About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 13 January 2014

"The Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759" by Nicholas Tracy

Three star: despite the nautical language I really enjoyed this book.

I began life in the little-known town of Sunbury-on-Thames. One of the few historic buildings was Hawke House, where Admiral Sir Edward Hawke had lived and died. I used to drink in the pub opposite, called the Admiral Hawke in his honour. (It had begun life as The Railway although the railway had been built over a mile away due to a last minute diversion; after a hundred years of having the wrong name in the wrong place it changed title; I wonder if it still exists?)

Quiberon Bay is a battle that, like Hawke and like Sunbury, deserves to be better known. It was the culmination of the 'Year of Victories' in which the English, led by William Pitt the Elder, with their allies Prussia, comprehensively defeated the French on land and particularly sea during the Seven Years War. 1759 led directly to the establishment of Canada and to the British Raj in India; the Seven Years War saw the establishment of British Sea Power and the first stirrings of the British Empire. And Quiberon Bay was the equivalent of Trafalgar, a do-or-die battle that prevented a French invasion by decisively smashing the French fleet.

Tracy tells this story well. Despite the fact that I really don't understand most of the nautical terms. I can just about construct some sort of, possibly inaccurate, picture from "dropped her best bower anchor, and rounded to in twelve fathoms" but I get confused with leeward, starboard and windward. I am not even certain whether a 'westerly' wind blows towards or away from the west! As for , or 'haul his wind', "line of bearing and wedge" and "warping" ships, I can guess but I guess my guesses are probably wrong.

It might as well be French to me. So Tracy throws in the occasional passage of untranslated French. This, as readers of my blog will know, is a particular 'bete noire' (black beast) for me. Writers are supposed to communicate with their readers. So don't use jargon or, worse, foreign languages without translations!

I can forgive the naval terms. Most of Tracy's readership will be fans of naval history and will understand the sailing expressions. But a glossary would certainly help the general reader.

Having said this, I really enjoyed this book. He writes well so that the bulk of the book which explains the context to the battle and the political aftermath fairly zips along. He opened my eyes to difficulties I had never really considered before. For example, you need speed to either escape from or catch up with your enemy. Besides ship design and sails and seamanship to deploy the right amount of sails for the right winds, your hull needs to be clean or barnacles (this was just before copper sheathing of hulls made they stayed clean longer). Clean hulls equal fast ships. So Hawke was obliged to rotate his ships back to dock for regular cleaning. This, together with the vagaries of poor weather, the difficulty of provision supply, and the fact that Plymouth was not yet a major and Portsmouth was too far away, made his blockade of Brest all but impossible. He was remarkable in that he kept it up for so long. Perhaps the British Empire was founded on Hawke's ability to defeat the barnacle!

One little quibble. I think that on page 32 Professor Tracy meant Robert Walpole, British Prime Minister, rather than Horace (his son who was only 9 at the time and probably incapable of sending a fleet to the West Indies).

Hawke should be better known! January 2014; 189 pages


Saturday, 11 January 2014

"Trilby" by George Du Maurier

Three stars: a classic novel but not as great as its reputation might suggest.

George du Maurier was an Anglo-French Victorian artist who, having studied in Paris alongside James Whistler, became a contributor to Punch (both satirical writing and cartoons) who wrote three novels late in life, the second being the best-seller Trilby. He was the father of actor Gerald du Maurier and grandfather of novelist Daphne du Maurier whose biographies of Bramwell Bronte and Francis Bacon I have reviewed in this blog.

Artist's model Trilby O'Ferrall, living in Paris of mixed Anglo-French parentage, meets three British artists. All three fall in love with her but one, nicknamed Little Billee, proposes. Then his mother, horrified that he is going to marry a woman of an inferior social class (and one who has posed nude) interferes and persuades Trilby to promise to leave Paris and never see Little Billee again. Little Billee becomes ill through grief and is taken back to England.

Five years later all of Europe is rocked by the sensational singing star Madame Svengali. Little Billee, now a successful artist, meets up with his three old friends to return to Paris to see her. They realise that she is Trilby. This is a surprise because the old Trilby was tone deaf. Herr Svengali was an acquaintance in Paris; he was a marvellous pianist. They meet him but he spits at Little Billee and they fight.

How has Trilby learned to sing? Will Little Billee be able to meet her again and propose again? Will true love conquer all?

True to his satirical nature, du Maurier's tone throughout is light and teasing. This makes the creation of the monster Svengali, who became a Gothic Horror character along the lines of Dracula or Frankenstein, more compelling. But the bulk of the novel focuses not on Svengali and his evil plans but on Little Billee and his tribulations and on his two mates. This is a shame because while Trilby is a brilliant character and Svengali, although stereotyped, is a worthy villain, Little Billee is a colourless milksop. Indeed, the three British artists make up a single character between them. Du Maurier's main intent seems to be on making gentle fun of the artistic bohemian community in 1850s Paris; the story sometimes seems incidental to this. In fact, the true chief villain is Little Billee's mum whose narrow bourgeois sensibilities prevent love's true dream.

Du Maurier is clearly critical of the suffocating late Victorian society in which marriage was only possible between two people of appropriate class. Other characters include a French Duke who marries an ugly American for her father's millions and a gentlemen who damns himself by going into trade (retail drapery no less) and then marries the boss's daughter. DM also dislikes the Church: Little Billee is an avid reader of Darwin's Origin of Species and argues with a clergyman who might otherwise have been his father-in-law; Trilby makes an impassioned speech explaining why she didn't need religion to be assured of a place in heaven. But at the same time, DM is a racist (Svengali is the stereotype evil German Jew, wickeder and more horrible than Fagin) and hints at a belief in eugenics (he endorses Trilby's nude modelling on the basis that if we were all nude it would have the advantage that ugly people wouldn't marry and propagate their ugly genes and he makes the same point about the ugly American heiress).

In many ways this is a complex and fascinating book (even if sidetracked from the main story for most of the time). However, it is made virtually unreadable by the author's repeated use of French within the narrative. There is some French on nearly every page. I was fortunate to have a book with notes which translated almost all of this but I had to continually flick to the back to discover what was going on. To make it even less readable, Trilby talks in slang Parisian, Svengali talks with a heavy German accent rendered by the author by the swapping of letters such as b and p (so that bien becomes pien and petit becomes betit) and one of Little Billee's friends speaks French with a heavy English accent, thus combiang for combien and je prong for je prends. So even Google Translate would find this difficult! I have repeatedly in this blog condemned the use of untranslated foreign language in books on the grounds that it is only there to make the author look clever and the reader feel stupid but the frequency of DM's use of French, whilst no doubt adding to the characterisations, made Trilby far less readable than it would otherwise have been.

I was interested by the expression 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Gentleman, Apothecary, Ploughboy, Thief' which is presumably is a late Victorian version of the modern 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief'.

An interesting book which perhaps betrayed the fact that du Maurier was but a beginner as a novelist. January 2014; 302 pages.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

"The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams" by Jane Robins

Four star: potentially my favourite true crime book of 2014; definitely will be on the short list.

John Bodkin Adams practised medicine in Eastbourne; he was particularly solicitous of old ladies. Many of them died under his care, often after he had prescribed for them huge amounts of morphine, heroin and barbiturates. Many left him money or possessions; he liked posh cars and he was particularly greedy and avaricious for 'mementoes' such as gold pencils that he picked up even while the patient was still alive. 42% of those died of 'cerebral thrombosis' according to his death certificates (three times the expected average of about 14%). Was he a mass murderer?

Jane Robins presents the evidence and charts the history of the police investigation, at the end of which we are left in little doubt that he was guilty. Then she describes the trial and new evidence comes to light. Was Adams killing for gain or was it euthanasia? Or was he simply trying to ease suffering without properly calculating that the effect of his treatment might be to shorten life?

This is a true crime as exciting as any whodunnit and the final result is in doubt until almost the very end.

Riveting. January 2014; 284 pages

Saturday, 4 January 2014

"Bertie: a life of Edward VII" by Jane Ridley

Three stars: Good.

This is an authoritative and lively biography of King Edward VII. He was born the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and named Albert Edward but called Bertie. His mother was a controlling and domineering woman who adored his pious father and had little love left for her children. What was worse, Bertie's elder sister Vicky was an academic genius who so outshone him in the classroom that he seemed to be a dunce.

An important moment in his life came when he discovered sex. This was his 'Fall'. His parents were horrified. Shortly afterwards Prince Albert died and Victoria blamed her son (rather than the state of the drains in the royal residences). So he was thick and morally suspect. Even after his wedding to Princess Alexandra he continued to enjoy the favours of the noble and not-so-noble ladies who fell for him; he was surrounded by mistresses and scandals.

He surprised everyone when, after a very long wait for his mother to die, he succeeded to the throne and became a surprisingly good king; Prince Hal made good.

This is a thoroughly researched biography (she debunks many of the claims for royal bastards) and it is well written so that it keeps going. Perhaps the nicest touch is the author's occasional flashes of humour, for example when she notes that one of Bertie's favourites, a courtesan nicknamed Skittles, has a blue plaque on the same street as Florence Nightingale and sardonically comments "Both women did much of their work in bed". There are interesting insights: the only way that Bertie could gain access to Foreign Office documents is when someone found a duplicate key to the red boxes and gave him it but there were initial problems because you had to insert the key in a certain way before it would turn properly. There are also lots of interesting connections with famous people, from the father of Alice In Wonderland, to the mother of Winston Churchill.

However, it remains a competent biography of a man whose life was not so very interesting. Most of his life was spent in dinner parties and country house shoots. Unless one is an ardent royalist there is not much that is exciting here.

Interesting with flashes of humour. January 2014; 477 pages