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Extraordinary? Yes! True? Sometimes.
on 14 January 2016
The subtitle of this book is "Extraordinary But True Stories." Alas, when it comes to choosing between extraordinary and true, Mr. Quinn invariably goes with "extraordinary." He seems happy to pass on legends and tall tales without checking the facts.
In some cases, this involves some minor and forgivable simplification. For example, he presents it as proven fact that the Crossbones Graveyard was a burying ground specifically for prostitutes, but some sources suggest it was a pauper's graveyard or a plague pit. I wish he had given a more nuanced view, but in a book meant to offer quick glimpses into a variety of subjects, it's a forgivable omission.
In other cases, he makes a minor error that doesn't affect his overall point. He claims that the feather quill held by the statue of John Stow in St. Andrew Undershaft is changed every year by the Lord Mayor of London in a special ceremony. In fact, it's changed every three years -- but the fact that the Lord Mayor changes it all is certainly a fascinating bit of London trivia.
Unfortunately, in some cases, his information is wrong enough to invalidate his main point. For example, Quinn claims that "even today a freeman is entitled to herd sheep over London Bridge, he may walk about the city with a drawn sword, can insist on being married in St Paul's Cathedral, is permitted to be drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest and best of all if he is sentenced to hang the execution can only be carried out using a silken rope!" In fact, the city of London's own publications on the subject make it clear that, if these rights ever actually existed, they certainly don't apply today.
Everybody makes mistakes, and no one of these errors would be a big deal -- but I've spotted enough of them that I don't feel I can trust anything he says without further verification, which takes some of the pleasure out of the book.
If you approach this book as a evening in a pub with a charming but slightly unreliable friend, you'll leave with many entertaining tales. Just don't rely too heavily on their being true.