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London Underground By Design
London Underground By Design
by Mark Ovenden
Edition: Paperback
Price: 13.60

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How Design Works on the Underground, 12 Feb 2013
This year is the sesquicentennial of the first subway line in London, the grandfather of all subway systems. There have been countless technological changes since then, and the system has become huge with connections all over the city and outside of it. The changes in technology are a mere side issue within _London Underground by Design_ (Penguin Books) by subway enthusiast Mark Ovenden. His subject is the look and design of trains, stations, maps, signage, and more. It is a comprehensive survey with capsule biographies of the planners and designers through the decades, and it fittingly has hundreds of pictures covering all aspects of the system's design. People take over a billion trips on the system every year; engines and cars do the work, of course, but Ovenden shows that matters of design are far from superficial, and that they make the system work more efficiently. It isn't a new lesson, that good design makes for an esthetic appeal as well as increasing job effectiveness, but it is vibrantly displayed here.

The Tube system grew from the first underground run by the Metropolitan Railway, and Ovenden suggests that even then there were some marks of a coherent style. Coherence was not a characteristic of signage, one of the most important aspects of design covered here. The sans-serif letters on signs had little unity, and as shown in many pictures here, were overwhelmed by commercial bills and posters. Everything changed when Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the Underground and a hero in these pages for his emphasis on efficient design, commissioned Edward Johnston in 1913 to come up with a typeface to be used throughout the system. Johnston's creation, now known as Johnston Sans, has been a foundation of Underground design ever since. It can be spotted by its perfectly circular O and the slight fancy of a diagonal square dot over the i and the j. Graphic design is on display perhaps most famously in the tube maps, made schematic rather than geographical by a cartographic amateur Harry Beck in 1933. Beck used a symbolic cartography, with train lines and even the Thames flowing horizontally, vertically, or at 45 degree angles only. Not only has his map been used ever since, other subway systems around the world have drawn themselves using Beck's style as a guide. Like any sensible firm, the Underground has paid special attention to its advertisements, the posters set around the station. Reproduced here are many classic ones, posters that are bestsellers at the London Transport Museum; people are ready to frame these and hang them on their walls, which is not what usually happens to advertisements. The largest review of station buildings presented here are the suburban ones built from 1930 to 1945. They are inspired by buildings that Pick and his architect Charles Holden saw on a tour of Europe. Though Holden jokingly referred to them as "brick boxes with concrete lids," they are rationalist in style and have handsome towers and rotundas, with art deco lamps and seating. Included here are pictures of the new Canary Wharf station, inspired by the same "rationalist" school. It is all glass and brushed metal, and it looks futuristic and sleek, fit for the twenty-first century.

There are sections here on the history of the roundel, the famous blue bar over a red ring that has become the symbol of London Transport, and on the "wordmark" of the enlarged initial and final letter in "UndergrounD." There are descriptions of intelligent signage experiments, where paper signs were tested and found functional before permanent enamel signs were installed. There are many descriptions of how design contributed to "wayfinding," scientific studies of passenger flow and decision making by passengers as they sought the right trains. There are pictures to show how the cars themselves have evolved, or how particular stations are decorated. The book represents in a fascinating way how after 150 years and revolutionary technological changes, the Underground presents a confident corporate identity because it has achieved a useful unity of design in many of its diverse enterprises.


Birds in a Cage: Warburg, Germany, 1941. Four P.O.W. birdwatchers. The unlikely beginnings of British wildlife conservation.
Birds in a Cage: Warburg, Germany, 1941. Four P.O.W. birdwatchers. The unlikely beginnings of British wildlife conservation.
by Derek Niemann
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birding within the Nazi POW Camp, 21 Jan 2013
You don't expect birdwatching and Nazi prison camps to go together. Oh, sure, there's that scene in _The Great Escape_ where Donald Pleasence is explaining how to identify a shrike, but that's just cover for his real lecture on forged papers. Some prisoners in real life, however, were confirmed birdwatchers and did not let a few Nazis and some strands of barbed wire stop them. That's the surprising and inspiring story within _Birds in a Cage_ (Short Books) by Derek Niemann. Niemann is an editor at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in association with which this book is published, and which was to benefit from the prison camp birdwatchers. Not only did the four British birders here take their watching seriously, once the war was over, they were all influential in the birdwatching movement and helped in the beginnings of the wildlife preservation effort.

The four men were captured early in the war, and three remained in custody until 1945. They met in Warburg, a giant POW camp for Allied officers, and although they did not spend all their years in custody there, it was the site of their most intense ornithological work. And work it was. These men were busy; they lacked binoculars, but they scrounged paper and made detailed notes that were ready to be published eventually in ornithological journals. They cadged scrap wood to make nestboxes installed on the ends of their huts, and then kept a log of every bird's coming and going. The men made their own bird rings, and banded swallow chicks in a nest; the birds migrated to Africa and seven of them returned the next year. Their fellow prisoners were often bemused; one wrote that "practically the whole camp" would come and look at what he was doing while he was observing a nest, "and not only that but will keep on asking me questions when I am trying to look at the bird, or write down what I have seen." Some of the men, however, became interested in watching and helping. Keeping such records brought order, structure, and a sense of control to the lives of men who had little control in their fates. It wasn't all birding behind barbed wire. Niemann does not neglect to remind readers about how cold, lice, starvation, and illness took their toll on the men during all those years. However, since Niemann quotes extensively from their letters home, letters which the men knew had to pass by the censors, there is much good humor and understatement in their descriptions of their own lives. At the end of his confinement, when the Germans were giving up, one wrote joyously on 25 April 1945 about the excitement in the camp, and ended with, "The Commandant had not yet had confirmation, but to all intents and purposes the camp is now under Allied command. First swift of the year this pm." Niemann also ties in the men's activities to the timetable of the larger war, putting the birding efforts in the context of bigger events, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and more.

Once they were liberated and back home, they were not the men they were; it is sad to read how medical problems had taken a permanent toll. There were mental scars as well, some more serious than one's being unable to write if anyone was behind him or anothers's inability to pass food to anyone else at table without taking his share. Reunions with family members were not the stuff of fairy tales. However, the four went on to train naturalists, found observatories, and write up their wartime findings. One birdwatcher mailed to himself at war's end a huge body of raw data that he never saw again, but another's wartime notes went into his volume on the redstart. Yet another ran the RSPB from 1963 to 1975, making it a professional body and growing its membership by ten. The birds had, in a real sense, saved these POWs, and it is inspiring to read how the former prisoners returned the favor.


The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
by Caspar Henderson
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gorgeous, Factual Bestiary, 20 Nov 2012
As if there were not already a extraordinary range of strange animals in the world, the bestiaries of the medieval times included such creatures as barnacle geese growing on trees. In 1967, Jorge Luis Borges brought out _The Book of Imaginary Beings_, which chronicled animals imagined in _Gilgamesh_ and in the works of Kafka. When Caspar Henderson was looking through Borges's book, he realized that there are many real animals that are stranger than fictional ones. He isn't a biologist; he is a journalist and editor, but he realized he wanted to go exploring to find out more about the very strange creatures that evolution has come up with. He has brought out _The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary_ (Granta; to be published in America by the University of Chicago Press in April). This is a handsome book, with lots of whimsical illustrations; it is an abecedarium, with 27 chapters (the letter X which is often shortchanged in such books, here gets an extra chapter) from axolotl to zebra fish. Each chapter starts with an illuminated letter, incorporating something within the chapter. It is full of surprises, and Henderson's enthusiasm and wonder are infectious.

Let me describe just the first chapter on the axolotl, whose name we Americans who are old enough first encountered as one of Harvey Kurtzman's non sequitur running gags in _Mad Magazine_. The weird word refers to a weird little animal, a salamander with pink skin, arms with fingers and legs with toes, gills that branch out from its neck, and an oversized spheroid head with a fixed, placid smile. Henderson writes, "Axolotls have this advantage over many other species in a human-dominated world: many people find them cute." They are popular for the home aquarium trade. It is lucky that they can thrive in glass pools, because the Mexican lakes from which they come are increasingly being drained or polluted. (A distressing number of the animals on these pages are listed as "critically endangered." Almost always, the problem is global warming or some sort of encroachment by humans. Henderson reminds us that in 2008, geologists agreed to call the current age the Anthropocene, to acknowledge that humans are the biggest influence on Earth's systems.) There is a digression (Henderson's prose is clear and it agreeably wanders off into instructive and entertaining byways) about how salamanders were long thought to be impervious to fire. A medieval bestiary says, "The salamander lives in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed; not only does it not burn, but it puts out flames." Few would question such an assertion at the time, especially since it had a second from St. Augustine, who said that a salamander not being consumed by flame was a good example to show how a soul could be burned in hell forever without being consumed. That's all baloney, but Henderson reports that axolotls do have a surprising ability, if not to regenerate themselves from flames, then to regenerate an arm or leg after an amputation, and even an eye or parts of the brain. If we learn better how the axolotl does it, human amputees might benefit.

I don't do e-books, partly because I am simply stodgy, but partly because I like a well-produced book as a physical object. This one is simply gorgeous; I don't know how an e-version would look and I don't want to know, but I will tell you in all prejudice to get the print version. Its text and its many pictures are supplemented with red ink. There are no footnotes as such, but marginal notes printed in red, with the text so annotated in red as well. The ample margins are also a playground for little illustrations or decorations. The book harks back to bestiaries of old, with lots of whimsical illustrations, frontispieces for every chapter, and illuminated capitals. It is a fine vessel for bringing a message of celebration of biological diversity and weirdness.


The Pinecone
The Pinecone
by Jenny Uglow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.35

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Unique Architect's Unique Work, 16 Oct 2012
This review is from: The Pinecone (Hardcover)
Here is an architect you have never heard of: Sarah Losh. One of the reasons you haven't heard of Losh is that she has one fine church to represent her oeuvre. One of the reasons is that this little structure was built in 1842, and it was built in an out-of-the-way village, Wreay, outside of Carlisle in northern England. Another reason is simply that she was a woman, so she really wasn't an architect because women were not allowed to be architects. She was, however, an extraordinary woman in many ways, and now she has as full a biography as can ever be written. Jenny Uglow, who has written several outstanding books about personalities of that age and locale, has an appreciation for Losh's life and her remarkable church in _The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine - Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary_ (Faber and Faber). The book has good pictures, and concentrates on St. Mary's Church in Wreay, partly out of necessity. Losh didn't leave much documentation of her life. She wrote poetry, but none of it remains, and she kept a journal which others read and treasured and kept passages from, but she burned her journals and other documents. If she ever fell in love, or wrote love letters, we have no evidence. What she did have, and what enables Uglow to tell her story in this fullness, is a bustling family with wealth coming in plentifully from the chemistry of the Industrial Age; a time of political upheaval and Losh's own radicalism; and the little church, which shows an energetic and independent mind.

Losh got much of her education courtesy of her Uncle James, who advocated various liberal policies including education for women. He also got Sarah and her sister Katharine to Europe, where Sarah got to see churches and paintings that would influence the style of her church. Katharine suddenly died in 1835; it was a loss Sarah never overcame, but she used her grief to power her work on the church. The old church at Wreay was a relic, and she convinced the church and civic fathers that a new one was needed; they agreed, and since she was paying for it, they agreed to let her have her own way in its design. The church is a product of her own ideas and flew in the face of the Victorian revival of the Gothic style. Overall, she preferred her own version of a Romanesque design, but especially in the decoration of the church, she produced something unique. The nave is simple, almost like a small stone barn, but it is joined to a curved apse, so that it looks like a small Byzantine basilica. She was especially interested in the fossils of her area, and the ammonites, corals, and ferns were carved into the church's doorways or installed in its stained-glass windows. A plesiosaur serves as a gargoyle. Not content merely to install ancient creatures into her church, she crammed it with symbols from different creation myths, like lotus blossoms. Her pinecone, and there are pinecones all over the church, was also a symbol of reproduction and regeneration. On the arches and in the windows and on the walls are poppies, wheat, and gourds, and an eagle and a stork to hold up lecterns, and lotus-shaped candlesticks, and a baptismal font with carved lilies and lily-pads sticking out of the water. Losh herself did much of the carving. There were no memorials in the church, no depictions of saints, and almost no crosses. Her building is a celebration not of belief but of beliefs, as well as of the natural world. It is convenient to think that it signifies some sort of easy pantheism, but you can still get to Anglican services there.

That Losh could incorporate historical and natural trends in her tiny church in a little village shows the artistic importance of her work. Uglow's biography has the same merits, using the architect and her church as a mirror for the natural, religious, and scientific movements of Losh's time. Uglow thus gets to tell us about the railways, the industrial revolution, the fashions of architecture, the enthusiasm for antiquities, the Afghan war, and more. Molding the story of Sarah Losh's life from these external sources, since she left so little written documentation, is something like trying to find her within her lovely little church. Uglow writes that Losh "left stones and wood, not letters, for us to read." Losh now has a fine biography to supplement the stones and wood.


No Title Available

7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Movie, Sad Reality, 22 Jun 2012
In 1963 the movie _The Great Escape_ presented the story of courageous Allied POWs tunneling out of their German camp. It's an exciting movie, rightly celebrating the courage and ingenuity of the men. It was based on a book of the same title, published in 1951 by Paul Brickhill, who was a prisoner in the camp, although he wasn't among those who escaped. According to historian Guy Walters, Brickhill told a good story, but did not have access to all the documents which have been made available since the war, and he was also telling an appealing commercial yarn. Then the movie told its own version, and you can imagine how true to the facts it is. (Can it disappoint anyone to know that there was not a real-life counterpart to Steve McQueen jumping barbed-wire fences on his motorcycle?). Walters has now brought out _The Real Great Escape: Roger Bushell and the Most Daring POW Breakout of the Second World War_. People who know the film will recognize many of the episodes (and may, like me, hear Elmer Bernstein's rousing score playing in their heads), but Walters's book has a different tone. Yes, the escapees were resourceful and courageous, but they were misguided, making an ill-judged sacrifice that did little good. The numbers tell some of the story: 76 men escaped from the tunnel, fifty were shot by the Gestapo, and only three (two Norwegians and a Dutchman) eventually made it home. The rest of the story is told by the circumstances Walters describes, in a strongly-referenced and convincing book that has had the benefit of newly released documents, and the rest of the story is not so much inspiring as it is simply sad.

Central to the story is Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (played as Roger Bartlett by Richard Attenborough in the film). He was a born leader, charismatic and driven, and sometimes overenthusiastic about his projects. He had the shortest of wartime service as a pilot, was captured in Boulogne, and made two escapes from his initial camps. When he entered Stalag Luft III, built within the gloomy Polish pine forest, he immediately started working on not just breaking out of the camp, but having a mass breakout. The problems of engineering and stealth were considerable, and Walters describes many of the techniques depicted in the movie. The movie gets things wrong; you don't expect MGM to have made a documentary, but Walters gives us explanations of important points the movie left off. One is that the prisoners (or Kriegies as they called themselves, short for the German for POW) were helped extensively by German collaboration. Most of the passes and documents used by the escapers, for instance, were not forgeries, but were handed over by the guards. Bushell disregarded warnings about how a mass escape would enrage the Nazis. He theorized that a huge escape would tie up German resources and thus contribute to the war effort; Walters shows he was wrong in this as well. While it may be unfair to judge Bushell in hindsight, it is true that everything he was warned about going wrong indeed went wrong, and it is true that the escape was a failure and that things would have been better for all if he had not provoked it. The escape of such a number of prisoners drew Hitler's attention, and under his order, the Gestapo was to murder most of the escapers, giving in each instance the excuse that each escapee, having been captured and often in handcuffs, was shot in the act of making a break for it. The stupid, rubber-stamp explanation was identical even though (the movie gets this wrong) independent Gestapo officers at different places and times were responsible for carrying out the murders.

Walters's book will be far less influential than the film, but it is an engrossing history and a realistic reassessment. It's a good thing we have the movie, one of the best war movies ever made. It is going to be the way the world remembers the Great Escape, a stirring if inaccurate entertainment that has itself sparked new legends about how the "real" escape happened. To paraphrase another movie classic, when the legend becomes fact, film the legend.
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The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England
The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England
by Haia Shpayer-Makov
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 30.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Setting the Stage for Sherlock, 14 Feb 2012
Early Victorian Britain was proud that it had no detectives. Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, conversely, was proud of its detectives, and everyone still knows of the most famous one, Sherlock Holmes. He might be fictional, but he rose at the time detective forces rose within Britain, and there are necessarily links between the legend of Holmes and the reality of British police services. The links, and much more, are investigated in _The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England_ (Oxford University Press) by Haia Shpayer-Makov. The author teaches history in Israel, but has written previously on the history of the British police. Her current work is heavily academic and extensively researched and footnoted; the first part gives the details of the history of the growth of the branches of the detective service (necessarily concentrating on London), recruitment, pay, and so on, and will be of interest mostly to experts in the history of police work. The second part has to do with how detectives were presented within the print media, in newspapers, fiction, and in memoirs, and will be of interest to the fans who enjoy the eternal fascination of Holmes, as well as his many fictional counterparts.

Britain had police forces before it had detectives. The administrators of the new police force gradually realized that while uniformed men out in public might keep some crimes from happening, if a crime did happen, it was unlikely that a policeman would be easily available to interrupt it and that some arrangement had to be made to investigate and trace criminals after the fact. This was despite worries that non-uniformed police would operate in secret and use disguises. The press became vitally interested in Scotland Yard and in detectives in general. One of the keenest admirers of the detectives was Charles Dickens, who interviewed detectives and went about with them on their investigations, writing admiring pieces like "The Modern Science of Thief-Taking" for his magazine _Household Words_ in 1850. It was such steps, the author says, that made detectives an accepted part of British policing. There were pseudo-memoirs of police detectives, and then Sherlock Holmes came on the scene. His extraordinary figure runs through many of the chapters here. Holmes was not a police detective, but the distinction between the private detective and the police detective was not always clear in reality. Some stories had the police detective functioning in a private capacity, and this was in accord with real practice by off-duty policemen. The pseudo-memoirs were always written as if by a police detective who solves the case, but in other detective fiction, private investigators like Holmes eventually predominated. Not only did private investigators predominate numerically, but they overcame the police detectives who would make wrong assumptions, arrest the wrong person, and miss vital clues. In the later Holmes stories, however, the police detectives were more competent, perhaps reflecting the good nonfiction press they had been getting. The final chapter here is about the nonfiction memoirs of detectives, and as might be expected, many of the former detectives specifically cited their infuriation with Holmes and his slighting attitude toward their peers. A detective could write little while on the force except for articles to police journals, but in retirement, many used their memoirs to advance the cause of police detection. They seldom battled against their image in the daily press, but often specifically criticized the superhuman detection capability of Holmes, and especially argued how little they used the despised practice of adopting disguises, whereas Holmes was a genius at that suspicious art.

Shpayer-Makov seems to have read all the obscure pulp novels, all the forgotten memoirs (actual and pseudo), and all the newspaper stories. This is a detailed and well-organized look at the British detective at the scene of the crime, in the newspaper, and in novels. At the start of this rich historical account, the very idea of a detective force is acceptable to no members of any class within Britain, and by the end, the detective is regarded as, if not a hero, then at least a stolid, hardworking official with the best interests of the public at heart. An ascent indeed.


The Black Legend of Prince Rupert's Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda during the English Civil War
The Black Legend of Prince Rupert's Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda during the English Civil War
by Mark Stoyle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 55.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Real Consequences of Superstitions Beliefs, 1 Sep 2011
You may have read or seen the movie about Marley, "The World's Worst Dog." Marley, at least, was just a dog, and those whom he troubled might have had to suffer torn belongings and other messes. Marley was a piker at "worstness" though; he did not speak all the languages of Satan, for instance, and he could not change his shape into that of a seductive woman, and he could not render himself and his master invisible. These are the sorts of naughtiness ascribed to Boy, a dog who lived over three centuries ago and belonged to Prince Rupert, nephew of the British King Charles I. Boy, whatever demonic things he could do, did play a real role in the English Civil War, and he did affect how the British regarded witches, so if you are interested in reading a book about a real dog with a real place in history, here is _The Black Legend of Prince Rupert's Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda during the English Civil War_ (University of Exeter Press) by Mark Stoyle. The author is a history professor with special interest in witchcraft and the Civil War period, and says that he knew even as a child that Prince Rupert had possessed an unusual dog. While Stoyle denies that he was "bewitched" by the story, he started devoting serious academic attention to the dog six years ago, mostly because although the occult connections of Boy were famous in the dog's own time, and have been storied ever since, no one had investigated the origin of the rumors about the dog or how Prince Rupert's diabolical image developed over time. This is the book to do just that, and the play of superstition and its effect on reality is fascinating throughout.

Rupert with Boy crossed to England to help his uncle fight against the Roundheads. He may have come to the service bearing a reputation as a witch or sorcerer, but any such stories would have been forgotten if it were not for the Roundhead pamphleteers, who hinted at "divelish" outrages, or referred to Rupert taking disguises in order to spy on the Roundheads, but said he had taken "severall shapes" in such disguises, hinting at the witch's capacity for shape-shifting. On their side, the Royalists were happy to portray the Roundheads as dunderheads who could believe the most foolish superstitions. They produced a famous pamphlet of 1643, _Observations upon Prince Rupert's White Dog Called Boy_, the text of which is included as an appendix in this book. Historians had first thought the pamphlet was a Roundhead diatribe against Boy's witchery, but Stoyle masterfully shows it to have been a Royalist satire on Puritan propaganda. Among other things, the pamphlet borrowed on the stock belief that a witch would have a "familiar," the devil himself or one of his subordinate imps in the form of a pet, to help the sorcery go along. _Observations_ may have been satire, but it was also the first pamphlet about witchcraft published in England in fifteen years. It would have achieved its purpose of making Royalists laugh at the foolish credulity of Roundheads, but it had a serious unintended consequence. Stoyle shows that the pamphlet, and others, created "an intellectual atmosphere in which the subject of witchcraft could be discussed more freely in print than it had been for many years before." The fanciful stories about Boy only supported the beliefs of the Roundheads that the king was really in league with genuine witches, and thus proved a propaganda masterstroke against the home team that had generated the stories in the first place. It may be that they did influence the first part of the war, increasing the vehemence and courage of the Roundheads; Rupert was not ultimately successful in his campaigns against them, and left England in 1646. More importantly, Stoyle shows, the newly-revived public thinking about witches may have lead the Roundheads to massacre the female Royalist camp-followers after the battle of Naseby. Even more significant, the increased attention paid to the familiars of witches because of Boy's reputation of being himself a familiar may have influenced the way the witch-finder Matthew Hopkins proceeded in his persecutions. No witches were executed in the king's quarters during the years covered in this book, but scores were executed after the Roundheads took over.

Boy himself was killed at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, but stories about him continued to reinforce ideas that Rupert was in league with the devil, as were the king and the rest of the Cavaliers. That the dog had absurd stories told about him proves to have been far from a frivolous matter, and a case could be made that Boy because of the reputation bestowed upon him was one of the most influential dogs in history. Stoyle seems to have investigated this surprisingly important sliver of history as deeply as can be done. While many of the connections he draws are tentative (and he admits it), Stoyle's picture is a dark and convincing look at a few monstrosities resulting from the sleep of reason.


Mr Briggs' Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain's First Railway Murder
Mr Briggs' Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain's First Railway Murder
by Kate Colquhoun
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.17

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crime and Punishment, Victorian Style, 28 May 2011
Mr. Thomas Briggs was an old banker, reliable, hard-working, and dull. On 9 July 1864, after his usual early Saturday quitting time, he had an early supper with his favorite niece in London. He then caught a train for home, in the suburbs of Hackney. He did not arrive. In a crime that would have shocked him thoroughly if he could have read about it the papers, he was murdered on the train and thrown out of the carriage. The news, indeed, drove stories about the American Civil War into back pages, and the outrage remained a sensation as the detectives marshaled a case against the murderer, and through the final justice that resulted. It is all vividly described in _Mr Briggs' Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain's First Railway Murder_ (Little, Brown UK) by Kate Colquhoun. Sensational is certainly the word, reflecting the titillation brought by newspaper reports of the crime, the subsequent trial, and the punishment. We do not have the crime's immediacy nearly a century and a half later, but Colquhoun's detailed and exciting account is a sensation in its own way.

She points out that trains were huge and scary machines which sometimes exploded and sometimes ran off the track. The sense of loss of control might have been felt by anyone who entered a carriage such as that of Mr. Briggs; it was a mere box with seats, with no communication or path to the identical box ahead of it or behind. Mr. Briggs boarded the train to go to his home in Hackney, but his compartment had no one in it when it arrived; there was only his cane, his bag, and a hat that was not his, along with plenty of his blood everywhere. His body was found by the side of the train tracks where he had been ejected. He had no hat, and had also lost his gold watch and chain. Detectives were able to trace hats and chains and come up with a suspect, a German tailor, Franz Müller, but just as they went to get him, they learned he was off to New York. The chief detective on the case went to fetch him, and Britons knew that the chase (which has to be one of the slowest of crime chases recorded) was on. Brought back, Müller proved not to be a hulking German psychopath, but was slight and inoffensive. could only report that Müller was slightly built and seemingly inoffensive. Indeed, Müller seemed an unlikely suspect to many. There was only circumstantial evidence against him, but as the prosecutor emphasized during the proceedings, murders do not happen when witnesses are around, so that circumstantial evidence is all there is. Distressingly, there were other possible explanations about the watch, chain, and hats; if there was circumstantial evidence against Müller, there was also circumstantial evidence for his exculpation. He was found guilty, and while the newspapers and public were eager for the ritual confession from the man about to be hanged, Müller maintained his innocence until the last, and even all these years after the event, Colquhoun keeps some suspense about how it was all going to turn out.

The final scenes of justice are just the last of many memorable events evocatively brought back in Colquhoun's colorful descriptions. A final chapter reflects on the changes that have happened since the crime and punishment of the narrative of the book. Britain did away with capital punishment in 1964 (long preceded by other European nations), but public hangings were banned in 1868. Müller said nothing at his trial except to give his initial plea of not guilty; defendants did not at the time testify in their own behalf. The Crown's prosecutors were under no legal obligation to reveal to the defense the material that might have helped toward Müller's acquittal, a requirement that was not in place until 1981. And only in 1866 did the government pass a law requiring that there be some system by which passengers isolated in their carriages might inform officials on the train of an emergency. It's no surprise that we live in a different world now, but anyone interested in true crime or in the social history of the period will find this a vivid recollection of Victorian enthusiasms and Victorian worries.


Just My Type: A Book About Fonts
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts
by Simon Garfield
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.37

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Display Fonts, Invisible Fonts, and Font Wars, 18 Nov 2010
You are looking at it right now, and if it is doing its job, you don't even notice it. It might represent a creation that has taken centuries to come to its current state of perfection, or it might be something that a dedicated specialist worked on for years and brought out a decade ago. It represents artistry directed within a circumscribed realm. I am talking about the font in which these letters are presented. Thirty years ago, fonts were usually the interest of only a select few in the printing world, but now every computer is charged with fonts and everyone gets to be an amateur typographer (technically, the font is a specific set of metal parts, or digital files, that allows reproduction of letters, and a typeface is the design of letters the font allows you to reproduce, but you can see how the words would get used interchangeably). Simon Garfield is not a professional typographer; his role is bringing out fine nonfiction about, say, stamp collecting, history, or the color mauve. But he has an amateur's enthusiasm for fonts, and communicates it infectiously in _Just My Type: A Book About Fonts_ (Profile Books). This is not a collection of type designs, though there are many illustrations. In most cases it won't help you in finding out what font you happen to be looking at (but it will tell you how to do so in surprising ways). It is a book of appreciation for an art that is largely invisible, but is also essential.

I would not like to read pages set in any of the fonts in one of Garfield's last chapters, "The Worst Fonts in the World." On the list is Papyrus, which caused a stir when it was used extensively in the film _Avatar_. The expensive film used a free (and overused) display font, and font fans noticed. There was also a font war (also known as a "fontroversy") when in 2009 Ikea decided to change its display font from Futura to Verdana. The change inspired passionate arguments in mere bystanders, "like the passion of sports fans," says Garfield, and the _New York Times_ joked that it was "perhaps the biggest controversy to come out of Sweden." The biggest of font wars has had a comic edge to it, and it is the starting point for Garfield's book. Comic Sans is a perfectly good font. It looks something like the letters you see in comic books, smooth, rounded, sans serif, clear. Because it caught on and was quickly overused, there has been a "ban Comic Sans" movement. Even the heads of the movement, which is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, admit that Comic Sans looks fine, say, on a candy packet; but they have also seen it on a tombstone and on a doctor's brochure about irritable bowel syndrome. If you see a font and you wonder which one it is, you can take steps to identify it. Lots of people like to do this. It is especially useful to examine the lower case g. (The other character that reveals a lot is the ampersand, which, maybe since it is not a letter or a punctuation mark, appears in exuberant eccentricity even in some calm fonts.) That g has a lot of variable points; it might have a lower hook or it might have a loop, it might have a straight line on the right, or the upper loop might have an ear that rises or droops, and this doesn't even get into whether the upper loop is a circle, a long or wide ellipse, or has uniform width. Take a look at the g letters shown here, or in your regular reading matter, and you will be amazed at how variable a selection of even only a few can be. If you have your g, you can look it up in font books, but there are so many fonts now that no book comes close to showing them all. There's an application for the iPhone which allows you to take a picture of the letter in question, upload it somewhere, and then get suggestions of possible matches. Or you can go to a type forum and ask there, because there are lots of people devoted to hunting down this sort of thing. And they take it so seriously that, as on many internet forums, they get rather snarky about disagreements.

If you don't pay attention to fonts (and most of them do their work best by not calling attention to themselves), Garfield's entertaining book might get you started. There are chapters about the difficult matter of copyrighting a font, because if you design a good font it is easy to copy it, and there isn't much that can be done about font piracy. Font designers work for love, not money. There's a chapter on "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy white dog" and other phrases that show all the letters, or particular words that display a lot of the letters most important to font design. There's plenty of history starting with Gutenberg and the historical Roman types from which are descended many of the fonts we read every day. Between the chapters are "font breaks" to praise Albertus or Gill Sans and to tell about how they came to be designed, with plenty of anecdotes and other funny or sad stories. This is a delightful, amusing book about a whole world most of us take for granted.


Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity (Classical Receptions)
Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity (Classical Receptions)
by Alastair J. L. Blanshard
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 25.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ancients Still Get It On, 29 Oct 2010
"When it comes to the topic of sex, the combination of illicit thrills, prurient fascination, and a desire for the personal and the private means that critical faculties get all too often thrown out the window and we find ourselves unable to resist a juicy story, no matter how improbably." Thus writes Alastair J. L. Blanshard, who has maintained his critical faculties sufficiently to bring out an unlikely sex book about the role that sex played in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and what we have been making of those Greeks and Romans ever since. _Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity_ (Wiley - Blackwell) is fun because of all the juicy stories, and Blanshard, a senior lecturer in Classics & Ancient History at the University of Sydney, has latched onto a topic that those who have otherwise no interest in classical history might find themselves enjoying. One of his themes here is that for their own purposes, people have changed and misinterpreted the legends about ancient sexuality, and his book is an engaging corrective.

For instance, Blanshard sets out to examine why it is that there is such a strong certainty that those ancient Romans were up to such a high degree of naughtiness. He says that "even the most cursory survey of catalogs of pornographic film titles will reveal no end of classically-themed erotica," and his own cursory survey includes _Serenity's Roman Orgy_ (2001) and _Caligula and His Boys_ (2003). (Blanshard's book is probably the only one I have read that jumbles references to porn titles on one hand and Suetonius, Aristotle, and so on, on the other.) Blanshard's chapter on orgies is an eye-opener. Everyone knows how those Romans had orgies complete with grapes, and everyone is just wrong. There is scant evidence that there was ever such a thing. "The Romans never routinely engaged in sexual orgies and would have been appalled that we thought that they did." Any references to orgies indicate one-off affairs rather than patterns of behavior. It is amusing that Blanshard gives an example of how Marcus Minucius Felix in the third century AD shows how the pagans described orgy activities of those demented Christians. When it came time for the Christians to take their revenge on the pagans, accusing them of orgies was just the thing, a concupiscent way of getting revenge and telling naughty stories, too. The other main theme in Blanshard's book is the difficulty of understanding homosexuality by trying to look at "Greek Love." The Greeks did have a tradition of discoursing about male - male relationships that would make such relationships seem a marker of Greek culture, but Blanshard says, "The notion that homosexuality was in some senses intrinsically Hellenic would have come as a surprise to the Greeks." Greek love was a cultural manifestation that we have difficulty in understanding, and can be interpreted in many ways. Blanshard traces its historical interpretations. There wasn't much made of it in medieval times because people were busy talking about the horrors of sodomy, and that so settled the question that it silenced any other discussion of male - male sexual relations. Blanshard traces how Plato's teachings about Greek love were rediscovered in the Renaissance, with a vital discussion between two particular intellectuals highlighting them and bringing Plato's other writings to the fore. The vehemence of the discussion is amazing, with one side seeing Plato as the source of all Christian heresies. In the Enlightenment, a stock figure for satire was the humanist teacher who uses instruction in the classics as a cover for seducing students, with pornographic novels showing masters giving hands-on instruction to demonstrate the Latin words for "underneath," "backwards," and so on. Blanshard includes an account of Sapphic love, and the use of ideas about Sappho (about whom there is almost nothing known for certain) to denigrate Marie Antoinette, an example of male anxiety being assuaged by derogation.

Blanshard has given a broad picture of ideas of sexuality in the ancient world, but also a history of how those ideas have affected us even to the present; his epilogue has two professors arguing about Plato in a Colorado courtroom in 1993. Blanshard's book is obviously the production of an academic, but the heavily-referenced pages offer surprise, not stuffiness. In a box about Ganymede, Blanshard explains that you can find a modern porn version of the erotic encounters of that desirable youth with Zeus, Hermes, Ares, and Apollo, with illustrations that "suggest that Ares would not have looked out of place in a San Francisco leather bar." Another box has an extended evaluation of the 1979 film _Caligula_, Penthouse's $17 million entry into art porn, about which Blanshard sniffs, "There is a problem in equating ancient Rome with nothing but sex." There was more than sex going on in the ancient world, but the sex that was there, and the ideas about it, Blanshard shows, are still on our minds a couple of millennia later.


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