Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Famous 1914-18

Famous – 1914 – 18

by Richard van Emden and Victor Piuk

Pen & Sword Military (2009)

Paperback 352 pp  £10.99

ISBN-10: 1848841973

ISBN-13: 978-1848841970

Sorry it’s another Great War book, I’ll try something lighter for the next review, I promise.

It’s a slightly misleading title, as the people in the book weren’t really famous between 1914 and 1918. With two exception they were famous after the war, and this is what they did in the years of the war. The exceptions are Ned Parfett (the newspaper boy from the Titanic picture – who was famous in 1912) and Peter Llewelyn Davies, known as the boy who inspired the character of Peter Pan. Davies, after the death of his parents was brought up by four guardians, including J M Barrie and Guy du Maurier (see previous review).

I have to admit I was also thrown by the name Tom Denning, before it clicked that this meant Lord Denning, one time Master of the Rolls. I’m not really sure how famous he is these days, though he was hardly out of the news at one time. That’s the problem with this sort of book, where do you draw the line?

The subjects need to have been reasonably famous after the war, but quite a few people with post-war fame have been left out. That’s because they need to have left information about their wartime exploits – there’s not been a great deal of digging out original material here. So, post-war fame and memoirs seem to be the requirements.

That means Jack Warner has been left out, as has Victor McLaglen and Victor Silvester. I suppose they just aren’t famous enough, despite interesting wartime careers. To be honest, I didn’t realise how much Silvester had packed in until I just checked the reference. I knew he’d participated in a firing squad, which was why I looked him up: the rest was all new to me.

To be fair, I don’t want necessarily want a lot of original research, I’m happy with an entertaining book, and that’s what I got.

It also helped me out with a question hanging over A A Milne, who was criticised for his unsoldierly manner in a book of war poetry I was reading recently.  It left me feeling he’d been a bit of a slacker, but it’s clear from Famous 1914 – 18 that he did his share, and did it well.

It’s not a fault of the book, but if like me you were interested in reading more about John Laurie (who served in the Honourable Artillery Company during the war) you will, like me, be disappointed. He isn’t in, despite the write-up in the Amazon blurb. I wrote to tell them, using the button for reporting inaccurate content but so far it’s still there.

So, as long as you don’t want information on John Laurie, it’s a good read, and, because of the length of the chapters, easy to dip in and out. For the Dad’s Army fans out there, Arnold Ridley and his service in two World Wars is covered.

Amongst others it covers C S Lewis, J R R Tolkein, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce (next to each other in the book as they were in the post-war Holmes films) and Christie of Rillington Place fame.  I won’t give you a list of all the names, as it will spoil the surprise…

Book Review: The Final Whistle

The Final Whistle – The Great War in Fifteen Players

by Stephen Cooper

History Press 2012, this edition Spellmount 2013

Paperback 347pp    Paperback £9.99     Oxfam £1.99

ISBN-13: 978 0 7524 9900 0

I’ve always been interested in rugby and the Great War and I did some research on rugby internationals who were killed in the two World Wars, but it came to nothing because (a) I’m lazy and (b) Nigel Mccrery wrote Into Touch.

This book takes a slightly different approach, looking at the lives of fifteen members of Rosslyn Park rugby club who were killed in the Great War. They represent about 20% of the club’s fatalities during the war (72 killed from 350 members or ex-members who served in the war).

I’ve always liked this sort of book, with stories that turn statistics into people, and I’ve always liked rugby, as I’m not fashioned by nature for games of grace and skill. On the quiet I’m also an admirer of Edgar Mobbs, a well known player of the time. However, this isn’t about Mobbs, as he didn’t play for Rosslyn Park.

It is about Charles Bayley, great-nephew of General Gordon, who was one of the first two Royal Flying Corps officers to be killed in action in the Great War, on 22nd August 1914 or Guy du Maurier, regular soldier and playwright (yes, he was one of that du Maurier family), who killed in action in 1915 at the age of 49. It’s about other people too, including international players, an Olympic silver medallist and a VC winner.

Don’t expect a cross section of British casualties though; it’s about officers or people who could have been officers. Rugby was a game for people from good schools, and they were required to name their school when applying for membership. That, as the author admits, was a great help in doing the research James Urquhart is an exception to this, listing Grimsby Municipal College as his school (though he did end up at Cambridge University). In truth he wasn’t even a Rosslyn Park player, he just seems to have given them as his team when he played for the Barbarians (captained by Edgar Mobbs) versus Shoreham Camp. He only gets a couple of lines.

Despite this, it’s an excellent view of the Great War and rugby of the period, including the Western Front, Gallipolli, aircraft, ships, tanks and balloons, and obviously written by a man with a good command of the subject and a great enthusiasm.



In praise of bloggers

On Sunday, as I was leaving the house for my weekly of watching the laundry turn round in a machine I grabbed a book. I tend to read books when I’m out because I’m still slightly ashamed of having a Kindle.

I thought I was grabbing Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927.  I’ve had it for a couple of years and thought it was time I got round to it. I found, on settling to read, that I’d actually picked up a copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything by the same man. I didn’t even know I had that and judging by the state of it I’ve had it knocking around for a while – probably since the 2004 publication date.

Now, this isn’t an advert for Bill Bryson – he’s famous enough, successful enough, and probably rich enough without any input from me. His name came up earlier today when I was commenting on another blog and I thought I might use him as the subject for this one. Thank you to Derrick J Knight for the inspiration..

The last Bill Bryson book I actually bought was The Road to Little Dribbling. It’s a book that purports to be a journey through the UK some years after his Notes from a Small Island. It’s an easy read with much humour and some interesting detail. However, he’s definitely grown more curmudgeonly over the years, even a little peevish, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with some of the incidents he writes about.

Then there’s the question of geographical coverage.

As far as the North of England goes the coverage is dour and the coverage of Scotland is positively miserly. Both, I suppose, are in line with geographical stereotypes. There’s a great condensation of this book in The Guardian.

Their one line synopsis is ‘Stonehenge cost an extortionate £12.80 – and most of the stones had fallen over’

Meanwhile, back at the other book, it’s proving to be a bit longer than the word “short” would imply. Over 500 pages in fact. It’s also, according to various reviews, not always accurate. I’m getting round the first part with determination, and dealing with the second part by forgetting most of what I read as it comes along. View my mind, if you will, as a short bookshelf: when you put something on at one end something else falls off the other.  I can’t take too much in about the origin of life and sub-atomic particles in case I forget how to breathe.

So, for me, it’s DJK all the way. True, if he moves any further south he’s have to write in French,  but apart from that he’s as good as BIll Bryson in every way, apart from the two where he beats him hands down. One is that he comes in easily readable instalments, and the other is (at the risk of sounding like Bill Bryson), is that he is free.

There are other bloggers out there that I could say much the same about, and one day I will, but for today it was DJK and Bryson that coincided – let’s see what tomorrow will bring.

For reasons why I don’t abbreviate to Bill Bryson to BB, see here.









Another day, another Book Review

I’ve not been about much the past few days because I needed a rest after the cookery and because I have been catching up with my Amazon reviews. I have a habit of “buying” free whodunnits for my Kindle and as a result I have a backlog- partly because they are quicker to buy than to read, and partly because I can’t read many at a time.

They are generally squeaky clean American women in their 20s or 30s with successful businesses in lovely American small towns, often in Maine. Jessica Fletcher has a lot to answer for. If you read too many of them I swear you run the risk of becoming diabetic.



I’ve managed a couple of serious reviews though and one of them is on the Book Review page – The Wild Life: A year of living on Wild Food by John Lewis-Stempe – author of Meadowland. I think it’s a bit better than Meadowland and a bit more realistic. He spends a year living on food he forages from his 40 acre holding in Herefordshire. That’s rabbit, pigeon, pheasant and green salad. Yes, salad every day.

Anyway, go to the review page if you want a look. There will be a few more appearing soon, though with the Quercus Christmas Party tomorrow it might not be for a day or two.

I will also get a photo up.


Cookery Book – 0ld style!

Countryman’s Cooking

by W. M. W. Fowler Excellent Press Ludlow 2006 Hardback  157 pp

ISBN-13: 978-1900318297 

£16.95 but there are plenty available for £00.01 plus £2.80 P&P

It’s a cookery book, not a recipe book, as Fowler is keen to tell us several times. It’s also a book for men, and men of a distinctly unreconstructed sort. For killing, hanging, preparing and cooking this book has no equal. If you are looking for fancy stuff like recipes you aren’t going to find them here. You’re not going to find much in the way of pastry here either because he has his own way of providing pie crust. I won’t tell you how he does it because it’s one of the highlights of the book, even though other reviews seem happy to spoil the punchline.

There is a short section on vegetables at the end, sharing the final 14 pages with batter, shellfish and eggs. That’s about the right proportion according to my thoughts.

Originally published in 1965, it’s definitely the product of a different age, as his women are treated like cooks and he assumes you have a firearm handy if you ever wanted to shoot your own sheep. Originally the book didn’t sell well and it was only when Ludlow based publisher David Burnett bought a copy of the book for 50p in an Oxfam shop that things took off. He tried the recipes out, found they were popular and decided to reprint the book. An initial print run of 1,000 sold out in a morning and he eventually shifted 10,000 – well over his estimate of 600 in three years.

I was a little disappointed at the lack of cat recipe – he makes mention of eating the Camp Commandant’s cat with a black market onion whilst he was held as a prisoner of war but there are no further details. This mirrors my other experience of cat in wartime, muttered rumblings from my mother about never buying a rabbit in the war unless it still had the skin on. The two animals, it seems, are identical when skinned.

I confess I haven’t tried the recipes yet, but you don’t have to, it’s well worth reading for the entertainment, or as a social history of  an English gentleman, without getting involved in giblets and gizzards.

Treat yourself. It cost me £2.81 from Amazon, what else provides such value?


Book Reviews and a man stuck in a cupboard

Two book reviews in two days. I’m in danger of becoming industrious! Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be able to fight it off.

There is method in my madness of course, if I put it on the review page and on here it swells the review page and increases the number of posts, even if it is only a copy of the other review. The crafty bit is this – by publishing a post I’m automatically publishing on Twitter so it’s three for the price of one.

Now, I may get a stiff note from an affronted author by publishing my reviews this widely, and I’m in no state to engage in a battle of wits with a man who uses words like fortissimo and perambulating – that’s loud and walking to me – but it’s worth it just to avoid the grind of thinking about Twitter for another day. The constant search for news is wearing me down, particularly as I’m doing @QuercusCommy, @farmecodavid and @ScrevetonShed – all of them in a somewhat intermittent manner at the moment.

I’ll leave you with a photograph of Byron, the farm apprentice, changing a smoke alarm battery. It’s quite cramped in the cupboard with the electrical and heating equipment and the alarm was clearly fitted before they rammed the rest of the gubbins in. To keep the story short, we realised there was  a problem when the lights went out due his struggles to free himself.

I’m developing the instincts of a news photographer now – taking the photograph first and offering help second.




The Private Life of an English Field

by John Lewis-Stempel Black Swan London 2015 Paperback 291 pp

ISBN 978-0552778992

£8.99 though as you can see from the photograph I did get a bit of a deal from Waterstones.

A good read, and an informative nature book – one of my favourite combinations. What could possibly be better (apart from the addition of some cake recipes)?

Well, maybe it could be improved by using a year that had some meaning for the farm rather than a simple calendar year, and I was left with the impression that nature sometimes fitted a bit too neatly into the structure of the book. A few descriptions of times spent not seeing anything of note might have balanced the book a little more. While I’m criticising, it could be that the writing could benefit from lightening up a bit. It’s a little dense in places and reminds me of past writers. However the language stays modern, even if I did feel there was an ever-present danger of a Latin quote lurking over the page

Apart from those minor points I have no quibbles.

It’s a fine example of how I like these these books to be – a tour through time and an examination of the present fitting together to set everything in context. There is a lot of wildlife on his farm, but he’s realistic enough in tone to know that he’s lucky, and that there’s not as much wildlife as there used to be. It’s also an example of what you can see if you develop the habit of observation. I used to be observant as a child, but I seem to have lost the knack as I grew older. Maybe I’m entering my second childhood now, as I’m starting to see more, but maybe it’s just that I have more time to stand and watch as I grow older.

Book Review – Composting Inside and Out



Composting inside and out – Stephanie Davis

Betterway Home Books 2011 Published at $16.99 but we bought it for £3.99 from a garden centre.

This is a book about composting, rather than a book about the theory and technicalities of composting.

All you need to do is to throw some vegetable waste in a pile. That’s it. no carbon/nitrogen balance, no bin, just a pile of vegetable scraps. It’s simple advice and it’s right – better to have an imperfect compost heap no heap at all.

We currently bury thousands of tonnes of waste. We use lorries to transport it and we allow it to rot and produce greenhouse gases. It’s not efficient. It’s not good for the planet. And it’s a waste of a useful resource. Far better to keep it at home and use it to improve our garden soil. No garden? Use it in containers, or even give it away to someone who can use it.

As you would expect from someone who calls herself the Urban Worm Girl there’s quite a lot on worms. There is also plenty of information on other composting systems. Much of it is American, and for once that’s an advantage. Living in a country with some very cold parts (cold enough to freeze compost) she has a lot of information about keeping worms indoors. Yes, indoors. I always thought it made sense to keep them warm in the winter.

It’s 188 pages with pictures and plenty of space so it’s not a difficult read and it’s well worth it for the information.

Now all I need to do is have a word with my wife about bringing the worms in…