During the last year, I have been able to catch up on a few books that have been gathering dust on the shelves for ages. Between these books, assorted other books have arrived, which have been greedily consumed by my rapacious yearning to read. Here is a selection of a few of the titles I have admired over the last twelve months.

1. This is a History Press book explaining what lies beneath the feet of travellers around London. The book, entitled London’s Labyrinth and written by Fiona Rule, explains the insidious creeping over millennia of the detritus, disease, filth and pestilence that make up the very foundations of the British capital. It gives a very knowledgeable account of how this mess was cleared and continues to be so. Then, the book gives us a first-rate account of how tunnels, underground railways, sewers, roadways and the like continue onward into the future. A very good book that serves the reader well to engage in finding out more about the subject.

2. This is a cracking history book. Endeavour by Peter Moore tells as best as can be done the story of how a Whitby boat builder constructed a relatively nondescript ‘Coastal Collier’ named ‘The Earl of Pembroke, which much later became a much lauded naval ship re-named ‘Endeavour’. The book then details the splendid yet hazardous voyages of Captain Cook as he circumnavigated the globe, the myriad discoveries made, the map drawing, meeting the indigenous peoples wherever they arrived. The discovery list is endless. Somehow, the ship then ending up in the War of Independence after being a prison ship moored on the River Thames. I really did engage with the book throughout.

3. Another book that left an indelible mark on me was Death Row. This tells the story of the author, Michelle Lyons, and her life as an execution witness to close on 300 deaths within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It certainly makes the reader sit up and think about how all this is carried out, how it affects the witnesses, other people, and ultimately ending up with political shenanigans that altered her entire life. I found the book fascinating.

4. Ian Lloyd has compiled a treatise on Queen Victoria’s personal opinion of 30 eminent Victorians, who individually enjoyed an audience with the Queen, Prince Albert and their family and entourage. Intensely revealing in as much as how the royal family used to comport themselves at home, their interests and foibles. Allied with this, we get a glimpse into how the different visitors also reacted in the royal presence. Buffalo Bill being a firm favourite of their majesties, especially with his Wild West Show.

5. The Lost Gutenberg by Margaret Leslie Davis tells the story of expensive book collecting over the years, but especially concerning one particular bible, printed in the mid 1400s. It is numbered 45. This book has traversed the world, been owned and coveted by many. Throughout its curious life, we can see how the fiscal value corrupts people, religious factions, contemporary celebrities and the super rich. It is currently worth millions of pounds. It has been copied so one can read it online, yet it resides in a temperature-controlled environment in Japan to this day. A classic example of how the other half live.

6. The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code by Judith Hoare is a marvellously written biography of the late Claire Weekes. An Australian born in 1903 who had an academic bent that led her to travel desert and scrub searching for reptiles, this led to other adventures, before she began to suffer spasmodic panic attacks. A rapid diagnosis by a colleague that she was suffering a form of panic similar to that suffered in the trenches during WWI. This ultimately propelled her onto the world stage, whereupon she became an acknowledged expert and author in the field of anxiety. It is as interesting a life-story as one can hope to find.

7. An older book that resonates with me still is Letter from New York by Helene Hanff. A film that I am rather fond of is 84 Charing Cross Road; it is about a second-hand bookshop in London and an American woman who buys books from there. That woman was Helene Hanff. This book is about her life in a modest apartment block in New York, how she lives, her interaction with other residents and friends, her writings, her walks, and her entire life structure. It is equally funny, sad, poignant, extremely witty, and so easy to engage with. It is a very good, yet different book.

8. Again, another older book that really thrilled me was Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. I have made a concerted effort this year to indulge in Twain’s writings purely based on this book. It truly tells of a mid 1800s trip to the Mediterranean Holy Lands from America, with a host of oddball characters that either annoyed him or became something of a foil for his razor-sharp wit. When the reader becomes accustomed to his style of writing, the laughs are plentiful, the scorn and insult a wonderful example of how an author can be so erudite. I really did enjoy the reading of the very old copy I have, despite the challenges of holding the rather ancient pages.

9. Keep Clear is a recent book that has made me question myself, others around me, and come to terms with what makes people tick, sometimes unconventionally. Written by a well-known author Tom Cutler, who, at a later stage in his life, discovers he is on the scale of having Asperger’s. Once informed, a lot of things then make sense to him. I would ask anybody to read this book so as to be better informed about how most of us are not perfect specimens of humanity, despite many believing otherwise. A totally absorbing book.

10. Hollywood Godfather is a rather exciting book to read from page one. It tells the life story of Gianni Russo, who, as a lad, was a polio-afflicted street hustler, and from making social connections, he eventually made it big by being peripherally allied with the Mafia. His exploits and revelations make compelling reading throughout the book. He also secured a modest acting part in the Godfather trilogy by foul means or fair. This particular part has sustained him in the public eye for years. A lightweight read, but, if the facts are all true, or even if they are not, it still makes a good book to read on holiday.

Reg Seward
December 2019