I spent a lot of 2019 reading a variety of books with topics as eclectic as Victorian sailing ships, Nikola Tesla and the origin of conspiracies. In this blog I’ve picked the second four of my eight favourite of the year. You’ll find the first four here.
Erebus: the story of a ship by Michael Palin (2018)
Why would the story of a ship provide interesting reading? The controversy generated by the disappearance of Sir John Franklin and all his crew in the Erebus in 1848 in their attempt to find the North West Passage is a fascinating story.
It was deemed controversial because Victorian Britain, and especially Charles Dickens, could not accept James Rae’s account of his expedition to find the Erebus which showed that the stranded crew had starved to death after resorting to cannibalism. Michael Palin describes the controversy fully and comes down firmly on James Rae side.
But the Erebus voyage to the North West Passage is only the last third of the book. The main part is about James Ross’s impressive attempts to find the magnetic South Pole. It is an immensely readable and vivid account of the competence, ambition and bravery of Ross and his highly experienced crew travelling further south than predecessors and discovering the continent of Antarctica. And only by sail before the development of steam ships.
Michael Palin puts the stories in the context of Britain after the end of the war with Napoleon when the Navy no longer had a crucial role and was being severely cut back. He liberally adds his experiences, quips and witticisms.
A compelling book.
East West Street – On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philipe Sands (2016)
Not the most cheerfully titled Xmas present I have ever received. But probably the most powerful and compulsive reading I have experienced in years. Powerful because the subject of establishing international law of crimes against humanity and genocide is so important. Powerful because it recounts the individual first hand experiences of the principle characters. Powerful because of the sheer scale, sophistication and coldly calculated execution of the crimes. Powerful to me because, although my father was German but not Jewish, he was incarcerated in a reeducation camp in 1933 from which he escaped to the UK.
The book is compulsive reading because it reads like a detective story as the international lawyers dispute and thrash out new international law. Will the new laws enable the eight judges obtain a conviction at Nuremberg of Hermann Goring, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, plus 11 other leading Nazis?
The debate was fierce. Everyone was fearful of the difficulty of obtaining convictions if these new laws were flawed. The conclusion is the Nuremberg trials.
The demonstration of the impact of this book on me was that in May this year I had to visit Lviv in Ukraine to see the East West Street from where the characters in the book all originated and meet people who knew them.
Munich by Robert Harris (2017)
Neville Chamberlain is remembered as the Prime Minister duped by Hitler and returning in 1938 after the Munich meeting proclaiming “peace in our time”.
This book paints a very different picture. It is one of Chamberlain’s desparate efforts to avoid war and of massive public opinion supporting his endeavours, however forlorn. Moreover, the picture is of a German nation reluctantly being dragged into a war they did not want but they feared. And of Chamberlain successfully delaying the start of war from 1938 to 1940 – two years in which Britain could prepare.
It is recounted from the viewpoint of Hugh Legat, who was private secretary to Chamberlain and the English interpreter at the meeting, and Paul Hartman, who was Hitler’s interpreter. Legat and Hartman were friends who had known each other at Oxford. And to add twist to the plot, Hartman was a member of the anti-Hitler resistance.
Chamberlain comes across as a thoughtful and sincere man whose efforts at maintaining the peace were not only popular and desirable but essential in delaying the war.
Robert Harris lives up to the expectations of providing a fast-moving, thought-provoking and page-turning read.
The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century – Nikola Tesla, Forgotten Genius of Electricity by Robert Lomas (1999)
I have bought the Tesla car but I have also discovered a big hole in my education. I thought Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin and Edison were the originators of electricity. But Robert Lomas paints a very convincing picture that the man who gave electricity to the world was Nikola Tesla.
Robert Lomas describes in a very accessible way the principles underlying DC and AC power. Edison’s first attempts at electricity distribution needed power stations within a mile of their use because he could only safely transmit DC at low voltages for domestic use. Tesla developed the idea of generating electricity at low voltage and high current, transmitting at very high voltage and low current (so there is very little heating loss) and then transforming into low voltage in the home (to avoid electrocution) .
Subsequently Tesla developed the theory of resonance and frequency which underlies today’s seismology and led to the development of the electric circuit which is the basis of all radio and television sets we use today. Marconi then turned this idea into practice.
Since this book was written Elon Musk has brought Tesla back into the limelight.