This is a departure from my normal reviewing format, in that I mostly review fiction publications, but occasionally, a non-fiction one will catch my eye and, whilst I might not always deem it worthy of a review, this one definitely is. I am known to be a stickler for correctness in written English, and I constantly bemoan the slipping of standards, so this book is an opportunity for me to use someone else’s commitment to underline my own; that someone happens to be a ‘celebrity’, of course, which is of no particular significance to me, but it does mean that my readers—the British ones, at least—should already be aware of him, and his penchant in this area. Whilst I am in broad agreement with him on most of his items, I do take issue with some, which I will detail here, in sequence; which will obviously have more significance if any of my readers is able to obtain the book to follow my points in comparison with GB’s opinion—yes: not law!
In contradistinction to what I wrote above, I will start with a few general points, some of which I consider quite important. GB is in favour of starting sentences with the conjunctions ‘And’ and ‘But’, but I was taught at my grammar school to avoid this, from a style consideration, and I have always followed it, because I think it looks clumsy; and there are better ways to structure a sentence. GB frequently uses a convention which is, in my view, all too common: the use of ‘either’, when what he should use is ‘each’, or ‘both’—‘either’ means ‘one or the other’, so my reaction when someone writes, say: ‘There was a pillar on either side of the door’ is: “So: which side was it?” Curiously, he makes no mention of syntax, the incorrect use of which is a crime committed by far too many people, most of whom should know better; GB is all for clarity & correctness in written English, and poor syntax always gives rise to doubt, which should be avoided. Here now follows my points of contention, preceded by page numbers.
p29 Comma inside quotation marks for direct speech, before attribution; e.g.: “Easy-peasy,” said Gyles. I know it’s the convention, but it’s wrong! A comma implies a continuation, so either a full stop [period] should be used, or nothing. He is correct with continuation: “Yes,” Gyles admitted, “commas can be challenging.”, but sometimes continuation is possible, but ignored, as in: ‘That’s right,’ Gyles admitted, ‘Commas can be challenging.’
p67 Adjunct to the above: “In British English, the associated punctuation is placed outside the closing quotation mark: Money talks. All mine ever seems to say is ‘Goodbye’.” I prefer the American English convention [just for a change!]: “Money talks. All mine ever seems to say is ‘Goodbye.’”, because the quotation is treated as complete, be it a single word or more.
I also loathe & detest the convention which appears to be universal, where if the quotation has more than 1 paragraph, you put a quotation mark at the start of the opening paragraph and at the beginning of each subsequent paragraph, but no quotation marks at the end of each paragraph until the end of the complete quotation is reached: I know general prose & coding are completely different, but to my eyes this convention just looks unnecessary & wrong; and it would cause many problems in coding. Happy to be out of step here! Clarity could easily be maintained by either italicising quotations or extra indentation, or both.
p74 Possessive of personal names ending in -s: a singular name should always have an s following the apostrophe, no matter how odd it might sound, so it’s not Mellors’ as GB asserts, but Mellors’s; another prime example is Brahms, whose possessive many people mispronounce as Brahms’, but that means of Brahm [singular—and should be written Brahm’s], not of Brahms [singular]; the correct form is Brahms’s.
p98 “—stay focussed, please—”: I prefer focused, as in buses, not busses.
p114 “May be — maybe”: GB doesn’t make a distinction between might & may, but for me, the difference is clear—might implies possibility, whilst may specifies permission.
p133> Imported words; especially from Latin [the most common]: I hate Anglicisation! If we import a word, why can we not use its correct plural: my most loathed is referendums for referenda, but there are many others, such as graffiti, which is plural, so it’s ‘a graffito’, not ‘a piece of graffiti’. I also resent foreign place names being Anglicised: what’s so difficult about saying ‘Munchen’ or ‘Nurnberg’? [umlauts deliberately excluded] Or ‘Torino’, or ‘Sevilla’? It’s time we stopped being so insular, when it comes to pronouncing foreign languages.
p249 A very obvious tautology is excluded: ‘repeat again’: very common!
p251 GB is not in favour of euphemisms for dying, but I wonder what he will use for his beloved monarch?
p274 My own view is that it’s unfair to use foreign words in Scrabble, unless they are so common as to be known to all participants.
p283 I disagree with Martin Amis on his definition of whilst: “Anyone who uses ‘whilst’ is subliterate.” Poppycock! They have distinct & separate meanings: while implies the passage of time, whilst whilst implies conditionality. Think about it: you know it makes sense!
p290 Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses: that should never refer to people [as is almost universal in the USA, thanks to the 16th century settlers, and increasingly prevalent over here, as a result of imported US ‘culture’]; always use who. This was lamented in my review of The Man That Got Away, by Lynn Truss.
I could have said a lot more, but this is quite enough for one review! Good on him for spreading the secular gospel of good English, but I reserve the right to vary from the majority observance of the accepted rules. The hardback I read was published in 2018 by Michael Joseph, part of the Penguin Random House group, ISBN 978-0-2413-5263-2; a paperback is also available, ISBN 978-0-2413-5264-9.
This is a promotional post for aspiring authors, from QueryLetter.com, a company which helps them with the technical aspects of publishing. Occasionally, it posts lists of writing competitions on its website, so this post is a link to the latest list, with a synopsis of the advantages of entering these competitions:
A successful entry in a writing competition can be a significant boost for an author’s career, providing exposure and potentially even leading to a publishing deal. They also provide fantastic motivation to get a work finished, to hone your writing, and to test yourself against your peers. Some also offer cash prizes—always welcome! In this list, we showcase over 270 of the best writing contests out there, in a variety of genres.
My regular readers might like to know that this blog has been awarded the accolade of Top Writing Blog, by the QueryLetter.com site; apparently, people there regularly spend a lot of time reading top writing blogs, and they have selected Wilfred Books for a Top Writing Blog award! According to the email which informed me of this:
Congratulations on building one of the best writing blogs available today and for helping writers improve their craft.
Lana, at QueryLetter.com
Now, realistically, I know that this is a commercial site, and I am normally wary of promoting such sites on this blog, but after some consideration, I am happy for anyone who reads my blog and who is thinking about trying to get some writing published to a wider audience, should have a starting point for this research. Having self-published my own book, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, I know full well that publishing is not an easy undertaking, so it is worth considering all options, and it might cost less than you think: it always makes sense to shop around, of course. So, when you read the posts on this blog, and you see the new icon at the top of the sidebar, you’ll know what it’s about, and if you want to learn more, click on the icon to go to the QueryLetter.com site & investigate!
With reference to my previous post, as a result of, sadly, inevitable postage price increases, and very probably an indirect result of Britain’s recently leaving the EU, it has become necessary to update the Wilfred Books website to reflect this, because the postal charges included for despatch of the print version of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles have been insufficient, for all areas of the world, for some time now. I should also point out that the book’s retail purchase price has NOT increased, neither are there any plans for this to happen. To achieve this update, certain sections of the site have been ‘refactored’, as it’s called, but it has not been a simple matter of just editing a few items of text; the reason for this is that a new price group, specifically for delivery to the EU zone, needed to be introduced: previously, the first non-UK price group included Europe, but this is no longer the case. More details can be found on the website’s about page, where there is a link to the book’s own page, and there is also a purchase link there.
Another complication is that there is now a veritable plethora of possible screen sizes for all of the devices which people can now use to access websites, compared to when the book was first published, in 2013; and, indeed, there are now even narrower screens than the first smartphones had [which I find slightly incredible, but I’m old-fashioned, and prefer a laptop for accessing websites]; so, each possible screen size had to be checked, to make sure that the new layout of the page a buyer is taken to when purchasing a print version of the book, looks acceptable with the new EU postal delivery price group included, so although this was relatively straightforward, as mentioned above, it was not a quick undertaking!
I hope the page looks acceptable across all devices, but I must stress that I am not a professional website developer; although I was confident that I could produce a functional & attractive site to make my book available direct, with no middle-man in the process, other than PayPal, which processes the purchase securely. So, if I have missed a new device size, or slipped up when formatting the page for an existing device, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.
Finally, dare I remind readers that a present-buying opportunity [in addition to normal impulse-buying] is rapidly approaching, so if you know of someone [or yourself!] who would enjoy reading a comprehensively-researched examination of the febrile inter-war period of the 1920s & -30s in Britain, please ensure that a purchase can be delivered in good time! The book focuses specifically on what made an ardent socialist like Wilfred Risdon from Bath, who saw action as a medical orderly in the first world war, and worked in the Tredegar coal mines alongside Aneurin Bevan [who, as we know, went on to a sparkling political career], drastically change his political allegiance to support Oswald Mosley who, although he started out also as a socialist with the best of intentions, fairly soon swung to the opposite side of the political spectrum before the second world war. During the war, after a short period of internment in Brixton Prison under the notorious Emergency Regulation 18B, Wilfred sensibly decided to leave politics behind as far as possible, and concentrate on his passion for animal welfare, advancing to the position of Secretary of the prestigious National Anti-Vivisection Society, before his death in 1967; before that, he engineered the bold [and confrontational!] move of the Society’s London headquarters to Harley Street, the heart of the British medical profession, that still [and continues to, sadly] relied upon animal testing, which involved [Wilfred would argue, unnecessary] hideous & painful procedures. Given the state of the world in general, and British politics in particular now, a knowledge of how we arrived at this point can be very illuminating, so I can heartily recommend Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: but, then again, why wouldn’t I?
As Archie D’Cruz tells us on Quora, they actually do! Although this might seem like an esoteric concern, if you are an author, or any other sort of writer, for that matter, and you want to go the self-publishing route, knowing the difference, as demonstrated in the image above, plus how & when to use each type, can make a significant difference to the look of your output, and when you do self-publish, this is one aspect of the total project that is just as important as the content of your writing.
If you want to find out more about this, check out Archie’s article here.
Cynthia Voigt: “… while History is the truth, designed to tell a lie, Fiction is a lie designed to tell the truth.”
Cynthia Voigt is a prolific and highly successful author, winner of multiple accolades including the Katahdin Award for Lifetime Achievement (2003). A full list of her awards can be found at the bottom of the “Books” page on her website here.
If you recognise this author’s name at all, it is probably from the credits of a television programme such as Foyle’s War, but he is also a respected published author, having written stories in the contemporary Sherlock Holmes canon, but also young adult spy stories featuring the Alex Rider character. This book, published in 2018 by Century, London, in hardback; ISBN 978-1-78089-709-7, is a bit of an oddity: it purports to be a true story, the second of a three-book deal undertaken apparently under some duress from his new publisher, detailing the work of an ex-Scotland Yard Detective Inspector, who is currently working as a technical consultant to film & television companies, after having been fired from the Police Service for assaulting a suspect in a child pornography case. The question that is uppermost in my mind when reading this story is: “how true can this actually be?” Horowitz does make it very clear in the acknowledgments at the back of the book that “some of [the people who actually appear in the book] made my life very difficult while others have demanded that I change their names or remove them altogether: one of them has even gone so far as to threaten me with lawyers, although I would say my depiction of her is entirely accurate.” For obvious reasons, he doesn’t specify which character this is.
The first chapter was all the more enjoyable for me for several reasons; I have enjoyed watching Foyle’s War, not least for its period setting, and the vicissitudes of location film & television work are quite well known to me from another life; but also because the director of the episode, The Eternity Ring, which is featured in the story, albeit in parallel with the main plot, was Stuart Orme, with whom I have worked on two occasions, the more memorable of which was Ghostboat in 2005, and I have many happy memories of location work in Rome (at Cinecittá studios) and Malta, all expenses paid, which for a lowly supporting artist (and credit to Horowitz for using that term, rather than ‘extra’, which I dislike), albeit a featured one, which I was in that production, was very possibly a once-in-a-lifetime gig. The story is something of a cross between a biography and a diary, and the entrance of its subject is right at the end of the first chapter, when he blithely blunders onto the set in a real, modern taxi, thereby ruining the take in progress, which certainly stretched my credibility: Horowitz does write “It was impossible of course. The police should have blocked off the traffic. We had our own people at the end of the street, keeping back pedestrians. There was no way any vehicle could have come through.” It obviously did, though, so the only conclusion we can draw, if the event did actually happen, is that Daniel Hawthorne, the interloper, had sweet-talked both the actual policemen (as opposed to the background artists in period uniform) and the crew who had been charged with preventing interruptions to the shoot, to allow him to cause mayhem with his inconsiderate arrival: I would say that the evidently lax crew runners or third ADs would have been lucky to escape summary dismissal for such a transgression, given that Stuart Orme, “usually a pleasant, easy-going man” (which I can endorse), but who had been under tremendous pressure to finish this shoot successfully, displayed a face that “was thunderous as he looked up from his monitor to see what had happened”, and he was not amused when Hawthorne picked out Horowitz as his intended contact.
However, after that fraught beginning, the story proper can commence when Hawthorne, who is occasionally also called in by the police to assist with cases referred to as a ‘sticker’: “that is, a case which presented obvious difficulties from the start.” comes to Horowitz, albeit with blithe disregard for the mayhem he has caused, with a real murder which could be the subject-matter of their next shared book. Again, I have to say that this stretches my credibility, given that it has echoes of the “consulting detective”; the best-known of whom are Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot; but, having said that, I am not very familiar with real-life police procedures, so I suppose I have to accept that it must be possible. The officers with whom Hawthorne & Horowitz have to liaise on this case are eminently dislikable, and if detectives such as Inspector Cara Grunshaw (surely a pseudonym) really exist, it would be very difficult to have much faith in the integrity of the current London police. She makes it her business to make life near impossible for the author, even going so far as to physically assault him to frighten him into informing her of Hawthorne’s progress, to ensure she ‘cracks’ the case before he does: she is mostly successful with this intimidation, although Horowitz does rebel occasionally, even if only in his own mind; Hawthorne seems to maintain swan-like serenity through all this intimidation. The murder of a high-profile divorce lawyer, known professionally as “the blunt razor”, because of his scrupulous integrity, has taken place in Hampstead, and initially the police are baffled, hence Hawthorne’s importation. Initially, there is one obvious suspect, but surely the reason for this is so obvious that she wouldn’t be so stupid? Especially giver her reputation for erudition; also, she has an alibi for the time of the murder.
After this, more potential suspects can be considered after being interviewed by the detective & the author; I must also confess to being somewhat dubious that potential suspects would consent to an author being present at their interviews, although only one suspect objects to this, and potentially violently; also, the author’s identity & occupation is not always revealed to the interviewee, if at all. Throughout the investigation, Hawthorne is fairly unforthcoming to Horowitz with his theories, and he discourages the author from asking his own questions in interviews, for fear that his inexperience in these matters might prejudice the investigation. Nevertheless, Horowitz tries his best to arrive at a sensible solution to the conundrum, partly to spite Hawthorne for not trusting him further, although his theories change quite frequently as new information becomes available; he also has to contend with the ongoing tribulations of the Foyle’s War shoot, not least because his (presumably real) wife, Jill Green, was the producer of the series. The reader is kept guessing until very late in the book as to who the murderer was and, as is often the case, historical events prove to be crucial in unravelling why this murder occurred. Overall, and notwithstanding my scepticism about the veracity of the facts of the case as presented, I found this an enjoyable book, and can happily recommend it, especially if insights into the real world of television are enticing to the unconnected reader, and I would happily read the other two in the series, albeit with the first book I read being out of sequence, but that is a minor reservation.
Just by way of an annual reminder (you can’t have forgotten, surely?), books make an excellent Christmas present, especially at the moment, when we might have rather more time on our hands than hitherto, so if you enjoy reading biographies of people with fascinating/engaging or even objectionable lives, why not think about, either for yourself, or as a gift, the life story of Wilfred Risdon? He was a man whose career divides itself quite neatly into two distinct halves (although there was some overlap, to be fair, in terms of the principles that drove him): the early political activism, fighting for the interests of the British working man (and woman, or course), which took him eventually down the dark road of fascism, in its British manifestation; and the second half, fighting the cause of defenceless animals, endeavouring to impede where possible, or ideally curtail completely, the barbaric practice of experimenting on animals in the cause of human medicine.
The book is available in paperback (and it still only costs GBP15.00, plus postage & packing!) and delivered by post (so please take delivery times into account when ordering), and digital download forms (still only GBP5.00): all variants are available; PDF, ePub, and both popular formats of Kindle, .mobi & .azw3. Each chapter is fully supported with comprehensive notes, and there are also several appendices at the end, with faithful reproductions of literature which was relevant to Wilfred’s life; the most significant of which was his interrogation by the Defence Regulation 18B(1A) Appeal Committee in July 1940, to decide if he could safely be released from internment in Brixton Prison; and even some biographical information about a (second world) wartime Polish pilot, Jan Falkowski, who bought Wilfred’s house in Ruislip, north west London. Whatever your views about the rights and wrongs of right & left in political affiliation, this is a very detailed examination of the life of a 20th century activist who is not well known, but whose work does deserve to be better known. The book can be ordered direct from the Wilfred Books website (which is, assuredly, safe, despite what over-cautious browsers might want you to think) by clicking on this link. If you do order the book, thank you, but nonetheless, Merry Christmas!
If you’ve never before read any of Michael Palin’s serious writing, I think this will be a very good place to start, despite it being one of his most recent books (Hutchinson, London, 2018; ISBN 9781847948120 [hardback]); if you have, however, I am very confident that you will enjoy reading it as much as I did. Michael is known for his Ripping Yarns series, albeit at some remove now, but this book is a true life ripping yarn, although with a bitter-sweet ending, and although the review is rather longer than others I have posted, I feel that this book deserves it, in view of the impressive detail contained therein, and the research that clearly must have been done in preparation for its writing.
It tells the story of the 1846 Franklin Expedition to discover the North-West Passage, but what first excited Michael’s interest in this expedition was the discovery in September 2014 of a sailing vessel at the bottom of the sea, although a relatively shallow depth, in the Canadian Arctic. This ship was HMS Erebus, hence the book’s name. Michael had encountered Erebus, figuratively speaking, in the course of his research into Joseph Hooker, about whose life he was going to deliver a talk to the Athenaeum Club in London, in 2013. Hooker had run the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for much of the nineteenth century, and his policy of ‘botanical imperialism’ had become known to Michael whilst he was filming in Brasil, and which policy had effectively killed the Brasilian rubber industry. Before that though, in 1839, at the under age of twenty-two, he had been engaged as assistant surgeon & botanist on a four-year Royal Naval expedition to the Antarctic, and the ship that had survived eighteen months at the bottom of the world and returned safely was HMS Erebus.
In 2014, after a highly successful ten-night Monty Python reunion at the O2 Arena in London, he “saw [on the evening news] an item that stopped me in my tracks.”: a submerged vessel, believed to be HMS Erebus, had been found on a shallow part of the seabed (so close to the surface, in fact, that the tips of her masts would once have been visible above the waves) by a Canadian underwater archaeology team, and her hull was virtually intact, the contents preserved by the ice. So Michael set out to research this doomed ship, and he started at an institution of which he had for three years been President, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), and which still had a pair of Hooker’s stockings, which Michael came to regard “as a kind of spiritual talisman”.
Erebus was launched on the 7th of June 1826, at Pembroke Dockyard, and she is known as a bomb ship because she was the penultimate vessel of a class that was designed to be strong enough to fling mortar shells high over coastal defences; however, history had by then overtaken this purpose, and the Royal Navy’s strength had already been considerably scaled back by the time of the launch of the 372 ton vessel. She was named Erebus to warn her adversaries that “here was a bringer of havoc, a fearsome conveyor of hell-fire”, because in classical mythology, Erebus, the son of Chaos, was generally referred to the “dark heart of the Underworld, a place associated with dislocation and destruction.” After being fitted out at Plymouth, she was transformed into a warship, but then she lay idle at Devonport for eighteen months waiting for a purpose. This was found when she set sail on 21 February 1828, under the command of Commander George Haye, RN, for a two-year patrol of the Mediterranean, which was relatively uneventful, although discipline on board was something of a problem. This changed in the second year when Commander Philip Broke took over: he instituted a regime of artillery exercises, but even those didn’t bring about a military career for Erebus, and at the end of June 1830, she was home again.
Her first real chance for glory came nine years later when, under the command of James Clark Ross, who already had something of an illustrious career as an explorer behind him, she set sail for the Southern Ocean to further our understanding of the earth’s magnetic field as, according to Palin, around that time “terrestrial magnetism was high on the agenda” of the newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science. She was to be accompanied by HMS Terror, a similar type of ship to Erebus, but specifically one of the Vesuvius Class, built in 1813, with plenty of active service behind her. The voyage to Van Diemen’s Land, as it would continue to be known until 1855, when it acquired the modern name of Tasmania, took just under a year and, whilst Erebus was there, Ross’s “most urgent priority was to get an observatory up and running.” Their stay was relatively short though, and on Thursday November 12th 1840, Erebus left Hobart. The furthest south they got, at the end of January the following year, past 76°, was the Great Southern Barrier, a “great ice-wall”; an unbroken sheet of ice 300 feet thick and the same size as France; that ran east from the newly named Mount Erebus volcano “as far as the eye could discern”, and this effectively ruled out further progress towards the South Magnetic Pole, so the two ships headed back to Hobart, which they reached on 7th April 1841, as Ross put it: “unattended by casualty, calamity, or sickness of any kind”.
After a period of rest & recuperation (and no little socialising), the ships set off again in July 1841, via Sydney, northern New Zealand and Chatham Island, for the Antarctic. By February 23rd, after spells becalmed in pack ice, they reached the Great Southern Barrier (now known as the Ross Ice Shelf), and recorded their furthest position south, 78°9’30”, six miles further than their previous record, but it was obvious that there was to be no way through it, so regretfully, they headed for the Falkland Islands to refit & resupply. On the way, both ships were nearly lost because, in avoiding a giant iceberg, their course resulted in them colliding, and after Terror had found a narrow gap between ’bergs, it was only the rapid & unorthodox action of Captain Ross that avoided Erebus being reduced to matchwood, with the loss of all hands. Their safe arrival at the Falklands was overshadowed by the loss of four men during the recent expedition. They stayed there until September, when they set off “for a short expedition to undertake a survey of magnetic activity around Cape Horn, a round trip of about 2,000 kilometers, and they took 800 young beech trees “back to the treeless Falklands.” By the 17th of December 1842, they were ready to set off again, but this time there was nowhere near as much enthusiasm for the trip, one notable exception being Captain Ross. This time, they went nowhere near the Barrier, and by early March, when the winter ice was closing around them Ross accepted defeat and gave the order for both ships to set sail for the Cape of Good Hope.
They reached those safe waters the following April. According to Palin, “Officially … the Antarctic expedition was a success. Unofficially it extracted a traumatic toll.” Ross resolved never to go to the Antarctic again, and Hooker revealed in a letter to his father that none of the men would follow Ross there either. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to go straight home: they had to go via Ascension Island and Rio de Janeiro, “for magnetic purposes”. By the beginning of September 1843, however, they were in sight of “the shores of Old England”. Back on dry land, Ross resolved never to go to sea again: “The long voyage had exhausted him.” He probably wouldn’t have been in the least perturbed that “For the next sixty years the antarctic remained virtually forgotten.” However, paradoxically, according to Palin,Erebus and Terror’s success had renewed interest in the Arctic, specifically: conquest of the Northwest Passage, if for no other reason than to prevent the Russians from getting there first. The biggest advantage that could be pressed to achieve this was “that two ice-tested ships were ready and waiting in the Thames estuary.” The go-ahead was given, and preparations for the voyage, including some strengthening of hull & decks, and, controversially, the fitting of 2 second-hand 25-horsepower locomotive engines (much smaller than the marine steam engines of the time, were completed in very short order; to make the best use of the northern summer of course; so that the ships left England on the 19 May 1845, under the command of the surprisingly old (59) Sir John Franklin, who had latterly been somewhat in the doldrums as Governor General of Tasmania: he had, in fact, been summarily dismissed.
Before Greenland was reached, a crow’s nest, invented by William Scoresby less than half a century previously, was installed on Erebus, to keep a lookout for ice; Terror, which followed Erebus, was not so equipped. It seems odd that this wasn’t considered for the Antarctic expeditions. By late July, both ships were seen, surrounded by ice in upper Baffin Bay, by two whaling ships, Prince of Wales and Enterprise; the sighting by Captain Dannett of the former, on the 27th of July, is generally assumed to be the last-recorded sighting of the expedition, other than by Inuit; although there was an unconfirmed sighting of the tips of their masts on the horizon, by Captain Martin of Enterprise, as late as the 29 or 31 of July. When 1847 arrived with no word from the expedition, at least two proposals for fact-finding or possible rescue missions to the Arctic were rejected by the Admiralty and the Royal Society: it was both too soon and potentially too dangerous. In less than a year, this attitude was reversed, but the first voyage, to the Bering strait, found nothing; the second rescue attempt, down the Mackenzie River to the coast & islands, also found no trace of Franklin & his men; finally, James Ross, having acceded to the relentless demands from Franklin’s wife, Jane, set off in the summer of 1848 in Enterprise (although whether this is the same one mentioned earlier is not specified), accompanied by Investigator. They made very little progress, because the ice was so thick and the weather so cold, and they had to winter at Somerset Island, where Ross had surveyed in 1932. After an aborted man-hauled sledge search, covering 500 miles in 39 days, Ross decided to return home. Needless to say, Jane Franklin was surprised & disappointed.
Over the next decade, 36 separate expeditions were mounted to the area. In August 1850, the first tangible evidence was found: “fragments of naval stores, portions of ragged clothing, preserved meat tins”, and an empty cairn; soon after, the graves of two seamen from Erebus and one from Terror were found. Other evidence started turning up in diverse locations, and further expeditions only succeeded in proving where Franklin had not gone, rather than the opposite. The first claimed land crossing of the Passage was in 1853, but still no sign of Franklin. In January 1854, notwithstanding the opposition of Lady Franklin, the Admiralty decided to draw a line under the situation, and consider the men of the two ships lost. Within a few months, however, a Hudson’s Bay employee, John Rae, had bought from Arctic Inuits various items that were soon identified as belonging to members of the Franklin expedition, but worse was to come: “‘From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles [cooking vessels].’ Rae reported the Inuit telling him, ‘it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.’” This grisly but pragmatic solution was totally unacceptable to polite Victorian society, and was dismissed out of hand by no less a champion of Jane Franklin than Charles Dickens. He helped to raise funds, speaking at the RGS, and £3,000 was enough to organise a 177-ton 3-masted, steam-driven yacht, Fox, to engage in a search, leaving in July 1857.
After initially getting caught in ice in Baffin Bay and having to overwinter there, the ship was able to move to a base at the eastern end of Bellot Strait and a sledge-bound reconnaissance expedition was mounted. On the way, Inuits they met told of 2 ships that had come to grief, one sinking, which spurred the searchers on. Confirmation of Franklin’s death was found in a written record in a cairn, and the second-in-command of the rescue mission, Lieutenant William Hobson, wrote it all up in a report dated 1 August 1859, but it was never published (finally appearing in Arctic magazine in April 2014), so the news didn’t come out until 23 September, when Fox arrived back in England. It emerged that “Crozier had led his doomed men to the last link in the chain of marine connections that made up the Northwest Passage.” Statues were erected, and this appeared on the citation that accompanied the award of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society to Jane Franklin, the first woman to be so honoured by the Society; although curiously, not her husband. With regard to the predominant cause of the death of the Franklin Expedition members, there doesn’t appear to be consensus; exhaustion and hypothermia are obvious, and lead poisoning from badly sealed food tins is a strong contender, but also is tuberculosis, which was the probable cause of death in at least three cases.
This is an absolutely fascinating account and meticulously researched; I have deliberately (of necessity!) skimmed for this review, but Palin mixes the comprehensive historical detail with his own experience of travelling to many of the locations mentioned. It is a mixture of pathos and enthusiasm, as much for the enterprise of the British as much as anything else, but this is also tempered with Palin’s own observations on how this enterprise can be contaminated by greed and the arrogance ofimperialism; I will leave the last word to Palin:
“So far as nature was concerned, Ross was like McCormick and so many other of his contemporaries, inquisitive but unsentimental. At that time the world’s population was less than one billion and resources were abundant. Today, with the population heading towards eight billion, the destruction of our habitat is seen as a threat rather than an obligation. For Ross, the rich seas and forests of Tasmania were not there to be conserved, they were there to be exploited. To make the world a better place, one had to make it more productive. If there were fish, then they should be caught; if there were forests, they should be cut down. He couldn’t see the wood for the price of timber. Woodland should become farmland, and quiet coves with good harbours should become productive ports.
Of the original inhabitants of the island, neither Ross nor anybody else had much to say. Almost all had now been killed or removed to Flinders Island. Hooker has a particularly poignant entry in his journal. ‘Of the numbers that once inhabited this island, only three remain, all males, and they consist of an old, a middle aged man, and a child. They are very savage, but seldom seen.’
Ross was a successful, strong-willed and strong-minded individual who saw the world as being at the service of man. And from there it was a small step to seeing the British as those best suited to be the world’s caretaker.”
This is Ben Elton’s latest novel, although he has a good number already under his belt, and he is also a very accomplished writer in other genres, including the very well known television productionsBlackadder, on which he was a co-writer, and the more recent, (in my humble opinion) very funny, Upstart Crow. This book was clearly written within the last couple of years, notwithstanding that events latterly have rendered it inaccurate (not that novels are under any obligation to be true to life, of course), because the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is female (but unnamed; and definitely not Thatcher!), and Brexit is part of the social & political scene but, very sensibly, Elton leaves the detail of the implementation of this schism somewhat vague.
It is tempting to reveal the whole plot, because it is sufficiently clever, but I will refrain (so no spoiler alerts necessary!); suffice to say that this is a Whodunnit, skilfully wrapped up in a contemporary morality tale about how our society (such as it is, no thanks to the aforementioned erstwhile first female PM) has become more self-obsessed, shallow and, for all our access to a wealth of information, more gullible; although that is, to some extent, forgivable, in view of how the media and, in particular, social media, are manipulated without compunction by agencies and their agents whose ultimate goals are, inevitably (depressingly so), filthy lucre and, of course, the associated power, whether real or only perceived. This manipulation is also not too difficult because nearly all of the print media channels are owned by only a few people.
The ostensible main theme of the narrative is not at all implausible; subsequent to (and, no doubt encouraged by) Brexit, there is a campaign (inventively called England Out) for England to leave the Union, whose prime movers are ‘rough diamonds’ Tommy Spoon (“who owned a much-loved chain of pub-restaurants called Spoons”) & Xavier Arron (a property developer), supported by the “three political heavyweights”, thinly-veiled characters called Bunter Jolly, Guppy Toad and Plantagenet Greased-Hogg: no prizes for guessing who at least two out of these three are! There is a distinct possibility of this further schism coming to pass, thanks to the machinations of a company called Communication Sandwich (and any similarity, excluding the name, to a company that manipulated the Brexit result, is entirely intentional; hence the obvious dissimilarity of the name, to avoid any possibility of litigation!), which uses algorithms developed by a young, attractive (natch) mathematics whizz-kid, who is one of the main characters in the plot. It becomes apparent during the course of the story that this company is playing both ends against the middle, to create social unrest, on behalf of another (for you, dear reader, undefined) person or agency, to influence and, thereby attain, the desired result.
Another associated thread in the story, whose significance might not be immediately obvious, is the apparent obsession of the nation with a television programme called Love Island (presumably there is no danger of litigation here?); I say apparent, because apart from being latterly an element in the plot, this is one of the main messages of the story, and very timely at that, that our perception of the mood of the nation is directly influenced by our diet of media – predominantly, these days, what are known, perhaps inaccurately, as social media – and this perception can be just plain wrong, because many of the often extreme opinions expressed, very often preceded (or so the book would have us believe) by what are known as hashtags (generally these are a link to a page dedicated to this issue) which are not the product of a real human being, but that of a computer algorithm, produced specifically to further an agenda, which might or might not be sinister and unacceptable to right-minded people, so although it might seem like ‘the whole country’ thinks this or that, this is an artificially-created perception.
There is another very dominant and, again, contemporaneous, thread running through the book: that of gender identity (hence the book’s title). The events in which this issue is unavoidable are many & varied, and although there is a definite element of validity in all of them, Ben Elton treats them with his trademark humour, so that, for all that I described this as a morality tale, the reader (this one, anyway) never feels the dead hand of moralising suppressing the humour; nevertheless, this issue gives us real food for thought: how far should we go, or feel obliged to go, to give people the opportunity to express their identity, and thereby expect it to be respected, however bizarre it might seem, especially to at least one character, a policeman called Matlock (and here, Ben Elton mischievously steals a name familiar to viewers of American crime dramas, albeit he was a criminal defence attorney, whose TV programmes ran from 1986 to 1995), someone who nowadays will be referred to as ‘old school’ – not in a derogatory way, generally, and at least it’s polite! You might gather that there several different threads woven together in this book, but I hope this review has given you an appetite for a novel that I enjoyed reading, and at 376 pages (the hardback edition: signed by the author!) it is just the right length.