Category Archives: History

Inspiring, appalling, amazing…

AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER: a photographic recordby assorted Magnum photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Haas, Robert Capa, Inge Morath, Werner Bischof, David Seymour… Published 1985

coverWhen I bought this book, I could barely afford it. I was a baby bookseller, and anyway the book industry has never been noted for lavish (or even sustainable) levels of remuneration. Even with staff discount, I had to save up. But it was worth the money. It’s a superb collection of photographs taken in, roughly, the ten years following the end of World War II, by some of the best photographers of the last century. And probably this one, too.

It’s strange to think, now that – as Grayson Perry put it in his recent Reith lecture – photography ‘rains on us like sewage from above’, just how powerful the photographic image was, and not all that long ago. It can still be incredibly strong, of course; it’s just that it can be difficult to pull the powerful out from the welter of everything else. Not so, once upon a recent time.

wow(Ernst Haas, Returning prisoner of war, Vienna, 1945)

In the aftermath of WW2 a group of photographers (photojournalists, I suppose) met in New York and talked about forming a different sort of photo agency, a co-op – Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Robert Capa, George Rodger and William Vandivert. The last named dropped out; Rodger was often away and that left the other three founder members, so Paris became the base for what was to become the most famous photo agency ever: Magnum. Gradually many others joined, some of the most illustrious photographers around, and the same is still true today. (And today, 22 October, would have been Robert Capa’s 100th birthday – a happy coincidence.)

Some of the photographs in this book date from before 1947, but the aftermath of the war very much informed Magnum, especially in its early days, and many of the shots included here come from that immediate post-war period.

refugees(Henri Cartier-Bresson, Deported Russians leaving Germany for home, 1945)

They show the wreckage of Europe, described as being ’empty, quiet and it stank’. The word ‘peace’ had a hollow ring for many of the Magnum photojournalists; apart from anything else, the war in Indochina kicked in in 1946, and the reality of a Europe with 30 million refugees was never far away. Hindsight gives a terrible reality to images like the one above – what awaited the refugees there was not known when it was taken, of course, though many people suspected the worst. IMG_7411

Others do not need hindsight; the traumatised child photographed by David Seymour in Poland in 1948 – the title is ‘disturbed orphan drawing her home’ – is powerful enough. You don’t need to know what this girl has been through in any detail (probably just as well) in order for the image to have a powerful impact; it bears witness all by itself.

If there is any one theme that runs throughout this book, it is people. People, their strength, their resilience, even though they might be ‘swept along on the winds of history’. And of course not all the photographs are of war; as time goes on there are portraits of famous people, shots of artists (Picasso, Matisse, Giaciometti), writers (Colette – and her maid – or Francoise Sagan or Simone de Beauvoir), singers and actors (Jaques Tati, Maria Callas).

HCBFor me, though, it’s the ‘ordinary’ people, the prostitutes working in 1947 Essen (David Seymour); the women chatting in Paris (Werner Bischoff, Ernst Haas) or coralling children in Naples (David Seymour) or  being chatted up by British troops in Berlin in 1945 (Robert Capa). The dignity of everyday, ‘normal’ human beings is expressed in shot after shot, such as this one by Henri Cartier-Bresson of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, taken – amazingly – in 1951.

So when does ‘post-war’ end? The photographers had different answers. For Ernst Haas, it was the early 1950s when he began taking his famous colour shots. For Inge Morath, it was the day in 1959 when she was unable to park her car in Paris because there were too many others using the available spaces. Henri Cartier-Bresson defined it as the 1958 Brussels World Fair, which he shot and where he ‘scented hope’ – but, he said, he felt wary because he thought photography was a way of feeling a pulse, of sensing things in advance, of metaphorically sniffing the smoke in the air which becomes a blazing fire. He went on to say ‘…the world had been totally changed by scientific discoveries made during the war. These technological changes became a part of our lives, creating deeper and deeper tensions so that we are in a world that seems headed for suicide.’ Prescient, or what?

One final note: this is a beautifully edited book (says moi, ever the editor). Time and again photographs are shown in parallel, but in an understated way that informs and doesn’t distract. Take this pair,

men at work

by Werner Bischoff (London, 1950) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Tancarville, France, 1955). Understated symmetry.

Boy, am I glad I saved up my pennies and didn’t spend them all on beer.

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Normal service will be resumed…

… as soon as I can read properly and comfortably without hurting myself.

neckieOW. An old neck injury – which I didn’t know I had – has flared up and is giving me all sorts of problems which are far too boring to go into here. I’m in diagnostic limbo, waiting for my appointment with the neurologist (only ten days to go), and while everyone assures me it can be dealt with, they all want further investigations to make sure that no further damage is going to happen. While I applaud this – but of course – it is also extremely frustrating.

And one of the main reasons it is driving me insane is that reading has become extremely awkward as I cannot bend my head without dizziness setting in. I end up lying down with a book supported by pillows and my head by even more pillows, and then I have to change position frequently and lie on the other side. So the ‘reading what the dice select’ game has had to be suspended, as the dice kept selecting large art books. All I can manage are paperbacks. Dice not cooperating.

So what have I been reading? Well, not my comfort books, which is interesting. I’ve been travelling vicariously, since I can’t do too much of that physically, and I’ve been travelling in both space and time. At least you have to do the latter vicariously, whatever your state of health.

WreckersFirst off, Bella Bathurst’s excellent book The Wreckers.  Neatly combining history and travel (and enough accounts of stormy seas to make my dizziness appear comparatively trivial), it’s a very good, well-written read. My only quibble, really, is that the very last section on the ship breakers of Alang doesn’t sit very neatly with the rest, which is confined to the seas around the British Isles. But if you don’t know it, read it. It’s so often better to travel vicariously, and this book is a good example of why that is so.

rubiconNext, Rubicon by Tom Holland. Ah, narrative history. And for anyone who was hooked by that splendid TV romp, Rome, this is the real deal. What really happened. Maybe what really happened. Possibly – after all, can you really trust sources, especially if they were sources dependent for their living – and their life – on the emperor Augustus? But it is crammed with fascinating information (I didn’t know that Caesar was a notorious dandy; how could that have escaped me?) and – yet again – is an excellent read. Very diverting, and intelligent.

Torrid ZoneOne of my favourite authors next, and no way would I have wanted to follow Alexander Frater on this journey – series of journeys, really – neck or no neck. Tales from the Torrid Zone is a mixture of travel, autobiography and history, centred on the tropics, and I’m too much of a northern lass to really enjoy the tropics. I get off the plane somewhere excessive and I want to get right back on. Not Frater. Born there, he loves them – and this book is a paean of love and affection and exasperation. I didn’t get it at first, and this is only my second reading. Boy, have a got it now. Lovely book.

HareAnd another is The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmond de Waal, one of my more recent purchases (but before the whole dice thing kicked in). Again, this was only its second reading, but I know it’s going to merit more. De Waal tracks a family collection of netsuke – and his family, the Ephrussis – from a purchase in nineteenth-century Paris to their residence in his studio (he’s a potter), via Vienna – and being hidden from the Gestapo in a mattress – and Japan. Along the way he learns much of his own history, but also illuminates much of recent European history. Wonderful.

And now I have to choose the next book. Wonder what it will be, other than a paperback? If anyone has any tips for coping with irritating neck injuries, do let me know (head transplants and all). And, in the tones of Arnold Schwartznegger: I’ll be back…

Witness to chaos

THE PAST IS MYSELF by Christabel Bielenberg, originally published 1968 (first edition)

Bookcase 4, shelf 4, book 7

I have been a bad blogger. The truth is that after a whole year of reading from stock (as it were), I just wanted to read a few new things. But I didn’t break my resolve of cutting down on the purchase of new books – I went to my local libraries instead. And discovered just how good even small libraries in small Welsh towns can be, even in these straightened economic times; long may they last. Go Gwynedd Libraries!

Now I’m back on track, reading my ‘backlist’ books, though I’m not giving up on the libraries. They need support, and that support is gauged by borrowing, so I’m borrowing. But I am also reading through my own library, and the books in this blog will continue to be from my excessive (can such a thing be possible?) collection.

What a treat the roll of the dice gave me, too.

Christabel BeilenbergThe Past is Myself is one of my favourite books of all time, and there’s no cover shot, because my first edition has unfortunately lost its dust jacket (probably why I found it lurking cheaply in a dusty corner of an otherwise expensive second-hand bookshop in Cambridge). I probably re-read this every year, so it’s not a surprise rediscovery or forgotten jewel. What it is, undoubtedly, is a remarkable memoir, intelligent and humane, written by someone who got caught up in the nightmare that was Germany during the Third Reich.

rallyWhen Christabel Bielenberg died in 2003, one or two of the obituaries made me see red. One in particular was quite snotty about this book, and I suspect the writer hadn’t actually ventured beyond the first few pages. Yes, CB was a well-connected deb – her uncles were press barons – when she married Peter Bielenberg in 1934, but though she may have been naive at times, she was no empty-headed, upper-crust bimbo. And this particular obit described Peter as ‘apolitical’. Maybe a little, maybe at the start but, like his wife, his naivety disappeared and they moved from fighting their way to the back of a Nazi rally – where they discovered other like-minded, slightly incredulous watchers – to more active participation.

outside gestapo hqHis real awakening came when he saw one of his freed clients (he was a lawyer at that stage) leave the court only to be seized and bundled away in an anonymous green van. Her politicisation was more gradual, an accumulation of individually disturbing incidents. But it’s probably inevitable that they would have been anti-Nazi: Adam von Trott was an old friend of Peter’s and, completely coincidentally, their neighbour was Carl Langbehn. Peter himself was arrested in the aftermath of the plot to assassinate Hitler and ended up in Ravensbrück, from where he was freed in the last days of the war.

So credentials have been established, but what of the book? Well, it’s episodic, moving from those early days of a disappearing doctor – he was Jewish, and fled to Holland – to CB’s life in the Black Forest with the children while PB was in Ravensbrück. There is narrative flow, but the book covers many years and I personally find the episodic nature completely satisfying. The small sketches of life under the Reich are so evocative, from the story of her gardener, party small-fry, to the time fate in the shape of two Jews seeking a hiding place came literally knocking at her door one night.

There’s almost a quality of Greek drama about some of them: the Latvian SS man she encounters on a blacked-out train, seeking death as some retribution for what he has done ‘in the East’; her encounter with the Gestapo interrogator – she volunteered to be interrogated to support Peter’s bodged-together account of his involvement; the women’s tea party uniting in the face of an informer; and, indeed, the difficult life of her gardener, battered by the winds of economics and history.

JugendHe was an innocent, really, and the embodiment of the joke about Hitler and the gifts of four fairies. The first told him that every German would be honest, the second said every German would be bright, and the third said that every German would be a member of the Nazi party. And then the fourth spoke up, and said that every German could ‘only possess two of those attributes. She left the Fuhrer then with Intelligent Nazis who were not honest, honest Nazis who had no brains, and honest and intelligent citizens who were not Nazis.’ Herr Neisse fell into the middle category, never uttered any word about anything untoward he observed (he may not have understood the implications, but nonetheless he evidently said nothing), ‘passed on no incriminating titbits, such as other zealous informers had thought fit to do.’ He’d been hanged from a lamppost when the Russians arrived in Berlin.

The Past is Myself is a remarkable and wonderful book. I will go on re-reading it for ever, I suspect, getting something new out of it each time I do so. It’s essentially a celebration of humanity, at a time when, in the words of Bonhoeffer: ‘…we now have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst.’ I’ll say.

(The photographs of Third Reich Germany are courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

‘A happy voyage to you…’

MASTER AND COMMANDER, by Patrick O’Brian, originally pubished in 1969
(My copy is from the series published in the 1990s with the wonderful Gary Hunt covers – much better than models dressed up in costume, hrumpf)

Bookcase 3, shelf 7, book 24

It had to happen sooner or later. The dice would select a book lurking in a series, one which could not be explored or explained without reading others. Or they would pick a book which started a series, and I wouldn’t be able to stop reading. There are twenty-one books in Patrick O’Brian’s astonishing Aubrey / Maturin series (If you count the one left unfinished at the author’s death), and I’ve been zooming through them, the dice having happily given me the first, Master and Commander. (And no, it’s nothing like the film with Russell Crowe, thank heavens.)

So what is it about these books, set in a version of Nelson’s Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? Why are they so addictive? And why do they excite such passionate attachment among their fans?

It may be heresy, but I have to say it: they’re not all perfect, far from it, but M&C is a stonking start. O’Brian sweeps you straight in. The language, even the punctuation – they could belong, sometimes, to the early nineteenth century, and it comes as no surprise that O’Brian adored Jane Austen and collected early editions of her books. You don’t have to understand the nautical vocabulary (I still have absolutely no idea what a ‘dog-pawl’ is and I’m not sure I want to know), but whether you do or not, it all helps to create an atmosphere which encourages readers to become absorbed in this particular world. And O’Brian was meticulous about the language he used, incidentally – it is authentic, substantiated in all the mountains of research and contemporary accounts in which he immersed himself. But that’s not it, though it’s a part of it.

It has to be the core relationship, the one between the comparatively straightforward and bluff Jack Aubrey RN and the considerably more enigmatic Stephen Maturin, and between them and various other characters who materialize and vanish and come back again, or who are relatively minor constants. You come to know these people: Killick the steward, Bonden the bosun, Mr Pullings – and you become involved. Will the delightful Pullings ever make captain, even though he has no ‘pull’ in the Admiralty? Will Killick stop grumbling? Who will get killed in the next engagement? Will Stephen’s spying activities mean he gets tortured again, and will he ever be able to break free from his attachment to – enough… As one reviewer noted, one key to the series’ success was that ‘times change, but people don’t.’ And the people are exceptionally well drawn, even if it is sometimes easy to forget that in all the excitement and the recreation of a vanished world.

Master and Commander is where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin encounter each other for the first time; the former irritates the latter at a concert by beating time rather enthusiastically. A duel is averted when Jack is promoted and, in the consequent spirit of bonhomie, apologizes to Stephen. He then recruits the financially embarrassed  Stephen as his ship’s surgeon, and that is fortunate – fortunate for us as readers, because Stephen knows very little of the ways of Nelson’s Navy, and can be an ‘interpreter’ for the rest of us, especially in the very early books. He is experiencing things like the sudden uprush of activity when the watches change for he first time, and so are we; to a certain extent we see this world mainly through Stephen’s eyes. And of course O’Brian had no idea, when he delivered the manuscript for Master and Commander, that this would be the first in a series of over twenty books that would occupy the rest of his life and define his literary reputation.

He was already, though, a huge fan of the period and of Nelson, and it’s his knowledge of that, and his deep enthusiasm for it as well, which illuminates all of the books. Some of the action may seem exaggerated or unlikely, but there is scarcely a naval incident that isn’t based in some way on reality, and the subplots are thoroughly researched as well. The actions in which Aubrey’s ship, the Sophie, becomes involved are based on the experiences of Thomas Cochrane, and Cochrane is (largely) the model for Jack Aubrey. Maturin, it has been said, is more like the rather complex and troubled author. It’s a real achievement to take all that thorough-going research and knowledge and transform it into something as exciting and involving as Master and Commander – let alone the other books in the series.

It comes as quite a surprise now to realise how slow-burning the series was. Master and Commander wasn’t immediately picked up by a British publisher, for example, and the early reviews simply compared Jack Aubrey to Horatio Hornblower, usually to the former’s disadvantage. But slowly the word began to spread. O’Brian’s books picked up illustrious fans who weren’t afraid to sing their praises, and so the series grew into what it is today: something of a global phenomenon, if a somewhat select one. And one with something of a catching style for which I must apologize (no risk of duels, anyway)…

A Rough Guide to the past

THE TIME TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND by Ian Mortimer, 2008/9

Bookcase 10, shelf 5, book 22

The subtitle is ‘A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century’ – and that’s exactly what this is. When the dice ‘chose’ this book for me, I was a little disappointed; I’d read it not long ago, and was sure that I could remember a lot of it. I didn’t particularly want to read it again so soon, but the dice select what the dice select.

Re-reading it made me wonder if I’d actually bothered to read it the first time – there was so much that I didn’t remember, or only partly recalled. I don’t think that’s down to me, though (no, really). I think it is because of the fact that this is an extraordinarily dense book, crammed with interesting information. I thought I knew something about life in Medieval Britain – it wasn’t my specialist study period, but I’ve worked on medieval archaeological sites – but there is something on almost every page to surprise and entertain. And it’s written in an accessible, easy style.

I suppose it all starts with L P Harley: ‘The past is another country. They do things differently there.’ With that in mind, the idea of a something which is almost a travel guide to the past seems logical and almost inevitable – and here it is. Ian Mortimer starts with the idea of the past ‘happening’, of walking down a road in a Medieval town, hearing people talking and shouting, seeing the sights and smelling (phew) the smells.

And that is indeed a useful place to begin, and the opening for one of the most entertaining history books I’ve read in a while. Entertaining and informative. Unlike many historians, Mortimer doesn’t spurn re-enactors: in fact, he says ‘collectively they remind us that history is more than an educational process’. I’m used to the world of experimental archaeology, where attempting to recreate something from the (extreme) past is an acceptable form of research, whether that something is a way of making beer or of moving a huge stone over hundreds of miles. It’s less common to find historians embracing this approach, at least in the imagination, and then writing a bestselling book embodying it. Mortimer selected the fourteenth century because ‘…it comes closest to the popular conception of what is “medieval”, with its chivalry, jousts, etiquette, art…’ and, of course, with cathedrals, revolt and insurrection, war with France, famine and the Black Death.

But for me, it’s the incidental information that you pick up that I enjoy the most. Snippets. So let’s have some, picked completely at random while flicking through the book:

  • It’s a multi-lingual society – not just English. French, Latin and, depending on where you are, the Celtic languages are all in common use and likely to be overheard on the streets. And people’s English is ‘a little rough around the ages’. It’s, er, robust. That’s seen in place names like Shitbrook Street and Pissing Alley (and quite evident in Chaucer’s work, of course). In fact, there are a lot of ‘English’ people whose English is not fluent.
  • Football is popular, though not the game as played today (of course); it’s more like the semi-riots that still take place in a few villages today under the flag of tradition. There are no rules as such, though there are some which try and ban it completely. Huge numbers of people take part, there’s a vast amount of noise and fighting, many get injured and some even die. One William de Spalding, for example, managed to kill a friend during a match when they collided so violently that De Spalding’s knife went through its sheath and into his friend.
  • People caught poaching game no longer have their hands cut off, as in the previous century, ‘but loss of limb is still meted out on their animals’ – so a poacher who managed to only get a fine may see his dog lose a paw.

Medicine is a strange mix of the rational (a truss for hernia) and treatments which appear somewhat more magical – annointing yourself with fat from a roasted cat (!), and frying beheaded dung beetles and crickets in oil to treat a bladder stone. Your doctors will want to look at your pee in order to determine what is wrong with you, by the way.

  • Cow’s milk is suitable only for cooking, and for old woman and children. Each member of a monastic community is allocated a gallon of ale a day. And as for monks not eating meat – well, the monastic Rule states that they should not have meat in the refectory. So there’s another room, the misericord (place of mercy), in which they can eat meat with impunity. Westminster’s Benedictine monks manage to justify eating bacon, however, and bacon and eggs are served in the refectory as a treat before Lent.
  • If you’re a monk in an urban monastery, you’ll live – on average – about five years less than you would if you hadn’t entered the monastery but had lived outside. It’s the infectious disease risk that makes the difference. Yes, you have better sanitation and a much better diet, but you’ll also have a shorter life. And if you die while staying in someone else’s house, the goods you have with you automatically become his property.

More seriously than all of those (not that some of them aren’t serious), looking at history this way does bring up the whole issue of how we perceive the past. Traditionally, history is deeply concerned with assessing, selecting, interpreting the evidence available, and that’s generally documentary evidence. Evidence like this imposes boundaries – because all you can really assess is the evidence. Approaching history as something that was lived, and lived by people who were not that different from us, certainly makes you think. And so does this book.

Op the rigging

THE LAST GRAIN RACE, by Eric Newby, published in 1956

Bookcase 10, shelf 9, book 3

What a winner, getting this – one of my all-time favourite travel books. One of my all-time favourite books, in fact. And in this case I am including the actual, physical book in my remark, because this is a first edition I found several years ago at a book fair when I was on holiday on the north Norfolk coast. It replaced a Picador paperback which had been read so often that it fell apart (not always that difficult with some of those white-spined Picador titles, mind).

I remember once hearing The Last Grain Race being discussed on Radio 4, and somebody dismissed it as ‘very much a bloke’s book’. Rubbish. I am most definitely not a bloke, and I adore it, so perhaps I should explain why instead of simply repeating the fact that it’s a wonderful read.

A large part of its appeal is down to Eric Newby’s attitude and the sheer style and class of his writing, writing which is never over the top or remotely purple, writing which nonetheless conveys the wonder of the world, whether that is rounding Cape Horn on one of the last grain clippers here, hiding from Nazis in Italy (Love and War in the Appenines) or trekking through Nuristan with a maniac friend (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush). Lest anyone who doesn’t know Eric Newby assume he was a cross between James Bond and Richard Hannay, I’ll add that he is equally evocative describing his youth in Barnes or his work in the post-war rag trade (Something Wholesale). And of course he is also self-depreciating (the classic anecdote is one from Hindu Kush, where he and his companion encounter that legendary traveller Wilfrid Thesiger. They blew up their inflatable matresses at night, getting a predictable reaction from the Great Man: ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies’…) and immensely funny.

The Last Grain Race is the story of his voyage around the world as a young apprentice on board Moshulu, one of the last of the great windjammers, in 1938-9.

(Moshulu, incidentally, has a brief role in Godfather II, where she carries the young Vito Corleone to America – watch out for it, as it gives an idea of the scale of these huge but lightly crewed grain ships.)

Newby had always been tempted by the sea and finally gave in to romanticism, bad influences (Mountstewart, an elderly friend and possibly certifiable lunatic), heredity (his father ‘had once tried to run away to sea and been brought back from Millwall in a hackney cab’) and the growing realisation that this was an opportunity which was about to disappear from the oceans of the world for ever. He kept a meticulous record during the voyage, as well as writing letters and taking many remarkable photographs, all of which enabled him to write Grain Race so evocatively nearly 20 years later.

After a laborious attempt to locate a caribou-skin sleeping bag – ‘it took up a great deal of time which I could have spent more profitably in eating’ – which he had become convinced was necessary (the salesman: ‘The last one gave the man who slept in it anthrax’), and lugging the second-hand Louis Vuitton trunk found in a lost property shop, Newby set off for Belfast, Moshulu and – eventually – the Southern Ocean. All in all, for a voyage of some 30,000 miles.

The ship finally left the unappealing docks of pre-war Belfast on 18 October, and EN began a steep learning curve in everything from getting on with his variously eccentric shipmates to climbing the rigging in all situations (above a dock, in a storm, when someone is throwing up on your head), to what happens if you lose a hammer over the side and how bad a dead dog smells when you excavate it from the ballast four months after the Belfast stevedores have amusingly placed it there.

There is a lot of detail about the organization of a sailing ship, but it can easily be skipped; in fact, Newby tells readers where to jump to at one point if they don’t want to follow his ‘technical interlude’. Even without reading that, though, you inevitably pick up a lot of vicarious knowledge – how slippery the ratlines could be, and how dangerous; how to clean the revolting heads; how to set a course in Swedish, the working language of the ship.

And so the outward journey to Australia continues, Moshulu crossing the equator (with a horrible initiation ceremony for those who had not done so before, including EN) about a month after sailing.There is some wonderful writing about the sea, evocative in the extreme:

‘On Christmas morning the weather was cold and brilliant. Big following seas were charging up astern in endless succession. They surged beneath the ship, bearing her up, filling the air with whistling spray as their great heads tore out from under and ahead to leave her in a trough as black and polished as basalt except where, under the stern post, the angle of the rudder made the water bubble jade-green, as from a spring. From the mizzen yardarm, where I hung festooned with photographic apparatus, I could see the whole midships…’

Now is the time to mention the photographs – the extraordinary photographs. They are so good, and so comparatively rare, documenting life on a windjammer, that at least one commentator has described them as the most important aspect of Eric Newby’s work. They are indeed excellent, and in my edition are reproduced particularly well. In fact a book entirely devoted to them was published in 1999 – Learning the Ropes.

The ship arrived in Australia in early January, loaded and left in March 1939, and arrived back at Queenstown (now Cobh) in June, 91 days out. Moshulu was the winner of the ’39 grain race. But this was just before the outbreak of war and everything was to change, and change extremely fast, just as EN had anticipated. One of the other ships in the race, the Olivebank, hit a German mine in early September, but Moshulu herself survived, and is now – wait for it – a floating restaurant. And occasional film location.

Throughout The Last Grain Race, as with his other books, Eric Newby’s essentially genial and humane personality comes through. Yes, he’s a romantic, but he finds that characteristic amusing and gently pokes fun at his younger self (as in the affair of the wretched sleeping bag). He genuinely likes people and finds them interesting – and that’s not something you can say for every travel writer, or indeed every writer. There’s no need to explain away undesirable attitudes as being ‘common at the time’ or ‘simply reflecting the times in which the book was written’ because there aren’t any such attitudes in evidence. Having met the man himself when I was a baby bookseller, I can testify to his genuine niceness – an often under-esteemed quality.

A wonderful book, and a wonderful author.

What’s left of Londoners

LONDON BODIES – the changing shape of Londoners from prehistoric times to the present day, Museum of London, 1998

Bookcase 9, shelf 4, book 6

I am surprised that this is the first exhibition catalogue the dice have presented me with, given that I used to work in museums and galleries, and have an incurable catalogue habit (well, I’ve cured myself of it now – largely, OK, I’m cured for this year).

It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of exhibition publishing – possibly not of general interest, ho ho – and it also sent me to my other shelves, pulling out old catalogues, new catalogues, big catalogues, catalogues that set themselves up to become the definitive work on X or Y, catalogues that are little more than a flyer… What are exhibition catalogues for, when it comes down to it?

I can only answer for myself. I find that unless I visit an exhibition several times – and that’s been known, quite apart from the time I effectively lived with exhibitions every day – I later forget about things I would prefer to remember. And I miss things, especially at blockbusters where seeing anything through other people is next to impossible. The enormous tomes are also useful reference books, though they do break your back and lead to other problems: I had a nasty fight with an Air France steward about Le Siecle de Titien being too heavy to go in an overhead locker. Or even fly. She did have a point.

This, happily, is not such a breezeblock of a book, nor is it a straightforward list of everything that was in the Museum of London’s fascinating 1998 archaeological and historical show. The show was based around their extensive collection of human remains, but it was more than that – they have equally extensive collections of all sorts of other things connected to physical appearance, from Roman leather knickers and an Elizabethan child’s knitted vest to Victorian underwear. Unsurprisingly, London Bodies is one of those discursive catalogues, rather than one which details the exhibits one by one and then tells you something about them.

There are seven chapters on various aspects of the show, starting with one on excavation, and then moving chronologically through to a photo-essay on modern London (superfluous, in my opinion). However, because the chapters are all written by different people there is little unity of tone; one chapter is a bit dry, another chatty…

But having said that, there’s still plenty to chew on. Each chapter throws a light on a specific aspect of the time it discusses – the Black Death and famine in the Medieval chapter; costume in the one on Tudor London; the question of a ‘London look’ in the one on the Georgian and Victorian city. In addition there are feature spreads covering all sorts of subjects from recent work in Roman cemeteries and what it tells us about Londoners (most people ate comparatively well, and only a small proportion show evidence of deprivation, or of parasites) to what made you sexy in Elizabethan London (minute waists and large cod-pieces). So inside this particular exhibition catalogue is a wealth of interesting information.

Human remains – and what you do with them – are a controversial subject in archaeology, and this is little explored, but I recall the the show as being both fascinating and comparatively sensitive in the way it dealt with the issue. The book is quite clear – the remains are valued for the information they can give, and they give a lot. This woman, for instance, was a Saxon. She was about 30 when she died (of what, we do not know), and was buried dressed in an overgown fastened at the shoulder by a brooch. The brooch is still there, but we also know that she wore a bracelet – her wrist bones are stained by the metal – and that she had a congenital back disorder, had once broken her collar bone but been treated well since the mend was good, and that she had enjoyed quite a bit of sweetness in her diet (bad teeth – the sweetness could have been from beer or honey). At the same time, I am sure that more attention would be paid to the ethical side of displaying human remains were the book (and the exhibition) to take place today. I know where I stand – I trained as an archaeologist, after all.

On a less profound level, one of the things I recall most clearly from the show was the corsets, and of course they are reflected in the catalogue. I know quite a bit about Victorian dress, but I found things here to inform me further, and amuse me (like one corset manufacturer in Berners Street, who won a medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition – the wonderfully and apparently anachronistically named Madame Roxy Caplin). Oh, by the way, her corsets were ‘beneficial to the weak, delicate and imperfect’. Just about everyone, then.

I have really enjoyed revisiting this catalogue and, through it, remembering the show. Not all are so interesting, of course, and I’m not sure this could properly be described as a ‘catalogue’ anyway – it’s more a ‘book to accompany the exhibition’. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps it’s time to pull out a few more and renew my acquaintance with Ancient Greek gold, the effects of light on fabric or Russian Constructivism. Sigh…

(Apologies for the slight hiatus in posts – not idleness, an exotic holiday or a sudden weakening of resolve on the book-buying front. More mundane: problems with WordPress…)