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The Street Philosopher [Hardcover]

Matthew Plampin
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Feb 2009

An elegant, powerful novel, set in Victorian England, a time not so different from our own… perfect for fans of THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER and THE SHADOW OF THE WIND

Ambitious young journalist Thomas Kitson arrives at the battlefields of the Crimea as the London Courier’s man on the ground. It is a dangerous place, full of the worst horrors of war but Kitson is determined to make his mark. Under the tutelage of his hard-bitten Irish boss Cracknell, and assisted by artist Robert Styles, he sets about exposing the incompetence of the army generals.

Two years later, as Sebastopol burns, Thomas returns to England under mysterious circumstances. Desperate to forget the atrocities of the Crimea, he takes a job as a ‘street philosopher’, a society writer reporting on the gossip of the day. But on the eve of the great Art Treasures Exhibition, as Manchester prepares to welcome Queen Victoria, Thomas’s past returns to haunt him in the most horrifying way…


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (5 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 000727243X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007272433
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 13.5 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 994,094 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

‘A galloping good story’
The Times

‘Lust, avarice, envy, revenge all play their part in this brilliantly told, well-paced story, which also begs the question, so relevant today, of just how close to action journalists and recorders of war should be allowed’
Daily Mail

‘Plampin’s historical research is impressive, as is his command of detail….his true gift of descriptive power’
Independent on Sunday

From the Author

Matthew Plampin on Crompton, Corrigan and Cornwell...

1. What was your favourite childhood book?

The William series by Richmal Crompton. The hedgerows, villages and copses of 1930s England seemed like a fascinatingly alien place to me in 1980s Essex; I remember being particularly interested by the stories that dealt (albeit rather lightly) with spy-related paranoia on the eve of the Second World War.

2. Which book has made you laugh?
Any Dickens, but especially David Copperfield; a number of Herman Melville's short stories, particularly "Bartleby the Scrivener", although he makes you feel very guilty for that laugh; Joseph Heller's Catch-22, the great novel about the sheer absurdity of war. More recently, I chuckled at the mordant mocking of self-absorbed media types in Edward Docx's Self Help.

3. Which book has made you cry?
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware - a poignant tale about family guilt, awkwardness and missed opportunities, rendered in one of the most strikingly original graphic styles I've seen. Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon – after many hundreds of pages of post-modern trickery, the novel suddenly becomes an intensely moving study of loss.

4. Which book would you never have on your bookshelf?
Any form of misery memoir or celebrity autobiography. Which book are you reading at the moment? The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville; Lady Worsley's Whim by Hallie Rubenhold, an exploration of a notoriously torrid eighteenth-century divorce case; The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne, a vivid account of the siege which ended the Franco-Prussian War.

5. Which book would you give as a present to a friend?
Anything by Chris Ware - beautiful, startling, affecting stuff that I suspect many people would not consider reading as they are graphic novels - but to my mind it's easily as engaging and intelligent as the majority of literary fiction. Very funny in places as well.

6. Which other writers do you admire?
To name only a few: Living: Peter Carey, Kate Grenville, Sarah Waters, Philip Roth, Beryl Bainbridge, Rose Tremain, James Ellroy, Gunter Grass, Chinua Achebe, Pat Barker. Dead: Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Conrad, Angela Carter.

7. Which classic have you always meant to read and never got round to it?
Middlemarch by George Eliot. I have a pristine copy, in fact, untouched and huge, sitting accusingly on the shelf above my desk.

8. What are your top five books of all time, in order or otherwise?
No particular order:
  • True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: I'm usually a bit wary of historical novels that take the form of "real" documents - journals, letters and so on - but this is a major exception. An amazing act of ventriloquism that creates a fresh, poignant portrait of a much-represented figure, and a truly humbling experience for anyone who has tried to recreate a nineteenth-century "voice".
  • Wise Children by Angela Carter: My favourite work by a brilliantly imaginative writer - a vibrant, bawdy tale of the lives of a pair of theatrical twins, Dora and Nora Chance, and the events that take them from the music halls of London to the set of a doomed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the height of Hollywood's "golden age". The style is rich and engrossing, with marvellously chaotic, carnivalesque set-pieces.
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville: Massively ambitious, sprawling, terrifying, unique and completely unforgettable. The prescience of Melville's thinking is incredible - it seemed to me in places to anticipate Conrad's Heart of Darkness by fifty years - and the white whale remains one of the towering symbols of literature. 
  • Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens: I reread this whilst preparing for The Street Philosopher as it was the novel Dickens wrote whilst the Crimean War was being fought. Along with an intriguing meditation on the relationship between wealth and identity (one of the great Dickensian themes), it also features some extremely acerbic Crimea-inspired satire of governmental incompetence – as embodied by the notorious Circumlocution Office, dedicated to ‘how not to do it’. 
  • Romola by George Eliot: One of Eliot's lesser known works, this a historical novel set in late fifteenth century Florence around the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities. Eliot (who considered it her best book) uses this setting to explore a central debate of her own time: the dichotomy between spiritual and worldly concerns, between religion and learning, the soul and the mind. This idea of employing the past as a means of approaching the present was a major influence on me when I started to write historical fiction. 
9. What is the worst book you have ever read?
Portrait of a Killer by Patricia Cornwell, in which she argues very unconvincingly that the British post-impressionist painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. This odd thesis is backed up by no substantial evidence whatsoever, and Cornwell famously destroyed a painting in search of a fingerprint – which as an admirer of Sickert's work I find quite upsetting.

10. Is there a particular book or author that inspired you to be a writer?
I was very inspired by George Eliot's Romola (see above). Fingersmith by Sarah Waters also left a deep impression on me; a convincing evocation of a historical moment is paired with a taut, compelling story, a combination I now aim for in my own historical fiction.

11. What is your favourite time of day to write?
Mornings, 8.30 – 11; evenings 8 – midnight. I'm not ritualistic about it or anything though. And favourite place? My study in south-east London, surrounded by dog-eared reference books, piles of notes and photocopies, random bits of junk and empty coffee cups.

12. Longhand or word processor? I
I make copious notes in longhand, and am devoted to the large-scale chart as a means of ironing out plot problems. All actual writing, however, is done on a laptop. I can't actually imagine doing it any other way - my writing style has evolved around the ability to cut and paste, and to work up sentences gradually, tinkering and rearranging at will.

13. Who, in your opinion, is the greatest writer of all time?
It has to be Charles Dickens. I have great difficulty choosing a favourite from his novels - there are at least half a dozen essentials, all of them endlessly interesting.

14. Which book have you found yourself unable to finish?
To my shame my attention wandered off a short way into Dante's Purgatorio; I found it rather less compelling than the magnificently weird Inferno which precedes it.

15. What is your favourite word?
Today, it's monolith.

16. Other than writing, what other jobs have you done?

I have been a freelance college lecturer in London for the past few years, mostly teaching Victorian art and architecture to visiting American students from Skidmore College and the University of Chicago. When I was a post-graduate student I worked as a gallery tour guide and a slide librarian (once a dull if necessary role in university art history departments).

17. What was the first piece you ever had in print?
An academic piece entitled A Stern and Just Respect for Truth: John Ruskin, Giotto and the Arundel Society, published in an obscure art historical journal called Visual Culture in Britain.

18. What are you working on at the moment?

A novel set around the short-lived weapons factory established in London in 1853 by the legendary American gun-maker Colonel Samuel Colt, self-proclaimed inventor of the revolver. It's a sort of loose companion piece to The Street Philosopher, with an entirely new setting and cast of characters; the main story concerns Colt's strenuous efforts to win the patronage of the British Government in the build-up to the Crimean War, and involves political corruption at the highest levels, the (a)morality of arms dealing, and intricate, back-stabbing conspiracies - culminating in gun-fighting on the streets of Westminster. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crimes in the Crimea 26 Jun 2009
By tallpete33 TOP 100 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is a real beast of a book that has everything - sex, violence, humour, great characters, a twisting plot with a bit of culture and a lot of history thrown in for good measure. It's worth mentioning here that "a street philosopher" in the nineteenth century was no more than a gossip columnist of his day so there's no Proust or Freud to worry about here.

The street philosopher of the title was Thomas Kitson, sent to report on the Crimean War for the London Courier under roving reporter Richard Cracknell. The two form an uneasy alliance, Kitson the more sensitive and refined of the two alongside Cracknell the gung-ho, bawdy and outspoken philanderer. Kitson went to quietly report, Cracknell to make his name and uncover injustices and failings in the British army as they fought alongside the French and Turks against the "Ruskies". Cracknell's nemesis (and vice versa) was one Colonel Boyce, who cared more for his moustache than his men and saw the war as an opportunity for financial gain, looting the country of it's artefacts when he should have been at the front line....or perhaps keeping a closer eye on his wife.

The Courier duo are soon joined by illustrator Robert Styles, who fell under the spell of the beautiful Madeleine Boyce, wife of the Colonel, on the boat over from England. When he found out that Cracknell was keeping the Colonel's bed warm for him, the humiliated artist went into a sharp decline, traumatised at both her rejection of him and the bloodshed all around. He was soon to be found at the frontline, ragged and starving, manically drawing the living hell he found himself in whilst taking pot shots at the Russians with a borrowed gun.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read 5 Jan 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I thoroughly enjoyed The Street Philosopher. Full of atmosphere, excitement and intrigue. And knowing Manchester a good bit as I do, it was even more interesting for me. My daughter lives on Princess Street today, which is where the Street Philosopher lived. I would recommend this book without hesitation. I read it over the Christmas week and it complemented a glass or two of whisky and a few mince pies perfectly!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
This is a hugely enjoyable, often funny and action packed story, with a thoroughly satisfying ending. Plampin has written a wonderful novel, but more than this he has written it to a standard rarely seen in historical genre fiction. Plampin's word craft is exquisite, his attention to the language and voice of the characters in keeping with the period, his comic timing excellent, his pace is masterful - be in no doubt, this is a page turner of a novel. The characters really live: the rambunctious figure of Cracknell with his big arse manages to be utterly scurillous, physically distasteful, yet believable as a love interest and provides many of the comic scenes. The sense of place is cinematically drawn - the battle scenes of the Crimea are worthy of particular comment: these are so very vivid (great clods of earth fly as canon balls destroy the pretty green country landscape; the descriptions of flesh and gore are alarming). The novel spans the topics of love, work, morality, family, sexuality, war, high and low society, politics, art, and is located firmly in the historical context of the Crimean War in 1854 and the Great Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 - an education for the reader too. What a joy to find such a beautifully written book in this genre. And this is his first! Plampin, write another soon please! I fear that books written to this high quality take a while so we may have a bit of a wait for the next one...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Street Philosopher 5 Aug 2009
By martinblank VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Matthew Pamplin's 'The Street Philosopher' doesn't quite advertise itself as a straight down the line Victorian thriller, but that's what it is. The author wears the research lightly, conjuring up a visceral Crimea and a very bedraggled Manchester. His talent for description here and there rescues what otherwise amounts to enjoyable melodrama. The whiff of central casting blows across the novel, not disagreeably, and the plot's contrivances are par for the genre's course. The book's narrative structure might be less to taste. We know that some great calamity has befallen the journalist Kitson, and we know what the rough shape of this disaster must have been. Readers might tire of this rather long and increasingly obvious dance. Otherwise, this is an erudite début, with plenty of action, intrigue, romance, betrayal, colour and incident, none of it unfamiliar, but the quality of the writing takes the book above the average. Readers who enjoy Michael Cox, Charles Palliser, or Boris Akunin (to name three) will have no problems with Pamplin. 'The Street Philospher' leans a little too hard on cliché and doesn't quite hit the crescendo it needs to get four stars. But that's to take nothing (apart from a star) away from an impressive first novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning first novel! 13 Aug 2009
By 
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
It is hard to believe that this is a first novel, so accomplished is it. It combines the war scenes of War and Peace with the story of a cracking good thriller by interleaving sections set in the Crimean War and an art exhibition in Manchester some years later.

An atrocity has been perpetrated in the Crimea, witnessed by a small group of journalists. The latter have not been believed by the military in the Crimea, mere lower class reporters accusing aristocratic officers. Now, by chance, all the protagonists appear to be gathering in Manchester...

The story is well told and gripping. My only criticism is that the dialogue is at times stilted. The good qualities far outweigh this.

Look out for this author as I see great things coming from him.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars a surprisingly enjoyable read
The book describes the Crimean war from the viewpoint of a war correspondent and his later experiences in Manchester. Read more
Published 11 months ago by dunczen
4.0 out of 5 stars most enjoyable story
Enjoyed the book made me look up more on the Crimea. Kept my interest throughout. Would look for this author again.
Published 13 months ago by Ems
4.0 out of 5 stars Uncompromising portrayal of the Crimea
Well paced story that keeps your interest through the gritty protrayal of friendship, morality and lust during the Crimea war.
Published 13 months ago by Philip Ponsford
4.0 out of 5 stars Good story line
Interesting storyline in the book from start to finish well worth reading tense and holds the reader like a good book should.
Published 14 months ago by Edwin Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars even though i have never been to the places described in the book, i...
I like this book, the characters and the plot were both interesting and sustainable. Will certainly seek out the author's other novels.
Published 14 months ago by Peter Price
4.0 out of 5 stars brings the period to life
I found the Victorian atmosphere and period details fascinating, and the bloodshed on the battlefield convincing and shocking. Read more
Published 14 months ago by SamuiD
4.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent read
I thoroughly enjoyable book which is full of atmosphere, excitement and intrigue. The story takes place in Manchester it is an interesting location which will appeal those that... Read more
Published on 22 Aug 2012 by R. Hallett
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent debut novel.
I enjoyed this book; a long but absorbing read, very nicely detailed and researched; the rebounding time-line from the Crimean War to the Manchester of a few years later gives a... Read more
Published on 23 July 2012 by J. Mcdonald
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but a somewhat disjointed plot
In the end I was slightly disappointed with this book. The author draws a convincing portrait of the horror, brutality and military incompetence of the Crimean War and the period... Read more
Published on 20 Sep 2011 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Power play by men desperate for honour
What a great story! Thomas Kitson is in the Crimea to report on the progress of the war for the London Courier. He can have no idea what he will come up against. Read more
Published on 21 May 2011 by Scholastica
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