- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (2 Sept. 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0571214975
- ISBN-13: 978-0571214976
- Product Dimensions: 12.5 x 2 x 20 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 51,651 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin Paperback – 2 Sep 2004
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'A must for every British Christmas stocking.' John Carey; 'Unputdownable... the man writes like a dream - informed, fresh, racy prose.' Guardian
Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford is a rapturous history of British engineering, of which the Daily Telegraph said, 'I don't want to pretend that Backroom Boys is perfect; it's just as near to it as makes no difference.'See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
It would be easy to caricature the quiet, understated passion of men whose ambition stretches from the suburbs to the stars. While Spufford's writing is full of funny human detail, he never takes that easy line. Instead, he overcomes the challenge of linking a list of contrasting stories to reveal a larger theme: how successive sons of a fading empire have tried to make their technological dreams come true in a changing political and economic climate. This is a celebration of the true "White Heat of a new technological revolution" - a heat that still burns in the hearts of individual scientists, inventors and professional engineers.
As one who nearly joined their ranks, please indulge me while I add my own anecdote to Spufford's excellent book. I vividly remember a holiday in 1975, on the day when one of the Viking landers touched down on Mars. While the family were sitting down to watch Patrick Moore and the first pictures from the surface of an alien world, we heard that the local chippy had acquired a new-fangled invention - a "microwave" oven. Dad rushed out and returned with chicken cooked from raw in the magic rays. It was pale and pasty, but somehow that didn't matter. We sat munching it with soggy chips in front of the telly and it felt like the dawn of our very own Space Age. Soggy chips and vaunting ambition is what this book is all about.
"Backroom Boys" starts with a chapter about the early British space programme ("Flying Spitfires to Other Planets") and ends with the "Beagle 2" mission to Mars. There's a scrotum-crawling irony about the way the latter turned out to be such a dog of spacecraft.Read more ›
What's best for me is Spufford's use of language, this is no dry list of geekery and geeks but a tale of human endeavour, brought to life by a talented author.
His writing about the shape of Concorde, "it still looks as if a crack has opened in the fabric of the universe and a message from tomorrow has been poked through. Only it is clear now that the tomorrow in question was yesterday's tomorrow. " moves us to realise that even after thirty years this plane is still an artifact of future but that sadly it is not our future.
The descriptions of ultimate fate of the Prospero satellite and the challenge to sequence the human genome are both alternately moving and amusing. The sad tale of the falling out between the authors of "Elite" shows just how human these inventors are.
The book is best read a series of long stories rather than a narrative history, and each story has different qualities. The first, about the miserable extinction of Britain's space race is the most Dan Dare-ish; men in cardigans with mustaches and pipes building rockets in sheds, their quiet ambition thwarted by political intransigence.
The author then goes onto the concorde story, an exercise in financial planning and marketing more than engineering. Racal/Vodaphone an paean to thatcherism, Acorn/Elite to nerdism (though i dispute that Britain "invented" the modern PCgame). The gene sequencing essay is more about the strong anarchist streak in british science (as well as how Britain saved the world, no really),and finally, the piece on Beagle2 is about marketing over engineering.
This all adds up to much more than a simple gung-ho tale. Spufford is an intelligent and literate writer with a keen sense of humanity and irony. Its ends up being almost an elegy to the British engineering tradition, its astounding ambition and its tendency to be thwarted by politics, accountants and small-mindedness. Read it, weep and laugh; this is about our past, and if only we only we shared their nerdy ambition, should be about our future.
The book would have got 5 stars except that it tends to wander a little in some of the narrative. However, this is only a minor criticism of what is a great book. Definitely one that will be re-read.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
There is a great amount to like in this book. Francis Spufford has a very assured writing style - warm and conversational without being 'folksy', and his stories of British... Read morePublished 18 months ago by Dr. Michael Heron
I enjoyed reading this book, and appears well informed, although it is slightly out of date. I think it is important because so few people in the UK understand how much we are... Read morePublished on 1 Oct. 2014 by JohnT
An amazing book I read some years ago. It may have had a different cover then.
The chapters on the development of the mobile phone network and the potential for rockets... Read more
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