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A. Warmington (Hampton, UK)

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Uncle Jack
Uncle Jack
by Tony Williams
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A house built on straw, 13 May 2011
This review is from: Uncle Jack (Hardcover)
Tony Williams is a competent enough writer, but the idea that he has come up with a likely candidate for Jack the Ripper in his distant relative, the eminent Victorian medic Sir John Williams, is a heap of speculation built on very little. Nor is his 'I didn't want to believe it, but...' tone remotely credible; it is quite clear from the outset that Williams wants to convict his famous forebear.

The evidence is scanty to the point of non-existent. Williams lived in London in 1888, he had links to the London Hospital in the Whitechapel area, he may have run informal clinics in Whitechapel, he apparently - though even this is disputed - performed an abortion on one of the Ripper's victims in 1885, he was a strange and rather arrogant man in an unhappy marriage and he is rumoured to have had another woman. Called Mary. Like the Ripper's last victim. And several hundred thousand others in Britain at the time.

Oh, and he left among other things a surgeon's knife to the passion of his later life, the National Library of Wales, which may or may not have human blood on it. Anyone would think he was a surgeon or something. Ah, hang on a minute...

And really that's about it. There is nothing to say that Williams was ever a suspect, no identification evidence, no shred of a motive - though garnering specimens for medical research is hinted at - just nothing. Even the wildly improbable candidature of James Maybrick has the much-debated diary to back it up. That this kind of thesis still gets aired has more to do with our love of conspiracy theories and the wish for 'significant' crimes to have a 'significant' perpetrator, rather than the poor, local, sex-crazed nutcase that Jack the Ripper almost certainly was.

This isn't the worst book ever written on Jack the Ripper, but it's definitely at the Hartlepool United end of the league. If you really want a proper analysis rather than the twisting of selected facts to fit a predetermined conclusion, read Paul Begg or Philip Sugden.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 14, 2012 1:48 PM BST

How Not to Grow Up: A Coming of Age Memoir. Sort of.
How Not to Grow Up: A Coming of Age Memoir. Sort of.
by Richard Herring
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Existential crisis, with plenty of knob gags, 26 April 2011
First, the disclaimer. I knew Richard Herring quite well once. We were in the Oxford Revue Workshop together, where his comedy career began and mine more or less ended. Being surrounded by obvious incipient comedy genius in the form of him, Stewart Lee, Armando Iannucci, Al Murray et al. was enough to convince me to stick to the day job. We weren't close friends or anything but he was a nice enough bloke who I would happily heckle in a pleasant sort of way if I saw him on stage again.

This book is a curious read. Whilst very funny in places, it is not the usual jog-trot through growing up in the '70s and '80s. Much of it is quite dark, in as much as when he stops doing knob gags for long enough, Herring is clearly going through a bit of a tunnel as he contemplates reaching the age of 40 with little financial security and a comedy career that has probably peaked, if not stalled. Much of this is palpably contrived for the purposes of creating his next Edinburgh show, but it is genuine enough.

Some of the negatives from previous reviews are fair. It is definitely far too long - half a chapter on a meeting with the bank manager, FFS! - and it is not always easy to feel sorry for someone living the life many men would dream of: getting up whenever you like, no commitments, easy access to attractive women half your age ('Comedy groupies' was a bit of an oxymoron in Oxford in the late 1980s. In fact the total impossiblity of there being such a thing was a running gag at the Workshop. Funny how things turn out). Herring is intelligent and self-aware enough to know this and to know that he is coming over as a bit of a berk at times, so I assume he left this in on purpose.

However, I still enjoyed the book for many reasons, not least the most eloquent defence of immaturity that I have ever read. When we 'mature', when we lose the ability to laugh at farts - or worse still, stop ourselves from doing so - we are really losing something. And you don't have to be a 39-year-old with no serious worries and no worse hang-ups than never having had a threesome to know that. Though it probably helps to be a younger child...

Finally, if you don't want to know the result, look away now: by the end, he has got over the milestone without anything very much happening, he's had his threesome (with two attractive women) and even may have found a genuine soulmate. Isn't there some kind of a law against being this jammy? Cheers, Rich.

More What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been
More What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been
by Robert Cowley
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Better than the first, but ridiculously American, 11 Mar. 2011
Hot on the heels of the successful first 'What If?' comes this one. It is in many ways more enjoyable than the first, because it is less purely military focused, though it still suffers from some of the problems that seem to go with American historians, notably pompous verbiosity ("or some simulacrum thereof" - you mean "something like that", I assume?) and a quite risible inability that is either shared by all of the authors or imposed on them by editor Robert Cowley to understand British national identity.

(Just in case, here goes guys, it's not that complex: England and Britain are NOT, repeat NOT, the same. England is the largest single constituent part of Britain and ruled over Wales and Ireland until 1603, when its crown was united with that of Scotland. In 1707, they were joined as Great Britain by the Act of Union. When most of Ireland became independent in 1921, Northern Ireland remained part of what is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The language spoken by the vast majority of the population throughout Britain and debatably the USA is indeed called English. Got that? I'll leave national sporting teams out, because that really is complex.)

Inevitably the articles vary in quality, with the author but also with the subject's intrinsic importance. Some are masterful: Richard B. Frank is utterly convincing in showing that unleashing the atomic bombs really was the least appalling alternative in August 1945, while Cecilia Holland explores the fascinating possibility of the Battle of Hastings going the other way, which it could have done and very nearly did. 'What if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus crucifixion?' is fascinating too, though, this being America, the possibility of Jesus fading into obscurity goes unanalysed.

The very last article, 'What if Pizarro hadn't found potatoes in Peru?', is perhaps the best of all: fascinating and enlightening as to the difference cultivating potatoes rather than just grain made to subsequent miliatry and political history, not least by enabling peasant life to go on in the countryside of Europe on many occasions, even while armies rampaged around it. This extraordinary vegetable really has changed the world.

On the downside, some of the essays are pointless. What if, asks Roger Spiller, Hitler had not committed suicide? Well, as Spiller himself concludes, he'd almost certainly have been taken prisoner, tried and executed in a calm, legalistic way, the same as his acolytes and all we would have missed would have been the occasional spurious stories about him escaping. I suppose there is a contractual requirement to include the American Civil War, but it's pointless: the North would have won and slavery would have ended.

As for Theodore Rabb's lost opportunity on the English Civil War, it's just absurd. What if Charles I had not gone to Scotland in 1641 but instead stayed in London where the plague broke out near Whitehall? Simple - he'd have left London to escape, the way the rich always did. The possibility of it killing him AND all seven of his children, leaving the throne to his sister, a heroine to the Puritans, is not worth discussing, especially not when there are so many more genuine 'what ifs' worth exploring in this context.

If you liked the first one, though, you should like this too. Counter-factual history is a great parlour game. Just grit your teeth a few times and keep on reading.

The Tudors - Season 1-3 [DVD]
The Tudors - Season 1-3 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Offered by Bendnb
Price: £15.90

20 of 27 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Rubbish beyond belief, 28 Feb. 2011
OK, I'm an academic historian. OK, I know a lot of the detail already and dislike having it served up pre-digested through badly scripted dialogue. OK, some people don't mind inaccuracy. But.....but...but... the real trouble with the Tudors is that it is such a compelling true story that distorting it makes no sense. This is so bad and so distorted that it is truly shameful.

I could go into detail on so many areas but lets focus for the sake of argument on the downfall and execution of Catherine Howard. She is shown being escorted by barge into the Tower of London (true) past the heads on spikes of her two executed lovers. Complete rot and gratuitously nasty. Whilst they were barbarously put to death - in the case of Francis Dereham by hanging drawing and quartering for what amounts to consensual sex with a silly young girl who then caught the eye of the king - there is no way that this would have happened.

She is then informed she will die the next day with the date being thrown in for good measure. She asks to have the block brought to her to try it out (true) which for some reason she does stark naked, while alone in a cell. Complete rot, she would have been attended at all times and lodged in apartments, treated as a Queen to the end.

Next day she has to stand on the scaffold watching as her partner in crime, Lady Rochford, is beheaded before her. Wrong, she went first and Lady Rochford was kept away until it was over. She wets herself in fear. Really, really sick and tasteless and undocumented. She then defiantly says 'I die a Queen but would rather the die the wife of Culpepper' to gasps from the crowd before kneeling down. A story that did the rounds but which is patently untrue.

Henry, meanwhile, still a handsome man who looks about 30, is carousing at court with any number of comely maidens while all this goes on. Absolute rubbish. He was by then a grotesquely obese 50-year-old monster, in constant pain and with a vile temper. Her betrayal - for she was guilty - was the one thing in his adult life he was forced to believe when it did not suit him to. It devastated him to the verge of insanity.

There are many other completely pointless deviations from the truth. The famously dark Anne Boleyn played by an actress with blue eyes? Oh and big breasts, no doubt because the producers reckon that the men who have been forced to sit through this would prefer that kind of thing. This does matter; Henry had the mother of all Oedipus complexes and large breasts were one of the things he most hated. Anne's were small and he dwelt on that in the few letters he actually wrote.

I could go on. Oh, what the hell, I will. Thomas Cromwell as a snivelling young schemer rather than an immensely intelligent man who was a generation older than Henry by the standards of the day? Jane Seymour as a pretty blonde alternative to Anne rather than a suitably pliable personality vacuum? Everyone is portrayed wrong to some degree.

The Tudors is a nasty, sleazy, badly written disgrace. I hold it in absolute contempt. The story has been told better a hundred times in books, films and on TV. Go somewhere else if you want to know about it.
Comment Comments (9) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 9, 2012 10:40 AM BST

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World
Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World
by Simon Garfield
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The colour purple - and why it matters, 28 Feb. 2011
Chemistry. A boring subject for nerds, right? I used to think so, that's why I dropped it as soon as I could and ended up as a historian, only to return to it in my professional life as the editor of a magazine about it. If this book had been around 30 years ago, I might have thought differently.

'Mauve' is a terrifically entertaining and informative read, everything a good non-fiction book should be. It tells the story of how Sir William Perkin 'sort of accidentally' discovered the first true synthetic dyestuff while trying to synthesise quinine and in the process not only made his own fortune but kick-started modern industrial chemistry as well, debatably the whole modern world. It wasn't a complete accident - people had been on the lookout for artificial colours that could be made cheaply at large scale for years - and reflected the work of an enquiring mind in a subject then dismissed as of no real importance.

Many of the themes still echo today. The process was discovered in Britain but developed further and made better in Germany, which then steamrollered the British dyestuffs industry into oblivion. It's all gone to India, now, of course. And if you think short-termism, a focus on shuffling money about, a sniffiness about innovation and lack of government support for industry and entrepreneurs is a modern disease, think again; they were very much there in the 19th century too.

Also very much echoing today is the downside of chemicals. They are dangerous in the wrong hands and much of this went pell-mell into products that exposed people to real danger. Just like today, the industry was often arrogant and defensive about it, while the popular press raised hysteria with no sense of proportion. And how typical of Britain that we know so little about this man and that it took considerable work to even locate his grave.

An excellent book, as illuminating in its way as the beautiful purple dye that colonised our streets for a couple of surreal years in the 1860s. Find it.

The Boy with the Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton
The Boy with the Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton
by Sathnam Sanghera
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More insight than a dozen sociological studies, 23 Feb. 2011
When I was backpacking in India many years ago, I saw a humble sugar cane juice stall with the motto 'Cure for every disease is marriage'. I laughed, took a picture and put it down as another example of how India simply cannot be translated into English without losing something in the process.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. In one of many mind-boggling and revealing moments in this touching book, Sathnam Sanghera shows us that a significant number of people, especially in the Punjabi community from where he hails, really do believe that marriage is a cure for mental illness (I'd have thought it a major cause, but let that pass). Hence his parents; a hopelessly schizophrenic father who was once violent, though now he is just passive and disengaged, married off to an ignorant village girl and sent to Wolverhampton and left to get on with it, somehow.

This true story of Sanghera's life to date is partly a familiar one of a Westernised young man coming to terms with where he came from and leading a, well, rather schizophrenic life in the process, getting in to Cambridge, trying to ward off pressure for an arranged marriage and enjoy a London lifestyle, complete with (not very many) white girlfriends. It is partly about learning in his 20s what might seem the obvious truth that his father is severely mentally ill and that this condition has afflicted one of his sisters too.

Above all, it is the story of Sanghera's mother. Uneducated, ignorant, unable to speak the language of the country she has lived in for most of her life and still living - like, sadly, an awfully large number of Punjabis - as if they were still back in a village in the 1950s, she is in some ways the archetypal Asian matriarch from hell. And yet in surviving the violence and the cruel pointing fingers that said she bewitched her husband while going on to raise four children without turning bitter, she emerges as a truly admirable woman.

The comparison has been made with Imran Ahmad's 'Unimagined' This is inevitable, since both are bright, nerdy, rather self-absorbed second generation Asian immigrants discussing the challenges of growing up Asian in Britain. But there are just as many differences and both books are worthy of reading.(Disclaimer: I am a personal friend of Imran's; I have also exchanged emails with Sathnam in the past).

Sanghera has been criticised for revealing some ugly truths about his community and his agonising over trying to tell his mother that he is not going to accept marriage to a stranger to please her sometimes had me telling him to grow a pair. In the context of what his mother went through, it is hardly a big deal, which he recognises, because he is very honest about how easy his life has been by contrast to hers.

(I might also add that his observations on Wolverhampton being the biggest dump in the West Midlands, which is in turn the biggest dump in Britain are a bit out, however amusingly he describes it. You grew up there Sathnam, did you really never go to Dudley? Or Walsall? Or Telford??)

Overall, though, this is a well-written and moving memoir of growing up Asian in Britain in the 1980s - including a strange liking for George Michael and the other terrible pop music of the time - of the sheer strangeness of families and dealing with some of the most horrendous things mundane everyday life can throw at you. Recommended highly.

Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile
Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile
by Geraint Anderson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.13

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Columns and novels: two different things, 5 Jan. 2011
Like a lot of Londoners, as I was at the time, I enjoyed the Cityboy column in the London Paper, in which an obviously more literate and sensitive denizen of the city exposed it as it really was. Long since outed as Geraint Anderson and having long since ceased to work in the City, this is the novelisation in which 'Steve Jones' lives Anderson's six years as a Cityboy. It falls flat on its face.

Problem one: what is witty and amusing in a 300 word article on the train is not necessarily witty and amusing in a full length book. Most of this isn't. The humour is thoroughly forced, based on contrived comparisons. Some of it is possibly plagiarised. ("Why are you so fat?"/"Because every time I f*ck your wife, she gives me a biscuit" is a legendary Australian cricketing sledge and retort that ceased to be funny when Glenn McGrath's wife, the woman in question here, died of cancer. It's just possible, to be fair, that Anderson is repeating someone else's plagiarisation of the joke.)

Problem two: the structure is all over the place. Where a column can veer between 'here's what happened to me' and 'here's what it means' with no real problem, it can soon get very wearisome in a novel. In one particular chapter, Anderson goes off tack five times within the space of his account of one day's golfing against an obnoxious rival. By the fifth time he brings you back to the story, with 'Anyway, back at the links' or words to the effect, you have lost interest.

Problem three: despite this allegedly ripping the lid off the City culture, Anderson still revels in it, is often staggeringly un-self-aware and still (to be fair he admits it) dazzled by the sheer scale of its awfulness. And in any case, the news that Cityboys are a bunch of chancers, wankers and amoral buffoons who got lucky or had the right connections belongs in the same list as bears' forest-based toilet habits.

Geraint, you got lucky and got out of the right time, having dicked over many peoples' lives in the process. Congratulations. Now please go away and stop bothering us.

Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast (Radio 4 Book of the Week)
Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast (Radio 4 Book of the Week)
by Charlie Connelly
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.48

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Moderate, sometimes poor, 29 Oct. 2010
A neat idea in itself, this attempt to construct a travelogue by going to a landfall in every area of the Shipping Forecast where possible doesn't quite come off in practice. It passes the time but will not live long in the memory.

Charlie Connelly can write but his cynical journo-ese frequently lets him down and in the end it becomes yet another travel-book-by-numbers exercise. One town amusingly slagged off at great length for being boring? Check. Halstad in Denmark, if you're interested. Another getting the serious treatment as its sole industry (Arbroath, smokies) battles to survive in the modern world? Check. Loads of faux-weary asides about the oddities of travel and hotels. Check, everywhere.

There are some real revelations, to be fair. The bizarre, appalling story of Britain actually owning a part of modern Germany, Heligoland, swapping it for Zanzibar and then trying to blast it off the map at the end of World War II was a major eye-opener. Connelly didn't actually manage to get there, however. Part of the trouble with this book is that virtually none of his year of travel was done by ship, for practical reasons.

The ridiculous shenanigas between supposedly grown-up nations over Rockall when the possiblity of oil and gas deposits also passed me by in the 1970s, so credit for that. There are also some entertaining travelogues in some of the stranger bits of the region, including the creation of the infamous phrase 'twatting puffins' - see NewsBiscuit for more. Overall, though, the whole is not even the sum of the parts.

The Road to McCarthy
The Road to McCarthy
by Pete Mccarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars ...and many others too, 21 Sept. 2010
This review is from: The Road to McCarthy (Paperback)
This is not as good as McCarthy's Bar and it does reek of 'what's my next book project'. As well as pursuing the various branches of the squabbling Clan McCarthy across predictable and unlikely parts of the world (Tangier?), the very Anglo-Irish Pete McCarthy follows the trail of some Irish political convicts who were sent all the way to Tasmania, one ending his days as governor of the State of Montana, and also rambles around the odd depths of modern Oirishness, so there is a bit of a lack of focus.

That said, it's an entertaining and sometimes poignant travelogue - the sheer horrors of 19th century imprisonment in Tasmania, with all the bureaucratic notations of floggings for attitude problems, are gut-wrenching. McCarthy has a real gift of bringing the humour and pathos out of people, places and situations. He is at his best doing this and at his worst with his rather forced observations along the lines of what's-all-this-about-then? on hotels, airports and other parts of modern travel. This nearly had me giving up in Chapter One but I persevered and it was worth it.

Rude Britannia
Rude Britannia
by Tim Fountain
Edition: Paperback

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's a strange old country, 21 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Rude Britannia (Paperback)
Tim Fountain has slept with far more women than most men - about 40 - and also about 5,000 men. He is also, by his own account which is perfectly credible once you have read this book, a bit shy and maybe a bit of a failed romantic. This paradox in him makes for a book that is at once revealing, frustrating and a bit sad.

There are certainly a lot of strange fetishes in Britain and Fountain gets close to a few of them. Sometimes the results are hilarious, e.g. going to the toilet at a gay pub in King's Cross where a pissing party is being held only to find the other partygoers hanging around him and asking him to, er, contribute.

The trouble is that half of the time Fountain, in tabloid parlance, makes an excuse and leaves. Perhaps he is all a bit conventional underneath the quarter century of anonymous shagging in public toilets? Certainly he does a runner far too often when he can't relate to the fetish in question - understandable in many cases, but it doesn't make for a very successful way to research your book.

There is also way too much padding out from Wikipedia - Herefordshire is England's least populous county, you know, and the home to a couple who like dressing up as ponies and being ridden. Right. And the connection would be?

Overall an interesting enough read but nowhere near the book it could have been. A woman called, I think, Kitty Churchill did a similar exercise some years ago and to much better effect.

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