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Circus Mania
Circus Mania
by Douglas McPherson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.47

5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Turn Your Back on the Sawdust Ring, 21 July 2014
This review is from: Circus Mania (Paperback)
Circus Mania” is a much needed dispassionately written book on the British circus scene. In order for this institution to survive, thrive and regain mainstream respectability in the media it needs journalistic appraisal, insight and critique. The author, theatrical journalist Douglas McPherson, explains in his introduction that he had only a “fragmentary” memory of his time watching the circus as a child. After that he had no connection with the circus whatsoever, admitting to the common middle-class prejudice of believing that circuses were bygone vestiges of animal abuse. Therefore, when “The Stage” newspaper asked him to review The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus’s 100th anniversary show, he came to the current British circus scene with fresh eyes. It was here where he met and interviewed the lovely Eva Garcia who would fall to her death at the very beginning of her cloud swing act just one day after his review was published. His experience at the show and meeting those who worked there inspired him to further investigate the British circus scene. McPherson had noticed that beside the behemoth institution that is Cirque du Soleil, it was rare for the performing arts world to take any notice of this very British showbusiness institution outside of the negative publicity targeted at animal circuses by their protesters.

McPherson’s book combines historical research on circus with interviews with circus owners and artists as well as his own reviews of their shows. Each chapter centres on one particular show or institution, covering the aforementioned Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus, The Great British Circus, Circus Mondeo, Circ Panic, The Circus of Horrors, The Circus Space circus school, Zippos Circus and the TV show “The Big Top”, Circus Hilarious, The Chinese State Circus, Cirque du Soleil, Cirque de Glace, the recollections of George Pinder Snr and Gerry Cottle’s Wookie Hole circus school. The narrative running through the book links the chapters smoothly, taking the reader on a journey through McPherson’s own education in circus history and culture. His own life comes into play, but only with regards to the way he and his wife reacted to the various shows. The writing never strays from its focus, and McPherson compares and contrasts styles of circus he has seen whilst reflecting on circus history.

Unlike the author, I certainly don’t come to this sort of material with fresh eyes. My earliest recollections are living in a wagon with the smells of diesel, sawdust, candy floss and animals taking turns in my infantile nostrils. My mother comes from an unbroken three centuries old circus family. My family were performing circus acts a century before the modern circus ring was created. My father ran away to join the circus, and my parents set up their own circus for six years. So, as you can imagine, I know most of the people McPherson interviews and reviews. It is always interesting to hear from an outsider’s perspective and to find out new things about people you have known all your life. I also discovered new pieces of information on circus history, particularly its early days in Britain.

McPherson’s reviewing style is very fair in most respects. Grasping how wildly different circus has become, everything is kept in context, accounting for budgets and target audience. He is not afraid to call the world’s largest and most successful Cirque du Soleil on its pretentiousness and the pretentiousness of many other “new circus” or “cirque” outfits, such as the immersive NoFit State Circus. Yet he shows a complete understanding of its artistic bent praises its strong points and how these points shown to be truly innovative in the circus/ice skating hybrid that is Cirque de Glace. His interviewees are candid in their criticism of the old and the new in the circus world.

The book has its errors. . For example, the real name for the Paulo family is Butcher and not Thompson. Given the tangled web of circus families and apocryphal tales, I am very surprised he got away with so few. He was lucky that one of his interviewees was George Pinder, a member of the circus world who is passionate about his own circus family history and I was delighted to see an entire chapter dedicated to him.

I am curious about his distinction between circus palari and theatrical/gay polari. Palari is the slang of circus people with related equivalents in the showman (fairground) and gypsy cultures. It was always my understanding that the slang was brought into the theatres by circus people and then adopted by the then illegal gay community as a code language. Although noticing similarities between the two, McPherson contends they are two separate slang languages.

I also found that although, on the whole, I agreed with the author’s opinion on circus, he didn’t completely shake off animal rights influence. He didn’t like the way horses bow in circus acts, which is actually a very commonplace behaviour that runs across horse training outside of circus. In the same chapter he criticized the elephant pyramid, arguing that such a trick need not be performed, as the presence of the elephants was enough. Neither trick is a cruel behaviour. Elephants have been recently pictured in the wild standing on their hind legs to access high branches and the positioning is very similar to mating. If it is an exploitation argument then we are really into a deep philosophical question outside of animal welfare and in the murky realm of animal rights. If a trick isn’t proven to be harmful to an animal under scientific conditions then why should it be pulled? This is a debate for another day, but I am interested to see it being present in McPherson’s opinion when he shows a lot of self-awareness regarding the middle class seduction by animal rights ideals.

Sadly Gifford’s Circus is missing from the book. They would have fitted perfectly into the mix, representing perhaps the newest face of circus, something referred to as “Heritage Circus”. I would have loved to have heard the author’s view on this particular brand of circus, which turns its eye back to traditional circus with a theatrical eye and fresh imaginative perspective. Maybe, if this book receives the response it deserves, the author will consider writing a further review on their circus and their respective clientèle.

The author and his publisher clearly couldn’t resist going with the traditional circus archetype in its design and it is wonderfully creative. When it comes to books, I am an anti-minimalist and circus rarely fits into a modernist art mode. Circus is always big, glitzy, loud and varied. This is reflected well in Nick Pearson’s design work and Douglas McPherson’s vision for the overall presentation. True to his personal persuasions, there is nothing stuffy about the way the book is put together. The fonts to the chapters and front cover are of the typical clichéd circus poster style. The front cover displays an image from the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus with a curious very small insert of “Doc” (John) Haze at the bottom and the back has an image from the Circus of Horrors. This is a very clear intended juxtaposition of the different styles of British circus. The beginning of the book is set out like a traditional circus programme with the contents page titled as “The Programme”. McPherson is cast as “Your Ringmaster” and the index of names at the back are headed “The Cast”. Each chapter has a small introduction line to explain the subject matter and presented as a sales blurb. It made it all feel very episodic and kept my interest even when I was tired or not reading in the best of conditions.

The world of circus needs books like “Circus Mania”. I would say it is the most important insight into British circus since Nell Stroud’s “Josser”. Nell, who is now co-owner of Gifford’s Circus, touched upon the problems with modern circus journalism, which was often either shamelessly partisan or written from the views of those with a personal agenda against traditional circus. However, Nell’s beautiful book only provided a view from an outsider living on British shows. McPherson’s work, written over a decade later, compliments this with the other side. He is the much needed objective, academic reviewer that can bring the world of circus outside of “Cirque” and “New Circus” to a wider audience again.

Stephen Fry Does the 'Knowledge' (BBC Audiobooks)
Stephen Fry Does the 'Knowledge' (BBC Audiobooks)
by Stephen Fry
Edition: Audio CD

3.0 out of 5 stars LIght Knowledge through the BBC Archives, 10 Jun 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Stephen Fry has established himself as the man who made brains cool. The success of the celebrity comedy quiz show "Q.I.", which Fry hosts, has shown that we are as keen as ever to gain knowledge. Therefore, he was the obvious choice to narrate BBC Radio's "The Knowledge", where he explores the nature of knowledge and our fascination with its acquisition. Using the fact that a taxi driver once won Mastermind and the extraordinary amount of knowledge people in that profession often possess, Fry takes us through a veritable archive of BBC programmes and interviews with individuals, focusing on our love of knowledge.
Fry addresses the issue of defining knowledge and our changing values of it. After the nation was shocked at the success of a London cab-driver, Fred Houesgo, winning "Mastermind" back in 1980, many have pondered whether cabbies generally have a large capacity for retaining knowledge. Housego had left school aged 16 with one "O" level, but self-educated himself during his time working as a postman and driving his taxi. He read vociferously and indiscriminately, building up the perfect resources for expertise in general knowledge. Cab drivers typically engage in conversation with a huge variety of people all day and all week long, memorizing complex routes and traffic information as well. It's not difficult to see why one would ponder the possible correlation. Therefore, the entire programme takes it from this perspective. Housego, who is now conveniently a BBC radio personality, is interviewed for the programme. There is another rather twee connection to taxi driving, Fry owns a London cab!

The problem with "The Knowledge" is that it isn't so much as an investigation into knowledge and what it means, but more an articulate negotiation around BBC archive material. Aside from some interviews there is nothing particularly fresh. We don't go much into the history of knowledge; only as far the BBC archives takes us. This is rather limiting and really just leaves Fry to try to draw his answers from the way entertainment uses knowledge, which isn't really what the programme is all about. Fry is entertaining enough, as always is, but for a topic that demands a bit of depth it all comes off as rather whimsical and unenlightening.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a trip down memory lane of broadcasting history and the topic of knowledge, then this is a fun programme. It is well-produced and Fry is always a joy to listen to. However, if you are looking for a serious discussion on the way we value knowledge then you may be a little disappointed.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Edition: Audio CD
Price: 20.76

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bring me Cordelia!, 18 Mar 2012
Positive thinking has become so integrated into the value system of our modern culture, it might seem somewhat odd to find an argument against it. And yet that is exactly what Barbara Ehrenreich does. The release of this book, which was published as "Smile or Die" in the UK has corresponded with the publication of more bold books, willing to challenge the power of positive thinking. A little while back I read Steve Salerno's unrelenting attack on the self-help movement, "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless" and since then we have had "The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self Help Book" by Neel Burton. Even the great psychologist Richard Wiseman has taken positive thinking to task and looked at the real science behind self-help in "59 Seconds", which came out the same year as "Bright-Sided". This book was not an overt criticism of the self-help movement but rather a genuine attempt to use case studies, raw data and proven psychological methods to help people improve their lives. However, in keeping to the science Wiseman highlighted just how much of the self-help movement was bogus and even damaging. His first chapter, "Happiness", began with a total debunking of positive thinking and revealed that far from being innocuous at worse, these techniques endorsed by the vast majority of the self-help movement could actually be harmful.

However, out of all these books Ehrenreich's "Bright-Sided" seems to be the most comprehensive and distilled in its deconstruction of the whole philosophy of positive thinking. She begins with her first clash with the cult of positive thinking after being diagnosed with breast cancer in around 2001. Ehrereich's award winning "Welcome to Cancerland" article, which was published not long after she started receiving treatment, demonstrated the writer's annoyance with the whole positive industry surrounding victims of cancer. The article inspired several people to question the so-called empowering methods being employed at all levels of cancer care and support. It even inspired the 2011 documentary "Pink Ribbon Inc.", which further explored the exploitative industry of those who were supposedly trying to help victims of the disease.
In "Bright-Sided" she has far more space to go through her own personal experiences on forums and support groups, which led her down the path of investigating the whole nature of positive thinking. Ehrenreich noticed that not only were pseudoscientific products and ideas being hawked to help strengthen a patient's immune systems against cancer on the back of positive thinking, but also that positive thinking was putting extra pressure on some victims of the disease. Worse still, terminal cancer patients were being made to feel they had somehow failed. Ehernreich noted the perverse extremes the philosophy of cancer support gurus who told "survivors" to be thankful for their cancer. Working through restriction and seeing opportunities through bad situations is all well and good, but that is a world apart from thinking that being affected by a disease like cancer is somehow a blessing!

America, as the author, notes in her prologue, is a country known for its positive attitude. The sign-off "Have a nice day!" and perpetual ivory white smiles are the trademark of the nation. Whereas Britain had the stereotyped stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, their cousins over the Atlantic did much more than stare down their problems with calm and a dry sense of humour, they "embraced it" with open arms.

Looking outside "Cancerland" Ehrenreich's attention was drawn to the way positive thinking had become a part of the very society lived in and had gone on to infect the rest of the world. I was particularly interested in the way traced this national philosophy back to the USA's Christian roots. Positive thinking has a distinctively puritanical hard work ethic at its core, which the author linked back to Calvinism. She then traces how it evolved through the emergence of American religion such as Christian Science and the 19th century mystical idea that people could be healed through thinking in a certain way.

Ever the anti-capitalist, it would have been out of character for the author not to have picked up on the way materialism became part of the whole positive thinking fad as it took hold of America's value system. Suddenly doctrines in Christianity that saw the virtue in poverty and humility were replaced by the idea that God wants Man to prosper. To be a successful and wealthy businessman went hand-in-hand with being a good Christian. Positive thinking, Ehrenreich argues fuelled the mega-churches and the rise of evangelism. The obvious attraction of enthusiastic and happy people - genuine and otherwise - meant that such institutions would be successful.

Of course, American Christianity, as powerful and hugely influential as it is, does not have a monopoly on positive thinking as a method or ethic. The book makes a strong point that the allure of the attitude easily permeated the New Age movement from its earliest beginnings. Deepak Chopra and others fully endorse the mind over matter ideas that first became popular in 19th century America. This has allowed the gateway to open for all sorts of spiritual marriages with the acquisition of wealth. Concepts like cosmic ordering and the law of attraction, championed by the bestselling pseudoscientific book "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne, straddles New Age spiritualism and secularism with ease.

It is with the idea that positive thinking is just a given to be good for you, Ehrenreich makes the case that its misuse is responsible for the fall of businesses and a strong component in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and global recession of the late 2000s. She has a good argument that compliments the cognitive dissonance/self-justification theory illustrated in Carol Tavris's "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)". Looking at it both we see an interesting picture of self-justification and refusal to accept personal error or responsibility fueled by a culture of "yes men". The "yes men" element, of course, comes from Ehrenreich. Many large corporations have adopted a policy of firing advisers who were not positive enough. This type of delusion led employees of banks and businesses to refuse to listen to those who erred on the side of caution or presented a picture that was anything less than positive for the future.

What seems to key in Ehrenreich's critique is the way that overzealous positivity prohibits the voices of reason. To not be positive has become a sin. And yet this has not always been so. There are plenty of fables that praise the person who is willing to stand against madness, delusion and flattery to deliver the hard truth. My favourite is Cordelia from Shakespeare's "King Lear". The youngest of the abdicating old king's daughters refuses to follow the flattery of her sisters, Goneril and Regan. They have competed for their father's affection in public in order to be given the biggest portion of the kingdom as possible. They play to his vanity. Cordelia, Lear's actual favourite, will not do anything but tell her father the truth. Lear ends up banishing her and suffers the consequences when his elder daughters reveal the true, cruel and ruthless natures. Cordelia, it is argued by many is also replaced The Fool, Lear's court jester, who continues to remind the king of his follies and his errors of judgment. The truth is that every great leader needs their Cordelia. They need the person who has the strength and cares enough to tell the truth.

The audiobook production is straightforward and slick. There are no whistles and bells, as befits the tone of the book. My only criticism is that Barbara Ehrenreich might not be to everyone's taste. I get her dry humour and delivery, but a fellow listener commented that it sounded a little robotic. This is a problem with a lot of members of the sceptical movement. They might be witty and articulate, but that cold logic they bring to their subjects can permeate into their delivery, making them less appealing to the middle ground. It is a small observation and I reiterate that it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the work.

"Bright-Sided" is a sobering and bold piece of non-fiction. I believe it opened the floodgates for more works that have dared to challenge impractical, exploitative and delusional concepts at the very core of modern society. This is coming from someone who counts life-coaches and self-help counselors among his friends. I even wrote a forward for a delightful collection of motivating essays written by a dear friend who is an incredible positive thinker. I don't think that we should be deeply cynical about those who motivate us or tell us to think positively and neither does Ehrenreich. We may have some interesting arguments for applied pessimism in recent non-fiction books and perhaps nihilism will make a return to the fore in the wake the damage over-the-top optimism and unrealistic idealism has done to the financial factor. However, Ehrenreich is not putting the case for an opposite approach to positive thinking. Her final chapter, her postscript in fact, is perhaps the best piece in the entire book. Unlike Salerno's "SHAM", Ehrenreich acknowledges that the reader needs some sort of alternative solution to unrealistic and unchecked positive thinking. She looks at the way pessimism can be applied practically without destroying ambition and how science enables us to best understand the way the world works. She argues for a sense of proportion, balance and realism.

The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe
The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe
by Christopher Stevens
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pure Comfort Reading!, 19 Jan 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
My first memories of the work of Alan Simpson and Ray Galton came in the form of a video rental my dad brought home to please my mum. I hadn't a clue who Tony Hancock was and couldn't understand the excitement. My mum and her cousins on the circus were huge fans of the Tony Hancock records and radio shows. They knew many of the scripts off by heart and would often fall into scenes at the drop of a hat. The only connection I made with the video was when Sid James popped up in "The Missing Page". Terrestrial TV in the 1980s ensured that its children grew up on the entire "Carry On" collection. However, even then, I noticed that there was something about Hancock that seemed better than the very broad and brash strokes of the seaside postcard humour that these later films exhibited. Later I was introduced to "Steptoe and Son" on TV and couldn't help but be drawn to its on-going comedy drama. Again, it seemed remarkable how it could pick such a depressing setting and even creepiness and yet make it so funny. Fast forward a few years and we had just moved into our cottage on the farm. It was the night of the terrible and under-anticipated hurricane. Mum had bought the first set of BBC released audio recordings of "Hancock's Half Hour" and we had a battery powered tape recorder to listen to them on. Since then the Hancock radio work especially has been a source of comfort to me. It has accompanied me on long car journeys, recovering in hospital (appropriately listening to "The Hospital Visit" episode for the first time) and it has got me through some tough emotional times too.

Therefore it was of little surprise that "The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe" was a real joy to read. It's not an in depth analysis of the subject matter or even a "warts `n all" biography. It's an affectionate yet honest tribute to Britain's best loved comedy writing duo. By the time I could enjoy real comedy Alan Simpson and Ray Galton had long since ended their fruitful business relationship. They have remained lifelong friends, but their golden, silver and bronze eras had long since passed. They got out when they were on top, leaving a prolific and highly influential legacy few could come close to equalling. In this book, author Christopher Stevens, an expert on Galton and Simpson's era of comedy, presents a collection of excerpts from the duo's archives, including work that no longer exists in its broadcast form. Galton and Simpson made their names in a profession that was virtually destined for unsung heroism. It was rare for producers or for comic actors to want the general public to know that there was a creative genius behind artistes like Frankie Howard and Tony Hancock. The writing duo seemed to fit in well with this anonymity, as to this day Stevens found them to be incredibly modest and self-depreciating about their massive contribution to entertainment.
On that note I think there is a lot to be said about Stevens' understated approach to writing. The book could easily have been a throwaway piece of nostalgia - the low pictures/high text ratio equivalent of a coffee table book. However, the subject matter and the material contained is so engrossing and downright entertaining only fool would want to part with it. This is enhanced by Stevens' knowledge. He puts his case that without Galton and Simpson situation comedy would look nothing like it does today. He further argues that many of today's sit-com icons are clear extensions of Hancock or Steptoe. The evidence he produces is pretty compelling, and it carefully shows the way the writing duo's style evolved, providing the writers that would follow them with a rich pool of ideas.

Stevens' decision to just give surface details in his biographical sketches of the various people mentioned in the book was a prudent decision. It's not a short volume and it is clear the author doesn't want too much distraction from the actual comedy itself. This is not to say this book should be taken as an academic study of the anatomy of situation comedy or even Galton and Simpson's work; this is clearly not its intention. However, where needed, Stevens is willing to talk candidly about certain aspects of people's lives. Hancock's breakdown during his time working on the radio series, which led to him fleeing to Europe without warning and for Harry Secombe to takeover is not brushed over. Likewise, Stevens disagrees with the commonly held belief that Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell really had a bad relationship off screen.

The book takes a slightly unusual if simplistic format. Stevens has interviewed Galton and Simpson a lot, and briefly describes his experiences with them. He has also interviewed a few other people connected to their work. However, for the most part he lets the voices do the work. We find out about the two writers' backgrounds and how they both ended up recovering in hospital together for a year, which ended up forging an almost telepathic writing collaboration. Inspired by American comedy, which they felt was decades ahead of the British, the duo had an uncannily similar idea about how What emerged were two people who prided themselves as being craftsman rather than artists, but were nonetheless passionate about their work. Here and there their strong political and (non)religious views popped up, but it never took over the pieces in the way so many other comedy franchises of today have done. Stevens also shows how many of their own experiences and people from their own lives have ended up in the material, which seems to make it all the more heartfelt. The book's selection criteria for what excerpts to use is quite novel. It follows a chronological path, but Stevens is mindful not to just include the famous scripts. Knowing that his core reader will be the firm fan or collector, he has given precedence to scripts of work that has been erased forever by the BBC or never materialized. This means we get the wonderful pairing of Frankie Howard with Tony Hancock - which we will never hear again - and the time when Harry Secombe filled in for Hancock for three episodes, resulting in their eventual meeting. However, even if you are a casual fan of their work I am confident this not put you off. The writing is light yet informative and the material showcased is true comedy genius. It's a wonderful book to just relax into and to recall a golden age of British situation comedy.

Bad History: How We Got the Past Wrong
Bad History: How We Got the Past Wrong
by Emma Marriott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 6.97

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beginner's Guide to Critical Thinking in History, 20 Oct 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It's quite disappointing to see how much flack this excellent little book has received. I was under no illusion that the book I was about to read was going to be a light read. The book's title does imply that it is to be considered to be in the same category as Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" and Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy". Despite both of these books being written for a lay audience they were not shot in details or text. Emma Marriot's slim collection of short essays might be with Goldacre and Plait in sentiment, but the work isn't intended to educate the reader in good historical research. However, it does provide examples of what good research achieves and how good historians view the past. Unfortunately I think many history buffs were looking forward to a heavily cited and in depth analysis of historical myths and a debunking of pseudohistory; not a book strictly for academics, but nevertheless one with a scholarly appeal. Recent years have seen some good academics, like Richard J Evans take on the postmodern anti-historical wave and others like David Aronovitch, Kathryn S. Olmsted and even sceptical scientist Michael Shermer produce sterling investigations that both debunk and seek to understand the nature of conspiracy theory.

Although such books are sorely needed in history writing - I think way too many academics underestimate the impact of conspiracy theories and pseudohistory - a book like this is arguably more needed. As Damien Thompson pointed out in "Counterknowledge", more pseudohistorical books are finding their way over from the "New Age and Spiritual" section and into the "General History" section. Through a mixture of propaganda of the time, influential biased historians of later times, folklore and movies the general public have grown up often believing very distorted views of incidents in history. This isn't helped with postmodernism arguing that virtually all accounts of the past are equally as valid as they are all just opinions. However, history is a serious study. We only ever have the past as a reference and this is what so much is based on from building businesses to deciding legal cases to planning strategies. Good historians understand the difference between a wild theory or biased idea about a past event and a view that is shaped by the most compelling empirical evidence. And yet, as this book demonstrates, the majority of us have a woeful understanding of the past.

Most people believe that a typical Roman gladiator fight will end with one of the participants dead. Abraham Lincoln is celebrated as the man who fought the American Civil War to win freedom for slaves in the south. Even academics have been known to venerate Galileo as the champion of science against the oppressive Catholic Church. And try to tell your average patriotic Irish man that their patron saint wasn't really Irish and didn't encounter a single snake in Ireland. Go into your local Works or even W.H. Smith and you will see no end of mass market "fact" books. Airports and service stations have no end of pulp non-fiction on sale. These books of myths, half-truths and gross generalizations ultimately make their way into the mind of the undemanding reader and are often found as last minute "educational" books for teenagers. They are then referenced in popular journalism and repeated through the generations. History has not been a compulsory subject in schools since the 1980s and yet the thirst for information on the past and its stories could not be greater, and can be seen by the existence of mainstream channels, expensive documentaries, mainstream magazines and big budget Hollywood blockbusters. People define their cultures, their national heritage, their politics and even their beliefs on what they think happened in the past. These undeniable facts alone should scream the importance of having more light and accessible reference books that points the casual reader in the direction of good history.

One of the criticisms targeted at "Bad History" is that the chapter titles are somehow misleading. For example, when the chapter proclaims the myth that "Gladiators Fought to the Death", the chapter doesn't provide the complete opposite to this statement. I don't see the problem with at all. The chapter does assert that the very limited evidence we have of gladiatorial combats shows that this entertainment spectacle, born out of a human sacrifice ritual held at an aristocratic funeral, rarely resulted in deaths. The reasons for this are quite commonsensical. Why would businessmen invest so much money and time in the training of individuals only to risk losing them in their first fight? The fictional media and documentaries on these combatants present an overwhelming picture of every single fight being a fight to the death. Of course, some gladiators did die, as is the risk of anyone who enters into a full contact sport, and this rate of mortality would have been relative to the nature of the fights and the life expectancy of the times. The author explains that there were also other events featuring non-gladiators - Christians and criminals for example - where the outcome was most certainly death. I don't see how this is not providing a rebuttal of the original assertion.

I admit we are only a little shakier ground with the chapter that purports to debunk the popular belief that Mary Tudor was a "Ruthless Persecutor of Protestants". In this case, I concede to Marriot's critics. Here Emma Marriot does not attempt to prove that Mary wasn't a ruthless persecutor of Protestants - she just argues that the five year reigning queen wasn't any worse than her father, Henry VIII, or her sister, Elizabeth I. We get a more rounded picture of Mary Tudor, a ruler who was unlucky in her campaigns and had her better qualities "forgotten" by the Protestant propaganda that followed her death.

However, as far as I am concerned we need more historians that try to present a more human figure of the popular "saints" and "demons" of our past. We are presented with the less ruthless and even admirable side of "The Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismark. Ian Mortimer's excellent recent book on "Henry V" has caused a dramatic shift in opinion on the royal icon immortalized by his own propaganda machine and finally by the plays of William Shakespeare. This book, which presents the greatest amount of primary source research on the individual to date, puts over a compelling argument that Henry V was not the free-and-easy prince turned responsible and righteous warrior king that England remembers. Evidence reveals him to be a great organizer and brave warrior, but also a warmongering and humourless religious fanatic. Emma Marriott presents a condensed summary of Mortimer's work in one of her chapters. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that "1415: Henry V's Year of Glory" is not necessarily a book that your average casual history fan will read or even know about.

Marriott's chapter on Cecil Rhodes, where the argument is put over whether or not he was a good or bad man reveals the crux of a point Marriott is trying to put over. Life and history are not that simple. Given that the chapters are light and written in a highly accessible way, the author does a fantastic job of presenting the grey areas and complexity of history. From the outset she explains in almost scientific terms how there are no absolutes in good history. We only see the facts as temporary conclusions reached by the consensus of informed opinion. This opinion is supported by the most convincing empirical evidence available. Often what we find is that myths are created to fall in line with a certain narrative of the time or even a narrative of today that simplified matters towards what people wanted to believe. Even the scientific community are susceptible to this and the facts about Galileo's relationship with the Catholic Church are far from the clear-cut battle of science versus religion that many of us sceptics like to think it was. It turns out that his endorsement and elaboration on Copernican theory was challenged by his rival scientists first before the pope, a good friend of Galileo, was brought into the fray. Far from being thrown into a prison, he lived a life of luxury, albeit under a very loose house arrest, and remained a staunch Catholic throughout his life.

However, if you are concerned that this might be a bit wishy-washy, fear not. There are plenty of historic myths that are shown to be complete nonsense. From the fascist propaganda that Mussolini made the trains run on time - a persistent myth that thrives thanks to a very twisted form of mainstream nostalgia - to the conspiracy theory that Pearl Harbour was a plot engineered by President Roosevelt. A lot of these facts might not be news to historians, but evidence shows that a large amount of the general public still believes them.

This includes the romanticized idea of the Bolsheviks storming the winter palace with Lenin at the head in 1917. This interesting little chapter shows just how easily fictionalized drama, in the form of film footage, was just as easily mistaken for reality in the past as it is today. See Charlie Brooker's "How TV Ruined your Life" for modern day version of this folly, particularly the final episode entitled "Knowledge". Marriott explains how a romantic dramatization of the storming of the Winter Palace ended up being reproduced on documentaries as actual footage of the event!

The book is annotated with footnotes, but Marriott quotes her reference material throughout. There is also a helpful bibliography and a fairly extensive index. The format of the book's short chapters is executed in a fun way, containing several illustrations - these include technical maps by David Woodroffe and cartoons by Andrew Pinder. Again, the historian critics have their gripe with this, but this is just the nature of the book and if it makes it more accessible to a lay audience then that's a good thing.

In conclusion "Bad History" is a much-needed book. It represents a moth of hope to battle against the Pandora's Box of junk history and pop non-fiction that makes its way to casual history readers through well-meaning presents or as a last minute travel purchase. When I was 10 years old I received a great birthday present in the form of "The Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies". Since reading that children's book numerous times I have discovered that some of these facts are untrue and that is the joy of the corrective nature of critical thinking. However, that book planted a seed in me to question accepted "truths" and ideas. For the most part the book revealed old wives tales, pseudoscience, pseudohistory and bad geography. I am grateful to that book because it helped me accept many years later that a lot the other fun educational books of facts well-meaning relatives gave me over the years contained a lot of nonsense. When I eventually got into scepticism properly - which was around 13 years or so later - I found it quite easy to dismiss sacred cows and become aware of my own biases. New information that challenged old ideas did not meet with a lot of resistance from me and I quickly understood how to filter out information that lacked substance. My point here is that "The Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies" helped me to pursue learning by showing me that it is important to question. A scholarly book wouldn't have had that sort of impact. I hope that "Bad History" will be the fish bait needed for those who will go on to study good history and be more readily aware of the myth-making process both in the past and of today.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 4, 2013 6:47 AM GMT

Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir
Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir
by Margaux Fragoso
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The line between candour and sensationalism, 9 July 2011
This review is from: Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir (Paperback)
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I have mixed feelings about the proliferation of tragic biographies. This newish subgenre is a bit like the reverse of a true crime biography. Like Steve Salerno's definition of self-help styles, empowerment and victimization, the true crime biography caters to a perverse idea about empowerment whilst the tragic biography focuses on the victim. In one breath I have the utmost respect for an individual who can turn legitimately terrible things in their lives into something positive. However, there is something distasteful at the idea of a whole genre dedicated telling stories about abused childhoods. This is coming from a fan of psychology and criminal history. Although I admit to getting a degree entertainment from reading this stuff, even a grim fascination that draws many of us to fictional horror stories, there just seems to be something depressingly pornographic in the idea that a whole section an airport bookshop is dedicated to books that have titles like "Ugly" and "Cut".

"Tiger, Tiger" doesn't deserve to belong in this category despite what some critics have said. It transcends the genre in many ways and it does have genuine educational value. I am not going to patronize its talented author by saying how brave she was to write this book. Somehow courage really isn't the issue here, although I would argue that strength is. "Tiger, Tiger" is the story of a lifelong relationship between a paedophile and his victim, a little girl, Margaux Fragoso.

Margaux met her abuser when she was just seven years old and he was 51. It was a chance meeting that initially begun, in very unlikely fashion, with the child approaching her would-be abuser, Peter. Peter befriends Margaux's mother, a woman with severe mental health problems, and invites them over to his house on a regular basis. Peter has his own children and a wife, but their estrangement from him has already begun when the Fragasos arrive. The story takes us through Peter's grooming of Margaux and the various stages of their bizarre relationship. Meanwhile, Margeaux's family life is far from perfect. Her perfectionist and martyring father obsesses with outward appearances and becomes increasingly frustrated with his wife and daughter. They move neighbourhoods, but her mother's fragile mental condition deteriorates and Margeaux becomes a troublesome child to her father. Despite breaks in their relationship Margeaux and Peter's lives are destined to remain firmly entangled until his eventual death.

"Tiger, Tiger" is unsettling in many ways, not least than with the genuine affection Margaux regards her abuser and paints him as a three dimensional individual. Just as we find it virtually impossible to comprehend that so many individuals could have been complicit in the atrocities and the philosophy of the Nazis, the idea that a child abuser can be anything more than a shadowy beast somehow feels wrong. This is why gimmicky and inefficient ideas like "Stranger Danger" are very saleable. We want to think of paedophiles as people we don't know despite the evidence showing that the overwhelming majority are known to the victim and good friends with the victim's family (the majority, of course, are a parent or uncle of the victim). We also want to think of these offenders as being capable of murder and not having a conscience. Again, this is far from the truth.
Margeaux even begins her book with a discussion with a friend who tells her that paedophiles are often among the most polite and sensitive members of prison communities, despite being the most hated inmates. It's this candour that most impresses me with her writing. You have a feel that this is really how it all happens. As a self protection coach who specializes in teaching children, I feel a heavy responsibility to have an understanding how predators operate. Recognizing that these individuals are human beings better prepares us in handling them in a mature fashion as a society.

In fact, this immature sense of collective denial is perhaps a main contributing factor to why people like Peter are able to continue to abuse. "Tiger, Tiger" describes how so many people were complicit in the abuse through their refusal to act upon their suspicions. Peter abused his victim in his own home, a place occupied by his own family and under the nose of Margeaux's own mother. He abused his victim despite the suspicions of Margeaux's father, who ended up even showing a begrudging admiration for him. He abused his victim in a community that did little more than gossip about the inappropriate nature of their public relationship. The message is clear not wishing to believe that a paedophile can be an otherwise good natured individual doesn't help victims.

The work has been accused of sensationalizing its subject matter in order to sell copies, making it one of the most controversial books published in 2011. However, although I would agree that some of the explicit descriptions of sexual activity are unnecessary, far worse is in print. "Today I am Alice" by Alice Jamieson, for example, not only describes terrifyingly disturbing accounts of child abuse, but the psychological assumptions of the story are not backed up by mainstream science. However, it garnered little controversy despite making very controversial claims, such as referencing Satanic Ritual Abuse. There has yet to be a single proven case of SRA and many innocent adults had their entire lives ruined by unfounded accusations that were backed up by misguided Freudian ideas about repression. Somehow the fact that Jamieson paints her father as a one dimensional multiple satanic child abuser and her own condition being the highly contested yet highly intriguing multiple personality disorder makes her more disturbing descriptions of childhood rape somehow more palatable to readers.

Margeaux clearly feels a need to justify the way she wrote the book and the prologue and epilogue do seem jarringly at odds with the nature of the story. However, this is possibly intentional. Margeaux, a gifted debut author, spins her story with a good amount of artistic licence. She says she was an avid diary writer, but the book consists of many full-blown discussions between the book's main protagonists. I am not against this anymore than I was with Gerald Durrel and other authors who recorded their memoirs in similar non-fiction novel style.

"Tiger, Tiger" is a very uncomfortable read, but discomfort is not always a bad thing. We need honesty and understanding if we are to better combat the evils of our society. As a children's self protection coach I would like to advise this book to any parent. However, I would only do so with a word of caution.

The Eagle of the Ninth (BBC Radio)
The Eagle of the Ninth (BBC Radio)
by Rosemary Sutcliff
Edition: Audio CD
Price: 9.27

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dusted off in time for the movie!, 1 Jun 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Eagle of the Ninth (audio play)


The audio play tells a tale of a noble and very brave centurion, Marcus Aquila (Tom Smith) who is almost crippled when he attacks an enemy chariot in battle. As he recovers he saves the life of a gladiator, Esca (Tony Kearney), and buys him as his slave. Having formed a bond with the man he then releases him from slavery, but asks him if he would like to accompany him on a perilous journey. Impressed by his former master's kindness and a desire to see the homeland he was originally taken from, Esca agrees to accompany Marcus.

Marcus's mission is to find the Eagle of the Ninth Legion. This standard is thought to be in the possession of a Caledonian tribe in the north of Britain, a tribe that destroyed the Ninth Legion in 117 AD, not long after the erection of Hadrian's Wall. This legion's demise brings possible disgrace on the Roman Empire and the thought of a British tribe using it as inspiration for others, is enough encouragement for Marcus's superiors to let him go on the mission. However, Marcus has other reasons for going on the quest. He wishes to discover the truth about the last stand of the legions of First Cohort Commander - his father...


With 2011's release of a somewhat amped up and bloodthirsty major motion picture rendition of the much loved children's classic "The Eagle of the Ninth" by Rosemary Sutcliff (filmed under the alternative publication title, "The Eagle") it is little surprising that earlier dramatizations would suddenly get the re-release treatment. This radio play was last aired in 1996. It was a good decade for Radio 4's radio plays and one that saw such ambitious projects as the full dramatization of the complete works Sherlock Holmes - the first and only time this has ever been done in any medium. "The Eagle of the Ninth" is a well produced drama, but - with all due respect to the able cast - it contains no obvious stars. The book has remained popular since its publication in 1954, so it was hardly a controversial decision to dramatize it in the first place, but there is no record to indicate it was a popular adaption. It would probably have been gathering dust in the archives if it wasn't for the release of "The Eagle" film. The fact that there wasn't a dramatization of any of the book's sequels would seem confirm this statement.

The play is well produced with good sound effects and a capable cast of BBC character actors. The musical soundtrack is comprised of contemporaneous Roman instruments and there is a feel of authenticity to the work. Unfortunately the action that drove the book and the new movie are conspicuously lacking. "The Eagle of the Ninth" is a story about relationships and contains a cast of interesting characters, but its appeal comes from the physical action described - both through flashback sequences and in the main story. This is not easy to convey in radio dramas and I have heard a wide variety of successes and failures in this department. Director San Damer works well with the "talkie" scenes, but he might have done well to have taken a leaf out of Jane Morgan and Penny Leicester's 1981 very good adaption of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Exposition is a difficult and dangerous technique to use, but it is pretty essential for radio plays, especially those that contain a lot of action. "The Lord of the Rings" slips up a little from time to time, but mainly carries it off. "The Eagle of the Ninth" could have done the same, as can be seen during Esca's brief gladiatorial bout and with the discovery the Eagle. Instead they err on the side of caution and the result is a rather uneventful action adventure story.

That being said, the script is managed fairly well and the scenes that deal with storytelling are entertaining enough. For those seeking more depth to the film adaptation I would point them to Sutcliff's book. However, more patient fans won't be disappointed by the fact that the BBC team remained loyal to the original text and might enjoy experiencing the tale through another medium.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 13, 2012 5:46 PM GMT

The Valley of Gwangi [DVD] [1969]
The Valley of Gwangi [DVD] [1969]
Dvd ~ Freda Jackson
Price: 15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Cowboys + Dinosaurs - what more could you want?, 28 April 2011

TJ Breckenridge (Gila Golan) struggles to keep her rodeo and is threatened to be bought out by former fiancé Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus). However, TJ has one last hope in the form of a miniature horse, believed by palaeontologist Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith) to be extinct ancestor of the horse. A travelling group of gypsies claim the animal will bring a terrible curse and take the animal back to its home in the "Forbidden Valley". They are followed by Kirby and TJ, the former hoping to discover more prehistoric animals. He is not disappointed and during a hair-raising adventure he plans to capture the awesome Gwangi, a ferocious allosaurus, and display it as star attraction in a new show. However, it would appear that Gwangi is the very curse Kirby and TJ were warned about...


1969's "Valley of the Gwangi" seems to finally exorcize Harryhausen's ideas regarding the dangers of humans messing with nature, specifically the topic of taking a "natural" wonder into human civilization. In the film that inspired him, "King Kong", audiences felt some sympathy for the ferocious giant gorilla that slew all other monsters that challenged him and ate humans, when he fell for the beautiful Ann (Faye Raye). Seeing that many were upset at the final demise of the great ape as he fell from the Empire State Building riddled with bullets, Harryhausen assisted Kong creator, Willis O'Brien in the creation of "Mighty Joe Young". This time a smaller giant ape was cast entirely as a sympathetic character and we got a happy ending. With "Valley of the Gwangi" we get the other side of King Kong personality in Harryhausen's last prehistoric-themed feature film and Kong's old arch-foe from Skull Island, the allosaurus, gets centre stage as an emotionless and relentless force of nature that man foolishly thinks he can harness.

However, such considerations were certainly far from my mind when I first saw this as a five year old on a Saturday morning TV matinee. For many a young boy, "Valley of the Gwangi" had had the perfect formula: cowboys versus dinosaurs. It was among the first monster movies I saw and part of the reason why I fell in love with Ray Harryhausen's films. Few filmmakers can be forgiven for as much as this dealer in innocent fantasy adventure. I love my history and mythology, and am usually a stickler for facts and anachronisms. However, without Harryhausen I don't know whether I would have that passion in the first instance. So I care little for his mixing of legends, times and ideas. Years on and we see more inaccuracies with the depictions of his stop-motion dinosaurs, but this just to seems to add to the whole other worldliness of the Harryhausen experience. Harryhausen's dinosaurs rarely resemble what scientists believe they looked anyway and the man himself admits of his ignorance, basing Gwangi's design more on a tyrannosaurus rex than an allosaurus.

Interestingly this was not the first time that Hollywood decided to create a genre crossover. 13 years previously "The Beast of Hollow Mountain" also featured a rampaging allosaurus in the old west. Despite being based on a concept conceived by stop-motion godfather, Willis O'Brien, "The Best of Hollow Mountain" is one of the most disappointing entries of a genre that began with 1925's "The Lost World" and finished with 1980's "Clash of the Titans". I love a good build-up as much as the next person, particularly when dealing with the fantastical and the monstrous, but this feature takes the whole idea of slow-burn way too far. The poorly animated allosaurus has about five minutes of screen time at the film's finale. It seems that Harryhausen took note of the film's lacklustre performance and addressed all these errors with "Gwangi". The result is an action-packed adventure with a good mixture of cowboys and dinosaurs. The acting is reasonable and the simplistic story serves its purpose, using the Harryhausen charm to allow us to wilfully suspend disbelief.

"Valley of the Gwangi", like the earlier "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", is perhaps the closest Harryhausen came to science fiction and you can see he has little time for it. He casts the scientist as the amoral meddler in the natural world. Being an ardent supporter and promoter of science and the scientific method, not to mention one who has grown up in the culture of an animal circus, you would think I would be in aggressive opposition to this sort of picture. However, I can appreciate it through quasi-child eyes and see it less as an anti-scientific sentiment and more as an audacious cry out for the innocence of juvenile fantasy. On this note it seems appropriate that the closing scene features a child with tears in his eyes.

The Godless Boys
The Godless Boys
by Naomi Wood
Edition: Paperback

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Seven days of change and consequence, 17 April 2011
This review is from: The Godless Boys (Paperback)
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Set in an alternative history where England is ruled by the Church and the secularist community has been banished to a solitary island, Naomi Wood's debut novel, "The Godless Boys", is a story about a dramatic week on the island. Nathaniel, the son of an original member of the secular movement, leads a gang of teenage boys, the Malades, who are determined to protect the island from any religious influence. This means intimidating potential "gots" and prowling the streets at night. Eliza Michalka lives a sorry existence on the island - a part-time prostitute and a part-time undertaker who drops corpses into the surrounding ocean - she pines after her lost love, the aloof fishmonger Arthur Stansky. However, this week all their lives will be changed when Sarah, daughter of 1976 church-burner, Laura Wicks, stows away to seek out her mother on The Island...

We are living in a time that has seen the rise of fundamental religiosity and New Atheism. Therefore it isn't difficult to see where the author's inspiration came from. Why she decided to set it in 1986 is another matter altogether. There is little in the way of obvious parallels with the real 1986, but I guess it helps to keep matters simple without the presence of the internet and the normalcy of mobile phones. The whole book is markedly minimalistic without being pretentious. This is perhaps reflective of the two radically opposing philosophies that form the backdrop of the story.

Wood does not explore the details of either the Christian dogma that now rules England or the strict secularist movement of The Island. Two vital dates are given for when secularists, usually involved in anti-religious activity such as church burning, were deported - 1951 and 1976 - and we are given an overview of the violent struggles between the state and rebels, but otherwise the history of the whole conflict is kept down to a minimum. Likewise aside from Christian imagery and the hatred certain characters, such as Nathaniel's Malades, have towards religion, there are little intricate details regarding what each side actually believes. Despite one newspaper critic describing The Malades as Richard Dawkins in bovver boots, there is nothing whatsoever mentioned regarding a scientific argument against the Christians. The Secular Movement's problems with the church are never lain out or described. Therefore, this could be a story about any society divided into polarized factions.

This leaves the story to be entirely character-driven and concerned with the relationships its players experience over seven days. One man, an ardent first generation secularist, will re-evaluate his relationship with God. Nathaniel will be made to reconsider his devotion to The Malades. Arthur and Eliza will have to look at the personal defensive walls they have created. However, the driving force for change in all of this - the story's catalyst - is Sarah. She enters having already received a revelation after 10 years not knowing her mother had been arrested for being involving a Secular Movement terrorist attack. Although the story follows her fact-seeking mission, she seems to be the only character that isn't experiencing personal changes in her attitude, having already gone through a dramatic personal crisis.

Despite some of its adult content, "The Godless Boys" reminds me of the typical sort of material read for GCSE English. This is not a slight on its simplicity, but I think there might be a lot teenagers can relate to in the text. "The Godless Boys" is also a story about consequences and the way different individuals react to dramatic changes. Nathaniel is a part of his tragic father's legacy, but little does he realize he is leaving a legacy of his own in The Malades. His personal philosophy and beliefs have their own consequences. Wood succeeds in getting this across, providing certain moral twists reminiscent of David McKenna's "American History X" that provokes a lot of thought.

The Survivors Club: How To Survive Anything
The Survivors Club: How To Survive Anything
by Ben Sherwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.58

4.0 out of 5 stars Would you survive?, 16 Feb 2011
Despite our disproportionate fear of improbable disasters and the awe we hold those who survive them there is relatively little research into the psychology of what we collectively call the survivor. This might be because the term is so widely applied and too many factors seem to be involved for any single expert in one discipline to consider a connection. Rather than find one unifying principle, Ben Sherwood sees different survivor personalities, but each of them possess at least some of 12 common survival tools. "The Survivor's Club" is a broad study into the "science" behind what makes certain individuals defy the odds and continue living. It is written for a mainstream readership by a writer whose only relevant qualifications only lie in journalism and economics. Sherwood's career success is based mainly in his work for television and his bestselling novels. However, his research is extensive and a good number of his sources are highly respected scientists and peer reviewed studies.

The book looks at the theories behind intuition and survivor behaviour. The latter area is apparently taught to certain professionals, such as airline attendants, who look for the most likely individuals who will do the right thing in a crisis. He introduces the "10-80-10' rule - out of 100 people 10 of them will do the right thing, 80 of them with freeze like "statues in a storm" and await orders, and 10 will panic and do the wrong thing. Like Dan Gardner did in "Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear" (aka "The Science of Fear") Sherwood is quick to deliver statistics that assuage irrational fears of such things as flying. However, unlike Gardner, Sherwood is not pushing a sceptical argument. He has his beliefs and we will come to them a little later.

As well as providing valuable insight into the minds of those who choose to listen to safety information as it is provided on aeroplanes prior to take off and eventually an insight into your own through his carefully set up survivor personality test, the book also provides interesting tips on survival. It debunks a good number of myths, such as the amount of time you have available to live if you fall in a frozen lake - it's a lot longer than you think. It also provides interesting trivia, such as the safest place to have a heart attack (here's a clue, it's not a hospital!) Sherwood's survivors are an interesting array of human beings. They include well known survivors like rape victim, Trisha Meili, the "Central Park Jogger" to a man who survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. The book also includes victims of supposed terminal cancer and a man who survived the Twin Towers tragedy in the most incredible of circumstances.

My only quibble with the book is its strong bias towards faith. The author is a man of strong if apparent moderate Christian faith and admits that little research into the faith of other religions has been done to discover whether there is a connection with their beliefs and survival. His assumption that faith is the strongest tool in the survivor's kit is largely based on the accounts of survivors who wax spiritually about their experiences or in desperation called on a higher power in their moment of need. That and a single study conducted by Texas University and the opinion of a scientist who happens to be religious. To Sherwood's credit he references the scientific rebuttal about the power prayer and Carl Sagen's debunking of the apparent miraculous faith healing of Chimayo. Sherwood's confirmation bias in the respect of these two subjects is a little worrying, so I am grateful that he did feel some balance was required and brought in some good oppositional studies. He isn't afraid to do this with a number of his subjects, but the whole faith issue essentially boils down to his irrational belief that if you believe that God has a plan for you, you will be saved. It's really a non-sequitur when you consider how many people who did not survive in certain instances were more than likely believers and also thought God had plans for them as well.

I grew up in a family whose profession was all about taking high risks. We were a circus family and in addition to the perils one might encounter from being constantly on the move, my father was and remains a wild animal trainer and my mother's family consisted and still consists of a lot of wild animal trainers. Animal attack on humans, even in these circumstances where the risk is increased, are thankfully very rare, but it happens. In addition to that I am a self protection and mixed martial arts coach, where dealing with risk in extreme circumstances is part of the education. So, it is little surprising that a book like this would interest me. For the amount of research and the bringing together of different studies, I would highly recommend it for those who are seriously interested in finding out new information on the age old question of why some people live and others die in certain situations. The survivor profile online test is good fun too and seems to have been put together using an exhaustive amount of research.

The book is full of useful endnotes with references to a wide selection of books and scientific papers. "The Survivor's Club" is written in an entertaining style blending the author's quest to find out answers regarding survival with interesting anecdotes of the survivors and the findings of experts in the field.

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