Book Corner



The Real Jane Austen – A Life In Small Things – Paula Byrne

The job of a biographer is getting harder these days. There are fewer notable lives warranting the full biographical treatment that haven’t been written about before and writers have to be more inventive to get their work to the attention of the reading public. Kildea’s theory that Benjamin Britten died of tertiary syphilis is a case in point, a theory that was shot down in flames within minutes of it seeing the light of day.

The anniversary of a notable personage is usually the catalyst for a rash of biographies and the bicentennial of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is no exception. Byrne has solved the problem of how to engender some originality whilst traveling down a well-worn furrow in her delightful, interesting and informative book. Her latest work, which might be entitled “A History of Jane Austen In Eighteen Objects” takes as its starting point an object which Austen either owned, used or might have experienced as the basis for exploring aspects of her life, her works and the context in which she lived and wrote.

To take a few examples of the approach she adopts: a signed royalty cheque leads into a discussion of Jane’s struggles to get her works published and to strike a deal which compensated her for her time and trouble. A shawl from India leads Byrne on to explore the Georgian phenomenon of the fishing fleet where hopeful women sailed off to India in search of a husband. A pair of topaz crosses given to Jane and her dearest sister, Cassandra, from the bounty earned by one of her sea-faring brothers leads Byrne to consider the nautical careers of Austen’s siblings and the influence of the navy and matters maritime on her works. The Theatrical Scenes – stage scenery – leads to an exploration of the burgeoning of the theatre in Georgian England and Austen’s deep love of the stage. The Vellum Notebooks – three notebooks in which Austen’s early works – now known as her Juvenilia – were laboriously transcribed and amended – leads on to a detailed description of her writing methods. And so on.

A fascinating approach which allows Byrne to eschew the traditional method of biography – birth, formative influences, career, death and legacy – and take a much more thematic approach, enabling her to move back and forth across conventional timelines. What shines out from the book is that despite outwards appearances Austen was a sparky, witty and interesting person with a deep but typically understated Anglican religious faith, although her fear of pregnancy and childbirth (the number of relatives or friends who died after childbirth is astonishing) probably led her to contentment as a spinster and financial insecurity and security of tenure of living accommodation were major concerns which her literary success late on in life only partially helped to assuage.

A really good book written in an engaging style which allows the reader to zip through it and at the end wishing for more. What better endorsement!


I’ve Stopped Drinking, But Only When I’m Asleep



We’ve been rumbled. I’m sure you have been there. You have gone to the quacks for something or the other and he or she takes the opportunity to complete some life-style questionnaire. The dread question is asked, how many units of alcohol do you consume a week.

Fighting the temptation to make a smart aleck response like “one at a time” and reckoning that the conspicuous consumption of the last five years is a statistical outlier, you settle for a figure which is within the recommended guidelines. The doctor, ignoring your red nose and breath that smells like a brewery, dutifully transcribes the figure with a knowing smile.

Once I was not economical with the truth and was advised that I should go along to Alcoholics Anonymous. It didn’t work – I knew everyone there.

According to research just published by University College London, there is a significant gap between the amount of alcohol that is purchased in the UK and the units of alcohol we admit to consuming. We admit to consuming only 60% of what is purchased. Adjusting the figures for this discrepancy, the average number of units consumed a week is 20.5, rather than the 12.3 we own up to. As many as 75% of all men and 80% of all women occasionally exceed the daily recommended unit intake. It beggars belief when we hear that because of the hikes in tuition fees students are on the brink of penury that they waste their time confirming what can be only described as the bleeding obvious.

There are a number of explanations for this stunning revelation. Either we are laying in cases of Special Brew as a hedge against the introduction of minimum pricing for a unit of alcohol or buying Anhauser-Busch products – they have just been sued for allegedly watering down their hooch – or we are telling porkies. I will leave it to you to decide.

Meanwhile, our budding Einsteins should focus their grey cells on something more worthwhile.


In Graham We Trust – Part Thirty Three


Thirty five down, eleven to go, ten points to find

TMS 1 Doncaster 2

An unchanged TMS succumbed to their third defeat in fifteen games in rather disappointing circumstances, a win that saw Rovers move to the top of the table.

The game turned on the ref’s decision in the 36th minute to dismiss McAllister for what he deemed to be a reckless two-footed challenge. Wasn’t there but by all accounts it was a harsh decision. From then on it was always going to be a struggle but it wasn’t until the 73rd minute that Doncaster found the net through Husband, although they had hit the woodwork twice before.

TMS hauled themselves back into the game in the 89th minute thanks to a long-range strike from Eaves. Thoughts of an unlikely point were soon dispelled as Rovers capitalised on Gayle’s indecision and Bennett, who had only come on three minutes earlier, settled the game with a shot that took a deflection before nestling in the top corner.

A disappointing defeat and with all the relegation rivals winning one that undid much of the good work of the last few weeks.

Next up, Walsall away on Saturday.

He Taught Me Housekeeping; When I Divorce I Keep The House



Weston Super Mare is a seaside town just south of Bristol and like many a British seaside town has seen better days. One of its unusual features is its name – Weston is Anglo-Saxon for the west settlement and Super Mare is Latin for upon sea, this tag added to distinguish it from the many other Westons. Prior to 1348 it was known as Weston Juxta Mare (Weston beside the sea) but the then Bishop of Wells and Bath, Roger of Shrewsbury, gave it its current moniker.

Whilst there is evidence of settlement there since the Iron Age, Weston only really developed into a significant town in the 19th century when its connection to the nascent railway network saw it emerge as a seaside resort. Two piers were built although only one, the Grand Pier, now survives.

A feature of the coastline at Weston is that the low tide-mark of Weston is about a mile from the seafront, due to the large tidal range of the Bristol Channel. This means that, whilst the beach is sandy, when the tide is out a vast expanse of thick mud is revealed, earning the town the sobriquet of Weston-super-Mud. The mudflats are, not unsurprisingly, dangerous to walk on and are dissected by the River Axe.

Fascinating as this all is, the reason I bring this seaside resort to your attention is that, according to figures recently released by the Ministry of Justice, Weston-Super-Mare has the highest divorce rate per head of population in the country. Although the courts in Birmingham dealt with 2,799 divorce cases compared with 2,437 at Weston, Birmingham has 12 times the number of residents as the seaside town. Weston’s cause is not helped by being the court of choice of former Monty Python star, John Cleese, who has had his matrimonial arrangements annulled three times. For the record, the next divorce hotspots are Leicester (1,831), Romford (1,783), Coventry (1,775) and Norwich (1,776).

Actually, the number of divorces in England and Wales is reducing – the figure of 117,558 divorces in 2011 being 1.7% down from 2010. 10.8 people per thousand of population divorced in 2011 compared with 12.9 in 2001.

A significant change from ten years ago is that the divorce rate for men and women aged 45 or over has increased whilst the rate for all other age groups has declined. Women in their late twenties have the highest divorce rate of all female age groups – 23.9 per thousand – with males in the same age range having a divorce rate of 21.9 per thousand. However, the mean age for divorce amongst males is 44.5 years and for women 44.2, a slight increase, perpetuating the theory that people hang on until the kids have grown up.

Although they say there is no such thing as bad publicity I am sure that Weston will be eager to lose this unwelcome “honour”. Perhaps there is something in the sea air, after all!


What Is The Origin Of (9)…?


The Fax Machine

For those of my vintage who work in an office environment we have witnessed a massive transformation of the technology deployed which, on the whole, have improved the efficiency of the operations immeasurably.

I well remember one of my bosses whose MO was supreme brinkmanship. When we were responding to bids and tenders, he would always leave matters to the last minute, necessitating I or another office junior to hare over to a major London rail terminus to put a packet of papers on to a train to be received at the other end by a frantic local manager. The introduction of a fax machine in the early 80s eradicated the need for this almost daily ritual. What it did mean, though, was that my boss delayed releasing the terms for a further three hours – result, local manager still on the verge of a nervous breakdown waiting for his instructions.

It is hard to credit it but there was an air of genuine excitement when the first fax machines were installed into the offices. Now of course, they are consigned to a dusty corner as they have been overtaken by the current method of instantaneous communication – the e-mail. One of the drawbacks of the fax was that over time the output faded so you were left with a file of blank papers – very handy if you had made a mistake!

There is a tendency to think of the fax machine as a relatively modern invention and, certainly, its adoption as a form of business communication didn’t really take off until the mid 80’s but, actually, it owes its origins to the experimentation of Alexander Bain. Bain, a Scotsman, was apprenticed as a clockmaker and invented the first electric clock. In 1843 – yes, 1843, he received a British patent for improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs. In other words, he had invented the fax machine, which used a stylus to scan a flat metal surface mounted on a pendulum, thus picking up the images on the surface. Bains’ machine combined clock mechanisms with telegraph technology.

At the Great Exhibition in 1851 Frederick Bakewell gave the first successful demonstration of a facsimile transmission using cylinders to transmit and receive images.

Giovanni Caselli conducted research into the telegraphic transmission of images and solved the problem of how to synchronise the transmission and receipt of images with his pantelegraph which, in 1860, sent the first fax between Paris and Lyon.

Ernest Hummel – another watchmaker – took the technology forward by, in 1895, developing the Telediagraph or copying telegraph which used synchronised rotating drums with a platinum stylus as an electrode in the transmitter. His machine was adopted by the newspaper industry and was used to transmit photographs – the first being “an accurate picture of the first gun fired at Manila” which took around thirty minutes to transmit. A German inventor, Arthur Korn, used selenium which is a light-sensitive element to convert the different tones of a scanned image into a variable electric current. The first commercial use of Korn’s system was adopted in 1907 and by 1910 Paris, London and Berlin were linked by facsimile transmission over the telephone.

Edouard Belin made the first telephoto transmission from Paris to Lyon to Bordeaux and then back to Paris in 1907 and his lab was the destination of the first trans-Atlantic transmission in 1921. In 1929 in a further refinement of the technology Rudolf Hell developed machines to control the engraving of printing plates electronically. The natural progression from this breakthrough was the photo-lettering system called digiset – the digital reproduction of text and pictures.

Faxes were being used to transmit photographs and then in the mid-1950s it was adopted by the US Weather Bureau to transmit analysis and prognostic weather charts.

With all this development you might be asking why it was not until the early 1980s that fax technology was adopted by the business sector. Well, what kick started it was the adoption of a standard protocol for sending faxes at rates of 9,600 bits per second in 1983 and the rest is history.

When you go into that cupboard at work and see a lonesome fax machine rotting in the corner, remember that it has a history of over 160 years. It is just that its wide-scale commercial utilisation lasted little over 15 years.