The Anthropocene Reviewed – John Green

John Green wrote this book as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in 2020 and from his first review, the song You’ll Never Walk Alone which gets four and a half stars, through predictions of the end of humanity which he originally gives just one star to but adjusts as the pandemic spreads but humanity persists to four stars we can see how this series of essays is going to progress. The Anthropocene is an as yet short period of Earth history just two hundred and fifty thousand years where man has been, if not the dominant species, at least initially, a significant impact on the world. As this is a tiny temporal range compared to most other species, the elephant has been around for two and a half million years so ten times more, whilst the tuatara (a New Zealand reptile) has existed for a thousand times longer being found in archaeological remains two hundred and fifty million years old our dominance is unique. The book started out as a series of podcasts which can be found here and the audio book is read by John Green so appears similar to the podcast but in the book each topic is dealt with separately whilst the podcast almost always links two subjects in each broadcast. There are forty four separate essays included along with an introduction and a postscript so it comes in at a reasonably chunky 304 pages but because it is a series of disconnected essays it is an easy read.

I wrote that initial paragraph whilst starting to read the book but I quickly switched to the ten hour audio book in order to get the feel of the original podcast and discovered that there are three more entries on the audio book giving a total of forty seven. This is presumably a later edition of the book as the audio book came out in 2021, a year later than the original hardback but as one of the extras includes an audio file which clearly cannot be done in the book then maybe not. After originally deciding that nothing would get the perfect five stars in fact nine entries do receive that accolade, including one of the extra entries, the full list of these gives some indication of the randomness of the essays:

  • Sunsets – A quote from the review is “nothing is five stars because nothing is perfect but this is perfect”. From here on he feels more able to award five stars
  • Jerzy Dudek – Polish goalkeeper who played for Liverpool including the final of the UEFA Champions League in 2005
  • Harvey – The 1950 film staring James Stewart and a six and a half foot tall invisible white rabbit
  • Auld Lang Syne
  • The Hot Dogs of Baejarins Beztu Plysur – A famous Reykjavik hot dog stand
  • The Mountain Goats – A band that is easily the favourite of Green’s
  • Sycamore trees
  • “New Partner” – A song by Palace Music (Will Oldham)
  • The Smallpox vaccine (extra entry)

A few of these need a little explaining as to why he rated them with the maximum score because they are so personal to him. John Green is a supporter of the Liverpool football team and watched the 2005 final on television where his team were 3-0 down to A.C. Milan at the end of the first half only to score three goals of their own in the second half. This led to a penalty shootout where Dudek saved Andriy Shevchenko’s penalty and Liverpool won one of the most amazing comebacks. Fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II is quoted in the review for saying “Of all the unimportant things football is the most important” and Green concurs. Harvey was a film Green was recommended to watch by his then boss as he quit the firm to deal with his nervous breakdown which had left him unable to do anything, strangely enough the film actually helped Green on his way to recovery. Baejarins Beztu Plysur is a small chain of hot dog stands in Reykjavik, the name literally translates as The Town’s Best Hot Dogs and these were enjoyed during a short visit to the city with his wife and another couple, where he tried one on the day Iceland won their first Olympic team gold medal for men’s handball. Green really got into the Icelandic mood of celebration and loved the hot dog. The Mountain Goats is easily the shortest review where he basically just says this is his favourite band and has been for over twenty years with a quote he particularly likes “I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me”. With sycamore trees it is less clear quite why he rated them at five stars apart from talking about walking through a wood with his children and being especially struck by the beauty of the sycamore although this is preceded by a long section about his depression so it may be just he really needed something beautiful to focus on. “New Partner” is Green’s favourite song not by The Mountain Goats and has been for over twenty years, as part of the review he gives episodic stories about listening to the song over the years. The extra entry, smallpox vaccine, leads to a short history of the vaccine and also the covid vaccine that he had recently been to have. In 1796 Edward Jenner infected a young boy with cow pox as a protection against smallpox, as it was known that farmers with cows and especially people dairy maids were immune to smallpox, and gave the world the first vaccination (from vacca the Latin for cow).

At the other end of the scale only three entries get only one star and those are Staphylococcus Aureus, The Plague, or Black Death as it is probably better known and viral meningitis. Staphylococcus aureus is a bacteria John Green has been treated for and this section also features the development of antiseptics. In 2014 Green suffered from viral meningitis and had a headache worse than anything else he has had, extreme pain for a couple of weeks and a week in hospital, he recovered slowly but it kept returning in a less and less serious way for several years. I think it’s quite clear why all three of these only rate one star.

The weird variety of topics is both a positive and a negative to the book, you never know what is coming next, especially when listening to the audio book version as clearly you don’t have a list of contents and some of the essays appear to have only a passing relevance to the topic being discussed, for instance Our Capacity for Wonder is told via a review of The Great Gatsby. Some of the pieces are touching, others just odd, some tell stories that I already knew such as the discovery of the Lascaux cave paintings and the history of Monopoly giving The story of the theft of the game from its original inventor Elizabeth McGee by Charles Darrow, the person who patented it, sold it to Parker Brothers and became a millionaire. Some are new to me, such as the rise of Piggly Wiggly, an American supermarket chain operating in the American Southern and Midwestern regions and Hiroyuki Doi’s circle drawings which use thousands upon thousands of hand drawn circles to make up a complex design.

As mentioned there are three extra entries in the audio book version one of which is The Smallpox Vaccine which I have covered earler. The second one is Mortification where he describes his embarrassment after giving a talk in a high school when he gets to the end and ‘any questions?’ only for the first response to be ‘Are you aware your fly is open?’ After fixing this and going for another question there is just silence where before there were lots of hands in the air. The third is Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, a Hawaiian bird now believed to be extinct along with the other four species of ōʻō. By 1981 only one nesting pair was known to exist but female went missing after a hurricane in 1982. Includes final known recording of the single male pausing in his song for a female reply which never comes, this plaintive call is played three times in audio book.

I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars.

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.

Kindred – Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Subtitled ‘Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art’ this book gives a comprehensive overview of not just what we know about Neanderthals but also how we got to this level of knowledge where such a book covering those topics and many more could be written. A superb piece of research that has deservedly been one of the science highlights of the last year, it only came out in the summer of last year and has yet to appear in paperback but my copy is already the seventh impression of the hardback which suggests excellent sales. The real surprise, to me at least, is just how much our knowledge of Neanderthals has advanced in the last two decades due to much better archaeological techniques which more accurately map the various strata of a dig and the positioning of thousands of objects but also from the DNA analysis that is now possible.

Although aimed at the interested amateur Sykes makes some assumptions regarding the knowledge of the reader in the terminology she uses. For example ‘analysing the calculus’ is not explained for well over a hundred pages from when it is first used. When it is defined it turns out to mean studying the teeth, or more specifically the residues built up on the teeth of the fossil remains rather than the obviously wrong, but entertaining until proved otherwise, that Neanderthals had somehow grasped differential mathematics. The complexity of various rock knapping techniques and how this helps define groups of Neanderthals who must therefore have interacted with each other is very well explained although I would have liked more diagrams to illustrate this to make the differences clearer. The last time I read a book on this subject was definitely over two decades ago so a vast amount of information in this book was new to me and as it is 380 pages long there is a huge quantity to take in.

It is very well written, and whilst the necessary vocabulary did sometimes have me checking on Google to make sure I understood this was a relatively rare occurrence as for the most part terms are explained as they are needed, with the obvious exception of calculus, however a small glossary at the back along with the detailed index would have been useful. Sykes can’t resist the occasional pun either such as ‘harvest the data’ when referring to gathering evidence of plant eating and this lightens the tone of what could have been in a lesser writers hands quite a dry study making it very readable and engaging.

The opening chapter deals with the slow growth of knowledge about Neanderthals from when they were first discovered just over 160 years ago and then through the book we are introduced to the 99 sites that remains have been discovered at right across not only Europe, which was their heartland but the ones in the near and far east which I had never heard about, there is a useful map on the front end papers which shows this spread. As you would expect from such an all encompassing subtitle Sykes attempts to not just document the artefacts found but also place them into context of the living, breathing people that used them. Just how would such a chipped rock be used? Were they making personal adornments? What can the spread of hearths (areas where a fire was lit rather than necessarily anything physically built) within a cave complex tell us about the size of the population using the shelter or the timescales that a place was used? How did they co-exist not just with each other within clan groups but with other clans and even Homo Sapiens when they appeared on the scene moving into Europe from their African homelands hundreds of thousands of years later? All of this and more is covered, it is definitely a book that will repay rereading in a few months to fully take in the sheer mass of information.

According to her introduction Sykes completed the book in June 2020 and hints at several, as yet unpublished, studies that she has clearly had access to meaning that this truly is as up to date as it was possible to be. But with the indicated speed of advances, especially in DNA analysis, either a revised and updated version or even a second volume must be a possibility in a few years time. Even the fact that she completed the book during lock down for the coronavirus pandemic becomes significant, we still don’t know why Neanderthals disappeared, was there perhaps a contagion brought by Homo Sapiens that further weakened the existing population, struggling as it was with climatic changes 40 thousand years ago as the continent swung from glaciation to warmer temperatures and back again. Of course they never truly went away, DNA analysis proves this, modern humans, at least outside those of African descent, have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA and knowing this the story of this ‘lost’ people gains even more relevance today.

The one criticism that I do have is the unnecessary fanciful opening sections to each chapter in either prose or verse, lasting between a half and a full page of text, they add nothing to the rest of the work but fortunately can be easily skipped as they are in italic. Clearly influenced by Jean Auel and her very good Earth’s Children series of novels set in the time of the Neanderthals, I started off reading these chapter preambles but after chapter five just left them out.

Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities – Ian Stewart

After a series of novels, time for something factual and an exercise for the brain. Ian Stewart was Professor of Mathematics at The University of Warwick when he wrote this book in 2008 and still holds that title although now Emeritus since he retired. He has written numerous books on mathematics, several of which I own so this was chosen as the first one I picked off the shelf, he was also the third person to write the recreational mathematics column for the periodical Scientific American, taking the reins from 1991 to 2001. This column was started by Martin Gardner back in 1956 and he wrote it until the mid 1980’s and this was the true start of my love of mathematics so it has been a pleasure over the years to have sat in a few bars with Ian and discuss maths and also to enjoy his very readable books.

This book, along with it’s sequels Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures’ from 2009 and ‘Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries’ from 2014, are an interesting mix of puzzles and mathematical history and are partly built upon notebooks that Ian started whilst still at school and more snippets that he has gathered over his long career of anything that looked fun or interesting in the field of mathematics. I had come across roughly half of the puzzles before and it’s surprising it was so few as I have lots of maths puzzle books but the 249 pages of puzzles and essays plus 60 pages of solutions and/or further further discussions on points raised contained a lot that was new to me. Of the essays I particularly liked his short summary of Fermat’s Last Theorem and how Andrew Wiles finally came to solve it centuries later. Ian demonstrates his skill as a good teacher in these essays, not simplistic, after all anyone picking this book up will have an interest in mathematics but not too complex either. The solution relies on a whole new branch of mathematics so he doesn’t try to explain how the solution works but instead explains why it is important and hints at the complexity involved. There are also essays on fractals, chaos theory, various famous mathematicians and numerous important conjectures and theorems spread throughout the book.

It is in the puzzles though that Ian allows his wit to shine through, even if sometimes that is just a series of bad puns as in ‘The Shaggy Dog Story’ which is a fun rewriting of a really old puzzle that would be familiar to almost all readers of the book so he dresses it up to still make it fun and then in the solutions section introduces a variant of the puzzle which I hadn’t come across before. The puzzle involves the terms of a will where the eldest son is to have a half of his fathers dogs, the middle son a third and the youngest a ninth. Unfortunately when the father dies he has seventeen dogs so the division looks like it could be quite messy if the will is to be executed exactly. The solution is actually quite easy and I first saw this puzzle over forty years ago but I’d never seen the follow up question which can also be solved where the legacy of the first two sons remains the same but the third son gets a seventh of the dogs and the puzzle is reversed because you have to work out how many dogs the father had in order for there to be a solution with no dogs harmed. If you haven’t seen the original puzzle before I’ll put the answer at the end of this blog.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in maths, the essays are fascinating, the puzzles fun and you’re guaranteed to learn something new.

I also have both the subsequent books in this style and there is an interesting part to the introduction of the second book, I’ll reproduce it here.

Cabinet was published in 2008, and, as Christmas loomed it began to defy the law of gravity. Or perhaps to obey the law of levity. Anyway, by Boxing Day it had risen to number 16 in a well known national best seller list, and by late January it had peaked at number 6. A mathematics book was sharing company with Stephanie Meyer, Barack Obama, Jamie Oliver and Paul McKenna.

This was, of course, completely impossible, everyone knows that there aren’t that many people interested in mathematics.

Ian therefore unexpectedly received an email from the publisher wanting a sequel which did well, but not as well as the first hence the longer delay before the third book. The Casebook is easily the weakest of the three as too many puzzles are dressed up in cod Sherlock Holmes stories which frankly only serve to pad out the puzzle and it appears to have been remaindered as I didn’t know it existed until planning to write about the first two and got a brand new still shrink wrapped first edition copy for a third the original price seven years after it originally came out.

Dogs problem solution – You just need to borrow a dog from somebody else. This will mean you have 18 dogs, half of that is 9, a third is 6 and a ninth is 2. As 9 + 6 + 2 = 17 you can then give the borrowed dog back, Now try the follow up question…

‘How it Works’ The Computer

This is a bit of fun really, it certainly isn’t a review of the book because any objective review would say that this book is no real use for understanding how computers work nowadays, but it is an insight into just how much technology has advanced since this book was written in 1971, so we are looking back fifty years. Before the days of computers in the home and decades before mobile phones and despite it being within my lifetime, as I bought this book new, it seems an unbelievably long time ago for technology. I was inspired to read it again after listening to Sir Tim Berners-Lee talking about the 32nd birthday of his invention of the World Wide Web which was celebrated last week. Actually this year (2021) marks the 30th anniversary of the Web being available to everyone rather than just the scientists at CERN which was where he was working at the time so it’s a good time to look back two decades before then to how computers started to be available to even a relatively small business although they were still wildly expensive.

This blog is going to be quite image intensive as I want to include several of the lovely illustrations by B H Robinson because they really tell the story to us nowadays far more than the informative but very technically dated text by David Carey. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the equipment and then as you look further you realise that the two installations shown above don’t have any screens, the user interface is a teleprinter. The first ‘business’ computer I ever used didn’t have a screen either so I sympathise with the operator above, screens did exist but were quite scarce, certainly in the early 1970’s. It is also worth pointing out that the massive amount of cabinets lights and switches in the ‘large computer installation’ made up considerably less computing power than the mobile phone in my pocket.

Back then the sections of a computer were really obvious because they were separate huge cabinets or large pieces of equipment, nowadays everything is in one piece so it is actually easier to envisage how a computer works by looking at these old examples. To start with you need to get a programme and some data into the machine and that was a lot harder than it sounds. The example above uses a card punch followed by a card reader, yes the process was for data entry clerks to type everything into a machine that could produce thousands of pieces of cardboard each with a tiny part of the information and then carry the stack over to another machine (being very, very careful not to drop it because they have to be read in sequence) and then feed them in to load data into the computer.

Just how tedious this job was is shown above, and everything had to be verified because a single hole in the wrong place would make the entire stack useless until it was corrected. The amount of time taken to produce even the simplest programme or data source was unbelievable to those of us today. One way of getting round the danger of dropping several hundred cards, all of which look identical to a human, was to use paper tape instead, at least then it was just on a long reel although these also needed to be handled carefully as they could easily tear.

The main reason I have included the picture above is because it clearly shows a punched card. Each card consisted of eighty columns of numbers and each column could encode one letter or number, this blog entry consists of 7305 characters so would need a minimum of 92 cards to just hold the text; the pictures were not an option on machines like this back then, which I have to keep reminding myself is well within my lifetime as I was nine when this book was published. I say a minimum of 92 cards because I’m pretty certain words couldn’t wrap over cards so there would be blank space at the end of each card where a word wouldn’t fit.

To run a programme again you would need to reload the stack of cards and read them again unless you had a sufficiently large computer centre where you could have magnetic tape storage or even that modern wonder a disc storage device.

In the background you can see the five foot high magnetic tape cabinets, these were pretty quick in the day but nowadays the lag from a request for data and it actually arriving at the CPU (see later) makes them completely redundant, even more so than all the rest of the equipment shown. For example there would be an initial lag whilst the right part of the tape was found for the data needed and the book then explains that the tape could be read at up to 900 characters per second, now that figure is a little misleading as we are talking binary so just 0 or 1, to encode a letter or even a number other than 0 or 1 you need a lot more than one character, in fact you need 8 bits, otherwise known as a byte so reading this blog at 900 characters per second (111 letters per second) would take over a minute. Throughout the book Carey refers to storage in bits, presumably to make the numbers look big and impressive, even working in bytes is hopelessly outdated as we will see shortly.

Ah, disc storage, but just look at the size of the discs, 14 inches (35.5cm) across, six layers in a cumbersome disc pack, but at least you got lots of storage which was very quick to access. Quick yes but in today’s terms quite slow and 7.25 million characters per disc pack. Time for some maths again, lets work out just what that storage is in modern values.

  • 8 bits to the byte, 1024 bytes to the kilobyte, 1024 Kb to the megabyte. (Yes I know nowadays we just use 1000 for ease of calculation but in 1971 it was definitely 1024 as that is the relevant power of 2)
  • 7,250,000 bits = 906,250 bytes = 885 kilobytes = 0.864 megabytes
  • I would need eight complete disc packs to store one photograph taken by my phone, even assuming that such a thing was possible and I don’t even have a particularly up to date phone.

Actually that’s pretty good, the first computer I programmed for a company in the early 1980’s was an Osborne 1 which had 64 kilobytes of memory and two 90 kilobyte disc drives but I still managed to write a working insurance claims handling system for a parcel carrier on it.

Back in 1971 whilst there were computer chips, machines were still filled with transistors soldered onto printed circuit boards alongside the fairly limited integrated circuits available. The memory often however hadn’t moved on from the horribly delicate magnetic core store shown above. This isn’t an analogy as to what is happening you really did have lots of tiny ferrite cores strung onto wires which could be magnetised on or off to signify 1 or 0. As you can imagine the amount of memory was therefore pretty limited although the book claims that it could get up to a million bits (122 Kb).

Output back then would mainly be to a printer or possibly a screen in an advanced setup, I don’t think we need a picture of what they look like.

I’ve greatly enjoyed this trip down memory lane and when I showed the book to a seventeen year old friend she was astonished at the size of the machines and the limits they had. The computer she carries around with her all the time is millions of times more capable than the equipment featured in the book and tens of thousands times cheaper as well when inflation is taken into account.

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.

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.

The Age of Scandal – T H White

20200519 The Age of Scandal

First published in 1950, this is my Folio Society edition from 1993, The Age of Scandal is one of White’s lesser known works as nowadays he is most famous for ‘The Once and Future King’ his series based on the tales of King Arthur by Mallory which in turn were adapted by Disney as ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and by Lerner and Loewe as their musical ‘Camelot’. This however is White as a historian although as Raey Tannahill says in her introduction.

It seems wise, therefore, to warn the reader that T.H. White is not – was not, even in his own day – an orthodox historian.

an excursion into eighteenth century history which is outrageously partisan, appallingly opinionated, one hundred percent Politically Incorrect and highly entertaining from first to last.

This is certainly the case, if you like your history of the latter half of the eighteenth century to be apparently written by the gossip pages of the tabloids then this is the book for you and whilst it isn’t a option I had previously considered there is no denying that if any part of, mainly British, history is ripe for such an approach then this is the period. White does stray abroad a little but mainly whilst describing events that include somebody from these isles, the main exception to this is the final chapter but I will come to that in due course. Scandal, gossip and tittle-tattle were the driving force amongst the upper and middle classes for this was the age of the opinionated talkers and the  great letter writers and they had much to talk and write about. The main source for White’s book is Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (or probably not as one of the scandals covered by White goes on to explain in considerable detail). To describe him as a prolific gossip would be an understatement, his collection of letters was eventually published by Yale University Press in forty-eight volumes and is available to browse online and White quotes him extensively.

The main talker of the time, I hesitate to call him a conversationalist because he preferred to dominate all conversations, was Dr Johnson and he duly gets a chapter all of his own. I hadn’t realised before reading this how sickly a child he was and how much he was still disabled into adulthood. This makes his rise in society at the time all the more remarkable. Another chapter is entitled ‘Men, Women and Herveys’ and this definitely falls in the one hundred percent Politically Incorrect category as it deals with the Hervey family whose males were all famously effeminate and/or eccentric during the time the book covers, Lord Hervey being ridiculed by Alexander Pope as his character Sporus in his poem Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot. The title of the chapter is however a contemporary quote from Lady Mary Wortley Montague who regarded mankind as split into those three categories as surely the Hervey family were not as everyone else, and it is one of these Herveys who is almost certainly the true father of Horace Walpole.

Other chapters are less specific such as ‘Royal Gossip’ which deals with the convoluted lives of George I, George II, George III and William IV, their actions, their courts, various wives and mistresses and anything else juicy that White feels like including. The following chapter though is probably the most enlightening regarding the reasons why the various characters exposed in this book behaved as they did and that is simply entitled ‘Bottom’.  It is probably best to quote White directly in his explanation of this term.

In the eighteenth century, but particularly under the Regency, a Gentleman was expected to have ‘Bottom’. It was a word of composite meaning, which implied stability, but also what the twentieth century calls ‘guts’. It meant being able to keep one’s head in emergencies, and, in a financial sense, that one was backed by capital, instead of being an adventurer. Bottom, in fact, was synonymous with courage, coolness and solidity.

This was an age of potentially sudden death either from accident or design, armed robbery was common and even Royalty were not immune from being held up by highwaymen but equally criminals were very much subject to capital punishment for crimes as little as burglary and these were quite a spectator entertainment. There were no anaesthetics, you would bear an operation with fortitude to be truly seen as one of the members of society and being to take your drink even in what now would be regarded as unbelievable excess was also to be expected. Dr Johnson is quoted as saying that he ‘had drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it’ and two gentlemen are described in the book as having drunk ten bottles of champagne and burgundy between them at one sitting without it being regarded as exceptional. Needless to say a lot of people died young, if the alcohol didn’t get them than any of the various diseases prevalent at the time almost certainly would and the upper classes were trained to maintain the ‘stiff upper lip’ from childhood where violent and often sadistic masters would whip their pupils mercilessly.

I said earlier that I would get to the last chapter and this is one that sort of fits the rest of the book whilst feeling somewhat disjointed from it for it deals with the Marquis de Sade. I suspect that White felt that he couldn’t really write a book about his self described Age of Scandal without including such a notorious character but the way he does is surprisingly sympathetic which is out of sorts with everything that has gone before. However as Raey Tannahill puts it at the end of her introduction.

Whatever he may have lacked in scholarly discipline, Terence Hanbury White still deserves to be enjoyed as one of the last, unrepentant upholders of the rumbustious old tradition of Gibbon and Macaulay.

The Trial of Charles I

As I start reading this book it is 371 years to the day (January 30th 1649) since the execution of King Charles I and the events that led up to initially the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland later that year and then by 1653 the Protectorate under the control of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The republic he founded turned out to be somewhat less of a democratic state than its founders hoped, relying on military force to control the country rather than popular support. The appointment of Cromwell’s third son, Richard, as Lord Protector on the death of Oliver in 1658 and thus replacing one hereditary leader with another did little to suggest that getting rid of the monarchy had led to significant change and eventually led to the Restoration in 1660 with King Charles II taking his place on the throne. It’s a fascinating period of British history so I’m looking forward to tackling this slim volume published by the Folio Society in 1959 and bound to resemble a book from Charles I’s own library.

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The book is split into six sections, the first is a really good summary of the reign of Charles I and the issues that led to the Civil War and the subsequent trial after Charles lost the conflict. This twenty six page introduction is written by noted historian C V Wedgewood and she succeeds admirably in setting the scene for the remainder of the book which is made up from contemporary sources.  These take us from 13th November 1647 when Charles fled to the Isle of Wight hoping to avoid parliamentary forces and maybe get across the channel to France right through to his funeral in February 1649. The texts come from two sources and are interleaved as they cover the time period. Initially we come to Sir Thomas Herbert who was Groom of the Bedchamber throughout the book and was therefore in constant contact with the King right up until his death, the second source is John Rushworth who was a lawyer and collected information about any court cases that interested him and therefore is the best non-partisan recorder of the trial and its aftermath.

Thomas Herbert provides a lot of interesting background to the incarceration of Charles in the Isle of Wight and thence Windsor and ultimately St James in London for the trial itself. Although by inclination a Parliamentarian he provides a fair and balanced account of the Kings actions during this time and the publication of his account helped considerably with the improvement of the regard Charles was held in when it revealed the calm and dignified way he acted at all times compared to the treatment he received from his captors. Rushworth’s account of the trial itself, relying as it does on transcripts paints a clear picture of what would now be regarded as a kangaroo court where the decision of guilt had already been made before they started, the only question was if Cromwell could persuade enough judges to pass the death sentence. Charles is brought before the court and legitimately challenges the legality of the process. In fact there was no actual basis in law for Parliament to sit as a court and they were well aware of this as his repeated challenges simply result in adjournments to the next day whilst they try to come up with a legal argument. In the end Parliament simply ends up with the effective position that this is a legal court because we say it is and will not allow dissent from this statement. Unsurprisingly, after a couple of days of ‘evidence’ where Charles was not allowed to attend let alone challenge anything given against him they decided on the death sentence that Cromwell had wanted from the first.

We then switch back to Herbert’s account of Charles’s last few days, which are spent in prayer and in trying to do what he can for his children. Rushworth is used again for a description of the execution before we return to Herbert to cover the funeral. These three sections are a lot shorter than the first two but again show the King in a favourable light. What is particularly interesting is the use of these two contemporary sources, I learnt about the Civil War at school and we probably covered the entire period of this book in one lesson being more concerned with the start of the conflict and the battles rather than the capture and trial of King Charles I. This book is an extremely interesting addition to my knowledge of this part of British history, for instance I didn’t know that the Scottish parliament had written to the English one complaining about the way they were handling the situation as Charles was also their King and they certainly didn’t want him executed.

There are four brief appendices, the most interesting of which concerns the death warrant itself and the changes made to it which suggest that it was written earlier and then had to be amended to fit the ultimate date along with two names that have been written over ones subsequently removed. It appears that the decision of the judges was more fluid than the Parliamentarians would have liked.

Sailing to Freedom – Voldemar Veedam & Carl B. Wall

This beautiful volume was a gift from a friend in Estonia and tells the tale of sixteen people escaping from the Russians after the annexation of their country post WWII. This edition of the book was published as part of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence in 2018 and includes a preface by the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Sadly that initial period of independence was snuffed out by the start of World War II with first the Russians then the Germans and finally the Russians again taking control, Estonia would not be independent again until the 20th August 1991. Estonians therefore celebrate two Independence Days, the 23rd February marking the first time they were their own state back in 1918 and the 20th August for the current and longest period of independence the country has had in the centuries it has existed.

During the early 1940’s the Russians instigated mass deportations of ethnic Estonians to Siberia and the majority of those sent there never survived to get back to their own country. To escape these deportations many Estonians sailed across the Baltic to Sweden where they were largely held in camps amongst these escapees were the heroes of this book. They were faced with yet another problem at the end of the war as Sweden was set to send the Estonians back to their own country and Soviet control.  In March 1945 Voldemar Veedam was sitting with his friend Harry Paalberg when the first of the letters from the Swedish foreign ministry were received by the refugees informing them that they were to be returned and the Soviets has assured the Swedish government that they would be safe. Needless to say the refugees in Sweden didn’t believe the Soviet assurances and it turned out to be a correct supposition as tens of thousands more Estonians were sent to their doom in Siberia during the 1950’s.

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And so the plan was hatched between Voldemar and Harry to escape, this time from Sweden and try to get to the USA. They would need a boat and a few more people to man it and also help raise the money needed for the trip; this was going to be difficult enough never mind the gruelling ocean voyage. Money was tight and they couldn’t get more from family abroad as Swedish law severely limited the amount that could be sent to the refugees. In the end they managed to purchase a 36½ foot long (11.1m) by 13 foot wide (4m) sloop called Erma and an erratic diesel engine, but only by taking so many people into the escape attempt that the crew numbered twelve adults and four children. Working out how to get all those people on board with sufficient provisions and still be able to sail was a logistical nightmare. So much so that one of the recurring themes is the amazement of bystanders whenever they did manage to make it to a port as to how so many people were aboard. When they bought her Erma was over fifty years old and had been out of the water for years so leaked badly when she was refloated.

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There was a massive amount of work needed to make Erma seaworthy and this took far longer than any of them hoped even with four men working up to sixteen hours a day rebuilding the boat to be able to get everyone on board. So much so that instead of the hoped for summer departure it drifted into the autumn and meant that they ended up crossing the Atlantic during November and December.  This undoubtedly increased the amount of bad weather they hit during the crossing and caused a lot of the delays which hit their rations hard. It really is a magnificent tale of daring-do and remarkable seamanship that they managed to get all the way making repairs to their tiny vessel whilst on the way.

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When the book came out it appears from some of the blurbs reproduced from the old book covers that the trip was compared with that of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and his crew on the Kon-Tiki expedition whose book had been published a few years earlier. Somewhat unfairly I feel as his was a well funded trip (along with equipment from the US Army) with no pressure on him other than to prove his own theories. The sixteen people on the Erma had no such backup and made an amazing trip out of desperation to avoid the Soviet oppression in their homeland. I’m amazed that I haven’t come across this book before especially as it was clearly an international best seller in the 1950’s but checking on Amazon it appears that it is no longer in print apart from the edition I have now read which despite being in English does not appear to be available here. Thank you Christel for a fantastic gift which I have greatly enjoyed reading.

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The cover of the first UK paperback edition

The copy I have was published by Eesti Mälu Instituut, The Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, and a beautiful job they have made of it. The colourised photos from the trip, a couple of which are reproduced above, are wonderfully atmospheric and the inclusion of lots of covers of previous editions appeals to me as a book collector as well as showing just how popular this book has been around the world. Surprisingly, to me at least, the book was originally written in English by Veedam with the assistance of Carl B Wall who was an American journalist. It was first published in a much shorter form as The Cruise of the Erma in the February 1947 edition of Readers Digest and subsequently expanded in 1952 to the text that is now used. The front cover photo was taken from the American patrol boat John P. Gray soon after they had found the Erma and re-provisioned them for the final few days journey to an American port and journeys end.

Below are some more international translations, including ones on the right where the cover designer has clearly not read the book and has no idea what sort of boat Erma actually was.

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