The Book Department with Dr Alyson Hitch

This month we take a nostalgic railway journey down ‘memory line’, discover the truth behind the Frankenstein myth, meet the maths genius who invented the modern world, go behind the scenes of the deepfake, and visit two Big Apples either side of the Atlantic.

Book of the month

‘Railways: A History in Drawings’ by Christopher Valkoinen, published by Thames & Hudson, £50.00, hb

Photograph of a Draughtsman working on a drawing in the Derby Works drawing office in 1951.

If you’re from Swansea and you’re interested in the history of the railway, and you’re sent a book to review covering (mostly) the 19th century, you don’t look at the cover first.

You go straight to the index to see what it’s got to say about our city’s historic contribution to the subject. And there on page 266 of Christopher Valkoinen’s superb Railways: A History in Drawings, is the entry to settle the nerves. It reads: ‘At the start of the 19th century South Wales was a hive of railway activity that rivalled that of anywhere else in the world. It was home to the horse-drawn Swansea and Mumbles railway, which from 1807 became the world’s first passenger railway.’ Two centuries on and the bright red train that tootled back and forth between Swansea Harbour Trust and Mumbles Pier is barely a living memory.

LMS Coronation class general arrangement cross sections; LC& DR family carriage; All pics © National Railway Museum / Science & Society Picture Library.

All of which means that we can be predisposed to enjoying Valkoinen’s extraordinary collection of engineering drawings, ancient photos, artworks and ephemera. And although Railways spans the early Georgian era right through to the 21st century, the book’s central concern is to present great illustrations (in the way only Thames & Hudson can) of the era we think of as the Victorian Industrial Revolution. As the accompanying blurb says, the advent of the railways played an instrumental part in Britain’s economic and social revolution in the 19th century, with technical advances that were the envy of the world. From the beginning, of course, these developments were chronicled through meticulous drawings of the rolling stock as well as the fabulous architecture that went with it. Here we have drawings of locomotives,

Pullman Tour Of Scotland, Picnic Party. In 1876 wealthy Dundee businessman James Caird hired two carriages and a locomotive to tour Scotland on a picnic holiday

carriages and wagons (including a specially designed fish van), as well as stations, bridges, tunnels and a photograph of a couple of rather sad looking elephants being encouraged into a carriage that looks far too small for them in Colchester.

Times change, and if you want to remind yourself how the British railway infrastructure was once the pride of Empire, then look no further that this sumptuous and fascinating book.


‘The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein’

by Sharon Ruston, Bodleian Library Publishing, £25.00, hb

When it comes to the silver screen, Frankenstein provides directors with all the excuse they need to ham it up with lightning bolts, shaky shadows and defenceless maidens shrieking their heads off. So, it might come as a surprise to learn that the original novel on which these movies are based is now a shade over two centuries old and is often thought of as the prototype for science fiction. As Sharon Ruston explains in her spell-binding The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein came from a boom time in scientific discovery and a revolution in the liberal arts that ushered in the Romantic era. The stage was set: not only did the household-name scientists of the day – Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly and Luigi Galvani – debate whether artificial life could be created in the laboratory, but so too did the rock-star Romantic poets, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary present-ed all this in a Gothic tale of terror that, while on one level is there to frighten and entertain, also raises some of the major philosophical and scientific questions of the age. This is all explained by Ruston in a way that is great fun, extremely erudite and pitched at a level where non-scientists can get the hang of what’s going on, while reviewers like me go scurrying off to reread a novel that – it has to be said – knock spots off the films.

Ruston’s lavishly illustrated investigation into the technological truth behind everyone’s favourite monster is a real treat. But it’s also delivered with a sobering message because, as she wisely points out, it’s hard to come away from Frankenstein without feeling the urge to examine “our own contemporary anxieties about science and technology.”


‘The Man from the Future’ by Ananyo Bhattacharya, Allen Lane, £20.00, hb

The technology landscape we know today, from the smartphones in our pockets to the artificial intelligence that goes into driverless cars, nanotechnology and even nuclear weapons, could not have existed without the genius of one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. It was Hungarian aristocrat Neumann János Lajos, or John von Neumann as he later came to be known in America, who laid the foundation stones for the modern world and is the subject of Ananyo Bhattacharya’s superb biography. And what a feast von Neumann is for the author who has the twin challenge of presenting a complex person alongside his fiendishly gifted instincts for mathematics. While von Neumann is well known enough in scientific circles, he has been largely overlooked by a public that, satisfied with its existing mad professor stereotype in the form of Albert Einstein, apparently doesn’t need another one. Which is a shame because von Neumann is in so many ways just as interesting.

With The Man from the Future we have the first proper and probably the best biography of von Neumann for some time. Bhattacharya, who is both a scientist and journalist, weaves these two skills together to produce a highly readable account of a life that is riveting from the first page. “Call me Johnny” would be the words that greeted guests from the extroverted Hungarian émigré in a sharp suit with a voice like Bela Lugosi, a man whose “thinking is so pertinent to the challenges we face today that it is tempting to wonder if he was a time traveller, quietly seeding ideas that he knew would be needed to shape the Earth’s future.”


‘Trust No One’ by Michael Grothaus, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99, hb

Artificial Intelligence (or AI) from time to time makes the headlines of the redtops in scare stories about how robots are coming for our jobs. While this might seem like a typical overreaction by an increasingly hysterical media trading in ‘churnalism,’ one AI story that is real and is happening now is the ability for high performance computing (HPC) to produce counterfactual videos, more commonly known as deepfakes. While once the idea of manipulating photos was a largely innocent pastime done for amusement, creating realistic fake videos, says internet expert Michael Grothaus in Trust No One, has far wider-reaching social and political implications. It might seem benign to watch, say, the United States football team raising the World Cup, but there are few barriers to deepfakers producing clips showing the president of the United States declaring nuclear war on China. It may well be a good thing that we can now, by harnessing AI, produce ‘new’ movies starring our favourite dead actors, or music videos of Jimi Hendrix jamming with Taylor Swift. But it all gets a bit more serious when a video gets posted on Facebook depicting Joe Biden signing an executive order to confiscate all firearms and in doing so hand any future elections to Donald Trump.

The deepfake’s biggest ally in spreading misinformation of this type is the amplification effect of social media. “Lies can travel halfway around the world before the truth has even got its boots on,” says Grothaus, who thinks that the only limit on deepfakes in a post-truth world is the imagination. Which is why we need to be able to identify them effectively. Powerful and gripping stuff.


‘A-Z of Mumbles and Gower’ by Brian E Davies, Amberley, £15.99, pb

When it comes to Swansea, the two things you can be sure of are that you’ll never know everything there is to know about it, and there’s always a surprise around the corner. Every now and then it’s good to be reminded of these facts, and such a reminder comes in the form of Brian E Davies’s richly rewarding A-Z of Mumbles and Gower.

Coming in at less than 100 pages, it’s a slim volume that can easily be devoured in one sitting. But don’t let its diminutive stature put you off: this book is packed with detail and trivia about where we live.

Arranged alphabetically, we start our jouney with the Agnes Jack and end at the Zoar Chapel. Agnes Jack was of course the steamship wrecked on Port Eynon Point in the late 19th century, and our author presents us with verses from a dramatic poem commemorating the event. A decade ago the ship’s anchor was recovered by divers and was presented to the Port Eynon Boat Club. A few years later it was stolen and presumably sold for scrap. Moments like that make you glad that there are local historians out there keeping these stories alive.

Moving on to ‘B’ and there’s an entry for the Big Apple kiosk down at Bracelet Bay that nearly came to a sticky end in 2009 when a car crashed into it. Apparently 27,000 signed the petition lobbying for its repair and it’s now a listed building. Off to the end of Gower, where at Burry Holmes we learn that there was once

a lighthouse: the Burry Holmes Beacon was dismantled in 1966, but its foundations are still visible among the flowering campions. We could now move on to ‘C’, but you get my point… A little gem of a book.


‘Policing the Big Apple: The Story of NYPD’ by Jules Stewart, Reaktion Books, £20.00, hb

New York cop shows have been a fixture of British television for so long now that it is hard to imagine a Friday night terrestrial schedule without a ‘procedural’ set in Brooklyn or the Bronx. And they all make for fine viewing says New York born and bred Jules Stewart, only this is a case whether the truth knocks the fiction into a cocked hat. Stewart, better known as the historian who has brought us a steady stream of books on the Afghan Wars, has taken a well-earned break from the North-West Frontier Province to tell the story of the New York Police Department, the NYPD, New York’s Finest. And it’s not for the faint hearted: Policing the Big Apple takes a long hard look at the good, the bad and the decidedly ugly. From its origins on the cobblestones of New Amsterdam (as the Big Apple was originally called) where ‘policing’ was a community obligation, through to the 1930s battles with the Mafia and the Zero Tolerance of the 1990s, Stewart covers the evolution of a public service that has routinely been plagued by corruption and political interference. As a result its public image and popularity with the people of the city has seesawed from that of deep mistrust to the sort of pride that leads to tourists leaving the city armed with baseball hats emblazoned with the NYPD logo. The problem with portraying the police is – as we are only too aware in Britain today – is that the isolated actions of bad cops make the front pages, while the default good work of the long-suffering boys and girls in blue – such as protecting demonstrators wanting to de-fund the police – is either taken for granted or ignored. All this plus the inevitable cycle of corruption, investigation, recommendations and reforms that demoralises both the public and force. What New York needs, says Stewart is for the politicians to butt out and let the police get on with their work. But he’s not optimistic that it ever will happen. Brilliant.

 

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