30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
This is a real beast of a book that has everything - sex, violence, humour, great characters, a twisting plot with a bit of culture and a lot of history thrown in for good measure. It's worth mentioning here that "a street philosopher" in the nineteenth century was no more than a gossip columnist of his day so there's no Proust or Freud to worry about here.
The street philosopher of the title was Thomas Kitson, sent to report on the Crimean War for the London Courier under roving reporter Richard Cracknell. The two form an uneasy alliance, Kitson the more sensitive and refined of the two alongside Cracknell the gung-ho, bawdy and outspoken philanderer. Kitson went to quietly report, Cracknell to make his name and uncover injustices and failings in the British army as they fought alongside the French and Turks against the "Ruskies". Cracknell's nemesis (and vice versa) was one Colonel Boyce, who cared more for his moustache than his men and saw the war as an opportunity for financial gain, looting the country of it's artefacts when he should have been at the front line....or perhaps keeping a closer eye on his wife.
The Courier duo are soon joined by illustrator Robert Styles, who fell under the spell of the beautiful Madeleine Boyce, wife of the Colonel, on the boat over from England. When he found out that Cracknell was keeping the Colonel's bed warm for him, the humiliated artist went into a sharp decline, traumatised at both her rejection of him and the bloodshed all around. He was soon to be found at the frontline, ragged and starving, manically drawing the living hell he found himself in whilst taking pot shots at the Russians with a borrowed gun. The book switches frequently between the atrocity of war in the Crimea to the chaotic streets of Manchester two years later where the very different lead characters are brought together again in a dramatic finale in the presence of the queen.
I really enjoyed this book, Plampin tells a great story though he has quite a wordy style that can be heavy going in parts. At nearly 500 pages it took me a while to get through but the effort was well worth it. The switching between countries and years was a bit confusing to start with but the reasons later become clear and the long path we are led along comes to a fitting finale. The excellent cast of characters all play their parts in the story but be warned it's not for the squeamish (Manchester could be rough in those days!). The horrors of war are well detailed here - you can almost smell the gunpowder and taste the blood as the author takes you into the heat of the battle. Historians will enjoy the references to the battles at Alma and Inkerman, the Light Brigade and the siege of Sebastapol too.
Great book, a well researched and enjoyable read (9/10)
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Matthew Pamplin's epic novel may initially seem a somewhat intimidating and dense prospect, but it more than repays the initial effort with its look not just at a largely forgotten war but also the way it affects those on the sidelines even years later. Novels about the Crimean war are rare enough - aside from the glorious myths that have grown around Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade it was a rather sordid, inept and distinctly unglorious enterprise - but ones dealing with the disillusionment and what would probably now be called Post Traumatic Stress that was its legacy for some are probably even rarer. In this case the victim is Thomas Kitson, who has abandoned a promising carer as an art critic to become a junior war correspondent covering the haphazard campaign only to flee the corruption and chaotic brutality he finds there and hide on the sidelines as a gossip columnist - or street philosopher - in Manchester. But as the novel moves back and forth in time, it's not so easy for him to avoid involvement or escape the war's legacy.
It's a truly epic and ambitious novel, even though at times it feels like the dual timeframe is designed as much to keep some of the `big' scenes for later in the novel - certainly there's nothing in the Manchester parts of the story to quite compare to the vividly related conflict even if both landscapes are equally corrupt and dominated by the same baser motives. At times the novel almost struggles to support its ambition, but Plampin manages to somehow keep his increasingly intricate house of cards standing even when the occasional supporting character threatens to turn into stereotypical cliché. In many ways an ideal companion piece to Tony Richardson's similarly ambitious 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade that also used the Crimean War as a lightning rod for all of Victorian society and a morally bankrupt social order, it's well worth persevering with.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 21 May 2011
What a great story! Thomas Kitson is in the Crimea to report on the progress of the war for the London Courier. He can have no idea what he will come up against. Wartime does not make men pure of heart and united in an attempt to defeat the enemy, instead it would appear to give more of an excuse for power play by men desperate for honour, whatever the cost.
The war, as seen by Kitson, is messy indeed - to the point at which he can no longer ignore the ruthless stupidity of the officers, and chooses to remove himself. However, he has seen too much and there is unfinished business before he can leave his past behind...
To me, this was as much a story about human greed as it was about a war, and this was what made it such a tremendously good read. Everyone has self interest at some level or another and somehow, Plampin cleverly manages to expose the self interest of almost every character. This against a supremely well drawn historical backdrop that makes you feel as if you were really there.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 22 November 2010
Take Thomas Kitson, a sensitive journo; Richard Cracknell, his boozing, fornicating and insightful senior; Robert Styles, their newspaper's illustrator prone to madness; Colonel Boyce, an egocentric sociopathic class climber; his beautiful French wife, Madeleine, abused and unfaithful; plus a few worthy others - and chuck them into the brutal Crimean war where they develop a war of their own, clashing with each other in a variety of ways as their loyalties fracture, opportunities are taken to profit and betray, and the pursuit of love and truth becomes a risky gamble, the war itself a weapon hacking away at sanity and decency until virtually nothing is left. It is survival of the fittest and Colonel Boyce intends to survive come what may. Consequently he becomes the epicentre of the story around whom all else rotate.
This is a well researched book, nicely decorated with detail but not slowing the pace, which is steady for the most part. Although not a sizzling page turner, it still carries a sufficient dynamic to make one want to get to the end to see what happens to the characters and how their various shenanigans end up.
As the various aspects of the novel unfold and reach their final conclusions, the action switches back and forth between the Crimea of 1854 and Manchester of 1857. This switching is done in chunks so as not to disturb the chronological flow too much, and it works well.
The unnecessary war and its resultant cruelty and inhumanity is handled well, and conjures up vivid pictures of the horrendous nature and wastefulness of it. The atmosphere of Manchester is also well conveyed, from the lofty attainments of the
successful industrial base that fuels the city, to the detrimental effect is has on the workers and their squalid environment.
And I liked the way Mary Seacole popped up now and again. Who was she? A Jamaican woman who decided off her own back to travel to the Crimea and help the wounded soldiers. She was the equal of Florence Nightingale yet was never properly accorded the respect and acknowledgement she deserved.
For a first novel, Matthew Plampin should feel proud of this, because it is a good effort. Perhaps a bit wordy in places, and a trifle too long, but what the heck, still a good book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I didn't know much about the Crimean War before reading this novel. One of my less wise moves was dropping History as a subject early in my schooling in favour of sciences. I've been reading well-researched novels based on historic events like this one pretty much ever since to catch up.
And this book is a good example of the breed - gripping in places, exciting, packed full of historical references, with detailed evocation of the society and culture of the time. At his best, the author reminds me a bit of Nevil Shute, but he doesn't quite have the same standard of prose, and occasionally wanders. Consequently, I can't help feeling the book could have been a bit shorter than it is. But (one of my favourite subjects since my grandfather was a master printer!), it's very nicely printed in a clear typeface on crisp white paper with good margins and leading - easy to read.
Slight note of caution for the more easily offended - as the book drifts back and forth between the war, and the eponymous street philosopher's observations in Manchester, both have moments that are quite shocking. Either because of the horror of war or because of the colourful language he observes on the streets of early Victorian Manchester.
All in all, though, quite a cleverly crafted novel, and I'd recommend it. Just push through the occasional heavier sections - it's worth it in the end.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is a very literate historical thriller. It is deeply researched and deeply felt. The various strands of the storyline intersect around the main character, Tony Kitson, and they all work through to a reasonably satisfying conclusion.
There are some flaws. At times the prose became a little verbose - and reminded me of reading Dennis Wheatley's 'Roger Brook' historical spy novels, when Wheatley would go off on a tangent to 'educate' his readers.
But 'The Street Philosopher' is both a good yarn and a thoughtful examination of corruption and treachery; and these tentacles of twisted power are well depicted.
on 12 August 2009
This book is a departure from my usual reading choices, but I was impressed by many of the reviews here and thought I would read it and see what I thought.
`The Street Philosopher' is written with plenty of enthusiasm and with a great deal of genuine and obviously well-researched history as a backdrop. Set during and after the Crimean war, it manages to evoke the atmosphere and vividness of the times, with the war scenes in particular being detailed and impressive. It is action and character driven and so gets into the story from the very first page: the author also shies away from pages of description, preferring to use action and dialogue to tell the story - which makes it a much more enjoyable and engaging read. It has a good plot but also makes some very pertinent and strong points about war - which are very relevant with what's going on today.
The only thing that jarred for me was the fact that the characters felt overdone and over-drawn a lot of the time: a lot of rather clichéd types who jarred with the rest of the writing. It was almost as if the author had plopped pre-drawn characters into their roles and for me, it detracted from what was otherwise a very realistic story. The characters, I'm afraid, were all a bit predictable.
It's a good size (487 pages!) so lots to get stuck into, but it didn't at any stage feel heavy or plodding, and in places it was quite funny (intentionally!). I enjoyed it and think that the author has a great future if he is to write more books of this kind of quality.
Set during and just after the Crimean war, this is a modern attempt at the classic C19th novel (Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray) that somehow failed to completely come together in my view. I'm not actually sure why: Plampin knows C19th culture and that shows in this novel, and he writes well on a technical basis. His battle scenes, especially, are incredibly vivid and alive with the sound, smell and feel of C19th warfare. But the war is actually a backdrop to his novel rather than the foreground, and the centre is occupied by something far more sensational (in a kind of overblown soap-opera way) and both less convincing and less engaging.
If the background is excellent then I'm afraid the characters leave a bit more to be desired: either bland and unknowable (Kitson) or larger-than-life and hence almost caricatures - the gung-ho newspaper correspondent, the greedy industrialist, the sensitive war artist, the beautiful wife-victim, the corrupt army officer - I felt I'd met them all many times before. The central villain (complete with Victorian moustaches which he comes close to twirling) is all black: wife-beater and rapist, thief and looter, bad officer.
Despite the traumatic war background (which was really done excellently), no-one seemed to develop or change as a result of their experiences: the good were all good and pure anyway and the bad all villainous from the start. In fact, the central plot could almost be disassociated from the war background, and the 'crime' for which the villains are ultimately exposed and punished isn't for their involvement in the slaughter of so many men, but for something which, in the context, seemed a far lesser crime to me. The moral compass of the novel seemed, to me, as a result to be unbalanced.
It's a shame since I think Plampin shows signs of real ability to write and convey atmosphere. So 2/5 for plot and character, 4/5 for pure writing ability = 3/5 overall. Other reviewers clearly loved this but for me it was quite a trudge to finish.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Street Philosopher is a well written, well researched story of betrayal, injustice, arrogance, greed and love, the latter of which ultimately wins the day. Although some of the history is fictional, the writer has described very well the actual horrors and privations both of the war in the Crimea and life in Manchester in the late 19th century. Whilst not a novel about the war or a social commentary, these backdrops are well interwoven into the story and do serve to understand the characters better.
All in all I would thoroughly recommend this book with only a few minor reservations, i.e.
* We get to know none of the characters in much depth which I think would have benefitted the readers' enjoyment but only just sufficiently to meet the needs of the plot. Some of the characters who made fleeting appearances were extraneous in my view and I do not think the reader gained much from their inclusion.
* The pace of the story was good and whilst not quite a "page turner" kept the reader engaged. It was perhaps slightly overlong and could have been a bit tighter on plot.
* It was difficult to like (if we were supposed to) or empathise with any of the characters, even our hero Kitson. I felt no great satisfaction for him as the book ended and would have liked to.
I realize the reservations are longer than my praise but it is always easier to criticize. Future readers should not be put off by this.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 11 April 2009
This is a hugely enjoyable, often funny and action packed story, with a thoroughly satisfying ending. Plampin has written a wonderful novel, but more than this he has written it to a standard rarely seen in historical genre fiction. Plampin's word craft is exquisite, his attention to the language and voice of the characters in keeping with the period, his comic timing excellent, his pace is masterful - be in no doubt, this is a page turner of a novel. The characters really live: the rambunctious figure of Cracknell with his big arse manages to be utterly scurillous, physically distasteful, yet believable as a love interest and provides many of the comic scenes. The sense of place is cinematically drawn - the battle scenes of the Crimea are worthy of particular comment: these are so very vivid (great clods of earth fly as canon balls destroy the pretty green country landscape; the descriptions of flesh and gore are alarming). The novel spans the topics of love, work, morality, family, sexuality, war, high and low society, politics, art, and is located firmly in the historical context of the Crimean War in 1854 and the Great Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 - an education for the reader too. What a joy to find such a beautifully written book in this genre. And this is his first! Plampin, write another soon please! I fear that books written to this high quality take a while so we may have a bit of a wait for the next one...