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Reading list

In which we discuss books and the French Revolution


One thing about yesterday’s post: it gives you a good look at the state of one of our bookshelves. Not a good enough look to make out what most of the books are, though, unless they’re books with distinctive spines that you’re already familiar with – like Peter Ackroyds’s London, for example.

Over on top of that pile on the left, though, is a book I mentioned here a few months ago. Shortly after restarting the regular blogging cycle, I mused aloud as to whether I should restart the Books I Haven’t Read reviews, and predicted one book that might fall victim: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. It’s there on top of the pile, in the blue cover. And, I have to say, so far the prediction’s been right. But not because of the book itself; because there’s been too much else to read. Below it on the pile there’s Graves’ White Goddess, also mentioned as a potential Book I Haven’t Read. I still haven’t read it. Further up, though, there’s a biography of Robert Graves, which I picked up on a bookstall outside the Watershed cinema. I thought: if I’m going to write about The White Goddess, I need to know more about him to do it justice. Coming across the biography by chance, I bought it. I started to read it. I still haven’t finished it.

Elsewhere in the house there are many more books I haven’t finished reading. Amazingly, though, yesterday, I finished one, and it was a book I only made a start on a few weeks ago.* Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre, by Ruth Scurr. A shy, fastidious man, who I find very intriguing; someone who found himself trying to impose morals by whatever means necessary, because his cause was justified. He was shortsighted both literally and figuratively, and was a logical man who became trapped in his own logic. He was willing to execute his oldest friends, because he thought his cause, the Revolution, was more important.

I’m not sure I read the book properly, because it left me feeling I’d stepped through a lacuna at one point: I wasn’t sure at all how he went from being the people’s leader, to giving a speech that he apparently could see was to try to save his own life. One thing I definitely learned about, though, was Robespierre’s inability to ever, at all, admit that he had been wrong, even after his stance had changed, or when condemning people he had earlier supported. I’m still not entirely sure whether, for that, he should be applauded, or condemned himself.

* Because it was a Christmas present from K’s brother.

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Failure and Success

In which we muse what book FP will next abandon reading


Getting this website going again, and posting things regularly, I was thinking that maybe I should resurrect Books I Haven’t Read, an ongoing series of posts in which I reviewed books that I hadn’t managed to finish reading, and briefly discussed why. This was on the grounds that reviews of bad books are often more interesting than reviews of good books;* many book reviewers probably get away with reading the whole thing; and if I’m going to talk about something, I may as well be honest about whether I’ve read it or not. Hence, Books I Haven’t Read, which annoyed at least one author who discovered it and couldn’t resist responding.**

The problem, though, is that it’s been a while since I’ve managed to fail to finish a book. The only candidate at the moment is Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which has to be described as a masterpiece, even though in many ways it is mistaken and wrong-headed.*** It’s also a very hard read, and I’ve got such a small way into such a long book that I feel I can hardly do it justice.

Everything else I’ve started reading, I’ve finished reading. Books that I’ve already told you I haven’t read, I’ve since completed. I’ve even got to the stage where I’m considering going back to some of the books I’ve written about here, getting them out of the library, and finishing them off. Which is a good thing, I suppose; but it leaves me at a loss for things to criticise. Maybe I should try to be a lazier reader.

Things might be solved by a book I came across in the local Oxfam bookshop the other day: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During The English Revolution. I’ve always been slightly confused by the history of the Civil War – or the Great Rebellion, or the English Revolution, or the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms – see even the list of names it’s been called are confusing, or whether there’s an “it” to start with. I’ve also never really got on with Marxist historians that well, so I’m thinking that there’s a good chance it’s going to completely baffle me sideways and leave me ranting about Ranters and Levellers.**** Let’s see how far I manage to get.

* For the ultimate good review of a bad book, the exemplar has to be Slacktivist‘s ongoing page-by-page and scene-by-scene reviews of the Left Behind books and movies, which many of you have probably already heard of.

** not to mention, a second response about how I was too pathetic to deserve a response. Hurrah!

*** much like Graves’ Greek Myths, which is somewhere close to being a standard work on the subject – even though much of the author’s commentary on the myths is now extremely outdated and based on a poor understanding of what was, to begin with, flaky archaeology. Which wasn’t the author’s fault, because at the time it was pretty up-to-date archaeology; carbon-dating, and particularly, calibrated carbon-dating; and new paradigms of cultural change mechanisms, came along and replaced or disproved it.

**** Now I have heard of Levellers – but not, I suspect, the ones that were around in the seventeeth century

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Cemetary Gates

In which we find Bouch’s grave


From the recent search hits: “sir thomas bouch blog”. Somehow, I doubt Sir Thomas Bouch is likely to have a blog. For one thing, he’s dead.* Secondly, he was always more interested in building railways than writing about them, or about anything.

If you’ve never heard of him: Thomas Bouch was an English railway engineer, and some of the time he was a rather good engineer. Some of the time. He built the highest railway in England, the South Durham & Lancashire Union,** and with it the highest railway viaducts in England. He also invented the first modern train ferry, on the Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee railway, which would otherwise have been in two separate parts.*** Unfortunately, he was also rather fond of cost-cutting, building routes on the cheap, and that led to his downfall and infamy. Because he’s now best known for building the Tay Bridge – the one that fell down. There’s even an urban myth that the word “botch” is derived from his name. It isn’t, of course, but the rumour is hardly good for his reputation.

One day, a few years ago, I was ambling around the west end of Edinburgh. Away from all the expensive tenements,**** there’s a picturesque gorge, with a river running through the bottom, wooded sides, and grand buildings poking out from behind the trees: the back of Donaldson’s College, and the National Gallery of Modern Art. If you go up through the art gallery grounds, as I did, and through past the Dean Gallery, you can wander through the Dean Cemetary. Doing so, I randomly found: Bouch’s grave.

It’s a very bare, imposing grave. A bust of the man; the name “BOUCH”, nothing more, and the dates. It’s a very nice spot to be buried in.

* although this isn’t necessarily a bar – both Sam Pepys and Geoffrey Chaucer manage it.

** It closed in the early 1960s. The A66 road roughly follows its route, and runs closely parallel to it at Stainmore.

*** It was originally two separate railways, one in Edinburgh, one in Fife, which merged.

**** think Shallow Grave

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Books I definitely can’t afford to read

In which FP sees a book he’d like, though


Never mind about all the books I’ve written about here, in the past, that I’ve never managed to finish reading. Now I want books I can’t even afford to read: the facsimile edition of the Knights Templar trial documents.

Going by what facsimile editions are normally like, at any rate, I’d also need new bookshelves to support the thing. As I don’t have £4000 to spare, though, it’s not a problem.* It’s slightly disappointing, too, that this would never have been headline news without Dan bloody Brown. Oh, well, maybe one day newsreaders will be interested in medieval history for its own sake. Stranger things have happened.

* although I do need new bookshelves, because I have nowhere near enough space for the books I have.

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Rotation

In which we crunch numbers and look at the site design


It almost slipped by without me realising: yesterday was this site’s second birthday. This is, I’m told, post number 538, which means I’ve managed to post something on average every 1.36 days. It’s been slipping recently, I know. For completeness’s sake: there are 771 comments visible,* and an inordinately greater number which have been deleted.**

After two years, is it time for a redesign? I’m not sure. I don’t believe in celebrating anniversaries for their own sake, and I do still like the design as it is. Not looking at it for a few days means I come back and look at it with fresh eyes. There’s a lot of white space round the screen; and if something is in lots of categories then the post header goes a bit ugly.*** Whether I can improve on it very much is another matter. The non-blog pages are still lurking behind the scenes undecorated – I’m tempted to use them to try some new designs out. If I can come up with some new designs, that is.

* 1.43 per post; or one comment every 22 3/4 hours.

** It’s not actually inordinate, of course – there have been around 7000 of them.

*** The list of categories wraps round beneath the date.

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Facing points (part two)

In which we go over some railway history


More notes on the Lambrigg and/or Grayrigg train crash from a couple of weeks ago. Continued from here.

As I said in the first part, it was known for many years that junctions are a dangerous thing. Any place where a train has a choice of routes to take is a danger point, and the railways, for a hundred years or so, got around this by avoiding them as much as possible. A freight train, going into a siding, would have to run past it, stop, and back up slowly into the siding.

This is a very safe and careful thing to do, but it is very, very slow. Trains take a long time to slow down, and a long time to stop. Backing up has to be done very slowly, too, and the whole operation blocks the main line for rather a long time. If the train could run directly into the siding, things would be a lot faster.

Similarly, if one line of a pair has to be closed for engineering works, trains have to run in both directions over the remaining line. The old way of doing this was very slow indeed – the train would have to stop, reverse backwards onto the other track, then reverse again so it was going forwards. All very fiddly and slow,* and it would have been easier if there was a faster way to do things.**

So, in the 1960s and 1970s, an awful lot of the rail network got simplified and redesigned. In particular, “emergency crossovers,” like the ones involved in the Lambrigg crash, were installed every few miles on the main lines. Essentially, all they were there to do was let trains switch across to the other track if one line had to be closed for maintenance. This, though, meant greatly increasing the numbers of relatively dangerous, maintenance-heavy facing points on high-speed main lines. Cost was no longer an issue – greater automation and mechanisation of the railways meant that all points were fitted with exactly the same locking equipment, so the legally-required and previously expensive locks on facing points were now provided for free. Maintenance still mattered, though.

Note that I said “relatively dangerous”. Facing points are maintenance-heavy, purely because they are intrinsically more dangerous than trailing points. This isn’t an issue, though, so long as the maintenance gets done. And, over the years, all points started to be given the same level of maintenance – there is in many ways no longer a distinction between facing and trailing points, maintenance-wise, because as I said above they nearly all have the same fittings.

So long as the maintenance gets done. That is the key. Railways just aren’t maintained in the same way that they used to be. There’s no longer a man walking every stretch of track, every day of the year, looking out for faults, like there used to be. If facing points aren’t maintained properly, they become dangerous, and they’re likely to cause accidents, such as Lambrigg and Potters Bar. The problem is, they’re vital to being able to run the railway smoothly and flexibly. If you want to run a flexible railway, it’s going to cost you more. You have to be willing to pay the price, however you want to pay it.

* there are lots of other rules involving people waving flags and people whose job is just to be unique, but I won’t bore you with them.

** This has nothing to do with the closing of alternative routes, incidentally, which people sometimes go on about as being a Bad Thing in connection with the rail network. Alternative routes are often a lot less useful than people like to make out.

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Facing Points

In which we delve into railway history following a recent accident


Some notes on the Lambrigg rail accident (also known as the Grayrigg crash in the media).

Facing points are a bad thing. Facing points have always been known to be a bad thing. This has been known ever since the railways were first created.

A facing point is, essentially, a junction, where one line of rails splits in to two. The opposite is a trailing point: a junction where two lines come together to become one. You will quickly realise that a facing point becomes a trailing point if you stop your train and reverse it, and vice-versa.

Facing points are dangerous; trailing points are safe. You can drive through a faulty trailing point, or a trailing point set the wrong way, and you’re unlikely to have your train come off the track. You’ll probably wreck the point, unless it’s designed for you to do that to it,* but your train will be unharmed. Do that with a faulty facing point and your train is going to end up all over the place.

Now, this was never a problem, because for years main-line railways only ever had tracks in pairs, one track for each direction. Going the Wrong Way was strictly against the rules. The main reason for this was to stop trains meeting head-on, but it had a secondary benefit: it meant that engineers could get rid of as many facing points as was possible. This was partly an expense issue. Anyone who’s ever had a train set will know that if you switch a facing point whilst a train is on it, Bad Things will happen as different parts of the train try to go in different directions. This isn’t what happened at Lambrigg/Grayrigg, but it has the same result; and when the government realised, they quickly insisted that all facing points be fitted with a complex arrangement of locks and train-detectors to make sure you can’t do that. Back then, that involved mechanical locks which needed a lot of careful and regular maintenance and adjustment. Now, most of it is done electrically, but there is still a mechanical lock somewhere in the point’s machine that holds the various moving parts of a point fast when a train is nearby. Of course, that’s only any use when the rest of the point is mechanically sound too.

So, anyway, as I said, if all lines are one-way only you don’t need facing points. Not until you get to big junctions, at any rate, where you have to live with them. Freight lines didn’t need the expensive facing point locks, so freight trains always backed into sidings. And the railways happily ran like that for a hundred years or so, and facing points rarely caused accidents. In modern times, though, it didn’t really work.

(continued here)

* Lots of points on rural lines, nowadays, are what’s called “sprung points”. They’re not controlled, they just sit there. Use them as a facing point, and they’ll always send you the same way.** Use them as a trailing point, and you can approach them from either route without problems.

** Left, usually

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By ‘eck

In which the past seems obvious


Within a month, another slightly silly news story about paleogenetics. This one isn’t quite as daft as tracing the descendants of Edgar Aetheling, though. Scientists in Leicester have discovered that loosely-related members of a Yorkshire family share an African ancestor, from at least 250 years ago* and probably further back than that.

Unlike the previous story, the research in this piece is all very sensible. What’s silly is the idea that it should be surprising, or that it’s a news story that we have African ancestors. Everyone in Europe probably has black ancestry somewhere in their family tree, if you go back five hundred years or so; and definitely if you go back a thousand.** What’s depressing, I suppose, is that there are people who don’t realise this: people who think that their family is white, has always been white, always will be white. They’re wrong, of course.

* because that’s the most recently their latest common ancestor can have lived.

** I am haunted by a vague memory from university, that the skull of an African monkey, a couple of thousand years old, was found somewhere in Ireland, thus proving contact with Africa back then. I can’t find any references for this at all, though.

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This is what the nineties looked like

In which we revisit the 1990s


Photo post of the week: photos from the archives, because I haven’t been out and about. These are all from 1996, I think; so this is what the 1990s looked like, to my eyes at any rate.

Old railyards near the sea wall Tower blocks Footbridge Beach

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Ancestry

In which we’re descended from great men


Today’s top news* story: English Heritage have been putting out newspaper adverts around the world announcing that they are searching for the descendants of Edgar Aetheling, claimant to the English throne in 1066. As the closest relative of Edward the Confessor, under modern law he would have received the crown; but under Saxon law kings didn’t automatically inherit their position, so he didn’t. Everyone remembers the other kings of England from 1066, but everyone forgets the teenage Edgar.

To be frank, I think it’s a silly idea. Edgar will have millions of descendants, all around the world, most of whom will have no clue and no chance of knowing. Out of these millions, only a small handful of people might be able to prove a connection.

We know this, because a few years ago geneticists managed to trace thousands of men who are probably descended from Niall Noigíallach. Niall Nine Hostages was one of the greatest kings of Ireland,** founded a rather large dynasty, and is the reason O’Neil is a common Irish surname.*** Niall lived around 1500 years ago, half as long again as Edgar, and probably fathered many, many more children than Edgar did. Nevertheless, around 20% of men in north-west Ireland are probably descended from him in the direct male line. If you include everyone who has a woman somewhere between them and Niall in their family tree, you’d probably find that everyone in Ireland is descended from him by one route or another.**** The Queen of England certainly is.

The chances are, you’re descended from someone important in history too. You won’t know it, but you almost certainly are, just because there were so many important people in the past. There’s no way of knowing it, either. English Heritage are on a bit of a wild goose chase, because the people they are looking for are in the country all around them, invisible.

* yes, another topical post

** one of the greatest kings of the Irish or Scots, in fact; when he was around, “Scots” still largely meant “people from Ireland”.

*** You can’t entirely blame him for all those crappy theme pubs though.

**** but the geneticists didn’t do that, because it would have been almost impossible.

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