By Richard Lofthouse
We start this month’s round-up of books crossing the Oxford Today desk with On Track, a slender volume by Paul Gittins (Exeter, 1964) that recasts the diaries of his great grandfather Henry Gittins, a ‘railway pioneer in Siam and Canada.’ These sorts of books are not always successful but I read this one enthralled: young man leaves Bristol, goes to North America, ends up in Manitoba. “With nothing else in view, we decided to go West, following the old advice ‘Go West, young man and grow up with the country,’” he explains.
That was in 1882, neither the beginning nor the end of settling the Wild West. He got as far as western Saskatchewan six weeks later and picked up railway work – to be his life’s work. The bulk of the book explains how he directed the first railways across Thailand and later Siam, but the book is enthralling because the diaries are so immediate. The mosquitoes bite; the coolies die; the jungle shrieks. The railways were but a slightly earlier technology-driven shrinkage of the world — call it globalization — now being continued by mobile phones and satellites. The 1880s were less humane and yet much more so than our own age, though. Cholera took people down in droves and their loved ones were not compensated, yet Gittins was presented with a silver tea service upon retirement, in a world where loyalty still meant something.
Next up is Effie Gray. Effie, also known as John Ruskin’s wife, was subsequently John Everett Millais’ lover and therefore a central, though ridiculously overlooked, character in the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. The book has evidently been launched in concertina with the film starring Dakota Fanning and Emma Thompson, even to the point of running the film credits across the back cover, which greatly cheapens the careful work done by author Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper (Merton, 1988). But the volume bulges with Victorian women, art and, remarkably, fifteen envelopes of never-before-seen correspondence. The results are spellbinding and beautifully pulled together by Cooper, so we are left with “the look on John Ruskin’s face as he falls in a haystack, or Everett’s voice as he reads Keats aloud one wet afternoon.”
I’m going to going to finish with a dash, moving fast to cover several titles of note. Bodleian Publishing has re-published William le Queux’ If England were Invaded, the book that feverishly imagined a German invasion of England several years before the Great War began in 1914. It’s pacy, and it tells you immediately that no one could imagine a trench; instead, it’s all about cavalry and Oxfordshire housewives being threatened by naughty huns. Then we have Chinua Achebe, Tributes and Reflections, edited by Nana Ayebia Clarke MBE (Regent’s Park) and James Currey (Wadham). This is a wonderful series of reflections on Africa’s greatest novelist, freshly written in the aftermath of his death last year, pulled together by two deeply distinguished editors and meriting its own review. Next, we have Men and Women of Australia! by Michael Fullilove, a speechmaker and former prime-ministerial adviser, a gathering of the finest Australian speeches delivered since Federation, deftly drawn together by a master of the trade. Changing pace, there is a cracking book called The Last Torpedo Flyers, by Arthur Aldridge, who quit Oxford like so many others to join the RAF at the age of 19, flew a simply unimaginable series of sorties sinking ships from the air, and remains alive today.
Accelerating to a conclusion, and with barely time to stop and look, I have just received Peter Levi Oxford Romantic, by Brigid Allen, herself an Oxonian historian and Oxford-based lexicographer; George Eliot and Money by Dermot Coleman, which looks utterly intriguing; and a brand new, groundbreaking translation of Anna Karenina by Oxford-based doyenne of Russian literature and music, Rosamund Bartlett. From a sprint, to a marathon of reading ahead.
Image by Jeremy Nelson under Creative Commons license.