Blood, Iron & Gold – Christian Wolmar

Blood, Iron & Gold is an international history of how the railways shaped society, economies, and even our sense of time. Starting with the earliest simple services, Wolmar weaves a story around how the railway collapsed distances and created nations.

The first three quarters of the book are on the first century of the railway, when much of the international network was built and almost all changes were progress. There is an accounting of the deaths involved in building our railways, and how they were used to control empires, as well as unite countries on a fair footing.

But the story after the start of World War One is more complex. For the first time, the railways are essential in how a war was fought, with rail-based troop transport and supply being vital to the continuation of trench warfare, with all the pointless death involved.

Then afterwards, the decline in patronage, continuing to late in the twentieth century. Wolmar is more sympathetic to the cause of the reduction in lines than might be expected though. He accepts that some of the railway mania had led to excessive construction, and that a sustainable network required some reduction.

It helps that he manges to end on the high note of the twenty-first century rain renaissance, with congestion making the train yet again an attractive mode.


The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan (Audiobook)

With a long roadtrip planned, we borrowed an eaudiobook from the library to listen to on the journey. Going through the non-fiction options, this history looked likely to teach us something new.

The Silk Roads promises to provide a new history of civilisation with a focus away from the West and instead focus on the “centre of the world”, stretching from the Mediterranean across Asia. Given that, I was expecting little mention of Europe. However there was constant framing against European history, and Persia’s history was nearly all described as a struggle with Rome.

At least the Age of European Empires gives agency to non-European actors, and acknowledges mistakes and atrocities committed by the powers. The realisation of the confidence trick of empire along with the view of World War One as the conflict between empires and the trigger for the unraveling of the same empires.

The shifting power balances and growth of anti-Americanism throughout the second half of the twentith centenary is also examined through the prism of short-term decision making: nearly every decision being made for the correct immediate reasons, but without consideration for long-term impacts.

The conclusions were bizarre. After China had been mostly ignored for the body of the book, it was suddenly vital in  setting the new agenda. If so important, why had it been left out for so much of the previous 24 hours?

Overall, an interesting history, but much more West-focused than the blurb suggests.

Acts of Union and Disunion – Linda Colley

This book was written in the lead-up to the Scottish Independence referendum, so should be read through a filter of not knowing the outcome of either that, nor the Brexit vote.  But as a historical look at how the constituent parts of the British Isles have combined and been seperated through history, this is fascinating. The perspective of each of the four main nations are considered, and both peaceful and warlike.

As a Northerner (England) I particularly appreciated an acceptance that there are parts of England that do not benefit from Westminster rule, given the London bias and also that having the English and UK representation from the same parliament causes consitutional issues.

This is well-written about a subject matter that could be very dry, and is worth a read for anyone wondering how the UK got into the pickle it is currently in.

The Snow Tourist – Charlie English

This was picked up from a charity shop on our summer camping trip (in the same shop my son got 6 books as they were trying to clear down their children’s shelves with a 3 for £1 deal. His favourite was an old, small-type, paperback of The House at Pooh Corner.) I picked it up to read on the next camping trip, as it had been stored on the van bookshelf. I had to leave my misgivings about the cover of this book behind, as it was clearly sketched by someone who knew nothing about the geography of the places mentioned. But once I was in the pages I just kept reading.

I should hate this. English decides to deal with mid-life maudlin by abandoning his wife and children frequently and going in hunt of snow. But then again the temptation of snow is strong, and I can see the draw to keep going back. In fact it is only my own set of responsibilities that stops me from setting off now, and I’m hoping for snow on our planned winter walking weekends, with the van winterised and ready to go if we get some within reach on a weekend that we’re free.

This book is not a specialist on any subject, but meanders through the history of colonisation, scientific discovery, sports history and meteorology. It is the richer for that, for English lacks the depth in any of these to be a specialist, but has the passion to provide an overview woven into the narrative of his travels.

One of those gems that is found one in a blue moon, or July snowfall.

The Wild Rover – Mike Parker

Unwell in bed earlier in the week I sent my (4 year old) son to fetch a book for me*. He was under  instruction to fetch the library book I am halfway through, but decided that looked boring, so instead chose a book with hills on the spine. This was one which had languished on the shelves for a while, but once I started it was fascinating.

We do a lot of walking, despite not being nearly old enough by Parker’s standards, and have often spent much of a walk speculating on the history of a path, looking for evidence and wondering how it would have been to have been obliged to walk those routes on a daily basis throughout the year.

Parker does get out in his boots and do an appropriate walk for just about every chapter, which range from the gloriously successful to absolute disaster. These walks tie the history to the current day, and make the book more about a project than simply an academic piece.

When Parker was discussing the history of access rights, and what the historic paths were, it was inspiring. However towards the end he did get steadily further into the recent history of the ramblers (Ramblers Associate as was) and government cuts. Whilst these will have a negative impact on footpath inspections and maintenance, it moves the book towards being a political statement.

I was also put off by the description that “… the path goes up and down like a whore’s drawers, through rickety steps…” There are other, better metaphors for up and down than language like that when it is out of place. I wouldn’t have objected to it so much had it been in the same section as the one on “Lovers’ Lanes”.

*his daddy was also home, but the 4yo wanted to reassure himself that I was ok. Once I’d had half his stuffed toy collection brought to me I decided to distract him into getting something I wanted.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth – Margalit Fox

I delight in non-fiction about obscure subjects. This is a look at the story behind the decoding of linear b, a writing set on clay tablets over three millenia ago. This was a herculean task as the alphabet used and language were both unknown, so meaning had to discerned entirely form context.

This book opens with the discovery of the clay tablets containing the writing to later be known as linear b, then sets out their journey through the following decades, and that of the contemporary researchers who were driven to understand this writing, and spend hours working, often in scraps of spare time, to decode the script. From the possessive Evans, to Kober, a classicist who recorded every single word on a separate homemade index card, through to the amateur Ventris who finally extracted meaning  from the tablets.

There’s archeology, some light statistics and human lives all twisted together as we follow the methodologies and work that spanned decades. Fox spins all these together seamlessly, to produce a compelling book about a subject matter that could be expected to be dull or dry.

Pop Goes the Weasel – Albert Jack

A month or so back, I was reading a thread on Ravelry, where I discovered that a weasel as referred to in the rhyme, and in thread work, is not a small mammal, but a tool for the winding of spun thread. The mental image of each syllable being a turn of the weasel, until it “pops”, whilst managing children and watching a busy household was compelling. I was therefore delighted to find a book titled Pop Goes the Weasel providing theories, or longer stories, explaining the meanings of nursery rhymes.

By DTParker1000 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
There are fascinating narratives provided for each of the rhymes in this book, linking into (mostly English) history, and discussing how in a preliterate world, where the authorities handed out harsh punishments to those who were subordinate, passing on news through nonsense rhymes was used for communication. I’m not sure to what extent this was true – how many people would have really known that the “Three blind mice” were the Oxford Martyrs, burned at the stake by Mary I??

Although I did read it with a small bucket of salt to hand, it was an interesting look at less savory parts of English history, as well as details of everyday life that are not clear from the rhymes alone.

Life on the Lancaster Canal – Janet Rigby

Back to the library again, and I had a good browse of the “transport” section this time. I am currently quite interested in canals, due to a combination of some new local knowledge, memories of narrowboating holidays and Canals: The Making of a Nation on the BBC, which was a fascinating history mini series (available for the next week or so). This one jumped out at me, so home it came.

Cover of Life on the Lancaster Canal

Historical facts are interwoven with recollections from former Lancaster Canal families, so the changing canal gains a personal face, one which sparks both nostalgia for an age that has passed, and relief that life has changed. It explores why the canal was built, what the main trade was and then its decline. But also moves onto the future of the canal network, and links between the modern towns and cities to unveil the history of the canals beneath them.

She references her main contributors, both her own family and others, notably including:

  • May Ashcroft
  • Charles Ashcroft
  • John Parkinson
  • John Tickle

The same names appearing over again is of course not unexpected in quite a closed community. But she also discusses movement and links across geography and industries.

This was a very personal history, but also one which explores a tiny piece of the country’s history in great detail.


Knitting for Tommy – Lucinda Gosling

One of the things which public libraries excel at is “people’s history”. This is a good of the examples of this type of work: a short piece illustrated with contemporary magazine clippings.

Knitting for Tommy coverKnitting for Tommy is an interesting book on the knitting to support the war effort during World War One. There is some political context included: such as the ration of 3 pairs of socks for every 6 months being bought by the War Office (clearly insufficient), and the wool shortages which were highlighted (of course) by the wool industry. However a lot of the content is simple collation of clippings, advertisements, postcards etc. to illustrate that knitting took place, rather than any critical look at why the War Office couldn’t promote more commercially produced items, a process that would have been much more efficient using mechanical knitting that had popular since the 1590’s. The morale argument is presented, but not the converse, that more men being warm and dry with limited wool supplies may have been more helpful. It is also not made clear how much of the enthusiasm was purely due to advertising and encouragement by the wool companies rather than genuine need.

There is an interesting look at who knitted: from schoolchildren to the elderly and across all social classes. Men were also included, both at home and those in Prisoner of War camps. It was made clear that this was an accessible part of the war effort, which was contributed to despite natural talent or experience. A few patterns or “recipes” are included towards the end, to add to the body of evidence presented in terms of the types of garments and skill level required. Unsurprisingly the skills are basic, tips are included to make socks more hard-wearing or mittens that a solider could shoot a gun in, and the items are generally designed to be produced rapidly in hard-wearing wools. Whilst they are of historical interest, I am unlikely to decide to knit any soon with this year’s knitting already planned.

Knitting for Tommy would be a good secondary source of information for further research, and the author’s access to less widely available collections means this is an interesting peek at material that is not commonly available.

I have now also started off on a path looking at some more local history, so I am likely to raid those shelves next time I visit the library.

Remarkable Minds – Pendred E. Noyce

17 other remarkable women in science & medicine

Noyce has decided not to mess with her formula, and has produced a second book full of essays outlining the lives and careers of historical women scientists. It is enough to make a modern woman feel inadequate, reading about women who continued scientific research in the face of not only sexism, but also in secret as Jewish women against the rise of fascism or African-Americans before the civil rights movement.

The message definitely comes through loud and clear that anyone sufficiently intelligent and determined can contribute to the world, just that some barriers have been swept away.

Sophie couldn’t stay away from her mathematics. She smuggled in more candles, wrapped herself in blankets, and managed to study through the night anyway, even when her ink froze in its pot. Finally her parents gave in, and once convinced he couldn’t stop her, her father supported her study of mathematics for the rest of her life.

This is a powerful message for young people working out who they are, and who they want to work to be, especially girls. I appreciate Noyce noting that family life is possible, although careful choices have to be made, and that some of these scientists were noted as elegant and beautiful. If this was a statement made in isolation it would be problematic, but combined with the acknowledgement of their achievements it tackles some unhelpful stereotypes.

I had only heard of two of these women before: Germain (I am a mathematician by training) and Franklin, but many of the rest had made discoveries I am familiar with, and it was fascinating to read how they managed their lives to achieve what they did. It was also a sterling example of how parenting makes a difference, with almost every woman having had supportive parents who encouraged ambition, even if they were reluctant at first.

Each essay was prefaced by a timeline showing how wider history intersects key points in that woman’s life, putting them into a historical and cultural context. This may however have worked better woven into the margins/headings rather than on a standalone page.

My only quibble is that I wanted a bit more of the detail of the science for many of the essays, as opposed to hinting about the science then swinging back to discuss personal and academic further, even if that was the actual subject of the book.

 I received Remarkable Minds as an Advance Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review