Magna Carta


Magna CartaMagna Carta: The Birth of Liberty
by Dan Jones

Last year was the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta. To commemorate the occasion, LibriVox recorded a collection of essays — (Magna Carta Commemoration Essays, edited by Henry Elliot Malden) — which had originally been published on the 700th Anniversary in 1915. I’ve got to admit that this was some of the toughest reading I’ve ever done for LibriVox. Dry, scholarly, and littered with snatches of Latin and French. True, I did learn a lot from it, and found it edifying. But it was learning purchased at the cost of much mental sweat, rather like being back in a tough college course all over again.

Now, months later, browsing through the “new nonfiction” display at my library branch, I discovered this account of the Magna Carta by Dan Jones. This one kept me engrossed all the way through, without ever finding it a struggle. My sister Meg and I used to say that we “liked our history with the people in it” — and that pretty much explains the difference. The book we read for LibriVox last year was all analysis and no people. This new book is filled with people, their desires and activity and personality. Yes, there’s also analysis, but that follows in the wake of the human story.



The Frozen-Water Trade


Frozen Water TradeThe Frozen-Water Trade
by Gavin Weightman

Ice cream is surely the all-American dessert, almost as ubiquitous in winter as in summer. We Americans are known to drink tea iced, beer cold, and mixed drinks “on the rocks”. At first thought, we might assume that these tastes developed in the first half of the 20th century, with the spread of mechanical refrigeration. But they actually began almost a hundred years earlier, in the first half of the 19th century. They were dependent on the exploitation of a natural resource so commonplace that it was taken for granted — Ice.

In the cold winters of New England and the Midwest, ponds and rivers froze regularly and solidly during the heart of winter. The locals would cut the ice and store it in ice-houses, providing themselves with enough to last through the summer. It was a small-scale individual operation which flourished only in regions where nature provided the ice, and even then, only if you happened to own access to your own bit of frozen shoreline.

In 1806, a Boston merchant named Frederick Tudor had what seemed like a crazy idea. He loaded a cargo of Massachusetts ice aboard a ship and set out to sell it in Martinique, confident that it would fetch a good profit in that tropical island. That first improvised and less-than-successful attempt was ridiculed by other New England businessmen. Investors ran the other way when approached about the project.


All the Men in the Sea


All the Men in the SeaAll the Men in the Sea
by Michael Krieger

“Could not put this down” is what I said about this book to co-workers who saw me reading it on break and asked if it was any good. It’s a gripping true story, told in a way that lets me experience events from inside the skins of the ordinary men involved in them. An anxious teenaged deck-hand, a dogged tugboat captain, a fatherly ship’s-storekeeper, an experienced deep-sea diver — one by one, they become real to me. This was an examination of an accident on a work-site, but it was never impersonally statistical. It stayed grounded in the lived experiences of individuals, and the story is always given to the reader through the eyes of human beings. That may be the reason why it grabbed me the way it did. As my sister has pointed out before, I tend to prefer my history “with the people in.”


Mavericks of the Sky


Mavericks of the SkyMavericks of the Sky
by Barry Rosenberg & Catherine Macaulay

I breezed through this book in a weekend. The story of the first few years of the U.S. Airmail Service, it’s full of action and adventure — and frequent comedy. The thought that crossed my mind more than once as I read was — “They ought to turn this into a movie.”

In 1917, the U.S. entered WWI with an air force that was still new and untried. But then, aviation itself as a field was barely over a decade old at that point. Planes, engines, and piloting skills were all going through a period of rapid experimentation and development. Everyone was working through a steep learning curve.

Flying the mail originated not in a particular demand for faster mail delivery, but from a crying need to develop pilots’ skills at cross-country flying. The first chapter of the book lays out the problem succinctly:

The country had been at war for just over a year and already dozens of flyers had been killed. … The problem had less to do with the superior dogfighting skills of aces like Baron Manfred von Richthoven than with the fact that the airmen were simply getting lost. With only a rudimentary compass to navigate by, and facing unfamiliar enemy terrain beneath their wings, they were unable to find their way back to base and eventually ran out of fuel and crashed. They were proficient with stick and rudder, but they lacked the ABC’s of cross-country flying.

Between them, the Army and the Post Office came up with a novel solution to the problem: More

The San Francisco Earthquake


San Francisco Newspapers Cover PictureThe San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
by a number of nameless but intrepid newspapermen

A few months ago, I began working on a LibriVox recording with my usual LV team — (GregG and AnnB) — A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Aitkin & Hilton, written in 1906 just a few months after the events described in the book. In the course of working on that project, I became particularly interested in the work of the newspapermen of that city. The headquarters of all the major newspapers were destroyed, along with their printing presses, and yet the reporters still managed to collect and publish news of what was happening around them. On the Library of Congress website, I found this collection of historic newspapers, including several issues of the San Francisco Call from the days following the earthquake. That led to my most recent solo project, The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire as Reported in the Newspapers of that City.

Reading these newspapers, more than a century old, felt surprisingly familiar. It connected in my mind with the reading I do at Reachout Radio, where we do live readings from today’s newspapers. In the Aitkin & Hilton book, even though it was written shortly after the event, the story was told in the past tense, as something already beginning to pass from “news” to “history”. In the newspaper readings, everything is happening in the present tense, in the immediate here and now. If only radio had existed in 1906, I might have been a Reachout Radio reader, turning the pages of the papers, looking for the articles that would be most informative to the listeners on the other end of the airwaves.

We would have to begin with the leading articles, the ones which pull together the big picture of what’s happening. Where are the present fire lines and which way is the fire moving? Where are the civic leaders meeting and what is their game plan? Where are people to go for safety, and how are they to get there? Before the internet, before television, before radio, the printing press was the clearing house for everything people most desperately needed to know.

Then there are the small and personal items. A wealthy woman lost all her property in the fire, but announced that she was giving half of what she had in the bank to the relief fund. Two men in what appeared to be a Red Cross wagon stole blankets and jewelry from the homeless camped in Golden Gate Park. Enrico Caruso got a black eye during an altercation over luggage at the ferry boat wharf. A University of California professor rescued the paintings at Hopkins Art Institute by cutting them out of their frames as the flames surrounded the building, rolling up the canvases and taking them to safety.

The reporters diligently collected data and more data, and devoted full pages to making it available. People seeking friends and relatives checked the hundreds of names and addresses published in the papers. Lists of people hospitalized at various locations were available, with a brief description of their injury. Locations of relief stations and food distribution stations were published in the paper. Businessmen, driven out of one location, turned to the newspapers to announce new temporary locations and to ask their employees to check in.

Even the “Personals” were fascinating little glimpses of small human details in the larger story. Herb asked Eve in a classified ad, “Where are you?” Mr. Monteverde published an ad asking for information on the whereabouts of the children of the Mexican Vice President, who had been staying with a Miss Velasco. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart announced that their building had escaped unharmed and that school would resume Monday. An enterprising Oakland real estate broker advertised “an earthquake-proof 5-room cottage” and advised the reader to “Grab it quick!”

The San Francisco newspapermen were working under serious disadvantages. All three major papers in the city lost their buildings to the fire on the first day. But being true news hounds, they weren’t about to give up when they were standing in the middle of a big story. Reporters from the three rival papers pooled their stories on the first day, located a borrowed press across the bay in Oakland, and put a small 4-page edition on the streets of San Francisco the next morning. By the following day, each paper had organized a temporary location of its own and was ready for some serious reporting. By the third day, the San Francisco Call was putting out eight pages of fine print, including stories from surrounding towns like Santa Rosa and Mendocino.

Of course, the newspapermen couldn’t help including an article about themselves. “Call Distributed Free to the People from Automobile — Crowds Rush Frantically to Secure Paper Wherever Stops are Made” announced a headline of pardonable pride.  Yes, we did a good job, the boys of the press told themselves and their readers. It was true; they did a job of notable importance and they did it well. And to top it off, they temporarily waived profit for the sake of their deeper mission — the perennial mission of the press, yesterday and today and always — keeping the people informed.

London Under


London UnderLondon Under
by Peter Ackroyd

This book is subtitled “The Secret History Beneath the Streets”. It’s not a systematic and chronological history, but a series of topical meanderings, each chapter a relish of assorted tidbits and trifles. The life of a great city, hidden beneath the streets and surfaces, is considered as though we were considering the bones and blood vessels of an organism, the life lived just beneath the skin.

One bit that impressed me was this: While Manhattan’s bedrock is solid schist, London’s foundation is gravel and clay. For all the centuries of its habitation, London has been slowly sinking into the muck beneath. The surface structures of Roman Britain have gradually become the cellars and basements and underground crypts of more modern buildings. Even the rivers and streams which once flowed on the surface of the land have gone to earth over the centuries, roofed over and left to flow in the darkness under the city. When new foundations are dug, the clay “weeps”, and this watery substratum continually seeps into the city, a reminder of the marshes from which it rose. A statistic that stopped me and made me read it again — every day 15,000,000 gallons of rising groundwater are pumped out of London.

There’s an entire chapter on the greatest of London’s underground rivers, the Fleet. There was a time, long ago, when it was a navigable waterway, spanned by beautiful bridges. By the time Ben Jonson and Jonathan Swift wrote about it, it could only be described as a sewer. By the eighteenth century, it had been covered over and hidden underground, although in 1846 it escaped in an explosion of foul gases and a deluge of filthy water which flooded the neighborhood. Archaeologists have found the debris pulled from the muck of the Fleet a treasure-trove — everything from carved Roman deities to medieval toilet seats, from floor tiles to buckles, from children’s toys to decapitated skulls.

Another chapter describes how Londoners took to the tunnels of the London subways to shelter from the bombs during WWII. At first, the city authorities and the subway companies tried to discourage this behavior, fearing the presence of panicky people loitering idly underground. But it proved impossible to stop people from buying the cheapest ticket to anywhere and then riding from station to station at random. As thousands of people began lying down wearily on the platforms, blocking the way, creating a sanitation and fire hazard, the authorities decided to accept the inevitable, and set some rules to control the situation. People were allowed to shelter in a particular assigned station, lines were painted on the platform to indicate spaces to be kept clear, wooden bunks were installed for sleepers, and sanitary rules were enforced by inspectors.

There are several chapters discussing various aspects of the London Underground, one of the most legendary subway systems in the world. One is a recounting of the ghost stories that haunt the tunnels, another is a look at the explosion of art and literature inspired by the Underground. There was a 1928 silent movie called Underground which preserved a view of the life beneath the streets in the era between the wars, and a Seamus Heaney poem “The Underground” which sets the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in the vaulted tunnels and tiled stations.

The London sewer system is the subject of a fascinating chapter. I had first read about this as one of several great engineering projects in a book called Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury. Revisiting the story here, I met with bits I didn’t recall having heard before. Workmen digging the sewer line in Smithfield uncovered ashes and human bones, and were startled to realize that they had stumbled on the site of the burnings of 16th-century Catholic and Protestant martyrs. People known as “toshers” made a living off the sewers, entering at low tide from the points where the sewers emptied into the Thames, scavenging underground armed with bullseye lanterns and long protective coats with capacious pockets in which to stow their findings. Modern-day tourists who visit the sewers are dressed in waders, hard hats, and coveralls, taken on tours by guides who read them the safety rules before setting out on this strange odyssey.

Deep dungeons, gas lines, aqueducts, pneumatic tubes, buried rivers, Roman baths, medieval crypts, holy springs, air raid shelters, mudlarkers and toshers, mole men and miners, all the life under the skin of the city, flow through this little book as the Fleet flows under the streets of London.

Curse of the Narrows


Curse of the NarrowsCurse of the Narrows
by Laura M. MacDonald

I first got really interested in the Halifax Disaster years ago, when we still had the family deli. One of our customers became buddies with my dad, and they used to “chew the fat” together on slow days. One day, the subject drifted to immigration, and Harry started talking about the explosion that devastated Halifax. Harry’s ancestor — (grandfather? grandmother? I’ve forgotten details) — was living in Halifax then, and fortunately escaped the explosion unscathed, but was left out of a job in a city struggling to put itself back together. That’s how they came to the United States, walking over the border somewhere in New England. Out of this whole story, the part that caught my attention was the part I hadn’t known anything about. What was the story with Halifax? What had happened there?

Since then, I’ve gotten the details from articles in history magazines and encyclopedias, and brief references in books about shipwrecks, but not until now have I read an entire book focused on the event. This book begins by describing the Halifax of the WWI years, a center of Atlantic shipping with a bustling port. The fear of German submarines had led the Halifax harbor to close every night, with anti-submarine nets stretched across the entrance to prevent entry or departure until morning.

In December 1916, the French ship Mont Blanc arrived at Halifax from New York, loaded with explosive munitions bound for the war in Europe. She was to wait at Halifax for the convoy that would take her across the ocean. Arriving late in the day, after the nets were in place, the Mont Blanc had to wait outside the harbor until morning. Meanwhile, inside the harbor was the Imo, a Belgian relief ship ready to depart. But loading her coal took longer than expected, and the Imo also missed the window and had to wait for morning.

The next day, when the harbor was again open, both departing and arriving ships rushed to get where they were going. The harbor was also bustling with local ferries, tugboats, barges, and general water traffic. All of this business was regulated by the system of “Rules of the Road”, guided by local pilots, adjusted by a conversational language of ships’ whistles.

The Imo and the Mont Blanc both had local Halifax pilots aboard to guide them through the harbor’s traffic. Exactly who signaled what to whom, and how those signals were interpreted, was a matter of much investigation afterward. The Imo was certainly on the “wrong” side of the channel, strictly speaking. But it seems that in Halifax harbor signals and whistles were subject to flexible interpretation. It was common for one ship to signal an intention, and for another ship to either signal agreement, or to signal a contrary intent, which might then be accepted or rejected in turn by the first ship. The Imo had already been forced to the “wrong” side of the channel by two earlier vessels which had refused to give way to her, and the Imo now in turn refused to give way to the Mont Blanc.

If everyone had known of the Mont Blanc‘s precariously touchy cargo, they might have been readier to give way to her wishes. But the usual red warning flag had not been raised on the Mont Blanc, as that would have made her a sitting duck for enemy subs during her night outside the harbor. So the reason for her reluctance to risk sailing too close to shore, for fear of jolting her explosive cargo, was never obviously apparent to onlookers. When, at the last minute, the Mont Blanc changed course to gain distance from the shoreline, her move seemed like a baffling attempt to cut off the Imo.

After the collision, the ships drifted apart, spinning slowly to opposite sides of the harbor. The Mont Blanc was burning, and the fire was growing hotter and less controllable. Her crew abandoned ship. Onlookers ashore rushed to the harbor to watch as she drifted closer to a downtown pier. Small boats came from around the harbor to try to help, to fight the fire, to tow the burning ship away from the docks. Still nobody was aware of her cargo — except her own fleeing crew, whose warnings couldn’t be heard over the noise and at a distance.

When the Mont Blanc detonated, it was the biggest man-made explosion the world had ever seen — not surpassed until the atomic age began. In a split-second, it blew in windows for miles, shattering glass into flying shards that blinded anyone watching the scene from a window. It reduced buildings to splinters. A mile and a half of Halifax was instantly turned to rubble. Boats were blown out of the water and smashed. The Mont Blanc was almost entirely vaporized, her anchor landing miles away in one direction, her deck cannon miles in the other direction. About 2000 people were killed, another 6000 wounded.

The suddenness of the disaster stunned people, paralyzed reactions at first. I shake my head thinking of some of the stories. Children walking to school or settling into morning classroom routines, women pausing in their breakfast preparations to stand at the window wondering at the fire, ferryboat passengers on their ways to another ordinary day at work, suddenly — everything stops — and then — the world is all turned upside down in an instant.

The bulk of the book details the individual stories of one and another of the people caught up in the disaster. Waterman Charles Duggan, thrown from his tugboat onto the opposite shore, badly injured, struggling to walk home, only to find his wife and baby dead. Schoolboy Ginger Fraser, who started out to see the excitement as a thrilling break from school, and ended as an energetic helper in the crisis, running messages, making food deliveries, and escorting searchers at the morgue. Public-spirited banker Abraham Ratshetsky and doctor William Ladd, who organized two relief trains from the city of Boston and got them to Halifax through a raging blizzard. Medical student Florence Murray, who had been absent the day the class studied anesthesia, thrown into a chaotic makeshift operating room and told to do her best, trying not to let her uncertainty show, gradually gaining confidence. Nine-year-old Helena Duggan, who dragged herself up out of the basement of her collapsed school and ran home to rescue her mother, three sisters, and younger brother from the ruins of their house. George Cox, a former ocular specialist who had become a simple country doctor, suddenly discovering a use for his expertise in eye surgery, confronted with hundreds of people who had received a faceful of glass shards.

The individual stories fill up the pages of the book, dozens and scores and more. Each person with their own story. Somewhere in all these stories, there must have been Harry’s grandparents, doing something, thinking something, during those hours and days and weeks which eventually brought their feet walking in this direction.

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