Harmsworth Popular Science (1913)

If you ever go to a university library (or sometimes a public library) you will find collected bound editions of editorials and magazines on a number of subjects. Now of course we go on the internet and either through the public domain or some private enterprise we can gain access to a wide array of information. An example of such bound editorials was Harmsworth Popular Science. A British magazine that stopped publishing in 1913 of which I have a number of bound editions in shall we say, certain states of condition. These encyclopedias of knowledge don’t just look at physics, chemistry and biology as it was known at the time but it also looks at technological advances and the social sciences also. They look at such topics as you would expect from a 1913 science publication during the reign of George V. These volumes are fascinating in that it shows how (and in particular the British academic) saw the world before the world would change forever only a year after its last publication. Alfred Harmsworth who this is named after was major newspaper tycoon, the pre runner to the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch who had significant control in what people read.

From what I’ve looked at in the volumes there are some fascinating articles that would hold merit today, biographies on great minds and inventors along with an interesting look at technology, how it was seen and what it could become. There are some articles however, that would almost definitely be dismissed in our modern era. The volumes show a support for eugenics and and the knowledge of the universe is limited along with theories which have now been proven not to be true (for example how galaxies are formed)

There is a confidence with the United Kingdom’s place in the world (again this is written before the world would be changed significantly in science, though and most definitely politics). There are articles informing us of how much coal is produced in the UK. There are also a number of articles that look at the economics of the UK and how laws are made. It even looks at the rights of women although judging on the editorial team, not a single woman wrote any articles (women did not even have the vote when this was written). There is of course a look at a woman’s place in the world and praises the works of Swedish suffragist Ellen Kay.

A fascination for eugenics though with good is seen throughout the volumes. Little did the writers know if the appalling consequences such thoughts would have later in the 20th Century.

Harmsworth Popular science arrived at a time when great technological advances were coming to the forefront. Advancements in transport as well as a look at relatively new inventions such as the the airplane. It is also interesting to read on how what we would consider historical figures are now perceived. The likes of Thomas Edison, Gulielmo Marconi and Ernest Shackleton are described with high praise written in a time when they were still alive.

If Harmsworth Popular Science continued to day it would be interesting to know how their writers would view their predecessors. In the last volume written by the head editor Arthur Mee, he acknowledges that ‘-that we end, in this volume with our eyes on the horizon’. Mee acknowledges that there is so much more to learn and that everything that has been written is a book of information, ideas, hope and faith and holds no narrow view of life.

There is praise for a certain Thomas Edison

Despite what has since been disproven and ascertained since the publications of these volumes there is an honesty to them and good intentions in a century that would see a significant number of changes. Britain would be at war a year later. Many lives would be lost and irrevocably changed not just in Britain but the rest of the world. We would see these advancements in technology would be destructive as well as have his benefits. We would see how global politics would cause a lot of harm. We do see however, that we as a species can do some remarkable things. What we probably have learnt since is that we have a lot of responsibilities also.

No matter what we learn, we must not be afraid to change our views and reasoning based on the evidence that is available to us and not to be so cruel to those we perceive to be ignorant or wrong. Be kind.

[Educational Book Co Ltd 1913]

Archangel by Robert Harris

If there is one genre I try to avoid then it’s the thriller novel (and to a lesser degree crime fiction). You know what I mean, the ones you see plague book stores in airports and train stations, where the name of the author appears larger on the cover than the name of the book. Although relatively easy reads with some degree of suspense and action, I never think they offer enough to vary themselves from each other. The stories are often forgettable yet do have potential to be something so much better (that’s the frustrating thing for me) and characters between one thriller novel to the other have some basic similarities to them that I sigh when I notice the similarities. Sometimes it might as well be the same character used by multiple authors. Protagonists tend to be policemen, journalists, lawyers university professors usually with an alcohol problem, with previous broken marriages and kids that won’t talk to them. They are the modern equivalent of what was written in old pulp magazines, lazy, soulless and yet annoyingly popular.

With respect to what I have said above I do however find some notable exceptions from time to time. In this case Archangel by Robert Harris. Archangel is a thriller which is also historical fiction. Published in 1998 Archangel has a look at Russia after the fall of communism and how it has come to grips to handling its recent past. In this case the reign of Joseph Stalin and additionally the secrets he may have held.

The story starts in a hotel in Moscow where a former Soviet guard tells the story of how Stalin had a journal that has yet to be discovered. He tells this story to our main protagonist Kelso (likes a drink, works for a university focusing on Russian history, broken marriages). As Kelso tries to discover more, he does his research, there are people trying to stop him and his associates. One of these is O’Brian who satisfies the generic thriller character by being a journalist, although saying that I was impressed by the character of Zinaida Rapava who in my opinion, the story should have focused on more (she’s not a lawyer as you would expect but is studying it). Once the knowledge of a journal that Stalin had is discovered, it leads our hero to go to Archangel in the north of Russia where we meet what appears to be the reincarnation of Stalin himself. I’ll leave it there with respect to the plot because despite me not liking thrillers, this one was not too bad.

What fascinated me more in Archangel was not so much its look at the Soviet era during the later end of Stalin’s life but how Russia is perceived once the USSR fell and the Federation arrived the change in economy and Western influence along with how Russian people react to it.

I think the story takes time to get itself going, the second half of the book was definitely much better than the second and if anything more focus should have been put on that second half. The book if anything is good to read just to understand if at all possible what made Stalin tick. We know people who were close to him were no safer than his apparent enemies and as Kruschev would tell the world after Stalin’s death, he wasn’t the nicest of guys to put it lightly. We learn about his impact on Russia and how he is still revered. Despite the flaws of Archangel it does have a lot of substance to it, especially from a historical perspective which should you have an interest in it at all, will make you contemplate the legacy of Stalin on the truly remarkable and beautiful country of Russia. I actually would be interested to know what Russians would think of this novel and how a western writer has also perceived them, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization by Amanda H Podany (The Great Courses)

This is different to what I usually write about in that it is about solely an audio book. This is only a brief write up but I want to bring it to your attention none the less.

On my list of audio books on Audible one of my personal favourites is this one which is part of the The Great Courses series of lectures. It tells of the history of the peoples of Mesopotamia including how they lived, their culture and beliefs from the Sumerians to the Akkadians and Babylonians. We learn that they hold the achievement of being the first or at least the earliest known users of a written script and caused advancements in maths among other things. We also learn how this ancient script was deciphered in the more relative modern era along with discoveries and rediscoveries of the civilisations and cities that have been found by archaeologists. We get to learn of such notable people like Sir Leonard Woolley and his discoveries for example.

Unlike history books that can come across as a bit dry or encyclopedia entries that can be a bit matter of fact, Professor Podany puts her own personal touch in the lectures and talks about her own connection with the ancient peoples she discusses. Due to how ancients texts have been preserved (via clay inscriptions) she tells us of information about everyday people other than kings and warriors and such like and how she has felt linked with these people despite being thousands of years away from them. Her passion for her subject is evident in the way she presents.

We also get to hear a little bit about Podany herself and I’m not going to lie I fell in love with her a little bit. Talking about her love for her subject and how she became interested in it. What surprised me was that the student rock band she quit in college to concentrate on her studies became known as The Bangles… as in The Bangles.

This is a superb introduction to the topic and there are many more works from Padany and a number of writers out there so I recommend you give it a look. It’s interesting how although so faraway from us in distance and time and very much so culturally, there is a lot of the familiar about the Mesopotamian peoples.

Magna Carta by David Starkey

For all the flaws of Britain’s history there is also a lot of fascinating things to be proud of which are fascinating and still have an affect on our lives today, not just in the UK but in other parts of the world also. One of these things was the creation of the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta by David Starkey

The creation of the Magna Carta is fascinating in that we can still see its influence when it comes to lawmaking and the judicial process today.

David Starkey’s book on the the origins of the Magna Carta looks at the architects of the Charter and the people who had a certain degree of influence on its formation and what it became.

Magna Carta: The True Story Behind the Charter is a matter of a fact history of the creation of the Magna Carta if not an academic one, despite this we learn about the struggles that were gone through in order for it to appear. As well as this, David Starkey also dedicates a section in the appendix on how the Charter was revised in 1215, 1216 and 1225.

The good man himself was kind enough to sign a copy for me.

Again David Starkey’s book is not an academic text which you’ll easily notice in that it is easy to read and doesn’t assume you have a vast amount of knowledge on English history (I imagine so at the least, I personally find history fascinating and will read any form of book available about any period of history, within reason). It also assesses some of the myths that have arisen around the creation of the Magna Carta and facts that you may not have been aware of beforehand. For example King John did not sign into existence the Magna Carta because the chances are he couldn’t read or write, he stamped his seal of approval instead. Also the Charter was approved Runnymede because the local terrain would not allow for a pitch battle between King John’s men and the Barons at the time.

This book was released in 2015 marking the 800 year anniversary of its original formation. I actually met David Starkey when he was promoting his book in 2015 at the Chester Literature Festival, he did a talk about the Charter at the Chester Town Hall and his enthusiasm for the related topic really shone through, you’ll notice this when he talks about a desired part of history if you’ve seen him on the TV or in the Internet. He is also well known for not pulling his punches and not being afraid to say what he thinks. When I met him however, he was an absolute gentleman and was kind enough to sign a copy of his book for me. [Extra note 3rd July 2020: It’s been sad to hear he’s been in the news recently for some comments he made, despite this, it’s still a good book he’s written]

David Starkey writes in a clear non patronising way and he has something which I like to see in any history related book I read which is pictures and photographs. I know it is not wholly relevant but it always help in visualising the world in which is being talked about.