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Mr. A. Weston (Chessington, Surrey)

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The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum
The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum
Price: 4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite Wise on her best topics, but still fascinating., 4 July 2014
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I bought this book largely because of how excellent Wise's book on madness was. Obviously the topics are rather different, but I reasoned that a good storyteller was a good storyteller. Largely, I was right. I personally didn't find the history of slum London (or one particular part of it) quite as compelling as the history of madness and perceptions of it, and that is possibly what prevents me from awarding another five stars to Sarah Wise.

Parts of this book are superb. The references to the interviews, carried out in the 1970s with an octogenarian who could remember the Nicol, was truly fascinating, wonderfully readable (with just the little bit of righteous disgust from the reader that things like this need) and genuinely succeeded in bringing that part of London to life again. Any suspicions that this was due to the words of the man himself rather than Wise's analysis were dismissed when I got onto the topic of the very unusual churchman in the Nicol, Father Jay - whose contribution to Christian thought seems to have been the notion if Redemption Through Boxing. There are fewer primary sources and direct quotations - this is Wise talking, not anyone else - and it again shows what a good commentator she is. However, when she is dealing with streets and living conditions, after a point it becomes harder to be as involved as a reader. The demolition of the Nicol, for example, at the end of the book, came across as rather sudden largely because I had not been engaged with the subject as fully as I could have been.

The main problem with this book is that the topic is an area, not individuals. The great strength of "Inconvenient People" was that it dealt with unique people, and was able to afford each of them sufficient time to develop the readers understanding of them. Wise excels at this. But she can't, quite, bring a street map to life in the same way. If Wise had followed a similar approach to her other works, telling the story of the Nicol through the lives of individuals who lived there, it would have been different...although arguably this is impossible as the kind of person who lived in the Nicol very rarely left any details of their lives at all, and existed below the levels at which the state tended to record things.

It's thorough, it's well researched it contains masses of information and a huge amount of relevant and fascinating asides. It is interesting to read and parts of it are shocking and parts are heartwarming. But it is less about people and more about places, and that simply isn't as compelling as it could be.

Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation
Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation
by John Sutherland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why have elephants got big ears...?, 5 Mar 2014
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Because Noddy won't pay the ransom money!

Feeble elephant jokes to one side, here's the actual review.

I bought this book as I'm interested in natural history, the nineteenth century, and in knowing what was so bad about it that the previous reviewer only gave it one star.

Obviously this whole thing is subjective, but I have to say I very much enjoyed "Jumbo", although at first I was a little confused by what it was about. Naturally an elephant, but an "unauthorised" biography that claims, inside, "this is not a biography of the world's most renowned elephant". How curious.

It is, instead, part biography, part scene-setting, and part observations on the broader topics of elephants. Sometimes the logic is a little strained (the link between Claudius' elephants in Britain, the watertower in Colchester, and the apparent collective belief of the inhabitants of that town that they were somehow cheated by not being named the capital city, is a good example of this) but some intriguing ideas and theories are put forward.

Jumbo himself is dealt with thoroughly, but is dead by half way through the book, after which it starts to look at lesser-known elephant-related subjects (the section on elephant electrocution, elephant hanging, and Jumbo's successor, are very well researched although frankly rather disturbing.) Given this, I would have to disagree with the description posted by the previous reviewer that this is "yet another book about a dead elephant" - it looks much more at the relationship between humans and elephants than it does any elephant in particular, including Jumbo. The context of Jumbo's life and the history of elephants as exhibits in the UK is well-researched, with the fate of other elephants from both London and Paris zoos examined.

Occasionally needlessly waspish, the majority of this book is well written and moves at a good pace. It reads in part more as a stream of consciousness on related elephant subjects, and strikes me as the kind of thing one could dip into and out of at will - the cover-to-cover approach not being strictly necessary. A small criticism of the style of the book is given that it's well stocked with photos and illustrations, some photo pages, rather than just reproductions onto the standard pages, would have been nice.

I have no particular issues with Sutherland though I had never read any of his books before. I'm not convinced I'd read another book by him, because his chosen topics don't interest me massively - but I'd read another book about Jumbo, as this book has confirmed to me that it's a topic that has a great deal that could be said about it.

It's not amazing, but it's certainly enjoyable and very readable. Recommended.

Pitt the Elder: Man of War
Pitt the Elder: Man of War
by Edward Pearce
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

1.0 out of 5 stars It's not funny, it's not insightful, it's not well-written., 26 Jan 2014
Oh dear. I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. For so many reasons - it was given to me as a present from a relative, knowing my interest. I was finally through Pepys' diary. I am (was?) keen to learn more about the eighteenth century. And years ago, I'd read another biography of Pitt and found it quite interesting.

Let me state quite clearly that this book is appallingly written. The sentence structure is poor. Several sections just about make sense if you re-read them three or four times, each time trimming out meaningless subclauses, syntax, adjectives and all the rest. But some simply don't make any sense at all.

It's also not helped by the fact that Pearce doesn't seem to like Pitt. I don't like, or dislike Pitt, but I was hoping for an honest appraisal. Pitt's basically a conceited prig; that's all I learned from this book, and although I know Pearce doesn't like him, I don't really know why due to the terrible prose. Why write a book about someone who you are clearly irritated by?!

The section on the Seven Years War is marginally better, but only marginally - it still requires iron resilience and a mental machete to hack down the superfluous verbiage.

AND in addition to all this (sorry, but I -really- didn't like this book!) - a lot of the comments simply make no sense. Some examples? OK then...

On page 115, Pearce suggests that the Opposition in Parliament wanted Dover to be captured by the French. Insane.

A few pages later, an individual is criticised for being "unable to think beyond his orders", whereas Pearce also defends Byng, an executed admiral, for disobeying them. Leaving the (un)fairness of the execution to one side, Pearce vacillates between saying that commanders first should, then shouldn't, follow orders. This is wildly inconsistent.

On p. 280, there is nothing "ironic" about a Treaty being called the "Treaty of Versailles" - several places give their name to more than one treaty. The footnote, suggesting that the purpose of the 1919 Versailles Treaty was to crush Germany completely, signifies a basic, and incorrect, knowledge of that Treaty.

There's a reference on p.300 to stories about "Michael Heseltine and his JCB". This is probably meaningless NOW, let alone in future years.

Attempting to make a point about the amending of the budget in 1767, this isn't the only time it's happened (Gladstone amended Disraeli's in 1852), but the amended section wasn't even that significant - a reduction in Land Tax from 4 shillings in the pound to 3 isn't a reduction of 25%, as Pearce claims (although 3 is 75% of 4) - it's a reduction of 5%, so that tax falls from 20% to 15% in the pound. It seems Pearce settled on this 25% figure only for a bit of sensationalism, though how you can possibly hope to produce any sort of sensation after 313 pages of something drier than desert-aired sawdust is beyond me.

I don't yet have the view that life's too short to read books you don't like, but this book came damn close to making me give up reading it. I lasted, somehow, and wish only to warn others of my folly. Do not buy this book.

It's not funny, it's not insightful, it's not well-written. You are better of reading the instructions on the side of a tube of toothpaste. They'd probably be less one-sided and you'd learn about as much about Pitt.

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England
Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England
by Sarah Wise
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.39

5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent introduction to views of lunacy in the 19th century, 26 Jan 2014
I had long thought that a book on the history of madness, and the way it was tolerated, accepted, ignored, dismissed, punished or otherwise treated by society would be a fascinating read, so I was delighted to come across this book.

However, on reading it I found out that it was not quite what I had imagined. Instead, it was an account of the "progress" that madness made in the nineteenth century, or more accurately, the progress of it's diagnosis and treatment. Wise's approach is a good one - she takes a dozen cases, spanning the nineteenth century, and gives detailed accounts of the individuals whose sanity was questioned, when, who by, and the implications that this case had on the legal, medical and academic status of madness. Touching upon questions of majority viewpoint, truth, perception and social standing, this gives the reader a thorough - and enjoyable - journey through "madness" in the Victorian era (and a little before.)

The cases are well selected, and each one gripping. One of the reviews claim that there's enough to fill "a dozen fat novels" - and that wouldn't be far out. I was particularly interested by the cases of Mr Perceval and Mrs Cummings, but the chapter concerning a cult named "The Abode of Love" probably beat all. What is an extra and very welcome bonus, Wise does tie up the "loose ends" towards the end of each case. Too often when reading an historical account, I finish it but still want to know - what happened to the supporting cast? What about the buildings? The organisation? And so the list goes on. Wise settles these little questions, and happily there's a great deal of interest in the answers. The buildings used by the Abode of Love, for instance, ended up being used in the 1960s for the BBC when they were filming "Watch With Mother"!

The narrative is given to the occasional diversion, such as the way madness was represented in novels of the time, which all serve to present a clear and well-rounded view of the nineteenth century's attitudes. What is refreshing too is that the "mad-doctors" - painted by press and public as various types of bogey-men - are carefully and sensitively portrayed - rather than just condemned out of hand.

On top of all this, there is a refreshing and vibrant writing style. Wise is lively and fully aware that she's writing for an audience, rather than creating a series of lecture notes. One memorable phrase, concerning a Mrs Lowe - a mistress of an individual, she lived on a houseboat on the Thames - becoming "Mrs Lowe-on-Thames"; another references to Dickens' involvement (or lack of) in a case - "she couldn't blame it all on Boz"; and a different observation comparing two different types of wandering fingers, which I shan't repeat as I don't know whether it would show me as a good critic or simply open to a little bit of smutty humour.

The whole book is a joy, from start to finish, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the era, or subject, or concepts, that are covered. I have not enjoyed such a book for a very long time, and it's with great joy that I see Sarah Wise has got at least two more published!

Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister
Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister
by Andro Linklater
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Almost, but not quite, plausible..., 8 Aug 2013
Bellingham's assassination of him is probably about the only thing that people know about Spencer Perceval, so the sections of this book that investigate his Perceval's family life, political career and religious/moral convictions is welcome. It's not Linklater's aim to provide a full biography of Perceval (he admits that himself) so obviously this section's not as thorough as it could be, but it's interesting and well-researched. The parts on Bellingham's background are equally meticulous and I'd imagine had to be done from scratch, making them particularly impressive. I'm even prepared to overlook the rendering of John Gladstones as "John Gladstone" - his son, William, the Prime Minister, was the first to not use the "s" routinely.

Unfortunately the book's main argument - that Peck & Phelps organised the death of Perceval - is little more than conjecture. Linklater is able to produce a case, but not one that would very likely stand up in court. The main thrust of the argument seems to be that Peck & Phelps would benefit most from Perceval's death - or, more accurately, from the changes that would follow Perceval's death. This may be true, but there are two very important problems. Firstly, Peck and Phelps could not guarantee the changes that did follow the assassination. They benefitted, but to organise a high-profile murder on a hunch would be a very rash act.

Secondly, simply because someone benefits from a death it doesn't make them a suspect. Following the Ripper murders in London, a wide-sweeping series of social developments, such as gas lighting, slum clearances and better policing were pushed into the East End, years before they would have been otherwise and dramatically improving the lives of the residents. But there is nothing to suggest that William Booth and the Salvation Army brutally butchered prostitutes just to achieve their agenda. It seems to me to be equally far-fetched to suggest Peck & Phelps were involved in Perceval's killing.

Some would say that this leaves unanswered issues about the killing, such as how Bellingham could support himself in London despite being essentially broke. The most straightforward solutions probably work here. Either Bellingham persuaded someone that he would be getting compensation (legally) shortly and they advanced him cash, or he was advanced cash by a trading house on the basis that he was going to London to conduct business. It's not my intention to involve myself in a cold case, so I'll stop the speculation there.

In short, it's an entertaining read but in the final analysis, I can't believe it's true. I'd give it three-and-a-half stars, rather than three, if I could.

Just as a final afterthought, several of the quotes about how great this book is that you see on the Amazon page actually refer to a different book by Linklater, so just watch out there!

Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine
Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine
by Anna Reid
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Introduction, 28 April 2013
I have no especial interest in Ukraine but picked up this book as I knew someone with the same name as the author. I promptly left it on a shelf and forgot about it, returning to it only after a few years and attracted by the fact that it seemed quite short...!

From these inauspicious beginnings, I have to state that this is an unbelievably good book. It is pitched for someone with little knowledge of Ukraine but with a good level of general knowledge and who is capable of grasping ideas without having them spelt out. Reid's key "trick" was to select a city that embodied that phase of Ukrainian history under examination. Kiev, Lviv, Pripyat and more were all examined critically and placed within a wider diaspora of Ukrainian history. The only thing "wrong" with the book is that the final chapter was written before crucial political developments in the country and is rather speculative. It has, as such, largely been superseded by actual events and therefore can be largely discounted. But even taking this into account the book is an excellent, excellent introduction to a nation that very few in the UK seem to know much about.

Despite what some reviews have said in reviews of other versions of this book, I did not find it pro-Russian; nor did I feel that it prostrated itself at the feet of a towering, glorious Ukrainian nation. For me, it was the right mix of wry observations of political and contemporary reality coupled with an excellent manner of recounting and analysing key historical events. It was detailed without being subsumed in minutiae, it was harrowing (in points) without being self-centred, it was knowledgeable without being obscure. The sources used have again been questioned by other reviews of the book that call into question their Ukrainian-ness, and - it appears - their least as far as I understand it. I'm not for re-writing history, but I do say that if the most succinct and accurate view can be put across through the words of a Russian, or a Georgian, or anyone of any nationality, then regardless of whether the book is about Ukraine or not, those views should be incorporated. Subjectivity is an issue with any historian but I do not believe that Reid's choice of sources is any worse, or better, than other well-written historical accounts.

Really first class. Thank goodness I knew someone of that name, otherwise I'd never have come across this superb book.

Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt: The Erotic Secrets of the Forbidden Papyrus: The Erotic Secrets of the Forbidden Papyri
Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt: The Erotic Secrets of the Forbidden Papyrus: The Erotic Secrets of the Forbidden Papyri
by Ruth Shumann-Antelme
Edition: Paperback
Price: 16.83

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you don't like it, you're in de-Nile., 12 April 2013
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This is a fascinating glimpse into the ancient Egyptian dynasties attitudes towards sexuality. I gather that very little mainstream work has been done on this topic and therefore this book is very much a ground-breaker.

A quick word of encouragement to those who may have already started reading it - it DOES get much better after the first chapter. This opening section deals with the sexual elements present in Egyptian creation myths and God/Goddess stories, and unless you have a very, very good knowledge of their belief system AND an encyclopaedic knowledge of the individual Gods and Goddesses, you will find the first chapter almost inpenetrable. There is an appendix at the back that gives brief "biographies" of the figures involved and reading that first, or as you go, is a real time-saver.

After this dubious beginning, however, discussion turns to human sexual practices and attitudes, and it is here that the book really becomes interesting. Whilst, of course, huge areas remain conjecture or simply unguessable, the author squeezes as much as they realistically can out of the scant evidence available. They do their best to look at the myriad of different angles available - royal family, nobility and workers - and from the earliest dynasties to the late Ptolomies. On the other hand, slaves and their possible links to the sexual format of ancient Egypt are not dealt with and certain established practices (such as the Pharoah's practice of ejaculating into the Nile in a fertility ritual before the floods) that are acknowledged and unquestionable (if not widely known) are not picked up on. This is possibly because the book deliberately limits itself to sexual practices and beliefs as recorded in specific papyri and inscriptions, rather than any other sources, but it does mean that there are a couple of surprising gaps.

Other than that the only issue is that "erotic secrets" is not an accurate description; eroticism is not the purpose of the records studied in this book (with the possible exception of one poem) - mysticism or satire would be more accurate. However, it seems unlikely that "mystic secrets" or (probably) "satirical secrets" would sell as well, so I can understand though not condone this attempt to mislead! Occasionally it does wander into the present and initiate brief discussions on female circumcision and prevalent sexual attitudes today, but these moments are few and as such do not detract from the value of the book as an historical study.

In summary it is a very good book on an under-researched subject. Whilst it adds a great deal to our knowledge of Egyptian attitudes towards sex and sexuality, it is not a complete record of what we know and will need to be supplemented by other books to gain a fuller view.

Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages
Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages
by William Donaldson
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Oh so close..., 29 Mar 2013
Willie Donaldson is a legend. The creator of Henry Root, this was (I think) his last work before his death. I had very high hopes of this work, but regrettably they were not entirely met.

One thing that I must point out, though not criticise, is that this is Donaldson as a factual reporter, not given totally free reign. What made works like the Henry Root letters outrageously funny was their frequent flights from reality ("Do you just read the news, or do you make it up as well? I've often wondered...") which obviously one can't have in a factual work. Instead, Donaldson is restricted simply to ironic, cutting or insightful observations on other people's acts. They're funny, but not hilariously so.

There are two main problems with the book that could have been avoided.

The first is that Donaldson, so often an inventor of new characters, recycles much from his previous works here. Many entries simply read, "they seem much happier now they've found out who they really are", an aside that is found frequently in his much earlier "Henry Root's World of Knowledge". Another reviewer mentions the "if you think I'm pissed, wait until you see the Duke of York" comment; this anecdote crops up in a very little-known work of Donaldsons, "The Meaning of Cantona", where - oddly - it is relayed as "wait until you see the Duke of Buckingham". They can't both be right...Another example is that both works invent "Quel signifique Gazza?" as a French absurdist text.

Of course, it could be argued that funny jokes and stories remain funny no matter how often they are used, and this goes some way to alleviating the slight disappointment I had that Donaldson was recycling. The second point, however, is simply not excusable.

It is simply this. Several of the entries are WRONG. Vinny Jones, for instance, was not born in 1953. This would have meant he regularly played Premier League football until his mid-forties. When assassinated, Spencer Percival did not cry, "I'll have one of Bellamy's veal pies". Every other source, contemporary or otherwise, agrees that he shouted "I am murdered". The "veal pies" comment was actually the last words of Pitt the Younger. One individual in the book is given as living from (and I recall this from memory, so the dates may be inexact) "1876-33", in other words, travelling back through time and dying before they were born. Palmer the Poisoner, who met his fate in the 1850s at the end of a hangman's noose, is listed has having been tried and found guilty of a poisoning in the 1880s. And the mess made over John Hartley, tennis player and clergyman, is far far too complicated to explain easily. Suffice to say that Donaldson has Hartley losing a semi-final that he actually won, and claims he never won any major tournaments; in fact he won Wimbledon twice and was runner-up once. Donaldson's entry gives Hartley's date of death as "??", whereas a little sniffing about on the web (and NOT wikipedia) shows you that he died in his 80s in 1935 in Yorkshire.

However, I accept that many people are not compilers of history/sports obscurity; therefore even these problems may not matter. If we're prepared to overlook the inaccuracy and repetition, we're left with a very, very good book - only a few gaps, really - it would have been good to see Palmerston, the Mitford sisters in more detail, and so on.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. I did like the book, very much. I just think that Donaldson, in common with many of his other projects, probably gave up on it a bit too soon.

I will certainly keep it and I'll certainly dip into it from time to time - probably when in the bathroom - but there'll always be this nagging feeling that it could have been even better than it was.

Football Nation: Sixty Years of the Beautiful Game
Football Nation: Sixty Years of the Beautiful Game
by Andrew Ward
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.26

5.0 out of 5 stars 30 Yard Screamer, 5 Mar 2013
This book covers the development of football in England (and Wales, but not really Scotland) from 1945 to around 2005. In doing this it steers a different path from most books, which would cover just those clubs that dominated and assume that this would be enough. "Football Nation" moves instead around the peripheries of the games, essentially looking at what fans of non-Premier League clubs would call "real football" or "proper football". It's refreshingly free from name-dropping and manages to convey the hugely difficult journey that football in this country has taken with flair and style. Difficult issues, like hooliganism, the various tragedies (Burnden Park, Hillsborough, Bradford) and racism are examined critically and it is also a wealth of information about other topics, such as the development of the football pools.

It is NOT a book about changing tactics, it is NOT a book about great players, it is NOT a book about "characters". It is a book about the relationship that people in England have with football, and why that is.

And it is truly excellent.

Guess How Much I Love You (Little Favourites)
Guess How Much I Love You (Little Favourites)
by Sam McBratney
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 1.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, 28 Jan 2013
This is just a lovely book. If you read it in the day, you can go in for the big arm movements ("I love you THIIIISS much"); if you read it at night it has a strange effect (at least on my little one) that they nuzzle down to sleep on the penultimate page and start yawning; if your child is happy it's lots of fun; if they're sad it's a book for cuddling to.

I'd never heard of it before we got it, but it's great.

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