The Mad Hatter Mystery – John Dickson Carr

20201110 The Mad Hatter Mystery

John Dickson Carr was one of the best known mystery writers of the golden age of detective fiction in the 1930’s but who has now largely slipped from public consciousness. Although born in the United States he spent a lot of his active writing life in England and was highly prolific with roughly 100 books published; mainly under his own name but also using pseudonyms. Oddly for a prolific novelist he was strangely unimaginative in his pen names using Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and once somewhat randomly Roger Fairbairn. His main output was stories about two English amateur detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell written under his own name and Sir Henry Merrivale as Carter Dickson, this book is the second of the Gideon Fell books following on from Hag’s Nook which I also have as a Penguin first edition but which is too fragile to read without worrying about damaging such a rare wartime paperback. Although first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1933, Penguin didn’t print their first edition of The Mad Hatter Mystery until October 1947 so this copy is somewhat more robust.

In this book Dr. Fell is first encountered in a bar, over the twenty three novels and several short stories in which the character appears this would prove to be the best place to find him. He is described as a very large man, not just tall but fat with numerous chins and needing a cane to get around, he is believed to be modelled on G.K Chesterton who certainly fitted this description and Carr admired the man and his works especially the Father Brown stories. About Fell himself we learn very little in this book, Carr is much more interested in the plot of the mystery than in biographical details of his character. He does however fit in to a familiar trope of being an amateur detective who is frequently called upon by the professionals due to his unusual way of linking details and coming up with the solution to an apparently baffling case, something that goes back to Sherlock Holmes but Dr. Fell only works with the police rather than taking on clients.

The actual mystery of the Mad Hatter alluded to in the title is really a minor diversion through the book and is quickly solved by Fell; what he is actually brought in to help with is the theft of a manuscript of an unpublished story by Edgar Alan Poe. The police don’t want to be involved as the person reporting the theft has a somewhat dubious claim to be the owner in any case and has only asked Chief Inspector Hadley for assistance as he knows him. There is a murder but it doesn’t occur until after the other two problems are being pursued, although as I said the identity of the person stealing distinctive hats across London is deliberately left pretty obvious by Carr presumably so the reader can feel that they have solved something along with detectives even if it continues to confuse the main murder plot line and solution as the victim is found wearing one of the stolen hats although had definitely not been wearing it when seen shortly before his death.

The inter-relationships between the characters is fairly complex, as is common in Carr’s works. Why are so many of the people living at the home of Sir William Bitton, the putative owner of the manuscript before its theft, to be found at the Tower of London when the body is found on the steps of Traitors Gate, when they had apparently gone there independently? Who had taken the manuscript from Bitton’s study, when and why? These are two puzzles that slowly unravel as Fell determines how the murder victim met his end and who did that, which needless to say is a very different solution to that reached by Chief Inspector Hadley.

I like John Dickson Carr’s crime novels, Dr. Fell rather more than the Sir Henry Merrivale tales whom I find considerably less likeable as a character. The solutions do tend to be a little convoluted, although that really isn’t the case in this book where it is unexpected but at least looking back you feel that it should have been possible for the reader to reach the same solution given the information provided although of course you don’t at the time. He is sadly neglected nowadays, no television or film adaptations of either of his great detectives have brought him back into the limelight although there is more than enough material to make several series around either of them. Several of his books have now appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series a sure sign that he is neglected by the mainstream as this series was founded to bring back into print works that have gradually disappeared from the shelves and revive interest in the authors.

Sky Burial – Xinran

This is one of those books that is only on my shelves because it completes a set, in this case the twenty six volumes of Penguin Drop Caps which I have covered as a series right back at the beginning of this blog in early 2018. This does mean that I came to read the book with no preconceptions at all knowing nothing about either it or the author and I have really enjoyed it. Having said that I have a suspicion that Xinran made it into this collection more due to her name beginning with X than for the literary merit of the book. This could be the fault of the translators from the original Chinese, Julia Lovell and Esther Tydesley, as the style is rather flat which considering the subject matter seems odd but as I cannot read the original I have no way of knowing if that is better. I don’t know why Xinran didn’t make the translation as she has lived and worked as a journalist and writer in London since 1997 and this translation was first published in 2004 so presumably she would be more than capable of producing an English version herself.

The conceit of the book is that it is based on the real life story of a Chinese doctor Shu Wen who in 1958 who in 1958 at the height of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict went to Tibet to try to find out what happened to her husband who was a military doctor and ends up stranded there for over thirty years living with the nomads and travelling from camp to camp. According to the introduction Xinran met Shu Wen in Suzhou and talked to her over a period of a couple of days whilst she related her story, Shu Wen then suddenly checked out of her hotel and disappeared. Wikipedia appears to have fallen for this and describes the book as a biography but it is clearly listed as a work of fiction on the publication data page and frankly the idea that an intelligent woman would make no attempt to either continue her search or head back to China and would stay with the nomadic family for three decades is desperately unlikely. The resolution of the novel also stretches credulity to breaking point as a real life case with too many unresolved plot points being sorted out in a relatively short space of time compared to the vast amount of time with no movement on them at all.

Treating it as the novel that it is becomes far more rewarding than looking at it as a dubious biography, the book is 220 pages long in this imprint and I read it at one sitting as you do get drawn into the story. The depiction of Tibetan nomadic life is fascinating and it appears that Xinran did a significant amount of research, so you slowly learn, along with Wen, how the dynamics of family life operate. The book also largely avoids discussing the Chinese takeover of Tibet which has existed since the 1950’s, this is done by completely ignoring the subject by putting Shu Wen away from all contact with other Chinese people and any news of the world outside of the nomadic family she is with for a couple of decades. The exception is at the start where the conflict is acknowledged because that is why Shu Wen’s husband, Kejun, was in Tibet in the first place and also the description of Wen’s journey into Tibet having enlisted in the military and the surprise that her fellow soldiers have that they were not being welcomed with open arms as liberators from the rule of the Dalai Lama. This is where another extremely unlikely event occurs as Wen discusses with a senior officer and gets agreement from him to desert her unit in her search for Kejun. In a novel this is fine, strange things happen in novels, but in real life deserting the Chinese army at the time would have been punished severely.

I have deliberately not written much about the time Wen spends with the nomadic family or how the various issues are resolved as this is the real meat of the novel and any coverage would just be spoilers. Suffice to say that even though there is much that is not as good as it could be the book is a pleasant way of spending a rainy afternoon, just sit back, suspend belief a little, and go with the flow.

Humble Pi – Matt Parker

Subtitled ‘A comedy of Maths Errors’ this book looks at mistakes not only with mathematics but also some dodgy computer programming and some problems that fall in between like the fact that an employee kept disappearing from the company database and it turns out that his name was Steve Null. I used to be a programmer and more importantly for this example a Database Analyst so immediately saw the problem here, empty fields which should be populated are counted as Null in a database so you would search for Null entries and delete the records as they are clearly not filled in correctly and could cause processing errors later down the line, this person was actually called Null so kept being deleted.

Matt Parker is the Public Engagement Mathematics Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, amongst many other things, and has made a career out of explaining mathematics to the general public both on youtube and in highly successful theatre based tours. He started out as a maths teacher in his native Australia but has lived in England for many years and built his online presence here. The book is not only informative regarding maths errors and possible pitfalls but includes several mathematical jokes in its layout such as starting at page 314 and counting down which is clearly not normal behaviour for a book. The choice of 314 is deliberate as Matt is well known for his annual calculations of pi in different ways on pi day (American format dates for the 14th of March gives 3.14) including one ideal for this which uses the actual book I’m reviewing to calculate pi.

Other ways he plays with the normal structure of a book include having a chapter 9.49 between chapters 9 and 10, which appropriately covers problems with rounding errors, and the index which is surprisingly accurate as not only do you get the page with the entry on but as it is to five decimal places you get the location of the word you searched for.

Some of the errors I had come across before but surprisingly not many, this is a really well researched piece of work. One I hadn’t heard of in the past is now rapidly becoming my favourite mistake because it was so close to being right and then fell over at the final hurdle. There was a bridge being built between Switzerland and Germany and to save time it was decided to start from both sides and meet in the middle. Clearly this is a good idea but you do need to actually line up perfectly so the maths is even more vital than normal for an engineering project. There is a problem with matching heights and that is that they are calculated ‘above sea level’ now that wouldn’t be an issue if sea level was constant (it isn’t, the curvature of the Earth amongst other factors sees to that) bit also Switzerland does not have a coast but via a fairly convoluted route uses the Mediterranean Sea as its base point. Germany does have a coast but a long way from Switzerland on the North Sea. The engineers thought of this however and correctly calculated the difference as 27cm, which is pretty impressive (a) to think of it and (b) to get it right but then added the 27cm to the wrong side so the bridge missed its joint by 54cm.

If this post intrigues you Matt has done a couple of lectures based around the book and this is the link to the one he gave at The Royal Institution in London last year. In it he goes through several examples in the book including a section near the end where his wife, space scientist Lucy Green, brings into the lecture hall what remains of a satellite blown to pieces and dumped in a swamp after a simple maths error. You can’t easily get a more dramatic, or indeed more expensive example of maths gone wrong than that. I bought the book from Matt on his website so it is signed by him and yes I have posted this a day late from my usual Tuesday and between 7pm and 8pm rather than 7am and 8am to show that getting a number wrong is all too common and Matt also left in three errors for exactly that reason.

Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man – Dora Broome

This is the first published edition from March 1951 by Puffin Books and includes twenty five tales, it is beautifully illustrated by John Harwood with six drawings inside along with the colour pictures on the front and back covers which I have included in this review. Harwood illustrated many children’s books including Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp under the Porpoise imprint which I covered in an earlier blog. I love the way that instead of using the Puffin Books logo on the front cover he has instead added a puffin swimming in the sea alongside the merman and the baby mermaid, who is the subject of the final tale in the book.

The book is initially quite difficult to get started with as it is written in form of dialect although fortunately all words in the Manx language are translated. You can see a sample of the text below and I found it much easier to follow when I read it out loud rather than simply reading as the rhythm of the language then makes more sense. You can guess what a lumper is from context, it seems to be similar to landlubber as Tom Gorry was on his first time out at sea with the fishing boats. Having said that a glossary at the back would have been interesting to bring together the various dialect words used through the book and confirm their exact meaning.

As you would expect from an island quite a few of the tales relate to the sea and the weird and wonderful creatures that apparently inhabit the watery realm, not just mermen and mermaids but evil such as the Glashtin who although a variety of water-horse comes in the form of a young man to drag unwary girls into the depths with him. Because of the history of the island the folk and fairy tales are influenced not only by nearby Celtic mythology and alongside that Irish christian myths such as St Patrick banishing the snakes from the Isle of Man as well as Ireland but there are also Norse origins as the island was a Viking stronghold for many years. It’s an interesting mix and the stories are told in a fun way that makes you keep reading once you have got into the swing of the language used.

One story I was a little surprised to be missing is that of the Fairy Bridge. The little people themselves are regularly referred to in the book with saucers of milk left out for them in many of the tales so that they are happy if they visit a cottage and don’t cause mischief but probably the best known link to them nowadays is the bridge and I was hoping for some background. Maybe there isn’t a specific tale but visitors to the island are even now encouraged to say hello to the fairies when crossing the bridge, which you would do quite easily as it is on the main A5 road from Douglas (the Isle of Man capital) to Port Erin in the south west of the island.

I read the book alongside a another volume ‘The Folklore of the Isle of Man’ by Margaret Killip which is one of the volumes comprising ‘The Folklore of the British Isles‘ and was first published by Batsford in 1975. This book gives a more rigorous and academic overview of the subject rather than simply retelling tales and it was interesting to look up the various creatures mentioned in the tales to get a deeper understanding of just what a Buggane or a Phynnodderee for example are and the powers each was believed to have. Bugganes feature in three of the tales and a Phynnodderee in two and this woodland spirit is depicted on the rear cover of the book.

Mark Steel’s in Town – Mark Steel

Mark Steel is a stand up comedian that started a BBC Radio 4 radio show called Mark Steel’s in Town back in March 2009 where he travels to towns in the UK and builds a routine about the place and people for a one off show played in that town. He has deviated slightly over the years and two shows have come from outside the UK, namely Gibraltar and most recently Malta (broadcast February 2019) both of which he found more British than a lot of the places he had been to before. This book, published by Fourth Estate in 2011, is adapted from his travels in the first two series along with other towns and cities that he did as part of his stand up tours which weren’t recorded for the BBC shows. The idea is to gently poke fun at the place he is in and during the radio show he also includes interviews with locals which highlight the oddities and history of the location.

The idea for the show grew out of a frustration that all towns are starting to look the same, you know that such and such a shop will be on that corner there, next to a legion of other similar shops, there is no real way to tell if you are in Taunton or Norwich when you are in the main shopping area as the same retailers are in roughly the same place no matter where you are. What Mark does is celebrate what makes a place different from anywhere else and the fact that he does it in such a funny way has made his series last over a decade. Presumably he would be working on series ten if it wasn’t for the coronavirus that makes such a project impossible.

In this book Mark bounces around Britain from Penzance in the far south west with its outdoor swimming pool which has a cannon built into one side of it; to Kirkwall on Orkney which is just about as far north as you can go and still be in the UK where he encounters a pram shop which is also a fully stocked off licence, presumably on the basis that drinking too much of some of the stock may lead you to needing the other half of the shop nine months later. In between he visits the concrete hippo of Walsall, the rabbits that must not be mentioned of Portland and the bonfire societies of Lewes amongst lots of others. He isn’t put off dealing with harder issues either such as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland when he went to Andersontown or the chronic unemployment and deprivation in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. You really can learn a lot about the UK, its geography and history from these short essays.

All in all it is a delightfully eccentric tour of the UK only marred by his use of the ‘f’ word on several occasions which makes it unsuitable for younger readers, but frankly they aren’t the audience he is aiming at. It is a pity though as the language is unnecessary because Steel has a wonderful turn of phrase and is genuinely funny and he is much more careful with his broadcast versions. All fifty four episodes of the Radio 4 show are currently available on BBC Sounds and are well worth a listen.

Gaudi The Complete Works – Rainer Zerbst

There are very few architects where one glance at a building is enough to tell you that they were involved. Probably the most distinctive of this small group is the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi i Cornet, whose masterwork, the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona is still under construction 137 years after he took over the project and 94 years after he died. It is hoped that the six huge steeples will be completed in time for the centenary of his death and when I last saw it earlier this year that certainly looked like a possibility as they had risen considerably since my previous visit. The double page spread below is looking straight up at the ceiling of this truly remarkable building.

Published by the German art publisher Tashen there are two versions of this book, both in hardback. Mine is the larger one at 25 x 34 cm with 368 pages and weighing 2.91 kg, there is also the much smaller 40th anniversary edition which is 15.6 x 21.7 cm and almost half the weight at 1.47 kg. The number of pages in the smaller edition is higher, presumably to get all the text in at a readable size, because although this is a wonderful book of full page images there is also a lot of text providing a good length biography and extensive notes about each featured building. Part of the reason for the weight of my copy is the use of very high quality paper which is a hallmark of Taschen’s publications. I also feel that to do justice to Gaudi’s remarkable structures you need as large an image as is practicable so would very much recommend this version, which costs £40 rather than the 40th anniversary edition which is half the price but not as impressive a volume.

The book is split into three sections and the pages are colour coded within these parts. Initially there is an introduction which along with the historical summary also provides short essays on significant projects. This part is on ‘normal’ white background pages with black text. Following this comes the main body of the book with in depth analysis of sixteen buildings, or groups of buildings in the case of Güell Park, which each get between fifteen and twenty pages dedicated to them. These parts each have an initial page on gold paper with black text followed by black paper with white text. The final section summarises Gaudi’s complete works with each piece from furniture to the less important buildings briefly discussed and printed on gold paper with black writing. This part also includes a short biography and pages of photo credits.

The mixing up of the coloured pages sounds like it could be a mess of a book but in reality it is beautifully designed and certainly has a wow factor from the moment you first open it. When I showed it to a friend of mine that runs a bookshop she ordered a copy for herself that morning it has that sort of impact. I was given it for my birthday, in June, and have only just finished reading it. Not only are there so many fantastic images to look at but there is a large amount of text to provide a lot of information about Gaudi and his works. The book really does live up to it’s subtitle of The Complete Works and is surprisingly readable despite the level of detail that it goes into.

I first started specifically buying books by Taschen, rather than just picking up random titles as and when they caught my eye, when they began a series called Taschen’s World Architecture in the the 1990’s. This was intended to be a forty volume set exploring everything from ancient Egypt and Greece through to the modern age and genuinely trying to cover the world rather than just a Euro-centric view. Unfortunately it clearly wasn’t successful, some of the planned volumes were obviously going to have a limited readership, which is probably why 250 page high production value books at a sensible price had not come out before. In the end only twelve of the projected volumes were actually produced and the last couple tended to be found mainly in discount retailers as they were remaindered, which made tracking them down to complete what I could rather difficult. I will review these excellent books in a blog entry sometime next year

Despite the failure of that series, architecture is still a mainstay of Taschen’s publishing output and I hope that reading this blog has perhaps whetted your appetite to seek out some of their beautiful books. Even if you don’t have a major interest in architecture then they are still really interesting and gorgeous to look at. But be aware they are not for bedtime reading, they tend to be large and heavy, the next Taschen publication I intend to cover on this blog clocks in at a massive 7.56kg and will highlight another branch of their output. Until then enjoy the images I have selected here and maybe get a copy yourself.

List of images selected for this blog:

  • Cover – Detail from Güell Palace
  • The ceiling from the aisle of Sagrada Familia
  • Top of the tower at El Capricho near Santander
  • Güell Palace – interior view, Gaudi would not only design the physical structure but also the fixtures and fittings inside to continue his design throughout the building
  • Bodegas Güell – this astonishing triangular cross-section building is the wine cellars for the Güell family
  • Park Güell – view from the terrace looking back at the entrance gates and buildings
  • Casa Batlló – One of the staircases
  • Gold page below – Casa Pere Santalo, in this case Gaudi renovated the facade rather than designed the building but still made it distinctively his own

The History of England – Jane Austen

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

The History of England

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

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

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

Lesley Castle

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

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

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

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

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

Longhand – Andy Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their Darkest Materials – Penelope Hemingway

20200908 Their Darkest Materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

20200908 Their Darkest Materials 2

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

Folio Society Poetry Miniatures

20200915 Folio Miniature Poetry

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

1991 The Lady of Shalott – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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

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

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

1992 The Pied Piper of Hamelin – Robert Browning

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

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

1993 The Garden & Other Poems – Andrew Marvell

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

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

1994 Sir Patrick Spens & Other Ballads

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

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

1995 The Raven – Edgar Allan Poe

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

Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’

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

1996 Fifty Folio Epigrams – edited by Sue Bradbury

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

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

1997 Fifty Folio Love Poems – edited by Sue Bradbury

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

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

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