Book Review: The Road Not Taken- How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926

The Road Not Taken Front cover

The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn. The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926. London: Vintage, 2013. RRP £12.99 paperback.

There are several books that document and discuss the history of protest in Britain. I have reviewed two of them–A Radical History of Britain (2010) by Edward Vallance and The English Rebel (2010) by David Horspool–on this blog. The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926, takes a very different approach to the previous two and, despite being quite difficult to read, manages to bring something new to the table.

The Road Not Taken is based on the premise that whilst Britain has never experienced a revolution, defined as an “overthrow of a regime and a drastic change of direction, politically, economically, socially,” it has come close at several points (McLynn, 2013; ix). McLynn analyses these moments in great detail, considering why they happened, what happened, and why they failed to achieve revolution. The revolutionary moments he considers are: the Peasant’s Revolt (1381), Jack Cade’s Rebellion (1450), the English Civil War (1642-51), the 1745 Jacobite Rising, Chartism (1837-48), and the General Strike (1926).

“why has there been no true revolution in British history? It goes without saying that Britain never approached anything like the socio-economic convulsions of the Russian, Chinese, or Cuban Revolutions. The nearest the nation came to something like the upheavals in the French and Mexican varieties was in the aftermath of the English Civil War, but Cromwell slammed the brakes on hard and turned abruptly right.”

(McLynn, 2013; p.479)

In the Conclusion, McLynn evaluates different explanations for why Britain has never experienced a revolution, including Britain’s island status isolating it from the worst impacts of land-based war, the monarchy, the British Empire, and Methodism. He gives each argument a fair hearing, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses. My issue is that McLynn never comes to a conclusion. He has valid reasons for why every hypothesis is flawed, but he doesn’t explain what he thinks is the best explanation. McLynn does the same thing in the Appendix, where he evaluates the different theories and typologies of revolution more generally, but he doesn’t draw conclusions.

I also found McLynn’s writing style difficult to get along with. The text is dense, and includes unnecessarily complicated words like “fissiparious” (p127), “galimaufry” (p312), and “exiguous” (p430). All that such a writing style does is make a narrative or argument much harder to follow. Academics often write in this way, perhaps in an attempt to appear more impressive. All it does, however, is widen the gap between academics and the general population, particularly when it is used in a book aimed at a popular audience such as The Road not Taken. The history of protest is one of the thing I am most interested in, but even I struggled to stay engaged with the book at some points.

The Road Not Taken does manage to bring something new to the topic of Britain’s history of protest. It may well prove useful to me in my research someday, with its detailed and measured analysis. However, I would not recommend it as a ‘fun’ read, something to relax with curled up on the sofa or in the bath.

Book Review: London Fog- The Biography

London fog cover

London Fog by Christine L. Corton.

Christine L. Corton. London Fog: The Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. RRP £13.95 paperback.

I like books about London, and I like books that take very specific objects or phenomena, such as a particular weather condition, and links them to wider political, social, economic, cultural, and historical contexts (Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum is a really good example of this). So when I found London Fog: The Biography, I was excited to read it.

Although London’s location in the Thames basin means it has always been susceptible to mist and damp, London Fog begins in the 1840s, when the city’s rapid expansion and industrialisation meant London began to suffer from fog in earnest. The book’s narrative ends in the 1960s; the last major period of fog London experienced was in December 1962. For more than a century the city suffered from dense, cloying fog during the winter months that was capable of shutting down the city by reducing visibility to almost zero, and caused breathing difficulties, respiratory illnesses, and even death.

Christine L. Corton uses the fog to tell a social, cultural, and political history of London between those two dates. She explores the way that fog was constructed and interpreted in various narratives, including political debates and identity. Over the course of the century in which fog was a defining characteristic of London life it was the subject of many arguments about what caused the fog, what was so dangerous about it, what could be done to prevent it, and whose responsibility it was. Corton traces these debates with skill and patience.

There is also a lot of literary and art criticism in London Fog; Corton devotes significant attention to how fog in London has been represented in various art forms including paintings, photography, novels, and films. In this way, London Fog reminds me of Nightwalking by Mathew Beaumont, which explores the literary history of London at night. Whereas Nightwalking suffers from a distinct lack of female writers, however, London Fog does discuss female artists.

London Fog is obviously the product of extensive and detailed research. It is full of wonderful images, often in colour. This is a big plus; it is quite unusual for books like this to have so many high-quality images. The narrative is incredibly detailed, which occasionally causes the pacing to suffer; readers with only a mild interest in the topic may struggle.

There are a huge number of books about London’s history, and it takes a lot to write one that stands out from the crowd. London Fog is about a subject that is quintessentially London, but also manages to be original. It is an excellent example about how something small and specific can be used to better understand the large and general.

Book Review: American Uprising- The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

American Uprising Front cover straight

American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.

Daniel Rasmussen. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. RRP $15.99 paperback.

Earlier this year, I visited New Orleans. It is a wonderful city, but it’s history of race relations is troubled, to put it mildly. An area called the German Coast sits just a few miles north-west of the city, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, it was some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in America. The most common crop was sugar, and the owners of the plantations along the river grew incredibly rich from it. But it was a system built on slavery. By 1810, 75% of the local population were slaves. Faced with a daily assault of cruel, dehumanising, and violent treatment, it is no surprise that slaves found subtle ways to resist the system. Occasionally, this resistance took the form of armed rebellion. In January 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved men undertook an armed uprising on the German Coast. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt tells the story of this revolt, and makes a convincing argument for its significance in the development of the modern United States of America.

This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.

Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3

As author Daniel Rasmussen himself argues, the German Coast Uprising has received limited attention from historians over the years. In addition, because the participants were slaves, archival documents relating to the uprising are scarce–accounts from the perspective of the slaves themselves are almost non-existent. Even the names of most of the participants are unknown to us. As a result, Rasmussen has to be creative in the way that he reconstructs the story of the revolt. For example, he uses the accounts of other enslaved people, such as Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup (who’s story of slavery formed the basis for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), to give the reader an idea of what life would have been like for the slaves who participated in the revolt.

American Uprising does a good job of  telling the story of the revolt in an engaging and accessible way. But Rasmussen also goes beyond this narrative, to explore how the uprising was represented and interpreted, both immediately afterwards, and later by historians. The uprising was quickly depoliticised by those in authority, its participants portrayed as animalistic and violent criminals in a narrative that is still frequently used in relation to riots and other violent protests.

As the map at the beginning of the book demonstrates, the United States of America was still very much a work-in-progress in 1811; Louisiana had only been part of the Union since 1803, and it didn’t obtain statehood until 1812. Rasmussen explains how the uprising played an important role in justifying the necessity of statehood for Louisiana, and helped pave the way for further American expansionism over the next few decades. This is one of the key points in Rasmussen’s argument that the uprising deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

I bought American Uprising whilst I was in Louisiana in order to learn more about the state’s history of dissent. I got much more than that; the book explores the significance of the uprising far beyond the local area, putting it in the context of the development of a nation. American Uprising is well-written and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of protest, slavery, race relations, or imperial expansionism.

Book Review: Hearts and Minds- The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote

Hearts and Minds Front Cover

Hearts and Minds by Jane Robinson.

Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote. London: Doubleday, 2018. RRP £20 hardback.

When I first heard about Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote, I was determined to wait until it came out in paperback. Both my purse and my bookshelves would thank me for it. However, a few months ago I went to see author Jane Robinson give a talk about the book at the Lancashire Archives, and she was so good that I bought the hardback copy there and then. It was a good purchase.

Hearts and Minds tells the story of the Great Pilgrimage, a six-week epic organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), representing the non-militant arm of the women’s suffrage movement. Over 6 weeks in the summer of 1913, hundreds of women marched to London from all over the country in an attempt to prove how many respectable, law-abiding women wanted the vote. In some places they were welcomed, in others they faced fierce and even violent opposition from opponents and people who mistook them for suffragettes. Overall, however, the pilgrimage was an overwhelming success, building bonds within the NUWSS, attracting media attention, and developing the confidence and skill sets of women around the country.

Jane Robinson has written an engaging account of a fascinating and lesser-known event in the history of the women’s suffrage campaign. There are two big things, and several little things, that combine to make Hearts and Minds a very good book. The first big thing is that the book is thoroughly researched; Robinson makes extensive use of diaries, letters, and other personal sources that give us a real insight into how the women participating in the Pilgrimage felt about their experiences. This effect is enhanced by Robinson’s occasional use of creative writing. The description of Marjory Lees and other pilgrims huddling terrified in their caravan as a group of angry locals attempt to set fire to it in Thame, Oxfordshire, is a particularly effective example.

The second big thing I like about Hearts and Minds is its coverage of events after the Great Pilgrimage. A lot of accounts of the campaign for women’s suffrage stop when the First World War starts. Many activists put their desire for the vote on hold and threw themselves into the war effort. But that is by no means the end of the story. Robinson recounts what many pilgrims  and other suffrage campaigners did during the war. Some, such as Florence Lockwood and Sylvia Pankhurst, vocally opposed the war, which was a very lonely and dangerous position to take. Others, such as Vera Chute Collum, Dr. Elsie Inglis, and Katherine Harley undertook dangerous and exhausting work treating injured soldiers in field hospitals across Europe run by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Katherine Harley was killed by a shell whilst looking after refugees in modern-day Macedonia on the 7th of March 1917.

As well as telling the stories of these remarkable women, Hearts and Minds also describes what happens after some women were given the vote in 1918. The Pankhursts may not have continued the fight, but others campaigned for women to be given the vote on equal terms as men, led by the Six Points Group and the NUWSS (rebranded as the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship). These few chapters at the end of the book helped contextualise the women’s suffrage campaign in a way that I haven’t seen before, and I found it really interesting.

There are lots of little things I like about Hearts and Minds too, such as the helpful lists of important pro- and anti-suffrage organisations, key people featured in the book, and important dates in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Pictures are dispersed throughout the book, not just in the middle (although there is a section of coloured images in the middle of the book too), and there is a map of the 6 Pilgrimage routes (Stuart Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow is one recent book that would have been  improved by more and better maps).

The campaign for women’s suffrage was much broader and more varied than the popular imagination suggests. This year, the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote, is an opportunity to make more people aware of organisations and individuals beyond the WSPU. Hearts and Minds is an entertaining and informing way of doing just that.

Book Review: A Radical History of Britain by Edward Vallance

A Radical History of Britain front cover

A Radical History of Britain by Edward Vallance.

Edward Vallance. A Radical History of Britain. London: Abacus, 2010. RRP £13.99 paperback.

The British have a reputation for being a bit passive when it comes to protest, rebellion, and revolution. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 is celebrated for being ‘bloodless,’ and when the rest of Europe was wracked with revolutions in the mid-nineteenth century we had the largely peaceful Chartist movement. Books such as A Radical History of Britain, however, demonstrate that us Brits can rebel with the best of them.

A Radical History of Britain pretty much does what it says on the tin, although Vallance does admit in the introduction that it is largely about England rather then Britain. The book is split into seven parts, each with several chapters, that focus on particularly contentious periods in English history, including: the English Civil Wars; British radicalism around the time of the French Revolution; Chartism; and the Women’s Suffrage movement. In each case, Vallance focuses on two elements that make A Radical History of Britain more than just a straightforward narrative. The first is a concern with ideas as well as events; Vallances devotes significant attention to the theories and writings that inspired and drove radicalism, from those of the Levellers, to Thomas Paine, Feargus O’Connor, and the Pankhursts. The second element that makes the book stand out is discussion of how protests and periods of radicalism were used by later activists and campaigners as sources of inspiration, justification, and legitimisation. Social movements often draw on the history of radicalism in lots of ways, and A Radical History of Britain traces that process.

Our freedom lies in our power. Pessimists may point to demonstrations against the war in Iraq as evidence of modern government’s capacity to ignore the will of the people. However, the millions who marched against that illegal war also remind us of the readiness of the British people once again, in the words of Shelley, to rise ‘like lions after slumber.’ This is the lesson of Britain’s radical history: the struggle for our freedom goes on.

Vallance, 2010; p 552.

Last year, I reviewed The English Rebel by David Horspool. It too tells the story of English radicalism, although Horspool is more explicit about the English focus. On the surface, the two books are quite similar; they are telling the same story, and feature many of the same events. They also both indulge in my  pet hate of collecting images together rather than dispersing them throughout the text. However, there are differences. The English Rebel is more of a straightforward narrative, whilst A Radical History of Britain explores radical ideas and legacies, as I have mentioned. David Horspool’s overall message is that the English have always been more radical than our reputation implies. Edward Vallance’s key message is that rights are something that the English fought long and hard for, and they can be lost if they are not defended. The narrative in The English Rebel is more complete than in A Radical History of Britain; Vallance sacrifices breadth for depth in some places, so skips over some time periods, and finishes in the mid-twentieth century, whilst Horspool goes right through to the nineteen-nineties. I personally found The English Rebel easier to read, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better book, it depends what the reader is looking for. I understand that not everyone enjoys reading about the history of protest as much as I do, so if you only want to read one, I can offer some advice. If you’re after a more general overview of protest in England throughout history, I would recommend The English Rebel. If you would prefer something with more analysis, then I would suggest A Radical History of Britain.

A Radical History of Britain presents some interesting arguments about how legacies of protests and radicalism are shaped and used by radicals that come after, and it also provides a thorough introduction to the history of radical ideas in Britain. It is not the easiest book to read, but I think it is worth the effort.

 

Author Meets Critics at the AAG

I spent last week at the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), a mammoth event with hundreds of sessions spread over 5 days and 3 hotels in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had a fantastic time at the conference, and I loved exploring New Orleans in my time off. I have attended the conference before, in Chicago in 2015, so I knew what to expect from this epic exchange of knowledge and research. But I also had some new experiences, including participating as a panellist in an Author Meets Critics session.

Representing my new employer, the University of Central Lancashire, at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Author Meets Critics sessions are odd. Primarily designed to publicise recent books (I think!), panellists speak about the book, and the author(s) then respond to those comments. Most of the time, the majority of the audience has not read the book, so it can be hard to formulate questions when the floor is opened up to audience discussion. The number of critics depends on the length of the session, but can range from 3 to 5.

At the AAG, I was taking on the role of critic for Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Revolution, and Uprising Shaped a City, which attempts to document almost four centuries of contentious history in one of the most famous cities in the world. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I had an idea what I wanted to say about it, but I had never actually been to an Author Meets Critics session before, and I wasn’t sure if what I wanted to say was appropriate. So I went to two other Author Meets Critics sessions before the Revolting New York one. The critics in the two sessions took very different approaches, and I liked one much more than the other.

sdr

The Author Meets Critics panel for Space Invaders by Paul Routledge at the 2018 AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The first session I went to was for Paul Routledge’s new book, Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest (2017). Routledge, and most of the panellists, have published work that has been influential on my understanding of the geography of social movements and protests, so that was a second reason for me to go along. I haven’t read the book, in fact I wasn’t aware of its existence until I saw the title in the conference programme. All of the critics (and there were five of them!) talked about what they liked about the book, and what they didn’t like. It was effectively a verbal review. Times five. With the author in the room. Whilst none of the reviews were overwhelmingly bad, it still felt pretty brutal. I felt quite uncomfortable during the session, and I also found it quite difficult to engage with the discussion.

The second Author Meets Critics was for Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today (2017) by Anna Feigenbaum. I have read this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also got a lot more out of the discussion of the book. There were only three critics, which gave Feigenbaum the time to briefly outline the book for those who hadn’t read it, as well as responding to the critics at the end. In addition, rather than reviewing Tear Gas, the two critics built on it, discussing which elements they found most interesting and how the book fit in to contemporary academic debates. As an audience member, I found this approach much more engaging.

sdr

The Author Meets Critics Panel for Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum at the 2018 AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Luckily, this was the approach I had decided to take in my role as critic for Revolting New York. I do not think it is perfect, but I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out what I didn’t like/agree with when the book’s editor, and several of the authors, were in the room. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t critical, however; it is possible to critique something without being negative about it. I instead discussed the elements of Revolting New York that got me thinking, the issues it throws up that I think are worthy of further discussion. The two issues I focused on were: comparisons between New York and London; and the impact of terminology and whether we study events alone or as part of wider social movements. I think it went pretty well, if I do say so myself, and the terminology issue in particular carried on through the audience discussion.

I suspect that not everyone will agree with me on this, some people might not have a problem with pointing out a book’s weaknesses with the author in the room; it can even be argued that it is more fair than publishing a review to which opportunities for response are limited. For the audience however, I think it is downright awkward. I personally think the constructive approach is more engaging for the audience, particularly if they haven’t read the book yet. I would definitely take this approach again if I get asked to participate in another Author Meets Critics panel.

Book Review: Vanishing for the Vote- Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census

Jill Liddington Vanishing for the Vote

Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington.

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014. RRP £16.99 Paperback.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is being marked in a number of ways, including the publication of a number of books on various aspects of the campaign for women’s suffrage. There are already a significant amount of excellent studies on the campaign for women’s suffrage however, including Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington, published in 2014.

Vanishing for the Vote focuses on one particular tactic in the campaign to gain women the right to vote, the 1911 census boycott. On the night of Sunday the 2nd of April, women from across the suffrage spectrum evaded, boycotted, or refused to complete the most comprehensive census survey ever attempted. The argument was that if women did not count as full citizens, then they should should not allow the government to count them. Not every suffrage campaigner agreed with the tactic however; some believed that it was more important that social policy be informed by accurate data about the population.

This census rebellion would not be a violent confrontation, like forcible feeding in prison or street battles with the police. Rather, it would be peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the very meaning of citizenship. What did it mean, in an otherwise supposedly mature democracy like Edwardian Britain, to be a grown women, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?

Liddington, 2014; p. 2

In Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington explores the boycott in depth, including: the census itself; the Women’s Freedom League, which spearheaded the boycott; some of the key personalities involved; the events of census night itself; and the protests’ significance and implications. In 2009 the original 1911 census schedules were made public by The National Archives, providing researchers with a wealth of new resources. Liddington and another historian, Elizabeth Crawford, tracked down 500 census schedules of women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, in order to conduct the first in-depth analysis of what happened during the boycott. The book looks big, but around half of it is actually a Gazetteer of these census schedules, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in suffrage campaigners.

The book is clear and well-written, and although the structure appears unusual at first, it makes sense as the book unfolds. In the Introduction, Jill argues that Vanishing for the Vote is suitable for  academic and popular audiences. Whilst the writing is accessible, I think some of the content would alienate readers that are just interested in history; Liddington explains the methodology of collecting the census details and explores the relevant literature in quite some detail, so it feels more like an academic history book than a popular one. Liddington takes a balanced approach to the debate about the boycott, taking the time to explain the history of, and logic behind, the census itself as well as the campaign to boycott it. As a result, Vanishing for the Vote is not just about how suffrage campaigners asserted their rights as British citizens, but also about how the Edwardian state was attempting to improve the lives of its citizens. As Liddington often argues, it was government by the people versus government for the people. Supporters of women’s suffrage had to decide what was more important to them–the right to vote, or accurate data to inform social reform.

Most people are familiar with the suffragette tactics of smashing windows, arson, and hunger strikes. Vanishing for the Vote is a thorough, engaging, and balanced exploration of one of the lesser known tactics employed by campaigners for women’s suffrage. If your curiosity has been piqued by the centenary celebrations, then it is definitely worth a read.

 

Book Review: Long Road from Jarrow-A Journey through Britain then and Now

Long Road from Jarrow Front Cover

Long Road from Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie. Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey through Britain Then and Now. London: Ebury Press, 2017. RRP £16.99 hardback.

Before I read of Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now, I kind of knew who Stuart Maconie was, mainly through his radio-presenting double act with Mark Radcliffe. I was drawn to the book because of my interest in the Jarrow Crusade; a protest march by a group of unemployed men from Jarrow in Newcastle to London in late 1936. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Crusade, Maconie recreated it, following the exact route and timetable that the marchers took almost a century ago. Along the way he talks to the people he meets about the Crusade, their knowledge and opinions of it, and their perspective on modern politics (Brexit looms large throughout). As a result, the book is a lot of things: a travelogue, a history book, a memoir, a snapshot of two particularly turbulent moments in British politics, and a reflection on the way society remembers and commemorates its history. I can’t remember ever having come upon a protest-based travelogue before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

‘Jarrow’ (the whole matrix of events reducible to one word like ‘Aberfan’, ‘Hillsborough’ or ‘Orgreave’) has become mythic, storied; a thing of lore and romance as much as hard fact, one whose details and legacy are still debated today.

Maconie, 2017; p.7

Maconie is a likeable narrator, striking a nice balance between the serious and the humourous, the personal and the general. His reflections on modern society feel considered and genuine. I really like the chance meetings and discussions he has with people he meets along the way, highlights of which include: the dogwalker on the A41; Julia, the Russian waitress in Leeds; the well-known author and graphic novelist Alan Moore; Lynn, a guide at the John  Bunyan museum in Bedford; and Labour MP for Luton North Kevin Hopkins. Some of these encounters are only brief, but they are nonetheless brilliant insights into the wonderful variety of people living in modern Britain. The spontaneity of these meetings demonstrates how open and welcoming strangers can be.

The book is very time specific; for example Maconie often discusses Twitter exchanges he had on his journey, including one with then Education Secretary Michael Gove over the scrapping of the Art History A Level. Whilst these details make the narrative rich, the book may age quickly as a result– it runs the risk of rapidly feeling out-of-date. The book is also much more about the cities, towns, and villages Maconie passes through than the journey itself. Again, this is not necessarily a criticism, but if you’re expecting a book about walking, you’ll be disappointed. One issue that definitely is a criticism is the distinct lack of pictures and maps– there is only a basic map of the route on the back cover. Maconie describes the places he visits well, but I still would have liked some pictures to document his journey. And what self-respecting Geographer wouldn’t be disappointed with a lack of maps?

Long Road from Jarrow is a curious hybrid of travelogue, history book, and memoir, framed by the Jarrow March. It is a comparison between two distinct moments in British history, 1936 and 2016. It is well written and engaging, and I would happily read anything else Maconie  has written. The book provides a competent day-by-day account of the Jarrow March. It is also a thoughtful reflection on the way that historical events are remembered, mythologised, and commemorated. I would highly recommend it.

 

Book Review: Walk the Lines- The London Underground, Overground

Walk the Lines Cover

Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason.

Mark Mason. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. London: Random House, 2011. RRP £8.99 paperback.

The London Underground is one of the most distinctive elements of the city, but it does result in a disjointed perception of the metropolis–I don’t feel like I really got to know how the various areas of London fit together until I moved there and started to walk or get the bus more. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground is the ultimate exercise in getting to know London; author Mark Mason walked the route of every underground line from beginning to end, then wrote a book about it.

I think the concept for this book is excellent; but unfortunately I am not so keen on its execution. I think it would be really interesting to repeat this challenge in a decade or so, London changes so quickly that some of Mason’s observations already feel out of date. Part of me also wants to recreate the exercise in my home town of Brighton, based on a map of a fictional underground network created by illustrator John Sims (see below). Walk the Lines is a fascinating idea that got me thinking about my own relationship with London, and as well as other British cities

The Brighton Line version 2

If Brighton had an underground network, it might look something like this (Source: John Sims)

Sadly, I did not get on so well with Mark Mason’s writing. I did not like the tone of the book at all when I started reading it; it felt like Mason was trying too hard to be funny. This did become less noticeable as I progressed through the book, but I couldn’t say whether it’s because the tone improves or because I just got used to it. I also dislike Mason’s heavy use of footnotes. They interrupt the flow of the writing, and sometimes I missed the superscript, and found myself searching the page for the relevant point. I think they are unnecessary in Walk the Lines.

I also found Mason himself to be a bit arrogant–one of his reasons for undertaking the challenge was to own London, a desire which I think is conceited and a bit odd, quite frankly (p. 4-5). Nobody owns London. If anything, the opposite is true; there have been several occasions when I have felt that London’s influence over my life has been a bit too significant for comfort. In addition, Mason is snobbish about anything that is ‘not London.’ He seems to look down on other cities and London’s suburbs, and view them as automatically inferior. I understand that both of these attitudes come from a great love of London, I too am captivated by it. I am just not so keen on how this affection manifests itself in Mason’s writing.

The final significant issue with Walk the Lines is the lack of photographs. This is a book about the many different faces of London, but there is not a single image of Mason or the different aspects of London he encountered on his walks.

The concept of Walk the Lines is not the only element of the book that I liked however. I enjoyed Mason’s musings on the subjectivity and power of maps, although these are not new ideas to geographers. The book also contains some decent historical facts. For example, London cabbies call the junction on which the Royal Geographical Society sits ‘Hot and Cold Corner,’ because the building has statures of David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton. Finally, I enjoyed the sections when Mason stops along his walks to talk to other people about their perceptions of London, such as: artist and ex-Popstar Bill Drummond; The Archers actor Tim Bentinck, who was the ‘Mind the Gap’ voice on the Piccadilly Line for 15 years; and John Pearson, the official biographer of the Kray twins.

I enjoy reading books about London, and I admire the inventive approach in Walk the Lines. I’ve always thought that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around it, and I like the idea of using a city’s transport network, effectively its circulatory system, to organise such exploration. However, I am not so keen on Mason’s writing style or attitude towards London. This is not a bad book, it just isn’t a great one either.

 

Book Review: Buda’s Wagon- A Brief History of the Car Bomb

Buda's Wagon Front cover

The front cover of the 2017 edition of Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis.

Mike Davis. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Among geographers, Mike Davis is particularly well-known for his writing on cities. Books like Planet of the Slums and City of Quartz are staples of undergraduate Geography reading lists. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb is not one I was familiar with, until Verso released new editions of some of his works at the start of 2017. My family can always tell when I’m enjoying what I’m reading because I bombard them with facts and stories from the book. My family have had to listen to a lot of facts about car bombs.

It is the car bombers’ incessant blasting-away at the moral and physical shell of the city, not the more apocalyptic threats of nuclear or bioterrorism, that is producing the most significant mutations in city form and urban lifestyle.

Davies, 2017: p. 7

Buda’s Wagon doesn’t have an introduction as such, instead launching into the story of Mario Buda, an Italian anarchist living in New York who packed his horse-drawn wagon with explosives and iron slugs, drove it to Wall Street, and left it there. At midday, the wagon exploded, killing 40 and injuring more than 200. Mario Buda has the dubious distinction of being the world’s first car bomber-sort of. From there, Buda’s Wagon ricochets around the world and through a century of conflict, finishing up in the Middle East in the early 2000s. Davis makes a convincing case for the car bomb as a powerful leveller for terrorists and insurgent groups confronting powerful and well-resourced  governments. He also conveys the human cost of a weapon that is indiscriminate at best. At it’s worst, it is deliberately meant to cause further hatred and violence.

Davis does not explicitly state his opinion on the issues he’s writing about, he lets the statistics he uses and the stories he tells speak for themselves. I like this style, it feels like Davis is trusting the reader to form their own opinion. At some points, it highlights the strength of Davis’ feeling, as you can almost sense his opinion fighting its way out through his non-judgmental language.

There aren’t many pictures in Buda’s Wagon, which some readers might not like, but I think was a sensible decision. It would be difficult to include many pictures without becoming ghoulish. I did find the narrative a bit difficult to follow when it reached the Middle East, but I imagine simplifying the politics in a way that would make them comprehensible for most readers would be a very difficult task.

Buda’s Wagon is a poignant, engaging read, that thinks systematically about the car bomb in a way that is scholarly, but not insensitive. I would recommend it to anyone interested in contentious politics or geopolitics, or anyone who wants to try and understand what can seem like a senseless and inexplicable act.