Bright Particular Stars by David McKie
One of the things I love about OH is his unfailing ability to find me unusual and interesting books – in fact, it was owing to his relating a recommendation from a work colleague many decades ago that I first read Italo Calvino! He (OH, that is) came up trumps at Christmas time as well, by presented me with this intriguing-sounding book that turned out to be an excellent read.
“Bright Particular Stars” is a collection of 26 chapters, each containing the tale of a Great British Eccentric and the Place They Were Attached To – or something along those lines! Author David McKie is a former Guardian editor and obviously has a love of Great Britain and some of the individuals the nation has produced. So we get stories of people like G.F. Muntz who encouraged the cult of the bushy beard to great effect during the reign of Queen Victoria (an attempt to establish masculinity under a female monarch, apparently!); Garibaldi’s visit to the UK which was perceived as a danger to the nation because of the support he had from the working classes; and Victorian bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps who nurtured dreams of possessing every book in the world:
Don Juan in pursuit of some ravishing beauty was a model of self-denial compared with Sir Thomas on the trail of some lusted-for book or manuscript. The word bibliophile fell hopelessly short of describing his condition. Some called him a bibliomaniac. Sir Thomas himself went further. He described his disease as ‘vello-mania’, since manuscripts and every kind of original document were a part of his addiction too. He could never resist a purchase.
I kind of know how he felt…. 🙂
However, I have to say that I thought the description of the book as a “Gallery of Glorious Eccentrics” was in fact a little misleading, and didn’t actually do the book justice. There are some quite dark stories here, like the one about the factory children of Tideswell and the dreadful privations they suffered; and the rather strange religion of the Jezreels in Gillngham.
As well as the crazies and the cruelties, there are also some really inspiring stories of those who’ve gone the extra mile to improve things for their fellow human beings, like Mary Macarthur, a trade unionist who fought to improve the lot of woman chain-makers; and Adelaide Proctor who helped women train as typesetters. Then, of course, there are the out-and-out eccentrics, like Peter Warlock, known to ride naked round the village of Eynsford on a motorbike…
This was such an enjoyable read! I confess to being a bit of a fan of programmes like “Coast”, full of bite-sized, informative pieces about places round the UK and in some ways this was like a book version of that! McKie certainly knows his stuff, and there were some quite moving moments while he was visiting the places in his essays and reflecting on the history and events that had taken place there. The piece on Scottish self-taught geologist and writer Hugh Miller was particularly effective.
“Bright Particular Stars” is a wonderfully dippable, very entertaining read and was a great joy to read during dark and dull January nights. Another winner from OH! 🙂