and his knights, moving and talking paintings, hidden treasure, a flying horse and even a crooked gamekeeper and his henchmen to name just a few. But so to our hero, nine year old Kay Harker who is trying to solve the mystery of the lost treasure with the help of some and the major hindrance of the others in this huge cast. He is apparently an orphan, no parents are mentioned except his mother in passing right at the end, and the large house he is living in is equally not very clear, did it belong to his parents or is it the property of his guardian who doesn’t live there? The only residents of the house other than Kay are the servants and his unpleasant governess, who turns out to be one of the coven of witches casting spells and causing mischief as they also search for the treasure.

The story positively races on as we alternate from Kay’s dreary schoolwork set by the governess and tedious meetings with her friends and his guardian to exciting overnight chases both on the ground and in the air on broomsticks or the flying horse which always find him fast asleep back in his bed just before the maid comes round to wake him up; but the mud on his slippers or other traces of the previous nights activities prove that this is not dreams. In many ways this reminded me of ‘The Cuckoo Clock’ which I included a few months ago as part of my look at the early days of Puffin Books, but the stories are far more fantastical than those by Mrs Moleworth in her Victorian adventure. The choice of words and the wide vocabulary used betray this book as the work of a significant poet who was to receive the highest honour for poetry in the country just three years later and the hunt for Kay’s great grandfather’s wrecked ship and the lost treasure he was trying to protect from a South American uprising is carried on in beautifully crafted adventure stories. Will Kay work out where it is before the wizard Abner Brown and the witches get to it and what will happen to the evil governess once Kay has worked out that she is one of the witches and therefore his enemy? Maybe a peek into the past will give the final clues.

Masefield wrote a sequel to this book in 1935 entitled ‘The Box of Delights’ which if anything is better known than this original story and has been adapted for radio, television, theatre and even as an opera by Robert Steadman with a libretto by Masefield. It was also available in Puffin Books in the 1960’s so I may see if I can track down a copy to match this edition, it’s been a really fun read.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

This is the 225th blog entry on Book Ramblings and I have chosen a dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451 named after the temperature at which paper starts to spontaneously combust and a book that brings terror to all lovers of books. I first read it in my mid teens and amazingly haven’t read it since, presumably the original book I read back then was from the local library, as although I believed I had a copy somewhere I couldn’t find it so had to buy a new paperback to do the review. The back page of this edition gives a brief, although slightly inaccurate (see later), summary of the book’s plot.

Rear cover of Harper Voyager edition

Guy Montag was a fireman, there was a rumour that firemen had once followed alarms to burning houses and put them out, but that couldn’t be true as houses were all fireproof weren’t they? So firemen followed alarms on reports of houses where books could be found and turned up in their great salamander engines full of kerosene and burnt everything inside. Then one day as Montag is walking home he meets sixteen year old Clarisse McClellan and unusually for a time and place where social interactions are far from the norm she starts to talk to him. Her family had recently moved in and unlike all the other houses which shut out the outside world this one had lights on in all the rooms, the windows were open and the sound of people talking could be heard as you passed, such a strange place and by implication a strange family. The reader starts to expect these encounters on the way home as the first ten percent of the novel is built around them as she introduces him to other experiences such as savouring the rain on your face or brushing a dandelion under his chin to see if he is in love and then just as suddenly as she is introduced she is gone. In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition Bradbury states that killing her off was a mistake and in the play and opera versions he had written she survives and reappears near the end. In this he was inspired by François Truffaut, whose film adaptation in 1966 retained Clarisse, but in the novel we now focus on the fire station and Montag’s home and wife Mildred.

It is at the station that things start getting nasty for Montag, it is clear that the fire chief Beatty suspects Montag of saving books but Beatty himself is clearly well read, he quotes from lots of books during his conversations with Montag for instance, but he will be the driver that pushes Montag into his rebellion against the system. At the station there is also ‘The Hound’ an eight legged robotic killing machine which destroys pests at the station but can also be programmed to seek out humans that don’t ‘fit in’. As Montag gets more nervous regarding his safety, especially as The Hound’ starts reacting in his presence and intrigued about what may be in the books he has been systematically destroying he seeks out a man he met in a park a year ago. Faber is a retired English professor who quite rightly is initially nervous of Montag but will ultimately guide him to safety. From here the book takes a significantly more violent tone as Montag is forced to burn his own home and takes his revenge before making his televised escape.

There is a slow running subplot in the book and that is the regular mention of bombers flying high over the city at night. Is there a war on? There is no mention of it through the soporific TV channels broadcast twenty four hours a day onto wall sized screens but something is clearly building up and when it does it will be totally devastating.

This is Ray Bradbury’s first complete rather than fix-up novel and took for its inspiration five short stories he had written over the previous few years, specifically ‘The Fireman’ which was quite long at twenty five thousand words and starts the premise of books being burnt because they could lead to dissent or at least present alternate views to those in power. He had published ‘The Martian Chronicles’ three years earlier in 1950 but that was a fix-up consisting of several already published short stories with added bridging material and a minor rewrite to make them consistent. The short stories that inspired Fahrenheit 451 didn’t survive into the final novel but between them provided context for the final work. The reason for the rewrite was an approach from Ian Ballantine’s publishing company which was interested in ‘The Fireman’, which had been struggling to sell, but needed it to be fifty thousand words so it could be published as a book. At this point Bradbury realised that the other four short stories provided further structure to allow him to continue the story. It was a brave choice by Ballantines, 1953 was the peak of Senator John McCarthy’s purging of perceived anti-American activities and by now almost anyone could be accused and their works suppressed so a book about the evils of censorship was either well or really badly timed depending on your view.

There is another publishing milestone that should be mentioned here, to help get the book known parts of it were put out for magazine serialisation but nobody would touch it until a new publisher trying to launch a magazine was willing to take the risk. So in editions two, three and four of Playboy you will find extracts from Fahrenheit 451.

Oh, and for the slightly inaccurate piece on the back, clearly this is a reference to Montag’s brief chats with Clarisse at the beginning of the novel and also his chance meeting with Faber a year earlier. It is however with Clarisse that his world view starts to change, but crucially he had already started hiding books in the ventilation shaft of his home well before that as he refers to his guilty secret hidden there right after his first meeting with her. The rear cover summary implies that the book saving starts after both meetings but actually it probably started after his encounter with Faber.

The Knight in Panther Skin – Shota Rustaveli

This prose translation of Rustaveli’s Georgian epic poem from the twelfth century by Katharine Vivian was praised by The Director of the Institute of the History of Georgian Literature in Tibilisi, A G Baramidze, as

an interesting attempt to render Rustaveli’s poem in prose – not to give a literal word by word translation, but rather a free rendering which may bring to the reader the contents of the poem and thus contribute greatly to Rustaveli’s popularity throughout the English-speaking world.

Prefatory note

The poem is seen as one of the greats of Georgian literature and Rustaveli is regarded there in much the same way as Shakespeare is here so it was a surprise on reading it that it doesn’t appear to have any action take place in Georgia. Instead Avtandil and his great love Tinatin are portrayed as coming from Arabia whilst Tariel and his love Nestan-Darejan are Indian. The story concerns how Avtandil and Tariel are separated from the loves of their lives and ultimately win their hands in marriage although in two very different ways. But let us start at the beginning because that is where the story is closest to Georgian history. The first chapters deal with Tinatin being raised to be Queen of Arabia by her father as he steps aside and this mirrors the ascension of Queen Thamar in Georgia who was monarch during Rustaveli’s lifetime and this is still seen as a golden age for Georgia. Avtandil is commander of Tinatin’s army and a favourite of her father Rostevan whilst Queen Thamar’s second husband was a highly successful military commander. From here onwards though the poem leads off on a mythical path.

One day whilst Rostevan and Avtandil were out hunting they see in the distance a knight on a black charger clad in a panther skin and when they get nearer it can be seen that he is weeping. Rostevan dispatches some of the soldiers with them to bring the knight to him but he seeing soldiers approach kills them assuming that they meant him harm. When the king attempts to get near the knight turns his horse and vanishes. Greatly intrigued by this mysterious knight and saddened by the loss of his men Rostevan sends Avtandil on a three year quest to find the knight in the panther skin. Now this is where the tale could have been padded out considerably in describing Avtandil’s journey, and the poem is already 200 pages long, but within a page we find ourselves near the end of the three years and all we are told is that he hadn’t found him, Rustaveli is clearly keen to get to the action.

Finally about to turn back and report failure Avtandil spies his quarry but remembering what happened to the last soldiers he saw approach the knight decides to track him rather than approach directly. He discovers his home in some caves and finally manages to talk to the woman who lives with him and persuades her to get the knight to talk to him. This knight turns out to be Tariel and king of one of the seven kingdoms of India and prospective heir to other six who are all held by one man, he is also maddened by grief. It turns out that he is desperately in love with Nestan-Darejan who is the daughter of the other king and she is in love with him but that he had killed the man who had been arranged to be her husband and fled the country to avoid the repercussions. Nestan-Darejan, once it was discovered that she was in on the plot was exiled in secret and Tariel had been looking for her ever since and this is where the story really begins to pick up.

The tale of how Avtandil returns to Arabia to report finding the knight and then heads back to him against the wishes of Rostevan, thereby making himself an outcast, but he does so in order to aid Tariel find Nestan-Darejan. The great quest he makes in this search (which this time is covered by the poem) and the ultimate success not only in defeating the many enemies he comes up against but also in rescuing her and into the arms of Tariel is the main part of the story. That all ends well for our heroes, including the other characters that assist them greatly is happily the result and the way the story builds in excitement is really well done. Avtandil and Tariel are endowed with mythical abilities in war and either singly or with a few hundred men are capable of taking on foes with considerably greater numbers whilst emerging with at worst a minor injury to themselves. This truly is a tale of the Heroic Age and what would probably have been a daunting read, a 200 hundred page poem is something to take care with, was transformed in Katharine Vivian’s prose to be a romp through a great story. Georgian literature is poorly represented in English translation so I am glad I finally took this book off the shelves.

The book was published by The Folio Society in 1977, unusually by using letterpress, and is bound in Princess Satin cloth with a very attractive device on the cover by Levan Tsutskiridze. Sadly for A G Baramidze’s hopes that this would spread the word about their great epic it was never reprinted and I cannot find Katharine Vivian’s translation being subsequently published by anyone else. In fact this appears to be the only English translation of Rustaveli’s masterwork ever printed in the UK.

The Shakespeare Codex – Stephen Briggs

Based loosely on The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, Lords and Ladies and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Shakespeare Codex is a new Discworld stage adaptation written to commemorate Terry Pratchett’s life and works.

Pratchett and Shakespeare fans may also spot snippets from Maskerade, Wyrd Sisters, Richard II, Henry V, Hamlet and others as two worlds collide.

From the rear cover of the book

First published in 2021, but initially performed on 6th April 2016, this is Stephen Brigg’s first adaptation since Terry Pratchett’s death on 12th March 2015 and unusually takes as it’s base not one of Pratchett’s novels but the short novella written as part of the second Science of Discworld series which is used as the links between the science sections written by professors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. In the Science of Discworld series of four books the wizards of Unseen University accidentally create what they call Roundworld, but which is clearly our home planet of Earth, and then get involved in various adventures trying to keep it safe. In the case of book II this is to prevent Discworld elves taking over and involves Shakespeare as the man to write them eternally into fantasy and figures of fun and therefore no longer a danger, which he does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Briggs quotes extensively from Shakespeare’s plays with instructions to the actors taking the roles that these should be “played straight. Not hammy”.

As said in the quote from the rear cover Briggs has extended the source material beyond the Science of Discworld II and produced a play that works well even for non Discworld fans and which sold out through its first performances at the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon, Oxfordshire where Briggs is part of an amateur dramatic company. He has been adapting Pratchett’s material since 1991 and these have been performed all over the world to apparently equally happy audiences. Despite this being the twentieth ‘Discworld’ play by him this is the first I have actually owned and read and it was very enjoyable with the mix of Shakespeare and Pratchett handled really well and plenty of the Bard’s own words to set it firmly in Elizabethan England.

The wizards are able to travel through time and ‘fix’ things that have gone wrong and which would prevent Shakespeare being born but they remain largely puzzled by this place where magic doesn’t work but despite which everybody there seems to believe it does work. They are also the only people able to see the elves as they spread their malevolent influence over the population although the Countess of Shrewsbury says to Queen Elizabeth at the end of the play that she could have sworn there was another Queen on the stage at some point so she clearly had seen, or at least sensed, the Queen of the Elves. Of course, all’s well that ends well, so to say and all does end well for the wizards and indeed for William Shakespeare whose new play making fun of the elves as silly fairies that try to interfere with mortal men but are ultimately defeated is a big hit with his audience.

As a final thought the Discworld librarian of the Unseen University is an orangutan (it’s complicated) and throughout the original book and this play is apparently successfully disguised as a Spaniard. I’m intrigued as to what nationality he is assigned in Spanish translations of the two books.

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Probably Henry James’s best known novel, The Turn of the Screw, is a ghost story and although I’m not a particular fan of this genre I have to admit that the suspense builds superbly and that I thoroughly enjoyed this rare wander into the supernatural. Although born in New York in 1843 James moved to Europe in 1869 and finally settled in England in 1876 where he lived until his death in 1915 a year after gaining British citizenship. The book, written in 1898, reflects this and reads much more like a Victorian English novel rather than one from his homeland, indeed if I hadn’t known the author was an American I would never have guessed it from the style. The initial premise that it is a story read out to a group of friends from an old manuscript seems similar to so many British mystery and crime novels from the golden age of the 1920’s and 30’s although predating them by at least twenty years that the structure of the work felt so familiar. A group of friends are gathered at Christmas and are telling tales of supernatural events when Douglas stands up and referring to the previous tale starts to introduce his own story…

“I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?…”
“We say, of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.”
I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at this converser with his hands in his pockets. “Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This was naturally declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on:
“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
He seemed to say it wasn’t so simple as that – to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful— dreadfulness!”
“Oh, how delicious!” cried one of the women

As you can see this passage from the preface to the novel introduces the title which is then not referred to. The two children are brother and sister Miles, aged ten, and Flora, aged eight, who start off being simply strange but rapidly become more than a little creepy. The story is told by their governess who was appointed to this position at the beginning of the book and the gradual loss of her composure as she discovers that the country house where she is working is haunted by two ghosts, the masters late valet Peter Quint and the children’s previous governess Miss Jessel. Only other servants live at the country house as the children’s parents are both dead and the house belongs to their uncle who never comes there, but lives in London, and as part of the condition of employing the new governess required her not to communicate with him. Her only support in dealing with the increasingly odd behaviour of the children, as they clearly seem not only to be able to see the ghosts but actively pretend not to and also appear to encourage manifestations is Mrs Grose the housekeeper who slowly reveals the history of the two characters. To add to the mystery Miles attended just one term at school before being expelled with no reason given by the headmaster and refuses to talk about his time there. When he was alive Quint apparently spent far too much time with Miles according to Mrs Grose and had an undue influence over the boy whilst Flora appears to have been rather too close to Miss Jessel.

The story is engrossing and was originally serialised in an American weekly magazine over a period of twelve weeks, so two chapters at a time. This probably explains the regular cliffhanger revelations at the end of the chapters thereby ensuring that the next section would be looked forward to by a presumably growing band of avid readers. I’m certainly glad to have finally got round to reading what Stephen King in his 1983 book Danse Macabre described as one of only two great supernatural works of horror in a century, the other being The Haunting of Hill House and I heartily recommend giving it a go.

This copy is from the Alma Classics Evergreens series which at the time of writing has an excellent deal available of ten books for just £30 with free UK shipping.

Cochrane the Dauntless – David Cordingly

Lord Thomas Cochrane was the real life basis of two of the most swashbuckling characters in fiction, both C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower (12 book series) and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey (20 book series) take a lot from the actual exploits of this now largely forgotten British naval hero. Amazingly they probably had to tone it down in the fictional versions for some of the actual exploits of Cochrane are so unbelievable that they are beyond what even a fictional hero would attempt. Examples such as the attack of the HMS Speedy against a much larger Spanish vessel where Cochrane reasoned that if he sailed right up alongside the Spanish vessel its guns would fire harmlessly over the top of his own ship whilst he could issue broadside after broadside into its lower decks. As the Spanish sailors abandoned their guns and tried to board the Speedy he sailed away a few yards, then as they went back to their guns he came alongside and started firing again. Eventually the Spanish ship surrendered and was sailed away to a British held port by a portion of the crew of the Speedy. Lord Cochrane was a consummate sailor and during his time on board had learnt a lot of the skills of his men, this ability to muck in if needed alongside leading from the front with boarding parties earned him considerable respect from his crew a lot of whom followed him from ship to ship as he progressed from the tiny Speedy to much larger frigates.

In spite of his seamanship and skill as a coastal raider, both for taking enemy ships and destroying fortifications Cochrane himself never made it higher than Captain in the British navy and this was largely due to his inability to stay silent when faced with any real or perceived affront to his position. He continually annoyed his superior officers, even pressing for the Admiral he was ultimately responsible to during one battle to be court martialed, and also during his years in parliament as MP for Westminster annoyed most of the other parliamentarians with his continual pressing of causes that he had already lost and outspoken speeches condemning his naval commanders. His autobiography, written in his eighties, reopened a lot of the wounds he had dealt in his twenties and thirties and left him even fewer friends amongst the great and the good. Cochrane however always believed he was right and everyone else was wrong.

David Cordingley has produced a splendid book about this complex character using not only Cochrane’s, somewhat biased, autobiography but offsetting this with admiralty reports, letters, ships logs and other evidence such as the diary and correspondence of Captain Marryat who served as a junior officer under Cochrane before becoming famous as a novelist. The book is comprehensive with numerous maps, pictures, cutaway drawings of two of Cochrane’s ships, bibliography, index and most importantly a glossary of naval terms for those of us less familiar with them. At 362 pages, excluding all the extra items detailed previously, Cordingly gave himself space to explore his subject and it is a fascinating read. From rising naval star to disgraced prisoner (after being implicated in a stock market fraud that he probably wasn’t actually involved in but which his superiors used as a convenient way of getting rid of a noisy thorn in their side), to signing up to be admiral of the separatist navy under the Chilean independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins and helping force the Spanish out of South America Cochrane led an exciting life and the book reflects that. Cordingly isn’t shy about documenting Cochrane’s faults as well, worst of which was his impetuous nature which got him into more problems than was necessary.

Amazingly after his success as a South American mercenary captain helping to gain independence for not only Chile but Peru and Brazil as well he arrived back in Britain where his various sins were forgiven and he was promoted to Rear Admiral and eventually died, aged eighty four, as a full Admiral. I heartily recommend this biography of a supreme sailor and complex character who is sadly barely known today despite his influence on writers as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle and Bernard Cornwell. His adventures are as exciting as any fictional character and Cordingly’s descriptions are very well written.

Gipsy-night and Other Poems – Robert Hughes

Printed this week in 1922, the year Hughes graduated from Oxford, this was his first book and remarkably it was selected to be only the eighth title printed by what would become recognised as one of the finest Private Press publishers, Golden Cockerel Press. The image above is of the title page as my copy is missing its dust wrapper but that is not surprising in the one hundred years since it was published as the wrapper was quite delicate. Only 750 copies of this book were published by Golden Cockerel and it is one of the just fifteen titles published under its control of the original founder, Harold ‘Hal’ Taylor before his recurrent bouts of tuberculosis which eventually killed him in 1924. Before his death the press was sold to artist and author Robert Gibbings who transformed the business into a publisher of finely illustrated editions and really made the name of Golden Cockerel over the next nine years producing seventy one titles in that period before he too sold the business on. The press went through another couple of owners before ultimately closing down in 1961.

As I said at the beginning Robert Hughes had not been published before this collection but just two years later he was to be commissioned by the BBC to write ‘Danger’ which became the first ever play written specifically for radio broadcast anywhere in the world. In 1929 he also wrote ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’ which was filmed in 1965 starring Anthony Quinn and James Coburn so it’s clear that Hal Taylor had recognised some early talent in this young author. Hughes would later become a good friend of Dylan Thomas and his first book of prose ‘A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Dog’ was written whilst staying with Hughes. But enough of the history behind the press and the author, what of the poems themselves? Well as you would probably expect for a first collection from somebody who was still only twenty one when the book was published it’s a bit of a mixed bag, I tended to prefer the longer pieces, but of the ones that are short enough to include within the blog The Ruin is probably my favourite and gives a good overview of his style.

The Ruin

Gone are the coloured princes, gone echo, gone laughter:
Drips the blank roof: and the moss creeps after.

Dead is the crumbled chimney: all mellowed to rotting
The wall-tints, and the floor-tints, from the spotting
Of the rain, from the wind and slow appetite
Of patient mould: and of the worms that bite
At beauty all their innumerable lives.

—But the sudden nip of knives,
The lady aching for her stiffening lord,
The passionate-fearful bride
And beaded pallor clamped to the torment-board,
—Leave they no ghosts, no memories by the stairs?
No sheeted glimmer treading floorless ways?
No haunting melody of lovers’ airs,
Nor stealthy chill upon the noon of days?
No: for the dead and senseless walls have long forgotten
What passionate hearts beneath the grass lie rotten.

Only from roofs and chimneys pleasantly sliding
Tumbles the rain in the early hours:
Patters its thousand feet on the flowers,
Cools its small grey feet in the grasses.

Hughes doesn’t appear to have published another collection of poetry and apart from his plays wrote four novels although he was working on a fifth, which was supposed to be the final part of a trilogy, at the time of his death in 1976. Gipsy-Night and Other Poems itself is a good example of the work of a Private Press, using handmade paper and high quality letterpress printing and although it is dated the 24th March 1922 that is when printing was completed. The fact that only fifteen titles were published in the first three years gives some idea of the length of time it would take to print and bind the books using a relatively small hand press with often just two people working at a time. It was really a labour of love, Golden Cockerel never made much of a profit and some of the books in the Gibbings era definitely lost money despite their high initial purchase cost.