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.

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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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, 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

The Making of Modern Britain – Andrew Marr

The Making of Modern Britain is a well-researched book on how the British moved from being Victorians to modern Britains. It looks at political and social change and the causes behind these.

There are enough details to illustrate each point, and to see the changes progressing through the decades. It puts the history we all know into context, and allows a comparison between people of the Edwardian generation as people, not as stiff-upper lipped photographs.

It is important to remember though, that Marr is a BBC man. He criticises the abuse of power by the newspaper journalists in a way that Auntie is protected from, and the monarchy is again generally protected. This is understandable, but makes the book less impartial than it might otherwise aim to be.

Well-worth reading though, and I intend to read The History of Modern Britain, for which this book was a prequel.

At Home – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s At Home is an English history, told by moving through the rooms of his house. In this it follows on more from A Short History of Nearly Everything than from his travel writings.

I was expecting this book to examine the history of the physical house which Bill Bryson was discussing, but the method used of entering a room and then examining how this room came to be included in a house and why interesting features of that room are as they are worked well. However this is the main way in which each part of history is linked together, which removed the need to keep reading in order to see how they are all tied together, as we know that the only link is that all of the histories lead to an invention in common use today, or the history of a house layout being developed.

The histories discussed are well-researched, with all the details I had previously come across being correct, and each history is fascinating: once begun I found I generally had to read the whole history in one sitting. In spite of the lack of a story threading through the book, I would recommend it.