30 November 2023

Review: Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 by Nathan Mete

Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 by Nathan Mete book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 by Nathan Mete is a collection of photographs that invites the reader to step back in time and tap into their nostalgia and sense of curiosity. Drawing together photographs taken in Sydney from a variety of sources including the National Archives of Australia, State Library of NSW Archives and Getty Images, Nathan Mete has managed to document the changing streets of Sydney over the course of half a century.

There are plenty of photographs showcasing Sydney's ever evolving city skyline, and the construction of Centre Point Tower in the 1980s was most interesting. Apparently it's now called the Sydney Tower Eye, not that I'll be able to change the name association in my mind. I lived in Sydney in the late 1990s and Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 took me back to that era with the flip of a page.

As in previous collections of this nature, I enjoyed looking deep into each photograph and studying the people, and in doing so observing the many changes in fashion, advertising, technology, construction and retail over time. Structured chronologically by decade, some of the photos displayed a stiffness and formality in their composition but this is quickly offset by Mete's casual and relaxed style of writing.

I didn't plan on reading a book about Sydney at the same time as a book about Melbourne, but sometimes that's just how our reading schedules turn out. At the same time I was reading about the hazards of runaway horses in early Melbourne in Corners of Melbourne by Robyn Annear, I was learning about the demise of Sydney's Bourbon and Beefsteak in Kings Cross, which closed in late 2022. (Such a shame, I have many happy memories of partying there!)

Arising from a very successful instagram page of the same name, Retro Sydney shows the publishing industry is changing and many successful content creators are now following their social media success into the book industry and becoming published authors.

If you enjoyed books like Old Vintage Melbourne or Old Vintage Melbourne 1960 - 1990 by Chris Macheras - also published by Scribe Publications - and wished there was one for Sydney, you'll be pleased to know this is it!

Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 by Nathan Mete is a well designed coffee table book, and would make the perfect Christmas gift for the armchair time traveller, historian, photographer, nostalgic visitor and reflective resident; they will all find something to admire here.

My Rating:

27 November 2023

Review: The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters book cover

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters was published in 2019 and follows straight on from the events in The Last Hours, published in 2017. I received this book from a generous bookish friend in 2019 and it's languished on my TBR until now. Together these two historical fiction titles form the Black Death duology, which is set in 1300s Develish, Dorsetshire.

I read The Last Hours in October 2017 and despite reading The Turn of Midnight six years later, I didn't find myself lost at all. The Last Hours ended on such a memorable cliffhanger that left me out of sorts at the time, yet the author does an excellent job reminding us about the precise state of play when we last caught up with the various characters. My favourite historical fiction authors - Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir and Ken Follett - also manage to strike this balance between boring and repetitive recaps and helpful pointers that enhance the narrative without distracting from it.

To further drive home this point, halfway through The Turn of Midnight, the review copy of The Armour of Light by Ken Follett arrived in my mailbox. I'd requested it from the publisher and it was 730+ pages long so I reluctantly set aside this book in favour of ensuring I met my reviewing commitments. Picking this back up again 2 weeks later, I needn't have worried that a further interruption would diminish my reading enjoyment.

Again Lady Anne is the hero of her demesne, and together with Thaddeus, they have a plan to secure their futures after the black plague has swept through the countryside. The pestilence exposed the worst in some people and the best in others, some cowered in fear while others responded with kindness, unwilling to believe God was punishing them for their sins.

If you've been reading my reviews for any length of time, you'll have noticed that I love a good quote. I take a note as I'm reading and later transcribe all of the quotes when drafting my review. Many of these quotes end up on the cutting room floor (oh geez, that's an old analogy, but I'm sticking with it) but I didn't record any while reading The Turn of Midnight. I checked my review of The Last Hours and I didn't note any quotes while reading that one either. Perhaps it's a relief to read a quote-free review from me for a change, but I can assure you this wasn't due to a lack of great writing.

Lady Anne is a compelling character, a widow navigating a man's world and constantly challenged at every turn, she must be clever to dodge their accusations, negotiate safety and a future for her people. The dialogue was tight and amusing and the ending was immensely satisfying.

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters is highly recommended for historical fiction readers, but it won't really work as a standalone, so for maximum understanding and enjoyment, I recommended starting with The Last Hours.

For more, check out my review of The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters.

My Rating:

21 November 2023

Review: Corners of Melbourne by Robyn Annear

Corners of Melbourne - The Great Orange-Peel Panic and Other Stories from the Streets by Robyn Annear book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

In Corners of Melbourne - The Great Orange-Peel Panic and Other Stories from the Streets, Australian author Robyn Annear takes us through some of the interesting early history of the intersecting streets and corners of Melbourne.

Right out of the gate, the subtitle of this book introduced me to the nuisance and hazard of orange peel on the newly laid flagstone paving on Melbourne's footpaths. As a street food, oranges were healthy, cheap and nourishing, but when:
"...leather-soled shoes met orange peel dropped on flagstones, a diabolical hazard to pedestrians ensued." Page 5

But how much orange peel are we talking about here? A correspondent writing to the Argus stated that one afternoon he removed 17 pieces of orange peel from the west side of Elizabeth street over the course of one hour. Okay, that sounds like a lot!

"At issue was how the 'peripatetic orange-eater' (a distinct urban type) disposed of the empty wrapper, which was often by scattering peel on the footpath as they went along. There were no bins back then, but there was a 'proper receptacle' for street waste - namely, the gutter. Bluestone channels, wide and deep enough to require footbridges for crossing, ran along either side of Melbourne's main streets." Page 6
Broken limbs, concussions and even deaths resulted from these nasty falls but orange peel wasn't the only danger.
"All it took was a stray spark from a discarded match or cigar butt on the footpath for a woman to be engulfed in flames. Skirts lanterned out by crinoline cages or billowing cotton petticoats were so frightfully flammable that accounts of women killed or maimed by dress fires were almost daily news." Page 17
This brings to mind my review of Fashion Victims - The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David, so be sure to check that out if you have an interest in how your clothes could kill you in the past. Remember those bluestone channels? When it rained in Melbourne, flash flooding could cause those deep gutters to flow with a very fast rushing current, often flooding the corner of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Street. Pedestrians couldn't see the footbridges, were swept off or fell into the waters and some even found themselves trapped and drowned beneath the footbridges. Hard to imagine isn't it, drowning in the street?

If you managed to dodge the orange peel, avoid being set alight or drowning on the early streets of Melbourne, you might be hard pressed to avoid being startled or trampled by a horse.
"When trains first ran from Flinders Street, the train whistle had 'a very terrifying effect' on horses - young ones in particular. With the advent of trams, it was the clang of the gripman's bell. The scrape of a street sweeper's shovel, an umbrella being shaken, a dog's bark, a thunderclap: any sudden noise or movement might set a horse off." Page 48
Annear follows with many accounts of horses being spooked, with or without their rider as well as with or without their cart, buggy or coach. Good samaritans trying to slow or stop a runaway horse/s were often hurt or killed in the process and pedestrians, passengers and cart drivers themselves were frequently knocked down, bowled over, trampled or crushed.

The installation of an elaborately designed fountain at the intersection of Swanston and Collins Streets seems impossible to imagine now. Installed in 1859 and named the Victoria Fountain, it was designed to provide water to the public and included a horse trough, making it a convenient place to stop. The water and subsequent animal droppings made the area muddy and the watering of horses and livestock regularly disrupted the flow of traffic in both directions. Reading the resistance from the public and efforts from the council reminded me that some things don't change and the fountain was swiftly relocated to Carlton Gardens, a 'poorly cultivated pleasure-ground' at the time.

Understandably, sanitation was a problem, and the city's laneways became public urinals. Annear tells us we can still see remnants of this time:
"There are a couple of laneways in central Melbourne where an injunction to Commit No Nuisance can still be seen, painted on the wall at eye level. Translated from Victorian bureaucratese, it means: Do Not Piss Here." Page 77
I thought those signs meant no graffiti, or keep the noise down. The first public urinals in the city were immediately popular and rapidly exceeded all expectations. (No facilities for women mind you!) These urinals provided privacy but directed the urine down into the gutters, hence saving the alleyways, but still stinking out the public. One such urinal close to the Theatre Royal was allegedly visited by 1,897 men over a six hour period on a Saturday night. Imagine the volume of urine produced! Unfortunately this was nothing compared to the estimated 10,000 patrons utilising the urinals located on Bourke Street every week.
"The gutters were sluiced regularly - if not often enough - by sanitation workers authorised to uncork the fireplugs that stood at intervals on the edge of city streets." Page 87
According to an article in the Herald from January 1822:
"Truly Melbourne might be fairly called the city of stinks. Last night the stench arising from the gutters in Elizabeth Street was particularly noseable...Even those well accustomed to the malodorous atmosphere of this particular thoroughfare stood aghast, and ultimately fled." Page 87
Changing topics, and another aspect from the Corners of Melbourne was that of what to do with foundlings left on doorsteps and street corners. Unwanted children born to poor families, unwedded mothers, mistresses or victims of abuse were a significant problem:
"If a foundling's identity and parents couldn't be traced, the infant would be 'charged' with being a neglected child and presented at the local court. There, a bench of three magistrates would decide not only the child's fate, but its name." Page 119
The author goes on to tell us about the naming of Cecil Nicholson, Alexander South, August Studley, Henry Street, Ellen Park, Frances Wellington and more. I don't know why, but reading these names and hearing their stories makes me sad. Not knowing a child's identity somehow seems such a cruel and a lonely beginning for these and many more babies abandoned in this way.

On learning neglected children were committed to industrial schools by the court for up to 16 years, thankfully the author declares:
"But that's enough shit and misery for one chapter. Suffice it to know that the industrial schools - overcrowded, disease-ridden; short on privies and shorter on love - were no place for a child." Page 121
What a breath of fresh air! Annear seems to know when the reader has had enough of a topic, while her anecdotes and case histories gave me the feeling she was spinning yarns at a bar, or a campfire.

Stories of larrikins and gangs of boys spitting, throwing stones, stealing, harassing people and causing mischief somehow didn't engage my imagination as fiercely. Nor did the information around bill posting and advertising, and the rise and curse of hoardings in Melbourne. Having said that, I've been paying closer attention to hoardings and advertising since reading the book, and am able to 'see' with fresh eyes, noticing for the first time that the section of road underneath Richmond Station crossing over Punt Road now has organised and numbered billboards. When did that happen?

I was more interested in the history of pedestrian foot traffic and the changing of rules from 'keep to the right' and 'keep to the left'. A great one on escalators, did you know that prior to 1925, the city council had a regulation for pedestrians to 'keep to the right'. This rule meant that pedestrians had their backs to the road traffic - that was keeping to the left - essentially blinding them to hazards approaching them from behind.
"In Melbourne the change took effect in 1925. But there was resistance, with traditionalists calling the new rule 'absurd', 'farcical' and 'pettifogging'. Too bad: it was law. Now Keep to the Left was stencilled on the surface of city footpaths, with a continuous white line painted down the middle so there could be no mistaking where the left side became right (or wrong)." Page 237
Pettifogging means placing undue emphasis on petty or trivial details (thanks Google) and I found myself marvelling that white lines were ever drawn on the footpath to indicate a mandatory direction for pedestrians. That is, until I remembered the white lines and circles that appeared on pavements and floors during the pandemic telling us all where to stand and queue. It's interesting how some things change and others stay the same.

Overall, the material contained within Corners of Melbourne was thoughtfully collated and gave me a sense of what I might encounter walking the early streets of Melbourne as it was expanding and developing into the city I now call home.

Recommended for history buffs and those with a non fiction interest in urban planning, social history, architecture or economic development. You can check out the first 72 pages for free on the publisher's website.

For more, you can also check out my review of Adrift in Melbourne by Robyn Annear.

My Rating:

17 November 2023

Review: The Armour of Light by Ken Follett

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett book cover

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett is a 700+ page novel, but if you're concerned it'll be a slow burn or you'll have to suffer through a slow start, fear not. As always, bestselling author Ken Follett drags the reader into the lives of his characters by the scruff of the neck, whether they've made the commitment to invest the requisite time with him or not.

But this is historical fiction I hear you cry, not a thriller. How does he do that? Well, how's this for an opening line?
"Until that day, Sal Clitheroe had never heard her husband scream." Page 3
Okay, I'm in! The opening line introduces us to Sal Clitheroe and we become immediately invested in her plight and that of her husband and family. It's 1792, the focus soon widens and we begin to meet more characters from a range of backgrounds from the town who will go on to tell this story. Some are friends, some are foes and they all have their faults, but together a relatable history of the period begins to form in the reader's mind.

Set in Kingsbridge, England during the Napoleonic Wars, I'll admit to being surprised at the date we pick up the thread again. I wanted to return to the moment soon after the events of The Evening and the Morning and the naming of Kingsbridge which gave me a very pleasant gasp of recognition that left me wanting more.

That said, The Evening and the Morning was actually the prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, however The Armour of Light is the 5th novel in the series and chronologically follows on more than a century after A Column of Fire*.

In The Armour of Light, we return to Kingsbridge 150 (or so) years after those events and during the industrial revolution.* The characters in Kingsbridge are struggling with the introduction of machinery to the local mills, which causes unrest amongst the workers.

Meanwhile, I learned about press gangs for the first time and didn't know that men could be kidnapped or tricked and captured, later waking up on a ship.
"Britain was in constant need of men for the navy. The militia, the home defence force, had no shortage, for it had the power to conscript men whether they liked it or not. There was no conscription into the regular army, but poverty-stricken Ireland supplied about a third of army recruits and the criminal courts accounted for most of the rest... So the biggest problem was the navy, which kept the seas free for British trade." Page 427
"In England, teams called press gangs kidnapped, or 'impressed', able-bodied men in coastal towns, took them aboard ships, and kept them tied up until they were miles from land. The system was hated, and often led to rioting." Page 427
I don't recall this ever coming up in the historical fiction I've read until now, but I could be mistaken. It seems preposterous, doesn't it? That you could drop into your local tavern for a beer and be kidnapped and forced into service, unable to alert your family or provide for them and this plays out in the book.

As in previous work, Follett's depth of research is supported by excellent writing, with the occasional line that made me smile for the sheer joy of it:
"The two men set off again. Willard House was on the market square. The irritatingly officious Sergeant Beach was on duty in the hall, and after a token display of reluctance he showed them in to Donaldson." Page 552
I love the 'token display of reluctance' and seeing this kind of detailed observation on the page is always an unexpected delight. Other than commencing close to two centuries later than I expected, The Armour of Light by Ken Follett delivered on every other hope and expectation. I came to care about the plight and wellbeing of the millworkers and villagers as well as the success of the town, all while understanding that the challenges faced in the industrial revolution were only going to increase.

Follett is able to distil the events of history and make them relatable through the impact to his characters, and I'm now feeling a little more informed about the Napoleonic wars and can't wait to see the release of Napoleon here in Australia later this month.

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett was my most highly anticipated title for 2023 and I can highly recommend it for readers of historical fiction.

* Here's a look at the Kingsbridge series of books in the order you should read them, and the time periods they cover:
Book #0 The Evening and the Morning 997AD - 1007AD
Book #1 The Pillars of the Earth 1135 - 1174
Book #2 World Without End 1327 - 1361
Book #3 A Column of Fire 1558 - 1606
Book #4 The Armour of Light 1792 - 1824

My Rating:

08 November 2023

Review: What Lies Beneath by Peter Faulding

What Lies Beneath by Peter Faulding audiobook cover

Peter Faulding has had a stellar career, and in What Lies Beneath - My Life as a Forensic Search and Rescue Expert I was looking forward to reading all about it. Why the one star rating? I'll get to that.

Faulding grew up in England, caving and exploring mines with his Dad from a very young age, and this went on to form the early beginnings of an impressive career in search and rescue. Becoming more adept at exploring, charting and shoring up mines and tunnels, Peter and his Dad became known by the local fire and rescue squad, volunteering their time when a novice caver was lost or needed rescuing. This knowledge was soon sought after by the UK Search & Rescue Teams (UKSART) and Faulding's career took off, despite never specifically qualifying or following the traditional hiring process.

Faulding served in the military for six years as a military parachutist, and left seemingly to expand his search and rescue business, Specialist Group International (SGI). His interest in developing his own capabilities and skill set led him to become a qualified diver and his searches then expanded to include drownings and body retrievals.

Faulding is an unapologetic high achiever, however his attitude started to tick me off. On locating the body of a man who had drowned, Faulding overheard distraught loved ones discussing the idea of raising funds for the victim's family. The deceased had fallen out of a boat and subsequently drowned, allegedly because he wasn't wearing a life vest. Faulding is tired of attending senseless drownings and approaches the family. He tells them he couldn't help overhearing, but if loved ones wanted to raise some money for the family, perhaps some of it could be spent on life vests for their boat. Well intentioned, sure, but definitely not the time or place for this unsolicited 'advice'.

In Chapter 6, just as he says he: "felt an acute sense of responsibility to conduct the job that we had to do with sensitivity and dignity." Faulding later remarks, "I remember being surprised at how quickly the flies found him." Ummm, what? The author makes this same observation about flies finding the bodies several times and I found it inappropriate and disrespectful to the victims and their loved ones.

Faulding's business SGI is engaged to remove protestors who have tunnelled below the proposed site of a bypass, and 'locked on'. The extent to which environmental protestors in England go in order to disrupt a development, or halt a bypass was eye opening. Staying underground for days at a time, and often dangerously cementing themselves and locking each other to obstacles to slow down the rescue process. In many cases, protestors needed to be cut free from some nasty obstacles and many remained locked-on for days on end, relying on the rescuers for nourishment.

These confined space rescues made me squirm with secondary claustrophobia, but other than telling us protestors left bags of their excrement for rescuers every day, he doesn't really describe what it's like to have to lay on top of a person in order to free them from their lock-in. Faulding seems to respect the ingenuity and dedication of the protestors while reminding the reader how lucrative the work is. He makes sure to mention that for this job he went and purchased some quad bikes, and for this rescue a few vehicles, or a soft top Aston Martin DB7 Vantage Volante to celebrate a month long project. Spare me!

The cases of freeing environmental protestors at various sites became quite repetitive and seemed to blur into one another. The only relief came when the author bragged about purchasing another cutting edge piece of equipment that nobody else was using in the UK at the time.

It seems Faulding regularly travelled in search of emerging technology, expanding into ground penetrating radar, underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and more, being sure to tell us the price tags along the way. Faulding's team were now being hired to search areas for human remains, giving rise to a few chapters on true crime and helping law enforcement. Even here Faulding's arrogance shines through.

Using his years of experience of tunnels and sediment, Faulding began to develop a 'sixth sense' (my words, not his) about where human remains were likely to be found. He mentions a few well known cases, and one in particular when a detective told him an area had already been searched and wouldn't allow SGI to search it again. Reflecting on news the body was later found in that area, Faulding takes the trouble to point out that if he'd been able to search where he wanted to, the family would have been spared years of anguish.

It's not the first time Faulding clashes with SIOs or members of the Police. His expertise becomes so specialised that he's contacted by all levels of government, and I'm not even joking when he says some of them are highly confidential so he can't mention them.
"I had contacts in so many agencies by now, some of which were highly confidential so I cannot mention them. But if something needed to be searched, we were the first port of call." Chapter 9
Did you hear that? That was the sound of my eyes rolling back into my head and squelching back down. In his words:
"Every stone needs to be overturned, every hunch followed, and every piece of information followed up on. I made sure I went into every job with an open mind and a commitment to see it through, for as long as it took until I could be confident that I had searched everywhere. Of course it was disappointing when I couldn't find anything, but at least I could console myself with the knowledge that I didn't find anything because there was nothing there. Not because I hadn't looked hard enough." Chapter 11
If you're still thinking to yourself, 'well, that's not too arrogant, where's the harm in being confident about your work?'
"Often the range of call outs we were engaged in swung from the sublime to the ridiculous. I was highly regarded and my work was appreciated. I had skills that were valuable, I could search underwater, under buildings, in drains and tunnels, I could climb buildings, look in gutters. I was useful, a problem solver, a search Swiss Army knife." Chapter 11
Peter Faulding comes across as competent, knowledgable and an expert in his field, whilst also being disrespectful, condescending and arrogant. I wonder if some of this arrogance would have been written out if he'd worked with a ghost writer or a biographer.

Waiting at a scene for a Doctor to declare a deceased and mummified victim's remains, the author recounts the following interaction:
"A young Doctor turned up about an hour later. She had a stethoscope around her neck. 'Where is he?' she asked as she walked through the front door. 'I'll show you' I said, leading her to the garage, 'you won't be needing the stethoscope'. 'I'll make that judgement' she said curtly. We arrived in front of the body bag, and I crouched down and looked up at her. 'Are you ready with your stethoscope?' I asked. I then unzipped the bag, and opened it up. She recoiled slightly at the sight, she was not amused." Chapter 16
We've all worked with people like this and they're far from funny. When proactively engaged in flood rescue, Faulding warns authorities that the river is going to burst its banks, but the experts disagree. The river floods and the author can't resist an 'I told you so', crowing:
"I'd never seen anything like it, I had predicted it was going to happen, but no one would believe me, and that was the disappointing bit. We rely on computer models for everything, but unfortunately they are not always right." Chapter 18
And he is? Again, spare me! The author rails against figures in authority who wouldn't, couldn't or didn't listen to his advice and there are plenty of instances in this memoir of 'I told you so', or 'if you'd listened to me....'. In fact, in the case of Nicola Bulley, best summed up in this article from The Guardian, ‘She’s not in the river’: diving expert in Nicola Bulley case under the spotlight, Faulding even goes so far as to engage in some obvious point scoring.

There is very little in the memoir about the author's personal life or any internal growth shared. The fact that a protestor by the name of Swampy receives more air time in this memoir than his first wife Mandy and their two daughters, came across as insensitive and unfeeling. Short shrift was given to their eventual separation, which didn't come as a surprise to the reader after countless mentions of family holidays abandoned. The author spends many weeks and sometimes months away from family on rescue missions; searching crime scenes; or purchasing, testing and learning how to use new equipment. He even devotes time away from family to get his helicopter and fixed wing pilot's licences in the UK and the USA. I mean, come on this guy!

Just when you think there can't be any more, the author enlightens us about 'his' plan for a nation wide water safety scheme, where schools can loan out life jackets like a library book. Working with others, generous crowdfunding and more, he makes sure to look the hero as he tells us:
"In my own time, and at my own expense, I delivered the lifejackets to schools in my helicopter all over the UK." Chapter 20
If my loved one were ever missing, Peter Faulding is the man I'd want searching. It seems to me that he's top of his field, but 'what lies beneath' is an arrogant man with a rather large ego.

My Rating:

05 November 2023

Review: Maphead by Ken Jennings

Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings book cover

Maps are such a big part of our lives, I'm surprised I haven't read into the topic before now. I'm old enough to remember planning a journey with a road atlas or referring to handwritten directions, but I look at maps far more often now with GPS and Google Maps than I ever did before. In Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Ken Jennings is the ultimate tour guide.

Early on, he starts with some basics about different kinds of maps, like this one:
"Hypsometric maps are those ones that represent terrain with vivid colours: greens for low elevations, browns and purples for high ones. 
I preferred the clean political maps that Hammond and National Geographic published, where cities and towns stood out neatly on lightly shaded territory and borders were delineated in crisp pastels. In fact, I dislike hypsometric maps to this day." Page 6
I wasn't a fan of hypsometric maps when I was in Defence standing in the bush with a compass in my hand, but I do love an informative choropleth map, especially during elections:
"'Choropleth' maps - those in which areas are colored differently to represent different values on some scale, like the red-and-blue maps on election night - date back only to 1826." Page 8
Jennings is the knowledgeable navigator in the passenger seat on this journey, and as you drive through the pages and chapters, he readily provides all manner of info about geonerds and their love of maps. If you enjoy learning quirky facts in quick succession, this is for you. Example, did you know that 'cartacacoethes' is the uncontrollable compulsion to see maps everywhere?
Puddle in the shape of map of Australia

The puddle that looks like a perfect map of Australia immediately springs to mind, as does my remark last night that the protein (pork schnitzel) looked like the shape of Africa.

When the allies were planning the 1944 invasion at Normandy, there were extraordinary contributions made my mapmakers who had stolen across the English Channel by night for many months to map the coastline. Furthermore:
"In 1942, the BBC asked its listeners to send in prewar postcards and holiday snaps from the beaches of Europe. Seven million poured in, showing coastlines from Norway to the Pyrenees, and they were used to select Normandy as the site of the initial landing." Page 59
Despite a reasonable knowledge of military history, this was completely new to me. It seems unheard of, until you remember a similar call out by more recent governments: 'if you see something say something' and the images submitted post 9/11.

I was happy to see Humpty Doo (Northern Territory) get a mention in the section about place names and toponymists, as the author tells us he's been an enthusisastic toponymist - a student of place-names - for as long as he's loved maps. We then move on to the market for collectors of ancient maps and globes for display purposes that stretches as far back as the Renaissance:
"This was a watershed moment in the history of cartophilia. For thousands of years, people had drawn maps because they had to: to get from one place to another, or locate taxpayers, or mark the boundaries of fields and pastures. If not for those maps, lives or property would be lost, governments might fall. But here, for the first time, we have evidence of people keeping maps just because they liked looking at them." Page 99
Here Jennings mentions several figures from history - like John Dee, Samuel Pepys - who loved collecting and viewing maps, including Vermeer who reproduced maps in the backgrounds of more than a quarter of his paintings.

For readers who would rather leave history in the past, the section on maps in fantasy fiction was illuminating. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, David Eddings are mentioned, but it was the detail about Brandon Sanderson's maps that held my attention the longest. The author and Sanderson were college roommates, so he offers quite an insight.
"The hallmark of epic fantasy is immersion," says the best-selling genre writer Brandon Sanderson. "That's why I've always included maps in my books. I believe the map prepares your mind to experience the wonder, to say, 'I am going to a new place.'" Page 113
Jennings weighs in on the 'map gap' between the genders, and he made some convincing arguments:
"Tests on gender and navigation have found that women tend to navigate via landmarks ("I turn left when I get to the gas station") whereas men use dead reckoning ("I still need to be north and maybe a little west of here"), which ties in nicely with the evolutionary perspective: early men went out on hunting expeditions in all directions and always needed to be good at finding their way back to the cave, developing their "kinesic memory," while women foraged for edibles closer to home, developing "object location memory." Simply put, men got better at finding places, while women got better at finding things." Page 139-140
I'm also guilty of setting my map preference to 'forward is up', while my husband prefers the 'north is up' orientation which totally messes with my mind when I'm forced to use it.

The section on systematic travel was fascinating, and the first person who came to mind was Matt Harding, whose Where the Hell is Matt? series went viral in the 2000s. Some systematic travellers aim to visit every country in the world, perhaps every capital city, every state in the USA, the most northern/southern/eastern/western tip of a landmass. But how about ticking off the junction of state borders, or the highest mountains on every continent? The sky is the limit, and while I think I'd find the concept stressful, ticking off locations is high on the list for systematic travellers.

Just like twitchers and trainspotters, roadgeeks are the highway scholars of mapheads, and take photos of road signs to clock their routes.
"They can tell the difference between a Westinghouse streetlight and a GE one and are the only ones who notice when the lettering on interstate signage is switched over from Highway Gothic to the new Clearview font." Page 167
I don't know why, but I find this incredibly reassuring and even comforting. Perhaps knowing there are people in the world who pursue these particular interests gives me a sense that in every field, no matter how specialised, there is an expert; someone who lives and breathes everything there is to know about that topic.

The chapter on geocaching had me checking for geocache locations near me and - just like the author - I was surprised to find one less than 500m from my front door! It only required a photograph to complete the find, so I wasn't tempted to sign up and start checking caches on the weekend, but I'll certainly look twice next time I see someone taking a selfie at that location. They could be a geocacher!

Maphead by Ken Jennings is endlessly fascinating, and while I've been lucky enough to experience the thrill of watching the numbers tick over on the GPS when crossing the equator, did you know that confluence hunting is a thing?
"The Degree Confluence Project was started in 1996 by a Massachusetts Web programmer named Alex Jarrett, a new GPS owner who noticed that his commute happened to take him across the nearby seventy-second meridian twice a day." Page 237
Jennings tells us that no spot on Earth is more than 49 miles from one of these points of 'cartographic perfection' and there are 16,340 confluence points worldwide. Can you imagine? Maybe you've been lucky enough to visit a location (US has a few) where you can stand right at the spot where 3 or 4 states come together. Perhaps you just give a hoot when you cross from NSW to VIC in your car, but for a confluence hunter this is small fry.

I can see this review is getting long, and I haven't even begun to touch on all of the Google Earth and street view stuff! In reading Maphead and learning why so many people are cartographically cloddish, I'm convinced Geography needs to re-enter the curriculum of the day. 

If you suspect you'll need to look up images of maps while reading this, you're spot on, so have your device at the ready. Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings is an absolutely fascinating read and I'll be sorry to return it to the library. 

Highly recommended!

My Rating: