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February 16 2017

Electronic Dreams by Tom Lean Ade gave 4 stars to Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer (Kindle Edition) by Tom Lean
I guess many of the people who pick up this book will be from the generation that lived through the period it describes in such glorious, extensive detail. Almost every page provokes that madeleine moment - "The school PET! Manic Miner! The Jupiter Ace...yeah, I didn't have one of those, thank god." Lean fulfils a valuable role by placing all these pleasant reminiscences in a proper chronology, showing how Britain's early lead in computing would be quickly lost to the US, and then partly revived with the advent of microcomputing in the late 70s, birthing the first generation that would be au fait with the computer and what's more, could waggle a joystick really fast to win at Daley Thompson's Decathlon (insert obvious metaphor for more traditional teenage pursuits). He captures some fascinating insights from the people at Sinclair, Acorn and Commodore who masterminded this accelerated technological evolution. In fact, if the book has a failing, it's the relative absence of the voice of those who merely bought and used these products at the time, rather than developing or programming them.

There are chapters on the BBC's Domesday project and the Prestel service, which are somewhat tangential but nevertheless interesting diversions. There's an excellent overview of the panoply of weird and wonderful product offerings from the initial boom (the "Mattel Aquarius", anyone?), but the most engrossing parts are obviously the accounts of the work done at Sinclair and Acorn to produce the first successful mass market systems in the UK. (If you know anything about these machines, you'll no doubt quibble that Lean is frustratingly glib in his coverage of their technical highlights, while others will probably feel he delves into too much detail - which probably suggests the text gets it about right. At least afterwards you'll know what a ULA does and why it was so critical in offering "something better at a lower price" with each new model.) And when you get through all that, there's a nice gallery of photos and screenshots to trigger fresh bouts of gentle nostalgia. Hey, smiling at the memory of a tiny leaping miner makes a change from grieving over the miner's strike.

Warmly recommended, to both those who were there (and who know the precise moment to hit BREAK during the loading screen) and those who only know software as something you download from an app store.
(For further 'Joysticks for goalposts'-style recollections, see my recent blog post.)
Ade shared a quote
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When I use a PC today I cannot understand why a machine with 1,000 times more processing power has a worse user response than the machine I was using in the late ’80s at Acorn,’ remarks Steve Furber. ‘Well, I do know why it is, but it still seems the wrong answer.Tom Lean

January 31 2017

Electronic Dreams by Tom Lean Ade is 74% done with <a href="/book/show/29081408-electronic-dreams">Electronic Dreams</a>.
Ade wrote: Racing through this now. Chapter on games a bit short on technical detail, which is what made them so innovative, although explaining the vagaries of the Spectrum's arcane display layout is probably beyond the call of duty. Amstrad passed me by, and thankfully I'd bailed on Sinclair by the time Sugar took them over. The Acorn Archimedes turned out to be much more significant than anyone realised at the time.

January 30 2017

The Railways by Simon Bradley Ade gave 5 stars to The Railways: Nation, Network and People (Paperback) by Simon Bradley
As I started in on this hefty tome, the feeling crept over me that I was, in fact, reading an expanded, more scholarly version of Brian Hollingsworth's classic The pleasures of railways: a journey by train through the delectable country of enthusiasm for railways, a slim paperback from 1983 that covers a similar breadth of railway minutiae and esoteric avenues of delight. Case in point: Bradley's chapter on sleeping cars is titled "And so to bed". Hollingsworth's is called "Sleeping in the Sleeper", but the last words of the proceeding chapter are... "And so to bed."

...OK, I can't prove the homage was consciously made, and it's an obvious choice of phrase in connection with the theme of sleep. Nor does the Hollingsworth book appear in the extensive list of sources at the rear of Bradley (but then, it never claimed to be an academic reference). But a similar gentle contentment in, and unhurried meandering through, the subject pervades both. Naturally, Bradley invests a good deal more research and rigorous citation in this more academic work, but he always remains readable and keeps an ear out for the telling detail or illuminating anecdote that brings the material to life. He's also pleasantly open to being opinionated on occasion - reference his warm words on the rewards of the dining car, and the regrettable inconsideration paid to the old BR design standards by modern carriages.

The book occasionally becomes bogged down in particular periods or byways - most of the first half focuses on the Victorian railway, with the excuse that it set general expectations, customs and practices for the entire industry over time (often through repeated hard lessons). My enthusiasm faltered marginally at these points, and I sometimes set it aside, but fortunately there was always another interesting tale or tangent on the next page. True, it's hard to view the state of Britain's railways today as anything other than a decline from their peak years, however much better they are operationally, technically or - on the concourses of the spruced-up London terminii - commercially. But this sad, sweet melancholy was built into the subject shortly after the first locomotive was scrapped, the first unsuccessful line abandoned or closed, the first halt shuttered due to changing traffic patterns. We briefly led the world in railways; now, we sell the rights to operate ours to the rest of the world, because we can't manage it ourselves.

This is as readable as the best works of popular history, and (I promise) of far wider interest and amusement than the average non-enthusiast may anticipate. Would it appeal to the 'railwayacs' as well? Possibly not the rivet-counters, who will undoubtedly spot several minor errors immediately and hence be driven to despair, but for those of a less zealous interest, it ought to be like a warm, comforting bath ("Reading and the Bath", as Brian Hollingsworth put it).

January 29 2017

January 15 2017

January 14 2017

Ade made a comment in the Postwar British history group:

A few relevant and interesting blogs:

Susannah Walker's always fascinating Quad Royal blog: http://vintageposterblog.com/
Theo Inglis's compendium of mid-century graphic design: http://midcenturymoderndesign.tumblr....
John Grindrod's Concretopia blog: http://dirtymodernscoundrel.blogspot....
Dr Matthew Cooper's British Contemporary History site: https://britishcontemporaryhistory.com/ (not recently updated but several relevant book reviews)

January 13 2017

A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt Ade gave 4 stars to A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt (Hardcover) by Jean Lucey Pratt
bookshelves: recent-british-history
I'm reminded sharply of a poignant vignette from An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines:

There were widows and spinsters so lonely that they could fill their teapots with tears. In 1958 the novelist John Braine described eating poached eggs on toast in a London tea shop. The middle-aged woman next to him, 'pale and drab in a skimpy cotton dress clinging to her scraggy body', wore no wedding ring. When she was young, he thought, 'some British general, breathing heavily, would have at last worked out the meaning of attrition and would have issued the order which deposited her future husband screaming on the barbed wire or drowning in the mud, and which left her, forty years later, eating a roll and butter and drinking a glass of orangeade, with dreadful slowness, alone in a London tea shop'.

Jean Pratt was part of this generation, one of the woman who came of age after WWI amid a scarcity of eligible bachelors, and was thus doomed to become the easily adopted and discarded mistress of the few inadequate available men during the following conflict. While she was never as woebegotten or underprivileged as the subject of the paragraph above, reading her desperate longings for a stable family home recorded in her journal reminds you of the lifelong penalty paid by these women for the brutishly foreshortened lives of their male peers.

The other theme of this deftly edited collection is her enduring attempts to make her way in the world mainly on her own resources. So Jean finds a little useful work during the war, but it soon comes to an end afterwards, and thereafter makes a concerted go at becoming a published author, to some but limited success, before settling for proprietorship of a village bookshop. Her first and, until now, only book is published in 1952, a biography of an 18th Century actress that, likely because of its niche subject, is soon remaindered. A couple of follow-ups are rejected and, despite her repeated declamations to her diary that she will remain true to her intentions, by the following decade she has abandoned the effort to focus on eking out a subsistence from her small business (a situation doubtless familiar to anyone who has ever harboured creative ambitions while holding down a day job to pay the bills). By the seventies, after coping with a late bout of depression, she has retrenched a little and, with the aid of some fortunate monetary gifts and small investments, is able to maintain the shop in more modest premises and achieve a comfortable standard of living until semi-retirement in 1980. A scant dozen remaining pages of entries mainly recording prosaic day-to-day matters sees her through to illness - cancer - until passing away in a nursing home in 1986. Although her contentment with her circumscribed lot is plain, and the struggles and inner torments present throughout the greater part of her life have long ceased, it feels a melancholy end (albeit not one of the worst), probably little different to a twilight that many of us are likely to experience. Is Jean therefore to be judged a failure by the standards of her earlier ambitions and desires? ("'You will never be happy - you want too much.' I see this now as meaning that I want more than I am capable of achieving.") The beauty of her diaries lies in proving not, that the smaller victories and overcome vicissitudes may amount to a credible legacy even if its main impact is limited to ones immediate acquaintances and neighbours, and that "you will never meet an ordinary person" for "the destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its 'stars'". Indeed, the existence of her diaries in this published form is a posthumous repudiation of any 'failure' on her part as an author - ultimately, they mark her time on this earth more effectively than any gravestone or memorial, and if there is sorrow that she was not to know this, there are at least hints that she was open to the possibility.

This is not a story with intense moments of drama, a wide sweep of events or marked changes in fortune, and it peters out quietly rather than coming to a definitively forthright conclusion. It will fascinate those seeking insight into the daily lives of ordinary people, or at least one representative individual, at home in Britain before, during and after the Second World War, but its coverage of background events is limited and even arguably beside the point. On a personal level, I would award it three-and-a-half stars for these reasons as they stand to satisfy me, but as a historical document and editorial achievement by Simon Garfield, it most probably deserves more.

July 10 2015

The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley
"SO MANY COUSINS FUCKING. SO MANY! "
Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson Ade gave 3 stars to Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (Paperback) by Virginia Nicholson
An interesting flypast of notable and typical Bohemian scenes, individuals and stories that tends to substitute an ongoing stream of illustrative anecdote for indepth analysis. Enthralling at times, an overpowering blur at others.

July 09 2015

July 08 2015

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 by J.B. Morrison Ade gave 2 stars to The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 (Paperback) by J.B. Morrison
A book that was just written, steadily, day after day, rather like Frank's extra ordinately quotidian life and rather than being actually plotted or considered or, y'know, given any point at all. It just bores on and on, and in the end it ends.

July 07 2015

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