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Book Review : A Scream in Soho by John G Brandon ( British Library Publishing )

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This book is one of the new editions of the successful British Library Crime Classic series. A Scream in Soho which is the 10th title in the British Library Crime Classics series was first published in 1940 within the era widely acknowledged as the golden age of British detective fiction

A Scream in Soho’s writer John G Brandon (1879-1941) was born in Australia but lived in Britain where he wrote over 100 crime novels. Coming to Britain as a prize fighter before starting his writing career, Brandon is all but forgotten today. His prolific writing career also included contributing to The Thriller magazine and some of the Sexton Blake mysteries.

A Scream in Soho is set in London during the 2nd world war, where the streets of London were under black out conditions and conspiracies abound regarding foreign nationals and their potential for espionage. Brandon cleverly weaves the cosmopolitan mix of people who were living around Soho into his plot, concentrating on the Italian and German eating places catering for the rising Italian, Austrian and German refugee population. Brandon shows a great deal of sympathy for these refugees but acknowledges that there are  ‘ugly little black sheep who creep into every flock and, indeed, are there only for their own ulterior purposes.’

Our story begins with a piecing scream heard by our hero Detective Inspector McCarthy. Rushing to the scene of the scream the only clues are a blood covered handkerchief and a blood splattered door step.   McCarthy born and bred in Soho is a larger than life character whose good looks and quick mind is well known in the area and he quickly galvanises the local populous in the search for the body and the murderer. Brandon further introduces the espionage potential with the theft of British anti-aircraft defence plans which McCarthy is ordered by his superiors to investigate.

Soho in our story becomes a hive of detective activity with McCarthy taking risks to his own life, as well as the residents of Soho. The seedier side of Soho is revealed throughout the story and its environs brought to life in the superb pacey narrative that Brandon uses.

The questions raised by the novel would have sent a chill into the lives of the wartime British population and reinforced some of their suspicions regarding the people they had perhaps lived and worked with for many years. A Scream in Soho is a book that captures the essence of the period, where Britain is at war, but not yet under fire. It is this illustration of the ‘phoney war’ that will fascinate the modern reader and offers some insights into how the blacked out Soho streets were the scene of considerable conflict and intrigues.

Brandon was more of the fast paced thriller side of the murder mystery genre rather than the more sedate whodunits of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. He was one of a number of prolific writers catering for a huge demand for these types of books who are generally overlooked and their reputation has tended to fade over time. It is ironic that these books were written quickly to reflect the fast moving contemporary events in London, however we now are more interested in them for their historical interest.

This book will appeal to those who like the Sexton Blake and Bulldog Drummond fast moving thriller, however the main character transcends the restrictions of that particular genre, Detective Inspector McCarthy is a likeable hero with a sense of humour with a genuine affection for the Soho area and for its inhabitants.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would further information or buy a copy of the book, visit the British Library shop website here

London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide .com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch , we have attracted thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
To find out more visit the website
here

Book Review – Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy – edited by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison ( British Library Publishing )

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On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the British Library have produced an extensive exhibition and catalogue that explores the origins of the original treaty and its enormous political legacy. Drawing on the considerable historical collections of the British Library and impressive loans from a number of sources, the story of the Magna Carta is placed into its historical context of the medieval world and looks at its evolution into an iconic document that has been used and abused up to the present day.

In the introduction in the catalogue, Nicholas Vincent considers the intention of the exhibition and the book is ‘to explain Magna Carta’s context, but also how reality has diverged from myth.’ It is this question of reality and myth that is crucial to any understanding of the document. Whilst the Magna Carta is one of the world’s most famous documents, it is also one of the most misunderstood leading to the belief that it can be used to protect people from tyranny in all its guises.

The first part of the book  considers how Magna Carta was granted by King John in 1215 as a practical solution to a political crisis. The political impasse between King John and the Barons bought the country to the verge of Civil War and the charter represented a chance for bloodshed to be avoided with a compromise that would satisfy both sides. As the book clearly illustrates these type of compromises between Kings and followers had a long history but generally ended in failure due to each side reneging on the treaty. This outcome was the fate of the Magna Carta when King John asked the Pope to rule the agreement unlawful, Pope Innocent III issued the Papal Bull annulling the Magna Carta soon after the charter was signed. Both the exhibition and the book offer considerable insights into the motives and agenda’s of some of the major players. The relation between King John, the Barons and the Church was complex and the wide range of medieval manuscripts illuminate how the Magna Carta was created and evolved. However it not just documents, the exhibition also has a remarkable range of objects including some rather gruesome items from King John’s tomb at Worcester and remarkably the  mitre, buskins and slippers of Archbishop Hubert Walter, King John’s first Archbishop of Canterbury.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Magna Carta story is  how the fate of the charter was transformed by the death of King John in 1216, David Carpenter in his essay in the catalogue considers that ‘it was John’s death that saved Magna Carta.’ Part of the reason for this change of fortune was that the political chaos of the various factions left John’s heir, the nine year old Henry in a desperate position. Henry’s guardians placated the Barons by accepting a new version of charter and in 1225, the charters were placed on a more secure footing by Henry himself by issuing new versions with his full support. However these new versions did not mean that peace was guaranteed, the usual royal intrigues continued and breaches of the charter were common.

The second half of the exhibition considers the Magna Carta’s legacy and how it has been interpreted over the centuries. Champion and Lock in their essay consider  how the first printing of the Magna Carta in 1508 led to the Great Charter being transformed ‘from a primary statue to an international symbol of freedom and liberty.’ This historical evolution involved considerable contributions from legal minds, politicians, reformers and political institutions and inspired the Petition of Right (1628) and the Bill of Rights (1689), clauses of the Great Charter were also invoked unsuccessfully by Thomas More and Charles I in their trials.

As British influence grew in other parts of the world, so did the influence of the Magna Carta to colonists. It was in North America that this conflict of interest  found its most dramatic outcome. The American Revolution invoked the spirit of the Magna Carta to pursue claims against British tyranny, the succesful campaign led to the  Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights. Two original copies of these iconic documents are featured in the exhibition.

The overseas revolutions and upheavals of the 18th century led to the push for parliamentary reforms in Britain, once again the spirit of Magna Carta were used to offer legitimacy to various causes. The considerable propaganda of this time created a connection between Magna Carta and parliamentary reform in the popular imagination, the Great Reform Act of 1832 was generally presented as a new Magna Carta.

The reforms within Britain had unintended consequences within the larger British Empire, the essay by Zoe Laidlaw in the catalogue considers how Britons who had settled all around the world took the preservation of their rights very seriously and frequently invoked the Magna Carta to pursue their claims. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Great Charter was used as a weapon against imperialism by Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

The final chapter in the catalogue entitled Magna Carta in the Modern Age by Joshau Rozenburg considers how the myths about the Magna Carta have led to its iconic status but disguises its limited legal relevance. Just three clauses of the original statute remain law of which the most famous clause 29 is the one most frequently mentioned. Even these clauses are not often useful in cases, the author could not find a single modern case that was decided on the strength of Magna Carta alone.
Has this made Magna Carta irrelevant in the modern age ? the 1941 memo in the exhibition written by a bureaucrat  describes the Magna Carta  as  ‘ a bit of parchment, more than 700 years old, rather worse of wear.’ The proposed gift of this parchment to the United States for their help in the war seems to be a strange mix of distorted values, but is just one of the many fascinating stories centred around the unremarkable piece of parchment that has inspired much of the most important legislation all over the world.

This wonderfully informative and intriguing book, full of lavish illustrations complements the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition and tell the remarkable story of how a document granted by King John in 1215 as a practical solution to a political crisis became a rallying call for rights and liberties over the centuries and all around the world. This book offers the reader a chance to consider many of the document’s  myths  and understand  how the reality of the document’s origins and evolution is far stranger than any fictional account.

 Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like further information of buy a copy of the book, visit the British Library shop here

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy. An exhibition at the British Library, 13th March–1st September 2015

London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide .com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch , we have attracted thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
To find out more visit the website
here

Book Review : Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination ( British Library Publishing)

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From the rise of Gothic Literature in the 1790s, the genre has occupied a prominent place in Western Culture. Gothic has found its way into fine art, music, film, fashion and many other media constantly mutating and transforming into different forms from the eighteenth century to the present day.
This book accompanies the major exhibition at the British Library and by considering the many objects in the exhibition provides an overview of the ‘Gothic imagination’ over the past 250 years.

The introduction written by Dale Townsend traces the birth of Gothic Literature to the publishing of the Castle of Otranto in 1764, its author Horace Walpole was a respected member of society and nervous of how the public would receive the book decided to invent a back history that suggested the book was a reprinting of a medieval text, supposedly translated from Italian to English by a William Marshal.
Only when public opinion of the book was deemed favourable did Walpole disclose his authorship and subsequent editions featured his name and the subtitle A Gothic Story. If the birth of Gothic Literature was shrouded in mystery, the success of the Castle of Otranto set an unfortunate trend of  hoaxes leading to many novels and other written works supposedly based on found and rediscovered texts.
By the 1790s, there developed a large market for ‘Tales of Terror’ mostly set in ancient, medieval or Gothic times. Such was the popularity of the genre that it led to many parodies most notably by Jane Austen in her novel Northanger Abbey.

In Chapter one, there is an investigation into what is the meaning of the word Gothic and how it became the label for this particular strain of literature. The origins of the word is traced back to the Goths, the mysterious Germanic tribe who defeated the might of the Romans. Although the Goths had their victory, it was the losers who began to use the term Goth to represent barbarism, the complete  opposite of Roman culture and civilisation. The later growth of Germanic or Gothic architecture suffered from this cultural baggage considered in many ways inferior to the more  classical Mediterranean style.
However by the time the Walpole novel is published, there is a movement to celebrate and romanticise a shared North European past and take pleasure in the old folklore that offered dark and macabre stories. After the Castle of Otranto, supernatural events in haunted medieval ruins became the template for early gothic literature.
Chapter Two takes on this theme and considers the pleasures of terror and shows how subsequent Gothic authors especially women played with idea of the damsel in distress. writers such as Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith found the genre conducive to romance which would appeal to the largely female readership. Therefore the Gothic Romance developed in which women often had to overcome a series of ordeals before they were saved. If romance played a part in the Gothic Story, the publication of The Monk by Matthew Lewis introduced illicit sex and lust in a religious setting. Considered highly scandalous at the time, Lewis was accused of trying to corrupt Britain’s youth.
The publishing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had its own religious undertones but represented a move beyond the accepted Gothic  canon.

Chapter Three suggests that the changing times and political turmoil that gave birth to Frankenstein then leads to a new direction for Gothic Literature. technological advances bring about an explosion of cheap printed material, this expansion led to numerous newspapers, printed pamphlets and street literature. Street literature often presented lurid tales of crime and murder, cheap to buy these ‘penny dreadfuls ‘ became highly successful especially amongst the large working class readership.
Sweeney Todd, vampires and other urban monsters appeared in various guises to give credence to the argument that ‘Gothic is now firmly located in urban squalor’  It was in the urban squalor that Charles Dickens finds the inspiration for many of his Gothic novels. The Victorian obsession with death and monument led to a renaissance of Gothic architecture. Cemeteries, railways, churches and even the Houses of Parliament received a ‘Gothic’ makeover.
The Victorian’s love affair with Gothic literature seemed boundless with Wilkie Collin’s Woman in White, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre setting new standards for the Gothic novel.
Chapter Four offers the idea that the end of the century took the Gothic novel into other directions, the idea of degeneration began to filter into the literature. Decadence, concern about empire and religious doubts became crucial to the late Victorian mindset and novels by Oscar Wilde , Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells and Bram Stoker began to play with these fears and suggested behind the Victorian veneer of civilization there was anarchy, degeneration and animal passions.
The Whitechapel murders by Jack the Ripper seemed to confirm that the monster were not supernatural but evil individuals walking though London’s foggy streets.
Chapter Five begins by considering the paradox that even in an age of scientific enlightenment, Gothic literature with its supernatural elements is still highly popular. One part of the answer was that technological advances themselves breathed new life into the genre, the twentieth century creations of cinema and then television used the gothic novels as the primary source of the horror genre. Visual representations bought a new type of terror and wonder to audiences. The old traditional monsters of folklore the Vampire, the werewolf and the Zombie all had a renaissance.
The horrors of the First World War may have replaced the horrors of Gothic literature but belief in the supernatural was wide-spread as many people had to deal with death of their loved ones. Interest in spiritualism was endorsed even by the old ‘rationalist’ Arthur Conan Doyle as people struggled for reasons why a generation had been decimated.
Perhaps not surprisingly ghost stories became incredibly popular in the early twentieth century, however after the Second World War it was the nature vs human narrative that began to assert itself most notably in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Later in the twentieth century there is a movement to return the conventional fairy tale to its dark and macabre origins to explore themes such as animal desire and sexuality, this was illustrated most notably by Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves. Susan Hill’s Woman in Black paid homage to the Victorian ghost story and there were major reinterpretations of Gothic favourites Dracula and Frankenstein by Frances Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh.

Chapter Six considers Gothic in the twenty-first century , one of the most prominent trends have been the sympathetic approach to Vampire’s in the Twilight saga which have created a distinctly modern Gothic romance. Another trend is that the cast list of Gothic villains have grown with demons, werewolves and predominately zombies  entering the fray.

However one of the most unusual trends has been the way that contemporary Gothic engages with the past. Fine Art, Fashion , Film design and illustration have all mined Gothic for inspiration to create a ‘Gothic’ look. The Chapman Brothers drawing doodles on Goya prints illustrate the tendency to pay homage to the past but also to deface it to create a modern idiom.

The Internet, video games  and different formats to read Gothic Literature have allowed the genre to mutate in many different directions and allow different degrees of participation. This is illustrated by the  final chapter which is a series of photographs from a Goth weekend in Whitby, the Goth subculture has developed from its punk origins into almost a costume play social convention where you can play out you Gothic fantasies.

This comprehensive, well written and lavishly illustrated book offers considerable insight into the ‘Gothic imagination’  and its appeal over many generations. Lucie Armitt in the section called Twentieth- Century Gothic offers perhaps the clearest explanation of its appeal ” in pursuit of what frightens us, we continually reshape our Gothic monsters to fit society’s changing fears .”  As the book  clearly shows, despite the rise of scientific explanations, we seem unwilling to let go of our supernatural traditions of the past.  However for all the ‘Terror’ of the genre it is important to remember that humour has played an important part in the ‘Gothic imagination’, in many ways we like to be frightened but we also like to able to laugh at those fears.

This book will appeal to a wide range of people ranging from fans of the Gothic genre to those who seek to understand the historic progression of  one of the most fascinating genres in literature.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended 

If you would like to find out more about the book or buy a copy, visit the British Library shop here

London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide .com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch in January, we attract thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
To find out more visit the website
here

Book Review : London, A Literary Anthology edited by Richard Fairman ( British Library Publishing)

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It was Dr Samuel Johnson who said “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”  The many writers and poets who have written about London on the whole have agreed with his statement.

This literary anthology features a collection of poems and scenes from novels which range from the 15th century to the present day.

The anthology begins with the words of William Wordsworth ‘composed upon Westminster Bridge’  which describes the capital at peace in the morning, ” The City now doth, like a garment, wear.   The beauty of the morning : silent, bare.”

The peace is often a prelude to the mass influx of people coming into the city and the next section of the book considers the many impressions 0f the city recorded by numerous writers. These impressions range from Olivier Twist who considered the city ” A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen”  to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette who states ” The city is getting its living – the West End but enjoying its pleasure. At the West End you may be amused, but in the city you are deeply excited.”

For many who enter the capital with no guide or friend, it is the sheer crush of people which highlight their feelings of loneliness. This is especially so if you stand out from the crowd, new Black Londoners, James Berry and Samuel Selvon illustrate these feelings of alienation in post war London.

London has always had a wide disparity of wealth and the book considers the ‘High Life’ with excerpts from Vanity Fair, The Way We Live Now and Vile Bodies. Many of these novels are concerned about fitting into the higher levels of British Society, where background and manners are the prerequisites for acceptance.

In contrast , the section into the ‘Low Life’ explores the dark sides of London life where the fight for survival  leads to the hidden depths of human existence. Not surprising Charles Dickens is our greatest guide with an excerpt from Bleak House. Virginia Woolf, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Morrison also provide  evidence from the dingy streets and alleys.

Even from its  earliest days, London has been a multicultural city and the section named Living Together in London explores how waves of immigrants have made the city their home and left their impact in the many of the capital’s neighbourhoods.

Hanif Kureishi, Israel Zangwill and Zadie Smith gives voice to various communities who struggled to make the city their  own. If the integration of the many immigrants has not been seamless, it is remarkable that for most of the time  this integration  usually takes place without major problems.

London may inspire Hymns and Laments in equal measure but it is the capital’s ability to overcome the various disasters that have provided many writers with inspiration.

The chapter entitled Survival through Plague and Fire charts the two great calamities of the 17th century, the Great Fire of  London of 1666 and the visitation of the Plague.

John  Dryden recalls in verse, the Great Fire out of control , ” the flames impelled soon left their foes behind; and forward with a wanton fury went.”  Daniel Defoe offers some scenes from an altogether different unseen threat,  the plague decimated London but Defoe offers the humourous story of a piper who after a nights drinking is lying on the street and is thrown onto the dead cart to be taken away for burial. Fortunately he wakes up time but not without frightening the life out of the bearers carrying  the dead.

In the twentieth century, the threat to London was even greater, with the two World Wars and poets D H Lawrence, Robert Bridges and Mervyn Peake describe a city and country on the brink of the abyss.

In the Second World War especially , for many Londoners it must have seemed that the City was witnessing Visions of the Apocalypse and some writers used this precept as the theme for their novels, Richard Jeffries in ‘After London’ and H G Wells in ‘The War of the Worlds’ offers visions of London as a deserted city finally beaten into submission.

The reality is that whatever the challenges over the past two thousand years, London has survived and is ever-changing, the chapter taking up this theme includes the works of Tobias Smollett, Charles Dickens, John Galsworthy and Angela Carter.

As it was the dawn and morning that began the book it is the City at Night that brings it to its conclusion, W S  Graham poem The Night City offers a person walking though the city thinking of its connection with literature and the arts. ” The fire has burnt out. The Plague pits had closed; and gone into literature.”

This ending is rather apt because literature is part of the fabric of London life, we are constantly being reminded of writers and poets descriptions of the city.  Many people follow in the footsteps of the great writers both literally and metaphorically as they seek to find some understanding of London life.

This anthology is a combination of well-known texts and others that may be less familiar gives an intriguing balance that offer many insights into the London story. The texts are complimented by the illuminating  illustrations of London life taken from the British Libraries large collection. There are a number of anthologies on the market but this book offers more than most with interesting narratives, wonderful illustrations and attractive design.

This anthology would appeal to those who like to understand the connection between the city and literature, but also can be used as an introduction into this fascinating subject matter.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like to find out more about the book or buy a copy , visit the British Library shop here

London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide.com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch in January, we attract thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
To find out more visit the website here