Wednesday 30 May 2018

Richard Holmes' 'Age of Wonder' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

One of the emerging traditions for the Dr Johnson Reading Circle is a yearly popular science book. We’ve looked at Roy Porter’s Enlightenment and Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men, this time it was Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder.

It details a 71 year period, from Joseph Banks’ journey with Cook on the Endeavour to the deconstruction of a forty-foot telescope in 1840. This, Holmes argues, is the age of wonder, a period of discovery where the impulses of poets combined with those of scientists. The book is a ‘relay-race’ of biographies, paying particular attention to Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davey and the Herschels. 

These longer biographies are interspersed with smaller ones of African Explorer, Mungo Park and a particularly entertaining chapter on balloonists. This chapter was funnier then most comic fiction, and made me laugh out-loud. Balloonists were showboating types, more showmen than scientists, dressed smartly and rising in gaudy orbs to the appreciation of huge crowds. The first airborne channel crossing ended ignominiously with the the two rival/allies landing in France wearing nothing but a life jacket and chamois gloves - having jettisoned the rest of their clothes to get over French cliffs. 

Daredevil balloonists aside, the book dealt with three main people. The first being Joseph Banks, the rich, enterprising botanist whose openness and flexibility let him integrate in Tahiti better than most of the other crew. Having returned from the Pacific, he tried to get a few other expeditions under way but when they failed, he settled down with his plants and became the president of the Royal Society. Using his charm, nurturing ability and skill in spotting talent, he prodded British science into the industrial revolution.

One of these talents was a Hanoverian amateur astronomer called William Herschel. This musician and space-nut had some strange notions that space was not a dome but a near infinite void in which the light of the stars takes time to reach the Earth - he also believed in aliens on the moon. Using telescopes of his own design, he discovered the new planet later known as Uranus. His sister Caroline, as well as being his dedicated assistant, was also a skilled astronomer, discovering numerous nebulae and a number of comets. 

Humphrey Davey is the subject of the third main biography. Probably the best example of what Holmes calls ‘romantic science’, not only was he a wide ranging scientist but he was also a keen (if slightly leaden) poet. Despite being a genius discoverer of gases and solver of problems (such as the safety lamp) he didn’t endear himself greatly to the readers with his desire for fame and harsh treatment of his assistant, Faraday.

Although the group loved the vigorous writing of the book, there were two issues that came up.

The first was one of structure. Having read The Lunar Men, a truly masterful wrangling of group biography, The Age of Wonder’s structure of turn taking was less focused. Where some were happy to roll with the book, others wanted something tighter. 

The second issue was one of romantic science. There were questions about how the scientists of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century science was different to earlier science. I also wonder whether it could be said that science (to scientists at least) has ever lost its romance.

Issues aside, this was yet another book which introduced us to another fascinating group of people (with another strange web of connections) and also thrilled, tickled and entertained us.

As usual, ideas in the book was batted back and forth across the room, jokes shared and other books recommend. Also as usual, the chat was carried onto pizza and wine before drifting into the night.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Review: ‘The Fictions of Romantick Chivalry’ by Eithne Henson

‘The Fictions of Romantick Chivalry’ is one of those books I expect few to have read but containing ideas that I think are definitely worth trying to ‘get out there’ in my own little way. This book is a little special to me, having been bought at the bookshop in the front room of Breadmarket Street, Sammy Johnson’s birthplace and the room Michael Johnson had his bookshop.

This book took me a remarkably long time to read, which is not fair because it is a well-written and thought-out discussion combining two of my favourite things; Samuel Johnson and over-the-top stories about knights, castles, enchantments and such. The main conceit of the book is that Samuel Johnson was far more influenced by silly stories of quests then we (or even he) realised.

It’s important to note that the long running peninsular-type romances like Orlando Inamorato/Furioso, Amadis du Gaul or Bevis of Southampton were looked down as daft, childish books full of fancy and invention but lacking in any real meat - not too dissimilar to a book-snobs view of an airport thriller. While books like The Faerie Queen and Don Quixote were regarded as slightly more literary versions of the same thing (say a Silence of the Lambs to the newest Dean Koontz), general eighteenth century prejudice was snooty to the whole genre.

Johnson was already a little more forgiving than many of his peers, declaring this sort of work to be the kind of thing to really grab a young or neophyte reader with their variety and fun (and annoying Hester Thrale by not accepting that any other kind of book might be attractive for children). He declared in a number of Rambler essays that such works were made to grow out of. Indeed, he declared that such books, as well as the often fantastical Shakespeare were works of a younger, more infantile age and suited only for young children.

This, however, did not stop Johnson knocking back the odd ‘romantick’ work when he could, or from frequently using allusions and ideas in his speech and writing - to the extent that Eithne Henson argues they radically shaped his world view.

There are a great many of these ‘romantick’ writers quoted within the dictionary - many of them slightly misquoted, showing that they were from Johnson’s memory. Because the meanings of a word are displayed in Johnson’s dictionary by chronology rather than most-common meaning, it shows how many seemingly innocuous words originally have a chivalric meaning. For example, I was not aware that an avenue was originally a military term for the weak lines of attack factored into a fortress or castle. 

Henson says that  Johnson uses these words in other works like The Rambler or Rasselas, with half an eye on the deeply buried etymological metaphors in them - meaning that some rather plain looking sentences actually contain vibrant metaphorical meanings, many of them linking to the dangers of the chivalric landscape or the arts of war/chivalry. 

Another argument she gives towards this reading are the many references in his work to features of a ‘romantick’ landscape. His discussion of fame or morality are often riddled with images of dank dungeons, caves, mountains or the many allurements of enchantment - one of the most feared being the overwrought imagination that can lead to despair. The frequency of these images show how much his imagination was engaged by them and how much he saw himself and the travails of his life as that of a knight errant on his journey. Sometimes viewing himself as a comically inappropriate ‘Cervantean’ knight and other times as a proper one - it is interesting that his view of Quixote is one of the earliest sympathetic readings that exist.

Johnson also showed the influence of this fiction on him in the way he treats Shakespeare. He is consistently drawn to the stranger, least ordered narratives and although he regarded Shakey as uncouth and messy, it is that variety and forward movement that he most appreciates and responds to. (She also talks about how, ‘Johnson’s imagination responds to Shakespeare, as to all literature, with a far greater intensity than is normal.’ Something I would like to return to another time.)

Finally, Johnson’s ‘romantick’ spirit is revealed when he gets the chance to live it a little in his trip to Scotland. His own book ‘Journey to the Western Isles’, has in itself a more romantic title in the use of the word ‘journey’ then ‘trip’ or ‘tour’ and the desire to see a little of the faded feudal life and tough landscape are a big attraction in getting him there. He delights in the ruins and crags, and his own conception of himself as a grizzled sixty-year old writer who still can battle the elements. He also has an (occasionally embarrassing) habit of trying to convince Scottish Lairds in comfy, modern homes to move back into their castles to make the dream more real. As Henson says, ‘Johnson’s delight in exaggerated role playing is evident.’ Though, to be fair, Johnson also likes acting as a kangaroo.
There is a push-pull in the book between his ‘romantick’ inclinations and his Augustan solidity. His fondness for the Jacobite cause is described as ‘a romantic allegiance that reason and prudence modify.’ This seems a good description of Johnson’s views throughout, he may by nature be inclined to the fanciful but his reason kept him mostly in check.

I very much enjoyed this book, even though I didn’t gobble it up quite as easily as I expected. The writing is clear, the ideas well argued and the conclusions add another nice little layer on the notions I have of Samuel Johnson, a man who grows ever more complex.

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Book Haul Video

Those who follow this blog (now may realise that I have a tendency to make youtube videos. Although I make videos about books, I am not really a proper part of the ‘booktube’ community. Alas, I am not young, pretty or perky enough to be a standard booktuber, nor am I a fan of YA (Young Adult) fiction with vague titles and badly photoshopped covers.

Most peculiar are the videos called ‘Book Hauls’. These are videos where people go through the books they have bought recently and show them off. I can’t understand whether the point of them is to boast about the money someone is willing to pay for books or boasting about their taste. 

So, what do we do with something we don’t understand?

We take the piss.

Welcome to Booktuber Lodger, a happy, cheerful soul with various buried issues and a best friend who is a pink scholarly bunny. 


Monday 14 May 2018

Not so much body snatching - as body shuffling.

Due to some technical thing that is probably my fault, the automatic payments on did not go through. My bank have stated adamantly that no transaction was attempted whereas google domains stated adamantly that they tried twice and were blocked.

As a result of that (and the fact that the admin for this was done through one of my lesser-viewed emails) I defaulted the payment, despite the fact the bank still promised that Google hadn't charged it. Google then offered me the price of restoring the domain name at the cheap price of £89, plus £10 for the yearly renewal fee.

Forget that! 

I went to a rival domain company who had for sale already, for ten years at £90. 'Quids in', thought I, 'the same price as the restoration for a decade of hosting'. Then it turned out, they tried to sell me something they didn't own - Google still did. They took the money and offered me 'credit' for a new name.

After 5 hours wrangling with bank, Google and domain site - the solution has arrived....


Long may the next ten years be fruitful for it and for me.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

QD Leavis' 'Fiction and the Reading Public' review.

‘Fiction and the Reading Public’ uses business models, cultural history and textual analysis to argue that culture has (almost irrecoverably) dumbed down. However, as passionately argued as the text is, the research Leavis has put into arguing her point could just as easily be put to arguing that culture has become more sophisticated, with audiences choosing different texts for different needs.

This book interested, bored, amused and angered me. I wrote almost 250 words of notes and found my thoughts haunted by it for some time. There are moments when I also feel we’ve lost something serious and meaningful as a society, which draw me into the arguments but then I remember the sheer range of culture that I can (and do) partake in and it all seems a bit silly. Aristophanes complained about dumbing down in ‘The Frogs’, Pope waged a war against ‘dulness’ - it’s not a very original idea.

What is original is the vigour Leavis goes into pursuing what seems like a tired line of inquiry. She argues that in the modern age (in 1932) there are four kinds of books; highbrow literature, middlebrow literature that wants to be higher, middlebrow literature which is happy as it is and bestsellers. She regards only one of these doing the proper job of the novel which is ‘not to offer a refuge from actual life but to help the reader deal less inadequately with it.’ She feels the public are alienated from the higher works of literature and are being offered sub-par literature which goes too far to accept, rather than challenge, its readers and so fails to develop them as people.

According to the historical section of the book, this was not always the case. Elizabethans, not being a literate culture, formed their patterns of thinking from traditional folk knowledge, stories from the Bible and a massive amount of public singing. They ‘acquired their language from living conversation and not cheap, printed matter’ which meant that when they did write, it was full of invention and life. The influence of puritanism meant that even as literacy was growing, they still only had access to firm, thoughtful staples like ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and the works of Daniel Defoe. Because there was little children’s literature or cheap literature, those learning to read did so with solid, good adult writing.

For Leavis, this means that the birth of the novel was one with solid foundations but these were soon to wobble and then to shatter. With the introduction of Richardson’s (interminable) psychological delving and the development of sensibility and romanticism, the world was shortly to be broken. From being a ‘public prepared to take some trouble for its pleasures,’ readers grew ‘habits in-amicable to mental effort.’ Authors went from people with a better handle on the world and taught their readers, to people as immature as their readers who sympathised with them. 

The final blow was the democratisation of newspapers (largely caused by Dr Johnson house saviour, Lord Harmsworth) and the creation of cheap paperbacks to sell in places like railway stations and chemists.

Of course, this historical reading is a pile of crap.

Elizabethan writers were just as inspired by what they read as modern writers. In all his work, Shakespeare only created a handful of his own plots - and writers like Greene complained that Shakespeare’s work was dumbing down the stage. As for the puritan era of pure reading, this was when the later tales of chivalry had their moment, the birth of children’s literature and the existence of the whole genre of chapbooks, which were designed for the less literate in mind. As for the analysis of the novel from the eighteenth century on - she neglects pretty much the whole of Grub St and the frequent Jeremiads from writers who thought other writers weren’t writerly enough.

What the history would suggest to me, is that as more people read, the needs of the reading public became more complex. It is true that there are many books that are read for relaxation more than stimulation but that’s no bad thing, it’s just one of the many purposes of the novel that can co-exist. There are worryingly authoritarian notions that the increase in literacy only ended up devaluing literature; it almost sounds as if she would prefer it if most people did not read so their tastes won’t muddy her pure waters. She regards the common reader (whose opinion Samuel Johnson would often defer to) as a herd who are led into their reading and not individuals who make choices based on their needs.

It’s strange, because her analysis of the techniques of bestsellers is really sound. She identifies how they target the heart more than the head and how they encourage the reader to put themselves into the story. However, she doesn’t seem to recognise that these attributes are due to the increasing skills of writer and reader. When she complains that modern writers sketch bold outlines of characters for the reader to fill in, she doesn’t respect the ability of the reader to do this. If good writing is like a conversation (as Sterne says, and she agrees) Leavis doesn’t acknowledge the importance of the reader’s side of it. 

The last section, where Leavis compares examples of high/middle/low books manages to cause a great deal of unintentional comedy and make some good points. The good points are around how a novel can survive despite its faults because being such a long investment in time, its effects are accumulative, unlike the sharp shock of poetry. The comedy comes from her flashing quotations of three different texts on a page and essentially saying, ‘see, that one’s better’ without any real explanation why.

As flawed as I find the book, it does create thought and discussion and I want to end my review on some positive notes. The texts Leavis chooses to champion have certainly lasted longer in the public consciousness than those bestsellers she derides - I would argue that this is another example of the texts fulfilling different functions - but her eye for a classic is very astute. I was delighted to see her championing of Eliza Haywood (whom I love) and her warm recommendation has really encouraged me put Pilgrim’s Progress on my to-read-soon pile. She also has a wonderful way of slagging off texts she doesn’t like (her Man of Feeling rant is very entertaining).

If anyone really wants to read a conservative diatribe against modern taste, I’d recommend this far above Christopher Bookers loathsome ‘The Seven Basic Plots’.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Review: The National Science Museum

Until last week, the last time I had gone to the National Science Museum was when I was eight years old. Although I am inclined towards smaller museums, I have revisited the Natural History Museum a number of times and the V&A has become a go-to for me. 

My main reason for never going back was that my main memory of the museum was being underwhelmed and my sister (then three) having the mother of all tantrums. It was a real case of facing one’s fears when I agreed to help take a group of nearly sixty, six and seven year-olds to the museum. We moved between the Wonderlab and other hands-on areas of the museum and the children loved it - I began to realise there was something interesting in-between the touchy/handy bits.

So, when I had a free day, I went to see what those interesting things were and…

…Wow! The National Science Museum has one of the strongest collections most poorly presented of any museum I have ever seen.

I went on a Saturday afternoon and the museum was full of buggies and small children. They toddled and waddled up the aisles, they pointed at the big spaceships and the old choo-choo trains. For some reason, they ignored the little wooden box, the blob of mould or the plastic pot, they wobbled right past them, despite the fact these objects changed the world. 

To be fair, it wasn’t only the pre-schoolers that went straight past these epoch changing objects, adults also steamed past them to look at the bigger, flashier objects. Not one person (for the three hours I was there) looked - and that can’t be the fault of the visitors but the fault of the museum.

In the ‘Making of the Modern World’ gallery, there is a row of low cases with benches attached running directly down the centre of the room. Almost every object in these cases was a completely unique artefact of scientific history. Included within were; Watt’s model condenser, original Davy’s safety lamps, Jenner’s cowpox swabs, 1st telegraph machine, a first edition Lumière Brother’s cinematograph, the incubator of the first test tube babies, a sample of Fleming’s original penicillin - and so much more. A whole museum could be formed around what were simply being used as benches. 

This particular gallery is an utter treasure trove. Having recently read Pandaemonium, a lot of the industrial revolution ‘stuff’ had meaning to me. I was delighted to see Puffing Billy and Stephenson’s Rocket - especially livened (if that’s the right word) by the fact that it ran over an MP on it’s first official run. 

I’m currently reading Richard Holme’s The Age of Wonder which has two fascinating chapters on brother and sister Astronomical A-Team, William and Caroline Herschel. Tucked in a corner of the gallery were a specula from their forty-foot telescope, which discovered moons of Saturn. next to that was a polisher for these giant mirrors and next to that, one of Caroline Herschel’s comet-hunter telescopes. I had just finished a chapter about her on the train and it was a delight to see this tool which was also a symbol of her (shaky) independence and her lasting scientific impact.

To go into other objects that people walked past might be redundant, but I was amazed to see people nonchalantly stroll past Crick and Watson’s DNA model, Babbage difference engines and Julius, an early computer that generated the odds in greyhound racing.

The problem with the museum, which I think is best exemplified in the ‘Making of the Modern World’ gallery, is that without proper presentation, they are just objects. A viewer has to know the significance of the object to have a reaction to it and the museum does not do enough to put those objects into context. All the museum gives is a short paragraph in a small font - and that's when there isn’t someone sitting on it.

Another problem with that gallery (and the museum in general) is that it is impossible to follow the room chronologically without zigzagging across the room - a pattern of movement the cases in the room impedes. The room almost encourages the visitor to run through it, glancing quickly around and having a brief feeling of wonder as they are pumped towards the cafe and imax cinema.

I also feel the museum doesn’t do enough to advertise to a potentially more appreciative audience. All Science Museum advertisement on the tube focus on the Wonderlab, the (admittedly good fun) interactive area for children - but the museum is probably best enjoyed by adults. Almost every item in that building is priceless and there are hours and hours worth of rational entertainment in it, if you can get around the buggies.


As well as my afternoon in the Science Museum (and I haven’t even mentioned all the Watt & Boulton stuff - as read about in Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men) I also went to an event.

To celebrate 200 years of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus I went to a showing of the 1957 Hammer Horror The Curse of Frankenstein on imax followed by a brief session with Sir Chistopher Frayling and Kathryn Harkup. 

Although it didn’t really need the imax presentation, for eight pounds, it was fun to sit and watch Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee have at it in front of an audience. There was also something ticklish in seeing Kensington gore in South Kensington. It’s a good film, the audience had fun.

The discussion was interesting in how it flagged up how unsuccessful the novel was. Of five-hundred copies published by a very downmarket publisher, there were still some left three years later. It was the presentation of Frankenstein on the stage that brought the story fame. The verbal creature from the book grunts on stage, the comic assistant comes in and Frankenstein himself grew crazier and crazier.

It was fascinating hearing how Victor is neither a bad man or scientist, and the book is not anti-science. 

Although not a long Q&A, it was an interesting one - and I found out that Percy Shelley once tried to reanimate a dead cat.