Book Review: The Village in Revolt- The Story of the Longest Strike in History

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The Village in Revolt by Shaun Jeffery.

Shaun Jeffery. The Village in Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History. Higdon Press, 2018. RRP £14.99 paperback.

I recently went to Tolpuddle in Dorset, to find out more about the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs. In the gift shop of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, there were a number of books about the martyrs, but also about other examples of rural strikes and trade unionism. The Village In Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History appealed to me largely because I had never heard of the Burston School Strike before. My research is focused on urban protest, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about an example of rural dissent.

The Village in Revolt tells the story of the Burston School Strike. Tom and Annie Higdon were well-loved teachers in the rural village of Burston in Norfolk. On 1st April 1914, the Higdons were fired based on a series of exaggerated and unfounded accusations. The Higdons were socialists, and since they had arrived in Burston in 1911, they had been in an escalating conflict with the village elites, particularly the rector, the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland. The Higdons were good teachers, and the school children and their families decided to support them. 66 out of 72 children went on strike, refusing to attend the village school unless the Higdons were reinstated. An alternative school was established on the village green, which would last until 1939. The strikers received support from around the country, and by 1917 had raised enough to build a Strike School, which still stands to this day.

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The Burston Strike School still stands to this day, and is now a museum (Photo: Out_of_Station).

Shaun Jeffery tells the story of the Burston School Strike with creativity and sympathy. Whilst obviously admiring of the Higdons and the strikers, Jeffery doesn’t shy away from their flaws, admitting that Tom Higdon could be quite a difficult man to get along with. The Village in Revolt is obviously the result of significant historical research; as well as the strike itself, the book also provides detailed discussion of the Higdons’ and Reverend Eland’s origins, and the history of rural trade unionism. The connection between a school strike and the unions of agricultural workers may not be immediately obvious, but Tom Higdon was a dedicated trade unionist, and the atmosphere that union activities created helped to give the striking students and their families the confidence to stand up to local elites.

My main criticism of The Village in Revolt is that the balance between context and the discussion of the strike itself feels off. Jeffery spends so much time discussing the background to the strike and the biographies of the people involved, that the section about the strike feels short by comparison. I understand that context is important, but it not more important than the story itself. As a result of this imbalance, the ending of the book feels quite abrupt.

If you are interested in the history of Norfolk, British education, or rural protest, then I think you will find something of interest in The Village in Revolt. It certainly is an inspiring story, and Burston is now on my list of places to visit!

Book Review: Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25

Guilty and Proud of it Front Cover

Guilty and Proud of It! by Janine Booth.

Janine Booth. Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25. Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2009. RRP £12.00 paperback. 

In 1921, 30 Labour councillors for Poplar in East London were imprisoned for 6 weeks because of their refusal to participate in a local government system that was unfair. They knew that they were breaking the law, but willingly sacrificed their freedom in order to challenge a law that they firmly believed was unjust. Despite strong opposition, including from within the Labour Party itself, their stand was successful, forcing the national government into an embarrassing climbdown. In Guilty and Proud of It!, Janine Booth tells the story of what has become known as the Poplar Rates Rebellion, as well as the longer conflict between the national government and the socialist Labour councillors that lasted from their election in 1919 until 1925.

Poplar council chose not to concede but to fight. And by fighting, it won. Poplar’s story – of defiance, of protests, of mass participation, of prison – has to be told. It deserves its place in the list of historical struggles that each generation of socialists and labour movement activists learn about, alongside the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the General Strike, Grunwick, the Miner’s Strike, the Poll Tax.

Booth, 2009; p. ix-x.

In the 1920s, Poplar (now part of Tower Hamlets) was one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. At the time, local governments had to pay unemployment and poverty relief benefits out of the local rates (like council tax today). The more poor and unemployed people in a borough, the more money had to be raised from the local residents. It was an unfair system which meant that the richest boroughs, where people could most afford higher taxes, actually had the lowest rates. In Poplar, Labour won 39 out of 42 council seats in November 1919. They set about using this impressive majority to make genuine improvements to the lives of working-class Poplar residents, which upset local elites, including employers and landlords.

For the next 6 years, the council would struggle with these local elites and central government, taking a defiant stance that became known as Poplarism (not to be confused with Popularism!) In 1921 the councillors demonstrated just how far they were willing to go, refusing to back down over their demands for a fairer rates system even when they were sentenced to prison indefinitely. The government backed down and the councillors were released after 6 weeks, winning significant concessions over rates.

Guilty and Proud of It! is a lucid account of a fascinating episode in London’s rebellious history. Janine Booth is a trade unionist and socialist herself, and her admiration for the rebel councillors and the stand that they took is evident. The book is less neutral than an academic book would be able to get away with, but Booth does not allow her politics to cloud her judgement. The concluding chapter of the book contains a thorough and balanced analysis, making convincing arguments about why the Poplar councillors were successful, why other councils were so reluctant to join them in their stand, and how Poplarism is relevant today. A lot of history books aimed at a popular audience do not contain this sort of critical analysis, so it was a pleasant surprise. This chapter also helps the reader link the book to wider contexts. Some may describe a book on such a short period of local history as niche, but Booth demonstrates Poplarism’s relevance to ongoing conflicts between local and national governments.

Guilty and Proud of It! is an accessible, engaging book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in London’s history, protest history, or local government.

Book Review: Triumph of Order- Democracy and Public Space in New York and London

Triumph of Order Front Cover

Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London by Lisa Keller

Lisa Keller. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. RRP £24.00 paperback.

Cities are incredibly complex systems, made up of hundreds of interconnecting networks. Sanitation, transportation, power, housing, local government, and public order, amongst others, all have to function successfully in order for a city to thrive. The larger the city, the more complicated and chaotic it gets, and by the end of the nineteenth century London and New York were the two largest cities in the world. The governments of these two cities, and their residents, had to strike a balance between order and liberty. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London traces the struggle to find a balance between these two, frequently conflicting, concepts in the nineteenth century.

Liberal democracies such as the US and the UK place a strong emphasis on liberty and individual freedom. However, the fact is that we are all willing to give up some of that liberty so that the government can maintain order and protect us and our property. Exactly how much of our individual freedoms we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe is a matter of constant debate. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller argues that in London and New York during the nineteenth century the balance between liberty and order tipped towards order. Using a combination of examples, archival sources, and analysis, Keller makes a convincing argument that liberty, particularly freedom of speech, was curtailed in favour of minimising the risk of disorder and violence on the streets of two of the world’s greatest cities.

The legacy of the nineteenth century was a new structure for public order, in which liberty was expendable. Great Britain and America retained a framework for free speech and assembly, but democracy as an ideal became tempered by realities of city life. The principles and practices established in the nineteenth century yielded long-lasting societal parameters affecting public space, free speech, and assembly.

Keller, 2009: p.223

Although I read academic books as part of my research and teaching, most of the books I review on Turbulent London are aimed at a more general audience. Triumph of Order is written for an academic audience, and is therefore less accessible than most ‘popular’ history books. This is not a criticism, however, just an observation; Triumph of Order is a good book, but if you are looking for something to take on holiday with you, I wouldn’t suggest this. A small criticism that I do have is that Keller is often careless with chronology. The book is structured chronologically, with the first half looking at London and the second focused on New York, but within individual chapters there is a tendency to jump back and forward between different events and time periods that can be confusing.

As someone who studies London and has visited New York, I have always been curious about how the history of the two compares. Triumph of Order highlights the parallels and differences between the two cities. Some of them are relatively obvious: London, for example, was the first major city in the world to have a professional civilian police force (1829), which had clear implications for the way free speech and protest was controlled (New York City followed suit in 1845). Other insights Keller provided are less familiar to me as a British reader, such as the idea that Americans have always been more tolerant of bodily violence and loss of life than British people. Many people have died during riots in London, but it is mostly due to accidents and the violent tactics of authorities; in New York, rioters themselves are more likely to kill people. In Triumph of Order, Keller does a good job of comparing the two cities in a way that also provides insight into them as individual metropolises.

The balance between liberty and order is a difficult issue. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller has produced a book that illuminates the historical structures that underpin that balance in two of the most significant cities in Western liberal democracies. That’s no mean feat.

Book Review: Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Death in Ten Minutes Front Cover

Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Fern Riddell. Death in Ten Minutes. London: Hodder, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Thanks to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018, there has been a significant amount of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the campaign for women’s suffrage over the last two years (see all of my blog posts on the topic here). It is no easy task, therefore, to come up with something that stands out from the crowd. I have been looking forward to reading Death in Ten Minutes since its publication last year, but I have been waiting for the paperback to come out. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait.

Death in Ten Minutes is a biography of Kitty Marion, a German-born actress and singer who came to live with her aunt in Britain as a young girl to escape an abusive father. During her time in the theatres and music halls she was subjected to sexual assault and mistreatment by men who held power over her career. She became increasingly disillusioned with the way women were treated by society, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) proved to be an ideal outlet for her frustrations. She became one of the group’s most militant suffragettes, responsible for multiple arson and bomb attacks around the country. During the First World War Kitty was forced to leave Britain because she was German, despite living in the UK for most of her life. She took refuge in the US, where she became heavily involved in the birth control advocacy movement. She continued to fight for what she believed in until her death in 1944. In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes. The result is an account of Kitty’s life that is vivid, engaging, and feels like it is told from her perspective.

There are lots of things I like about Death in Ten Minutes. One of the main characteristics of the book that surprised me is that Riddell uses Kitty’s story to make a broader argument about the way that women’s history in general, and the suffrage movement in particular, has been sanitised in popular memory and dominant historical narratives in order to (re)produce a particular patriarchal understanding of women. Riddell also critiques the way that the suffragettes are idolised in popular memory, glossing over violent and life-threatening acts of terrorism to present a picture of perfect women. But no one is perfect, and it is just as important to acknowledge that about our admired historical figures as it is about ourselves. In most historical biographies aimed at a popular audience, I do not expect the kind of critical analysis found in Death in Ten Minutes.

The second major strength of Death in Ten Minutes for me is that it doesn’t end in 1918. Many of the women involved in the suffrage campaign went on to use their skills for other causes and social movements, and Kitty was no exception. She worked for the birth control advocacy movement for just as long, if not longer, than she campaigned for the WSPU. Social movements and political campaigns in the twentieth century were empowering experiences for many women, allowing them to develop skills they never anticipated, and the confidence to use those skills (the 1984-5 miner’s strike is another good example). Death in Ten Minutes contextualises the suffrage campaign within Kitty’s life, and shows that there was much more to her than being a suffragette.

Death in Ten Minutes is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that gives Kitty Marion the recognition she deserves as a fierce and passionate, but flawed, campaigner for women’s rights. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Italian Boy- Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London

The Italian Boy front cover

The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise.

Sarah Wise. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London. London: Pimlico, 2005. RRP £7.99 paperback

Most people have heard of Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh murderers. Fewer people know that London had its own episode of ‘burking’ in 1831. In the early 19th century, London’s anatomists and medical schools needed many more bodies for dissection than could be provided by legal means. A lucrative trade in corpses developed, and ‘Resurrectionists’ could make a good income by digging up the recently buried and selling them to hospitals and medical schools. In late 1831, two Resurrectionists in Bethnal Green decided to cut out the middle man, and began murdering London’s poor and neglected in order to sell the bodies. They were caught trying to sell the body of a young boy to the anatomy department at King’s College. The ensuing court case, and eventual conviction and execution of two of the men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, caused a morbid scandal that enthralled London. It led to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which eventually put an end to the illicit trade in corpses. In The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London, Sarah Wise tells the story of the murderers, their apprehension, trial, and execution in impressive detail. She also uses the story as a springboard, branching out to look at many elements of London in the first half of the nineteenth century, including poverty, housing, healthcare, and even animal welfare. The result is an interesting account of a gruesome story that captures London on the verge of rapid and dramatic transformation.

The case of the Italian boy (it was quickly decided, although never decisively proven, that the final victim was an Italian street performer) captured the public imagination in a way that only an incredibly gory crime can. As such, a significant amount of archival material about the case, largely court records and newspaper articles, has survived. As such, Wise is able to provide an incredible amount of detail about the events surrounding the case. At some points, it was almost a little too much detail; I got distracted trying to keep track of the sheer number of pubs that the men visited in the days before they were arrested at King’s, and the order in which they visited them. Despite all this detail, there are still many elements of the case that are unknown, and will never be known. It will never be possible to confirm exactly how many people were killed, for example, nor to find out what happened to John Bishop’s children after their father was executed. Wise was able to trace the some of the children to Shoreditch workhouse in 1835, but then they disappear without trace.

It is a well-known frustration amongst researchers who use archives that the voices of the poor rarely get preserved. In the Preface of The Italian Boy, Wise argues that she saw this story as an opportunity to find out about the poorest residents of nineteenth century London: “The story appeared to me to be a window on the lives of the poor at a period of great change: a window that is badly damaged – opaque in places, blocked out or shattered in others – but offering a glimpse of those who have left little authentic trace of themselves” (Wise, 2005; p. xvii). It is true that you have to use archives creatively in order to find out about the lives of the poor in the past, but this might be the most creative method I’ve come across. Whilst I’m not sure it is representative of the lives of the vast majority of London’s poor, it does provide an insight into the society in which they struggled to survive.

The Italian Boy strikes a good balance between academic rigour and popular appeal. Wise tells the story of the London burkers well, but also uses it to look at broader themes in a way that is more common in academic journal articles or books. If you are interested in the history of London, crime and the criminal justice system, or indeed the development of modern healthcare, then I recommend you give it a go.

Book Review: Black and British- A Forgotten History

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Black and British by David Olusoga.

David Olusoga. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

In the introduction to Black and British, David Olusoga tells a disturbing story from his childhood, where his family were driven out of their home by racist attacks in 1984. After they left, a swastika was painted on the front door, along with the words “NF [National Front] won here.” My response was: “I know racism is still a problem in the UK, but at least it isn’t that bad any more.” A few days later, the story broke about Vaughan Dowd painting racist graffiti on the front door of 10-year-old David Yamba and his father in Salford, Greater Manchester. I was shocked, and perhaps a bit embarrassed by my naivety in believing that this kind of thing doesn’t happen any more. Black and British is an excellent introduction to thousands of years of intertwined history between black people and the British isles, that helps put the racist ideology behind the persecution of the Yamba family into context.

In Black and British, David Olusoga eloquently explores the place of black people in British history, stretching back to the Roman occupation and beyond. He brings the story up to the 1980s, arguing that his personal memories of the period since then limit his ability to be impartial. In between, he covers a huge swathe of historical material, ranging from Britain’s role in both the growth and eventual decline of the Atlantic slave trade, through the influence of black music on British culture, to the impacts of the presence of African-American GIs in the UK during the Second World War.

What I find most innovative about Black and British is Olusoga’s definition of ‘British’. He doesn’t just consider people who live in the British isles, or who hold British citizenship, but everyone who’s lives were shaped by Britain or her people. For example, the book includes a fascinating exploration of the history of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, which was founded as a colony for poor black people ‘repatriated’ from London in the late 1700s. The city thrived as the base for the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, who were responsible for enforcing the ban on the slave trade. Slaves from throughout Western Africa were freed by the Royal Navy’s ships, and made their homes in the city, creating a vibrant and diverse population. Sierra Leone is 5000 km from the Britain, but Olusoga’s writing makes the connections between them impossible to deny.

I also admire the way that Black and British is not just a history of racism in Britain, although it does tell that story very well. It is predominantly about the lives of black people with the British sphere of influence, their triumphs and their tragedies, and their attempts to create a space for themselves within British society. It is easy to focus on racism when we think about black people in the UK, but there is so much more to the story than that. People should be defined by who they are and what they do, not the prejudice they face, and Black and British does that.

There has been (and perhaps, still is), a tendency to overlook the role of black people in British history, an erasure that helps to undermine the ability of black people to assert their right to be part of a society that they have contributed to for hundreds of years. Black and British is just one part of an attempt to rewrite British history in a way that more accurately reflects the contribution of black people, and it does a wonderful job. It has profoundly altered my understanding of the history of Britain, and I think that everyone who lives in Britain or considers themselves British should read it.

Book Review: When the Clyde Ran Red- A Social History of Red Clydeside

When the Clyde ran Red

When the Clyde Ran Red by Maggie Craig.

Maggie Craig. When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

I don’t need much of an excuse to go book shopping, but traveling is one of them. Whenever I go somewhere new, I keep an eye out for books about local history, particularly relating to protest and dissent. On a recent trip to Scotland, I bought When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside by Maggie Craig. The book tells the story of a period in Glasgow’s history known as Red Clydeside. In the first half of the twentieth century Glasgow and the surrounding areas experienced a period of radical politics which saw a number of dedicated campaigners fighting to improve the lives of working-class Glaswegians. When the Clyde Ran Red tells the story of Glasgow between the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 and the Clydebank Blitz in 1941.

Warm and witty, kind-hearted and generous, interested in everything and everyone, the spirited men and women of Red Clydeside had one goal they set above all things…to create a fair and just society, one in which the children of the poor had as much right as the children of the rich to good health, happiness, education and opportunity.

Craig, p. 301

When the Clyde Ran Red is an engaging and lively read, it is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Maggie Craig has an informal writing style, her prose peppered with phrases in Scots that helps to transport the reader to Glasgow in the first half of the twentieth century. The book is comprehensive, covering everything from party politics undertaken by idealistic and self-sacrificing men, to rent strikes organised by fierce and determined housewives. Craig also brings in social history, explaining the context of Red Clydeside by describing the social, economic, and cultural life of Glasgow. For example, the Scottish Exhibition (1911), the Empire Exhibition (1938) and the popularity of increasingly ‘raunchy’ dance styles as a form of social revolution.

I criticised the last book I reviewed, The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn (LINK), for going into too much detail. Sometimes, When the Clyde Ran Red goes to far in the opposite direction. I occasionally found its lack of detail frustrating. For example, the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 failed, but Craig does not any offer explanations about what went wrong. There were several points where I just wanted more information. Nevertheless, I think the book is a good introduction to an area of history that I previously knew very little about, and I can always find more detail elsewhere about all the events featured if I wanted to. When the Clyde Ran Red is an excellent starting point.

I admit that my knowledge of Scottish history is patchy at best, but When the Clyde Ran Red was an enjoyable way of filling some of those gaps. I would recommend it to anyone interested in labour history, the history of protest, or Scottish history.

Book Review: The Headscarf Revolutionaries-Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster

The Headscarf Revolutionaries Front Cover

The Headscarf Revolutionaries by Brian W. Lavery

Brian W. Lavery. The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster. London: Barbican Press, 2015.

Whenever I move to a new place, I like to find out about its history, particularly its radical history. I recently moved to Hull in east Yorkshire, and one of the most famous episodes of protest in the city’s history took place in 1968. In early 1968, three trawler ships from Hull were lost in the Artic ocean in the space of just a few weeks. All three crews were lost, apart from one sole survivor. For some women in Hull, this was a tragedy that could have been avoided with better equipment and more stringent safety checks on the trawler ships, and better training for inexperienced crew members. The women started a campaign which captured national attention, won concessions from the ship owners, and changed government policy. They were largely pushing against an open door, but they did face hostility and criticism, including from some trawlermen who didn’t like women interfering in their working lives. The women became known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries because of their distinctive headwear. In The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster, Brian W. Lavery tells the story of the campaign, the women involved, and the men who lost their lives on the St. Romanus, the Kingston Peridot, and the Ross Cleveland.

Lily’s Headscarf Revolution may have been a naïve one. But it was a powerful action from the heart that caught the imagination of the world and shamed an industry and a Government into action. Hands that rocked the cradle shook the world and changed it for the better.

Lavery, 2015; p.190

I was not surprised to find out the Brian Lavery has training in both journalism and creative writing. The Headscarf Revolutionaries is incredibly well-researched; it seems like Lavery interviewed almost everyone who is still alive and had any involvement in the campaign. Virginia Bilocca-McKenzie, is the daughter of Lillian Bilocca’s, who kickstarted and was one of the key leaders of the movement. Virginia obviously had significant input into the book; multiple conversations between her and her mother are included. Many sections of the book feel more like fiction than non-fiction; it is much more descriptive that many of the other history books I read. It is an effective approach, particularly the section near the beginning in which some of the men on the crews of the doomed ships say goodbye to their families and head out to sea for what the reader knows is the final time.

There are some elements of Lavery’s writing style that I am not so keen on, however. He has an odd way of using commas that I found irritating. It’s not necessarily wrong, but there are lots of commas in places where I wouldn’t put them, which I found distracting.  Also, some details are repeated in a way that felt unnecessary. These are minor issues in what is otherwise an excellent book, and I guess it isn’t Lavery’s fault that I am quite pedantic when it comes to grammar and style; I blame it on all the undergraduate marking I do.

The Headscarf Revolutionaries is about a local tragedy which sparked a campaign which had national implications. It shines a light on both labour and gender relations amongst Britain’s working classes in the mid-twentieth century, and as such has a much broader appeal than those who are just interested in local history.

 

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.