MEDiA: A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil Macgregor/British Museum (Audiobook)

Vision on the radio.

Yet more archival action. This was originally written not that long after the series first aired, on BBC R4, after receiving the audiobook version, via the Amazon Vine programme. This blog post is a slightly revised version of my Amazon UK review of the latter.

Quite justifiably described on the packaging as a landmark series, this is factual programming at it’s very best, up there with such monumental achievements as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, and David Attenborough’s prodigious and prolific Life series

British Museum director Neil MacGregor proves to be an eloquent, charming, and compelling guide, taking the listener on a fascinating, amazingly wide-ranging, and hugely absorbing travelogue through time and space, history and culture, in which the role of the listener’s imagination is, intriguingly, very important.

Thanks to the odd but inspired choice of covering the ostensibly visual world of objects through the language-based medium of the radio, the listeners mind is allowed, as with any good storyteller scenario, to create imaginative pictures of everything; from imagining how MacGregor might himself look, to picturing, in the mind’s eye, the varied and exotic objects themselves, their original locations, the journeys that brought them to the British Museum, and, of course, the peoples and cultures from whence they come. In pursuing this visionary approach via radio, the series succeeds in capturing the imagination, and through imagination, cultivating fascination. A clever and remarkably seductive ploy.

I think it’s better that, rather than trying to convey the effect of each episode by discussing particular objects, I try and instead convey the general approach: basically each object becomes a prism, through which MacGregor (with help from experts and other pundits) unlocks a veritable rainbow of associations, which range from the continual unfolding of new insights about the objects themselves (these things, at first sight static and immutable, become conduits for the ever changing plasticity of our minds, and in turn for what’s perceived in itself: amazing!), and our understanding of the cultures they come from, to how this feeds into history, and the evolution of culture, affecting us here and now.

The scope is thus truly grand, and MacGregor’s excitement (all the best inspirational educators seem possessed of this almost child-like glee: think of the aforementioned Sagan, Clarke, and Attenborough), as he guides us eloquently on this epic journey, is both palpable and contagious. Thanks to this series, the relatively frequent trips my wife and I make to our local museums have increased, both in terms of frequency, and in terms of quality, as I now pay more attention to a wider range of objects, more aware of the rich bounty of insight they potentially represent.

A rich smorgasbord of talking heads add their own views and insights, reminding us of the fact of continually evolving webs of human interconnectedness, which forms a kind of sub-plot of the series. I must confess that sometimes canvassing the ‘great and the good’ in this manner irritates me, but it’s well done here, and the people and quotes chosen are generally both full of insight, enlightening, and add colour and variety to the series.


Not only does the series entertain and educate brilliantly, but it also stimulates reflection. Episodes covering such topics as sexuality and smoking throw up contentious and challenging views, views that continue to change through time. And rather than supplying glib answers, MacGregor and the series instead leave room for the listener to think for themselves, which is excellent. That this series will spark many and varied chains of thought in the listener is, I think, pretty much a certainty, and it’s part of what makes it so good.

And that’s just a small part of the great the beauty of the series: from a broken potsherd or a gilded galleon, to meditations on what it is, and what it once was, to be human, all this and much more are spun out from the individual objects, more often than not things of great beauty in themselves. And, as noted above, MacGregor’s style of delivery is an important part of this, the series as a whole striking a wonderful balance between serious mindedness and accessibility.

The series is also very well put together, structurally: three tranches of programmes aired over a year, in batches of approximately 30 or so at a time. Each programme being approximately 15 mins long. The combined total air time is just over a solid days worth of material, at 24/25 hours! And, as each episode is relatively short, each can be comfortably digested on it’s own, or you can enjoy several delicious courses at a sitting. Listening to the CDs I recall the excitement with which I would await each new episode as they aired (and the frustration of waiting between each tranche!).

I also have the podcasts and a good old-fashioned hardback print version of the series, in book form. It’s so good that having it in all these formats seems, to me, very worthwhile. The book has the obvious added advantage over the other formats of bigger more sumptuous illustrations of the objects. There is a small booklet, however, accompanying the audiobook release. So images of all the objects can be viewed, grouped in sets of five (corresponding to the weekly transmissions), with, over each set, a small précis of that weeks themes and objects, but they – the images – are rather small.

Nothing short of stunning, this series is a complete and very exciting triumph, and this audiobook is a good format to own it in.

PS – The wiki entry on the whole project is well worth reading.

BOOK REViEW: Children of Hurin, Tolkien

Another of my occasional archival posts.

The basic premise of this story is that one can’t cheat fate. I’m not going to synopsise the story. Let other folk do that! (Plenty have.)

Whatever our current views of such an ancient idea as fate might be – the Final Destination movie series is one contemporary take on it – there’s no doubt that in Tolkien’s world it tends, more often than not, to be unpleasant. In this instance Tolkien really goes for the darkest of pagan vibes, with a selection of themes that might be equally at home in the harshest of Nordic, or even Greek tragedies.

Apparently Tolkien worked on a sequel to LOTR, but abandoned it, because it was, according to his son Christopher, “too dark”. In much the same way, the story told in Children Of Hurin shared a similar fate, never reaching completion in J. R. R.’s own lifetime. Elements of the story first appeared in The Silmarillion, itself the first of Christopher’s works as literary executor, after his father’s death.

I first read it, many, many, many years ago, as a young teenager, in that incomplete state, and under the title ‘Narn I Hîn Húrin’ in a volume entitled Unfinished Tales. It was captivating then, and perhaps even more tantalising due to its incompleteness, like a partial fossilised skeleton might be to an archaeologist, biologist or palaeontologist.

So it was exciting to learn that Christopher Tolkien had revisited his fathers archives and put together a complete version of this bleakly compelling, highly enchanting tale. I have long hoped he might be able to do likewise for the story of Tuor, and the fall of Gondolin (I believe he may have?).

Tolkien inspires such devotion and admiration amongst a part of his readership, to which I belong, I guess, that many of his readers enjoy learning about the evolution, the archaeology if you will, of his work, and Christopher’s subsequent part in this. How Christopher managed to finish this particular unfinished tale is included in this volume, and was in itself fascinating.

But, ultimately it’s the story, and Tolkien’s gift for creating a believable world that contains such unbelievable elements as magic, elves and dragons, that lies at the heart of the success of this book. I’m not a fan of fantasy literature as a whole. Most of it seems to me so poorly conceived and written it puts me off rather than draws me in. Tolkien’s obsessively scholarly depth and detail mark his work out as a rare exception in the genre.

I absolutely adore this story. And that’s what’s getting five stars in this review. I’m a little less keen on the recent Alan Lee illustrated editions, to be honest. I have no beef with Lee, per se. It’s just that, aside from Tolkien’s own artworks, I prefer to let his words and my imagination give rise to how I see his creations. Having someone else’s visualisations kind of gets in the way a bit, for me.

And that’s why ultimately I feel all the Peter Jackson stuff, and how it’s popularised Tolkien’s oeuvre, has been – for me – a difficult or troubling issue. More on this, perhaps, in some other Tolkien related posts? But for a work of dark powerful fantasy, with the power of ancient myth, The Children of Hurin is great.

BOOK REViEW: The Malay Archipelago, A. R. Wallace

More archival shenanigans!

Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago is a wonderful Victorian-era adventure, combining travel to far-flung exotic locations with myriad fascinating themes, from the roots of science in collecting specimens in the field, to C19th commerce, imperialism, and even anthropology and philosophy. This is not the author’s equivalent to On The Origins (he wrote no such work), but rather his counterpart, of sorts, to Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle.

Because of this I certainly wouldn’t go as far as the writer of the back cover blurb on this Periplus edition – who asserts that Alfred Russell Wallace “deserves equal billing with Charles Darwin for his independently drawn but parallel conclusions on the theory of evolution” – because, like Wallace himself, I feel Darwin’s stupendous amount of research work quite justifies his precedence. Nevertheless this is certainly as exciting a read as Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and certainly Wallace deserves to be – and is clearly gradually becoming – much better known.


It was via David Attenborough’s enthusiasm for Wallace and this book – an illustration in which ignited a passion for Birds of Paradise in the young Attenborough, begetting a lifelong obsession, resulting in numerous trips, films and books – along with my continued avid reading of Darwin related material, which lead me to eventually request this book as a birthday present (thanks mum!). I have the very handsome – and often hard to find (it seems to go out of print regularly!) – Periplus edition.

Essentially this is a write up of Wallace’s travels in the Malay Archipelago, where he was collecting wildlife specimens for private collectors, back home in Great Britain. As well as being a tireless collector and ardent observer of both the wildlife specimens – mainly bugs and birds – and the natural history observations that go with them, Wallace was a very eloquent thoughtful man. As a result you get a mixture of natural history, adventure, anthropology, and so on. The indefatigable energy and industry, and the omnivorous enthusiasm and inquisitiveness of men like Wallace and Darwin, so alike and yet also so different, continues to fascinate and inspire.

This is by turns exciting, amusing and enlightening, illuminating wonderfully how the worlds of commerce, adventure, and science met, in the exotic islands of the Malay archipelgo and the person of a self-made polymath adventurer.

MUSiC: Marcos Valle, Marcos Valle, 1970

Marcos Valle gets into the ’70s, in style.

Off the back of some quite dour bossa material (Viola Enluarda, 1968) and the first hint of weirder things to come ( Mustang Cor De Sangue , 1969), brothers Marcos and Paulo Sergio Valle stepped into the ’70s in a bolder and more varied style than many might’ve have expected, based on their previous catalogue.

One or two tracks, for example the very beautiful O Evangelho Segundo San Quentin, on Mustang, had hinted at a broader musical palette being used. But by comparison with that ’69 recording this self-titled work, sometimes known as Quarentao Simpatico, is a whole new thang. Quarentao Simpatico is the first song, and kicks things off with a more pop-rock feel than anything in their previous catalogue. A slow, magisterial piano lead groove, the whole sound is new and modern, but still quintessentially Valle.

Of his first four or five albums made in the 1970s, this is perhaps the most strangely eclectic and diverse. His ex-wife Anamaria (for whom crickets had sung previously and famously) provides her distinctive vocals on Ele E Ela, which has sounds of the couple petting and giggling rather erotically, under a pillow (or should that be duvet?) of easy listening horns. Dez Leis is delivered in a strangely declamatory (for Valle) vocal style, whilst Pygmaliao (which I believe may have been a TV or film soundtrack), is just plain strange in places, with little sound-effect interludes (e.g. the sound of ice plopping into a glass) punctuating a very-easy listening waltz.

When Valle revisits his big hit Os Grilos (known in English speaking countries as Crickets Sing For Anamaria), it’s a decidedly odd version, compared with the sliky smooth original. It’s still a recognisably bossa/samba jazz number, but now with weirdly tripped out vocal effects, Tropicalia style woodblock percussion, a fuzz-guitar lead break, and the sound of Valle and co. goofing off in the studio.

Marcos and Paulo were busy writing music commercially around this time, and unlike in the US and UK, where this might be considered weird, the music makes it’s way onto Valle albums of the period, and makes them all the more fascinating. The text of my japanese import is unreadable to me, but I believe Suite Imaginaria might be such a piece, possibly recorded for a TV theme. It’s extraordinarily beautiful, and, in places, one of my favourite cuts on the album. Starting as a haunting instrumental with ticking clocks, and a wordless female vocal, it later morphs through several other phases, some pretty weird, all of which are pretty musically wonderful in one way or another.

My Japanese import adds the 1967 single version of Os Grilos as an extra track, whereas the Light In The Attic version appends Berenice to the album (also included as a bonus on the Japanese version of Garra). For me, as much as I like Valle’s previous six albums, and I really love ’em, this is where the magic really starts. It would get even better, unbeleivably, with Garra , Vento Sul and Previsao Do Tempo . But this is still, to my mind, essential musical magic.

MUSiC: Marcos Valle, Vento Sul, 1972

Absolutely stunning!

Originally reviewed March, 2013, on Amazon UK. This version is slightly updated/revised.

Marcos Valle has been something of a musical chameleon over the years. Coming up in the second wave of bossa nova in the sixties, he could and did write in that form brilliantly, producing several albums, mostly in his native Brazil and sung in Portugese, but including Samba ’68 , recorded in the US and sung in English. As the sixties came to a close he and his brother, a songwriting team of rare excellence, began to experiment with broader ranges of sounds and lyrical themes, keeping bossa and samba in the mix, but gradually incorporating the broader themes of MPB*, various pop forms (rock, soul, soundtrack, funk), even psychedelia and Tropicalia.

* Music Popular Brazil!

Already he had behind him such eclectic masterpieces as his self-titled 1970 recording, and the utterly sublime Garra. With each new release there were increasing signs of a musically omnivorous diversity that would make categorising and describing Valle’s music ever harder. So far this hadn’t hurt his success, sales, or the critical reception that he was getting. Indeed, the brothers Valle were very busy commercially, writing music for the Brazilian franchise of Sesame Street (Vila Sesamo), an album for an airline (Fly Cruzeiro), and frequent commissions for TV and movie soundtracks, which often pop up on their albums.

Feeling the pressure of such demands, the brothers Valle (acc. to Allmusic) decamped to the hippie beach town of Buzios, where they continued to collaborate, and not just with each other, but a really quite broad collection of fellow Brazilian musicians, and Vento Sul (South Wind) was the result.

Personally I feel that Valle’s music between 1970-4 reaches a peak the likes of which is rarely attained in popular music. As I type this Bodas de Sangue is playing: the fifth track on the album, it’s a sublimely beautiful instrumental that moves through several segments, ranging from filmic, to classical chamber music. From this they effortlessly segue into the baroque pop psychedelia of Demoscustico, in which a very rhythmic and phonetic poem is declaimed, over a musical background that continually morphs from section to section, in a dizzying but satisfyingly homogenous way. It really is stunning!

The title track is gorgeous, a lush, slow, gentle waltz. Marcos takes the lead vocal on this track. And that highlights another remarkable thing about this album; Valle doesn’t dominate the lead vocal spot on this album entirely, as he normally would. Several of the other musicians are just as prominent vocally on certain tracks, and a keynote of the recording is the amount of collective singing, such as that which takes over from Marcos after the first verse of the title track. It’s a literal musical embodiment of a kind of dreamy, gauzy, diaphanous hippie idealism made concrete in musical terms. Astonishing!

The musical range is also flabbergasting, many of the pieces are like little sonic worlds, the richness and the transitions so natural and beguiling one doesn’t always appreciate quite how amazing the range of the music is. At times it is quite challenging, as with parts of Democustico, or Rosto Barbado (Red Beard, on account of Valle’s emerging facial fuzz, perhaps?). Voo Cegoo and Mi Hermoza exemplify the strands where other vocalists, and group harmonies, dominate, with Marcos generously stepping back from the spotlight. Both are from the dreamier, mellower side of the repertoire, with the former being amongst my personal favourites, and the latter showing how far off his usual musical map Valle and co. were willing to travel, with Vinicius Cantauria and the musicians of O Terco stamping a psychedelic rock vibe on proceedings, especially in the fuzzed out rock section, with its distorted lead guitar.

I got the Japanese import version of Vento Sul (via Chicago’s some time ago, and it cost me a bomb. But it was very definitely worth every penny. That version of the album appends the wonderfully sunny and goofily upbeat O Beato as a bonus track.

I like O Beato a lot, but it kind of breaks the mood of gentle reverie that was created by the original final track, Deixa O Mundo E O Sol Entrar, which is a gorgeous song. Sung by Marcos, accompanied by several acoustic guitars, piano, electric bass and percussion, there’s almost some kind of Pink Floyd-esque feel at work, but with that jazzy Brazilian vibe thrown in. Fabulous!

Apparently all of this fabulousness was too much for the critics and Valle fans back in the day, and, bizarrely to my mind, Vento Sul marked a dip in Valle’s success at home in Brazil. But it has stood the test of time very well. Yes, it certainly sounds very much of its time, but in a truly wonderful way, showing what a creative and open era this was, even under the heel of the Brazilian military dictatorship of that era.

The beautiful cover painting conveys perfectly the dreamy feeling of this incredible album. If you like Valle, or just music brave enough to go its own way, this is a must have.

MUSiC: Garra, Marcos Valle, 1971

An incredibly rich and diverse album.

I originally posted this review back in March, 2013, on Amazon UK. This version is slightly revised.

An enormously wide-ranging and varied album, this is one of the many reasons I love both Brazilian music of this era, and also just much of the music of the time as a whole. One can’t imagine many artists nowadays getting such a diverse polyglot explosion of artistic creativity past the record execs. Having come up as a second-wave bossa dude, all clean cut, with a beautiful wife and an armful of gorgeous bossa nova tunes, Valle and brother Paulo Sergio allowed themselves to move with the times, absorbing myriad sounds and influences and putting them all together in a unique and wonderful way.

I’m what I like to call a ‘naturalist and free thinker’, but opening track Jesus Meu Rei could almost have me back in the flock, it’s such a joyous piece of gospel-soused loveliness. Valle has a beautiful voice, and the music is just unlike anything else, ever. So too with Com Mais De 30, a bubbling cauldron of gentle breezy bossa/samba mixed with easy listening textures that’s a beautiful little musical bibelot, with excellent lyrics at once humourous and profound, about ageing. Roughly translating as ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’, a popular hippy slogan of the era, both Marcos Valle himself and lyricist brother Paulo Sergio were by the time this was recorded, just into their thirties.

Track three, the title track veers all over the place, with a loping funky groove, one minute Valle sings breathless almost comic easy-listening style ‘ha-ha’s (on the offbeats, a favourite trick of his), the next it’s stripped down to strings, recorders and/or mellotron. Truly amazing music, without any recognisable boundaries, and utterly joyful. Next up, Black Is Beautiful, combines Brazilian lyrics with an English chorus, and once again flits across the musical map in a way that’s almost psychedelic, based around a slow, stately 6/8 rhythm, the music is drenched in easy listening horns and strings, and the lyrics seem to be a celebration of the diverse ethnicity so integral to Brazil, as well as, more obviously, a love song to black beauty, with references to the ‘sangue’ (blood) of Africa and Europe. Terrific!

Ao Amigo Tom is a gentle bossa, reminiscent of Valle’s early records, and I suspect the Tom may be Antonio Carlos ‘Tom’ Jobim. Jobim was slated to produce/direct Valle’s debut, but in the end couldn’t, and so the job devolved upon another Brazilian superdude, Eumir Deadato. Valle shows complete mastery of the ‘vialoa e voz’ medium, with gorgeous melody and harmony, a proper tribute to a beloved hero/influence.

Paz e Futebol and Que Bandira are more from the MPB end of the spectrum, big Brazilian pop productions, but once again indelibly stamped with the Valle genius. The next track that really scores for me (note cheesy football pun) is Wanda Vidal, an amazing slab of cosmic Brazilian funk. Nothing like any James Brown or US rare groove, and with a goofy easy-listening middle-eight, but the lazy loping bass and keys, and the chicken scratch guitar… It’s just brilliant, and largely ’cause it’s like no other music on Earth. Joyous!

Minha Voz Zira Do Sol Da America is a baroque pop instrumental gem, with that kind of transcendent uplifting joyfulness Valle excels at. If I understand it correctly Vinte E Seis Anos De Vida Normal, another MPB nugget, replete with strings and brass, is a song about wanting to make it, to get known, having spent ’26 years on the margins’. So, not only is the music great, but the lyrics are intriguing too.

O Cafona is another of the three tracks on this album (and there are others on other Valle albums) in which the lyrics use breathless offbeat vocal gymnastics to great if oddball effect. Try singing like that. If you’re anything like me, you’ll almost expire with the effort. But Valle makes it seem both effortless, and far more dignified than it ought to! This is one of several tracks with a loping, lumbering, almost funky rhythm section, and wonderful keys and guitars, layered in all kinds of unexpected ways. It’s not my favourite vein of his work – Vento Sul (mis-titled as Vento Soul here on Amazon UK) and Previsao Do Tempo are his masterpieces as far as I’m concerned – but this is truly unique and exceptional music.

The Japanese reissue adds Berenice, whereas the Light In The Attic US reissue ends with O Cafona. Some rate Garra as Valle’s best.As I say, I prefer Vento Sul and Provisao Do Tempo, but everything he did around this time is magical, really, and well worth having.

BOOK REViEW: The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler

I loved this. Exciting, informative, thought-provoking.

Called the ‘the indispensable intellectual’ by his biographer, prof. Michael Scammell, and frequently described as a polymath, I have to confess that, for myself, I only know Koestler so far via this book. There’s controversy around the suicide pact he and his wife partook of, brought on by his terminal illness, and I’ve also heard that he’s been criticised by some in the sciences, though exactly what for I can’t recall.

Well, I can only say that I thoroughly enjoyed this, his book on the history of astronomy, enormously. Like Carl Sagan he has a gift for sharing his enthusiasm that is contagious, and these are colourful people and fascinating tales that he’s covering. Watching Sagan’s Cosmos, I grew hungry for more info on such figures as Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Gallileo, and Kepler. And Koestler’s book has proven to be perfect for me, as that’s exactly the kind of thing it delivers.

Koestler (source: wiki).

His thoughts on the schism between the two poles of what one might simply call ‘the spirit’ and ‘the material’ (the kinds of ideas that produce such polarities as arts vs. science, and/or religion vs. science) are interesting, but are also areas I’m less clear on.

But when he’s simply telling the stories, such as that of Kepler and his family, and the times they lived through (Kepler’s father is thought to have been a mercenary soldier, they lived during the tumultuous Thirty Years War, and as well as working and moving around because of the war, Kepler had to defend his mother against charges of witchcraft!), it’s absolutely gripping stuff. Like a novel, only better, inasmuch as this is about real people, and the gradual unfolding of real knowledge.

I’d definitely recommend this to those wanting to learn more about our continuing fascination with our place in the cosmos. And I’ll definitely be reading more Koestler on the strength of this.

BOOK REViEW: Darwin’s Barnacle, Rebecca Stott

Mr Arthrobalanus: “a minute marine monument to mutability.” R. Stott.

Another archival review, once again from the period around or shortly after Darwin’s bicentennial (2009), brought over to my blog on account of recently reading and really enjoying Peter Burke’s The Polymath.

In this wonderful book Rebecca Stott relates the tale of Darwin’s foray into marine biology; how it came about and where it lead, setting it all in a beautifully rendered portrait of Darwin’s personal, family, and socio-cultural context.

Connecting the various epochs of Darwin’s life, Stott skilfully tells a fantastic story, of how the disaffected ex-medical student, embarked on studies for a career as a clergyman, instead pursued his natural-historical instincts, ‘transmutating’ himself (and indeed all of us) in the process.

Little did Darwin’s father realise, when he finally acquiesced to uncle Josiah Wedgewood’s support for Charles’ wish to join the Beagle expedition – “Natural History … is very suitable to a Clergyman” – where it would all lead.

As another reviewer (on Amazon UK’s website) notes, the barnacles themselves aren’t quite as prominent in this book as the title might lead one to expect, but they do nonetheless provide a fantastic central theme from which to tell a really very engaging story about what amounts to almost the whole of Darwin’s life and work, but from a new and refreshing perspective.

I loved reading this, and found it exciting, engaging, informative, entertaining, well-written, and just plain good old-fashioned fun!

Rebecca Stott.

BOOK REViEW: The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow

Fascinating book about ‘a constellation of extraordinary individuals’.

Another archival review, from about a decade ago. Again, stimulated to post this now having just read Polymath, by Peter Burke.

The Lunar Men certainly were ‘a constellation of extraordinary individuals’, as Uglow herself concludes in her epilogue to this weighty tome.

It was reading widely about Charles ‘Origin’ Darwin, around the time of his bicentennial (2009), that lead, almost inexorably, to an interest in the Lunar group, with Stott’s book Darwin’s Barnacle sealing the deal, via the chapter on Charles’ grandfather Erasmus. Erasmus figures large in Uglow’s book too – something of a Titan, both literally and figuratively; a man whose interests (and physical girth) seemed to know no bounds! – and learning more about him is fascinating.

But then there are also the many other ‘Lunatics’: Boulton, Wedgewood, Watt, Priestley, Edgeworth, Whitehurst, Keir, Day and several others. Some of these others are very much Lunar Men, whilst others are just passing through their orbit, like American polymath Benjamin Franklin, or Joseph Wright (‘of Derby’) the painter. Whilst not strictly a Lunar Man, as such, Wright, like Franklin, nonetheless figures prominently in the book.

Some of these names will doubtless be familiar to those with a little general knowledge, Wedgewood for his pottery, Watt for his work with steam engines, Priestley for his politics as much his science, and so on. But the lesser known figures are often equally fascinating, from the fussy-in-love Rousseauian romantic and reactionary Day, to the perhaps a little hapless Withering, who gets into a scientific spat with Erasmus Darwin that reminds me a little of that between Dawkins and Gould in our own times.

Jenny Uglow

One of the many fascinating things about the many subjects covered in this book is how they all mesh together at a particular point in time: coming out of Enlightenment thinking, and based (for the most part) far north of London, they represent a growing blurring of old feudal social distinctions and an increased independence (of both mind and pocket), whilst their voracious quest for knowledge connects them to both emerging ideals of political and personal liberty, and the birth of industrialisation and commercialisation, which would simultaneously lift levels of material wealth, and increase ‘alienation’ and the dependence and insecurity of the working population.

Largely pro-liberty, despite the ties of the patronage system many of them cooperated in and profited by, they initially embraced the French Revolution, but as The Enclosures bit deep into the land, and Britain reacted against the threat of revolutionary and then Napoleonic Europe, various aspects of the Lunar Men’s interests fared unevenly: Wedgewood thrived, advancing industry through increased chemical and practical knowledge, and (like Boulton) bringing higher levels of finish to ever wider markets, whilst Boulton and Watt’s steam power quite literally boomed, in every possible respect. And of course Erasmus’ interests in evolution would be picked up and developed by his son, Charles, with epoch-shattering revolutionary effect.

But Day’s reactionary politics and Priestley’s libertarianism (his fate in relation to riots and ‘anti Jacobin’ unrest is rather sad) would both succumb to the strange mix of the pragmatic advances of capitalist industrialism (what Day, along with the likes of William Blake – Uglow uses the lunar theme to connect the Lunar Men’s reaching ‘so eagerly for the moon’ with Blake’s engraving mocking scientific hubris [the famous ‘I want, I want’ with a ladder reaching to the moon] – feared was the pollution of an English Eden by the ‘dark satanic mills’) with the great reversals to emancipatory progress which had looked imminent (Keir’s progressive optimism re the ‘diffusion of a general knowledge … [a] characteristic feature of the present age’ contrasting with the anti-intellectualism of Burke, who saw science as ‘smeared with blood … arrogant and uncaring’) resulting, at more prosaic levels, in setbacks to British liberal reform.

And all of this occurs at a specific moment, at a time when the gentleman amateur was perhaps more common as a leader in science than the professional or academic, and when events in Europe would have immense impact here in the British Isles, both strengthening our own imperial position – although it looked terribly insecure at the time, as America fought for and won its independence, causing the axis of our power base to shift from west (America and the west-indies) to East (India and the East-Indies) – and setting back the course of reforming liberal politics at home by many decades. All of which developments continue to inform our culture life even now. From our pride in Darwin to our troubled and alienated relationship with Europe. Re-posting this post-Brexit this aspect seems even more poignant. .

Many of those in this story were also proto-capitalists, as well as industrialists, making and sometimes losing fortunes, speculating with their investments. Erasmus Darwin had to earn his own living, as a doctor. His desire to publish much of his scientific work anonymously, and disguised as poetry, was influenced by a need to secure his reputation and private practice. His involvement as an investor in canal building, speeding the pulse of British industrialisation in a manner akin to the effect steam engines would shortly redouble, was what ultimately meant that Charles Darwin could work on evolution as a gentleman of leisure. Fascinating!

Vast in size and coverage – so big – like Erasmus at his dinner table (which had to be modified with a semi-circular cutaway), I couldn’t always fit it into my reading rest – this is a very interesting, informative and enjoyable book. Whilst I kind of wish it had been a bit leaner, given how much Uglow covers it’s understandable that it should be a bit of a mammoth.

BOOK REViEW: The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes

This is yet another archival post (and there are many, many more to come!). Slightly updated on being transferred here. Probably first wrote this over a decade ago!? I was prompted to get it posted here having just read Burke’s Polymath. There seemed to me some overlap/relation.

The Darwin bicentennial (2009) got me reading much more about science, scientists, and all sorts of similar related stuff, for which I’m extremely grateful.

After an orgy of Darwin related reading and viewing, I felt I needed to broaden my horizons, so I bought this. It’s a real tour de force, and makes for very compulsive reading. I was barely able to put it down to perform basic functions like eating and sleeping.

My favourite chapters were those that featured the Herschels, William and his sister Caroline. I love the idea of the ‘Renaissance Man’ (or woman, for that matter), or polymath. In my own humble way I work in several fields, as writer, musician and artist. I make no claims to excellence in any of these fields, nor pretend to compare myself with people like William Herschel, who was an accomplished musician, composer and teacher, as well as becoming one of the world’s leading astronomers and cosmologists.

But I do find the energy and industrious enthusiasm of people like him, his sister, and many others detailed in this superb book, enormously inspiring. Reading about Herschel’s obsessive casting, grinding and polishing of his mirrors, the construction of his ever larger telescopes, not to mention the drama of Caroline’s own discoveries, or her terrible injury sustained whilst working in the dark (you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened, but it makes me wince just to recall it), was truly exciting.

When I was at school the sciences seemed extremely drab. The more I educate myself about science, the more I realise what an amazing branch of human inquiry it is. This book helps capture the vibrant energy, the multifarious voraciousness for knowledge and understanding – not to mention the wonderful state of awe-inspired humility, almost a sublime trembling, if you will, in the face of nature and our experience of it (this latter part is what the books subtitle conveys; a little melodramatic perhaps, but it does convey how exciting it all is) – that lie at the roots of scientific inquiry.

Well done Mr Holmes: I’ll certainly be seeking out more of your work!