Wednesday, 12 October 2011

"The Crash of '79", Paul Erdman

Sometimes it's all too easy to start a theme going, and financially based thrillers seem as good a one for the moment as any.

I distinctly remember Paul Erdman's "The Crash of '79", and what I always regarded as its successor, "The Panic of '89" being present in vast quantities in the thriller/action section of my local second hand bookstore in Dublin as I grew up during the 1980s. To my teenage eyes they never really appealed, tastes running to more the whiz-bang end of the spectrum then, but as time passes so do tastes change, and when one of my explorations into one of Vermont's many second hand literary Alladin's Caves in Brattleboro last December (Brattleboro Books on Elliot St - which I sincerely hope survived the ravages of Hurrican Irene) yielded up "Crash of '79" for a princely dollar fifty, it seemed churlish not to give it a go.

It seems on the surface ridiculous to mention what initially seems like a true piece of 1970s schlock in the same breath as Harris' "Fear Index", but in actual fact Erdman, a rare beast in being a banker who actually served time in prison for being bad at his job, provides a more relevant tome for today. We have creaking European economies, banks grown fat on deeply flawed asset backed securities, high oil prices with a depressed tanker market, and a cash rich 'new economy' with the potential to re-energise the financial system and shake it out of a prolonged recession. Despite being nearly 40 years old, you can't help thinking the work strikes a chord.

Despite this, it is very dated. The 1970s haven't quite yet had the Mad Men reinvention in popular culture, and as such there's a lot about "The Crash of '79" that makes you wince. The 'hero', Bill Hitchcock, is either an thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, or maybe the 1970s really were like that. Either way, passages such as "in the cab on the long way into town, I decided on my order of priorities: first a drink, then a piece of ass" (p.36 of the 1976 Simon and Schuster edition) jar a little in the present day - and there's a lot of this to get through.

All this said it's strangely readable in a guilty pleasure way, and not just for the economic lessons or the snapshot of 1970s culture, there's a pleasing insight into how most people misread how the 1970s would segue into the 1980s. There's no hint that the Shah, portrayed as an uber alpha male, would flee, dying, into exile in the very year that Erdman saw him making his grab for the Saudi oil fields that would topple the world economy, no suggestion that the 1980s would presage a prolonged era of low oil prices, which would drive a long boom and ultimately play its part in ending the Cold War.

In many levels my teenage self was right to leave "The Crash of '79" on the shelf, it's not great literature, but there's still a suspicion that I might hang on to this, or at the very least use it to torment friends in the oil industry.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

“The Fear Index”, Robert Harris

One of the less trendy elements in my reading habits is finding financial thrillers genuinely interesting. I’m one of these people who, many years ago, enjoyed the stock market elements in Tom Clancy’s "Debt of Honour", and I see it as sad that authors like Paul Kilduff and Michael Ridpath have moved away from the financial sector, to budget airlines and Icelandic crime respectively. This is reinforced by the notion that the prolonged economic slump should provide us with the sort of raw materials to deliver a first rate page turner.

Robert Harris thus should be ideally positioned to deliver with “The Fear Index”, looking at a hedge fund trading on the volatility that people’s elemental fear introduces, reflecting the opportunities offered by human irrationality, and to some extent it works, but deep down, there’s a frustration that somehow an opportunity has been missed.

Harris built his reputation with intelligent, thoughtful novels, with plausible characterisation and pacing. “Fatherland” and “Enigma” built on his journalistic reputation, and provided us with something that could legitimately be seen as literature. Latterly however we can see something of a transition into a much more populist author. While “The Fear Index” lays claim to the highbrow high ground with quotations from Darwin and passages on the nature of what makes people frightened, this feels a lot more lightweight than his earlier work.

Indeed it’s almost possible to cast Harris as straying into Dan Brown territory here. With tongue a little in cheek, let’s look at the linkage with CERN, the plot running its course over a 24 hour period, and ultimately, an “opponent” with the capacity to exercise vast power over the entire world, sounding familiar yet? It’s not helped by a nagging sense throughout that we’ve somehow come across a lot of this before, especially in the latter third, where (and I hope I’m not giving too much away here) there’s a  very 2001 like sense of “the computer is trying to kill me”; it’s the sort of thing that mildly exasperates.

Leaving all this aside, I don’t begrudge the time or expense involved in “The Fear Index”. It is readable, engaging, and enjoyable – and was the right companion for a week of glass blowing in the West Country. It does however say something that I’ve mulled over the book in the days since finishing it, and most of this has reflected a nagging sense that it wasn’t quite as good as it should have been – it’s all a little too superficial, and ultimately undoes a lot of the real depth that made Harris’ reputation in the first place. Transforming himself into Michael Crichton will probably do Harris a lot of good in terms of his sales figures, but for me he’s no longer the must read author he once was. 

"The Fear Index" became one of those books left in the rental cottage, which sums it up. A good holiday read, but not a keeper.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

"Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground", Mark Mason

I like living and working in London. 
As a city it's got its ups and downs, and there are times when I think I'm insane to willingly get back on the plane to be a wage slave in the most expensive city in the world, but there's probably a reason I haven't actually left in the 12 odd years I've lived there. Sometimes you come across something that crystalises that view. I'm currently reading a slightly random purchase from my marvellous local small independent bookshop (, Mark Mason's "Walk the Lines" - an account of walking the various underground lines that make up Harry Beck's iconic description of London. 

It's book that more than usually resonates with me. When I moved to London in 1999 it was walking around it that first scared the hell out of me, then made me slowly but surely figure out how it fitted together, and then ultimately, as a proud South Londoner, feel highly aggrieved at how the richness of "south of the river" gets missed by the vast majority of London visitors because "it's not on the tube". In many ways it's worth a read, and has been a good choice for this week's Oslo run, but it just came into its own in the way that most travel books should - it talked to an experience I relish. 

Day in day out I walk from Cannon Street to London Wall and I treasure the moment, circumnavigating the Bank of England, when I can start to break away from the brownian motion of most of city traffic and find a little oasis of peace of silence. There are pockets like this dotted all over London but Tokenhouse Yard is one of them, and one that always makes me smile. It's a bit of the Square Mile I can still surprise friends and colleagues with. That makes it one of my favourite places, and that Mason describes it as one of his too makes me like his book that crucial bit more. There are a lot reasons to read "Walk the Lines" - it's a well written travelogue around one of the world's megacities, but if you've lived in the wider city, been affected by the way transport impacts it, and are looking for someone who understands really what London is all about in the way you do too, then this will probably work. 

I can even forgive my existential disagreement over the quality of bacon sandwiches provided by "Little Gatsby" (more correctly on Telegraph St I suspect). It's differences like this that make London one of the most exciting cities imaginable.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Straits of Hormuz

I'm currently a little behind on reviewing Lee Allen Zatarain's "Americas First Clash with Iran" on the 1987-88 Tanker War for Intelligence and National Security, not because of any reluctance to read what is, so far, a pretty good read, but more general inertia.

In lieu of any comment on it at the moment I thought it appropriate to share this gem in the current issue of Fairplay (one the main commercial shipping weeklies, for those of you perhaps unfamiliar with it). 

It's not nice to mock the afflicted, but given that these guys will have spent a significant amount of cash promoting their ship refuelling service on this, you'd have thought there might have been a degree of attention paid to how to spell the Straits in question.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Craig Thomas, 1942-2011

So, Craig Thomas is no longer with us.

To be fair most of us had resigned ourselves to having read the last of him, the long 12 years of silence at 1999's "Slipping into Shadow" communicated the message that this was all over reasonably clearly, and in our minds I think we all knew that his finest work was behind him even then, but it's still sad to see someone who could genuinely be seen as a master of British cold war fiction leave us, and it's only appropriate to pause and reflect on what his work was all about.

In 1985 I 'discovered' the spy thriller. I was 13 and the pair of Clive Cussler and Craig Thomas served to introduce 'adult' fiction to my shelves with something of a bang. Almost overnight collections of W E Johns and Swallows and Amazons went, making way for anything I could lay my hands on from my small local second hand bookshop in Dalkey. In retrospect it seems almost disrespectful to mention Cussler and Thomas in the same breath. Clive Cussler writes fantastic gung ho rollicking adventures, but in his long running character Kenneth Aubrey Thomas produced a creation to rival Le Carre's Smiley.

Most of the obituaries emerging have latched onto "Firefox" as being his signature novel, and it was this which first drew my attention to Thomas, initially, and perhaps somewhat unusually not through the Clint Eastwood film, but the laser disc arcade game, then as the first of his books to be read by me - closely followed by its sequel, "Firefox Down". It would be a huge shame for this to obscure his triumphant journey through British intelligence as portrayed by the Kenneth Aubrey series (Aubrey has a bit part in "Firefox", grotesquely played by Freddie Jones in the film), the high point almost certainly being "The Bear's Tears", a sinuous tale of betrayal spanning Cold War Europe and Afghanistan topically at the time wrapped up in the suspicions that British intelligence was penetrated at a high level by a Soviet agent. "The Bear's Tears" is enormously readable and while perhaps it suffers from undeniably coming after "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" it deserves a much higher profile than it currently enjoys. I loved reading it during what I distinctly remember was a bleak November in the mid 1980s, and it has borne periodic revisiting.

The universe of Aubrey and his Australian man-of-action Patrick Hyde ran on for five further books and while all were highly polished political thrillers, I don't think the same heights were quite scaled. This was punctuated by a return of Firefox's Mitchell Gant, in a pair of slightly underwhelming books, and what initially promised to be the start of a new series, with 1995's "A Wild Justice" which set a group of dedicated Russian police fighting the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction in the chaos of the collapsed Soviet Union. Most notably this was supported by very high profile marketing in British broadsheet newspapers with mock electrical store adverts plugging "Unbeatable deals of top brand Nuclear Weapons".

Steam undeniably ran out towards the end. The final Gant book, "A Different War" draws almost word for word on "A Hooded Crow" for its denouement, and in "Slipping into Shadow", largely set in Burma's Golden Triangle, there's a perceptible sense of lassitude. It was a disappointment, but probably not a surprise that nothing more was forthcoming from Craig Thomas.

He may have stopped writing a long time ago, but it's still sad to draw a line under this, and confirm that there really is nothing more to come. So, tonight's a time to raise a glass to the memory of Aubrey, Hyde, and their very talented creator, Craig Thomas.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

“The Railways of Beckenham”, Andrew Hajducki

Railways and London are inextricably linked. London Transport’s iconic font and signage, set in Johnston, come as close as anything to being a definitive brand for London, and the default means of navigating around the city for any recent arrival is to fall back on the tube map. This of course is a source of long running mild irritation to those of us living south of the river. To the average tourist London sprawls northwards, and the wilds of Cockfosters or Amersham are somehow more accessible than the South London towns of Surbiton, Sutton, Croydon, or Bromley.

This of course is a misrepresentation. South London had its period of explosive growth in the 19th century, as the Victorian network of overground railways spread through Surrey and Kent, thus when the underground appeared, there was no sense in expensive new tunnelling technology trying to compete with a well-established and functioning network in the south – resulting in the 20th century focus on the north, the creation of ‘Metroland’ in the 1930s, and in 1931 the arrival of Harry Beck’s schematic diagram, which somehow forever shifted the balance of attention tubewards, and condemned South London to relative obscurity.

Jurist Andrew Hajducki contributes to maybe restoring the balance of understanding with his study of the extensive railway network in what was the Borough of Beckenham – making the point that the railway network built in the 19th century transformed sleepy countryside hamlets into prosperous Victorian suburbs and that the railway network used by commuters today is more or less identical to that put in place 150 years ago.

The point that social development and railway technology are linked is never lost through the book, from the quaint absurdity of the Cator family insisting that the original railway charter did not allow for cheap weekend tickets to Beckenham, lest there be an unwelcome influx of ‘excursionists’ who would lower the tone and value of the estate, through to a much more modernist approach when The Times in 1923 comments that “Beckenham is a convenient and pleasant suburb with the advantage of late trains and fast services to the City and West End”. In short, Beckenham was democratised and to a large extent created by the railways.

To most who use railways in London there is of course a level of scepticism about how effective the system really is, with autumn and winter seeming being impossible for trains to cope with, and the reality of overcrowding at peak times meaning the train is often a less than idyllic mode of transport. The point is made that this is nothing particularly new. In 1873 the railway authorities are described as treating passengers “more like cattle than Christians” and in the 1970s a British Rail local manager in the Beckenham area was forced to concede that “actually getting commuters to London is a daily miracle”. Somehow one feels much as the network in the area looks the same, the complaints haven’t moved on a tremendous amount either.

It would be very easy to recoil from a book like this in fear of being tarred by the ‘train spotter’ brush, but in overall presentation (it is lavishly illustrated throughout) and avoiding the trap of being over captivated by detail, instead punctuating the narrative with entertaining vignettes, Hajducki provides an engaging and easy read. Wry observations, such as Beckenham’s first casualty of World War Two being a man who, confused by the blackout at Shortlands station, alighted on the wrong side of the train and plummeted to his death on the road below, transform what could be a dry account of train timetables into something a lot richer.

Commercially one suspects that “The Railways of Beckenham” will never be a great deal more than of niche interest to railway enthusiasts or local historians, but for those constituencies it does a fine job. It’s also encouraging to see the author and his publishers make an attempt to directly engage with the target audience. The book was launched last week at Beckenham library with an illustrated talk by the author, highlighting how the stations in the borough can essentially trace the communities’ evolution, and how they serve to mark the course of history over the last 150 years. It’s worth doing, and something that helps build identity in what could otherwise be faceless suburbia.

Beckenham Library hosts launch of "The Railways of Beckenham",  7 April 2011

Saturday, 2 April 2011

"Kathy Casey's Northwest Table", Kathy Casey

I very much enjoy living in Beckenham, but sometimes it has the potential to annoy. The small local kitchenware shop, the Kitchen Range on the High Street, which I've patronised happily in the past, basically screwed up today, and it frustrated. I posted a rather choleric tweet on the subject while stomping back to the car, and in hindsight maybe there should be a little more balance than that afforded by the 140 characters of a microblogging tweet.

So, some context. Mrs Semi Dweller bought a large purple casserole dish from them on Tuesday, but not wanting to carry it home on foot - it being rather significant in size, arranged for it to be collected on Saturday. The staff at the Kitchen Range were perfectly happy about this - reflecting some of the best things about small local shops - with the affable "no, you won't need to bring the receipt, it's an unusual surname and we'll have it for you" - so far so good.

Sadly however when trying to collect it this afternoon, having battled through usual levels of traffic, the store failed to track down the said casserole. The best explanation they could come up with was that it might, for no clear reason, have been sent to their other store, but they weren't sure. Problems happen - I'm all too aware of this, but the hallmark of a business is how it responds to them, and today, the Kitchen Range struggled a bit - no real willingness to look for the item, no real route to fixing this other than idly jotting down my name on a bit of paper, managing to convey little or no impression that this was going to go anywhere.

I like local businesses, and I try to support them whenever I can, but I can't help thinking that they need to play to their strengths in making that personal connection with customers and being entirely responsive. Think about it - even the most basic ebusiness has some form of rudimentary CRM allowing a consistent connection and channel of communication to customers, a traditional meatspace shop doesn't have that out of the box, so it needs to either build that rapport of knowledge about its customers, or play to its strengths in being able to communicate with them on a broader base.

I'll still go to the Kitchen Range, and I'd be extraordinarily sad to see it go, but it could be better, it should be better, and I suspect that it may need to be better.

More positively on the kitchen front I've a weekend more or less to myself. It's an opportunity to put films on in the background, dig out some lesser used recipes, and create a bit of havoc. Today has involved experimenting with brining, marinading chicken in a broth of paprika, coriander, garlic and salt. I probably should leave it for longer than it's going to get, Kathy Casey talks about doing it overnight, and this time round I think four hours is more likely to be what's involved, but nevertheless the process creates something that smells fantastic and reminds why making anything from first principles rewards.

I'm trying to remember where Kathy Casey's Northwest Table was procured. It was certainly during 2008, and my suspicion is it was a Borders in Seattle that provided the source. It's fitting that there is something inspirational in there, the food in the Pacific Northwest is breathtakingly good and Casey succeeds in getting across the appeal of working with ingredients, and in making you want to explore something new. It's the hallmark of a good cookbook, and it's present here. I should know better, it should come off the shelf more often.

Brining described. Probably should be done on the barbecue, but tonight it's one for the griddle.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

"The Silver Swan", Benjamin Black

John Banville's 'slumming' in crime fiction under the nom de plume of has aroused ire in a lot of quarters, perhaps due to crime fiction's perennial, and unjustified, inferiority complex. This is a shame, because inherently Black's Quirke series has a lot to offer, and very deserves to be considered in its own right, not obscured by debating the rights and wrongs of whether writing crime is an unworthy occupation.

While at the time of writing, in 2007, the drab Ireland of the 1950s perhaps seemed a quaint throwback, now it feels almost prescient, a picture of an Ireland in straitened times, just half a century previously. This is less starkly painted than in "Christine Falls", where the dismal menu available in Jammet's brought home what austerity really meant. Ireland here has had a slow increase in prosperity, but this Dublin still feels like an austere place, where the old Anglo Irish pseudo aristocracy will fail to make a vast amount for themselves, the Catholic establishment will do reasonably well at making money for someone else, and the majority teeter between comfort and destitution. In many ways one fears this could be a description of Ireland now.

Economic realities aside this Dublin in summer feels vividly real. A hallmark of a good book is often whether the reader feels as though the sense of place is accurate, and despite never having had the pleasure of 1950s Dublin, it succeeds in convincing absolutely. Cast in warm dusk amongst Georgian buildings the richness of setting is one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel.

Beyond the interest of the setting, it's striking how easy a read "The Silver Swan" is, despite a languid feel to the language, I got through the lion's share of it in the four hours between Chennai and Dubai, helped perhaps by a comfortable seat and a rather good Meursault provided by Emirates. This ease of writing wraps up what is actually quite a complex combination of murder, blackmail, and sexual betrayal in an accessible package. The non linear plot forces you to think about the book and how the events link together, and while this is not a completely straightforward process it is ultimately rewarding in making you think about what's happening.

Quirke remains the engaging character from "Christine Falls", undeniably flawed and idiosyncratic, but despite this someone who you can like and identify with. Indeed, one of the greater tributes to characterisation is that you can readily forgive him drawing quite such a profoundly incorrect conclusion about what actually happened and who actually did it. That said, the conclusion that justice, even a rough class of it, has been done, is borne out, and the figure of Inspector Hackett, looming in the background, strangely reassures that the truth can be arrived at, if not acted upon.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

“Shatter the Bones”, Stuart MacBride

I’ve long been an enthusiast of Stuart MacBride’s work. Having an Aberdeen background helps of course, but deep down his mixture of gruesome crime with slapstick policing, a wry approach to language and the cultural background that underpins a rich vein of humour add a lot to the oft trod terrain of the police procedural. Fittingly while “Shatter the Bones” has been making its way back and forth across the North Sea with me over the last couple of weeks, last night’s flight up to Aberdeen provided the ideal opportunity to indulge in MacBride’s distinct form of crime fiction.

My wife is often a bellwether regarding whether an author is likely to be of niche appeal to my particular tastes in crime or if they can break out into more widespread appeal. We listened to the audiobook of “Dying Light” one year driving through France, and the opinion of Mrs Southlondonbook was that it worked because Logan McRae wasn’t the cliched over burdened fucked up detective that appeared to invariably crop up in crime fiction. Sure, he wasn’t without an issue or two, but he wasn’t the put upon downtrodden cop that has the scope to annoy.

Sadly I’m now hesitant to suggest bodging another Stuart MacBride on during a road trip. The humour’s still there, Aberdeen’s still, well, Aberdeen, and the writing is still engaging, but somewhere along the lines, something’s snapped in the heart of the story. Logan McRae’s no longer a happy go lucky, lovable, lucky, if slightly rubbish policeman. His demons are now a lot more front and centre, and while the crime in MacBride has always been a bit on the jarring side, the character of MacRae now seems to have been captured by the bleak side of the narrative.

MacBride’s defended this in the past, seeing it as making his lead character fundamentally more interesting, which is probably fair. Detectives with no issues are unmemorable, let’s face it, even Rosemary and Thyme have baggage, but there’s a thin line to tread. In MacBride’s blog (sadly neglected - that I should have the temerity to say such a thing) cuts to the heart of it
Here's the thing though - I don't really want him to end up as a bitter lump of alcohol-soaked gristle. At least, not in the long term. OK, so he's never going to be the same naïve, bushy-tailed wee scamp he was to start with, but I don't see him turning into the classic police procedural cliché. If he does, then it'll definitely be time to kill him off.
Reading “Shatter the Bones” you can’t help thinking that MacBride may be tiring of McRae, and maybe in the back of his mind he’s thinking about an endgame, but somehow if we could find a way of conjuring him into being more of an older and wiser scamp I think we’d strike an even happier balance with. Maybe there is hope though. Will Hunter, the protagonist of MacBride’s ‘other’ book - the dystopian Halfhead, is a detective with appalling events in his history, yet he still remains a captivating character. If McRae migrates into this then perhaps there’s hope.

So, what about “Shatter the Bones” as a book? It adopts an intriguing perspective on crime, in that it opens six days after the central crime, the kidnapping of a mother-daughter star pairing on a reality TV talent show, has taken place. This is precised on the cover, and I almost wish it hadn’t been, as getting to grips with the confusion of crime and the level of pressure a police force is under while under an extreme media spotlight would have felt a lot more real if I had been scrabbling to work out what on earth was going on. Narratively it’s interesting as an approach, and I think it works. It means the obvious suspects aren’t trailed in advance, and focuses attention on the uncertainty and dilemmas faced by the investigating officers. 

It bears all the usual hallmarks of a Stuart MacBride novel. In parts it’s sickeningly violent, it has elements of a distressing absence of redemption, but it’s punctuated with laugh-out-loud humour. There is too, a level of satisfaction about the end, in that there is sense that while punishment has been meted out to more than just those deserving of it, the actual wrong doers so actually come to the right sort of sticky end.

Coming strongly throughout “Shatter the Bones” is a level of disdain for the celebrity idolism that permeates British pop culture and the manufactured fame that talent shows push into society. It’s hard to not identify with this, and while describing the book as a moral parable would be going too far, one hopes that the fact that it went straight to number 1 on the hardback best seller lists at least gives one or two readers a pause for thought.

I finished “Shatter the Bones” late last night, staying up longer than intended because there really is that level of compulsion to it. I finished it a little shell shocked. It’s MacBride, therefore there’s plenty in there to shock, but the ending, and I’m not going to spoil it for anyone, is profoundly affecting and bleak. It’s still a really good read, and it reinforces the fact that while MacBride really isn’t for everyone, it works for me. This morning I got up, and ambled through to the spare room and dug out “Blind Eye” to be re-read, sometimes you need that extra bit of Aberdeen in your life.

Friday, 7 January 2011

"Atlantic", Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is one of the authors who, without making a big splash, somehow manages to place his prolific output on my bookshelves without me really noticing. Thus, when I returned from Norway to an impromptu gift of his new “Atlantic” it prompted me to quickly take stock. From the at times derided “Pacific Nightmare” (which still remains as the book I think most scathingly reviewed by the Economist) through “The Map the Changed the World” and “A Crack in the Edge of the World”, among many others, it's clear he's written a lot, and there seems to be a disproportionate amount of it in my library.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Winchester manages to fuse geography, history, and personal anecdote in a genuinely engaging way. His wide ranging 'biography' of the Atlantic Ocean defies classification, but is an absorbing and genuinely fun read, peppered with the sort of material that you want to file away for use in witty and intelligent conversation, or perhaps even better, spurs you read more widely and explore the world hinted at within the confines of Winchester's text.

The subtitle of “A vast ocean of a million stories” hints at the truth of the book - it's not history, biography, geography, or economics, it's an Atlantic miscellany that will not make you an expert on any of these subjects, and as such commenting on specifics of the book becomes difficult. It’s the sort of work that I want to say rewards dipping into, but it doesn’t, it probably does need to be read in a linear fashion, that way the stream of anecdote sinks in, engages, and makes you smile.

A lot of the book requires you to already be pretty au fait with the subjects Winchester is talking about. If you’re unaware of the finer points of Norwegian cuisine (aside, working for a Norwegian company and thus spending a lot of time in that part of the world I perhaps have an unfair advantage) the comment that Amerigo Vespucci is still held by Americans to be the ‘discoverer’ of the New World largely down to pizza being more popular than lutefisk may pass you by.

Throughout the tone is entertaining, opinionated, and wearing its heart on its sleeve hints at the tremendous fun that must have been had in researching the book. Vignettes pop up and make you want to yearn for a post-it note to mark the position, or, in a 21st century way I would send myself emails with cryptic text such as “entertaining anecdote Russian seascape painting p.167” (go on, look it up). Thus, for all that there are times when you may disagree with Winchester, such as with his scathing view of the simultaneous ugliness of contemporary container ships and Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture, you can’t really begrudge him.

Having introduced modernism, let’s talk a little about intextuality. Winchester talks about the Atlantic’s impact on culture through the centuries, but in not quite bringing it up to date I sense a missed opportunity. Covering the ocean’s impact on music, Gilbert and Sullivan is about as pop culture as it gets. This misses the chance to talk about Rod Stewart and 1975’s “Atlantic Crossing” (which of course concludes with the rather apposite “Sailing”) or indeed the magnificently overblown British indie band British Sea Power, who must win prizes for having “Scapa Flow” in a song lyric and managing to put together a monumentally conceptual instrumental soundtrack inspired by life on the Aran Islands. This isn’t however a criticism, more a reflection that Simon Winchester and I have different cultural stimuli, and I suspect that every reader will be able to find points where they wish more had been talked about.

There probably aren’t a million stories contained in “Atlantic”, and truth be told there probably are rather more than a million that could be told. Nobody should worry about this, nobody should buy this hoping that it will be an encyclopaedic exploration of everything to do with the Atlantic Ocean (perhaps along the lines of Braudel’s work on the Mediterranean), but anyone aspiring to have an enhanced repertoire of dinner party anecdotes should absolutely read it.