Don’t lick the wallpaper…

… good general life advice you might think, but in Victorian Britain’s arsenic-imbued green-wallpapered rooms it could literally save your life to hold your tongue. Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley is a beautifully designed book (just like those luscious wallpapers) with death at its heart. The Victorians (of a certain, moneyed class) never met a new, vibrant colour that they didn’t like, or immediately apply to their households and themselves. Meanwhile the other classes, made (in atrocious conditions, no need to lick anything, just breathe the air around you) and sold the goods that were so desired – and so deadly.
Scheele’s green and schweinfurt green, pigments created using arsenic, were used to produce the startling green wallpapers that became immensely popular. Designers and manufacturers (William Morris described the ridiculous fears of those worried about the worrying papers as the ramblings of those “bitten by witch fever”) were dismissive of the potentially fatal effects of covering your walls with arsenic-imbued paper (cigarette companies anyone?). Heating rooms with fire and gas is thought to have created a miasma of the awful compounds: it wasn’t the tight lacing of corsets that made Victorian maidens swoon, it was dancing in clouds of nasty contaminated air.
One of the theories about why Napoleon died when he did, is that he was poisoned by his fashionable Scheele’s green wallpaper in his lonely St Helena bedroom, as he sat out his final exile. Mind you, arsenic was everywhere: in bread – an excellent whitener, eaten as a medicine, used in quantities to rid houses of vermin. A number of the big Victorian poisoning murder trials hinged on trying to prove that the victim hadn’t just ingested the fatal dose just going about everyday life – a lot of the time, looking back at the evidence presented, it is fifty-fifty if evil or stupidity was afoot. We can thank the prevalence of the use of arsenic in all sorts of industrial processes, and the manufacturers’ refusal to not use it, for the introduction of regulations and laws protecting consumers and workers from the ill-effects of using ingredients and chemicals that can injure and kill you really, really easily.

The book it very beautiful, with is lovely green cover, the text is on pages sliced in half vertically, nestling between breathtaking images of wallpapers on full size pages. These are so lively and stunning and exquisite – that you can see why people wanted them on their walls despite the danger – a bit like eating fugu, for the frisson of dancing with death and a slightly numb tongue. Best all round really, to keep your tongue in your cheek.


A Game of Thrones…

Have to say, fiction and TV have nothing, nothing, on the Romanov dynasty. Struggling to hold on to their God-given Russian throne this family is as mad as cut snakes – but you know, in a dynastic, glorious, utterly cruel, unusually large way that warrants 784 pages of startling and absorbing history. A little more mad than the usual moments of madness every family has, when a Romanov sibling is jealous or mildly annoyed with another, heads get cut off (after some seriously horrible torture) as opposed to just thumping them and telling on them to Mum. In this family, sometimes Mum holds the axe.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs is a masterly history of the family and Russia. The autocratic family and its storied scions, like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, ruled Russia and its empire in a stew of murderous ambition, nationalistic over-identification, Gormenghastian-like rituals, clever but sometimes very stupid, political machinations, sycophantic, fanatic and terrified courtiers, and personal charisma – or lack of it – all underpinned by an absolute, unquestioned belief in their God-appointed right and duty to rule and an aristocracy that depended on the crown for land and serfs. Those that gained the throne through political savvy and luck often ended up exibiting seriously questionable mental health by the end of their tenure. Monetefiore identifies the stress of the pretty much impossible role of the tsar with all its absolute power (and we all know what that does to a person) and the fact that the thing that topples tsars is instability and being perceived at capricious. You can be as sadistic and scary as you like but you need to be so consistently. Unfortunately the world changes which requires new thinking and approaches – just what the last of the line, the ill-fated last tsar, Nicholas II, had been bred to avoid.

Montefiore is such a good writer and has amassed a staggering body of research. He revels in all the madness and glory, and shows how the family is Russia. This is just a great read, fascinating, repellent, thoughtful and revealing. It explains a lot about the Russia that has developed since the Romanovs fell. Montefiore invites you to wonder and shudder at the excesses and appreciate just how magnificent the successful (in the sense of waging wars they won, destroying all internal threats, improving Russia’s standing in the world) tsars were. I particularly enjoyed all the Russian names, rolling over you like a tidal wave like they do when reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, sometimes you lose track of who is who and when it is all happening as the names, and many of the nasty deeds, repeat through the centuries and generations.


Life and death

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer is by Kate Summerscale who wrote the equally fascinating and much-awarded The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House.

Wicked Boy

In this book, Summerscale investigates the true tale of two brothers, Robert Coombes, thirteen and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, who went on a spending spree in the hot London summer of 1895. They ate out, went to the cricket at Lord’s, and the theater, and pawned various household items. Their father, they said, had gone to sea, their mother had been called away to Liverpool; the boys were looking after themselves. Until an awful smell drifted from their small East End house and the whole creaky edifice of fantasy and lies came down with a thump. Summerscale’s tracing of what happens next is masterly – what she finds is surprising and unexpected. As in Suspicions, there is much that is Whicherunknown about motives but again, there are enough hints about family tensions, sibling loyalties and issues of protection and care to raise some really interesting questions. I like the way Summerscale raises the questions, suggest a possible answer or two but doesn’t try to be definitive or defend a theory, just lets the various versions of the facts (contemporary newspapers and court records providing rich pickings of these) float around with the probable and possible.
Fascinating reading, clever and careful research, clear and elegantly simple writing and a real-life ending that is oddly moving – this is an excellent read.

And I try hard not to talk about books that are not published yet, but can I just say, I finished an advance copy of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (due in June) last night, all 700+ pages of the life, death and times of two families from the late 1600s to 2013, and the timber they love and exploit. It starts with Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two Frenchmen who go to work the great forests of New France in what becomes Canada. There are stunning passages about the New Zealand Kauri forests and I love the stark and beautiful cover. Her writing is so good, I am slightly jealous you have it ahead of you – do make sure you read it, I bet it will get a trophy case of prizes!



Timeline: A Visual History of Our World by Peter Goes is a magnificent book, perfect for inquisitive kids and design-minded adults. It does what it says on the cover but very beautifully and cleverly. Using just enough text and imaginative drawings Goes explores the end of the dinosaurs, the Incas, the European Dark Ages, the Second World Unpleasantness, Space Travel, the 1960s, up to the 2010s, teasing out the big themes that shape world history. The paper stock is a lovely heavy cartridge, which adds to the sense that this is a very special book.

Chasing the tale…

Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City by Mark Adams is a curious tale, filled with an energetic mix of academics and amateur scholars, and spiced up with a few theoreticians from the wackier reaches of the internet and Atlantisology.

All that we actually know about the famous lost city that sunk beneath the waves after a cataclysmic earthquake is found in the work of Plato. He may be describing something that sort of actually happened in some form once (a city destroyed by an earthquake, a tidal wave, an eruption on an island), inventing a story to make a philosophical point, describing a technologically-advanced super civilisation founded by aliens, or he has been misquoted and mistranscribed for a couple of millennia and everyone has just been chasing their tails.

Actually, pretty much all the people Adams encounters are chasing their tails. Most of them do not agree on even where to start looking, and they positively (if we extend the tailed-thing metaphor a little further) pounce on anything, no matter how bizarre, that supports their own particular theories, while ripping each other’s prize exibits of truth to bits… One of the great things about Plato’s mix of accurate-sounding measurements and odd vagueness is that anything can be reduced to him either exaggerating or understating whatever the particular factor is. Which means you can say “He really meant this…” or  “That bit is just a metaphor, but this bit over here isn’t, because it matches this thing that I know/feel is what he meant”.

I think this is an arena for people who really, really like to argue. While they cannot win, neither can the other sides, as all base their arguments on facts and “facts” and deductions and guesses.
Which is sort of a win, if you know that you are actually right.

Adams is very interesting about why we want there to even be a lost city, what its lost-ness, and our hopes and dreams about its found-ness, mean. Adams also takes an interesting detour into philosophy in an attempt to explain the context of the original tale, and explores Plato’s ideas, and the philosophical tricks he plays, and the techniques he is using to see why he might have spun this tale/reported the truth.
You can choose which is the correct end of that sentence, just like you can choose which Atlantis theory is the right one, which is the fun thing about the whole endeavour which has gobbled millions of dollars and much human energy over the years.

The ur-Atlantis story hovers out there, perfect, sublime, almost one could say, platonically.

Great Lives, Better Obits!

A good obituary is a joy to read and the ones that appear in The Telegraph are usually just that: famous, infamous, peculiar, witty, tragic, heroic and just interesting lives are written up with brio, blunt honesty, fantastic style and an appreciation of the human condition and what we make of it. The first paragraphs in particular are toe-curlingly good.

The new collection Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer: An Anthology of Great Lives in 365 Days is just the ticket when you need a little something to trawl through to lighten your other reading, a few pages a day will set you up – and gives you lots of things to tell other people. Just fantastic as a gift for almost anyone, here are three of my favourites:

The 3rd Lord Moynihan, who has died in Manila aged 55, provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle. His chief occupations were bongo-drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer, but ‘Tony’ Moynihan also claimed other areas of expertise – as ‘professional negotiator’, ‘international diplomatic courier’, ‘currency manipulator’ and ‘authority on rock and roll’…”  as well as the supremely understated oddity of:
Frank Shackleton-Fergus, who has died aged 89, was the first man to X-ray a live duck-billed platypus...”
and the utterly intriguing
Jo Jo Laine, who died on Sunday aged 53 after falling down a flight of stairs, led a fast-paced life which bore witness to the dangers of too much beauty combined with an almost total lack of self-restraint…


Love your local…

Here is a smattering, nay, a plethora of books by local authors:
The Silver Gaucho by Jackie Ballantyne, Doby Press, $34.99: a surprising new novel ranging from Argentina to Dunedin and Otago. Dunedin’s Santa Parade features!
Oamaru: New Zealand’s Living Victorian Town ($49.99) and Peninsula: Exploring the Otago Peninsula (was$49.99 now $29.99) by Paul Sorrell & Graham
Warman, Penguin Books: Celebratory and informative, lovely to own and great gifts.
    Grahame Sydney: Paintings 1974-2014 from Craig Potton, $99.99; Deluxe Edition is $149.99: a major retrospective survey of paintings from Sydney’s 40-year career as an artist.
You Fit the Description: The Selected Poems of Peter Olds Cold Hub Press, $49.99: “In my mind’s bookshelf, this poet of the Dunedin I hold dear sits companionably between Baxter and Tuwhare.”  – Cilla McQueen.
MiStory by Philip Temple, Font Publishing, $34.99: both a dystopian thriller and a chilling warning, with believable characters who draw us into their (our??) story.
What Lies Beneath: A Memoir by Elspeth Sandys, Otago University Press, $34.99: a
searing, amusing, and never less than gripping tale of a difficult life, beautifully told.
Amisfield: Food and Wine from a Central Otago Winery Random House, $59.99: Fresh and sensational bistro food matched with gorgeous wines.
Kindness & Lies: Relationships That Make a Life by Lisa Scott, Bateman, $29.99: Funny, entertaining and thought-provoking insights into life’s pivotal relationships.
Reach by Laurence Fearnley, Penguin Books, $37.99: a brilliant novel about risk-taking and the ways in which creativity, struggle and danger empower individuals and enrich life.
Tuatara: Biology and Conservation of a Venerable Survivor by Alison Cree,
Canterbury University Press, $89.99: The evolution, natural history and conservation of
tuatara are covered in comprehensive detail in a style accessible to a wide readership.
Professor Penguin by Lloyd Spencer Davis, Random House, $39.99: a clever mix of scientific knowledge and anecdote, told with humour, hard-earned knowledge and insight.
Richard Seddon: King of God’s Own by Tom Brooking, Penguin Books, $64.99:
Premier from 1893 to his untimely death in 1906, Seddon held a clear vision for NZ; he was both the builder and the maintenance man – if not the architect – of our country.
Pewhairangi: Bay of Islands Missions and Maori 1814 to 1845 by Angela Middleton, Otago University Press, $49.99: the story of Ngapuhi and Pakeha engagement, as neighbours, over four decades, at Hohi, NZ’s first permanent European settlement.

We say, whether it is authors, books or bookshops: