I’m a Kindle virgin . . .

594587Robert Blincoe. Not, I suggest, a familiar name. Somewhat unusual, as well.

However, in the early decades of the 19th century, the story of Robert Blincoe was told in an 1828 memoir by Lancashire-born writer John Brown, which appeared as weekly instalments in a radical working class newspaper, The Lion. It was re-published in a widely-disseminated pamphlet in 1832.

Born illegitimate in London in the early 1790s, never knowing his parents, he entered a workhouse at the age of four, but by his sixth birthday had been ‘apprenticed’ far away in the Peak District of Derbyshire to a brutal cotton spinner, along with dozens of other workhouse or work’us children. An image of his twisted and deformed body appears on the cover of the 1832 pamphlet.

They toiled under the most appalling conditions, up to 18 hours a day, subsisting on the most meagre of meals, going to bed each night tired, cold and hungry. Working among the dusty and dangerous spinning mules, these children were subjected to savage beatings, and risked life and limb crawling among the machinery. It’s no surprise that many of these children did not survive beyond their teen years, if that long.

Robert Blincoe was different. Not only did he survive, but prospered, married Martha Simpson, and had three children, and the youngest, Robert Blincoe, Jr, graduated from Queen’s College, Cambridge University, and became a celebrated Anglican preacher in London. His middle child, Martha, married into the gentry, and it was in her house in Macclesfield, Cheshire that Robert Blincoe, Sr. died in 1860, just a year after his wife.

It took decades for the law to be enacted that prohibited the employment of children in factories, or even reduced the hours they (and adults) were permitted to work.

blincoeBlincoe’s story is both appalling and inspiring, and I’ve just finished reading an account of his life and times in a 2005 book by historian John Waller of Michigan State University. Waller suggests that celebrated novelist Charles Dickens based the character of Oliver Twist (in his second novel, published in 1837) on Robert Blincoe. Perhaps, or not maybe. In an interesting article published in The Guardian in 2005, Blincoe’s great-great-great grandson Nicholas Blincoe examines the case for this proposition. Dickens must have been aware of Blincoe’s story. He was a reporter in parliament, and the political campaign to reform working practices in mills and factories was current during this period of Dickens’s career.

dickensSo what has all this to do with Amazon Kindle? Well, Blincoe’s story and the possible Dickens connection has inspired me, given me the challenge even, to work my way through his 15 novels¹, most of which were originally published as weekly instalments in one publication or another.

So yesterday, I downloaded David Copperfield on to my wife’s Kindle (a gift from Hannah and Michael in 2015). This is the first time I have used a Kindle, and it takes a little getting used to. I much prefer the feel (and smell) of a book. But the Kindle is very convenient, I must admit.

David Copperfield was, apparently, Dickens’s favourite novel, but I’ve never read it. I am familiar with many of the novels and their campaigning themes, mainly through TV or films. However, it was quite common when I was in high school in the 1960s to have one of Dickens’s novel as the set text in the English Literature syllabus. Great Expectations appeared on the list quite a few times.

Among the best film and TV adaptations of Dickens’s work must surely figure the 1951 film Scrooge (starring Alastair Sim), based on A Christmas Carol (a short story published in 1843), and A Tale of Two Cities (1958) with Dirk Bogarde starring as Sydney Carton. One recent TV adaptation of Great Expectations (first broadcast in December 2011), starred Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, a slightly controversial casting but, in my opinion, an inspired one. Then from 26 December 2015, the BBC broadcast an innovative 20 episode series, Dickensian, based on the characters in his novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Anyway, I’ve set myself my own Dickensian challenge for 2017. Wish me luck!

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¹The novels (and other works) of Charles Dickens:
The Pickwick Papers – 1836
Oliver Twist – 1837
Nicholas Nickleby – 1838
The Old Curiosity Shop – 1840
Barnaby Rudge – 1841
Martin Chuzzlewit – 1843
Dombey and Son – 1846
David Copperfield – 1849
Bleak House – 1852
Hard Times – 1854
Little Dorrit – 1855
A Tale of Two Cities – 1859
Great Expectations – 1860
Our Mutual Friend – 1864
The Mystery of Edwin Drood – 1870

 

 

 

No longer screaming like a badger . . . thank goodness

I can hardly believe it. Today is exactly one year since I slipped on black ice and broke my leg. So how did things pan out over the subsequent 12 months?

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Enjoying a walk at nearby Hanbury Hall on my birthday in mid-November 2016, sans walking stick!

It all happened in the blink of an eye,  at 08:35 on Friday 8 January, and was taken to Redditch’s Alexandria Hospital, where I received excellent attention and treatment (in contrast apparently to this year in Worcestershire hospitals). Late on the following night, I had an operation to repair the displaced fracture in my right fibula, and strengthen the ankle. I was allowed home late on the following Monday afternoon.

Over the course of the next three months I made three more outpatient visits to the Alex, and had several physiotherapy sessions at the local  Princess of Wales community hospital here in Bromsgrove.

For a couple of months I was not allowed to put any weight on my leg whatsoever, and I spent all that time downstairs, sleeping on the sofa. Fortunately we have a downstairs toilet and washroom, and our kitchen was close by as well. I got around using a walking or Zimmer frame.

Once my third cast was removed and replaced with a support boot, I was able to get around using crutches, and started to get out and about on a short walk each day. Once the boot came off, at the end of March, I was given the all clear to drive once again. I had expected to be given some sort of certificate. All the surgeon said was that if felt confident and able to brake the car in an emergency (since that would use my damaged leg), then I could get behind the wheel again.

Freedom! And also to start walking more positively using a walking stick, which I used for the next eight months. Since mid-November, more or less, I have been stick-less, although I have occasionally resorted to my stick when I thought conditions outside might be a little precarious. Another fall is the last thing on my agenda!

It will still take time for my leg to heal ‘completely’. Actually I doubt it will ever get back to normal. Although it doesn’t swell as if did a few months back after every walk, it has felt quite heavy and uncomfortable; not really painful, but not entirely pain free. When I was having physiotherapy sessions last March I mentioned to my therapist that the scar tissue was itching quite fiercely, and persistently, almost like an allergic reaction. The surgeon had warned me that, in a minority of cases, there was sometimes an allergic reaction to the bone plate and screws and if it persisted, then the plate would have to be removed in another operation. But not for at least two years when the bones would be much stronger and healed. I began to fear that would also be my fate. The physiotherapist advised me to take some antihistamine tablets (for hay fever), so I consulted my local pharmacist. The tablets did the job, and quickly. Itching subsided. But there was a down side, which made me stop taking the tablets.

Within an hour of taking a tablet I fell into a deep depression which lasted about 24 hours. Talk about black dog. So I quickly decided to give those pills the heave-ho.

Anyway, one year on, I feel really quite optimistic about the progress made. If you have read my blog during 2016, you will have seen that I have not been constrained from travelling widely, to Germany, Italy (twice), France, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Australia as part of my genebanks consultancy, as well as the USA for our annual vacation with Hannah and family.

Now I’d also like to take this opportunity of thanking all those friends and colleagues who have followed my progress and wished me well. Much appreciated.

 

Please don’t mock The Donald – he’s such a sensitive boy

Just 18 days. It’s hard to imagine. In a little over two weeks someone who has demonstrated, by his own actions, that he is emotionally unstable and intellectually unfit will be sworn in as the 45th POTUS. And this following a general election that he won by a landslide . . . loss of almost 3 million votes.

I can’t remember anyone being elected to high office in recent decades who is as thin-skinned as President-elect Donald Trump who takes offence at any and all unfavourable commentaries as personal attacks.

I hope it intensifies, as it inevitably must.

The problem (or saving grace for the rest of us) is that The Donald is his own caricature: the hair, the hand gestures, the curl of the lip, the snarl. His inability to put more than a few coherent words together. Certainly I couldn’t say that I’ve ever heard him give a speech, as such. PEOTUS is not one of the 21st century’s orators. He’s obviously more comfortable on Twitter.

He’s not an attractive politician—the term ‘politician’ is a misrepresentation. As if the term ‘businessman’ better describes him, given what appears to have been a rather chequered life in business.

He’s not an attractive human being. Period.

I came across a link earlier to an article that one of my friends and former IRRI colleagues Ken McNally had posted on his Facebook page. A story on the Politicususa website reported an interview with incoming White House Press Secretary and Communications Director, Sean Spicer, who implored the American people not to mock Donald Trump.

There’s more of that to come, particularly from the political cartoonists, who are already having a Trump field day. You only have to type ‘Trump cartoons‘ in Google to find this wealth of criticism and ridicule that The Donald and his cohorts must be finding rather uncomfortable right now. Just look at what the cartoonists did to Richard Nixon before and after the Watergate scandal was revealed, as I blogged about in 2013.

And it doesn’t take much to ridicule The Donald. Just listen to the Dalai Lama of all people putting in his two cents worth.

 

Trump is a typical bully – ever ready to attack his so-called ‘enemies’. But he doesn’t like it when the tables are turned.

Does Trump have small fingers? He was particularly sensitive about this during the election campaign. Small or big fingers, it doesn’t really matter when that finger is on the nuclear button. That’s not something to laugh about.

Post-truth is the new kid on the block . . .

glass-of-water1 January 2017. The dawn of a New Year. Will 2017 be a year full of promise? Maybe. Surely it can’t be any worse than 2016. I don’t make New Year resolutions; never have. Seems like a pointless exercise to me. Talking of exercise, though, I could probably do to lose a few pounds after the Christmas ‘excesses’.

I count myself an optimist. Just my nature. My glass is almost always half full.

However, things might really start to go pear-shaped on 20 January when a narcissistic, bullying, mendacious misogynist takes the oath of office to become the 45th POTUS. Yes, The Donald looks set to turn things upside down, and maybe run the USA as an extension of his ‘(shaky) business empire’. A conflict of interest? Not according to his transition team.

Just last night, Trump held a party at his Florida resort. According to an article in The Guardian today: The party, for which invitations cost up to $575, has attracted criticism regarding potential conflicts of interest and the alleged selling of access to the president-elect and his family. 

‘The transition is not concerned about the appearance of a conflict,’ said spokeswoman Hope Hicks in a call with reporters on Friday. ‘This is an annual celebratory event at the private club, like others that have continued to occur since the election. 

‘Additionally, the president cannot and does not have a conflict.’

Very worrying, but surely we have seen this coming for many months. And it looks like policy (if The Donald actually has any) and diplomacy could be formulated or conducted through Twitter. We’ll probably have to become accustomed to comments or gut reactions on Twitter by the POTUS at 2 am. Unless someone confiscates his smartphone.

Is the use of a personal smartphone by the POTUS the same as a former Secretary of State using a personal email server, I wonder?

The US general election and the EU referendum in the UK highlighted an increasing discounting by politicians of factual detail and the opinions of experts. Former Justice Secretary Michael Gove (MiGo) claimed during the referendum campaign that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts‘. So, during the campaign, and particularly on the GOP side in the US election, there was an appeal to emotions rather than fact-based evidence. Yes, we entered the post-truth¹ age in 2016.

I came across this interesting quote by American astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse TysonAny time scientists disagree, it’s because we have insufficient data. Then we can agree on what kind of data to get; we get the data; and the data solves the problem. Either I’m right, or you’re right, or we’re both wrong. And we move on. That kind of conflict resolution does not exist in politics or religion.

Among the many scientific concerns I have about The Donald’s agenda are his perspectives on climate change. He comes across be arch-denier in chief. Now, I have been speaking and publishing about climate change and its impacts on agriculture since 1990. I am firmly in the camp of the thousands of experts who have asserted the certainty of man-made climate change: based on solid data collected and analysed over decades. As deGrasse Tyson also commented: The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

It looks like Trump and his prospective Cabinet will be the neo-Luddites of 2017.

So, although I look forward to 2017, my natural optimism is tempered however, with some caution. But I am optimistic that, sooner rather than later, The Donald is likely to fall flat on his face. He won’t be able to help himself. After all, a ‘leopard can’t change his spots’.

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¹ Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief:

  • ‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’
  • ‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

After 157 years, Dickens’s words still ring true

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Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

These are the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ 12th novel, A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859.

These words could also be an accurate description of the past year. What a year 2016 has turned out to be, for so many reasons. I guess we can also now say that we live in the post-truth age.

The best (and worst) for me . . .
Personally, 2016 was the best of times and the worst.

In July, our family got together for the first time. Hannah Michael with Callum and Zoë came over to the UK from Minnesota; Philippa and Andi with Elvis and Felix came down from Newcastle upon Tyne, and we all met up for two weeks’ holiday in the New Forest in Hampshire. A splendid time was had by all!

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In February, I was invited to lead a team of three genetic resources experts to evaluate a multi-center program of the CGIAR genebanks.

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L to R: Jenin Assaf (of the CGIAR’s Independent Evaluation Arrangement, based at FAO in Rome), Marise Borja and Brian Ford-Lloyd (team members), and me.

That evaluation took me to Germany, France, Italy (twice), Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia and Australia. As I write this article the team is writing first drafts of its assessment of the program, and we hope to have everything wrapped up by early February. I’ll be glad when it’s done and dusted. I’ve thought about genetic resources and genebanks almost every waking hour since I was first invited to join the evaluation.

Besides our break with the family in the New Forest, Steph and I also managed our ‘annual’ vacation in Minnesota with Hannah and family. We took the opportunity of exploring Minnesota some more, and ‘trekking’ to find the source of the mighty Mississippi River. Actually trekking is rather an exaggeration and there were plenty of signposts showing where we’d encounter the Mississippi as it dribbled, so to speak, out of Lake Itasca at the beginning of its 2000 plus mile journey south to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Personally, 2016 was also the worst of times for me following an accident at the beginning of January when I slipped on black ice, dislocating my right foot and snapping the fibula. As a consequence I am now the proud owner of a long metal plate holding the bones in my right leg together. Once I was allowed to become mobile, I used crutches then a stick for many months. I only gave up using my stick about four weeks ago. I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made, but I’m in for the long haul. My ankle and leg still give me pain, and whereas in the past I might often cover three to five miles on my daily walk, I can still only comfortably cover about two miles. I’m sure this will get better.

And, worldwide, among the worst . . .
But my paltry troubles fade into insignificance compared to what has been played out on the international stage.

The suffering of Syrians in Aleppo (well, in Syria in general and throughout other countries of the Middle East terrorised by Daesh) seems never-ending. Talk about political spin! I have visited Aleppo two (maybe three) times. I was once a candidate for a senior position at ICARDA, one of the centers of the CGIAR, and I guess I would have accepted it had it been offered. Syria looked like an interesting country, and everyone I spoke with at ICARDA told me what a safe place Aleppo was. How times change! Will that seemingly interminable civil war come to an end? As we approach the close of 2016, the battle for Aleppo has ended (more or less), but Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are not going to rest until they have turned the rest of Syria into a pile of rubble. Victory, it seems, comes at any price. Shame on them! The fate of civilians is not part of the security equation.

And there have been political earthquakes in the USA, in the UK (and Europe), and in the Philippines.

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PEOTUS – heaven help us!

The Donald . . . what more can I say?
Who would have believed that His Orangeness, The Donald, Mr Drumpf would secure the American presidency, albeit on a minority popular vote; 2.8 million votes more for Hillary Clinton is quite a margin, even though The Donald still claims he won by a landslide. But then again, his whole campaign was built on mis-truths (aka LIES), denials of comments he made in earlier interviews, lack of policy, a lack of any ability, it seems, to string two coherent words together, although they were, of course, the ‘best words’.

From what little he contributed to the first presidential debate, and in various speeches reported in the news, it’s hard to understand what he really means to Make America Great Again. Based on his choices for cabinet positions, his equivocation over continued links to all his nefarious business interests, and what seems like his complete lack of attention to the things you might expect PEOTUS to take notice of, the USA must be in for a bumpy ride over the next months. Trump scares the s**t out of me. He’s only predictable by his unpredictability, and in a fragile world, I am concerned that such a maverick (and moron) should occupy the most powerful political position in any country.

Brexit (and the clowns who are  taking us out of the EU) . . .
Nifa (Nigel Farage), BoJo (Boris Johnson) and MiGo (Michael Gove. Arch clowns among many.

We’ve certainly had to put up with our fair share of bozos in UK politics these past months. I voted Remain in last June’s referendum on continuing membership of the European Union. I was one of the 48% who voted. We’re not out of the EU yet, so we’ve not seen the full effect of what might happen. I’m not optimistic, although I’d like to be. Those who supported Leave seem to believe that the other 27 countries will simply roll over and give the UK (or will that be ‘UK lite’, i.e. minus Scotland?) whatever it wants. I fear not. So many benefits were touted if we voted Leave.

I think that worse is yet to come, and it will be years before everything has been sorted out or regularised. It’s not my generation that will suffer. But those who come after us. I feel the Leavers were sold a pony by the likes of Farage, Johnson and Gove. And on the day after the referendum it was clear they had no idea of what to do next. And the government still has no idea what to do. But ‘Brexit means Brexit‘. Time to apply for an Irish passport perhaps – I’m eligible.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachith pose for a photograph during a courtesy visit at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos on September 7. TOTO LOZANO/PPD

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Roa Duterte

A psychopath at the helm in the Philippines . . .
Du30. Rodrigo Duterte, 16th President, ex-Mayor of Davao City in the southern island of Mindanao. He won last May’s general election by a landslide. He’s very popular.

He’s also very outspoken, crude, and—by his own admission—a murderer. An avowed strongman, perhaps he was the man of the moment needed to bring some discipline to day-to-day life in the Philippines, with its political dynasties and celebrity status among politicians. He had the opportunity to make a great difference to the lives of many impoverished Filipinos. Maybe he still can.

He declared war on drug pushers and users, and there have been thousands of extrajudicial killings in the few months since he was inaugurated. It’s clear that his election has split public opinion in the Philippines. It’s sad for me to see how, among many of my friends, there is such a lack of hope for the future under this president.

I know that many of my Filipino friends will not appreciate my candour concerning their country. It’s hard to see how someone as crude as Duterte could be elected president. He hasn’t made friends among the international community. As leader of a country of 100 million you don’t go around calling the President of your principal ally, the USA (or used to be) a ‘son of a whore‘.

Then again, did we expect Trump to be elected in the US general election? Hardly. May we live in interesting times!

2016 is not killing people . . . 
Over the past few days there have been several reported celebrity deaths:  guitarist Rick Parfitt (68, Status Quo), singer/songwriter George Michael (53), Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher (60), author Richard Adams (96, author of Watership Down), and actress Liz Smith (95, the Royle Family). But this follows many others throughout the year: musicians David Bowie (69) and Prince (57), TV legend Sir Terry Wogan (77), and actor Gene Wilder (83). But has 2016 been unusual?

Any death is a cause for sadness among family and friends, and fans. For an elderly person we shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s always a shock, however, when sudden illness robs us of one of our icons. I was only saying to my wife early this morning that perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that some celebrities have passed away at a relatively young age. After all, several of them must have been carrying quite a ‘substance abuse and lifestyle’ load that affected their chances of long life.

A sign of the times . . .

When I was a small boy, more than 60 years ago, I never saw any police officer on the streets carrying any sort of weapon, other than a sturdy truncheon. Regular use of firearms was unheard of in British policing, although I’m sure the police always had access to firearms if needed, provided the appropriate authorisation was given.

Sadly, it’s not uncommon now to see many police officers carrying side-arms, automatic weapons even. The increased threat of terrorist attack means that many public buildings, airports or railway stations are now patrolled by armed officers. And of course many police officers also carry a Taser to incapacitate dangerous suspects.

Of course it’s very different on the other side of the Atlantic. Firearms are regularly used by police and there has been a spate of incidents recently when police in several cities have shot African Americans following, it seems, minimal or no provocation. And, several mass shootings. Access to guns and the US Second Amendment has become a big issue in the presidential campaign. Did Donald Trump actually hint that Second Amendment supporters shoot his rival Hillary Clinton? Unbelievable!

Easy access to guns is something we are not just used to here in the UK. So, imagine my surprise recently during our mini-break in northern Minnesota, and stopped for coffee in the small town of Walker. Steph and I had gone into a coffee shop, and as we enjoyed our beverages, I leafed through several magazines and advertising brochures that were sitting on the table beside me.

Here were a couple of flyers advertising a million dollar gun sale at a local store, Reeds, that happened to be across the street from the coffee shop. Every type of weapon you can imagine was up for sale, and many other bizarre and obnoxious accessories as well. I couldn’t help myself. I just had to take a photo or two on my mobile.

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We receive flyers and other advertising as inserts in free newspapers in the town where we live in England. But there are for furniture sales, new savings deals at one of the local supermarket, and the like. No guns!

Now northern Minnesota is hunting and fishing territory. But who needs an automatic rifle or worse for hunting? Who needs to go hunting in the first place, anyway?

So with my spirits rather dampened, we went for a walk up and down the street, and found a shop that specialised in beads and beading accessories – a major hobby of Steph’s. As she looked through all that was on display before choosing a range of beads, I had a look around the premises at all the tourist souvenirs. I couldn’t help taking photos of these two signs, and left the shop with a smile on my face.

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Half price books, full value history . . .

Most of my reading consists of history or biography, and I have written a number of posts in this blog about some of the books I have read and the periods of history that particularly interest me. In recent months, however, when I have not been able to get to the public library in Bromsgrove, I have returned to the Barchester novels by Anthony Trollope – with much enjoyment – that have sat on my bookshelves for several decades.

In recent years I have expanded my own history library through purchases of second-hand books in St Paul, Minnesota. And yesterday, being a bright and sunny Minnesota early autumn day, Steph and I walked the mile from Hannah and Michael’s new house to Highland Village in the Highland Park neighbourhood. Along Ford Parkway, near the corner with Cleveland Avenue, Half Price Books (a chain of 120 stores nationwide) offers a fantastic array of books of all genres and subjects (as well as second CDs and DVDs).

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Over the years that we have visited Hannah and Michael we have always made a beeline for HPB. For my historical interests, and particularly for books about the ‘Wild West’ or the American Civil War, HPB has a much better selection than I have ever been able to find through Worcestershire County Library in the UK. Of course not everything that I have bought at HPB relates to American history. If a book takes my fancy, then it usually finds a place in my library. And I’ve often found many interesting books about British or European history that I’ve never come across back home.

This year has been no exception, and I came away from my visit to HPB with seven paperbacks for under USD60. There are several university campuses close to HPB: St Catherine University, University of St Thomas, and Macalester College. I reckon that many of the books I acquire must be cast-off course texts. Students’ loss, my gain!

So what’s on my reading list this year?

I’m particularly looking forward to delving into Amanda Foreman’s tome about Britain’s role in the American Civil War. The biography of Elias Ashmole, founder of the Royal Society in the UK is not something I would have contemplated had I not seen it on the shelf. And the social histories of the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution England could be good reads.

I’ll post some reviews once I have waded through them. The Foreman book alone is over 950 pages.