Queen of Science: Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville

By Mary Somerville

Rating: 3 stars

I’m finding it difficult to sum this book up. Despite the author being intimately familiar with science, particularly maths and astronomy, this very definitely isn’t a science book. It doesn’t even really talk very much about the difficulties Somerville faced in her studies and in being accepted in the scientific world, despite an unsympathetic family and first husband in her youth.

What it is, is a very interesting portrait of a fairly well-to-do British family in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the kind of family that can hobnob with royalty and popes (Mary Somerville recounts meeting at least two) and spend their year wandering around Europe, staying with wealthy families on country estates for months on end. At one point, it is mentioned that the Somervilles do lose the bulk of their fortune, but there are no details, and it doesn’t seem to make that much difference to their lives.

Somerville is quite the scientific pioneer, in her translation and popular science writing work, and she mentions being granted honorary and associate membership of many scientific bodies. I felt it was entirely unfair that these memberships weren’t full (because the bodies at the time didn’t allow women to be members), but Somerville herself never mentions the point at all. I don’t know what she’d make of the fact that she’s going to feature on the £10 note from the Royal Bank of Scotland from 2017.

She was a life-long liberal (and, indeed, Liberal-with-a-capital-L), and very fond of animals, putting her name to various attempts in Italy (where she spent most of the later part of her life) to create legislative protection for them. In other ways, she perhaps wouldn’t be considered liberal to modern eyes, being firmly behind the adventure of empire, believing it to be “civilising” to the native peoples, and lamenting the fact that black men were given the vote before white women. We can’t be too harsh on her, as these were attitudes that were very difficult to avoid in the era that she lived, and for her time, she was indeed a very progressive person.

Somerville wrote her memoirs in the last few years of her life, and they were edited and published by her daughter after her death. This isn’t that book; the current editor has taken the published text, along with the original manuscripts of the various drafts and drawn together a new text synthesising all of the above (clearly labelling parts of the text that were drawn from the manuscripts). This is a very interesting insight into the editing process, looking at what Somerville and, then her daughter, felt fit to include or exclude.

So an interesting sketch of a particular part of a society that is now distant from us in time and attitudes, but not exactly a salacious warts ‘n’ all autobiography.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841951362
Publisher: Canongate UK
Year of publication: 1973

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram

By Iain Banks

Rating: 4 stars

Let me say at the outset that I know nothing about whisky, and, indeed, am teetotal. However, this book, ostensibly about that liquor, is not really anything of the sort. Banks is invited to travel his native Scotland “in search of the perfect dram”. And so we set off, touring distilleries, with lengthy detours to discuss Great Wee Roads (GWRs) and his passion for cars and driving, generally; anecdotes from his past (including the infamous urban climbing at the Brighton WorldCon, which I had always thought took place in Glasgow); ramblings about the second Gulf War; and a general enthusiasm for Scotland.

This is probably the closest that Banks ever came to writing his memoires or to autobiography, and it’s a pleasure to read. I didn’t know Banks, but I met him a few times, and had the pleasure of buying him a drink at a wee con once. The book reads exactly as I remember him talking. Excited, enthusiastic and full of joie de vivre. I’m still astonished and shocked that a man so full of life died so suddenly when so (comparatively) young.

So don’t read this as a guide to whisky. Read it for a mighty enthusiasm about it, and enjoy the ride around Scotland in the company of some of Bankie’s pals, in his fun cars as you’re laughing down a GWR somewhere in the Highlands.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099460275
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2003

Adventures With the Wife in Space: Living With Doctor Who

By Neil Perryman

Rating: 4 stars

I can’t remember where I first discovered Adventures with the Wife in Space, one fan’s rewatching of Classic Who from the beginning with his non-fan wife, but I quickly became hooked, always being pleased when a new episode popped up in my RSS reader. In no small part was this due to ‘the wife’, Sue, whose witty, insightful, often furniture-themed comments were a delight to read. I count myself a fan (even a Whovian), although my knowledge is patchy (although I did read a lot of the Target novelisations as a child) but haven’t seen nearly as many stories as Sue has. And she has my undying respect for sitting through the ‘recons’, something that I’ve never managed.

When I heard that the Perrymans were turning the blog into a book, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. There’ a lot of material in there, and I imagined a lot would have to be cut out to bring it to book length. However, that’s not what this is. Although there are snippets from the blog here, it’s more a memoir of Neil and Doctor Who, as well as the story of the blog.

To be honest, the first section of the book is probably the least interesting to me, which tells of Neil’s childhood and early memories of Doctor Who. In the book, as with the blog, it’s Sue who is the main attraction. She has a chapter to herself where she tells us how she met Neil, but it’s her interruptions throughout the rest of the book, and in the excerpts from the blog, that provide much of the humour and pleasure of the book.

Now, I know I’ll never watch the entire series from beginning to end (especially not the bloody recons!), but I certainly want to go back and re-read the blog from the start.

Book details

ISBN: 9780571298105
Publisher: Faber Faber
Year of publication: 2013

Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: My Life in Comedy

By Nicholas Parsons

Rating: 3 stars

Nicholas Parsons has had a pretty varied career, which he discusses in this memoir, from his early work while working as an apprentice in an engineering company in Glasgow, right up to his recent shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It’s a fun memoir, and Parsons rarely has a bad word to say about any of the many personalities that he’s worked with over the years. The worst he usually says is that A wasn’t quite as imaginative or fun as B.

I mostly know Parsons from his work on Just a Minute and there’s a whole chapter devoted to that, how it came about and reminiscences about players, present and past. He’s also done a lot of theatre and television work and is at pains to stress the degree of variety in his career, presumably to people who only know him from Just a Minute or Sale of the Century.

An enjoyably light read, that makes me curious to try and catch his Edinburgh Fringe show, but not one if you’re looking for salacious showbiz gossip.

Book details

ISBN: 9781845967123
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing
Year of publication: 1994

Come, Tell Me How You Live

By Agatha Christie Mallowan

Rating: 5 stars

I hadn’t known before I read this book that Agatha Christie was married to a famous archaeologist. I’m unfamiliar with the subject, so the name Max Mallowan doesn’t really mean much to me, but I was intrigued by the idea of reading about a dig in the 1930s through the eyes of a non-archaeologist, and this book didn’t disappoint. Right from the first chapter, where Christie describes the trials of finding and purchasing appropriate clothing for an archaeologist’s wife, there’s evidence of humour and a light touch that shines through.

She lovingly describes the landscapes they travel through and the characters they encounter, from their enigmatic architect Mac to the Sheikh they borrow the land from to build a house, and with her tongue playfully in cheek as she does so. She sketches not only the travails of being married to an archaeologist (for example being told that the pattern on your dress is from a Mesopotamian fertility symbol) but also the people that make up their household and the the workforce and their attitudes to life and death.

It’s obvious that Christie comes to love the country that she has been relocated to and her reluctance to leave it at the end, when storm clouds are very clearly gathering in Europe, is evident. Not a book to read if you want to learn about Mesopotamian history, but definitely one if you’re interested in the region of the time and in a wonderfully personal memoir.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006531142
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1946

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