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Book Corner – October 2017 (3)

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

Imagine the scene. There is a gathering of local worthies in a country house. There is a scream and one of the servants rushes in to the assembled company to announce that Colonel Blimp has been found dead in the library. Who could have committed the foul dead? Fortunately, amongst the guests is an amateur sleuth, much brighter than the local constabulary, who unmasks the culprit.

Murders and detectives are such staple fare of the written page and on our television screens, that it all seems a bit hackneyed now and, sad to say, all a bit too cosy. To make matters worse, many of the novels of the so-called Golden Age of detective writing – the period between the two World Wars – are imbued with social attitudes that many in today’s more politically correct environment find unpalatable. From today’s perspective it is hard to credit how innovative many of the stories were, as writers strove to push out the boundaries and tease the little grey cells of their avid reading public. And avid the readers were, seeking an escape from the economic and political uncertainties of the thirties but in a way that avoided the horrors many had to endure in the First World War.

Edwards writes an impassioned plea in defence of the genre and so convincing is his thesis that on hearing it a jury would dismiss all charges against detective stories out of hand. As a self-confessed detective fiction nut, I enjoyed this romp and have made many a note in the margins of its pages of books that I want to explore. Beware, this book could cost you serious money!

In essence, Edwards tells the story of the Detection Club, established in 1930 and meeting occasionally in London to provide a social network for crime writers. To be admitted to the club writers had to have produced work of “admitted merit” and there was an elaborate, slightly gothic and certainly bizarre initiation ceremony to be undergone. Principal luminaries of the club were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G K Chesterton and Anthony Berkeley and these take centre stage in Edwards’ narrative. Each in their own way had troubled personal lives and sought solace in writing. All the other 35 members in the inter-war period feature in the book and it is from their pen pictures that I have built up my reading list for the future.

There are some fascinating insights. I didn’t know, for example, during the Second World War Christie came under suspicion of being a German spy because she called a character Bletchley – the code-cracking centre was hush-hush at the time – in her novel N or M? and because she was living in a block of flats known to be frequented by spies. In a period of economic turmoil, bankers and inheritors of fortunes found themselves victims of murder plots and heinous murders of spouses sometimes reflected the desires and tortured love lives of their authors.

As the world moved inexorably towards a second major conflict, the genre explored the question of whether it was possible to commit a good murder, whether eliminating a Nazi or a prominent fascist was really a crime, a theme initially explored by Edgar Wallace in Four Just Men. Interestingly, neither Sayers – she had found religion – nor Berkeley – he had gone into deep depression – wrote detective fiction after the outbreak of the war and by the time peace had broken out, the emphasis was more on the psychological thriller.

If you are interested in the genre, this is a book you shouldn’t miss.


Book Corner – October 2017 (2)

Malice Aforethought – Francis Iles

First published in 1931, Malice Aforethought is an early example of what is known as an inverted narrative crime novel. What this means is that the focus is not on solving the crime a la Sherlock Holmes and Maigret but on seeing how the murder was carried out and to understand the motivation and psychological make-up of the murderer. After all, Iles aka Anthony Berkeley aka Anthony Berkeley Cox baldly states in the opening sentence that Doctor Bickleigh, a hen-pecked man with a pronounced inferiority complex, is going to do away with his wife. For the reader the principal interest is how he did it and whether he got away with it.

In some ways Bickleigh is a stereotypical murderer. He is trapped in a loveless marriage – Julia, his wife, is portrayed as an awful, domineering woman. Her bullying and unsympathetic manner is given full rein in the opening scenes of the book during the preparations for a tennis party to which the great and the good of Wyvern’s Cross are invited. Mind you, Bickleigh is no saint. He is a philanderer and has a string of lady friends, including the faithful Ivy whom Bickleigh treats with disdain. At the tennis party, Bickleigh’s advances are rebuffed by Gwynyfryd Rattery. A new woman, Madelaine Cranmere arrives in the village and when Bickleigh falls for his charms and demands a divorce which Julia refuses, you know her fate is sealed.

The other sense in which Bickleigh is a stereotypical murderer is that he is a Doctor, a profession which gives him easy access to drugs and poisons. I will not spoil the story but, suffice to say, that his chosen profession proves very helpful.

Iles’ approach allows us insights into Bickleigh’s mind and thought processes. He is characterised as a rather pompous man, self-satisfied and convinced that he has planned the perfect murder. But as events go somewhat out of control, the reader begins to realise that Bickleigh is not as clever as he thinks he is and is increasingly deluded about the natures and motives of those around him. He is not a sympathetic character and although I was drawn into the book, fascinated by the modus operandi of the murderer and the tensions around whether the crime would be detected, I found it mattered not to me whether he got away with or swung.

Iles is particularly good at painting quick character sketches and gets the insular and bitchy world of English country life down to a tee. The unsettling thought is that many of us find ourselves trapped in some aspects of our lives, desperate to find a way out. How easily would we be tipped towards a path which results in murder?

Iles presumably got his inspiration for the book in part from Dr Crippins and Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the so-called Hay poisoner and the only solicitor to be hanged for murder in England. The book takes an unexpected twist right at the end. If you are tempted to read it and have a battered second-hand copy, make sure that it contains the Epilogue. I may be old-fashioned but I much prefer a whodunit!

Book Corner – October 2017 (1)

The Moor’s Last Stand – Elizabeth Drayson

The year of 1492 was one of major significance for the western world. We all know that it was the year in which Christopher Columbus had trouble with his sat nav and landed on an island which he dubbed as San Salvador, thinking that he had reached the East Indies. What is less well-known is that it was the year in which the last foothold of Islamic power was eradicated from Western Europe, a tale that Drayson tells with some gusto.

On 2nd January of that fateful year, Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada, handed over the keys of the capital, ,which had been in Moslem hands for seven centuries, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and went into exile. It is said when Boabdil reached the furthest point of his former land from which Granada could be seen, he sighed and burst into tears. His mother, Aixa, turned round and said, “you do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.” This is probably apocryphal but ever since Boabdil has had a bad rep and Drayson’s mission is to restore his credibility or at least explain why he gave up his kingdom without much of a fight.

Drayson traces the history of the Emirate of Granada from the conquest of large parts of the Iberian peninsula and the establishment of Al-Andalus from 711 CE by the Umayyads. The Nasrid dynasty, of whom Boabdil was the last, took control in 1238, although, in truth, their status was little more than vassals to the kingdom of Castille. What did for Boabdil was the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, uniting the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, and Ferdinand’s determination to eradicate the Moslem thorn in his side. Ferdinand successfully played on divisions amongst Boabdil’s relatives and by late 1491 the writing was on the wall for Boabdil. Rather than risk mass slaughter, he negotiated a treaty of surrender.

About 200,000 Muslims emigrated to North Africa after the surrender and those who remained were guaranteed their property, laws, customs and religion under the terms of the surrender. But the Christian rulers began to turn the screw and following an unsuccessful rebellion in 1500 the rights of Muslims and Jews, who were collateral damage in the whole affair, were withdrawn. At best, Boabdil was naïve in trusting that the Christians would be true to their word.

This is a strange book. It is never a good sign when half way through the ostensible subject, Boabdil in this case, is dead and, frankly, the evidence and facts about him are painfully thin. Drayson spends more time exploring the early days of the Muslim presence in Iberia and then reviewing how later history, literature, art, poetry and music viewed the last Sultan than on the Sultan himself. The sense is that what would have been an interesting monograph has been padded out to make a book and parts of the last two chapters dealing with his posthumous reputation are deadly dull. I struggled to summon the enthusiasm to see it through to the end.

History, as they say, is written by the victors. From an objective standpoint, it is hard to see that the expulsion of the Muslims, and the Jews, was a good thing. Granada with its wonderful Alhambra is a testament to the architectural skills of the Moors. Their territories allowed learning and research to flourish and were a model of religious tolerance, allowing people of all faiths to live in what they termed convivencia or harmony. The surrender of 1492 ushered in intolerance and the Inquisition. Boabdil was a victim of realpolitik, no more, no less. I am grateful for Drayson for shining a light on an area of history I was painfully ignorant of. I just think she could have made a better fist of it.

Book Corner – September 2017 (4)

It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis

The events of 2016, culminating in the British vote in favour of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the US, has caused many of a liberal persuasion to question whether universal suffrage is all that it is cracked up to be. Even the so-called cradle of democracy, classical Athens, showed the limitations of allowing all and sundry to vote with the rise of the likes of Alcibiades and Cleon who offered the demos jam tomorrow rather than the reality of having to face up to their problems today.

This is an astonishing, amazingly prescient book, written in 1935 by one of America’s most prominent authors of the time who won a Nobel Prize in 1930. It charts the rise of Senator Berzelius Windrip, nick-named Buzz, who storms to the presidency by promising Americans $5,000 dollars each and vowing to make America great again. Sound familiar? Once in the White House, although he spends much of his time in a nearby hotel suite, he appeals to his core constituency of poor and resentful white males to repress dissent and set up a fascist state. As Lewis presciently wrote, “the fault of the Jeffersonian Party… was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions

The book’s protagonist is the rather unworldly, Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, who tries to resist the fascist forces that have taken over his country and for his trouble spends time in a concentration camp where he is tortured and beaten. He is a beacon of hope in Lewis’ rather grim dystopia.  Although Windrip is overthrown, he is replaced by dictators who are even worse than he and whilst parts of the country rebel, the book ends without the sense that sanity would be restored.

What I found particularly interesting was Lewis’ characterisation of Windrip’s style. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar almost detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and yet his more celebrated humor the shy cynicism of a country store”. In speech “in between tricks[he] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts – figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely wrong”. Windrip threatens neighbouring countries, particularly Mexico, with absorption into the great American empire whilst nicking the best ideas around from the Japanese or, in the words of Windrip, “don’t let that keep us from grabbing off any smart ideas that those cute little beggars have worked out”.

The take-away for me was Jessup’s analysis of why what was inconceivable had happened here. It was down to the laissez-faire attitude of liberals and Jessup’s self-styled Respectables who had made such a hash of convincing their fellow citizens of the legitimacy of their cause. This is the risk we run with a democracy.

For all its prescience and penetrating insight, is it great literature? Probably not, if the truth be told. It is too polemic to be so and the switch from the generality of the situation in the first part of the book to the specifics of Jessup’s ordeals and resistance in the second is a bit too clunky to work satisfactorily. But as a lesson as to what can happen and an astonishing insight into what might be in store in Trumpland, it can’t be beaten.

Book Corner – September 2017 (3)

What’s Bred In The Bone – Grant Allen

This book, not to be confused with Robertson Davies’ 1985 novel of the same name, is a racy, page-turner, romp of an adventure, mystery story. It was published in 1891and was an entry into a literary competition organised by George Newnes, the publisher of Titbits magazine, which attracted some 20,000 entries. Allen wrote the book in double quick time and scooped the prize of a thousand smackers. It was a sensational success.

By that time he was already a prolific writer, not only of fiction but of articles and books of scientific interest. In particular, he was a stout proponent of evolutionary theory. Today, however, he is pretty much forgotten. Perhaps there are too many vestiges of jingoism and the little Englander for the modern taste. A shame, perhaps, as he knew how to write a ripping yarn.

The story has a bit of everything. A near catastrophic railway accident in which a tunnel collapses leaves the two protagonists, Elsa and Cyril, one of the Waring twins, in close proximity in fear of their life. Inevitably, they fall in love but the path of true love does not run smoothly. Elsa is fascinated by Cyril’s snake – there ought to be a Freudian sub-text to this but this was written in more innocent times – and we soon see she has a hidden side. One of her characteristics, which she shares with her female relatives – they come from Romany stock – is her deep insight into people’s psyches. She is also overcome in moments of high personal drama with the desire to dance with snakes or, at least, a feather boa if a reptile is not to hand. This is England after all.

Yes, the plot is ridiculous but Allen has the panache to pull it off. There is a murder, a case of mistaken identity – having twins as central characters is helpful, I suppose – and the danger of a grave miscarriage of justice. It is not a whodunit – we know who committed the murder – and the main interest of the book is how the innocence of Guy Waring is going to be established, particularly as with each twist and turn of the plot his predicament seems to worsen. I won’t spoil the story but feelings of remorse on the part of the real murderer prompted by Elsa’s astonishing ability to get into their head wins out. The book ends happily ever after with most, if not all, of the loose ends tied up.

Guy’s adventures include a spell digging for diamonds in South Africa – successfully, naturally – and it is this part of the book that may most offend as the natives are depicted as little more than uncouth savages. But, alas, that was the overriding view of the times, even amongst evolutionists and scientists. In a world where we are accustomed to accepting that a good DNA sample will unlock the key to identities, it is fascinating to be reminded that around 120 years ago marital records and ledgers recording births and deaths were of paramount importance. And a chap can’t get around at all without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the railway timetables.

It is a rather dated novel and one which is heavily imbued with the racism and sexism of the age but also one that sheds a fascinating insight into how our forefathers saw the world. The central moral of the story is, as the title points out, that breeding will out and will shine through your actions – a concept that can only prompt a snort of derision today. The plotting is ridiculous and heavily reliant upon coincidence – but then even the best novelists are guilty of having clunking plots – and in less skilled hands the book could easily crash into an unedifying heap. But if you can suspend your prejudices and finer critical judgment, you are in for a great few hours of entertainment.

Book Corner – September 2017 (2)

Crime and Punishment – G F Newman

At a certain time during the day earlier this year I would take a short drive in my car and on the cat’s whiskers, tuned to Radio 4 (natch), was a drama called The Corrupted. My journey was so short I only caught about five minutes at a time but it piqued my interest. I was able to track the source material down, a two-volume thriller called Crime and Punishment by the creator of the TV series, Law and Order, G F Newman. It was published in 2009.

If I was expecting a modern take on Dostoevsky’s tortuous musings on the moral dilemma that committing a murder causes, then I was in for a disappointment. This is a fast and furious tale of crime, violence, sex and corruption – not my normal fare at all. The story starts in post war London in 1951 and the brutal murder of her old man by Cath. This traumatises the son, Brian Oldman, who witnesses the killing and sets him on a path of crime and violence in cahoots with his draft dodging uncle and boxer, Jack Braden. The first book, which is the better of the two, is a litany of beatings, mindless violence and the occasional killing as Brian and his even more psychopathic uncle battle for supremacy of their manor against the likes of the Krays and Richardsons.

Oh yes, we are in the world of faction and pretty much every other page has a reference to a real life person or character. At times it seems as if Newman is on automatic pilot – oh, I’ve written 500 words and haven’t mentioned a real person so I better throw one in now. So we find the likes of Churchill, Tom Driberg, Maggie Thatcher, Emil Savundra, Jack Slipper of the Yard and Ronnie Biggs peppering the pages. That the cast list has so many people from London’s rather recent dodgy past makes you wonder whether Oldman and Braden are pseudonyms for real gangsters but I think it is just a rather unsubtle attempt to give colour and context to the tale.

The police, or at least most of them, are in the pay of the crims and they generally have some hold over the judges, so the journey to retribution is long, winding and uncertain. Brian eventually gets his just desserts but there are so many loose ends and incomplete story lines that it all becomes a bit of an unsatisfactory mess. It is as though Newman has painted too extensive a picture and struggles to control his material. In the end, he jettisons all of the sub plots to bring the tale of Brian Oldman to a conclusion. Even so, the story is too long and could have benefitted from a gangster’s razor being put through it.

This is not my cup of tea but it served as an undemanding read on a sun lounger on a beautiful beach whilst sipping a long cool drink. Newman’s style is direct, breathless and he can tell a story. But the plot is often too implausible and too full of holes to lift the book from anything other than what it is – a good, low brow holiday read.

Book Corner – September 2017 (1)

Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders

It is very rare, in my experience, for a book to live up to its media hype but that is certainly the case with Saunders’ first full-length novel – he previously had made his name as a writer of short stories.

This is a wonderful book which operates on a number of levels. Ostensibly, it tells the story of what happened when Abraham Lincoln lost his Willie, his eleven year old son who probably died from typhoid. Willie died in February 1862 in an upstairs bedroom whilst the Lincolns were holding a state function on the ground floor. The couple never really recovered from their loss, Mary retreated to her bed, couldn’t bear to attend the funeral and spent a long period of her life under sedation. Abe was President at the time and in the middle of the Civil War with death tolls mounting, the prospects of success uncertain and the cares of state weighing heavily on him.

To make sense of the book readers need to be aware that the bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhist belief, is that transitional state between your past life and your future life, a sort of limbo. The characters we meet in the bardo, particularly two of the principal narrators, Hans Vollman who longs for the pleasures of his unconsummated marriage bed postponed as a result of a freak accident, and Roger Bevins, who committed suicide and instantly regretted it, fervently believe that it is only a matter of time before they are allowed to return to their former lives. With the innocent naivety of a child, Willie realises that this is bunkum and that they are dead and will remain dead for eternity.

The handling of Abe’s grief and the scenes where he revisits Willie’s tomb and cannot resist the temptation of lifting him from the casket is powerful and moving as is the scene where Lincoln senior is possessed by the inmates of the bardo and persuaded to walk away from the cemetery and return to life.

There are occasional raiding parties of the dead, trying to round up stragglers to move them on from their limbo-like existence. The bardo is full of picaresque characters, all with a tale to tell – abused slaves, priapic young men, wasters, drinkers, doting mothers, the whole gallimaufry of human life. We almost drown in the cacophony of hopeful, desperate and ultimately deluded voices. My favourite character is the elderly reverend who has a knowing way about him and clearly has a greater appreciation of the meaning of the bardo than his compatriots.

But what is mind-blowing is the style and structure of the book. It is rather like a patchwork quilt with contributions from each of the characters, interspersed with extracts from contemporary and post factum accounts, presumably all genuine, although I haven’t bothered to trace each source. Unlike a play, the character to whom the remarks are attributed or the source from which the passage is extracted appears afterwards. At first, this seems quite disconcerting as you are not quite sure who or what is saying what but you soon get used to the cadences of their speech and their perspective. The effect is astonishing as it gives the sense of a babble of voices, cutting in and interjecting as they do in real, or perhaps in this instance unreal, life. This literary conceit adds immeasurably to the sense that you are reading a great piece of literature and one that surely will stand the test of time.

Book Corner – August 2017 (3)

The Stamboul Train – Graham Greene

This is one of the few Graham Greene novels that I had not read before and it seemed the appropriate time to discover it having read Bethany Hughes’ history of Istanbul. The novel, published in 1932, is the first to which Greene attached the label of an entertainment. American readers might know it better as the Orient Express, which was also the name of the film based on it which was released in 1934. I think it is fair to say that it is one of Greene’s lesser works but, nonetheless, is an action-packed and rewarding read.

Long, international train journeys are a bit of a literary cliché these days but it allows the author to assemble a motley crew of characters who, because of the length of their time together in an enclosed space, have time to connect and interact and, as Greene uses to advantage, the stops along the way allow him to introduce new characters and as the train wends its way through the heartland of Europe to its ultimate destination, Istanbul, each new passenger increases the sense of malevolence and danger.

Three very disparate characters start the journey – Dr Richard Czinner whose alias is an English schoolteacher but who is really an exiled communist leader returning to Belgrade to lead a revolution, Carleton Myer, a trader in currants who is travelling to Turkey to seal a business deal, and Carol Musker, a dancer who is going to take up a job as a dancer in Istanbul. Their fates and stories are soon intertwined. Myer feels sorry for Musker who becomes ill during the journey and falls for her charms. Czinner is recognised by a lesbian journalist, Mabel Warren who joins the train at Brussels with her beau, Janet Pardoe. The tension is cranked up when Josef Grunlich, a thief who has botched a raid and committed murder, joins the train at Vienna.

The revolution is botched and takes place before Czinner arrives, leading him to question his purpose in life. Border guards stop the train and arrest Czinner, Grunlich and Musker. The pace of the book hots up with a Kafkaesque trial, escapes, shootings and car chases. I will not spoil the denouement other than to say that Musker’s ultimate fate is never quite revealed and that Pardoe turns out to be the niece of the man Myer is trying to do business with.

Unusually for a Greene novel the heavy hand of Catholicism is absent. Nonetheless the main protagonists engage in periods of soul-searching, trying to reconcile what has happened and their role in the world. The principal them is that of fidelity, to yourself and to others and how you will be remembered and want to be remembered after you have gone. Heavy stuff but it doesn’t really obtrude because Greene is a master story-teller and gets the balance right.

The bigger issues for modern readers are whether Greene is homophobic in his unflattering portrayal of Warren and anti-semitic in the way he writes about Myer. For those who are attuned to spotting any deviation from political correctness, the answer is probably yes. That said, he was a creature of his time. Warren is a fabulously rich, louche character who just happens to be gay but her sexual orientation is probably used to emphasise what a grotesque person she is. As to anti-Semitism, I’m not sure. Most of the stereotypical characteristics of Jews appear in his make-up – shrewd businessman, love of money, monetising everything – but he is kind, caring, considerate – loving, even. Every reader has to make their mind up but it would be a sad day if modern sensibilities got in the way of reading good literature.

And as for sensitivity, J B Priestley took umbrage of Greene’s portrayal of popular Cockney novelist, Q C Savory, thinking it was a bit near the knuckle and Greene, fearing a libel case, had to tone the character down.

Book Corner – August 2017 (2)

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities – Bethany Hughes

If I was pinned up against a wall and asked what was my favourite city break, I would probably say the one I went on to Istanbul about two decades ago. I fell in love with the city with its magnificent buildings – the wonderful Hagia Sophia is just breath-taking – and, as the Americans might say, you are surrounded by a sense of history. And it was fun walking over the Galata bridge from Europe into Asia and evading the attentions of the street sellers desperate to sell us carpets, plying us with fragrant apple tea, and the boot polishers offering us a ten year guarantee on the shine they would apply to our dusty shoes. Alas, I fear I will never return.

Still, as compensation you can immerse yourself in this lengthy but light history of a city that can legitimately claim to have been at the centre of the world. Hughes’ style is at times gushing but she has a wonderfully poetic, dare I say it, Homeric turn of phrase. The book book benefits from the latest archaeological finds following the construction of the Istanbul metro.

The site of the city, as any visitor will attest, has enormous strategic importance. The original settlement, founded in 657 BCE by Byza of Megara, from which its name Byzantion was derived, positioned between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, was easily defensible and the waters were full of fish. The Chalcedonian settlement built on the eastern side of the Strait of Bosporus was called the land of the blind by the ancients because they had chosen to eschew the obvious attractions of Byzantion. But, as Hughes reveals, a coffin with the remains of woman dating back some 8,000 years has just been unearthed  – possibly the earliest ever found – which suggests that the site was already taken and the Chalcedonians didn’t fancy a dust up. The Megarians, fortified by an oracle from Delphi, according to Tacitus, were made of sterner stuff.

Byzantion was at the centre of many of the key clashes of the ancient world, being the point where the Persians sought to launch their invasion of the Greeks and the Greeks fought to hold them back. The citizens of Byzantion often changed sides, depending upon which way the wind was blowing. It was then absorbed into the Roman Empire and over time became the acknowledged capital of Rome’s eastern provinces.

The first major transformation in its fortunes was when Constantine, the newly converted Christian emperor, declared it the New Rome and vowed it would become the greatest, wealthiest and most cultured city in the world. Justinian and Theodora took up the baton and some of their buildings, including the cathedral, now mosque, Hagia Sophia, still stand today. Remnants of less fortunate buildings can be found almost wherever you look. Hughes revels in describing the dowdy surroundings in which some of these marvels rest.

The growth of Islam meant that Constantinople, as it now was, was in their sights but such were the strategic advantages and the strength of the defences of the site that it took them 800 years to storm the city, convert the Hagia into a mosque and rename the city Konstantiye. It became the capital of the Ottoman empire and a magnet for European travellers keen to sample the exotica of the east.

One of the underlying themes that comes through the book is that following the collapse of the western Roman empire and the establishment of Constantinople as the head of what remained and even under Ottoman control, the city was just hanging on, waiting for the next crisis. There was little attempt to expand further and, indeed, the last 150 years or so of the Ottoman empire saw its territories whittled away. The empire collapsed after the First World War.

Oddly, Hughes finishes her story in 1923 when Kemal Ataturk established the neutral Ankara as the capital of the new republic of Turkey. I can see why. Its domestic influence had waned but to most non Turks the wondrous city of Istanbul has no peer.

Book Corner – August 2017 (1)

The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker – Roger Hutchinson

The national census, which we are required now by law to complete every ten years – the next is scheduled for 2021 – is a boon for genealogists seeking to compile a family tree and desperate TV producers trying to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear aka Danny Dyer. It gives a comprehensive snapshot of the population in the country – names, ages, professions, addresses, religion, ethnic make-up etc – at a given moment in time. But have you ever wondered how, when and why it started?

Me neither until I picked up Hutchinson’s intriguing book. In the late eighteenth century, when Britain was limbering up to do battle with Boney, no one knew for sure how big the population of the country was nor how many were of an age to be dragooned into the forces. There were conflicting theories. Thomas Malthus believed that the population was growing at such a rate that it would soon be no longer sustainable. Others, consulting the records of births and deaths in London only – a big mistake because people were mainly born elsewhere and came to London to work and die – thought that the population was decreasing at a phenomenal rate. The consensus was that the population was as low as 4 million and as high as 6.

The editor of the Commercial, Agricultural and Manufacturers Magazine, John Rickman, wrote an essay in the June 1800 edition suggesting that the answer to the question was to count the population. Having friends in high places, the idea found favour and he was given the task of getting on with it. The 1801 census, the first, was a bit of a haphazard affair and was by no means comprehensive but it allowed Rickman to suggest that the population was around 15 million – a shock to many.

The 1821 and 1831 censuses were better organised, more comprehensive and began to show the significant change in the shape of the country as the industrial revolution took hold and prompted a migration from country to town. What was particularly fascinating in Hutchinson’s entertaining survey of the history of the census is the change in the nature of work and some of the today obscure jobs that people owned up to. Indeed, some were so recherché that the census takers were provided with a lexicon of jobs.

Some of the job titles were euphemisms for other trades and shine a light on the mores of the times. Seamstresses were invariably sex workers and billiard-markers in a time when sports were mainly amateur were often professional sportsmen given sinecures in billiard halls. From around 1851 there was a noticeable trend amongst respondents to inflate the importance of their job – a curious form of one-upmanship.

The census also reflected the tragic events of the previous decade. The 1851 census showed a drop in population in Ireland of 1.6 million, because of the potato famine. The 1921 census, whilst showing a modest population increase from 1911, showed a marked drop in the male population and a significant increase in the number of widows.

As the census became an established part of the nation’s furniture, it was an obvious target for protest groups to hijack. The suffragettes organised a concerted campaign and many women declared their profession as slave. This was dutifully recorded by the census takers, perhaps with a tut and a shake of the head.

A fascinating study of the development of the nation from an unusual perspective.