Well, for some reason this book ‘At Home’ has been on my shelf for a long time now. I only picked it up recently because F. had read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. What had I been missing! It is terrific fun – like most, but not quite all, of his many books. What he does is take his own house, a lovely if cold Georgian rectory in Norfolk, and explore each of its rooms in turn. He looks at the history of that room and its occupants and how it came to be what it is today. Or rather that’s what he sets out to do. In reality, as he always does, he uses the theme as an excuse to explore anything and everything that strikes his interest. And what a roller coaster ride he takes us on. I don’t know what isn’t in here…the Ice Man, the causes of cholera, why forks have tines, string (‘the weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the Earth’, interesting vicars, a discussion of hydraulic cement which leads to a history of the Erie canal a note about the Duke of Marlborough, who was “said to be so cheap, he refused to dot his ‘I’s when he wrote, to save on ink”. Phew…what fact isn’t lurking at the back of his hamster brain? The thing is Bill Bryson doesn’t really tell us many if any new facts (we know most of what he says), and as the New York Times says it is almost as if he has written most of this in his pyjamas. However, it is the way he presents his facts, the little asides, the quirky approach that grabs us. If you wanted anyone to share a pint with for hours at a time, lots of pints, it would be Bill. More than 700 pages of sheer entertainment. Terrific. One of the Victorian masters-of-everything that Bryson found a lot of time for was Paxton, and that led me to purchase the best book about him that I could find…Kate Colquhoun’s ‘ A Thing In Disguise’.
I do love reading about the sort of Victorians who seemed able to turn their hand to anything and make a success of it. The sort who flogged themselves to an early death through prodigious overwork. The Brunels of this world. And I hadn’t realised that Paxton was one of them. Born to a farm labourer his first lucky break came when the Duke of Devonshire happened across him when a gardening apprentice and offered him the job of Superintendent at Chatsworth – in effect Head Gardener. Paxton was only 22 years old. he never looked back. Not from the moment when arriving at Chatsworth at half past four in the morning on the Comet Coach from London, and with nobody there, he scaled the walls and started exploring his domain. At six in the morning “I set the men to work..then returned to the House and got Thomas Weldon to play me the waterworks, and afterwards went to breakfast with (the housekeeper) poor dear Mrs Gregory and her niece. the latter fell in love with me and I with her, and thus completed my first morning’s work at Chatsworth before nine o’clock……” From this point onwards, the pace of his life increased.
What is truly astonishing is that the Duke and Paxton became real friends. the Duke once Paxton was established treated him almost, almost as an equal. Paxton, which is what made the Duke proud, made Chatsworth the centre of the horticultural universe, he was innovative in landscaping the grounds and building the whole estate into the magnificent ensemble it still is today. But how much more than a gardener Paxton became. He ended up controlling all the accounts at Chatsworth. He became designer and engineer and industrial strategist. He of course was responsible for the building of the Crystal Palace for The Great Exhibition He was individually responsible for sending a huge corps of labours, mostly Irish navvies, to the Crimea to build transport and logistics systems for the Army and erect flat-pack housing and hospitals which he designed. He moved in exalted circles. He championed the railways. He designed and built houses for the Rosthchilds. He knew Victoria and Albert, and Disraeli and Gladstone and the Duke of Wellington on intimate terms. He became a household name. ‘Ask Paxton’ was the advice for anyone in any ind of difficulty. He founded magazines and newspapers. He designed public parks for everyone – the first in the world at Birkenhead. Here’s a small example of his breathless workload….“I arrived safe in London and lay down for two hours; then got up and began business. Our meeting on the Isle of Wight lasted for two hours. I had from one to two to go and see Cannon; at two we commenced upon the Southampton project which lasted til five. Without getting a morsel of food I started off again for Derby and from 8 in the morning until we arrived I had not ouched food nor even a glass of water…..Got to Derby about half past eleven where I found the Sheffield deputation waiting for me. We sat discussing things over until 3 in the morning. I had to be at breakfast at seven o’clock to be ready to start with the Midlands Directors to Gloucester and Bristol….” and so it goes on. It makes me exhausted just to read it. The men were superhuman. I do wish I had lived in Victorian times. I do wish we had such men (of whom there were many…) today. Some hope. A brilliant biography, immensely well researched and full of human interest.
Some light reading meanwhile. Ann Cleves’ ‘The Seagull’. If you’ve seen ‘Vera’ on TV you’ll know the characters. I must say this isn’t her most exciting outing. And to me it all sounded a bit implausible. However the characters were always of interest and so was the scenic background – Whitley Bay and Tynemouth which we know well and St Mary’s island which is the sort of island you might find in Famous Five, reached between tides by a short causeway. F. and I were virtually stranded on there one cold night when we were getting to know each other, and we just made it back to the mainland through rising waters. I suppose we were lucky not to have been swept away looking back on it. If you know somewhere it’s always a bit of an adventure seeing the spots you recognise in a novel and how they have been renamed or otherwise transformed. Having said all of that, I did stay with it to the end……
…..which is more than can be said for ‘Bleak House’ which I attempted at last and persevered with for a long time. However I gave up on it after a dozen chapters. It was far too slow and Dickens is far too sentimental for me ( a person who often tears up with sporting occasions or much else! ). I know it was published in instalments but you certainly get the impression Dickens was stringing it out for all it was worth. I love Dickens as a man and find him fascinating. He was a friend of Paxton for goodness sake. And he did a lot of good. If you want a really good read get hold of Claire Tomalin’s ‘Charles Dickens : A Life’ . It is one of the very best biographies of all time. Claire was good enough to come to Warwick and talk about it for us. We were honoured….she does hardly any events.
A book which was another excellent read for me, just published in paperback, is ‘Six Minutes In May : How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister’ by Nicholas Shakespeare. Using a lot of sources that are new, or surprisingly have been overlooked, Shakespeare moves from Britain’s disastrous battle in Norway, for which many blamed Churchill, on to the dramatic developments in Westminster that led to Churchill becoming Prime Minister. The Norway Campaign really was a disaster and largely of Churchill’s doing. “A second Gallipoli” was the phrase on many lips. “Considering the prominent part I played in these events,” Churchill conceded years later, “it was a miracle that I survived and maintained my position in public esteem.” The fact that he became PM out of the subsequent Commons debate, particularly when hardly anyone gave him a chance is frankly incredible. I am a great admirer of Churchill and am one who believes Gallipoli was worth the gamble…strategic lateral thinking of the sort aimed to avoid the continuing slaughter in the trenches, and which could well have succeeded, given better implementation by the Admirals and Generals involved who were frankly second-rate. But my eyes were opened by Shakespeare’s detailed analysis of Norway, and how incompetent Churchill proved. It really should have been Churchill who resigned in the first instance and not Chamberlain. And what might have happened then. Goodness knows. With all the analysis this book still reads like a novel – indeed it is as novelist that Shakespeare is known. But this book takes him into another league. Highly recommended.