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.

The Voyage of the HMS Beagle – Charles Darwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rescuing the Spectacled Bear – Stephen Fry

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This book was written as a diary during the filming of ‘Stephen Fry and the Spectacled Bear’ which itself was a follow up to an earlier documentary entitled ‘Paddington Bear: The Early Years’. That documentary gives a clue as to how Stephen Fry became involved in a project to highlight the problems the Spectacled Bear has in the wild. The much loved children’s book character Paddington famously came from Peru, but were there really bears in Peru? It turns out that yes there are but the question should have been, for how much longer will there be bears in Peru? So from 11th January to 5th February 2002, Fry and a team from OR Media went back to make a film about saving a couple of captive bears from appalling conditions in a tiny private zoo attached to a cafe along with two more from a zoo in Chile and also to try to film more bears in the wild. Well that was the plan anyway…

Things start to go wrong from the start due to the endemic corruption in Peru, Lima zoo had agreed several months ago to put the bears up for a few days before they were to be transported to their eventual home (see below), suddenly they stated that they had nowhere to put them and needed $4,000 to build a a cage from scratch. This is apparently a fairly normal shakedown, wait until it is impossible for the plans to be changed and then demand money which of course isn’t to build a cage but to line the pockets of the minor official who had thought of this wheeze. Fortunately part of the team was an ex Peruvian diplomat who could deal directly with the minister in charge to get this one sorted out. The people at the national park where they were going to film bears in the wild also suddenly demanded $6,000 to allow the filming; but they weren’t expecting the crew to simply say that alright then we’ll do something else. Other sums did have to be paid to at least get something for the documentary but filming bears in the wild was dropped.

The book is sad, when dealing with the plight of the bears, and you get as fed up as Stephen does with the overwhelming corruption which is determined to make achieving much to help them as difficult as possible. However there are also passages that are extremely funny, my favourite of these concerns him trying to get to sleep whilst staying at a jungle lodge, so well out of his comfort zone in more ways that one, where the noises get louder and odder as the night progresses starting with.

A moth about the size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition of Don Quixote flapped in and started circling the tilley lamp. First mistake. Swearing lightly, I pushed myself out of the netting and took the lamp out onto the porch. Creatures of the night being dark and stupid, are attracted to the light. THEN WHY THE HELL DON’T THEY COME OUT DURING THE DAY?

The photography, by Rob Fraser is superb and does full justice to this spectacular country and the amazing diversity of landscapes that it contains from jungle rivers to Andean peaks via deserts and highland forests. It is also home to a vast selection of animals including ten percent of all known bird species. If the documentary and this book can do anything to hell protect some of them then Stephen Fry’s month in the country will have been worthwhile. All his proceeds from the book are donated to the Bear Rescue Foundation.

In 2008 the team went back to Peru, only this time minus Stephen, to do a follow up documentary entitled ‘Spectacled Bears: Shadows of the Forest’ for which Stephen provided narration. You can see the reserve near Machu Picchu where the bears they rescued ended up in the video linked below, although it was a lot more basic back in 2002.

National Geographic video of Inkaterra Andean bear Sanctuary

At the time I wrote this the follow up documentary can be seen via the link below, but presumably it may get deleted due to copyright at some point. I cannot find an example of the original films.

Spectacled Bears: Shadows of the Forest

The World As It Is – A book for Subscribers

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Well actually The World as it was, as these books date from 1884 and provides a glimpse into history 130 years ago. However before looking at the book itself the main reason for selecting it is to expand on the subject of subscribers editions that I first touched on in Burghall’s Diary  That book in my collection was sold against a prospectus, ‘The World As It Is’ is a subscribers only book and helpfully whoever had the parts subsequently bound included the subscription page so we know how it was sold. After a lot of description as to the structure of the proposed two volumes the subscription page concludes as follows:

The Work will be handsomely printed on super-royal 8vo paper, and will be illustrated by above 300 engravings printed in the text; seventeen maps and diagrams printed in colours, ten coloured plates show some of the principal races of the earth and some remarkable natural phenomenons, and twenty-eight separate page engravings representing notable and remarkable localities in many lands. – making in all FIFTY-FIVE separately printed illustrations. It will be issued in Fourteen Parts, of 80 pages of letterpress, at 2s. each, or Seven Divisions in stiff paper covers at 4s. each, forming when completed two handsome large 8vo volumes. Whether viewed in the aspect of the wide range of its contents, of its educative value, its wealth of illustration, or its moderate price, this work will be found to be quite unique of its kind.

LONDON:  BLACKIE  &  SON,  49  &  50  OLD BAILEY,  EC;


Capitalisation is as printed in the document, I have used bold to represent the parts highlighted in italics in the original, this is a Victorian marketing department going full tilt. For those not familiar with the abbreviations used 8vo is a standard paper size usually written as octavo. Standard octavo paper is 9 inches high by 6 inches wide (23cm x 15cm) The pages of the book are actually 9.7 inches high by 7.2 inches wide (24.6cm x 18.4cm) which is presumably where Blackie have come up with super-royal although both super octavo and royal octavo are larger than this.

The price is given as either 14 lots of 2s. or 7 lots of 4s. s. standing for shilling so a total of 28 shillings regardless of how you had the parts. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator (which unfortunately only goes up to 2016) this ‘moderate price’ was apparently more like £159.65 in 2016 or just over £168 by 2018 adding the extra 2 years inflation. Also bear in mind that like modern magazine part works you then need binders, in fact back then you definitely did as these were literally just loose pages, especially the illustrations, and came with instructions for the bookbinder as to where the pages should go. So you would buy the remarkably solid board covers available from Blackie and then pay a bookbinder to put it all together meaning you wouldn’t see any change out of the equivalent of at least £200 probably closer to £250 for your ‘moderate’ purchase. I bought the books in the mid 1980’s and according to the price still visible inside paid £2.50 for the pair at the time, the paint stains on the boards no doubt keeping the price well down. I remember the second hand bookshop where I bought them fondly, the proprietor wrote a year code letter next to the price in all his books, A for his first year of business, B for the second etc. he had been trading for getting on for 20 years by the time I bought this and if you could find anything in the shop coded A you could have it for free.

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The books are really interesting although anyone looking at them and deciding to visit a place based on the information provided would definitely have a surprise coming; for example Swanston Street in Melbourne certainly looks different nowadays :

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It’s the illustrations that I like so much and that first attracted me to these books, that and odd bits of history that you suddenly spot whilst scanning through. The United States of America is described  as a republic consisting of 38 states and 8 territories with an organised government, besides the Indian territory, the territory of Alaska and the District of Columbia. Seeing a map with Indian Territory clearly marked instead of Oklahoma emphasise the fact that the books pre-date the ‘land runs’ of settlers into the Indian lands and are a full 23 years before the Indian Territory ceased to exist altogether when the state was created in 1907.

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The smaller illustrations within the text are also beautiful steel engravings as these two pages show, one from the Amazon basin in Brazil and the other from the Transleithan Provinces of the Austrian Empire most of which is now the independent country of Hungary with the Transylvanian region making  up the western part of Romania. You do have to know some history to even start looking places up as they may well not be under the country you expect.

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Budapest is described throughout this section as two cities Buda and Pesth (the extra h is how it is spelt in the book) and when you are there the city does feel like two distinct places even now.

The colour plates are not a strong point though, the artist who did these wasn’t really of the standard of the rest so they are a bit of a let down even though the colours are still strong, the best one by a long way is the one representing China:

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The books provide a glimpse into a world that no longer exists and for that they are fascinating. In fact they document a world that was rapidly disappearing even as it was published, so I think I will conclude this essay with what is apparently a typical Dutch interior, but is definitely is a museum piece now.

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