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Declining and falling
on 12 November 2009
My postman said this was the heaviest book he'd ever delivered. And the Paul Mellon Foundation money showered upon it appears to make it a bargain in terms of sheer weight, if not always merit, of illustrations offered.
But, oh the text! This is one of the most badly edited/put together books you're going to see from a publisher as posh as Yale University Press. Or from an author who is the leading historian in the subject and now offering a book on "the whole field in detail" ( says the flyleaf) which " is essentially a product of new research and travel on his part" ( says YUP's p.r. puff).
From prologue to footnotes there are countless examples of sloppy writing or thinking. Two different dates are frequently given for the same historical event or modern publication ( including one of the author's own). Frequently there are different spellings of the same proper name (including someone thanked by the author). Misrememberings around the country abound ( e.g. Hanwell for Handsworth, Yorkshire or Corbet instead of Clough in Denbighshire). Sometimes sources can't even be remembered at all - with ludicrous results. There are repeated misrepresentations of other writers' published works on which the author relies very heavily along with ( frankly admitted) rehashes of large chunks of his own old books. In fact there is little evidence of fresh documentary finds and travel. Too often the touted new research seems merely to be speculative, sometimes obviously wrong, armchair attributions or musings in place of hard evidence.
Perhaps this should be no surprise. The flyleaf also says it is 40 years since the author ventured into the field. So it is shocking that, through coy footnotes which only near the end reveal their full implications, there is an admission from him that his basis for his first book has now been shown to be mistaken. Therefore, although it is very sad to read thanks from the author now to surgeons, doctors and nurses at a London hospital, slipshod writing and hypothesizing beg the question - how can anyone trust the new book?