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The Air Loom Gang Hardcover – 2 Jun 2003

7 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam Press; First Edition edition (2 Jun. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0593049977
  • ISBN-13: 978-0593049976
  • Product Dimensions: 14.2 x 3.1 x 22.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 246,074 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


In 1796 James Tilley Matthews was committed to the infamous Bedlam madhouse after shouting out 'treason' at the Home Secretary, Lord Liverpool, during a debate in the House of Commons. Matthews would talk wildly of his involvement in secret negotiations with Republican France - but also of a fantastic device, the Air Loom Machine, that was able to control minds. He clearly suffered from a paranoid delusion, yet Matthews' claim to be involved in international diplomacy was genuine enough for Lord Liverpool to ensure that Matthews would be incarcerated in Bedlam until 1813, when he was allowed to live out his last 16 months in a private institution. Jay writes knowledgeably about how insanity was treated at the time and about how Matthews' battles with the surgeon Dr John Haslam led to new ideas and understanding.

From the Publisher

'I have never seen the logic of madness, of a particular delusion, presented so clearly and convincingly. The Air Loom Gang is a wonderful book to read, combining exceptional scholarship and psychological insight with deep empathy for the tormented but always gentle and dignified Matthews. And it is beautifully written, with all the drama, the rich characterization, the subtlety, of a fine novel.' Oliver Sacks

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By William on 28 Jun. 2003
Format: Hardcover
Start reading page one of the Air Loom Gang and you're in trouble.
The author has a very crafty way of taking a story that - to me at least - was quite obscure, and getting you really stuck into it. It's fun, engaging, and then he explains why it's far more important than one might realise.
Around the central figure of one man, James Tilly Matthews, he develops fascinating themes: spying in the French Revolution, the bureaucratic nightmare of the Terror, paranoia and insanity. Heuses haunting settings - Bedlam, the House of Commons, revolutionary France.
This is fine and you're thinking - hooray, what a great book, really well written, what a hilarious scheme to bust out of jail by proposing an ingenious master plan for new ways to grow cabbages for the revolution. Are our present leaders any more sane?
But then Mike Jay presses the warp drive and proves the several ways in which James Tilly Mathews' story is pivotal - to the emergence of politics of left and right in European history, to the transition of paranoid fear from demons to mind-control machines and emergence of phenomena like alien abduction experiences, the battle between medicine and religion for control of the vulnerable mentally ill. He shows the world in a grain of sand.
How many writers can take something we've never heard of, make it familiar and clear to understand, then seduce us down the path of understanding until we realise its unversal importance.
Hooray for Jay, I say.
William Heath
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By SAP VINE VOICE on 22 Jan. 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What a charming book! I love these historical biographies of little-known characters and their quirky stories, and this is nothing if not quirky.

I can honestly say that I had never heard of James Tilly Matthews before, and Mike Jay has done a fantastic job of bringing his story to popular attention. It seems to be a particularly sad miscarriage of justice. These days Mr Matthews would probably have just been an out-patient who was prescribed anti-psychotic medication. He was deluded, but not dangerously so.

I particularly liked the little sojourn into the French Revolution, too, which was explained, like everything else, very simply and straightforwardly. Jay has a particular talent in that respect: he takes the trouble to state the obvious without sounding patronising, whereas many authors would presume the reader had made a particular mental leap.

What's all the more remarkable is that Jay makes the reader care so much about a man who we don't even have a likeness of! There isn't so much as a rough sketch of the man, never mind a formal portrait. Which is a shame. I would have so much liked to have known what he looked like. In a similar vein, we only first encounter him as a tea merchant with a young family, so his early life is tantalisingly just out of reach.

But as I often think with these books, where the extant documentary evidence of a life is only patchy and largely incomplete, it's easy to become sentimental about the subject, whereas subjects of contemporary biographies are too human and so less likeable. But overall I think Jay didn't fall into the trap that Matthews's gentle character could have led us: to put him on a pedestal.

There are also a generous number of illustrations, which I am always pleased to discover. I think it's nice to pause when I reach one to mull over what I have just read.

I think I would give this book four-and-a-half stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Lily Childs on 2 Sept. 2012
Format: Paperback
A fascinating study of lunacy and institutions in relation to socio-political activities and behaviour, not to mention the truly bizarre case of Matthews himself - was he a Revolutionary spy - or wasn't he? Did he really hold the secrets of Prussia, France and Britain's failed peace negotiations of the late 1700s? And was he born insane, did the condition transpire as a result of his alleged experiences - or was he ever truly 'mad' at all?

Enlightening, in a most dark and intriguing way, this history of Bedlam and the ever-evolving understanding of mental health issues up to the present century is clearly presented with well-researched facts and a large dose of drama.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I rarely review amazon purchases, but had to make an exception for this interesting and engaging book by Mike Jay.
The story of James Tilly Matthew's misfortunate life, told with evident enthusiasm and a wealth of detail, is riveting.

Matthews became embroiled in some of the defining events of the late 18th century. His story throws light upon the history of psychiatry and containment, the French Revolution, British politics, architecture, and the efforts of the human imagination to comprehend the extraordinary changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Matthew's madness has a steampunk flavour, and, lest I have made this book sound dry, great humanity, which Jay brings out with a light hand and a touch of humour.

All in all, a book to enjoy, recommend and remember.
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