BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Great Houdini: His British Tours’.

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Reviewer:  Michael  Keith

Title: The Great Houdini; His British Tours

Author: Derek Tait

No. of Pages: 296

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 8

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In an age where film stars are treated like royalty and thousands of ordinary people come to merely look at them, it is easy to forget that there was a time when entertainers who were NOT film stars were also accorded the same adoration. One such was Harry Houdini; escapologist extraordinaire. Although an American who was well-known in his homeland, Houdini also toured internationally, making many visits to Great Britain while doing-so. This volume is the story of his ‘British’ visits.

In the Introduction to this volume, the author summarises its purpose. He states ‘I have always been fascinated by Houdini and the more I have read about him, the more I’ve discovered about all the many venues that he played at all over Great Britain. There have been many books written about Houdini but none cover his tours of Britain in their entirety. In this book I have tried to collect together as many stories, newspaper cuttings, adverts [sic] and photos of his visits to the UK’. He also notes that ‘I have tried to include the complete account of the show as it was reported in the local newspaper. This not only gives a good impression of what Houdini’s act was like but also gives a feel of the time by including other performers who appeared on the bill,,,’ However, lest a reader think that the result of these endeavours could be boring, they are definitely not. The result is an eminently readable and thoroughly-entertaining book.

An Introduction placed behind the Contents page provides background to what follows and traces Houdini’s origins and his entry into show business. The main part of the volume follows. This consists of 16 Chapters, 15 of which detail the tours that Houdini undertook in Great Britain between 1900 and 1920. The final Chapter (Number 16) carries the self-explanatory title Timeline of Appearances and Events. An Acknowledgements section follows Chapter 16. In it, the author thanks those who assisted him in the volume’s creation. This is in turn followed by a Bibliography which records the books, newspapers and websites which provided information to assist the writer. A 10-page Index completes the work. As already noted, the volume contains numerous photographs, reproductions of relevant postcards and advertisements, together with contemporary line drawings. These are clearly captioned, although only some are sourced,. There is no reference to their existence in either the Index or on the Contents page. It must also be noted that although the body of the volume contains numerous quotes from contemporary newspapers, there are no ‘formal’ indications of their sources nor supporting citations. This must inevitably reduce the usefulness of the volume as a research document. The volume contains no maps. As a result, without consulting an atlas, the reader has no way of knowing where the locations referred-to actually are. This could be particularly problematical for ‘off-shore’ readers not familiar with the geography of the British Isles.

This reviewer thoroughly enjoyed this volume, and believes that it will probably appeal to a variety of readers. As it relates to their hero and records a little-known part of his life, ‘Houdini-enthusiasts’ will no-doubt find it of value. Historians and social-science researchers interested in British entertainment and social conditions for the 1900-1920 period could also find it of use. ‘Generalist’ readers seeking an entertaining and informative story may also find it worthy of their attention.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor, 10: excellent), I have given this volume an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Great Houdini: His British Tours’.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Children’s Homes: A History of Institutional Care for Britain’s Young’

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Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: Children’s Homes: A History of Institutional Care for Britain’s Young

Author: Peter Higginbotham

No. of Pages: 310

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 8

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As is evidenced by this volume’s subtitle, it is ‘A history of institutional care for Britain’s young’.  The author notes that ‘The total number of children’s establishments that operated over the years [ran[ into many thousands and the children that lived in them probably into millions.  As a result, and by ‘Casting its net wide, this book takes a look at how these many and varied institutions operated and evolved in the context of changing views of how to best serve the needs of children in their care’.  It is a fair summary.

The volume is comprehensive in its coverage of its subject. Within it, the reader is take from the Christ’s Hospital (claimed to be ‘..England’s first institutional home for poor or orphaned children’), to the Twenty-first Century and beyond. The story that is presented between these two points is well-researched and written. it is eminently readable, and is both enlightening and (not unexpectedly), at times somewhat depressing.

The main part of the volume consists of 25 Chapters preceded by an Introduction which summarises what is to follow.  Of the Chapters, 23 relate directly to the subject. Chapters 24 (Children’s Home Records) and 25 (Useful Resources) are however intended to assist genealogists and researchers seeking further information on the topic. Each Chapter covers a specific time-period, with subheadings within it providing more details about specific subjects. There are numerous informatively-captioned illustrations, although these are not sourced, and no mention of their existence appears on either the Contents page or in the Index. Endnotes are employed to provide additional information within each chapter. Chapter-specific and numbered sequentially, their citations appear in a dedicated References and Notes section placed after Chapter 25.  A Bibliography follows that section, with an Index completing the volume.

That this book is well-researched is very evident. However, for this reviewer, it was badly let down by its Index. While reviewing the volume, he had occasion to check the Index for additional information concerning British Home Children (p.209). Nothing was found. Subsequent (and random) searches for Australia, Canada and Ontario (subjects which figure prominently within the narrative) had the same result, while a final (also random) search for Hampton (p.213) also found nothing. For a volume with the potential to be an authoritative work on its subject, this discovery was disconcerting. While it cannot be known if other omissions have occurred, for this reviewer, the authority of the Index is now under question. Whether or not this is important will depend-upon the reader.

The mater of the Index notwithstanding, it is possible that this volume may become a major research-tool for those interested in British social history, orphanages, child welfare and the evolution of child foster care within Great Britain.

On a Rating Scale Rating Scale where 1: very poor, 10: excellent, I have given it an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Children’s Homes: A History of Institutional Care for Britain’s Young’

BOOK REVIEW:’Being British’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Being British

Author: Kieran Hughes and Maureen Hughes

Total Number of Printed Pages: 152

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7

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In the Introduction to this book, the authors state that ‘There is so much in Britain worthy of celebration ‘and that ‘Hopefully, this book will remind you [the reader] how great it is to be British and for those wanting to settle here, provide a little something about our customs, history and idiosyncrasies’. It is a succinct summation.

The result of this intent can best described as a compendium of many of the things that the authors perceive to be ‘British’. The main part of this volume consists of 16 well-written, and at times humorous, Chapters. Within these, the subjects covered are wide-ranging. The Chapters include such titles as  The Geography of Britain and Its Counties (Chapter 1), and The English Language (Chapter 7); this latter section including such delights as Common Yorkshire Words And Phrases, Cockney Rhyming Slang and Common Welsh Phrases within its pages. As already noted, the main part of this volume consists of 16 Chapters. Although the majority concern the ‘positive’ side of being ‘British’, for ‘Completeness’ the last of these (titled Worst of Britain) is devoted to those things which the authors perceive as being to be the worst aspects of ‘British’ culture. It makes for interesting reading.   The text within the Chapters is invariably entertaining and in some instances contains relevant personal reminiscences. Because of its content, this volume is encyclopaedic in nature and suited for ‘dipping-type’ searching. Although (as this Reviewer proved) it is possible to read this book from cover to cover (and in a single sitting), the volume of information it contains tends to result in ‘information overload’ and such a practice is not to be recommended. It should also be noted that for unknown reasons, the focus of this book is primarily on England and, to a lesser extent Wales. Although references are made to locations within their borders, Scotland and Northern Ireland receive little attention.

As would be expected, the Contents page appears at the front of the volume.  However (and unusually), the reverse of that page contains both an Introduction (which gives a very brief summary of the book’s purpose), and an Acknowledgements section which thanks those who contributed to it. As it is more usual to have an individual page dedicated to each of these sections the reason for this arrangement is not known. The ten Chapters which constitute the main part of the volume then follow. Where additional information is provided within each Chapter, this takes the form of Subsections, the headings for which appear in Bold-type. A two-page Bibliography follows the Chapter section. Of the 36 entries the Bibliography  contains, 32 are websites, and only four are books.

 A four-page Index follows; completing the work. Although a small number of illustrations and numerous Tables appear within the book, the Contents page and Index make no mention of their existence. Surprisingly, given its subject, and the references to various British geographical, geopolitical and linguistic locations that it makes, the volume contains no Maps.

As it gives a ‘once-over lightly’ introduction to ‘British’ culture, this volume will probably have wide appeal. Tourists and potential immigrants are likely to peruse it with great and earnest interest. In this context it is perhaps unfortunate that as a potentially high-use book, consideration was not given to producing it as a hard-cover volume rather than using an easily-damaged, high-wear paperback format. That detail notwithstanding, residents of the British Isles and native-born ‘British’ may find it amusing to see themselves described by their peers. Linguists with an interest in the Welsh, Yorkshire and Cockney language / dialects may also find it useful in their researches.

For this reviewer, this volume is an ‘Introduction’ to the subject; it should not be taken as the ‘Final word’.

On a Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): I have given it a 7.

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BOOK REVIEW:’Being British’