The Street Philosopher Paperback – 3 Sep 2009
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Praise for THE STREET PHILOSOPHER:
‘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.
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. See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
It's a truly epic and ambitious novel, even though at times it feels like the dual timeframe is designed as much to keep some of the `big' scenes for later in the novel - certainly there's nothing in the Manchester parts of the story to quite compare to the vividly related conflict even if both landscapes are equally corrupt and dominated by the same baser motives. At times the novel almost struggles to support its ambition, but Plampin manages to somehow keep his increasingly intricate house of cards standing even when the occasional supporting character threatens to turn into stereotypical cliché. In many ways an ideal companion piece to Tony Richardson's similarly ambitious 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade that also used the Crimean War as a lightning rod for all of Victorian society and a morally bankrupt social order, it's well worth persevering with.
The war, as seen by Kitson, is messy indeed - to the point at which he can no longer ignore the ruthless stupidity of the officers, and chooses to remove himself. However, he has seen too much and there is unfinished business before he can leave his past behind...
To me, this was as much a story about human greed as it was about a war, and this was what made it such a tremendously good read. Everyone has self interest at some level or another and somehow, Plampin cleverly manages to expose the self interest of almost every character. This against a supremely well drawn historical backdrop that makes you feel as if you were really there.
This is a well researched book, nicely decorated with detail but not slowing the pace, which is steady for the most part. Although not a sizzling page turner, it still carries a sufficient dynamic to make one want to get to the end to see what happens to the characters and how their various shenanigans end up.
As the various aspects of the novel unfold and reach their final conclusions, the action switches back and forth between the Crimea of 1854 and Manchester of 1857. This switching is done in chunks so as not to disturb the chronological flow too much, and it works well.
The unnecessary war and its resultant cruelty and inhumanity is handled well, and conjures up vivid pictures of the horrendous nature and wastefulness of it. The atmosphere of Manchester is also well conveyed, from the lofty attainments of the
successful industrial base that fuels the city, to the detrimental effect is has on the workers and their squalid environment.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
very much enjoyed this book- a good story with some historical detail tooPublished 9 months ago by minkymoo
I had no idea what this book was about and it was an on the spot purchase. I knew nothing about the Crimean war but do now. Read morePublished 11 months ago by Carolyn
Well written and very atmospheric. A lot of historical research has gone into producing this book.Published 12 months ago by Krysia
I bought this book on a whim. Unfortunately it didn't capture my imagination and I never cared for any of the characters. Read morePublished 12 months ago by AF
Excellent story didn't expect to like it when I realised that it was about the Crimean War but it was really good and appeared to be very well researchedPublished 13 months ago by Cynthia
The book describes the Crimean war from the viewpoint of a war correspondent and his later experiences in Manchester. Read morePublished on 7 Oct. 2013 by dunczen