Category Archives: Book review

Judy Bryant, An Adoptee’s Search for Identity

This is a self-published memoir by someone I think I may have met when I was an ‘extra’ on an Open University Chapel Choir tour to Southwell Minster. (I wonder whether she was the person who enjoyed running baths very early in the morning, setting off the noisy plumbing in the place where we were staying?)

She unflinchingly narrates the difficulties she faced as a child, leading to a breakdown in early adulthood. These were: being given up for adoption; the death of her beloved adoptive mother at the age of seven; and a congenital condition which meant her education was disrupted through stays in hospital. One senses that she could have coped with any two of these, but not all three. Happily she took advantage of opportunities later on and enjoyed an interesting career in the legal profession.

She was able to contact members of her birth family (before this was officially permitted) and here the story is tantalisingly incomplete. I would rather have heard more about her meetings with her birth parents than all the details about her various cars and journeys in them! Possibly some details have been blurred; we are told that her half-brother (who died a year after she was reunited with him) was an undergraduate at Oxford when she was in her mid-twenties, but also that he pushed her in her pram, implying that he was older than her.

The memoir might have benefited from an editor, to focus more on the essential story and less on various distractions along the way. But it is not an unrelieved ‘misery memoir’ and the author is able to stand back and do dispassionate self-analysis with a reasonably flowing prose style.

Posted in Book review | 1 Comment

Hesketh Pearson, The Smith of Smiths
Alan Bell, Sydney Smith: A Biography

The Rev. Sydney Smith would seem a good potential subject for a biography. No need to speculate about his views, as (like the reviewer, but more eloquently) he loved to shoot his mouth off on any subject on which he had an opinion. And he knew a lot of famous and influential people. The drawbacks are that his natural environment was the dining table, so any account of him risks reading like being an onlooker at another’s party, and his life was not in fact very eventful.

Hesketh Pearson (shown thoughtfully smoking a pipe on the back cover) wrote biographies by the yard in the mid-20th century, and the one of Smith is among his earliest. As someone from a clerical family and immersed in the world of letters, he must have found him an appealing subject. Unfortunately he managed something almost impossible – a biography of him that is dull to read. Apart from going and looking up Smith’s will in Somerset House, he appears to have done no original research, just ordered the details of Smith’s life from other sources, interspersed with appropriate quotes from his writings. He contradicts himself on such matters as whether Smith had ambitions to be a bishop and his attitude to music. Perhaps Smith’s views changed, in which case it would have been good to have had some discussion about this.

I hoped Alan Bell’s biography might be a lighter read, but it wasn’t. (It’s briefly dealt with in this obituary). It has a slightly different emphasis and though it draws on letters and documents that Pearson didn’t have (with considerably more research), inevitably there’s a lot of overlap with Hesketh in quotations from Smith’s writings. But I’m afraid I gave up after a couple of chapters. I think Bell, who like Pearson was not a practised biographer when he wrote the work, might have done better to have completed his edition of Smith’s letters (he only published one of a projected four volumes of them) before writing his biography. Perhaps he thought that the biography would whet readers’ appetites for the letters.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

The Odes of Horace, trans. Edward Marsh

This translation dates from 1941, and I suspect it was made so that the author could prove he could do it. I don’t doubt his understanding of Latin; my problem is the archaic nature of the English. Did Edward Marsh really think this was the way to make Horace available to an English readership, or was the point really to demonstrate his own cleverness?

A sample will suffice (1.34):

    For Jove, whose wont it is to ply
    His zigzag levin mid a clouded sky
    This day through the clear azure drove afar
    His thundering coursers and flame-pinion’d car —

Brought up short by ‘levin’, I looked it up and found that it was a Middle English word for ‘lightning’. At this point I thought I’d be better off just reading the Latin. Horace does not on the whole puzzle his readers with obscure vocabulary.

Some biographical information about Edward Marsh may be found here.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

Simon Winchester, Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded

I felt rather guilty about enjoying reading this, as it isn’t a disaster movie but a real-life event that killed tens of thousands of people. However, if you want to find out about the cataclysm of 1883, then this is the place to go.

The book takes quite a while to get going and throughout there is a large amount, rather too much, of incidental detail. When I was told at length about the biographies of the discoverers of continental drift, I found my attention began to drift a bit too. And once I’d been made aware that Dutch colonials drank jenever much as their British counterparts did gin & tonic, I didn’t need to have repeated descriptions of them doing it. Once the eruption is imminent the pace quickens.

I don’t know much about the East Indies or about vulcanology and when it comes to fact-checking, I can only really go by measuring the book against what I do know. In this case, I found inaccuracies relating to classical languages. Palaeomagnetism is a word of wholly Greek formation, not a mixture of Greek and Latin, and while the pseudonym ‘Multatuli’ does indeed mean ‘I have endured much’, it does so in Latin, not Javanese.

A particularly interesting section was that on the worldwide observation of the atmospheric effects of the eruption. Descriptions of these were solicited from the public, and this is attributed to a Victorian ‘almost obsessive need for the complete’; I prefer to see it, less perjoratively, as an early instance of crowdsourcing, or ‘citizen science’. Certainly it produced a lot of documentary evidence, including an elegantly worded description from Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The map on p. xv really ought to show the town of Anjer, which features prominently in the text.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

Faber’s The Great Languages: French, Italian, German, Latin

I came across Palmer’s The Greek Language, published in the 1980s, and when offered the chance to acquire some others in the series, seized the opportunity, thinking they would be of a similar vintage. But this series has a very peculiar history. The volumes on French and German were written in the 1930s, and Palmer’s companion volume on Latin dates from the 1950s. His work on Greek replaced an earlier book by BFC Atkinson (an author otherwise known for Christian apologetics), and I think is still in print.

The volume on Italian has a very different history; it is a translation by T. Gwynfor Griffith of Migliori’s Storia della lingua italiana. The work is structured differently from the others, being diachronic and going through the history of Italian by successive historical periods, rather than synchronic and dedicating whole sections to morphology and syntax as do the French and German equivalents. Palmer’s Greek volume takes a synchronic and diachronic approach in its two sections.

Needless to say much in the earlier volumes seems very dated now. There are some extraordinary assertions. The demise of the ‘past definite’ (meaning ‘past historic’) in French is attributed to the fact nowadays that we see the past as a picture rather than as an action (p. 254). Surely the opposite is the case if anything, now that we have (and had in the 1930s) ways of recording moving images? And why should this change, even if it were true, cause the French past historic to fall out of use?

I wonder what the intended readership was for this series. It seems too academic for the general reader, but the specialist in the language concerned would not need a summary volume of this kind. Perhaps it was for university students beginning a course in the languages? And why does the format differ so much between volumes? Was the Italian work co-opted into the series because it was to hand? Why was the volume on Greek updated, but not others?

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

Sheila Mann, Hints of a Perfect Splendour

Disclaimer 1: I married into the family of the book’s subject, Aelfrida Tillyard (1883-1959). My parents-in-law get a fleeting mention towards the end. As I have this personal connexion, the following observations will focus on those aspects of Aelfrida’s life which have overlapped with my own.

Disclaimer 2: Long before I met any of her other relatives, I must have rubbed shoulders with Aelfrida’s daughter Alethea, as for a few months we attended the same church (St Andrew’s, Old Headington). However, I don’t remember her. I don’t really remember much about the church except its general appearance inside, the over-powerful organ (once Merton College’s, since replaced) and for being the only church I’ve come across which used the BBC Hymn Book.

This is described as a ‘novel biography’ though it does not stray far beyond demonstrable fact. Aelfrida’s life is amply documented, though sometimes not enough for the author: ‘what would one not give for a diary account of [Aelfrida's meeting with my future parents-in-law after their marriage]‘.

After a fairly conventional Cambridge academic childhood (with faint Bloomsbury connections) such as is described in many memoirs and biographies, Aelfrida embarked on a doomed marriage with a half-Greek diplomat. Throughout her life she had a mystical bent; in her youth this led to an involvement with Aleister Crowley, but after a family tragedy she gravitated into the Church of England.

She had an ascetic trait I recognise as a family characteristic, but which in her case expressed itself through religion. At one point she joined a lay community, a form of spiritual life which has now fallen completely out of fashion. Why should it have done so? Perhaps it is because there is now a much greater range of opportunities for women, but maybe also because the degree of self-sacrifice it requires is too much for people these days. There are of course still experiments in communal living, but now they tend to be ecological rather than religious in inspiration. And while there will always be Christian mystics, it is now possible and indeed quite common to have spirituality without being attached to any particular religious group or sect.

I skipped on to what really interested me, Anglo-Catholicism in mid-20th century Cambridge. How did it differ from when I came into this wing of the church in the same place some decades later?

Aelfrida’s route was different from mine, as she didn’t have much to do with the church I joined, Little St Mary’s, attaching herself to St Botolph’s. I sang at the wedding of a friend there, and sang a service or two there with the Chapel choir of my college, Corpus. The choir had a rather chilly welcome, because at that time it was believed in the congregation that Corpus wanted to have St Botolph’s shut down and made into its library extension, and that the choir was presumably being sent round to case the joint. An attempt to visit with the choir of Little St Mary’s was refused by the then Rector. Maybe they just didn’t like guest choirs at St Botolph’s? It always struck me as middle-of-the-road, 1662-friendly Anglicanism, rather than High Church.

I could have done with a family tree (perhaps somewhere in the 1006 pages I missed one) not least to help distinguish the various women in the family whose names begin and end in A: Aelfrida herself, Agatha, Alicia, Alethea, Anatolia and Agneta (not Angela, whom I see quite regularly).

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

Whipplesnaith, The Night Climbers of Cambridge
Barbara Vine, Grasshopper

Don’t try this at home. Or rather, don’t try it in Cambridge. The Night Climbers of Cambridge circulated in samizdat form for a while, and a copy in the University Library could be consulted by special permission, but has now been reprinted. It is a guide to how to ascend various buildings in the city by external routes, based on the exploits of a group of climbers in the 1930s and illustrated with photographs.

Detailed instructions on how to achieve various climbs are interspersed with accounts of cat-and-mouse games with College porters and other anecdotes (the footnote to p. 156 is particularly entertaining, even if one can see the punchline coming way in advance). The style parodies that of guidebooks of the day: ‘We go to Trinity, the aristocrat of the college climbing-grounds’.

The pièce de résistance is of course King’s College Chapel. The caption to a photograph of the ascent of a pinnacle ends: ‘With three simultaneous grips for the rest of the way up the climb is safe’. Here I can only quote from Douglas Adams: ‘This must be some strange use of the word safe I wasn’t previously aware of’.

Many a night-climber’s career started by climbing into College after it was locked for the night, but other aspects of life in those days, such as patrolling policemen, seem almost as outdated. A Night Climbers’ Society, with its own tie, still existed around 1990 (I knew the President slightly) but little actual climbing appeared to go on by then.

Did this happen at Oxford too, or was it one of those things like circus skills which Cambridge in particular goes in for? The Oxford equivalent seemed to be navigating mysterious subterranean waterways, and if the Oxford Today letters page is to be believed, at one time most of the men and quite a lot of the women had a go at it.

The characters in Grasshopper also go in for climbing on roofs, though they normally get there from dormer windows, which I expect their Cambridge equivalents would disdain. If you enjoyed King Solomon’s Carpet, you’ll probably enjoy this novel too, set in Maida Vale.

I repeat: these exploits are not to be emulated by the reader. But I’m now going to look at a lot of old buildings in a rather different way.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

Hubert Pragnell, Architectural Britain

This chronological study of British architecture from Saxon times on is produced by the National Trust and its dimensions (it’s about 15 cm square) mean it can be slipped into a handbag or large coat pocket when visiting a notable building. I haven’t read it all through and I think that is not the best way to use it; it can be dipped into either for information on a particular building or place (as long as it isn’t Manchester, which seems only to have one building worth mentioning), or for a summary of a particular aspect of British architectural history.

The 320 pages contain generous amounts of densely printed text, copious detailed line drawings by the author, as well as photographs (many of them naturally enough of National Trust properties). The quality of photography is generally good, though the photograph of Great Pulteney Street on p. 205 is too under-exposed to be much use. The focus is on large-scale buildings rather than ordinary vernacular architecture, and architecture is regarded as applying only to structures with a roof and walls (apart from the Forth Bridge). Thus open-sided market halls, whether ancient stone ones or later iron-framed Northern examples, don’t get covered. The first few chapters are largely about churches, the rest mostly about secular buildings. Inevitably there are things that the reviewer would have liked to have read more about: post-mediaeval churches, or Art Nouveau (while there may not be many buildings in this style in Britain, it had a definite influence on architectural detail at the turn of the 20th century).

I am not well placed to find inaccuracies, but I noticed one: the Bathwick church referred to (pp. 207-8) is St. Mary’s not St. John’s. The author may not have realised that the asymmetry of Camden Crescent in Bath was not originally intended, but came about because during construction it became clear that the planned east end would be likely to subside down the hill. The indexing, though detailed, is not well laid out because a lack of indentation makes it hard to tell when entries for one place end and those for the next begin. An index of architectural terms would have been useful.

An online search for this book finds the 2007 imprint described as a revised edition, although my copy says it was first published in the UK in 2007. Was an earlier edition published elsewhere? The insidious influence of television can be seen on the cover, where the name of Ptolemy Dean (who contributed a single-page foreward) appears in larger type than that of the actual author.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

Rob Temple, Very British Problems

This is the book of the Twitter hashtag – a selection of examples of behaviour which is perceived as characteristically British, with some more related discussion about matters such as British weather. I recognised a lot of it – especially the chapter about driving, and other traits such as the recent tendency to whisper at people when asking them to move aside, rather than speak out loud. But much of it seems to reinforce a stereotype which doesn’t reflect reality, or at least only partially.

Throughout there is an assumption that people will do anything rather than speak to someone they don’t know. I think this is a south of England thing. Alongside it is an assumption that people will do anything rather than speak to a work colleague outside work – for example by hiding from them on a bus or train. Really? Perhaps I have been lucky in my workplaces, but when a colleague and I have spotted one another on the way to or from work, we have acknowledged one another, and more often than not sat down together (or walked alongside one another) and chatted about work or other matters for at least part of the journey.

Maybe I am just not very British by temperament. For example, I refuse point blank to drink instant coffee and am not terrified by the prospect of speaking in public. The two things I find most baffling about my fellow citizens are their tolerance for poor quality salted butter, and their love of picnicking in car parks (although I gather the latter characteristic is to be found also among Iranians).

This kind of book of observations about behaviour sometimes becomes a classic (we have an entertaining set of them by Paul Jennings), but I think this one will not age well. There are too many references to current personalities, TV shows and so on which will have been forgotten in a decade’s time. And technology and such matters as the layout of supermarkets are changing so fast that references to them will soon be baffling. So if you’re going to read this, do it while it is still topical!

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

Helena Attlee, The Land where Lemons Grow

This is a book about the author’s travels in Italy in search of citrus fruit and its growers. The text is a mixture of botany, history and travel writing, with a sprinkling of recipes both historical and present-day (the former tend to be of the ‘don’t try this at home’ variety). We learn just how many different fruits are grown in Italy, how they are grown, their part in local economies (sadly not what it was in many cases) and about some particular varieties. The author travelled widely in Italy, though inevitably there is more about the south, including Sicily (where lemons played a part in the rise of the Mafia).

I notice that the author is a contributor to magazines, and some of the chapters read as if they may have started as magazine articles, which may explain a certain amount of repetition of information between chapters (for example, details of the three original varieties of citrus fruit). The author’s research has been thorough, though I was puzzled by her insistence that English people think only oranges can be made into marmalade; local shops here sell marmalade made from other fruit, and someone must be buying it!

I was rather sorry that there were no photographs to illustrate, for example, some of the weirdly shaped fruit described, or the layout of groves. But if you love Italy and/or citrus fruit, you will enjoy this.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment