Friday, 30 October 2009

London's Docklands: Fiona Rule

This book is well researched and well written. However, it fails to do its subject justice, as it is really a narrative - a time line of the history of London, which becomes ever more focussed on London's Docks as it progresses.

Beginning with Roman London, historically the book is faultless, and it fills in a lot of the gaps that most people seem to have about the Anglo-Saxon period of our history. But it is only towards the end, when we come to the early Victorian period that the pages come to life. By the end of the 19th century, more personal recollections begin to enter into the tale, and with this genre of book, these are always the most captivating of the details. The role of the workers in shaping the future of the docks is covered particularly well, and the reasons for the eventual decline of the docks is discussed without falling into the political bias that too often blights such discussion.

The book is subtitled A history of the lost quarter, and Rule has successfully placed the Docklands in its own space, albeit one that is, spatially speaking, in a constant state of flux. 7/10

Fiona Rule, London's Docklands, Ian Allen (2009).

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Sarah Wise: The Blackest Streets.

Historically accurate, and highly evocative of life in late-Victorian London. The subject of the book - the ghetto made up of thirty or so streets in Bethnal Green known collectively as the 'Old Nicholl' - comes to life in this book. Indeed, such is the nature of the East End, that whilst to Old Nichol was demolished more than a century ago, many readers will instantly recognise parts of neighbouring streets and lanes that Ms Wise describes in such detail. People come and go, but Brick Lane for example never really changes. May it always be so!

The squalor and suffering, the cold acceptance of a miserable life and an early death, all are discussed. Of particular interest is the discussion of infant mortality amongst the lower working classes, and Ms.Wise's questioning of why these wretched people were so readily accused by society of inflicting death on their offspring. The numbers, she suggests, do not support what was accepted as fact at the time.

There is inevitibly something voyeuristic about such books, and this one does shock as well as fascinate. That, however, does not detract from the educational value of the work.

To make the most of this book, I would strongly advise first reading Arthur Morrison's "A Child of the Jago" (1896), which was effectively a fictionalised account of life in the Nichol, but one which features cameo appearences from a number of real life characters. Indeed, one of the greatest forgotten heroes of social reform, "Father" Anthony Osbourne Jay, of Holy Trinity, is immortalised as "Father Sturt" by Morrison. The latter book is small and easy to read, and it will give the reader a familiarity with the subject.

Likewise, I would always advise anybody interested in the history of the Jewish ghetto in Whitechapel, which lay just across the Bethnal Green Road, to read Isreal Zangwill's "Children of the Ghetto" (1892). Dramatisation was often used as a means of making social points in the period in question, and Morrison and Zangwill are required reading for anybody interested in social reform.

There seems to be a renewed interest in the history of the East End at present, and this book capitalises on that. It is clearly meticulously researched, well illustrated, and of high educational value.  8/10

Sarah Wise. The Blackest Streets, Bodley Head (2008)

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Bernard Cornwell: Azincourt

Cornwell is the current master of historical fiction. It seems that there is no period of history that he is unable to bring to life for the entertainment of the thrill seeker, whilst still remaining true enough to historical fact to satisfy the more pedantic reader. His Nathan Starbuck quartet, set during the American Civil War, are a case in point. As one who is particularly interested in this episode of history, I found the books absorbing in every aspect.

Azincourt is no exception to the Cornwell formula. Following the fortunes of Nick Hook, a young forester, the book tells the story of this epic battle through the eyes of a footsoldier; an archer in the army of King Henry V.

In the buildup we learn of the relationships between Lord and Serf, and Cornwell even manages to include a fascinating chapter on the persecution of the Lollards, so-called heretics who challenged many of the practices of the Catholic church. His hero, Hook, is present at the slaughter of Lollards in the City of London, and it is this brief but engaging episode, with its description of the brutality of London life at that time, that led me to include a review of the book here.

Fiction overlaps with both history and social commentary in this work. As is his custom, Cornwell acknowledges those areas where he has taken advantage of his right to artistic license, and it would be a fussy reader indeed who found cause for criticism therein. There was actually a Nick Hook on the roll of the English army on that glorious day in 1415.

No novel has been written about the battle for a century - this may be long overdue, but it makes up for the wait. 8/10

Bernard Cornwell (2008). Azincourt. Harper Collins, London.
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