'It is a proud thing to monopolise all the West as I do',
This review is from: Brunel: The Man Who Built the World (Phoenix Press) (Paperback)
I've grown up with Brunel; my first home was a pub built to serve the railway works he started; the first shopping centre I can remember as a child was named after him; later, we moved to Bristol where his legacy is both visible and unavoidable. I was put in 'Brunel' house at school, where we did a project on the SS Great Eastern. I could go on...
And yet while I've used his railway, stations and bridges countless times, and visited some of his other works, such as the Thames Tunnel where I bought this book, the SS Great Britain, and the Starcross Pumping House as a tourist, this is the first real biography of the great man that I've read. And it's fantastic, if a bit brief.
Although I could probably claim a bit of prior knowledge of the extent of Brunel's works, I am no engineer, and yet even the most technical parts of this book kept me enthralled. As well as neatly summarising Brunel's career, in subject specific sections (his work with his father, his railway, his bridges, his ships, etc) rather than chronological order, Steven Brindle has done a great job of both showing what a catalogue of achievements Brunel's career was and bringing the character of the man alive; the inclusion of excerpts from Brunel's own letters is a wonderful touch. Many of them are amusing, one of them in particular made me laugh out loud.
The book inspires a sense of wonder that one man achieved so much, much of it all going on at the same time. But it isn't simple hagiography. Whilst they're not dwelt on, Brindle does expand on some of Brunel's failures, and questionable negotiating tactics. He comes across as a little unscrupulous by modern standards.
I can't really fault this book in any way apart from wishing it was longer. This is a summary of a career, rather than a detailed biography. But as an introduction to the man, his career, legacy and character, I recommend it fully.