windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Category Archives: Books

Book Corner – June 2017 (2)

bower

Cabin Fever – B M Bower

If I hadn’t been so concerned about my mortality – yes, this is one of the 50, or rather, 150 masterpieces to read before you die – I wouldn’t have read this charming and impressive book. Bertha Sinclair (1871 – 1940) – B M Bower was her pseudonym – is not an author I had come across before and her genre – sort of Western – is not normally my bag. But, hey, it would be terrible to shuffle off this mortal coil having missed this gem.

Bud marries but soon after the birth of his child quarrels with his wife and leaves home. He gets a job as a driver but soon realises that the vehicle he is driving is stolen and that his passengers have carried out a jewellery heist. In the middle of the desert, he stops the car, ostensibly the check the tires but manages to disable the engine. The car won’t start again and Bud persuades his colleagues to let him go to the nearest town to summon assistance. When he gets to the town he alerts the cops to their whereabouts and sets off on his own to seek his fame and fortune. He hooks up with a prospector, but is beset with bouts of depression, going on alcoholic benders in the nearest town some 15 miles away.

It was as he was traipsing through the snow en route to the town that he came across a squaw carrying a child. He takes the child in and part of the book’s interest is in how the two hardened prospectors, who by this time couldn’t stand each other, take to sharing their Spartan accommodation with a lively and demanding infant. Marie, Bud’s wife, had been alerted to her errant husband’s whereabouts and sets out to find him. In a surprising twist to the story – I won’t spoil it – all the characters find happiness and find that they are linked with each other in ways that they, and the reader, hadn’t imagined.

Bower has a direct, unadorned style. She moves the story along with the minimum of fuss, spending enough time to develop her characters and to make them interesting enough to engender the right emotional reaction. There are moments of humour – she has a playful, light-hearted touch about her – and moments of pathos. Her turn of phrase and sentence construction make her prose a joy to read.

Perhaps it is a reflection of the time in which she wrote but many a critic thought her novels were the product of a man. Some couldn’t make their mind up and used gender-neutral pronouns. Not that the sex of the writer matters a jot, in my view, but she has a sharp observational style and is at ease exploring the psyche of her male and female characters. It was not what I expected, although I’m not sure what I expected, and despite the ups and downs that the main protagonists go through, has a feel-good feeling to it. It is well worth seeking out.

Book Corner – June 2017 (1)

The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers

The title of Ben Myers’ latest novel reminded me of the Led Zep track of the same name on their third album. In the song, the protagonist’s attempts to delay the hangman from doing his ghastly duty until friends and family ride to the rescue come to naught. And likewise in Myers’ book, despite all the efforts of David Hartley’s family and extended gang, the self-styled King of the North cannot avoid the noose.

The book is based on a true story and tells of the Cragg Vale Coiners who operated in the Calderdale valley region of West Yorkshire. They collected coins, often using violence against those who refused to co-operate, and would remove their genuine edges, milling them down and collecting the shavings. From the shavings, they would make new coins which the gang would put into circulation again. As well as providing a modest return to the counterfeiters, the fake coins destabilised the local economy. Counterfeiting coins was a hanging offence and once the authorities got wise to what was going on, they took steps to eradicate the gang.

The story tells of how the authorities curtailed the gang’s operations and along the way we are treated to a tale of intrigue, violence, intimidation, betrayal and revenge. In some ways Myers would like us to see the gang in a rather idealistic light, bringing succour and money to the local communities who supported them and fighting against the imminent threat that industrialisation brings to their traditional way of life – the book is full of references to the factories that are on their way and the canal and turnpike that are to scar the landscape – but for me it was hard to get past the idea that they were just vicious thugs on the make.

Stylistically, the book has two narrative strands running through it. The main story is told in a third-party narrative and is well-paced. His description of the scenery brought the area, with which I am vaguely familiar, to life – a gloomy, desolate place where nature is elemental. There are some oddities though – Myers is a master of the convoluted simile and his frequent listings of all who turn up to meetings became as tiresome as those choruses that plague folk songs.

The other strand to the narrative is provided by italicised excerpts from David Hartley’s diary. That no such document exists is no matter. It enables us to get a sense of Hartley’s thoughts and despair as he realised that he has been betrayed and abandoned and a record of his indomitable spirit. For the reader, the phonetic, dialectical, unpunctuated stream of consciousness, whilst enlightening, proves hard going.

Myers’ tale is light on characterisation. I would have liked to have known more about William Deighton, or Dighton as he seems to have been in the historical records. What made him tick and why was he so determined to stamp out the coiners? At the very least, his ghastly end warranted that. And the most intriguing character is the rather ethereal Grace Hartley who has the good sense to stash some of the money away and after her hubby’s demise is able to move from the area and buy a new farm, cash on the nail. This is a man’s tale and, indeed a man’s world – women just serve the ale and provide sexual companionship – but it would have been nice to get things from her perspective.

All that aside, it is a riveting read and rather like the Zep song after a slow start it builds up to a crescendo. But I did miss the banjo!

Book Corner – May 2017 (2)

the-black-cat

The Black Cat – Edgar Allan Poe

One of the advantages of feeding my reading habit via a Kindle is that there is a lot of literature that is available free and gratis because it is out of copyright. I downloaded one of those collections – 50 Masterpieces you have to read before you die – there are three volumes of 50 books which rather defeats the premise I would have thought – and whenever I feel that my immortality is imperilled I dip into it. You can never be too careful.

Poe is not an author that I have really sampled before but the Black Cat is an astonishing piece of work by anybody’s standards. Published on August 19th 1843 in the Saturday Evening Post it runs to little more than twenty pages but it provokes in the reader a wide range of emotions. On one level we have animal cruelty of the foulest kind and a savage example of uxoricide coupled with a desperate attempt and seemingly successful attempt by the murderer to cover his tracks. I won’t spoil the denouement but his undoing is masterfully accomplished with a fine twist and the reader cannot help feeling a sense of satisfaction in the way Poe pulled it off.

On another level it is a psychological study of someone wracked with remorse for the horrific crimes that he has committed and charts his descent into madness. It is also a fierce attack on the evils of the demon drink. There is so much going on for the reader to ponder and yet at the same time it is a thoroughly entertaining, if somewhat macabre, tale. Wonderful.

rue

The Murders In The Rue Morgue – Edgar Allan Poe

I have already confessed my addiction to detective fiction and what I find most interesting is how the genre developed and the conventions and what are by today’s standards clichés developed. Those who argue about how the first fictional detective was have to take the claims of Auguste Dupin very seriously.

First published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841 this story has some of the features that are typical of this genre of fiction. There is a crime – in true Poe fashion it is gruesome with the elder woman decapitated and the body of the younger woman stuffed up a chimney – which is performed in seemingly impossible circumstances and in a locked room to boot. The case centres around window shutters, some strands of unusual hair and an unidentified language but interspersed amongst all this the author lays down a trail of false clues or red herrings which by modern standards may be somewhat telegraphed but are nonetheless diverting.

Dupin, of course, solves the crime – I won’t spoil the story – but he does little more than sit on his backside and deploy his phenomenal powers of analysis and intuition – the forerunner to the intellectual sleuth and both Dickens and Conan Doyle doffed their respective caps to Poe for his creation. Naturally, Dupin has a faithful sidekick who gasps in wonder at his comrade’s brilliance.

A word of warning, though. The tale starts off with a lengthy explanation of ratiocination, explaining that for the card player quality of observation is vital. It is a rather low-key and turgid opening that almost put me off but it all made sense in the end. And if you wanted to be hypercritical the story violates one of the unwritten rules of detective fiction that the reader should be able to deduce who the culprit is as they go along and the twist at the end is somewhat left field. Be that as it may, it is a great tale and one I am glad to have discovered.

Book Corner – May 2017 (1)

hamilton

Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow

This is a tome of a book and not one for the faint-hearted. At times it is heavy going – for a non-American the detailed analysis of Hamilton’s Federalist papers which played a major part in defining the constitutional arrangements that define the workings of the government in the States to this day almost persuaded me to give the book up. But perseverance is well rewarded and the reader comes away with a profound understanding of what made one of the most colourful characters of the post-revolutionary United States tick.

For those who like to see such things, there are some astonishing modern parallels. Hamilton was born in the West Indies and he could never free himself from the jibes of his critics that he was a foreigner and had no right to hold high office in the States. He possessed incredible amounts of energy and as soon as he was appointed to the position of Treasury Secretary by George Washington he unleashed a flurry of orders and initiatives that would have made the Donald blanche. He was a prolific writer of pamphlets and articles. He would have been inexhaustible on Twitter.

Hamilton’s greatest achievements were in establishing the American economy on a firmer footing, nationalising debt, binding the rather fractious individual states together and establishing banks, stock markets and credit, the familiar instruments that fuel a modern economy. In many ways Hamilton’s legacy is the thriving and influential country that the States is today.

But Hamilton was clearly a Marmite character – you either loved him or loathed him – and he had the unerring knack of rubbing powerful enemies up the wrong way and rarely knew when to back down. He hitched his horse close to that of Washington – he was effectively Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War and was rewarded for his efforts with high office – but he had an uneasy relationship which became toxic with Washington’s successor, Adams. Worse still, Jefferson, the third President, represented much of what he abhorred – land owning, slave-owning and enamoured with the French Revolution – and their feud ultimately wrecked Hamilton’s political ambitions. Even worse, both Adams and Jefferson outlived Hamilton by decades and had plenty of time to tarnish their opponent’s reputation and burnish their side of the story.

Mind you, Hamilton made his own significant contributions to his own downfall. Bizarrely, he had a dalliance with a married woman which exposed him to blackmail. Equally astonishingly, he decided to make a clean breast of it by publishing a detailed account of the affair, to the mortification of his long-suffering wife, Eliza, to whom Chernow takes quite a shine and to the gratification of his enemies. And then there was the simmering rivalry and feud with Aaron Burr who by the time of the fateful duel was Vice President, albeit effectively sidelined by Jefferson.

The fateful duel occurred on July 11th 1804 at Weehawken. Chernow makes a convincing case that Hamilton intended to waste his shot, hoping that Burr would return the compliment. It is not clear, though, who fired first. Hamilton’s shot was way off target which might have meant that he fired first and was true to his word or it may have been an involuntary shot after he had been winged. The awful tragedy was that he never signalled his intentions to Burr and paid for it with his life. The reintroduction of duelling would certainly brighten up our politics.

For all its length and wearisome passages and at times Chernow is too close and defensive of his subject, I came away with a better understanding of a remarkable man. I can’t believe they have made a musical out of it, though.

Book Corner – April 2017 (2)

the-red-thumb-mark

The Red Thumb Mark – R Austin Freeman

I have a confession to make. I have a penchant for detective stories and mysteries. I find them a light relief from the heavier fare that normally makes up my reading list. I like to go slightly off piste from the usual detective novelists – Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayer, Simenon et al – and I was encouraged to try Austin Freeman, not someone I had read before. He wrote 27 novels featuring Doctor Thorndyke and for no better reason than you need to start somewhere, I decided to read the first of the series, published in 1907.

On opening the book I wondered whether I was reading a Sherlock Holmes manqué. The protagonist is a clever sleuth, Dr Thorndyke, who specialises in medico-legal enquiries and has the brain power of Conan Doyle’s creation minus the neuroses. The account of his exploits is written by his faithful friend and unemployed doctor, Doctor Jervis. The real culprit is neither arrested nor brought to justice nor really named, although there are enough clues in the latter part of the book for the diligent reader to be pretty sure of their identity. There is some love interest, although it is done in the rather prim and proper manner you would expect from an Edwardian novel, as the loyal Jervis falls under the charms of Juliet Gibson. The real object of her affections becomes clear as the book concludes.

The mystery is simple enough. Reuben Hornby is accused of stealing some diamonds deposited in his uncle’s safe. He has one of the few keys to the safe – his uncle, John, and cousin, Walter have the others – and it seems a fair cop when a piece of paper with a bloody thumb print matching Reuben’s distinctive dabs is found in the safe. Reuben has his collar felt and languishes in jail ahead of his trial, protesting his innocence. His aunt and Juliet are convinced of his innocence and Thorndyke is brought in to resolve the case.

There are moments of comedy – the aunt is portrayed as a bit of a dotty character and her appearance in the witness stand is the comedic highlight of the book. There is the usual sexist language and treatment of women that went with the age. Polton, Thorndyke’s amanuensis, tidies up the rooms prior to a visitation by the fairer sex because he “evidently appreciated the difference between the masculine and the feminine view as to the proper appearance of working premises”  – a difference of view that persists to this very day, if the discussions between TOWT and I about my office are anything to go by. And there is an intriguing moment when Juliet asks Jervis whether he considered Thorndyke “a dear”. Perhaps the modern habit of trying to determine hints of sexuality makes too much of it.

thumbograph-example

The solving of the mystery involves the aunt’s Thumbograph. This was akin to an autograph book where family and friends signed and dates a box on the left hand of the page and left their thumb mark on the right. I’m sure it brightened up many a dull dinner party. It also makes an appearance in The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, published in 1938 and was important as finger prints were the DNA of the modern police force. But, as Thorndyke demonstrates, finger prints are not infallible and need to be seen in context.

It is an entertaining read but perhaps seemed more dated than, say, Sherlock Holmes. The scientific explanations of Thorndyke’s methodology can grate but overall, it reflects well on an author who has rather gone out of fashion.

Book Corner – April 2017 (1)

agnesgrey

Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte

Of the astonishing Bronte sisters, Anne, the youngest, is the forgotten one. She is the one you struggle to remember in a pub quiz. Of the three she was the only one who held down a job, living a miserable existence as a governess, one of the few occupations open to an unmarried woman in reduced circumstances, and the only one to be buried away from Haworth, in Scarborough.

For many these days the upstairs-downstairs world of 18th and 19th century England has a strange fascination – witness the inexplicable success of Downton Abbey. The governess, though, existed in a sort of mezzanine world, not good enough to spend much time with her betters (natch) but too good to be hobnobbing with the servants. The result was that the governess often led a miserable and isolated life, at the mercy of the spoilt brats she was supposed to keep out of mischief, if not actually educate.

Agnes Grey, published in 1847, is autobiographical and tells the story and struggles of the eponymous heroine as, in order to make a financial contribution to her hard-pressed family after the death of her father, the parson Richard Grey, she finds employment as a governess firstly to the Bloomfields and then the Murrays. The Bloomfields were horrid brats and led Agnes a merry dance, forcing her at times to restrain them physically. The Murray sisters were a notch up the social scale.   Rosalie, the elder, has ideas above her station, enjoys flirting and makes a socially improving disastrous marriage which she instantly regrets. The younger, Matilda, is besotted with her horses, wanders around with a whip in hand, swearing like a trooper.

Agnes is a rather passive voice relating the trials and tribulations that her charges bring on her. Although we are urged to see this as an early feminist novel – it is about a woman and written from the woman’s perspective but that doesn’t mean it is feminist in my book  – you can’t help thinking that Agnes is a bit too prim and proper, a little too whiny and annoyingly infallible. She is the epitome of a vicar’s daughter. Her beacon of hope is the kind, worthy curate, Mr Weston, with whom she eventually settles down. But it is not a tempestuous love affair, merely one acknowledged by the bumping of elbows together. It is an interesting period piece about the role of a woman trying to make a living for herself but I think it would be wrong to read too much into it.

The style is easy and the book is well paced. There is one unsettling image. Tom Bloomfield has brought a nest containing some small birds into the garden and is proceeding to torture them, much as a cat does with its prey. Agnes puts them out of their suffering by dashing them to death with a large stone.  But it is hard to say we get to know Agnes by the end of the book, what made her tick. She is slightly aloof from what is going on around her. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read and confirms what a literary powerhouse the parsonage in Haworth really was.

Anne’s relative obscurity is partly down to her big sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was accepted by publishers whereas Charlotte’s first effort, The Professor, was rejected but Anne was unfortunate in her choice of publisher and sales were poor. Charlotte’s second effort, Jane Eyre also dealt with the life of a governess in a rather more vigorous and romanticised style. It sold like wildfire and whilst Charlotte’s publisher took over the publication of the other sisters’ works and they were republished in 1847, Anne was destined to remain in her elder sister’s shade, not helped by Charlotte’s decision, after Anne’s death, not to allow the republication of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Sibling rivalry, eh?

Book Corner – March 2017 (3)

womaninwhite

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Operating in the not inconsiderable penumbra of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins is a rather forgotten man these days. Collins may not have the resonance and poetry of Dickens at his best but his characterisation is subtler and there are fewer passages of grandiose, highfalutin prose that you can skip without losing any of the plot, characterisation or sense of the story. Collins’ prose is sparer and leaner and he just gets on with the job of telling a story.

And Collins was inventive with the novel’s form and subject. He created what is now acknowledged to have been the first detective story, the Moonstone, and The Woman in White, which I finally read over the Christmas holidays, is considered to be the first mystery novel and to have started the genre for sensationalist fiction which, probably, found its nadir in the penny dreadfuls so popular with the Victorians in the latter part of the 19th century. He is one of Victorian literature’s under-appreciated men.

The Woman in White, Collins’ fifth novel, first appeared in serialised form in Dickens’ weekly magazine, All The Year Round, in 1859 and appeared in book form a year later – the edition carrying the first instalment had the closing instalment of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. You certainly got value for your money in those days. The constraints of weekly serialisation meant that the author was forced to leave reader on a metaphorical cliff edge, anxious to find out what happened next. One of the joys of reading Wilkins’ works is identifying those moments where one episode ended and the next began – the equivalent of the dum-dum moments on Eastenders. I reckon I identified at least 40.

The story – I won’t spoil it – centres around the attempts of the principal protagonist, Walter Hartright, to untangle the dastardly plans of Percival Glyde and his seductive and cunning side-kick, Count Fosco, to access an inheritance to which they are not entitled. Along the way we meet with some of the literary tricks which to the modern reader somewhat hackneyed – two characters of similar appearance being the foremost, Italian political feuds and sleuthing techniques deployed by Hartright which become the modus operandi of literary detectives to come. Structurally, the book is a series of narratives by the principal characters in time sequence, giving their version of events, as though they were testifying in a court. This means that the book travels at some pace and you have a variety of opinions and insights to illuminate the story.

The book was a wild success – the public could not get enough of it. The first edition of the book sold out on publication day and his publishers offered Collins the princely sum of £5,000 as an advance for his next work. There was also a bit of a spin-off boom with people being able to buy Woman in White perfume, cloaks and bonnets and you could dance the Woman in White quadrille.

For the modern reader, there is a streak of women know your place to the book – they are generally portrayed as weak and inferior to men, although Marian Halcombe, who is naturally unattractive and unmarried, does her bit to redress the balance – and there is a tad too much little Englander about the treatment of foreigners. But if you can shut your eyes to these attitudes that were current at the time it was written, then you have a rip-roaring, entertaining story. And that, after all, is really what you want.

Book Corner – March 2017 (2)

 

hampshire

The Trials of the King of Hampshire – Elizabeth Foyster

Over the last few weeks I have been musing about where eccentricity ends and lunacy starts and have been swayed by the argument that it is a class and wealth issue. Our betters, aristos and those with pots of money, are able to get away with standards of behaviour that would see us mere mortals carted off to an asylum. But, occasionally, the distinction is more than a moot point as the tragic and gothic tale of the 3rd earl of Portsmouth shows.

The subject of Foyster’s book is the splendidly named John Wallop – one of his traits which cast doubt on his sanity was his frequent assaults on his servants and his predilection for seeing children and pets beaten. One poor footman broke a leg. Portsmouth went to see him, not to offer tea and sympathy but to jump on it again, breaking the limb a second time. He seemed to derive some sexual gratification from being bled by young girls in the neighbourhood who were instructed to use a lancet for the purpose. He took great delight in visiting people on their death-bed and was a regular attendee of funerals – black jobs, he called them – where his behaviour often caused the mourners distress.

Why the distinction between eccentricity and lunacy was more than moot in the case of the 3rd earl of Portsmouth was down to inheritance and money, what else? From an early age he was different from others and, particularly, his siblings. Instead of going off to Eton and Cambridge like the other brothers, Portsmouth was home schooled, spending some time holed up with Jane Austen’s father, before Jane was born. The novelist did meet him later at a function, claiming that he “surpassed” the behaviour of other gentlemen, perhaps not a terribly high bar, and the poet Byron described him as a “prize fool of an earl”. But was he mad?

In those days, to be declared insane required a public trial. Portsmouth endured two, the first shortly after his forced marriage to Mary Anne, in 1814. This was at the instigation of his younger brother, Norton Fellowes, who sought to annul the marriage. The attempt failed but in 1823 another attempt was made. The trial was a cause celebre and was to be the longest and costliest insanity trial in history, racking up costs of 2 guineas a minute. What seemed to tip the balance against Portsmouth was that he shared his marriage bed with his wife and her lover. To modern eyes, he was cruelly treated, abused physically and mentally by his wife and her paramour but to his contemporaries, his seemingly laissez-faire attitude to Mary Anne’s infidelities was proof positive of derangement. The court found that Portsmouth was mad, a verdict which annulled his marriage, disinherited his heir who was almost certainly not his, and meant Newton was in pole position to inherit the title and a vast annual fortune of £18,000 onn his death. Mary Anne was required to pay £40,000 towards the cost of the trial and fled the country.

Surprisingly, Portsmouth was reasonably well treated afterwards, being allowed to reside at the family home near Basingstoke, Hurstbourne Park. He had a throne erected in one of the rooms and styled himself the King of Hampshire. He lived a further thirty years. Newton duly inherited the title but enjoyed it for less than a year.

Foyster’s book is an entertaining and well-researched piece of work, although at times its rather thematic approach to Portsmouth’s strange and disturbing story does serve to confuse rather than enlighten the narrative. And she shies away from attempting to diagnose what was wrong with Portsmouth. Nonetheless, it is an invaluable insight to life amongst the upper classes and how unusual character traits were dealt with.

Book Corner – March 2017 (1)

aravind

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

For a long time I have thought that the award of a literary prize, lucrative as it may be for the writer, is a signal that the book is to be avoided at all costs. Too often the committees forget that the ordinary reader reads for pleasure rather than to admire wordsmithery or the handling of symbol and image. Of course, you want to read something that is well written, entertaining and gripping but you also want something that is a joy to read rather than an endurance test.

Sometimes, though, a book wins an award and you wonder how the hell that happened. Take Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker prize in 2008. It is an engaging enough tale about Balram Halwai, a self-made man who has made his fortune in the capital of out-sourcing services, Bangalore. It is well-paced and there were enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me engaged. But there were a number of structural issues to the book that for me made it nothing out of the ordinary.

Firstly, it is epistolary in style. There is nothing wrong in that but why would Balram write unsolicited about his life to a visiting Chinese premier? The question isn’t answered and all the reader can conclude is that with the growing rapprochement between China and India, the protagonist thinks that he should dish the dirt on the real India – a bit of a flimsy premise for a book, I feel.

Dishing the dirt, Adiga does in spades. Having been to India on a few occasions and been astonished by the sights, scenes, collective mania of the big cities like Dehli and having been jostled by a seething crowd trying to get served in a liquor store in Kerala, many of Adiga’s scenes resonate with me. But it is unrelenting, a blunt instrument or perhaps a broken bottle of English whisky to beat the reader around the head with. OK, the country is cruel and the lot of the majority is hard to bear but I think we get that point early on. The relentless tirade gets a tad tiresome.

The characterisation is weak. Balram’s bosses are little more than caricatures of the upper classes. We don’t really get to engage with them or to despise them. Even Balram, who started out on life without even a name and who seemed to be destined to live a life as the lowest of the low, is rather cartoonish.

And then there is the contrast between the darkness of the Indian hinterland, medieval in its hardship and where brutal landlords hold sway and the lightness of the cities. The use of this symbolism is relentless and rather loses its impact. Balram’s rise is due to a rather heartless and brutal murder and corruption – the loot he gets away with is used to grease the palms of the police to enable him to set up his taxi service ferrying night workers to the call centres. Corruption is another theme running through the book – his masters’ coal business has to make frequent unofficial payments to politicians and their lackeys to thrive. Progress through merit is not in Adiga’s line of vision.

The book is funny in parts and goes at a furious lick. It is entertaining but if you are looking for subtlety in this damning critique of the state of modern India, you will be sorely disappointed. Jonathan Swift, he ain’t.

Book Corner – February 2017 (2)

manwho

The Man Who Ate The Zoo – Richard Girling

I have always been fascinated by zoophagy. If there is a creature on a menu that I haven’t tasted before, then I have to try it. Often from a taste perspective I wish I hadn’t but then, as Aeschylus said, experience teaches. I would have loved an invitation to dine with the 19th century naturalist, William Buckland, who regularly treated his guests and family to meals of hedgehogs, snails, puppies and, the speciality of the house, mice on toast, a treat John Ruskin was disappointed to have missed.

With a father like that, it is no wonder that Frank, the subject of Girling’s magnificent romp of a book, would be a convert to zoophagy. As a boy he was forever catching, dissecting, cooking and eating small animals, a penchant that not only got him into the occasional scrape with the beak but also ensured that his lodgings were enveloped in the miasma of stench and decay. At Oxford, like Byron, he kept a bear (sampled after its demise) as well as a monkey and various other pets, treating his contemporaries to a running commentary as to the merits of various creatures as food. Earwigs were horribly bitter, moles disgusting and the head of a porpoise was like broiled lamp wick. He also befriended keepers at the London Zoo who would contact him when one of the animals died to see if he wanted to eat it.

There was a serious point to the zoophagy. Food famines were rife and the hunt was on to see if there were other sources of protein that could be brought to Blighty to feed the malnourished. This led to the birth of the Acclimatisation of Animals movement, of which Frank (natch) was a leading light, that tried to find species that would prosper in our climate and would be tolerable to eat. Elaborate feasts were held to try out kangaroo and sea cucumber. Buckland’s enthusiasm for exotica did have limits. He thought the 1868 campaign to promote hippohagy would not get anywhere, even though it climaxed in a dinner attended by 160 of the great and good who chomped their way through several courses of horse.

Buckland was a great conservationist and, perhaps, his most lasting legacy was the work he did, ultimately as one of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Salmon Fisheries, to understand the lifecycle of fish and the effect of pollution on their habitat. He would often be found in the rivers themselves, seeing how best a salmon might leap up a waterfall and positioning a jump exactly to suit. Alas, his enthusiasm was his undoing, a soaking fatally weakening his health.

For me, the second half of the book detailing his professional career was not as engaging as the first but that is a minor quibble. Girling’s book is well-paced, light, engaging and amusing and thoroughly recommended, if you have a spare book token over from Christmas.

And why is Buckland now forgotten? Girling posits three reasons. He was a popular scientist – he was a prolific writer using what was in those times an amusing, light touch to explain the wonders of nature. Serious scientists aren’t supposed to be popular. Secondly, he backed the wrong horse. He was not an adherent of Darwin, even though some of Buckland’s observations brought him perilously close to thinking that there may be something in this evolution nonsense but his ingrained faith made him loyal to the idea of a divine master plan. And finally, one of his last deeds was to publish a report stating that fish stocks were inexhaustible and there was no need to restrict fishing. Girling, to his credit, resists the temptation to argue that Buckland was so ill that someone else wrote the report for him. Buckland, to the last, was a creature of his time.