Book Review: Waterways

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

It is said that most of us in Britain live within five miles of a stretch of canal. Many of these have fallen into disrepair. Some have been built over. Thanks to the work of enthusiasts, however, many remain navigable. There are now more boats using these manmade waterways than in their working heyday.

In 2016 Jasper Winn was approached by the Canal and River Trust – current custodians of the canals – about becoming their first Writer in Residence. His brief was to spend the next year making his way across the two thousand or so miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales – on foot, bike, boat and canoe – exploring their history and learning the stories of the people who live, work and play there. A partnership between the Trust and Profile Books would enable his findings to be published, providing an account of Britain’s canals including their culture and wildlife.

To start things off, the author spends three days as an apprentice on a narrow boat, discovering the basics of canal navigation. He then travels to the Exeter Canal – built to solve a local problem before there was apparent need nationally for the transport option provided.

“Sixteenth-century England didn’t have enough high-value, bulky cargoes to move around; there was no need to build anything national”

“For the 200 years after the Exeter Canal was built, the majority of the goods and materials people used, consumed and aspired to were produced locally.”

This changed when the industrial revolution increased the need for coal in city and other locations. Canals were built, underground as well as overground, to shift commodities from source to factories. The wealth generated along with increased migration changed the economy – ergo the population’s consumer habits.

The author purchases a fold-up bike and sets out to cycle along the towpath of the Bridgewater Canal which is regarded as the first canal of the modern age. The history of this and subsequent canals visited makes for fascinating reading. As well as detailing the engineering achievements there is social and economic history – and a snapshot of what remains. Text is enhanced by the inclusion of many pictures showing canal life and key features.

The author also travels the canals in his kayak, navigating coast to coast in the north and along the route of the Devizes to Westminster race. He joins a litter picking party using paddleboards to reach detritus. He runs a half marathon along towpaths. To round off his year or so of exploration, he hires a narrow boat with a group of friends.

Interesting tidbits are interspersed with facts gleaned, such as: why towpaths change banks on long stretches of canal; why there are occasional ramps leading from canal floor to towpath; how, on a busy working canal, passing boats dealt with crossing towropes.

The author delves into the lives of those who built the canals – the navvies – as well as those who worked the boats and supported the industry and network. He writes of the dangers of life on the waterways, but also that it could provide a decent living. As he walks, cycles and kayaks he talks to those who use the facility today. He sleeps alongside towpaths in his bivvy bag. He enjoys the canal side pubs, especially those with live music.

Although the advent of the railways took much of the trade from working waterways, many remained operational well into the twentieth century. It is thanks to the vision of those who saw the potential of canals as leisure facilities that many of these were saved. Working boats were converted into houseboats offering affordable if peripatetic accommodation. As demand increased, costs rose, but canal dwellers still form an atypical if largely friendly and helpful community.

Any Cop?: Across fourteen engaging chapters the reader is provided with views of life on the canals across time and from a wide variety of perspectives. It made this prospective have-a-go boater rethink the wisdom of ever hiring a narrow boat. Nevertheless, it brought to life many aspects of the waterways I have long enjoyed touring.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Paris Echo

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Who cares about history?”
“We weren’t remembering it anyway. We hadn’t been there – neither had our teachers, nor anyone else in the world – so we couldn’t remember it. What we were doing was imagining it…”

The ideas at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe in the eighteenth century and are credited with inspiring the French Revolution. Paris became a centre of culture and growth that welcomed artists, philosophers, and also an influx of migrant workers. The twentieth century brought further war and division with violent conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Internalised hatred between neighbours was unleashed.

Paris Echo opens in contemporary times. It offers a view of the history of the city from the contrasting perspectives of two recent migrants.

Tariq is a nineteen year old raised in Tangier, a shallow narcissist who cannot look at a female without undressing her in his mind. He is studying economics at college, a route to a better life in his father’s eyes. He has little interest in world affairs but is frustrated with his current life. He decides to escape to Paris where his late mother was born and raised. A non-practising Muslim, Tariq hopes to meet Christian girls who, unlike his female friends at home, behave as he has watched on American TV.

Hannah is an American postdoc researcher returning to Paris after a decade. Her previous visit left her emotionally scarred but, as a historian, the city offers professional opportunities she is eager to utilise. Hannah’s association with Tariq is somewhat contrived but enables the author to construct a story from the points of view of the jaded academic and the naive young man.

“You couldn’t know everything […] there were only degrees of ignorance.”

Tariq secures a low paid job in a food outlet and, once he has landed decent accommodation (however unlikely this may appear), enjoys exploring the city. We see it through his eyes, especially the contrasts with his homeland. He encounters figures from the past and is intrigued. The timeframes are at times inexplicably fluid, history presented as pageant. Tariq’s story is a coming of age.

“This was, so far as I knew, my first attempt at living on this planet and I was making the whole thing up as I went along.”

Hannah spends her days researching the experiences of ordinary women during the German occupation of the Second World War. She listens to recorded accounts of their lives at the time, commenting:

“contemporary witnesses seemed unaware of the meaning of what they’d lived through”

This opinion, that it is historians who ascribe importance, suggests a lack of understanding of the impact of events on individuals and how each must somehow find a way to live with challenging memories.

“this will never, ever go away. Not until every last person who lived through it is dead.”

Hannah meets regularly with an English colleague she knew from her last visit to the city. He grows concerned at the impact the women’s testimonies are having on his friend as her empathy develops. Tariq, for all his insular concerns, can see more clearly yet is not taken seriously. Hannah continues to regard him as he was when they first met.

One of Tariq’s co-workers hates the French for what they did to the Algerians during their battle for independence. Tariq’s lack of knowledge of historical events in Paris and the ripples these caused through time is gradually remedied.

“What, really, is the difference between the commemoration of an atrocity and the perpetuation of a grievance?”

The story is engaging and fluently written with some interesting insights into the conceits of intellectuals and how differing cultures disseminate history. Both Hannah and Tariq become more aware, especially of themselves. Paris, the sense of place, is appealingly presented.

Any Cop?: Although a pleasant enough read this book did not have the powerful impact of Birdsong or Engleby. I would say it is more akin to Charlotte GrayOn Green Dolphin Street or A Week in December. That it mostly avoids character clichés is a notable strength. Despite the occasional structural flaw it offers thoughtful perspectives.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: All the Devils Are Here

This review was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

I have read several books recently that intertwine the facts, lore and local gossip about a place with an author’s personal interest and experience. The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees explored Hastings; Hollow Shores provided a fictionalised exploration of Kent. All the Devils Are Here is also focused on Kent although the ripples spread further afield – including to London, Europe and the Middle East. The book contains a series of essays that meander around and muse about the licentious and often nefarious escapades of one time residents from such towns as Margate, Rochester, Broadstairs and Deal. The ne’er-do-wells featured are as likely to be from the decadent wealthy classes as from what may be more commonly regarded as the criminal. First published in 2002 the book has recently been rereleased. The essay exploring Fascism seems particularly prescient.

The Prelude sets the scene introducing Kent as the first commercial bathing resort to offer its eighteenth century, genteel visitors from the city clean air and curative sea bathing. By the end of the century the working classes were also descending in large numbers which led William Cowper to remark:

“Margate tho’ full of Company, was generally fill’d with such Company, as People who were Nice in the choice of their Company, were rather fearfull of keeping Company with.”

Certain English, it seems, have long wished to isolate themselves from those they regard as different from them in any way. And worrisome company can exist in the most unassuming of settings – today’s blue plaques will sometimes celebrate this.

Many names feature: T.S Eliot; Charles Dickens; John Buchan; Richard Dadd (an insane but acclaimed artist who murdered his father); Lord Curzon (last Viceroy of India under Queen Victoria, who approved his daughter’s marriage to Sir Oswald Mosley); Arthur Tester (a stage Nazi and father of Audrey Hepburn). There are more – drunks, cranks, chancers and the egoistic – many remembered fondly for the creative work they left. When the artist behaves badly can this discredit the art is, perhaps, a pertinent question.

Within the essays attempts to monetise the famous at the expense of modern tourists are mocked, these sanitised versions compared to the facts gleaned from the author’s research. Each subject has a questionable side which often inspired a following. Many characters are interlinked, and not just by place.

There is domestic discord, grisly murder, sexual abuse of children, decadent lifestyles, and attempts at obfuscation. The final essay explores the world of homosexual pickups, rent boys and the murder of prostitutes. There is little edifying in these expositions but they provide insight into the blinkered thinking of those who believe they can have whatever they wish for, at whatever cost to their victims – and they often get away with it. Families may have tried to sweep such histories under the carpet but our intrepid author hunts his quarry through a detailed bibliography, personal interviews and visits to locations. He brings the reader back to the time and place where the deeds occurred shining his light into dark corners tourist boards may prefer were left hidden.

Any Cop?: The essays wander in directions that can appear random at times, exploring a wide variety of anecdotes and rumours, unpicking speculations. This is an intriguing collection of essays that offers much to mull as they uncover the lesser known activities of many recognisable names. It is sobering to reflect that, when it comes to human activity, little seems to have changed.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Lansdowne

Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig, by Simon Kerry, is a meticulously researched biography of Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne. Born into a life of wealth and privilege in 1845, Lansdowne would witness immense social and political change at home and abroad. He was amongst the last hereditary aristocrats to wield power by birth. Over a fifty year career he served as Governor-General of Canada, Viceroy of India, Secretary of State for War, Foreign Secretary, and Leader of the House of Lords.

The book is more of a political than a social history and offers an insight into the work required of gentlemen diplomats and politicians in Victorian times and beyond. By the time Lansdowne’s influence waned, towards the end of the First World War, the rarefied world he had tried so hard to preserve faced extinction. He resisted many changes that most would now regard as progress, advocating caution and protecting the rights of landowners by attempting to maintain the status quo.

The author first knew Lansdowne as his great-great-grandfather. Kerry was brought up at Bowood, the family’s country estate in Wiltshire. He holidayed at Meiklour, one of their Scottish properties. He did his PhD in History on Lansdowne’s period in the War Office. His background and connections undoubtedly helped in granting him access to many of the documents from which his research for this book is drawn.

Although Kerry states his wish to be objective in presenting the facts of Lansdowne’s life he admits to feeling quite possessive and ready to defend. This comes across in the narrative which can appear partisan in places. Nevertheless, what emerges is a fascinating account of a life and time. Kerry’s own privileged upbringing will have coloured his views, just as my working class, Irish background will affect how I review the presented facts.

Lansdowne’s paternal forebears settled in Ireland during the twelfth century where they married into native families. In 1658 Thomas, the 21st Lord of Kerry, was paid:

“to produce the Down Survey, the basis of land title for over half of Ireland. As one of the committee allocating land, he bought claims at a quarter of their true value and amassed 270,000 acres in south Kerry alone. He was accused in Parliament of dishonesty, but no vote was taken and charges were never pressed.”

Thomas’s younger son, John, inherited these estates, moved to England and purchased Bowood. He was made Earl of Shelburne in 1753. John’s eldest son, William, became Prime Minister, negotiating peace with the United States after American Independence. He was created the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne in 1784.

Lansdowne’s maternal forebears were of Scottish and French origin. The family owned large estates in Scotland. How they were acquired is not disclosed.

Through the ages the Lansdownes have benefited from attendance at top public schools and universities, many then embarking on successful political careers. The subject of this book became Marquess in his early twenties, inheriting debts that he spent his life struggling to repay. Despite this he lived in a manner he felt was required for a man in his position, throwing open the doors of Bowood and his grand London property in Berkeley Square for magnificent dinners. His extensive staff were kitted out in a wide variety of uniforms to suit each occasion. Lansdowne and his family travelled regularly to their homes in Ireland and Scotland. Their lives were not stymied by frugality.

Early in the book, after a run of

“bad seasons, poor harvests, foreign competition and ‘unjust and foolish legislation’ irrevocably damaged farming. Lansdowne had disagreeable interviews with ‘despairing farmers’ and his agents were gloomy.”

Lansdowne managed his estates to pass them on, not for the benefit of those who kept them running. Later in the book he states his resistance to higher wages for workers as he believed this removed the incentive to work harder, and thereby reduced efficiency. The landed classes were paternalistic, providing schools and other community assets, but protected their right to charge rents they set and to evict as they saw fit. They complained of debts while owning vast assets. They appeared unperturbed by the poverty, hunger and inadequate housing suffered by many who lived on their lands.

The book is divided into four main sections covering the key roles Lansdowne played in his political career.

Section one, Home and Abroad, covers his early life and then his government postings to Canada and India. Lansdowne appears to have been well regarded by his peers in these roles. Railways were being built enabling British settlers to spread themselves throughout the foreign lands of empire. Appeasing indigenous populations was part of Lansdowne’s job – the arrogance of the British mind blowing to modern sensibilities. At a dinner in Victoria he stated

“When once it becomes known that an emigrant can arrive here in less than three weeks from the date of his departure from Liverpool, and find on his arrival such a climate as yours, you will I think have plenty of occupants for your vacant lands.”

This was after he had met some of the occupants of these ‘vacant lands’, Blackfoot Indians, of whose spokesman he noted

“behaved very well & I think my visit may have done good & helped to keep him straight.”

On moving to India

“Lansdowne missed the sweet simplicity of Ottawa and Quebec.”

‘Sweet simplicity’ is not how most would describe the manner in which Lansdowne lived anywhere. In each role he would host functions for visiting foreign dignitaries which strained his finances but he regarded as necessary. Even his day to day living required a staff of helpers. It is noted that one year he took no holiday and became quite weary. I pondered if he ever considered those to whom a holiday of any kind was an unimaginable luxury.

The second section, In Office, covers the period leading up to the First World War. Lansdowne’s roles in the War Office, Foreign Office and as leader of the Lords provoked more criticism from his peers than his foreign posts had garnered, although his detractors appeared similar in their approach to governance. The Boer War brought to light how ill prepared the country was for modern conflict. There appeared to be more concern about the monetary cost of rectifying this than loss of life.

With a growing thirst for improvement in the rights of workers throughout the world there followed attempts to reform the House of Lords which Lansdowne opposed. He was described as

“a man who may be efficient in his way and a good diplomatist, but he runs between blinkers, has no broad views.”

The author states that

“Such a view quite overlooked Lansdowne’s ability to see ahead.”

I didn’t recognise such an ability in anything presented. At a time of worldwide social and political change, he appeared intent on protecting his privilege and retaining the status quo. While the country suffered strikes and the threat of war

“The King’s anxiety was so great that he decided not to attend Goodwood Races.”

They truly appeared to live in a rarefied cocoon.

The third section, War and Peace, leads to Lansdowne’s downfall when he writes what became known as his Peace Letter. He was known to be against socialism, woman’s suffrage, and Irish Home Rule. That he advocated peace was at least a progressive move, a recognition of the appalling human cost of war, but not one that the country supported in this form at the time. When the armistice came the author voices regret that Lansdowne was not invited to the peace talks. He was by now politically obsolete.

The final section, Legacy, covers Lansdowne’s final years and summarises his achievements. He is described at this time as miserable and struggling to economise that he may preserve his estates for his successors. He could no longer afford to maintain his opulent London home. Woman had achieved the vote. Ireland had become a Free State. Derreen, his beloved home in Ireland was looted and set alight by insurgents.

“The war altered Lansdowne’s world. He lost a son and his political reputation. His perception of the world and its hierarchy was undone.”

His obituary was typically complementary and he was then largely forgotten, something that the author now wishes to rectify.

The criticisms I make of Lansdowne’s views and actions are because I look at them through a modern lens. He was a product of his time and I am aware that this portrayal should be interpreted in that light.

“With the rise of the British middle class, nationalism and competitive global economies, Lansdowne found his own way of life and class under attack.”

Over a long career he was at the forefront of governance, a statesman widely respected by his peers. He was also a family man although there are only brief mentions of this aspect of his life within these pages. He was moderate, loyal and quietly determined to fight for what he believed was best for his country.

The book includes a detailed bibliography, notes and credits, and an extensive index. There are also two collections of photographs that I found particularly fascinating, offering a flavour of the times in which Lansdowne lived. One omission that I would have welcomed is the inclusion of a family tree. The Lansdownes had links through marriage to many of the major aristocratic families of the day.

The detail provided of the various legislative changes Lansdowne worked on will be of interest to political historians. This is a factual biography more than a personal story. Putting these details in the context of the changing world in which he lived assists in understanding how influential these gentlemen politicians were. Lansdowne believed that the landed classes were best placed to make the British Empire’s big decisions, and that their position and assets should be protected. He failed to grasp that the wider population no longer revered those who wished to keep them in their place, and that they would demand to have a say themselves, perhaps sooner than he was ready for.

I found this a very interesting book to read offering as it did a window into the world of government, much of which I suspect may not be so very different today. The aristocrats may have been replaced by businessmen (many of whom still bear inherited titles and wealth, which they too complain is being eroded) but the factional in-fighting and self-interest remains.

A well researched and presented slice of history. Lansdowne was of his time and did not wish those times to change. He believed power should remain with the asset owning white men who he felt were best able to make decisions for the good of the country, by which he meant to sustain people like him. I suspect there are too many in our current government who would be of the same opinion.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unicorn.

 

Simon Kerry will be talking about Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig at an author lunch in the Shelburne Restaurant, Bowood Hotel, which is situated on the western edge of Lord Lansdowne’s country estate, on 19th February 2018. Tickets may be booked here.

The 2018 season at Bowood House opens on 28th March and will include an exhibition within the Orangery – A Patriotic Peace: The 5th Marquis and WWI

For full disclosure, my interest in this book was piqued by the fact that the village I have lived in for the past twenty-five years is adjacent to the Bowood estate.

Book Review: The Stone Tide

“I’d come to realise that none of this was ours. Not really. A house is an accumulation of lives. It permits you to dwell among its walls for as long as those walls stand. But you will never own it. Instead the house owns you. It takes your money and makes you work hard to protect it until you either leave or die. Then it waits for the next soul to come along.”

The Stone Tide, by Gareth E. Rees, explores how moments in a person’s life affect self and those who come after, the unconsidered consequences of both action and inaction. It tells of grief and loss, searches for meaning in memory, how the stories we tell ourselves at any given time, that we consider fact, shape what comes next.

Gareth moves with his wife, Emily, and their two young daughters from Hackney in London to a dilapidated Victorian house in Hastings. When he walks his dog down to the seashore Gareth is assailed by memories of his best friend from school, Mike, who died falling from the castle walls in St Andrews twenty years ago. While Emily is devoting her time and talents to renovating their home, Gareth researches the history of their new environment, intending to write a book on the people and place.

Hastings has a rich history, and not just of an eleventh century battle. In 1923 John Logie Baird, who moved to the town for the good of his health, built a prototype of a machine that would transform the way people viewed the world. Television wasn’t a new idea, and Baird’s work was superseded by the Marconi Corporation, but the restorative walks he took around Hastings inspired him. Or so says the author. In each of the people he studies he writes elements of their story as he imagines it to have been.

He includes Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and fossil hunter who wrote a book called The Phenomenon of Man that was subsequently banned by the Catholic Church. The tome predicted the World Wide Web. Charles Dawson was another local fossil hunter. He desired fame and was not averse to manufacturing archaeological finds to achieve it. His most famous creation, Piltdown Man, was inspired by a conversation with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who also, for a time, resided in Hastings.

Aleister Crowley was another infamous resident. His belief in the occult and his own powers are demonstrated during a meeting with Baird on the seafront. All of these people worked in and around places that Gareth visits, examining what remains of their history and legends. He explores the lives and the deaths, reflecting on: memorials in churchyards; blue plaques on buildings; names or initials carved in teenage hangouts; a proliferation of memorial benches.

Emily is deep in her own research, seeking out the best materials and tradespeople as she organises the tearing up of the house and assists in its rebuild. Gareth admits he is of little help, escaping whenever he feels overwhelmed by the state of their home. As well as the challenges of progressing his writing he is plagued by health issues. In a pub he empathises with a collection of stuffed cats who died of suspected smoke inhalation.

“Life was hard. The best you could hope for was a little warmth now and then, even if the attempt killed you.”

Time passes and Gareth is possessed by the landscape and its development as he catches glimpses of other’s lives in shifting time and space. He contemplates the barrier between perceived reality and fantasy. He ponders if such a thing exists, if life is the stories we create for ourselves.

Gareth’s story is shadowed by memories of his friend, Mike, and his lack of progress with his book. He compiles a wealth of research but it lacks the coherent structure he initially envisaged. Meanwhile progress on the renovation has stalled due to lack of funds. Emily’s frustrations finally pierce Gareth’s self-absorption. Just as Mike’s actions affected Gareth, and forever changed his parents – a reality that Gareth could not see at the time – so Gareth’s actions have affected Emily.

The writing is a fascinating smorgasbord of interlinked history and memory. There are many references to factual accounts but I preferred not to dig further into the references provided at the end. The truth or fiction of what is being explored is both irrelevant and a key point in the narrative. It is a story, as is everything anyone learns or experiences. We are shaped by the time and place in which we live, just as we are a factor in shaping it. Each individual’s accepted truth is unique.

An unusual, deeply personal account that offers up many wider issues to consider alongside a psychogeography of Hastings. Beguiling yet brutal in its honesty, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: Signal Failure

Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.

The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.

“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”

Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.

“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”

Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.

For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:

“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”

This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.

Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.

“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”

As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.

A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.

Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:

“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”

Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.

HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, by Hope Nicholson, is a fun and informative history of nine decades of North American comic books, concentrating on the female characters portrayed therein and their evolution. As I have come to expect from Quirk Books this is a well presented publication. It is laced with humour and appreciation for the form, written by an author who knows her subject and engenders enthusism in her readers – even one like myself who started knowing little more about comic books than can be gleaned from the films and TV shows they have inspired over many years.

Divided into nine chapters, one for each of the decades covered, these start with a summary of key developments in comic book creation and dissemination over the time period. There follows an introduction to a number of individual female characters who first appeared in the decade, whose stories highlight the trends of their times. Illustrations are included of the subjects in action. This is not intended to be a definitive list but rather a representation of changes in the industry.

Comic books were first created for titillation and in many ways this has not changed. Apart from in the 1940s, when there was a shortage of men due to war, female writers and artists have been in the minority although they have always contributed.

The 1950s brought a new puritanism and a Comics Code of Authority was introduced. This clampdown on permissiveness led many to believe comics were only for kids. Storylines could still be suspect with romances between teachers and pupils, children and adults, going unquestioned. It was accepted that clothes would be torn off in combat and sexual attentions forced when not freely given.

Comic book stories are often improbable and somewhat silly but this need not detract from the readers enjoyment. The artwork is generally excellent even if impractical costumes and curvaceous figures feed the white, male, hetero illusion of desired femininity.

The 1970s saw a return of sexually explicit publications as an underground movement was created. By the 1980s comic books had moved off the news stands and into Comic Book Stores leading to a dwindling female readership. This situation was turned around with the growth in conventions which enabled women to connect with fellow fans away from the boys club atmosphere of the store. As webcomics have been developed female readership has once again markedly increased.

Although these changes have enabled more diversity, which doesn’t go down well in certain quarters, there is still oversexualisation of characters, gratuitous violence and comic books being created as porn. However, there have always been a wide array of genres – romance, fantasy and snarky teens as well as superheroes. I learned that Margaret Atwood has made some fairly silly comics too.

This book was an education on a type of publication I have had little exposure to, a celebration that accepts the criticisms of many of the common forms and depictions. I now have an increased affinity with certain types of comic book afficionados. Most of all though, it was an interesting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: Literary London

literary london

Literary London, by Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, is a book that should be read by all lovers of literature who wish to explore our vibrant and ever changing capital city. It is an entertaining guide to London’s literary history from the fourteenth century to the present day. It includes anecdotes on the literati who have congregated in the many pubs and clubs, made their homes in the garrets and mansions, and got together to forge friendships and rivalries. As well as offering up snippets on the writers’ lives, there are maps showing where they lived and worked that readers may walk in their footsteps, or refresh themselves in the watering holes frequented along the way.

In the late twelfth century Richard of Devizes, a monk passing through the city, wrote:

“You will come to London […] I warn you, whatever of evil or of perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone.”

Not to be put off by such a warning, many came. Indeed, even in the fourteenth century Londoners considered themselves a cut above the rest of the country. An eyewitness account of the Peasents’ Revolt described the rebels who invaded as:

“nasty, dirty countrymen, and certainly not from London.”

The authors have divided their commentary into twenty-one sections that readers may easily dip in and out should they wish to explore particular themes. For example, ‘Crime’ looks at many of the detective novels based in the city, and tells of The London Detection Club, a society for writers that still exists today. The code of ethics members must pledge to abide by is included, aimed at sustaining the quality of each author’s work and ensuring their readers be given “a fair chance at guessing the guilty party”.

Although this book focuses on well known and regarded writers, there is acknowledgement of subjectivity in judging literary merit. In the section ‘Modernists and Vorticists’, a series of abstract poems by Edith Sitwell could be described as “an experimental masterpiece or mere doggerel.” There are accounts of sackings by magazine publishers for “liberality towards experimentalists”. The TLS describes a poem by Prufrock as having “no relation to poetry.”

Sitwell and her contemporaries liked to dress up and wear strange face paints. Writers throughout the ages appear to have been fuelled by debauchery and a predilection for the bizarre. This notority was regarded as even less acceptable for women, many of whom changed their names to achieve publication. The fight continues against “the ingrained idea that women should in their spare time knit, sew and leave the thinking to the men”.

Each section finishes with details of key addresses (including closest tube station) and a list of recommended reading. Of course, many of the places mentioned no longer exist. Pubs in which writers congregated have been replaced by chain restaurants, entire streets have been erased for modern development. Where possible, however, the reader may seek out literary landmarks where the stories told here were lived.

There is a guide to a Dickensian pub crawl, a helpful map comparing Shakespeare’s Bankside to Bankside as it is today, a list of addresses where the Bloomsberries held their famous salons, restaurants where readers may “Eat like a Spy”. Talking of spies, there is also a little anecdote within these pages explaining how James Bond got his code number. It is the plethora of snippets such as this which make the book such a joy to read.

From Paddington Bear and Peter Rabbit through to Chaucer’s pilgrims, the lives of London writers and their creations are chronicled for the reader’s delectation. It does not profess to be a comprehensive compendium but the nuggets shared are enlightening. The writing is consistently and assuredly entertaining.

Read from cover to cover then dip into at will. Having discovered the places that nurtured and inspired these London writers, you may well be inspired to make a few outings of your own.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the authors.

Book Review: Citizens

Citizens For Web

Citizens, by Kevin Curran, captures the voice of the young, disaffected in Ireland, some of whom choose to emigrate in the hope of a better life, and juxtaposes their story with one from a century before, when their forbears rose up to fight those who were running their country for personal gain. It is unsettling in its clarity. In the contemporary timeline the elderly look to the young to stay and defend what they consider was hard won by their parents, unable to recognise that their own motives are selfish; they wish to keep their family around them for company and control. The historical chapters illustrate that a revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.

Neil is twenty-six years old, unemployed, and living from weekend to weekend that he may get wasted on drink and drugs, and party with his friends. His girlfriend has recently emigrated to Canada. What was meant to be a new start for both of them has been delayed due to the death of Neil’s grandfather and the promise of an inheritance. Neil now joins his aunts and uncles in looking after his elderly grandmother while he tries to unearth what it is that he has been bequeathed.

Neil lived with his grandparents after his mother died so is close to the old lady. When he is with her she asks him to read letters from her father who, when he was Neil’s age, was a part of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. This man, Harry Casey, captured images of the historic event on his Pathé hand cranked 35mm motion picture camera. His involvement with the insurrection is detailed in the letters Neil reads but it is believed that the film itself was lost in a fire. As the story unfolds Neil finds clues that suggest this may not have been the case. He wonders how much such rare archive footage could be worth. 

We are offered the story of Neil and the story of Harry side by side. Neil believes that Ireland has let his generation down, that his country is a lost cause to which he owes nothing. He is desperate to cash in on the letters, to find the film if it still exists and sell it to the highest bidder. Harry, it would appear, had been willing to die for the betterment of his country. Neil’s grandmother believes that her children and grandchildren should feel duty bound to remain in deference to the sacrifices made by him and his peers.

The tightly woven narrative is written in a voice that is distinctly Irish. Neil’s frustration with his life, his love for his grandmother, his impatience with her ideals, emanate from each page. The greed of her children and her knowledge of this add poignancy. The aunts and uncles see an investment, not a home; valuable assets rather than treasured momentos. Their mother cannot comprehend that they do not share her experiences which are what make these possessions so valuable to her.

The supporting cast are deftly presented to provide alternative voices. Enda appears as the antithesis of Neil with his love of history and culture. Neil looks to his girlfriend, Kathy, to save him from the drudgery of his life but struggles with the price she demands. The simmering discontents within the family are razor sharp. The hubris of the politicians is all too recognisable in both eras.

A skilfully crafted montage that vividly brings to life two periods of Irish history. Whilst it does not attempt to offer answers, it will urge the reader to ponder the issues explored.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Liberties Press.

David Churchill on the Viking Heritage of the Normans

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Today I am delighted to be hosting Day 5 of ‘The Leopards of Normandy: Devil’ Blog Tour.

Please welcome to neverimitate the author, David Churchill, as he tells us more about William the Conqueror’s ancestors, the Vikings.

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Most schoolboys who know about the Vikings think they’re great. With the longships with the dragon prows; the horned helmets (even if they didn’t actually wear them); the gods of Asgard like Odin, Loki and, of course, Thor, what’s not to like? Me, I was also proud of them because my granny Ebba Roll was the daughter of a Norwegian shipbroker. So as far as my eight year-old self was concerned, I had Viking blood in me too and I thought that was great.

Granted, I am not exactly the Viking type. I don’t drink gallons of mead from horn goblets. I’ve never raped or pillaged in my life.  True, I do have some experience as an oarsman, but that was gained rowing in a college eight down the peaceful waters of the river Cam, not braving the Atlantic ocean all the way to Greenland and America, nor rowing down the Dnieper to the Black Sea and Constantinople beyond. The Vikings were warriors, invaders, explorers, traders, nation builders and among the many things they became, they were Normans.

The story of the founding of Normandy in 911 by the man variously known as Hrolf, Rollo, Robert or Rou is a classic piece of Viking swagger. After decades of rootless wandering and fighting, much of it in northwest France and up and down the valley of the River Seine, Rollo was finally defeated by a Frankish arm outside Chartres. One hates to indulge in cheap national stereotypes, but the French promptly surrendered – or as good as – to the man they had just beaten. King Charles the Simple conducted a bizarre negotiation on an island in the River Epte in which Charles offered Rollo first Brittany (too rocky, Rollo said) and then Flanders (too damp) before granting him the lands between the Epte and the sea, which would become a duchy known as Normandy, after the Norsemen who had founded it.

It is, I think, impossible to understand the Normans without appreciating their Viking blood and their Viking attitudes. But even Rollo, as with so much in this story, is shrouded in mystery. No one knows exactly who he was or where he came from. Among the more plausible candidates, however is Hrolf Rognvaldson, whose father was a Norwegian earl. He was known as Ganger Hrolf, or ‘Walker Rolf’ because he was so big that no horse could carry him … Or as I have chosen to translate it, Rollo the Strider, because a man that cool needs a name to match.

 

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I reviewed this action packed work of historical fiction here.

Don’t forget to check out the other great blogs taking part in this tour. Click here for links.