84 Charing Cross Road

By Helene Hanff

Rating: 4 stars

This volume contains both the original 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, another short book that Hanff wrote about a visit that she finally was able to make to London some years later, alas after Marks and Co had closed down. The original book is probably the better of the two, giving a wonderful correspondence not only between Hanff and Marks and Co’s chief buyer, Frank Doel, but with others in the shop and Frank’s family that she gets to know. It’s amazing just how quickly the correspondence moves from formal to friendly, at least on the American side. Frank is more reserved and for longer, but the friendship and genuine affection comes across in droves.

You keep wanting Helene to make it over to London but there’s always an emergency of some kind that requires funds and so it’s not until we get to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street that she finally makes it. By this time much has changed. Marks and Co is no more, and the first book is already out and it’s the British edition of that that finally allows Helene to make the trip, to publicise it. This one is in the form of the diary of her trip, as she relies on the kindness of strangers, and friends known only from paper over the previous twenty years to get by. It’s enjoyable, but although we get characters like the Colonel and “PB”, as well as finally getting to meet Nora Doel, it doesn’t connect as much as 84 Charing Cross Road. There’s less humour and more travel writing, and Hanff is entranced by the sort of institutions that I politely loathe (such as Eton College), which is a bit of a reminder of the distance in both time and space that she’s writing.

The whole thing was still a delight to read, although I’m a bit disappointed that with Marks and Co a distant memory, I’ll never get a chance to step inside and browse the dusty shelves.

Book details

ISBN: 9780751503845
Publisher: Sphere
Year of publication: 2007

Mail Obsession: A Journey Round Britain by Postcode

By Mark Mason

Rating: 2 stars

This book sort of falls between two stools for me. It tries to be a travel book crossed with a trivia book, and doesn’t entirely succeed at either for me. It sort of felt like the author was trying to outdo Bill Bryson, and, friends, he is no Bill Bryson. Notes From a Small Island did the tour round Britain so much better, and even when Bryson didn’t like a place, it never felt like he was looking down his nose at it, the way Mason does about Belfast, Swansea or Southall.

Because I never entirely liked the authorial voice, I didn’t get on with the book. The facts are fun and all, but they’re pretty random, and while I’d hoped that the Royal Mail might act as as central theme, it didn’t really feature that much.

A bit disappointing, and, I suspect, a book that will find its way off my bookshelves, the next time they need clearing out a bit.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780228334
Publisher: Weidenfeld Nicolson
Year of publication: 2016

Life in Medieval Ireland: Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome

By Finbar Dwyer

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been listening to the Irish History Podcast for a few months now, and in that time, have clearly decided that I favoured social history over “kings and battles” history, tending to skip episodes that favoured the latter in favour of the former. When I heard that the host of that podcast had written a book that looked at the social history through a number of individual stories, I was intrigued.

The book is composed of twenty two short chapters, each on a different theme around everyday life and how it was lived in medieval Ireland, using case studies from the historical record. As I say, the chapters are pretty short, and in some cases, I actually wished for them to be longer and more comprehensive. But the book is very readable (I can’t help narrating it in the author’s voice in my head) and the subjects are interesting. While the first few chapters deal with violence and politics, later chapters are more diverse, covering marriage, protest, food, healthcare and more.

I found the chapter on marriage quite depressing. I know that the rich (throughout the world) used women as political pawns, marrying them off to cement various deals, but it would have been nice to have some counterbalances to that. There must have been cases where people did marry for love, but I guess such things weren’t interesting enough to record. And it would have been nice to see what happened in the lower classes, where there was less politicking. Did poor women have more say in their marriages than the rich?

I was intrigued by the line that Dywer drew from the fall of the Knights Templar (due to the money woes of the king of France at the time) to the rise of a particularly intolerant kind of Christian theology and to the burning of women as witches. That’s not a connection I was aware of before and it’s a fascinating one. The book is filled with little nuggets like this, making it a fun thing to dip in and out of.

I’m usually really bad at reading non-fiction, but I raced through this. It’s a great overview of the social history of medieval Ireland, something that very often gets missed in favour of the big battles and the various kings and nobles at war. It’s not exactly comprehensive, but if you’re interested in the subject, it’s a good book to start with.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848407404

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World

By Linda Colley

Rating: 3 stars

In this book, Colley proposes the thesis that the rise of the modern written constitution wasn’t just related to democracy or “enlightenment”, but was closely linked to the total warfare that emerged in the eighteenth century, from the combination of war on land and at sea; what Colley calls “hybrid” warfare. It’s an interesting thesis, with a lot to support it, and the author does provide that evidence here, jumping across the globe from Haiti, to France, to the US, to tiny Pitcairn Island, to Japan, amongst others. I must confess that the inclusion of Pitcairn surprised me, being such a small island. I wouldn’t have thought it noteworthy, but Colley talks about how its lack led to increasing aggression from American fishermen and how increased interest in the subject meant that visiting British naval officer Russell Elliott was able to dash off a constitution for them based on his own knowledge and sympathies.

It’s clear that many constitutions emerged as the product of warfare – either imposed by a conqueror, as Napoleon was wont to do, or as the result of a revolutionary struggle against a foreign occupying power, but it’s equally clear that many (most?) written constitutions have a very limited shelf life and are revoked or replaced in a short space of time. This makes their continuing popularity, both in the period of this book, and right up into the modern era, frankly bemusing. But it’s clear that if you have revolution or a coup, one of the first things you do is add a new constitution.

It’s interesting to consider just how central the UK, and particularly London, was to the fad for constitutions in this period, especially given our lack of a written constitution of our own. But London was the centre of one of the great world empires at this time, had huge amounts of shipping, many, many printing presses and so people flowed through it, exchanging ideas and generally being a melting pot, that led to the new constitutions that were already being installed being pored over and armchair experts writing their own, with people coming from all over the world to compare ideas.

There’s a lot of interest here, but I’m struggling to to pin the book down. It’s easy enough to read, being written mostly for a general audience (although it still took me over two months to finish – but that’s a me problem, not the book’s fault), but I just have a vague sensation that I’ve come away without necessarily getting it. I learned many individually interesting things (such as that Catherine the Great penned her own proto-constitution for Russia) but I think it felt disjointed, overall. I’m still not sure if that’s an issue with the book, or just my difficulty in reading non-fiction though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781846684982
Publisher: Profile Books
Year of publication: 2022

The Complete Debarkle: Saga of a Culture War

By Camestros Felapton

Rating: 4 stars

This was a comprehensive history of the Sad/Rabid Puppies kerfuffle from the middle of the last decade in which the author tries to put the campaign into the wider historical context of the culture wars that were happening, primarily, but not entirely, in the US at the time. The work was released, one chapter at a time, on the author’s blog and later collected and revised into a single ebook.

Felapton has examined the subject in great detail, starting from the early days of fandom, providing “dramatis personae” on all the major players and going through the events leading up to the kerfuffle itself, and finally looking at what happened afterwards and how the culture wars continued to develop after the puppies themselves stopped being relevant.

This last section is possibly the least successful, since it doesn’t tie into the fandom stuff at all, other than looking at what the leaders of the puppies, the so-called “Evil League of Evil” were up to at the time. The main event, however, is excellent. Felapton has read Vox Day’s writing so that I don’t have to. They comprehensively document the events leading up to and during the puppy slates, with many, many footnotes and long quotes from the major players themselves, with links back to primary sources. The only complaint I have about that is that the footnotes aren’t hyperlinked so aren’t as easy to read as I might have liked.

Despite meandering a bit towards the end, this is a really good piece of writing and was a worthy contender for the 2022 Best Related Work Hugo award (no slating required).

Book details

ISBN: 9798201696450
Publisher: Cattimothy House
Year of publication: 2021

The Great Hedge Of India

By Roy Moxham

Rating: 4 stars

This was a random find in my favourite second hand bookshop in Glasgow. I know embarrassingly little about my ancestral homeland, even during the period that the British ruled it. Like the author, I initially thought this would be an interesting diversion to find a harmless eccentricity of the Victorian era. Along with him, I learned that it was anything but. That it was the visible symbol of a terribly unfair and hated tax that killed far too many people.

Moxham alternates chapters between his search for the hedge, with the history of the customs line that it protected and the salt tax that it enforced. The historical chapters don’t skimp on showing the horrors that were inflicted on Indians in the name of collecting this tax, even when there was famine and no ability to pay. The book also details the effects of salt deprivation, which isn’t something that I really knew anything about (indeed, in the modern era, the worry is not too little, but too much salt) and although he makes it clear that salt deprivation doesn’t result in any cravings for salt, in the way that dehydration results in the craving for water, I had the urge to go and eat something salty. Just in case.

In the modern-day chapters, Moxham reveals himself to be an amiable, if sometimes single-minded, sort of chap. He did, after all, spend three successive years travelling to India to search for remnants of the hedge, and hundreds of man-hours back in Britain poring over documents and maps trying to figure out its route and history. His journey through India is evocative and engaging, as he finds dead end after dead end. His perseverance is impressive in the face of repeated failures.

The one thing that the book could have done with is some pictures. Although Moxham describes his travels well, some photographs and more maps would have been welcome. But other than that, a fascinating detective story unearthing an almost forgotten artefact of the British occupation of India.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841192604

The Secret Museum

By Molly Oldfield

Rating: 3 stars

I had two principal thoughts while reading this book – firstly a degree of sorrow that these wonderful things exist but nobody can get to see them; and second it sort of felt like the author was quite smug in that she did get to see them.

The essays that go along with each object are interesting enough, but, to my mind, quite forgettable. Sometimes Oldfield does focus on the object, going into details about it and how it makes her feel, but often there’s a degree of padding and general fluff. And, quite often we have to rely on the author’s descriptions since photographs of the object are either too small to make out much detail or, in some cases, absent entirely. The pictures are squeezed into the margins, when, to my mind, they should be given pride of place, which is a poor design choice (not necessarily the author’s fault) and the book suffers for it.

The objects themselves are an eclectic bunch, ranging from a Gutenberg Bible, through the whole interior of a warship and Queen Victoria’s dentist’s tools to the original draft of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne. I do somewhat envy Oldfield’s access to be able to see all of these, but I do wonder how valuable this random collection of items is in the era of the Internet.

An interesting coffee-table book to browse, but by no means essential.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007455287
Publisher: Collins
Year of publication: 2013

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

By Roman Mars, Kurt Kohlstedt

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve been listening to the 99 Percent Invisible podcast for quite some time now and it’s one of my favourites. I was excited when I heard about the book and made sure I pre-ordered it. There’s a lot to enjoy in the book, but much of it is adapted from stories that the podcast has run over the years (at over 400 episodes at the time of writing, that’s a lot to choose from), but as someone who has listened to all of them, it’s a little disappointing that there wasn’t more original work in the book. The stories themselves are well-chosen for the most part, although some could do with a bit more depth than the page or two that they get. They’re grouped first into chapters with very wide scope and then into sub-chapters that collects related topics, whether that is signage, synanthropes (animals that have adapted to live alongside humans in cities), or safety.

The one big thing that’s missing from the book are photographs of what it describes. There are some neat line illustrations by Patrick Vale that give you an idea, but sometimes they’re not clear enough to properly illustrate the subject under discussion. I can see that using the illustrations gives the book a unifying feel, and that getting appropriate photographs might have been more difficult, but it is something that I think would have really helped a book that is, fundamentally, about architecture and design.

The stories are all very much 99PI though so are all interesting to read, even if I recognised them from before. And I couldn’t help but read the whole thing in Roman Mars’ delicious voice.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529355277
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Ingenious Pursuits: Building The Scientific Revolution

By Lisa Jardine

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve owned this book for the best part of twenty years, but at some point it ended up being moved from my “to read” pile to the main bookshelves, at which point I forgot about it. I only realised I hadn’t read it when I was browsing the shelves recently. I also have no memory of buying this book, and my edition has no hints of what it’s about on the back cover (possibly one reason I kept ignoring it all those years ago, when I couldn’t just google it), but it turns out it’s a history of the scientific revolution that went hand in hand with the Enlightenment in Britain and across Europe in the second half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century.

Jardine uses the Royal Society, its members and associates as her touchstone for the discoveries and inventions of this period. She talks about contributions from Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and many others, in diverse fields. She covers the creation of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich; the importance of accurate clocks; telescopes and microscopes; and several other topics, that tend to become interrelated by the people involved. Hooke, in particular, is a recurring character, turning his hand to everything from clockmaking to microscopy to blood transfusion.

One thing that the book makes very clear is the level of cross-pollination of knowledge across Europe at the time. Henry Oldenburg, in particular, seems to have acted as a clearing house for knowledge, being secretary of the Royal Society. He received and sent correspondence across the continent, passing papers between people he thought would be interested, even when the corresponding polities were at war with each other, thus ensuring that the knowledge was spread around, and enabling new connections to be made that enable further discovery and invention.

The writing is lucid and easy to follow, something that I was relieved about after reading the introduction, which was denser and, to my mind, more deliberately academic. Jardine doesn’t focus much on the personalities behind the scientists — instead concentrating on the discoveries themselves and the relationships between them, although there are some cases when the personalities overshadow everything else. There are very few women mentioned in the book, possibly inevitable due to the period under discussion, although in saying that, I think there has been much more scholarship reviewing these discoveries and the contributions of women since this book was written.

An interesting book telling a fascinating story, and one that has an important message for today: science is international, and operates best in a spirit of cooperation, where people and ideas can flow freely through borders. Something that builders of walls and those stirring xenophobia would do well to remember.

Book details

ISBN: 9780316647526

Huns, Vandals, and the Fall of the Roman Empire

By Thomas Hodgkin

Rating: 3 stars

Despite being written in the 19th century, with footnotes in Latin (everyone learns Latin at school, right?), this book is actually fairly easy to read. It does sort of throw you in at the deep end, but that’s at least partially because it’s part of a larger work, so by the start of this book, the Roman Empire has already split into Eastern and Western empires, and the Western one isn’t even ruled from Rome any more.

I picked this up mostly because my knowledge of Roman history is pretty weak. The book is split into two sections: a shorter one covering the Huns, and a longer one covering the Vandals. I knew very little about Attila the Hun and the way he swaggered across Europe. Hodgkin is certainly opinionated; he doesn’t try to take a neutral tone at all. He sneers at Attila and the Huns generally, very much giving the impression that he favours the civilised Romans over the “barbarian” invaders. He doesn’t rate Attila’s abilities as a general, despite his obvious accomplishments. This is sort of refreshing, given how used we are to historians trying to remain impartial.

However, I got to the end of Attila’s life, and Hodgkin started setting the scene for the Vandals, and I found myself caring less and less. There’s so many different players, petty politics (some things never change) and armies marching around, that every time I picked it up, I would lose heart after barely a handful of pages.

So I’m admitting defeat. Maybe I’d be better off starting smaller, like with a Wikipedia page summary or something. So despite being well-written, easy to read, I just don’t care enough about the subject matter to continue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853672422
Publisher: Greenhill Books
Year of publication: 1996

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