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.



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.”


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.

Disasters at Sea

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Disasters at Sea aDisasters at Sea:
A Visual History of Infamous Shipwrecks
by Liz Mechem

This was a “browser” book, the sort I could pick up when I only had 15 minutes of time to fill, when interruptions were to be expected. Each article — and they were very much more like brief magazine articles than like regular book chapters — was only two to four pages long, just the right length to fill in a bit of time with something interesting enough to engage my attention but not requiring too much mental effort to get into focus.

There were about five dozen stories here, arranged in groups of similar theme, such as Collisions, Storms, Fires, Design Flaws, War, and Piracy. Some stories, such as the Titanic and the Andrea Doria, were so overly-familiar that I skipped over them.

Others were stories I’d read about in the past, but not so often that they had grown dull. Some, I’d forgotten about until I saw them again here. I revisited with interest the tales of the Eastland, the Essex, the General Slocum, the Endurance, the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Empress of Ireland, and Halifax disaster (the Mont Blanc/Imo ), finding my memories jogged as I read, and recollections returning afresh.

And then there were the stories I don’t think I’d ever heard before at all. Here was the fascinating saga of the clipper General Grant, wrecked off the Auckland Islands in 1866 — a tale of castaways struggling to survive a brutal winter, of a fire started with their single surviving match and kept burning for 18 months, of clothes made from the skins of the seals they hunted.

Here too was the tale of the Princess Sophia, stuck on a reef in Alaska’s Inner Passage in 1918 — waiting out a blinding snowstorm for 40 hours while rescue ships nearby waited for the weather to calm enough to remove her passengers safely, only to end in a sudden deadly boiler explosion which killed everyone aboard, so frustratingly near to safety.

“A visual history”, as the subtitle of the book says, means that these brief articles are profusely illustrated with pictures and maps, adding to the magazine-style feel of the book and making for easy browsing. Sometimes, when I need a book for distraction and haven’t the sort of day with much reading time in it, this is just the kind of book that comes to hand and satisfies.

And who knows — these little tidbits of stories may very well turn out to be the sample appetizers which lure me into a larger meal. I don’t despise tidbit-sized books, because that’s often where I pick up the trail to my next good read. I’m thinking now that I’d like to see whether the library has any book about the General Grant. And I’m also thinking I might like to revisit the Halifax disaster in more detail.

Fifty Children

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Fifty ChildrenFifty Children
by Steven Pressman

This book has been sticking in my mind for reasons I hadn’t foreseen when I picked it up. All the while I’ve been reading this account of the predicament of Viennese Jewish refugee children in 1939, I’ve also been reading the daily newspaper accounts of the predicament of Central American refugee children in 2014.  The two stories have woven themselves together in my thoughts so thoroughly that my mind keeps moving from one to the other whenever I think of either.

The book describes the journey of three wealthy Philadelphians into Nazi Germany and Austria in the final months before the start of World War II. Lawyer Gil Kraus, his wife Eleanor, and their friend Doctor Bob Schless, all themselves Jewish, ventured into that dangerously unwelcoming territory in order to bring a handful of Jewish children to the United States before it was too late. In light of the millions soon to die, the fifty they were able to rescue was a small number. Yet that small number was a remarkable success in light of the severely unwelcoming attitude of their own country towards refugees. Those 50 children were the largest single group of unaccompanied Jewish children to arrive in the United States from Nazi-controlled Europe, making up 1/20th of the roughly 1000 children admitted here.

Just 1000 children — that’s all this country was willing to allow in, during a time of crisis when England admitted 10,000 via the Kindertransport program. Even regular, non-refugee immigration was severely restricted in the 1930’s. Things had changed that much in the few decades since Emma Lazarus spoke for the Mother of Exiles in New York harbor, saying, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me ..” When my own great-grandparents came to this country at the turn of the 20th century, up to a million immigrants were passing every year through Ellis Island and other east coast entry points. By the 1920’s though, something had gone sour, and the open doors were closed. New arrivals trickled slowly, one at a time, through narrow turnstiles, cut off at strict limits. The limit for Germany and Austria combined was about 27,000 in 1939.

If my reaction

A Diary Without Dates

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Diary Without DatesA Diary Without Dates
by Enid Bagnold

LibriVox is busy producing an audio collection of short nonfiction pieces to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI. It’ll take awhile to complete; LV is aiming to have it ready for release in July. But meanwhile, it’s been influencing my reading, as I browse through the available material. I signed up for three slots in the project, and one of the items I recorded was a chapter from this book, which proved so interesting that I had to go on and finish the entire book.

If the name is familiar, it’s because Enid Bagnold wrote that childhood favorite, National Velvet.  But nearly 20 years earlier, she wrote this little memoir reflecting on her experience as a V.A.D. in a military hospital during WWI. The V.A.D. was a Voluntary Aid Detatchment, a civilian volunteer. V.A.D.’s were nurses, hospital ward assistants, cooks and kitchen workers, laundry helpers and office clerks, filling the need for staff in wartime hospitals. As civilians, they fell into an odd middle ground, subject to the regular hospital disciplines yet not part of the military. While some served in field hospitals, the majority were in homefront hospitals and convalescent homes for wounded soldiers. Bagnold’s book is based on her life in a hospital in Woolwich, England.

It’s an intriguing book, because it reads more as personal musings than as organized reportage. In researching material for the LibriVox project, I found many other WWI medical memoirs, most of which tried to be complete, explanatory, factually descriptive. This one felt very different, as though the author wrote for herself alone at the time of writing, just to clear her mind of thoughts. When it came to publication, the raw writings were allowed to remain raw, without attempts to revise, expand, clarify, or explain what had been written.  For instance, I had to look up the meaning of the acronym V.A.D. and what a V.A.D. actually did on my own, because the book never explains these matters. The book doesn’t explain anything. The incidents simply float up out of the passing days into conscious memory, without systematic efforts to pin them to times, places, dates. The mood of the writer, sometimes weary, sometimes amused, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophic, colors the way each incident is remembered.

Because of this personal style of writing, this book drew me very deeply into the hospital experience. The bigger picture, the larger hospital structure, the world outside the hospital, the conduct of the war itself, were “out there”, where the author — and with her the reader — rarely glanced at them. The ordinary details of the daily hospital routines had become her whole life. Because of this inward-turned sight, small incidents were experienced so intensely that they revealed depths of meaning.

I don’t really know that there’s anything I can write about the book that would be better than simply reading what Bagnold herself wrote —

  • Let them pile on the rules, invent and insist; yet behind them, beneath them, I have that strong, secret liberty of an institution that runs like a wind in me and lifts my mind like a leaf. So long as I conform absolutely, not a soul will glance at my thoughts—few at my face. I have only to be silent and conform, and I might be in so far a land that even the eye of God had lost me.
  • It unsettles me as I lay my spoons and forks. Sixty-five trays. It takes an hour to do. Thirteen pieces on each tray. Thirteen times sixty-five … eight hundred and forty-five things to collect, lay, square up symmetrically. I make little absurd reflections and arrangements—taking a dislike to the knives because they will not lie still on the polished metal of the tray, but pivot on their shafts, and swing out at angles after my fingers have left them. I love the long, the dim and lonely, corridor; the light centred in the gleam of the trays, salt-cellars, yellow butters, cylinders of glass….
  • One has illuminations all the time! There is an old lady who visits in our ward, at whom, for one or two unimportant reasons, it is the custom to laugh. The men, who fall in with our moods with a docility which I am beginning to suspect is a mask, admit too that she is comic. This afternoon, when she was sitting by Corrigan’s bed and talking to him I saw where her treatment of him differed from ours. She treats him as though he were an individual; but there is more in it than that…. She treats him as though he had a wife and children, a house and a back garden and responsibilities: in some manner she treats him as though he had dignity.
  • He has time before him. But in a hospital one has never time, one is never sure. He has perhaps been here long enough to learn that—to feel the insecurity, the impermanency. At any moment he may be forced to disappear into the secondary stage of convalescent homes. Yes, the impermanency of life in a hospital! An everlasting dislocation of combinations. Like nuns, one must learn to do with no nearer friend than God. Bolts, in the shape of sudden, whimsical orders, are flung by an Almighty whom one does not see. The Sister who is over me, the only Sister who can laugh at things other than jokes, is going in the first week of next month. Why? Where? She doesn’t know, but only smiles at my impatience. She knows life—hospital life. … Impermanency…. I don’t wonder the Sisters grow so secret, so uneager. How often stifled! How often torn apart!
  • To-night, as I went quickly past him [Mr. Wicks] with my load of bath-towels, his blind flapped a little, and I saw the moon, shaped like a horn, behind it. Dropping my towels, I pulled his blind back: “Mr. Wicks, look at the moon.” Obedient as one who receives an order, he reached up to his supporting handle and pulled his shoulders half round in bed to look with me through the pane. The young moon, freed from the trees, was rising over the hill. I dropped the blind again and took up my towels and left him. After that he seemed to fall into one of his trances, and lay immovable an hour or more. When I took his dinner to him he lifted his large, sandy head and said: “Seems a queer thing that if you hadn’t said ‘Look at the moon’ I might have bin dead without seeing her.”  — “But don’t you ever look out of the window?” The obstinate man shook his head.
  • I knew what was happening down at the station two miles away; I had been on station duty so often. The rickety country station lit by one large lamp; the thirteen waiting V.A.D.’s; the long wooden table loaded with mugs of every size; kettles boiling; the white clock ticking on; that frowsy booking clerk…. Then the sharp bell, the tramp of the stretcher-bearers through the station, and at last the two engines drawing gravely across the lighted doorway, and carriage windows filled with eager faces, other carriage windows with beds slung across them, a vast Red Cross, a chemist’s shop, a theatre, more windows, more faces…. The stretcher-men are lined up; the M.O. meets the M.O. with the train; the train Sisters drift in to the coffee-table. “Here they come! Walkers first….” The station entrance is full of men crowding in and taking the steaming mugs of tea and coffee; men on pickaback with bandaged feet; men with only a nose and one eye showing, with stumbling legs, bound arms. The station, for five minutes, is full of jokes and witticisms; then they pass out and into the waiting chars-à-bancs. A long pause. “Stretchers!” The first stretchers are laid on the floor. There I have stood so often, pouring the tea behind the table, watching that littered floor, the single gas-lamp ever revolving on its chain, turning the shadows about the room like a wheel—my mind filled with pictures, emptied of thoughts, hypnotized.
  • The hospital is alive; I feel it like a living being. The hospital is like a dream. I am afraid of waking up and finding it commonplace. The white Sisters, the ceaselessly-changing patients, the long passages, the sudden plunges into the brilliant wards … their scenery hypnotizes me. Sometimes in the late evening one walks busily up and down the ward doing this and that, forgetting that there is anything beyond the drawn blinds, engrossed in the patients, one’s tasks—bed-making, washing, one errand and another—and then suddenly a blind will blow out and almost up to the ceiling, and through it you will catch a glimpse that makes you gasp, of a black night crossed with bladed searchlights, of a moon behind a crooked tree. The lifting of the blind is a miracle; I do not believe in the wind.

This book felt as though the writer came to me in a dream — and in the dream took me by the hand and silently showed me her world.

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