Category Archives: Travel

Man Booker Longlist 2018/6

My shadow books first. The Melody by Jim Crace and The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. Both writers that I discovered thanks to the Man Booker Prize.  Both such mellifluous titles, but both actually about menace.

CraceIn The Melody the principal character, Alfred Busi is a widower, in his prime he has been a renowned singer, songwriter. We meet him first as he is about to be significantly honoured by his town, an unnamed seaside town, with an Avenue of Fame: town worthies remembered, pedestalized and in bronze and Mister Al, is to be one of them.

But the might before his honouring ceremony, he had a damaging encounter with a feral creature that has got into his larder. His nights have often been disturbed by urban foxes and other creatures upsetting his bins and scavenging for food; but on this occasion he has been alerted by the tinkling of some Persian Bells, and goes down to investigate, but when he opens the larder door, something attacks him, scratching his face badly and biting his hand.

He calls for his sister-in-law, Terina to help him and she dismisses it as an animal, but he responds “a cat with dentures by the look of it”.

He does not call the police, and later on this incident is reported badly and inaccurately in the press. The town is alerted to the feral menace of possible “Neanderthals” hiding out in the bosk, the wild wooded area away from the sea at the back of the town.

This is a novel about change and “progress”. The first part is about changes in Alfred himself, partly brought on by the first attack, and then exacerbated by another more personal attack, and by a discovery which pulls away all his certainties. Two years a widower, there are bound to be alterations to the daily grind, or in the taking of pleasure but to become a victim in one’s own home is another order of magnitude, a disconcerting and destabilising event.

In the second part of the book, which follows some six or seven years later, the disruption seen in the first part has been completed.

I must first have come across Jim Crace in 2001, when he was listed for Being Dead, and I have gone back into his other novels.  One Quarantine, is the book I have given away most often.

Tim Winton, an Australian writer, I discovered through the Booker listings in The Riders. This must have been in about 1992, it is not his best I think, but I have read most of the others since, also going back through earlier novels. The Shepherd’s Hut though, is streets ahead of all of them. I cannot imagine why this is not on this year’s longlist, only that it was not presented for consideration.

WintonJaxie Clackton is the son of a butcher, his father is one of a dubious but successful breed of bully. Jaxie’s mother has died of cancer before the book opens, his childhood has been punctuated with good times, with his Auntie Marg and his cousins, and bad and worse times at home; his mother has been persistently bullied and beaten, but like so many battered wives, has stuck by her man. Now she is gone, Jaxie is the main punchbag.

After a particularly severe beating, when his eye is pretty nearly punched out, Jaxie goes off to hide out. A night or so later, he returns home but what he finds spooks him so badly that he hastily packs up a bag and makes a run for it.

Monkton, which is where is he is running from, is somewhere in Western Australia. (It may not even exist, I haven’t checked).  He heads into the bush, mostly mulga scrub and some tree cover where there are eucalyptus groves. He steers away from the roads and highways, though he can often hear the huge “roadtrains” passing.

He is in pretty dire straits when he discovers the prospector’s shack, where there is water but not a lot else. He has his father’s gun and some cartridges, lives rough for a while but cannot keep the kangaroo meat, as it goes off in the heat. But he realises he is not far from the salt lakes, so he goes off to get salt and finds more than he bargains for.

Jaxie thinks he is a lucky man, and by any definition this must be true, but luck is not always a two-way street, and those whom he meets are not always quite so fortunate.

This is a book full of quite brilliant descriptions: exquisite tenderness and love; the wilderness of Western Australia; survival; and also acute and devastating tension. Tim Winton writes beautifully.

I have camped out by those salt lakes, they are both wonderful and terrifying. Turning the mulga scrub into grassland for sheep permanently damaged the land. The salt lakes are a leprosy left by European settlers and rangers, some of them spread by a metre in diameter every year, the land is no longer good for cattle or sheep, which is why the eponymous hut is abandoned to its present incumbent when Jaxie gets there.

Unless you are completely turned off books by Australians, simply because I love them so much, this is a truly remarkable and astounding novel, which I cannot recommend too highly.

2018 BLL GunaratneBack to this year’s Man Booker longlist. An extraordinary debut novel by Guy Gunaratne, a BAME writer of considerable talent, who lives in London with a wife and two cats. Anyone who has two cats gets my vote.

In OUR MAD and FURIOUS CITY, the title of Gunaratne’s novel (deliberately written here more or less exactly as it appears on the book jacket) we find ourselves in Neasdon. Not a name to conjure with, honestly. In the novel, it sounds as dreary, messed up and conflicted as its name. We are kicking around with a group of young boys, they have mostly been around each other since primary or secondary school, though perhaps their attendance has not been 100%. They are all of them either BAME or mixed; the novel is bookended by an unidentified voice, but one who clearly knows the group, but may not be part of it.

The characters appear, each in their own section. Part 1 is called Mongrel, the chapters are Estate, Square, Ends. Here, we meet in this order: Selvon, Caroline, Ardan, Yusuf and Nelson. These characters are not all the same generation so the reader needs to pay attention because relationships will be revealed later that make a difference to how we view each boy. Sections 2 and 3 are Brother and Blood.

I do not think I would have picked this book off the shelf; the book jacket is quite threatening even without the title! But I am glad to have read it. The writing is original, visceral and fully-fledged. For a debut novel, even though Gunaratne has written short stories, this is an accomplished masterpiece. The city gets up and whacks you in the face; and has affected its young inhabitants in ways that it is hard to grasp, from its leafier suburbs.

This is a book that I would be glad to see on the shortlist, though I do not see it as an outright winner, so far.


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Man Booker Longlist 2018/5

While I was surprised and hesitant about the inclusion of a poem in the longlist, having read The Long Take I do understand why it was included. There is no doubt that is has a narrative, it also has quite a few pieces that are absolutely prose and even the poetry can read like prose. [My husband would have derided it as “chopped up prose”] I remain extremely doubtful whether poetry ought to qualify, but am heartily glad this book arrived on the longlist as I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

2018 BLL PoemRobin Robertson is a well know poet, he has already published five volumes of poems and has received many honours. Since I haven’t read anything by him before (almost certainly my loss) I cannot say whether narrative poetry is his usual genre. Never mind, The Long Take is a narrative.

Walker is a Second World War veteran, of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, a Canadian regiment – my sister-in-law claims that the Stuarts founded Nova Scotia, a family myth that I haven’t pursued, she may even possibly be right, but I warmed immediately to this man.

We meet him first in New York, recently de-mobbed. It is 1946 and he feels too befouled by his wartime experiences to go back to Lake Ainslie and his home and family. The title of the book comes from the cinema.  A year or so has passed and it is now 1948, Walker moves to Los Angeles, he is a press reporter and has been asked to write up some movie reviews. He chooses Deadly is the Female (a good choice) and the film make him think.  The poem expresses it thus:

He thought about it all night. That long take

inside the getaway car: one shot that lasted three minutes easy

and was just real life. Right there.

Later on Walker meets the director, Joseph H Lewis,  and talks about this one long shot and gets to hear how it was accomplished and why the title of the film was changed to Gun Crazy.

This short passage too may show you how the poem can be seen as “chopped up prose”, though I am not really rubbishing poetry written like this. Above, I have written it out exactly as it appears in the book; but you could equally have read it in a prose novel as: “He thought about it all night. That long take inside the getaway car: one shot that lasted three minutes easy and was just real life. Right there.” And you would not necessarily have thought, that sentence simply doesn’t work.

The actual prose pieces are mostly in italics, these are Walker’s flashbacks, partly to his pre-war life in Canada and his girlfriend, and nature: the lake, otters, trees and colour and then his war. The flashbacks are part of his PTSD, which is part of his not now going home, he is simply not a fit person to pick up his old life, from what he has seen and, more importantly, what he has done. Here are two pieces, separated by about 40 pages which demonstrate the state he is in mentally. [This describes his D-Day experience]:

It was all about timing. Waiting to jump from the scramble net down the side of the merchant ship to the LCA below. Trying to find the rhythm of it: the swell of the water, the boats colliding. Your best chance was just before the landing craft slammed against the ship’s hull. Mistiming the jump meant drowning or crushing. You got it right. Picked yourself up. The steel deck slippery with vomit.

Forty pages on, his mind swings back to this day

The rating with the bilge bucket is swilling off the puke, and what is left of McPherson who hadn’t timed it right, his jump from the nets to this landing craft below.

There are also occasions, within the poem, that Walker loses his grip, and this loss of control accelerates towards the end as Los Angeles itself is pulled to pieces by the demands of the automobile barons and the CRA (the very corrupt planning office); making highways and destroying public transport and ghettoising many areas of the expanding city.

While working for the Press, Walker requests permission to write up the homeless, jobless situation in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So the poem is full of characters in bars and cafes. Here is the section in which he describes his colleagues: [This is a pretty long piece, for which I make no apology – I want people to go out and get this book to read]:

He’s got to know more people at the Press

who’d been there as long as the boss, and all from out east like him:

Templeton from Iowa’s an okay guy,

well-bred, sense of humour, smart,

and May Wood from Boston, the face of the paper.

Some said she’s a dyke, but he didn’t think so

and he liked her anyway – liked to make her laugh.

The rest were harder going.

The compositors and proof-readers

looked up at him with eyes of ruminants: carefully,

without movement. If something required scrutiny

there was a slow, elaborate shift of the shoulders. The stare.

Rennert and Sherwood were his team, in their cheap suits,

three-day shirts and stained ties,

keeping his straight on the city:

the organized crime, the stoolies, bent cops and politicians,

the ninety-six clubs, hash joints, card rooms, cathouses.

They knew the city from Griffith Park to the harbour at San Pedro,

from Pasadena to Malibu, Point Dume.

They smoked full-time, traded girls like baseball cards,

wore their hats tipped back,

had a bad word to say about everyone, told stories

even they didn’t believe.

And then there was Pike:

holding up the stacks of manuscript pages

and tapping them down on the desk to align them,

patting them straight at the tope and the sides.

There is more about all these people, especially Pike who is a snake and about the bums that he interviews, there is domesticity in his own life, illness and death, violent sometimes; but in his deeper being there is darkness and regret.

The book ends in Los Angeles in 1953. Robertson has covered pretty much everything that has happened, the Korean War, the HUAC, MacCarthy, elections and all sorts. Walker fumbles through it all, bowed down by memory and loss.

I have not got a shadow book for this post. I want you to read this book. I hope it makes it to the shortlist.

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/4

2018 BLL BurnsMilkman by Anna Burns: I had heard and read a lot about Milkman before actually reading the book, and nothing that I had heard or read prepared me for how dense it was. It is a first person narrative, set in an unnamed town, fully of unnamed but identified people.

The time is clearly Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the place maybe Belfast, but if so it is not entirely recognisable, there is no mention of the docks or the sea, for example. The narrator belongs to a fairly large family: ma, da (deceased), first brother, second brother (deceased), third brother and fourth brother (run away over the border); there are also sisters and first-brother-in-law and third brother-in-law and the “wee ones”, three younger sisters.  There are neighbours, the maybe-boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody (not the boyfriend), the milkman and Milkman.

It is a narrative that begins at the end and circles back to the same ending. There is violence, suspicion, betrayal, death (violent and accidental). There are those “over the water” who are in this city: the soldiers and others; there are those on the side of those “over the water” like the police. Then there are the informers and the renouncers – both sides have these, both “our side of the road” and those on “the other side of the road”. And there is a great deal of menace and rumour and gossip.

There is one shocking episode that is scarcely credible, but must be true, I fear. Partly because it would be hard to make it up and partly because if you did, there would be an outcry and a lawsuit pending. It concerns the killing of all the dogs and runs from page 93 through to page 100, it involves the British soldiers killing all the dogs because they barked and gave away their positions, then having killed all bar one, they left them with their throats cut in “the entry”, presumably one of the safe roads into the “our side”.

The narrator explains, digests, digresses, thinks and reads while she walks, generally novels written before the nineteenth century. She is aloof but also considered; she thinks a lot about being a maybe-girlfriend and whether or not she wants to join coupledom; her maybe-boyfriend has the same thoughts but until now they have never coincided at the same moment, so it hangs in there unresolved.

Then there is a rumour that she is going with Milkman; she isn’t, although she has met him – or rather he has sidled into her life in a less than straightforward manner. He draws up beside her in his van, but she will not get in; he runs beside her in the park and makes threatening remarks about maybe-boyfriend and then he “runs into her” after a French lesson, but she thinks he must have been waiting for her unseen. He upsets her, she half knows what he wants but is repulsed. He is a known renouncer, a known terrorist and he is married (she thinks). He appears to know a great deal about her, her family, her habits and her maybe-boyfriend.

The writing is dense in the sense that the paragraphs are immensely long, they represent her thinking and her way of relating this to an imaginary friend (the reader probably); it is not precisely stream-of-consciousness because it is also actually narrative, without it we could not possibly know what was going on. There are six chapters but there could equally be ten or five, the breaks come slightly arbitrarily though generally starting with encounters with Milkman or post-Milkman encounters when she is trying to ingest what has happened.

Certainly the writing captures explicitly the tension which must have prevailed everywhere in Northern Ireland at the time; the local rules which if broken could end in tar and feathers, knee-capping, beating or death; the kangaroo courts held in out of the way sheds or hutments; the curfew; the suspicion of neighbours, of “the others”; the surveillance. It must have been nearly intolerable and then to add to the mix the innuendo, the rumour and the gossip. This is all there on every page, so that you must stop and take a breather.

Then finally there is a beautiful love story which lifts the whole tenor of the novel into another plane; wonderfully and delightfully revealed in the last chapter. Sheer joy and relief!

Do I think this will make it to the shortlist? The answer is yes.

My shadow book is an out-and-out love story; a debut novel by Anne Youngson.

YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum is an epistolary novel.  Initially Tina Hopgood writes to a Professor Glob, the finder of the Tollund Man but he is no longer there, being as it were 104 had he still been around. But the Curator of the Silkeborg Museum writes back and there develops over a period of about a year and a bit, an intense friendship.

In tone it is not unlike 84, Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir.  Helen Hanff wrote to a bookseller in London at this address and over time they created a warm and rewarding relationship, though they were never to meet, as Frank Doel died before Helen Hanff ever came to Britain, their correspondence lasted over several decades.

This novel is more intense, as the letters go back and forth by email attachment.

It also reminds me a lot of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, because Anders Larsen, the curator (who is fictional) writes quite a lot in his letters about the Tollund Man and the artefacts that are found that relate to his time.

Tina Hopgood describes her life on an East Anglian farm and he describes his life as a curator and widower. Their letters gradually draw out more detail and become more intimate and then right at the crux Tina has to make a serious decision.

Will their relationship on paper survive, and will she go to meet him at the Museum?

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/3

This time an American. I am unconvinced about the inclusion of American writers in the Man Booker Prize, I think it was a bad idea but accept that it is irreversible. You cannot allow a group in for a few years, then exclude them again when they win all the prizes. Which is what has happened.

2018 BLL KushnerThat said, Rachel Kushner has written a crackingly good novel, one that anyone might want to read. The Mars Room is set in an American woman’s correctional facility with a main character, Romy Hall, who is in for two life sentences.  We meet other inmates, some on death row whose lives intersect with hers simply because they are in the same serious, life-denying circumstances.

The same routine, the same people, the same food, the same problems. It is hard to imagine what is meant by “correctional” in these places. Those on death row sew sandbags – to be filled by male prisoners in other “correctional facilities”; those less threatening, but serious criminals – murderers, grievous bodily harmers and the like –  can get on to the workshop programme where they are trained in carpentry – to make the furniture for the courtrooms of the United States judiciary: the witness box, the bench, the judges’ chairs – some irony there?

Then there is the educational programme, once a week, for basic numeracy and literacy. Romy joins the class of G Hauser, who starts with some easy to answer questions that amount to adding three plus eight, or two plus five. Romy is having none of it; finally he gets the point and begins to send her interesting books via Amazon – after a first mis-step sending her To Kill a Mocking Bird, I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing and one other, all of which she read when she read thirteen!

Throughout the book we learn about the background to Romy’s situation, what she did before – she was a lap-dancer in the eponymous club – The Mars Room – a sleazy, San Franciscan low-life club. And what she did to end up in this prison. We learn about her son Jackson, living with his grandmother and what happens when that goes wrong.

This is not alone about women, for we also meet a rough, crooked cop who has been sold up the water by one of the death row women, and is now in his own hell: a men’s prison. Stuck there hoping that no one will discover his career option – but Blanche LaFrance has other ideas and our friend G Hauser is persuaded to post a letter for her, with near fatal results.

As an eye-opener it is not without its surprises, but the brutality and the sheer unpleasantness is not easy; especially for the trans-gender inmates. One in particular that moves from the male prison where Doc the cop is, to the female prison – where ‘they’ are not made welcome.

TylerMy shadow book is also by an American, a writer that you will be familiar with because I have read everything she has ever written. Anne Tyler‘s new title is Clock Dance.

It starts with a young woman, Willa Drake, selling candies to make money for her school orchestra trip; it jumps quickly to her college years and to her first marriage. She has two sons Sam and Ian, they appear as late teenagers and then we jump further on to her second marriage.

At this point, the turning point of the whole novel, she is summoned suddenly to Baltimore, and we are straightaway back in familiar Tyler territory. We feel the heat, the dust and the small bedraggled houses; the long streets with close knit communities and we meet over time all the neighbours, their quirky otherness.

This quixotic decision is regarded by her husband as unnecessary and ill-considered, but he goes with her anyway. Peter is dismissive of her good intentions, and fairly contemptuous of the people that she ends up with: Denise, who has been shot in the leg, her daughter Cheryl, who Willa has agreed to look after, and pretty much the whole caboodle. Eventually, when Denise is finally released from hospital, Peter goes home.

The clock dance of the title is described thus:

Later, crossing the upstairs hall with a basket of laundry, Willa glanced into Cheryl’s room to see what they were up to. Patty stood facing her, both arms extended from her sides, with Laurie and Cheryl directly behind her. All that showed of Laurie and Cheryl were their own arms, extended too so that Patty seemed to possess six arms, all six moving in stiff, stop-start arcs in time to the clicking sounds that Willa could hear now punctuating the music. “It’s the clock dance!” Cheryl shouted, briefly peeking out from the tail end.

Willa stays on, and on…

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Two recommendations from Canada

My friends rather despair of recommending books for me to read, as they are either on my TBR (currently waiting for the addition of the Booker Longlist novels) or I have already read them, so it is a welcome treat to have a reliable source in Canada for interesting and rewarding novels.


Two very different books. One a rather fabulously romantic love story with a sad ending and the other an equally absorbing story set against the background of the Russian Revolution, which was in its own way also a romantic love story but of a very different calibre.

The two main characters in The Lonely Hearts Hotel are orphans who end up in the same orphanage. Pierrot and Rose. The children are kept apart as far as possible, but the attraction is insurmountable in spite of the efforts of a vicious nun, Sister Eloïse. Set in Montreal, Canada the two children survive what amounts to terrible abuse and deprivation, and eventually leave –  Pierrot as the protégé of an elderly widower and Rose as a childcare nurse, at which point their trajectory unravels. Living parallel lives and yet longing for each other, the circus that is their separate existence finally swings them, trapeze-like, together again.

Heather O’Neill paints a vivid world, full of coincidence and drama, with an edge of sadness and misery. But this is not to say that this is not a joyous book, it teeters on the brink, all the time, of tears but is also full of passion and delight.

Pierrot very much reminded me of Jude, a character in A Little Life, the mental and emotional damage is so gross, and yet he is a fine young man, if warped by his experiences.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a very different book, the arch-aristocratic Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club and Master of the Hunt is arraigned before a court and his punishment is internal exile, not to Siberia but to the Hotel Metropol. It is not until he returns to the hotel, not to his suite of rooms but to the attic, that the full horror of his situation strikes.

In spite of the fact that the hero is not permitted to leave the hotel premises, Amor Towles brings all of Russia to his feet. The retinue of staff from kitchen to cloakroom, the various guests and Nina, the child that befriends, him all contribute to the many layers that this story brings to the reader. Friendship, loyalty, love and the occasional adventure; Hotel Metropol offers them all.

This is Stalin’s Russia, but a life confined to a small room is not enough to stop Alexander from learning what is happening outside the revolving doors, for those doors bring the world to him. And when Stalin dies – it is Alexander, now a respected waiter, who watches and listens as the heads roll and new people rise, like cream, to the top. Though unlike cream, there has been a bloodbath…

Thrust from extreme luxury to a small attic room, Alexander survives. In fact, possibly because of house arrest, he is spared other more terrible consequences of his background; as poet and bon viveur he lived on though not in the style to which he was accustomed while his contemporaries variously vanished, committed suicide or were killed by the State.

This novel is an absolute marvel. Everything you need in the way of interest, excitement and suspense.

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To go to the sea in ships

There are plenty of fictional accounts of London’s Thames waterside, Charles Dickens to name just one, so it is rather wonderful to read this account by Margarette Lincoln detailing the lives and trades of real people involved in commissioning, building, provisioning and manning the great ships that traded and fought for Britain in the age of Cook and Nelson.

M LincolnTrading in War is a fully examined look at the maritime adventures of Britain through the lens of the people who lived, worked and sailed from the Port of London. It is hard to reconcile the picture of London’s Dockland two hundred years ago with how it is today; yet interestingly, the parallels between 1718 and 2018 are not hard to find.

The book traces the history of shipbuilding on the Thames from about the 1760’s through to a period shortly after the defeat of Napoleon. It covers all the trades associated with the river, from watermen, lightermen and sailors through to sawyers, caulkers, shipwrights, to the land based trades of chandlers, biscuit manufacturers and sailmakers.

Largely centred north of the river in Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse, the south banks do get an also-ran mention, sadly especially in terms of crime. But this is not to forget the shipbuilding docks in Deptford and Greenwich.

Margarette Lincoln identifies the families, follows their fortunes and outlines in particular the stresses of such a fluctuating profession. For example, in peace time – maritime adventures were mostly about trade, the two largest companies The West Indian Company and the East Indian Company both used private shipbuilding docks for their ships; though probably for provisions and chandlery they would use the same companies as the Admiralty. Meanwhile the Admiralty shipbuilders might languish; the reverse became true during the American War and the war with the French, when navy vessels were at a premium and both Admiralty docks and private docks were occupied at full stretch. as many as 54 warships were outfitted in any one year from a single dock in Deptford.

There are startling parallels between the eighteenth and 20th centuries though. The construction of West India Dock and The London Dock were fiercely contested, so that it was some several years before either could be constructed; similar to the competition between Gatwick and Heathrow, the expansion of docks, as opposed to open river docking was fought over, and then there was further rivalry between the construction of the two sites, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. The Wapping site required the destruction of several areas of residential and commercial buildings, around 2,200 in all, putting many families out of their homes and businesses while the Isle of Dogs had other problems; but once built the docks altered completely the nature of the districts surrounding them, not least by tearing the heart out of the community. Furthermore, these developments, by displacing so many people led to changes in the populations of areas further east and north, like Shoreditch and Hackney.

The building of the docks altered the livelihoods of many people on the river in much the same way as containerisation in the 1970s and 80s emptied the Port of London of any trading ships, thereby leading to the domestication and gentrification of much of the area, both north and south of the river all the way from London Bridge to beyond the Isle of Dogs on the north and down to Deptford and Greenwich on the south bank.

I loved this book. I loved learning about the wives and widows of famous explorers and sailors like Captain Bligh (he of the Mutiny) and Captain Cook and the lives of the Barnard families (shipbuilders) and of merchants like J Robinson who had a carpet and furniture warehouse in the Ratcliff area.

The term “warehouse” only entered general use in this period to denote a superior type of “shop”. I wonder what J Robinson would have made of a department store!

It is in the nature of a seafaring community that many women, wives as well as widows feature more prominently that in other walks of life. The menfolk being away, pressed or serving in the navy, for long periods; lives and livelihoods had to be maintained, and these women mastered the art magnificently. Frances Barnard took over the Deptford shipyard on the death of her husband and continued to manage it until the ages of her sons meant that a man could take over again. However, it says much for her that when she did hand it over some ten years later, it was still a profitable business. One has to respect these women, who in an age when they had absolutely no power, they thrived.




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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways – the NHS today

This is a paean of praise to The National Health Service and a post about a most unusual and elevating book, Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell.

Cast you mind back to your school books, and in the history section you may find that you learnt about the Middle Ages, a dark and dangerous time of plague, war, famine and mayhem followed hard upon by the Renaissance which spread from Europe into England. England having been somewhat backward in these things, since the disappearance of the Romans, whereupon we seem to have forgotten how to make bricks, build roads and lived in a civilised fashion.

This is, of course, an exaggeration, more in keeping with 1066 and All That written by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman and wonderfully illustrated by John Reynolds. It holds a nugget of truth.

HartnellIn a miraculous new book, Medieval Bodies, Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages, we are presented in gloriously illustrated detail the perceptions commonly held about our mortal frame, its connection to our spiritual nature and its possible future. It may seem comical now, that people ever believed that our nature and our health was governed by the elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air; that the seasonal changes affected these “humours”; and astrological calculations affected the cures and remedies that might be offered in any given circumstance.

Crude though that understanding might have been, it is not so long ago since ordinary people died from illnesses that we would now expect to shake off, or treat with antibiotic. Until the idea of a National Health Service, free at the point of use came in 70 years ago, the cost of treatment for something as ordinary as tonsillitis might be too much for the family purse, leading on possibly to kidney infection and certain death. Scarlet Fever, an illness now barely known, was another killer until penicillin could be used to prevent further complications, also resulting in kidney failure.

It is salutary to read about the different cures that were offered in the Middle Ages: blood-letting, amputation and a host of herbivorous potions which might aid recovery, or might not. Some of them were undoubtedly poisonous and some were probably completely ineffectual.  Tying the dried testes of a squirrel to your chest, for example, might make you feel as though you were “doing something” but probably would not have cured scrofula or indeed anything else.

In this illuminating and illuminated book, arranged in chapters from Head to Toe, so to speak, Jack Hartnell explores the understandings and misunderstandings of the medical profession and the population in general, with a generous and sympathetic eye. There are anatomical drawings and diagrams, illustrations from manuscripts and medical “textbooks” and attribution to the wonders of the great masters of the past, Avicenna, Galen, Paracelsus and Versalius to name but a few. It is a marvel that anyone survived at all!

Back to the NHS. Few people have any notion how much each individual costs to keep healthy, from birth to death. And it is an organisation that is to some extent a victim of its own success. Without it, undoubtedly more people would die off; longevity is just one example; long-term treatments of such conditions as diabetes, kidney failure, Parkinson’s, myaesthenia gravis and scarlet fever have kept members of my family (alone) alive for decades. Other families are living with cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma – all of them potential killers.

Thank goodness we live now, thank goodness that the NHS exists to serve the people. Thank you, especially those who look after my family, for your commitment and care. Thank you, every nurse, doctor and auxiliary worker of this organisation.


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