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.

Britain’s Lost Cities – Gavin Stamp

This has to be the most depressing yet fascinating books I have read in a long time. Gavin Stamp was an architectural historian and for many years was president of the Twentieth Century Society, sadly he died in 2017 aged just 69. He wrote many books and hundreds of articles on architecture including almost forty years as a columnist for Private Eye under the pseudonym of Piloti and was for a time professor of architectural history at The Mackintosh School of Architecture, part of the Glasgow School of Art. As you can tell from the brief biography he was an expert in his field and despite his long time association with the Twentieth Century Society this book is excoriating about the wanton vandalism to major cities undertaken by city planners in the 1930’s to 1970’s. The book looks at nineteen cities in England and Scotland and with the assistance of old photographs shows some of what has been lost including the Lion Brewery which features on the cover and which stood on the south bank of the Thames in London and survived WWII only to be pulled down in 1948 to make way for the Royal Festival Hall.

I assumed, like probably most people in Britain, that most of the soulless centres to British cities were down to thoughtless rebuilding plans after the Luftwaffe bombing runs of WWII done in the years of austerity following the war. But this book makes it clear that at least for some of the cities the destruction of ancient thoroughfares and the buildings that made them often happened long before the bombers made razing what was left so convenient for the planners involved. I have travelled over large parts of Europe and seen the wonderful rebuilding of old cities, often reconstructing the lost or damaged buildings from before the war not the awful mediocrity of Britain’s reconstruction forcing inappropriate new ring roads through what was largely repairable, or even worse undamaged, buildings. The page shown above dealing with Coventry includes one of the most damning quotations from a city planner.

We used to watch from the roof to see which buildings were blazing and then dash downstairs to check how much easier it would be to put our plans into action.

Donald Gibson, City Architect for Coventry from 1938

The photograph of Bull Street in Birmingham at the top of the page reproduced above is amazing as every building shown in the picture no longer exists. I chose to illustrate this blog with Coventry and Birmingham as those are the cities I know best but I have to say that the pictures in the book for these Midlands industrial centres are completely unrecognisable. Quite what St George in the Fields church in Hockley (one of the northern districts of central Birmingham) had done to offend the local planners before its demolition in 1960 I don’t know but it looks a fine large building with an important history and where it stood is now just an open parkland so it clearly wasn’t in the way of some grand design. According to Wikipedia it had a capacity of almost two thousand people so it was a substantial church apparently needlessly lost.

Birmingham had its heart ripped out in the 1950’s and 60’s to make way for the car with underpasses and flyovers running right through the centre with little thought for pedestrians and is now undergoing further massive rebuilding largely removing structures thrown up sixty years ago. It’s too late sadly to restore the city centre but what is going up now does seem to be an improvement on what was done in the middle of the twentieth century.

Sorry about the wobbly images of the inside pages, trying to photograph these whilst holding the book open without breaking the spine really called for at least three hands, possibly four which is definitely more than I have available at the time. The copy I have is the 2010 first softback edition, the book was originally published in 2007 as a hardback, both versions are by Aurum Press which is now a division of The Quarto Group. I also have the first hardback edition of his follow up book Lost Victorian Britain, sadly both of these books are now out of print.

Murder Underground – Mavis Doriel Hay

From the British Library Crime Classics series which currently stands at around ninety titles and are a highly successful attempt to bring largely forgotten mystery and crime novels, mainly from the golden age of crime writing from the 1920’s to the 1940’s back into the public view. They all have this very attractive cover style and make a lovely collection on the shelf. Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three crime novels in the 1930’s and this was her first, originally published in 1934, and the first thing you note whilst reading it is how odd it is especially around the treatment of the police and especially their interviews with witnesses. Normally such interviews form an important part of the narrative but here we never get to ‘sit in’ and hear what they have to say. Initially at the boarding hotel where most of the action takes place all the residents are gathered together in the drawing room and the unnamed inspector is in the smoking room calling each one in in turn but the narrative never leaves the drawing room, what we get instead is chit chat about what might be happening in the smoking room. After this the police literally fade into the background being reduced to figures following various characters but almost never being involved in anything until after page 200 when the inspector, now finally given a name, appears again.

The lack of police or indeed anyone who would be recognised as the classic amateur detective so beloved by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many others of this period is very unusual instead all of the residents of the small private hotel where the victim had lived have a go at solving the mystery in a piecemeal way and the reader is slowly presented with whatever they have discovered or deduced. This lack of the ‘normal’ structure I found frustrating at first but gradually grew to enjoy the atypical format with facts seemingly popping up at random as the various characters proceed in their individual investigations. The case should really be relatively simple, The old lady victim, Miss Euphemia Pongleton (sadly Hay’s major failing is the use of ridiculous names), is found near the bottom of the stairs at Belsize Park underground station with her dog’s lead entangled round her neck although she had not taken her dog with her and a stolen brooch is in her bag. There are lifts at Belsize Park so the long flight of stairs is rarely used although Miss Pongleton was known to always take them as she disliked lifts. However it turns out that three of the Frampton Hotel’s residents, or associates of residents including Miss Pongleton’s nephew and presumed heir Basil, also used those stairs that morning despite it not even being the closest station to the hotel.

The brooch she had confiscated from one of the hotel’s staff who had received it from her boyfriend who had in turn been given it as proceeds from the robbery that he had been conned into being the getaway driver for. It was wrapped in paper with his name written on the outside and to add to the suspicion that he might be guilty of the murder itself he worked as a porter at Belsize Park and was known to be on the platform at the bottom of the stairs as Miss Pongleton descended. Add to the tangle of clues a missing string of pearls and an apparent recent will, also missing, disinheriting Basil; along with how the dog lead made it round the neck of Miss Pongleton when it should be hanging on the coat stand in the Frampton and you are certainly not short of ways of investigating the murder and several prospective dead ends. The actual murderer is revealed near the end although it was a character I had taken a dislike to right at the start so I can’t say it was much of a surprise but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless.

Hay up until the point of writing this novel had previously stuck to her speciality which was rural crafts and after WWII she went back to writing on this subject never again to produce a murder mystery. Her only two other titles in this genre ‘Death on the Cherwell’ in 1935 and ‘The Santa Klaus Murder’ from 1936 are also available in the British Library collection

Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything * Abridged – Rutherford and Fry

I received this as a Christmas present and couldn’t be more pleased. I have been a fan of Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry for several years after first hearing their Radio 4 and BBC World Service show ‘The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry’. Hannah Fry is an Associate Professor in the mathematics of cities from University College London whilst Adam Rutherford is a geneticist at the same university. Both of them have also done a significant amount of TV work and have written several books individually, this is the first time they have written together. For those not familiar with their radio programme they tackle a listener raised query each week with scientific rigour and a considerable amount of humour and this book reads like a continuation of their radio show. If you want to sample their programme, and I recommend you do so, then all the 115 episodes they have made in the five years since they started it are available here.

From the introduction of Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything – Abridged

At first the layout of the book is a little confusing, apart from the main text there are numerous ‘boxes’ that go into more detail on a point raised however these sometimes appear half way through not just paragraphs but often midway through a sentence so you have to read on and then go back to the box if you don’t want to lose your place. The boxes can be up to three pages long so leaping then back to where the main text was up to caused me to reread a few sections to make sure I was back up to speed, there are also numerous footnotes to keep up with. Once you get to grips with the odd layout though the book is great fun and bounces around the various scientific concepts that are covered with enough detail to provide an interesting learning experience without going too deep so that you feel the need to browse the internet to follow what is being said. This is very much like their radio show which is good as I tend to listen to that at half past two in the morning on the World Service when I can’t sleep but clearly am not about to get out of bed to check something.

The topics raised are definitely varied, from how you see things (touched on in two separate chapters) to a library that contains every piece of text ever, to does your dog love you, via how to calculate the circumference of the Earth and confirmation biases, with lots more besides those. You would think that with such a vast range of subjects it would just be a hodgepodge of ideas but instead it reads more as if the two authors were having a chat with you, in a pub maybe over a couple of drinks, now that would be fun. There is even a section which attempts to define the average reader of the book and I’m sorry to disappoint Rutherford and Fry but the only bit you got right for me was that I buy more than ten books a year (more like ten books a month). I would also have liked to be a bit more of Hannah Fry’s field of mathematics, there is definitely plenty from Adam Rutherford’s genetics although I appreciate that maths is a bit of a turn off for many readers so presumably that was deliberate.

The book was published by Bantam Press in October 2021 and as I write this it is currently on the Amazon UK lists 738 in Books, 2 in History of Science (Books), 3 in Biological Evolution and 3 in Cosmology so they definitely have a hit on their hands across multiple disciplines, and quite rightly so. Go buy the book you will definitely learn something new and via the comprehensive section on references you can then head off to go deeper into bits that catch your interest. I’m definitely going to be reading more about Jonathan Basilie’s version of Borge’s total library, the distortion of astronauts eyeballs, end of the world prophesies failing and dogs and their eyebrows. I knew nothing about Borge’s library or for that matter dog eyebrows before reading this book who knows what will strike you as interesting or at least odd enough to want to know more about.