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.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

Well that was a fun read. First published in 2011 and clearly intended to be contemporary, the book starts out appearing to be a modern police procedural set in the Charing Cross police station of The Metropolitan Police (London’s police force) following the end of the probationary period for two trainee police officers, Peter Grant and Lesley May. Lesley is expected to do well in the police, her career looks bright and interesting in total contrast to that of Peter who appears to be heading for a life of doing the paperwork for the more go getting officers who are doing ‘real policing’ so haven’t got time for the boring bits. All this is about to change however following a particularly grisly murder that night at Covent Garden. When all the experienced officers have done what they can, but it is still too dark to do a proper search of the square the two most junior constables, Peter and Lesley, are called in to ‘protect the crime scene’ basically standing around on a freezing February night making sure nobody crosses the tape marking the edge of the area until dawn when the experienced officers will come back. At 5am Lesley goes off to get them both coffee and whilst he is alone Peter encounters a witness to the murder, the main problem with this witness is that although he did indeed see everything he is in fact dead and is a ghost haunting St. Peter’s church which is on the piazza. I’m really not giving much away here, this is all in the first few pages.

Going back the next night to try to find his ‘witness’ again Peter encounters Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale whom on discovering that Peter is ghost hunting and recognising a basic talent decides to take him on in his section of the Metropolitan Police, the magical part. As well as being a senior police officer Nightingale is the last wizard in Britain and so the whole plot swings away from ‘normal’ policing to encounters with magical beings all of which live unnoticed by the general public within modern London. As well as helping to solve what turns into a series of murders Peter is charged with resolving a dispute between Mother Thames and Father Thames, both river spirits who have taken responsibility for the tidal and freshwater parts of London’s major river respectively but whose territorial limits were being disputed. Nightingale not only takes Peter on as a Constable in his tiny division (which up until then had just consisted of him) but also as an apprentice wizard teaching him basic spells along with Latin as it turns out that all the textbooks are in this ancient language.

The book runs these two story lines in parallel and this I suspect led to one poor review when it first came out that the novel had inconsistent pacing. It is certainly the case that the sections on the murders are faster paced than the more bucolic dealings with Mamma and Father Thames and the positively erotically charged parts with one of Mamma Thames’s daughters Beverley Brook and her dealings with Peter and Lesley. I greatly enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more as there are eight novels so far in the series, with a ninth due out next month along with three novellas. Aaronovitch demonstrates an almost encyclopedic knowledge of London throughout the book so I suspect that an enormous amount of research went into the novel and I loved the use of the names of the various rivers that become tributaries of the Thames for characters, Beverley Brook for instance is a short river, only 14.3km long, in south east London. There is also Tyburn, Fleet, Ash, Lea, Brent and several others all characters in the book and rivers of London. For some odd reason Rivers of London was renamed ‘Midnight Riot’ when it was published in America which somewhat lost this point.

I met Ben Aaronovitch at the 2014 Discworld Convention where I was helping to run an event which was loosely based on the hit BBC TV programme QI which for copyright reasons we had called Strangely Fascinating (I was the scorer). It turned out that Ben was a definite Terry Pratchett fan and thoroughly enjoyed his time at the convention and didn’t mind being roped in as one of the contestants for our quiz. He is in the photo below, on the left, next to Pat Harkin who at the time was still working at Leeds Institute of Medical Education where he had been, amongst various jobs, lecturer in pathology.

I is a Strange Loop – Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould

A mathematical play, not a combination of words I ever expected to write and yet somehow it works. The authors are Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University Marcus du Sautoy and actress Victoria Gould who has a degree in physics and a masters degree in applicable mathematics. The play starts slowly with just one of the characters X on stage inside a large cube miming the drawing of two Platonic sequences, first the derivation of a regular hexagon using just a straight edge and a compass and secondly the proof of the irrationality of the square root of two using ever decreasing squares. Now this may not sound like riveting drama and frankly unless you know exactly what X is doing then it is very difficult to follow but X is about to have his whole world view changed by the arrival of the second character (or variable as they are referred to in the script) Y. Up until this point X has considered himself to be the only person and indeed the cube that he is in to be the only cube. Y however has travelled through millions of cubes and accumulated many things on her journey but is about to encounter her first ever other person, although she is surprised X is completely shocked by her appearance in his cube and through a couple of mathematical fallacies attempts to prove her non-existence.

OK this is probably sounding like a very niche production but believe me it is well worth sticking through the initial phases especially when we get to the second act which brilliantly turns the whole play on it’s head but more of that later. It also has to be the only play I have ever read that comes with a fourteen page guide to the maths in the play at the back of the book entitled A Mathematical Prompt Book. This is useful for the non-mathematician in explaining not only the maths but also some of the language used and functions very much like the glossary found at the back of some versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Would you get the joke about the Möbius script right at the end of the play if you don’t know what a Möbius strip is, probably not. But back to the first act. After Y demonstrates that there is a room, and in fact a series of rooms beyond the cube that X inhabits X then believes that the series must be infinite and tries (and fails) to prove this just as he also fails to physically prove other infinite series simply because, as Y points out, there are limits that prevent such physical proofs. All attempts to find an OUT, a place beyond the cube series also fail.

The second act is completely different and the humour of the piece grows, that’s not to say that the first act isn’t funny, the interactions between the purely mathematical X and the more practical Y are definitely amusing but the second act introduces reality is an very unexpected way. Right from the start of the second act Y believes the play is over and indeed no longer calls herself Y but instead uses her real name Victoria, X however is still very much in character. Victoria makes various attempts to disabuse X of his belief that the play continues including showing him that it is possible to leave the stage, go round the back and come back in from the opposite wing. She explains that the seemingly random noises heard during the play are the sounds of the underground trains near the theatre (there really was the sound of the underground where the play was first staged at The Barbican Pit Theatre in London) and she even produces a model of the set to show X that it is simply a stage. Nothing works and instead the play finishes almost back where it started. It really is very funny, both in the absurdity of the position that the characters find themselves in throughout the play and their changing relationships but also the increasing frustrating part of Victoria as the play is forcing itself back around her even as she believes she has finished.

The entire play can be seen here in a performance filmed at the Oxford Playhouse where the two parts are taken by the authors showing a surprisingly good acting ability from du Sautoy especially in what has to be described as experimental theatre. At one hour and fifteen minutes into the video the play is over and we go to a three quarters of an hour discussion about the play with Marcus du Sautoy, Victoria Gould interviewed by Simon McBurney, founder of Complicité, the theatre group responsible for the performance and which Gould is closely linked to. It’s definitely worth watching the play and it is considerably less intimidating knowing that the over two hour runtime of the video represents almost twice the length of the actual performance. Give it a go…

The Man and His Paintings – David Shepherd

The paintings behind David Shepherd in the cover photograph are some of his best known works, ‘Black Five Country’, ‘The Four Gentlemen of Tsavo’ and ‘Winter of 43, Somewhere in England’. These three works represent the three subjects for which he is most famous, the end of steam railways, wildlife (especially elephants) and aircraft. This large format book (33cm x 24½cm) was first published in 1985 by David & Charles and is now sadly long out of print as are the other titles featuring his work that they published. The book consists of approximately five thousand words by Cyril Littlewood, founder of the Young People’s Trust for Endangered Species by way of an introduction to David Shepherd and his work and roughly twenty to twenty-five thousand words of biographical detail by Shepherd himself plus often comprehensive descriptions of each of the sixty one featured paintings along with numerous sketches in both black and white and colour.

As can be seen in the two examples, above and below these paragraphs the book’s format is simple and elegant. Each featured painting is reproduced on the right hand page whilst the description by David as to how he came to produce the work is on the facing page with sketches filling in the page if there is room. In many cases the story he is telling about how the work was produced or received by the public or the commissioning client fills the page so there is no room for an additional sketch. It’s hard to believe that these paintings are the work of somebody who was rejected by the Slade School of Fine Art as having ‘no talent whatsoever’ when he applied to study there. As he explains in the biographical section of the book that he subsequently made his career in art at all was down to a chance meeting with professional artist Robin Goodwin at a party and despite Goodwin agreeing with the Slade he did agree to try to teach him.

Shepherd started off his commercial art three years after starting training with Goodwin and was painting aircraft. initially civilian and then military with several of his works hanging in the Officer’s Mess of various UK regiments but his big break came when he was flown out to Africa by the Royal Air Force and they didn’t want pictures of planes, as they saw enough of them, what they wanted was the wildlife and so he painted his first elephant and that really started his career. His very first career plan was to be a game warden in Africa and in fact he even flew out to Kenya as a young man and presented himself as prospective employee at a reserve only to be told to go home as they didn’t need an untrained and callow youth getting in the way of their work. Painting the wildlife many years after that initial rejection brought his early interest in conservation to the for and he would go on to raise a huge amount of money by selling wildlife prints for charity.

Shepherd’s fascination with steam trains went far beyond painting them, he actually purchased two from British Rail as they were being withdrawn, restored them to their original beauty and ran them on ‘The East Somerset Railway’ a preserved line he helped set up, although both locomotives are now owned by ‘The North Yorkshire Moors Railway’ another preserved line. Although I was first drawn to Shepherd’s works via the wildlife paintings it is his work showing the last days of United Kingdom steam that I most admire now. The book was really interesting in that it showed the development of his career from aircraft art which he often couldn’t sell even for £25 to the massively successful prints which really made his name with the general public. Nowadays you would need to spend in the order of £100,000 to purchase a Shepherd original although few of them are on the market. Sadly David Shepherd died in 2017 at the age of eighty six but the foundation he set up to continue his charitable work has raised over a million pounds over the years and continues to do excellent work with wildlife conservation in Africa and Asia.

The Case of the Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin

Just for a change this book was recently acquired as part of my collection of the first thousand Penguin paperback books and a quick perusal of the humorous biography on the back (see below) moved it rapidly up the to be read pile. The opening chapter not only introduces the eleven main characters as they all travel from London to Oxford by train but also describes the trials and tribulations of making that trip especially with the apparently random delays from Didcot onwards and is very funny, not something you expect in a mystery novel. Crispin’s amateur detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of literature at Oxford university who is friends with the Chief Constable of Oxfordshire who has a hobby of writing literary criticism. Both enjoy dabbling in each others chosen career but recognise that they wouldn’t want to do it all the time as they wouldn’t cope with the more tedious aspects of the job. The majority of the other characters are involved in putting on a play which will have its opening night at a theatre in Oxford. The final sentence of the first chapter sets the expectation for the rest of the book.

And within the week that followed three of these eleven died by violence.

The plot is somewhat complicated and the reader can get a bit irritated by Fen who says he has solved the case of the first death almost immediately but won’t tell anyone what he has found but just drops clues to the other characters without the reader being informed. For example he mentions to one character that as well as the gun being taken from where it was stored something else was as well which they agree was the case but the reader isn’t told what it was. Having said that the book is fun to read and there are quite a few clues dropped into the readers lap which only make sense right at the end when the murderer is revealed. Although I did find the solution to the first death somewhat far fetched, it was certainly possible but required more skill on the part of the murderer than would probably be expected by the character as described in the book.

The descriptions of the play being rehearsed are well written and are probably from first hand experience as Edmund Crispin was actually the composer Bruce Montgomery who specialised in film music especially for the long running British comedy series of ‘Carry On’ films. As Edmund Crispin he wrote nine crime books of which The Case of the Gilded Fly was the first, dating from 1944, and I have to say it’s an impressive start. One other title by him was released by Penguin within their first thousand books so I’m now on the hunt for Penguin number 974, Love Lies Bleeding, his other books were also published in paperback by Penguin through the 1950’s.

Montgomery was also the great uncle of one of my favourite fantasy authors Robert Rankin although they never met because his father didn’t approve of Montgomery as he considered him ‘far too snooty’ according to a recent facebook post by Robert Rankin.

Love in a Life – Andrew Motion

This is Andrew Motion’s sixth collection of poems and seemed an appropriate read for valentines day. Published by Faber and Faber in 1991, so eight years before he became Poet Laureate, it is a deeply personal selection of poetry largely telling stories from his two marriages (up until then) spread over multiple poems in a series of emerging themes. Again it is a book that has sat on my shelves for many years (presumably thirty as it is the first edition) and remained unopened until yesterday having constantly slipped down the ‘to be read’ pile for various reasons. Having now read it I am forced to wonder why it kept failing to make it to the top until thirty one years after I bought it. This was the first of Motion’s books to be published by Faber and Faber and they have gone on to publish most of his collections of poetry since then.

The wife referred to in the first verse is his second spouse, Jan Dalley, whom he had married in 1985 and had three children with including the twins mentioned, there are also poems referring to his first wife, Joanna Powell, that marriage ended in divorce in 1983. The second verse is considerably more tragic, Motion’s mother had a riding accident in 1969 when he was just seventeen and was in and out of a coma for the next nine years until she died in 1978, there are a few references to her in this collection. My favourite poem in the book is about his time with Joanna Powell and is called Toot Baldon where it is clear that he is still at work on his Masters degree when they married as he refers to himself as Edward Thomas, the poet whose work he analysed for this qualification and who he must have totally immersed himself in to get his MLitt after his first class honours degree from Oxford University.

The poems all have a strong narrative flow, he is definitely telling a story in each example particularly in the poem The Prague Milk Bottle which was written in spring 1989, so just a few months before the Velvet Revolution that saw the freeing of Czechoslovakia from the Soviet block, in this there is a repeated two line stanza

It’s not suppression
It’s humiliation

Those two lines appear four times in the poem and give a powerful tension to the work as he details the woes of living in the country at the end of the communist regime and dedicates the poem to the Czech writer, his friend Ivo Smoldas.

Motion was the first poet to refuse to accept the post Laureate as a life long role and stipulated that he would only take the position for ten years, a situation that the poets that have followed him (Carol Ann Duffy and currently Simon Armitage) have also stuck to. Before him just eighteen people had held the position of Poet Laureate since its creation in 1631.

Black on Black: Iran Revisited – Ana M Briongos

Ana Maria Briongos is a Catalan writer from Barcelona who first went to Iran for the academic year of 1973-74 to study Persian but this book is mainly about a month long return journey she made in April 1994 where she catches up with old friends from twenty years ago. The book is interesting because of the contrast she is able to provide between life in the last days of the Shah against post revolutionary Iran and importantly it also gives a female perspective of the restrictions and some benefits of the strict Islamic life that she encounters on this revisiting. I chose to read the book as a modern follow up to ‘The Road to Oxiana‘ which I enjoyed so much last month and it gives a view that is much more familiar to me as it is set just four years before I was to visit Iran.

A woman travelling on her own has to know how to look after herself and be respected, which means dressing appropriately and using common sense. Travelling on her own a woman has access to places where a man could never go.

This is particularly true in the Middle East, especially Iran, and Briongos takes us to some of those places but particularly we visit friends and their families especially Bahman who hosted Briongos in Tehran and drove her to various places outside the capital during the thirteen day festival that coincided with her arrival, so getting to know Iranian family life, the jealously guarded recipes for specific foods which each Iranian housewife puts out to impress visitors and the tight knitted relationships across generations. In particular we are introduced to Rave and her grand-daughter with Down’s Syndrome Bubu, these two would be constant characters whenever Briongos was in Tehran during April 1994. Rave was one of the wives of Bahman’s father and had become a sort of mother hen for lots of his children regardless of which wife was actually their mother. She was very unwell and trying to get treatment in Europe which at the end of the book we find that she does succeed in doing before ultimately emigrating to Australia with Babu and Babu’s mother, whom we never actually meet because she was living in Hamburg. It is good that things worked out for Rave and Babu you really feel for both of them as the narrative progresses.

Interspersed with the account of the trip in 1994 are lots of memories of her first visit to the country both retelling of stories from then and also trips such as going back to the university where she studied two decades earlier only to find that she couldn’t go to the building where she lived then as it was now male only whereas before it was strictly a female domain, wanting to at least go somewhere familiar from that time she ventures into the library only to encounter a professor who had taught her all those years ago and who promptly whisks her off to the park over the road where they can chat and catch up more freely. It’s the personal touches that really make this book so enjoyable to read, you really feel as though you are with her on this trip back into her past.

This was Briongos’s first book, published in 1996, although she has written ten more since then about her times in Afghanistan, India and further trips to Iran. My copy is the first English translation published in 2000 as part of the Lonely Planet Journeys series, a now defunct series of travel books which I really enjoyed whilst they existed due to their eclectic range and focus on personal stories. When I discovered the series was being killed off I bought as many of the titles I didn’t already have as I could find and this book was one of them. Twenty years later I have finally opened it after it sat on the shelves waiting for me to get to it and I know there are still a couple of that batch of books I bought all in one go that are still waiting. I enjoyed this book so much that I suspect they will not have much longer before I finally get to read them.

Typhoid Mary – Anthony Bourdain

First published by Bloomsbury in America in 2001, this is the 2005 UK edition, why we had to wait four years for the book to come out in the UK is a mystery, maybe they thought Typhoid Mary, or Mary Mallon to give her her proper name wasn’t that well known over this side of the Atlantic. The author is Anthony Bourdain a celebrity chef in his native America who morphed into a travel presenter on TV whilst also writing several books of which this is the most unusual as it is the only one not based on his own career. Initially he seems drawn to Mary as a fellow cook and this is by far the most sympathetic telling of her life that I have read, emphasising the stresses of working in a kitchen and her total disbelief that the typhoid cases happening around her had anything to do with her as she was so healthy. In fact she was the first ever identified asymptomatic carrier of a disease so she remained perfectly well but everything she touched became infected. This would probably be OK if all the food she prepared for her various wealthy patrons had been cooked but there would be salads, ice-creams etc all of which could have been lethal.

Mary is known to have infected fifty three people with typhoid of which three died but to the end of her days never seemed to have grasped that she was a carrier. She was employed by various rich families between 1900 and 1907 and must have been a good cook to be able to deal with the demands of such a job where her employers would have expected new and interesting dishes almost every day especially whilst entertaining their friends. This is the basis of Bourdain’s interest in her, his own descriptions of life in a professional kitchen where those people outside the four walls of the hot and busy kitchen are largely treated with contempt by those inside as nothing else matters apart from getting the food out are somewhat worrying and I’m glad I never had an opportunity to eat anywhere he was cooking.

In 1907 after being identified by George Soper as the probable source of the infections she was forcibly incarcerated on North Brother Island off the coast of New York but not until after Soper had made several cack handed attempts to obtain blood and stool samples even at his first go confronting her in the kitchen of current employer and demanding samples there and then. Needless to say Mary saw him off with a carving fork she had to hand. Ultimately she was detained by five policemen and a female doctor who ended up sitting on Mary as she tried to escape from the ambulance. Bourdain has nothing but contempt for Soper, not just from the inappropriate ways he confronted Mary Mallon but also for his constant self promotion as the person who stopped Typhoid Mary. The cover of the book is based on an illustration used in one of the articles in the New York American which reported on her detention in 1909.

She was to spend three years on North Brother Island before a press campaign managed to get her released in 1910 on condition that she regularly reported to the Department of Health and stopped cooking. It may seem surprising that such a campaign was started but it must be understood that Mary had not been convicted of anything and was simply being held under health statutes without trial or any possibility of a trial. However being a cook was the one thing she was good at and soon after she had started work as a laundress she went back to cooking although no longer in smart houses but in mass canteens, finally detained again five years later whilst working at the Sloane Hospital for Women and it is at this point that Bourdain finally moves his position from being sympathetic to her plight to some condemnation that she was working supplying food to neonatal wards. This time there would be no release and she remained on North Brother Island for the final twenty three years of her life. Despite being clearly unhappy about the danger she was potentially causing to new borns at the end of her cooking career Bourdain still has a regard for her and at the end of the book describes visiting her grave almost as a pilgrimage.

The book is very well written and I found myself reading it at one sitting as I was drawn into the sad story of Mary Mallon’s life. Bourdain was a well known user of narcotics, mainly cocaine and heroin especially in his early career, possibly as a coping mechanism for the stress in his job, and committed suicide in 2018 whilst filming his travel/cookery programme in France.

The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron

The Road to Oxiana is more than a travel diary, indeed it isn’t really a diary at all although it reads like one, as Byron actually took several years to produce something that appears to have been written at the time with it finally being first published in 1937. This is one of the all time classic travel books, like Patrick Leigh Fermors’ A Time of Gifts, also about a journey undertaken in 1933, this is a book by a young man who was experiencing the world at a momentous period between the two wars. Byron was 28, Fermor was even younger at just 19 and like Byron actually wrote his classic work several years later although in his case it wasn’t finished and published until 1977 when Fermor was 62. The Road to Oxiana is unfortunately not as well known as Fermor’s work but it deserves to be just as well read, partly for it’s historical nature but also for the insight it gives to countries and peoples that it can be very difficult to visit nowadays.

Byron’s humour and infectious enthusiasm for the countries he travels through and the people he meets starts with an apparent disaster with the non-arrival in Beirut of the experimental, and somewhat surreal, charcoal powered Rolls Royce that he had intended to travel in with his long suffering companion Christopher Sykes. We then continue on the road in a series of unpredictable and often ramshackle vehicles and an equal collection of unpredictable and ramshackle horses and ponies whilst continually dodging the Persian secret police who were desperate to find out what on Earth these men were doing. It was concern about these not very surreptitious although supposedly secret followers that led him not to refer to The Shah by name at any time in the notes he took whilst in Iran but to instead have that tiresome fellow Marjoribanks. The book is quite often funny especially in the reconstructed conversations that Byron has with varied notables during the trip often as they attempt to fleece him as he is seen as a wealthy traveller.

Not for nothing is the book called the Road to Oxiana, as the River Oxus, which is ostensibly the destination, only gets a brief mention at the very end although I won’t spoil the story by saying how. No, this is a book of a journey and the care and time that Byron took over his choice of words draws the reader into the extraordinary life of Iran at the peak of the Peacock throne, from unbelievable wealth to grinding poverty. We travel the length and breadth of this huge and truly spectacular country, about two thirds the size of the European Union with enormous mountain ranges and vast deserts all faithfully illustrated by Byron’s pen. However it isn’t just Iran that is covered in the narrative, although the majority of the book covers this vast country, we also visit Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and finish in Peshawar which was then in India and is now part of Pakistan.

This was Byron’s eighth, and final, book and his previous travel books had included a drive from England to Greece (his first book Europe in the Looking-Glass) and a couple of further books detailing his experiences in Greece along with a journey to Russia and Tibet and a visit to India. He also fitted in a history of Western painting and a book on architecture, but it is for The Road to Oxiana that he is known today. Sadly Byron was on board a ship that was torpedoed in 1941 on his way to Africa presumably on a mission for British Intelligence and his body was never found. Who knows where he would have got to had he survived the war and what books he would have written. Christopher Sykes went on to write a short memoir to his friend in his book Four Studies in Loyalty which was published in 1946.

I first read the book whilst travelling around Iran myself in 1998 and have returned to the book with increasing pleasure several times. I promise that you don’t need to visit Iran to love this book although be warned it may make you want to go there as well. The copy I currently have on my shelves is the Folio Society edition from 2000 which is beautifully illustrated with seventeen of Byron’s photographs taken whilst on the trip and bound in full cloth, gold blocked with a design by Francis Moseley.