BOOK REVIEW: ‘The History of the Channel Tunnel: The Political, Economic and Engineering History of an Heroic Railway Project’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith Rimmer

Title:  The History of the Channel Tunnel: The Political, Economic and Engineering History of an Heroic Railway Project

Author: Nicholas Faith

Total Number of Pages: 223

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 5

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In the Introduction to this volume, the author notes that, in his opinion ‘The tunnel itself is an extraordinary achievement’ and that, in writing this book he is ‘…Trying, for the first time, to cover the whole story’ of the tunnel, its origins, history and the political machinations that attended its creation. The intent is admirable, but how much of the volume’s content is true?

This reviewer found himself asking that question after reading (on page 65), the following sentence `…A list of the meetings…which I have slightly embellished…’, the key word in this instance being ‘Embellished’.  The Oxford English Dictionary, when defining ‘Embellish’, states that to do so is to ‘Make (a statement or story) more interesting by adding extra details that are often untrue’.  The author’s admission that he ‘Slightly embellished’ the events he relates, inevitably raises the probability that, if ‘Embellishment’ (even if only ‘slightly’), has occurred once within this book, it is unlikely to have been an isolated instance. The volume  being now compromised by the author’s own words, the question to be asked is, ‘How much of what appears within this book is in fact ‘true’ (with ‘true’ being defined as ‘An accurate representation of what actually occurred’)?  There being no way to know, and with ‘Scepticism’ now attending every word, the volume’s reputation and authority has inevitably suffered.

Within the volume, a Dedication is placed immediately behind the Contents page, with tribute being paid ‘To the memory of Sir Alistair Morton, ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’.  This is in turn followed by an Introduction, which section precis what is to follow. The volume proper now appears. It consists of five Parts, these being equivalent to sections. The Parts cover the history of the tunnel, its construction and the political and mercantile events associated with it. The volume also contains 15 Chapters. Several of these appear within each Part, acting as ‘Sub-sections’ under the larger Part / Section heading, and relating relevant events associated with the latter. As an example, Part 3 (Decision) contains Chapters 4 (Together, at Long, long, last), 5 (Towards a Final Decision), and 6 (Alistair Morton – and Other Heroes), all these being sections relevant to the broader Part (section) heading Decision.  A section titled Bibliography follows Chapter 15 (‘Sometimes miracles happen’).  This details the printed media used in the writing of this volume, and is in turn followed by a 13-page Index, the book’s final section. Notably, the Contents page contains no reference to the existence of the Index.  A 16-page Images section placed in the centre of the volume contains a variety of relevant colour and monochrome images, plans, portraits, cartoons, charts and the volume’s only Map. The images are informatively captioned and from a variety of sources. Neither the Contents page nor the Index makes mention of their existence. Despite the use of numerous Acronyms and ‘Official’ letter combinations, no ‘quick-reference’ Glossary is provided.  The numerous quotes that the volume contains, carry no authenticating citations; they might just as well be imagined…

As already noted, for this reviewer, the authority of the information contained within this volume has been compromised by the author’s actions. There were however additional ‘difficulties’, with the Index being especially problematical.  As would be expected, this work is focussed on its subject, the Channel Tunnel, and congruent with that focus it would be reasonable to expect that its Index would list those locations, individuals and organisations mentioned within its pages. Unfortunately it does not do so, and in the course of random searching this reviewer found numerous examples where this was the case. Included were such entries as London and North Western Railway (page 41), Brockton Barn (page 184), and NCM Communication (page 203), these being organisations and locations considered worthy of inclusion within the volume, yet not important enough to grace the Index.  The existence of unsourced Quotes, lack of a Glossary and of mention of both the Index and Images sections on the Contents page have already been noted. An outline map of Great Britain would also have been helpful to place the Tunnel and its associated rail infrastructure in context.

This volume may be of interest to a wide variety of readers. These could include Political Scientists, Students of Commerce, Railway Historians, those with a general interest in British transport history, Mining Professionals  and even railway enthusiasts interested  in ‘modern era’ British Railways. However (and for reasons previously-outlined), it has been compromised both by its author’s actions, and the ‘difficulties’ mentioned above. It is undoubtedly a ‘sincere’ book, written to explain a complicated situation and doing it well, but, in this reviewer’s opinion, it cannot be viewed as an ‘Authoritative Work’. ‘Embellishment’, however ‘Slight’, comes at a cost. Were that it was not so.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 5.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The History of the Channel Tunnel: The Political, Economic and Engineering History of an Heroic Railway Project’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘THE INGENIOUS VICTORIANS: WEIRD AND WONDERFUL IDEAS FROM THE AGE OF INNOVATION’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Ingenious Victorians: Weird and Wonderful Ideas from the Age of Innovation

Author: John Wade

Total Number of Printed Pages: 288

Total Number of Illustrations: 139

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8

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Many years ago, when discussing Victorian ‘inventiveness’ this reviewer was told that ‘The Victorians didn’t know something couldn’t be done, so went ahead  and did it anyway’. That, in essence, summarises this volume; the things that Victorians did because they didn’t know they couldn’t.

The author defines the ‘Victorian era’ as being the period 1837-1891 when Queen Victoria was Monarch  of both Great Britain and the lager British Empire,  this work  naturally tending to concentrate on the eccentricities, successes and failures of ‘inventive’ residents of Great Britain during this time.  As a result, the reader is introduced to such worthies as the builder of the Crystal Palace, the many inventors of the phonograph, and those involved in the design and construction of both Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London.  Many other individuals, some perhaps eccentric, who did feats of daring do during this period, also make their appearance  In addition, the subjects covered include such wonders as the world’s biggest camera, electric submarines and London’s well-known Cleopatra’s Needle. Although largely Anglo-centric in its focus, inventors and creations from Germany, France and the United States of America also make their appearance, their relevance to the topic under discussion being explained clearly and objectively.

This book is well written in a clear, easily-read and informative style. It consists of an Introduction, followed by 28 Chapters, each focusing on a specific subject. Within the individual chapter, photographs and engraved images provide visual reference to the subject under discussion. A Bibliography and Index are also provided, while the sources of the images used within the work are noted in a separate Picture Credits section.

Within this volume’s covers, and on the basis of its title, this reviewer expected to find examples of ‘Victorian Inventiveness and Ingenuity’ from both the United Kingdom itself, and from within the larger British Empire. The Victorian ‘Age of Innovation’ was, after all, a time where, as already noted, ‘The Victorians didn’t know something couldn’t be done, so went ahead and did it anyway’. In this expectation he was disappointed, finding instead that the work had a very definite United Kingdom, European and North American focus.

In addition (and despite the title) the work ignores Victorian inventiveness in the field of international commerce. In this reviewer’s opinion, the absence of such items (of which there were many) reduces its appeal and potential audience. Rather than being an authoritative discourse celebrating the inventiveness that saw Victorian Ingenuity accomplish the impossible in many parts of the world, the volume is inclined toward the ‘quirky’ rather than the practical. What results is essentially a narrative of curiousities and oddities.

There will undoubtedly be those who will purchase this work on the basis of the ‘oddities’ that it contains. Such buyers will be seeking a detailed recitation of the more eccentric aspects of the Victorian era, and for them this volume will serve that purpose well. Despite the emphasis on the ‘unusual’, purchasers seeking examples of commercial ‘Victorian Ingenuity’ could also find some of the information of use. Ultimately and despite the promise inherent within the title, for this reviewer, the eccentric has triumphed over the innovative and while the result is an interesting treatise, it could have been so very, very much more.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I would give it an 8.

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nzcrownmines is also available for book reviewing: Contact nzcrownmines@gmail.com

BOOK REVIEW: ‘THE INGENIOUS VICTORIANS: WEIRD AND WONDERFUL IDEAS FROM THE AGE OF INNOVATION’