Book Review: The Wilts and Berks Canal

Last month my son gave me a book containing a photographic history of our local canal network, the remains of which we have been exploring on our regular walks. Titled Wilts & Berks Canal Revisited it was clear there must be a predecessor. He kindly sourced this for me.

The Wilts & Berks Canal, by Doug Small, was published in 1999 by Tempus, an imprint that has since been incorporated into The History Press. The book includes a brief written history of the canal along with a good mix of historic and more recent photographs taken along its sixty mile length. Enthusiasts are working to restore and reopen the waterway. The author is confident that this will proceed successfully, albeit with some necessary rerouting where the original canal bed has been built over. Reading the book twenty years after publication, and having walked sections where work has been ongoing throughout the three decades I have lived in this area, progress has not, perhaps, been as speedy as anticipated.

The book opens with an introduction detailing the canal’s inception through to abandonment and then on to restoration. There follow nine chapters, each covering a key section along the route. These are prefaced by additional written information before the photographs commence, two per page and all annotated. Depicted are the canal, associated buildings and other infrastructure, along with the work being done to make it navigable once again.

I enjoyed Revisited but the photographs in this first book are even more interesting, providing as they do a more focused history of the canal from the tranche of images available. Naturally I was drawn in particular to the sections that I have explored. Having seen for myself what currently remains of the waterway it is fascinating to observe how the wharves, aqueducts and bridges looked when serving a commercial operation.

Given the time period of British canals’ heyday, and the development of photography, many of the illustrations are from the later years. There are also numerous images taken after the canal closed but before structures had been demolished or buried. The author provides details of what happened to stretches built upon – what remains and what is now in place. In rural areas much of the line still exists, although often buried by vegetation, but in towns there are now roads, offices and houses where the canal was once in place.

For those with an interest in social and economic history this is a book to be perused and returned to. I now intend to explore the restored sections further from home. The author’s vision of a working waterway as a local amenity is one I support.


Book Review: The Good Immigrant

“good immigrant and bad immigrant, refugee and benefit scrounger. This keeps us in our place, humans bickering, focusing on their differences, distracted, and at each other’s throats, competing and separating”

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays, edited by Nikesh Shukla, where twenty-one British writers of colour discuss race and immigration in the UK. Many of the entries express anger at how the authors feel they are regarded and treated, especially by the white population. As I consider how to express my thoughts in this review I wonder if I will choose words acceptable to those who suffer the prejudices articulated. Language can be a tricky beast when dealing with contentious issues.

What is not in contention is the discrimination faced by so many descendants of various races and ethnicities. Although not universal, the problems they face are widespread and disturbing. Some of the authors have assimilated more than others yet all have experienced lazy assumptions based on stereotyping. Skin tone and other features, including how they choose to dress, have resulted in career limitations and, at times, threats to safety.

I picked up the collection in the hope of better understanding the immigrant experience, especially as viewed through the eyes of those of the second and third generation who were born and raised in Britain. The anger and frustration they feel at the way they are too often treated is understandable. It is harder to think of answers to some of the questions raised.

The subjects focused on in the essays vary and some are more on point than others. I found a few to be somewhat rambling although raising valid issues. There are attempts at finding humour. There is recognition that differing cultures – of all shades – are not always understood beyond their enclaves.

“I learned quickly that there are certain jokes the white community can’t ever really find funny because the punchline means wading through gasps of horror or sympathy, or worse, lengthy explanations whenever you make a quip about skin lightening, arranged marriage or hate crimes. Learning the comedic levels of rooms is part of the immigrant experience”

Those who travelled from another country to make their homes in Britain did so with a variety of aims. Some came for economic reasons, other to escape life threatening situations. There is talk of gratitude and the need to prove oneself by demonstrating an admirable work ethic. There is disappointment at the realisation that this will not be enough for many.

In certain examples explored, cultures are retained within the home even when beyond there are attempts to assimilate. For some there remains a hankering back to where the wider family originated, a wish to adhere to their traditional expectations.

“We are happy to change and adapt even something so fundamentally important to us as language in order to start sinking into our new homes. In death, though, so far they’ve all returned to the ‘motherland’ and had their ashes spread over the Ganges. There’s a religious element to that of course but, in choosing this way to be laid to rest, it suggests to me that this diaspora, these brave wanderers, always yearned for home no matter how successful they were at integrating abroad.”

In several of the angrier essays there are mentions of the impact of Britain’s historic empire building. This is blamed, amongst other things, for the damaging perpetuation of the Indian caste system. I didn’t understand this particular argument, nor the wish to hold current generations responsible for the actions of their distant forbears.

“you cannot and must not turn a blind eye to injustices that your people are responsible for.”

The lack of visibility in the media along with problems of acceptance of people of colour is blamed on many things including the fictions told of historic racial variety within the British population. It is pointed out that people of African descent stood guard on Hadrian’s Wall.

“America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multi-culturalism but the myth we export is an all-white world of Lords and Ladies.”

Oppression, discrimination and the increasing violence encountered from white supremacists are all discussed. The hate detailed is distressing to read.

“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder, it’s taken off you and swapped out for another.”

I did not understand the desire to import cultures that appear to limit individual freedoms and nurture it within families. Surely such perpetuation of difference makes assimilation more difficult?

There were complaints about appropriation – of clothing, music or language. Is the wish to copy not a compliment, a sign of admiration? I guess I have not understand the problem being articulated.

Other essay collections such as Nasty Women and Know Your Place I found empowering, recognising many of the situations explored. Thus I am left with a feeling that I am missing something key from The Good Immigrant.

The final essay is powerful as the author had been through an elite, British education yet still felt rejected by the society he had worked so hard to fit in with. In the end he chose to leave, to make his home in Berlin. If immigrants or their descendants take this option, understandable when considering how too many are being treated, the UK will become a lesser place for those of all shades who remain.

The Good Immigrant is published by Unbound.

I purchased my copy of this book at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

Book Review: Wilts and Berks Canal Revisited

This is my local canal network. I have walked what remains and is accessible in my area, aided in my search for remains of the waterway by historic maps put online by the National Library of Scotland (a fabulous resource for walkers interested in social and economic history). The photographs and associated text in this book were therefore of particular interest.

Opening with a brief history of the Wilts and Berks Canal, what follows is a collection of historic photographs that offer glimpses into key features along the waterway’s sixty mile route. This canal ran from Abingdon (where it joined the Thames River) to Semington (where it joined the Kennet and Avon Canal). Much has fallen into disrepair after a century of neglect although sections are now being restored by volunteers. If it is to become navigable again there will be a need to reroute around a number of modern developments.

The photographs in this collection are divided into nine geographic sections. These include branches built to link the canal to the market towns of Calne and Chippenham, and also the North Wilts Canal that ran from the Wilts and Berks Canal in Swindon to Latton, where it met the Thames and Severn Canal.

Many of the images included are from the twentieth century. They show not just the waterway but also associated bridges, locks and buildings. These remained long after the canal was abandoned. Some are still in existence.

The first boat completed its through voyage along the Wilts and Berks Canal in 1810. By 1874 the nearby GWR railway had taken much of the canal’s trade, and shareholders wished to close or sell. This was not permitted. Business struggled on for almost three decades before a section of aqueduct near the village of Stanley collapsed, the water draining into the Marden river. This damage was not repaired. Conspiracists may ponder if the damage was deliberate. Remains of the structure can still be seen today.

The degenerating waterway became a concern in certain areas due to the smell of stagnant water and the rubbish that was dumped in the now unused ‘stinking ditch’. Over time locks and bridges were dismantled to provide building materials. Sections of the canal bed were filled in, ploughed over or built upon. Where available, the photographs show these changes.

The author has annotated each photograph providing context and further information. With restoration work ongoing those interested may check his website which contains links to updates.

As the title suggests, this is the second photographic history of the Wilts and Berks Canal that the author has curated. I would now be interested in acquiring the first.

Wilts and Berks Canal Revisited is published by The History Press.

My copy of this book was given to me by my son.

Book Review: Starting Strength

The following review is for the 2nd edition of this book. An updated, 3rd edition was published in 2017.

Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, by Mark Rippetoe & Lon Kilgore, is a fitness book advocating safe and effective strength training. It was referred to in the book I reviewed last week: The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40. Both are published by the Aasgaard Company which also provides training seminars and educational symposia for athletes and strength and conditioning professionals.

Around two thirds of the text is taken up with explaining the correct technique for performing five core exercises: squat, bench press, deadlift, press, and power clean. These form the basis for workouts that should be performed by athletes two or three times every week.

Positioning, grip and movement are covered in detail alongside useful diagrams and illustrations. Of key importance is avoiding injury while making the body work as hard as it is able. These exercises are not intended to build particular muscles but rather to engage all muscles for improving strength.

To give an idea of the writing style, this is from the section on the squat.

“The bounce at the bottom of the squat is merely the correct use of the stretch reflex – a muscle contraction enhanced by the proprioceptive detection of muscle elongation immediately prior to the contraction – inherent in any dynamic muscle contraction, added to the rebound provided by the viscoelastic energy stored in the stretched muscles and tendons. Essentially you are bouncing off your hamstrings, not your knees.”

Technical descriptions of the effect of each exercise on the body are balanced by more down to earth explanations. There is also added humour, dropped in as nuggets for those paying attention.

After the extensive sections on each of the five core exercises, details are provided of useful assistance exercises. These work by: strengthening a part of a movement used in the core exercises; offering variations on the core exercises; or providing ancillary exercises which strengthen a portion of muscle mass in a way the core exercises do not. By varying the exercise program in this way the athlete allows their body to recover while still working.

Examples of assistance exercises include:

  • halting deadlifts
  • barbell shrugs
  • partial squats (not for novice trainers as potential for injury high)
  • variations on bench press
  • front squat
  • incline bench press
  • Romanian deadlift
  • chin / pullups
  • dips
  • barbell rows
  • glute / ham raise
  • lying tricep extension
  • curls

Of the last of these the author writes

“Since you’re going to do them anyway, we might as well discuss the right way to do curls.”

The popularity of muscle building machines in gyms, those that claim to work particular muscles, is acknowledged although the use of them is regarded as ineffective.

“Exercise machines have made people a lot of money, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, they have been a very large diversion from more productive forms of training.”

This training requires individually tailored programming and a section is devoted to suggestions for developing efficient and effective workouts. The author explains that the body adapts to what is asked of it.

“To get stronger, you must do something that requires that you be stronger to do it, and this must be built into the training program.”

The suggestion is that an athlete starts simple and does not tax their body beyond what it can quickly recover from, that they do not overtrain. Individuals should work to a plan, warming up properly and completing sets, allowing adequate time for rest in between. Expect progress to be quick initially, although always the program should be sensible and safe. Developing muscle memory of the correct technique is more important than pandering to ego and pushing for excessive weight. Regular workouts should only be missed in extremis.

The importance of nutrition is given a brief mention along with changes in body weight and shape. This is not a weight loss plan nor a body building routine. It is strength training for active living.

The final section describes equipment needed for those who may want to build a home workout station. This includes: suitable flooring on which to place a rack, bench, quality barbell and weights. The most important item of clothing is appropriate footwear, although clothes should allow freedom of movement.

I read this book from cover to cover but recognise that its value will be as a reference for those willing to engage in the type of exercise program suggested. It offers a persuasive argument for the advantages of strength training, inspiring me to incorporate this alongside my other, regular exercises (with the assistance of my personal trainer). The core routines are not too time consuming. The improvements promised to the body – inside rather than visual – are well worth pursuing.

My copy of this book was given to me by my son.

Book Review: The Barbell Prescription

The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40, by Jonathon M Sullivan & Andy Baker, addresses typical physical issues faced by aging humans. These include the loss of muscle mass, bone mineral loss and osteoporosis, hip fracture, loss of balance and coordination, diabetes, heart disease related to a sedentary lifestyle, and the loss of independence. It argues that these can be counteracted by regular strength training alongside sensible nutrition. It is not a simple call for more exercise, indeed the author cautions against many popular pursuits. Rather, it promotes a specific programme, providing compelling reasoning as to why older people should be adopting a regime of particular types of squats, presses and lifts in order to live well for longer.

The author is a retired medical doctor with decades of experience at an American trauma centre. He has seen the results of patients not caring for their bodies in his emergency department. He writes

“Strength training can slow, arrest or even reverse many of the degenerative effects of aging: loss of muscle and strength, brittle bones, floppy ligaments, dysfunctional joints, and the decline of mobility and balance.”

Aimed at both men and women, the book is a clarion call for avoiding the sick aging phenotype. The author avidly recommends strength training not so much as a cure as a lifetime medicine. He acknowledges that

“Biological systems are complicated, and any particular phenotype is always the result of multiple factors”

He wishes to avoid the situation where multiple drugs, with their plethora of side effects, are required to keep a body alive even if compromised.

“Most drugs treat symptoms, not disease”

“No drug in the world will ever match the power of exercise medicine”

The book is structured in three parts. The first of these presents the science in accessible format. It includes the effects on the body of eating too much, that is, more than is required to function. Explanations are provided as to how the body uses energy, including the difference between sudden demand and endurance. As well as biological energy systems, muscle tissue organisation is covered. It is clear that the author is an evangelist for strength exercises. His aim is not so much to live longer but to extend the natural healthy lifespan. The exercise regime promoted is not attempting to body build. Rather, it will assist in normal day to day activities – growing old with as much strength, vigour and function as possible.

The second part of the book covers the recommended exercises, starting with the importance of decent equipment that could rule out many facilities (the author now owns and runs a strength coaching practice).

There are three key movements to be worked on: squat, dead lift, press. These are described in some detail along with the benefits they offer the body in terms of strength, control and stability. There is emphasis on the importance of learning each exercise under qualified supervision. Having said that, the author can be scathing about the abilities of popular gym franchises’ personal trainers.

Assistance exercises are also described. These can be used to work particular muscles to enable better workouts with the key three routines.

The third part of the book looks at programming, including examples for athletes of different ages and from novice to master. Templates are provided with a note that there is no one size fits all. Patience, care and consistency are required to achieve improvement. Each person must start from where they are and then work on increasing volume and intensity. Record keeping assists in reaching training goals.

Also of importance is recovery – nutrition, hydration and sleep. The right sort of physical activity should be pursued between strength workouts. Safety is an important factor. The author does not recommend running due to its negative orthopaedic effect, or classes such as Zumba with their intense throwing around of the body. Walking, bikes and rowers are fine. Also, for reasons given, sled dragging(!).

Many variations of exercise plans are provided. At the end of this section is a chapter on the physiological differences between men and women. In summary, they are not that different. Women are generally not as strong as men but can, mostly, do the same sort of workouts with equal benefit.

The book finishes with: notes on sources for the research referenced throughout; a bibliography; a glossary of terms used.

The writing style should appeal to the target audience – those already interested in improving their health and bodies, in living better for longer rather than longevity by whatever means. It has a male slant, a gym bro vibe, but is clear and factual.

I cannot comment on the efficacy of what the author is urging but his arguments are persuasive. This was an interesting read that I will discuss with my personal trainer next time I visit the gym.

The Barbell Prescription is published by The Aasgard Company.

My copy of this book was a gift from my son.

Book Review: War Doctor

In a growing field of medical memoirs War Doctor stands out for its purpose – to increase awareness of the reality of modern warfare on the individuals and communities directly affected. The author has volunteered his services as a trauma surgeon in active war zones including: Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Chad, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Gaza and Syria. He pulls no punches in his descriptions of the horrific injuries and personal dangers encountered in each of these places. By describing the treatments offered as he attempts to patch up bodies torn apart by weapons designed to inflict maximum damage, his story avoids polemic. Rather it is a humane account of the many good people risking their lives to help those caught up in evil deeds carried out by those seeking to gain or hold on to power in a region.

David Nott spent his early years in rural Wales before moving with his parents to England. He studied medicine at the Universities of St Andrews and Manchester, staying in the north of England for his Junior Doctor years. He realised during this time that he wished to work in war zones where his surgery could make a significant difference. He set out to gain relevant experience.

“I’d need a fantastic breadth of knowledge in general surgery, which I was on the way to achieving. And I realized it would also be good to know a lot about vascular surgery, too: if I was to spend time in dangerous places, I’d be seeing and dealing with a lot of injuries from bullets or bombs, and knowing how to clamp off blood vessels would be essential.”

Nott’s first consultancy post was at Charing Cross Hospital in London. Surgeon friends there told him about Médecins Sans Frontières, an organisation offering short placements abroad for medical personnel. With agreement from his employer, Nott was able to take unpaid leave from the NHS and go on his first mission – to Sarajevo in 1993.

Over the course of the following decades he would travel to sites of conflict gaining a wealth of experience working in the most challenging environments, often with minimal supplies and equipment. Chapters detail a number of these placements focusing on patients who left key impressions. As a reader it is difficult to comprehend how those who caused the injuries could inflict such pain and suffering on their fellow human beings.

Much of the book focuses on memorable surgeries carried out in makeshift hospitals. With a constant stream of all but destroyed bodies arriving, decisions needed to be made quickly about who it would be worth treating. On one occasion a man required every unit of blood available in the city. When he subsequently died the question of how many others would die for want of a blood transfusion lingered.

On a mission in Africa Nott treated pregnant girls as young as nine years old – victims of rape whose pelvises were not developed enough for full term births – who were brought to the camp hospital after many hours in labour to have their now dead babies removed in an attempt to save the mother’s life. In Afghanistan he witnessed the public spectacle of punishments meted out under Sharia law, Taliban style.

“women being stoned to death after being buried up to their necks in sand; women being placed beside a wall they had built with their bare hands and killed after a truck was driven at the wall at high speed. […] I was astonished and sickened by the cruelty that one human being could bring to bear on another, and it filled me with revulsion. The football stadium was full of people watching and I wondered what they all felt. Were they completely inured to it?”

The impressions left by such monstrous behaviour increasingly affected the doctor when he returned to his job in London. During a private consultation he all but lost it when a patient complained about how she suffered due to unsightly thread veins.

On a mission in Aleppo, Nott noticed that patients would arrive with similar injuries that changed each day.

“Abdulaziz told me that he’d heard that the snipers were playing a game: they were being given rewards, such as packs of cigarettes, for scoring hits on specific parts of the anatomy. […] This sick competition reached its nadir towards the end of my time there when it appeared that one particularly vicious and inhumane sniper had a new target of choice: pregnant women.”

The author treated several of these women whose babies had been shot in utero. It was this experience that finally drove him to try to publicize the horror of what was happening in Aleppo once he returned to London. The media showed interest and he began to offer interviews and share pictures taken. Harnessing his increasingly public profile, Nott sought to help those now trapped and in imminent danger in Syria.

Given the horrors recounted, this book could be challenging to read yet much of it comes across as hopeful due to the determination of the medical teams to continue to offer treatment whatever else is happening in their vicinity. Nott includes many instances when his efforts were unsuccessful, and examples of risks he took that with hindsight were foolish. He does not paint himself as a hero but rather as a man who relished the adrenaline rush of danger. Nevertheless, it is hard to do anything but admire the tenacity and bravery of all the medics.

The writing is precise and succinct but retains a compassion for the suffering of those whose lives have been stripped to a struggle to survive in unimaginable conditions. Details of the medical procedures are fascinating and described in accessible language. And yet, with so many wars included there is a feeling of despair when considering what man is capable of inflicting. Nott admits that his work has left him in need of therapy for PTSD.

I mentioned that the stated purpose of the book was to raise awareness and in this it succeeds. It is, however, difficult to know what to do with such awareness in a world controlled by the egocentric – venal governments willing to turn a blind eye to atrocities carried out by extremists. Whilst being a moving, balanced and insightful account of the horror of war and the commitment of medics, it is also a harrowing read.

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

Book Review: Hard Pushed

Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story, by Leah Hazard, provides a timely reminder of how valuable the NHS is, and of the appalling demands currently being made of front-line staff. The author is a working midwife and shares stories of cases she has dealt with, and the conflicts regularly faced due to the spectre of rules and a lack of resources. It is not, however, polemic. Written with grace and generosity, this candid memoir presents the business of birth with clear-eyed understanding of expectations and reality. There may be a great many bodily fluids to contend with but bringing a baby into the world remains an emotional event.

The births described are those that were memorable, mostly due to complications, many unforeseen. These include: the young mother who is still a child herself; the woman who became pregnant thanks to IVF and whose partner now has cancer; the rape victim; the prospective mother suffering a serious illness. Between each case study are notes in which the author muses on such subjects as: thwarted assumptions; being human; the many challenges of the job. She has to deal courteously with colleagues who have contentious opinions. When mistakes are made they can have far reaching consequences.

The author writes of a new mother whose own mother undermines her confidence with well-meaning suggestions, and how a midwife must support but never interfere. She writes of: birth plans, birthing pools, FGM and death. She describes the mind-numbing exhaustion faced by staff working lengthy shifts in over-crowded wards where medical emergencies leave labouring women unattended. The professional script she must follow is designed to both minimise patient concern and protect the midwife.

The intense and unpredictable daily demands lead to regular burn-outs, something to which the author is not immune. The job takes a physical and mental toll that can be a challenge to sustain.

This is a fluently structured and fascinating account of a job that, even as a mother of three, I had not fully appreciated. I feel angry on behalf of these hard working professionals for the way our healthcare system is being managed and funded.

Yet the warmth and compassion with which this book is written provides a beguiling and entertaining read. The balance achieved is impressive – recommended for all.

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