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review 2020-04-19 20:09
An engaging and easy read for those who love a bit of scandal.
Hollywood's Dark History. Silver Screen Scandals - Matt MacNabb

I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. This is the second book I’ve read by MacNabb (I read and reviewed A Secret History of Brands: The Dark and Twisted Beginnings of the Brand Names We Know and Love a while back and enjoyed it, and I looked forward to this book, as it’s on a topic I’ve always been interested in.

I found this book well suited to the circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment (I’m writing this review in the middle of our confinement due to COVID-19, in case somebody comes across it at some point in the future and wonders what I was talking about). It’s written in an straightforward and easy-to-reads style; it deals with a topic that a lot of people find interesting (not only the lives of film stars and directors in general but their scandals, in particular); it contains an introduction and thirteen distinct chapters, each one dedicated to a different star, so it does not require sustained attention, and it can be dipped into according to the interest or the mood of the reader. The book also includes beautiful black and white pictures (some that I’d never seen before) and a bibliography (with books, websites, articles, and even documentaries). Although many of the stars won’t be familiar to the younger generation (there is a heavy focus on actors, actresses, and directors from early Hollywood), I don’t think that will make the book less attractive. The author manages to bring to life an era in the history of cinema that many people know more through the movies and documentaries than through the actual films of the period, but I am sure many readers will be inspired to do more research and try to find more information about the protagonists and the time.

Personally, I had heard about quite a few of the people mentioned, and in some cases I had read or watched documentaries that contained more detailed information than that available in this volume, but others were new to me. As for others, I knew the people involved (Errol Flynn was one of my father’s favourite actors, and I’ve watched and enjoyed many of his movies in glorious technicolour), but I didn’t know much about the scandals they became entangled in. I don’t think this is a book I’d recommend to experts in Hollywood (especially old Hollywood) personalities, as they are bound to know everything contained in it and more, but it’s a good entry book for people interested in the topic but not very knowledgeable, or for somebody looking for a good read and happy to find out more about a historical period and a period in the history of cinema that helped create the cult of stars, and also about the role of the press in building them up or destroying them that we’re so familiar with to this day.

The chapters, that don’t follow a strict chronological order, are dedicated to: Evelyn Nesbitt, Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Errol Flynn, Lana Turner, William Desmond Taylor, Joan Crawford, Barbara LaMarr, Mabel Normand, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and Clara Bow. Some are more familiar than others, but overall, they provide an interesting array and sample of some of the events and scandals that have plagued Hollywood from the beginning. It’s impossible not to notice that many of the subjects of the book (not all, but a significant proportion) had suffered pretty traumatic childhoods, being brought up in pretty desperate circumstances, and sometimes subject to terrible abuse. It’s sad to think that after all their efforts to make a better living for themselves, some ended up either the perpetrators (alleged in most cases) or victims of violence, abuse, or crime in later life, and very few managed to lead a happy life. Although the book does not delve into the gore or the extremely salacious details, it does include enough information to make it not suitable for young children.

This is a book I’d recommend to people who enjoy reading about Old Hollywood, scandals, and stars, but haven’t read extensively on it, and also to people looking for a source of information about the era that is easy to read and entertaining, but offers an interesting insight into what life was like for the big stars of the era (and what falling from grace was like). An engaging and easy read and a good entry level for people looking for an introduction to the beginning of film star culture.

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review 2020-04-03 19:55
A deserved and loving homage to a true caring profession
Rituals & Myths in Nursing: A Social History - Claire Laurent

Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

This is not the first book about nursing from Pen & Sword that I review, but it seems a particularly appropriate moment to read it and comment on the changes that have taken place in a profession that is right now at the forefront of everybody’s mind. The hard work all the healthcare professionals are doing, at a high personal risk, should not be underestimated, and I hope this health crisis (the coronavirus pandemic) will make governments realise that there are certain things that we should never try to make savings on, because the consequences can be catastrophic. But, let’s talk about the book.

The above description captures perfectly the essence of this book. It is packed full of anecdotes by nursing staff from different generations, as the long list of acknowledgments at the beginning of the book reflects. It is a wonderful combination of fun, bizarre, and touching episodes, memories of uniforms, strange cures (and I’ve heard of some of them, so yes, fashions change over the years), strict cleaning routines that would have made army sergeants proud (including how to make a bed properly), ghosts,  cooking breakfast in the wards, what used to pass for medication… all of them steeped up in the social circumstances of the period and reflecting the changes, not only in Medicine and Nursing (from learning on the job, nursing became a university degree, and from tradition and usage they moved onto evidence-based practice), but in society at large. Although I haven’t worked in a hospital for a few years, one of my best friends is a nurse; I have worked and met many nurses, and all the stories rung true for me.

The book includes some wonderful black and white illustrations, a bibliography (with blogs and websites as well as books and articles), a detailed index and even a chart of medical slang. The book is divided into twelve chapters: Without Rhyme or Reason (talking about training and the reasons why women [and later on, men also] decided to go into the job, in many cases out of family tradition); Nurses Who Rustle (uniforms, badges and related items); Handover and Hierarchy (times have changed and the way things are done have also changed, mostly for the better, although there is plenty of nostalgia and some true characters most nurses will never forget); Hygiene and Hijinks (cleaning protocols have changed in so many ways…); Egg White and Oxygen (treatments that had very little, if any, scientific base, but were followed religiously at the time); Bladders, Bowels and Bodily Functions (I don’t think I need to explain this); Medicines and Mystical Powers (this chapter deals not only with medications and drugs that would never be used now and were probably quite dangerous, but also with the procedures and routines imposed in the past that are almost impossible to believe now); Things that go Bump in the Night (ghosts stories… What proper old hospital does not have one ghost or many? And of course, the ghosts of nurses are hard at work ensuring the wellbeing of patients even after death); Dust, Dirt and Domesticity (cleaning protocols past and present); Once the Dust has Settled (gloves, potions, kits…); Theatre theatricals (being in a surgical theatre is an experience as nurses know only too well); Life and Death (births, deaths and everything in between).

This book is a delight. It’s full with many different voices, from different eras, from nurses that had worked in a variety of specialities, all sharing personal stories or stories that they had heard on their jobs. Some are emotional, some funny, and I must warn people who are squeamish about illnesses and bodily functions, as there are some anecdotes that might make them cringe. But anybody who enjoys books about nursing, social history, or just a genuine story with plenty of heart, should read this book. And if you know any nurses or anybody interested in the topic don’t forget to recommend it. It’s a great homage to a profession that has always been and remains, a true caring profession.

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review 2020-02-14 23:21
Inspiring pictures of recent UK history
Sheffield in the 1980s: Featuring Images of Sheffield Photographer, Martin Jenkinson (Images of the Past) - Mark Metcalf,Justine Jenkinson

I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me an early paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I worked in Sheffield and lived in the area for almost 10 years and had visited it on occasions as well before that, and although it was long after the 1980s (I arrived in the UK in the early 90s), I was familiar with Martin Jenkinson’s work, had seen some of his iconic photographs of the period, and could not resist the opportunity to sample some more. This was a particularly interesting and intense period in the history of the city, with the closures of many steel and cutlery manufacturing companies, the pit closures in the region, and with many strikes and much social unrest, that Jenkinson recorded in his work. It is impossible to look at his pictures and not wonder about recent events.

This book combines a great selection of images from the period with some background text, that rather than providing lengthy explanations about each image, is organised as an introductory write-up for each one of the sections. Although there isn’t much writing, the brief summaries offer a good overview to people who might not be familiar with the historic-social circumstances of the era and provide a solid context for the fantastic images.

The book is clearly a labour of love from Jenkinson’s daughter, and it includes a foreword by Helen Hague, a reporter who has worked at a number of local and national newspapers and was a personal friend of the photographer, a Tribute, written by Chris Searle, summarising Jenkinson’s career, and a number of sections that help organise the photographic content: Who We Are Exhibition (that was an exhibition at Sheffield’s  Weston Park Museum of Jenkinson’s work, which run from November 2018 to April 2019), Steel (that includes images of strikes, a section on cutlery and silver, one on retail and the public section [including images of women taking up various jobs  that were still an uncommon sight at the time], one on rail freight), Local Government (National and Local Government Officer’s Association [look out for David Blankett], SYCC and fare cuts [about increases to the public transport fares, hotly contested], the Manpower Services Commission [a new programme to fight unemployment, also hotly contested], Campaigns and Protests (People’s March for Jobs, Cutler’s Feast [where Margaret Thatcher was not particularly welcomed, but she went nonetheless], The Miner’s Strike [this is one of my favourite sections and many of Jenkinson’s iconic photographs are featured here], Eversure [a wonderful picture of a wedding couple visiting a picket at the factory where they both work],  the National Abortion Campaign, Sheffield Campaign for Access to Moorland, Sheffield Campaign Against Racism and Anti-Apartheid, Anti-Nuclear Protests, Sheffield Street Band), Sheffield & Its People (another great section including some pictures of Hillsborough Football Stadium that are impossible to look at without thinking about the later tragedy), a section referring to The Martin Jenkinson Image Library, and a final section of Acknowledgements.

This is not a nostalgic book about the Sheffield of the 1980s, although there are pictures of some very recognisable landmarks, but rather a book about certain aspects of the period and its people, and they show the concerns and interests of a man who had worked in the steel industry and suffered in his own flesh the changes brought by its demise. It’s not a book of pretty pictures, although there are some beautiful images, but that is not the aim. They are pictures that tell a story, and not always a nice one. As Helen Hague says in the foreword: ‘Martin Jenkinson had a gift for capturing the moment.’

The book is packed with black and white pictures chronicling a city and its people in an era of major political, social, and economic changes, and anybody interested in the 1980s in the UK will find plenty to enjoy and to make them think in this book. I know many writers find inspiration in images, and here they will have a field day. In case you want to get an idea of what type of images you might find in the book, you can check the Martin Jenkinson Image Library(here).

A fabulous book for lovers of photography with a social conscience, and for anybody interested in the recent history of Sheffield and of the UK in general.

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review 2019-09-14 21:46
Informative, entertaining, inspiring, and part of an important series.
A History of Women's Lives in Eastbourne - Tina Brown

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

This book is one of a series about Women’s Lives, and I recommend you check Pen & Sword’s website if you are interested in a particular city or area, as a large number of books have already been published and you’re likely to find a relevant one (or one might be on the making). I had been intrigued by the collection for a while and finally requested this one because my first job as a junior doctor was in Eastbourne, East Sussex, in the South East of England, I remained in the area for quite a few years and although I visited museums and talked to people about the place, I didn’t learn much about the role of local women and their lives in the past.

Eastbourne felt quite different to what I was used to when I first move there, with its gentile atmosphere, the seafront, the fancy (if somewhat old-fashioned) hotels, the Victorian pier, and the natural beauty of the Downs and Beachy Head. As the author explains in the description, the book centres on the lives of women from 1850 to 1950, and it also offers a brief but useful background into the history of the period. Although this will not cover new ground for history experts, it will help casual readers place the lives of these local women in context, and it contains gems specific to the local history and to the women´s social history, and it also incorporates previously unpublished personal accounts and those narrated by relatives and friends of women who had lived in the area.

The book is divided into an introduction, seven chapters, a brief bibliography (a good starting point but not too lengthy or detailed), a section of acknowledgments, and an index. The book also includes pictures and illustrations, some belonging to the personal archives of some of the women mentioned, and also postcards and landscapes of the area. I highlighted many details I found interesting as I read it, and I thought I’d share some of those to give you an idea of the kinds of things you might find in this book (and probably others in the series). Chapter One, Education and Professional Life includes, like other chapters, brief biographies of some local women (either women born in Eastbourne or who lived there for significant periods of time), such as Emily Phipps, who studied for the bar and later moved into teaching. She was said to live by this saying: ‘If you make yourself a doormat, do not be surprised if people tread on you’, and Rosalie Harvey, a medical missionary worker, who helped over 1500 sick people, many children and babies, and animals.

Chapter 2, Working Life, included a mention of the life of female smugglers in Eastbourne, the way the people from town helped families affected by WWI, and the touching story of a woman whose biological father was a Canadian soldier in WWII whom she never got to meet, who considered herself lucky because her mother’s husband (who was also a soldier and away for most of the war) accepted her as if she were his own child, and in fact she never discovered she wasn’t his until she was 22.  One of the biographies included in this chapter is that of writer and journalist Angela Carter, who was born in Eastbourne.

Chapter 3, Family Life: ‘Home Sweet Home’, highlights how society’s rules and political laws curtailed women’s freedom in all aspects of life, even when it came to dress and fashion. Getting a divorce was very difficult for women, even after changes in the law in the late 1850s and in the 1920s.  Having recently read a book about Lady Astor and her penchant for fashion, I found out in this chapter that Queen Victoria wore a headdress made of bird feathers in 1851 and that sprung a fashion (and resulted in the deaths of a very large number of birds). Reading about the change brought to the lives of women by a minor invention, such as the electric iron, made me reflect upon how hard tasks that might seem easy now were for our ancestors. This chapter also includes imaginative and resourceful war-time recipes, and it mentions the good reputation of Eastbourne schools and, in particular, Eastbourne College (a wonderful building I lived quite close to for a while).

Chapter 4, Quality of Life, talks about the changes brought by the NHS, efforts in welfare, and reforms to the workhouse, and the important role women played in those.

Chapter 5, Social Life, is one of my favourites, and includes some gems, such as the fact that nearby, in Bexhill-on-Sea (where I also worked) in 1901, male and female bathers were allowed to mix in the same beach for the first time. The chapter talks in detail about the Eastbourne Pier (I only knew some details of its history and had heard about the controversy caused by its recent refurbishment, but I haven’t seen it since, so I dare not comment); it also mentions the well-known female tennis tournament at Devonshire Park, and I was very taken by the brief biography of Emily Mary Shackleton, who moved to Eastbourne, and when her famous husband died during one of his expeditions, was left to fend for herself with a considerable debt to settle. She worked tirelessly for the Red Cross and became divisional commissioner for the Girl Guides of Eastbourne. The Luxor cinema was before my time, but from the description I would love to have seen it, and it had a Compton Organ, a fantastic instrument I was lucky to get to hear at the Penistone Paramount (don’t miss it if you are anywhere near).

Chapter 6, Political Life, places an emphasis on the local suffragist movement and some of the women who took part, including some of their heart wrenching accounts of being imprisoned and going on hunger strike, the way the attempts at reforming gender discriminatory laws were received, the first women mayors of the area, and such puzzling things as the fact that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wasn’t formed until 1891, almost seventy years after the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Chapter 7, Spiritual and Religious Life, talks not only about the churches in Eastbourne, how new denominations became more popular as time passed, and also how the churches started organising social events, clubs and activities for all ages. This chapter also includes mentions of three ghosts: the redoubt fortress one, the one at Devonshire Park Theatre, and two nurse ghosts at the All Saints Hospital. I have heard about some of them, and considering the author has written books on that topic, I would take it in good authority.

I enjoyed the combination of general history with local events, the biographies of the local women, and, especially, the personal accounts of women who had lived in Eastbourne at the time and shared their experiences (or those passed on by their relatives) with the author. As I have said before, those are the kinds of details that help history come to life and make us understand what a period was truly like, not for politicians and royals, but for the people in the street.

As this is the first book I read in the series, I cannot compare it to others, and I know each one of the volumes is written by a local historian, so their approaches might be quite different. Mine was an early review copy, and I’m sure there will have been changes in the final version, but my only recommendation, based on the copy I had access to, would be to ensure that the biographies are clearly marked as separate from the rest of the text (by using a different type of letter or by encasing them in a box, for example), as currently they are interspersed with the rest of the content of the chapter, and it is not always easy to tell where one finishes and the other one starts again. Some of the topics overlap with each other and that makes the chapters perfect for reading independently, although it results in similar content being mentioned in several chapters when the book is read in one go, but I did not find this a major problem.

I enjoyed this book, which is informative, entertaining, and inspiring, and includes enough information about the general and social history of the period to be suitable for any readers, even those who don’t generally read history. At the same time it contains a wealth of information on the local history of women in Eastbourne, which will satisfy those trying to get a picture of the era, be it for personal interest, research, or as part of an ongoing project (Writers, I’m looking at you). I recommend this title to anybody interested in any of those aspects, and I will be checking other titles in the series.

  

 

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review 2019-02-16 19:56
Great pictures, some amusing and some dark stories
Fallen Idols. A Century of Screen Sex Scandals. (Images of the Past) - Nigel Blundell

Thanks to Rosie and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

A while back I read and reviewed a book in the same series ‘Images of the Past’, called The British Seaside, and I enjoyed the combination of the wonderful images and the informative and humorous text, fairly light on reading but high on entertainment value. In this case, the same is true, even with the serious subject and the unavoidable reflections on how times don’t seem to have changed so much, although know we get to hear about many of the details that in the past would have remained hidden from the general public.

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of cinema, and Hollywood, from its beginnings to now, although times have changed somewhat, and tinsel town is not what used to be (if it ever was). I have watched documentaries and read magazines about the industry, particularly about the era of the big studios, when everything seemed more glamourous and shiny than our everyday lives.

This book looks, mostly at past scandals, from the early history of Hollywood to some more recent ones, but does not include the XXI century, and although some of us, who grew up watching reruns of classics, will remember many of these stars (and some have become icons, like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe), to the youngest generation most of them will sound like ancient history. Only Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and the TV preachers are still alive, and although their controversy remains alive, it seems to have been dwarfed by most recent scandals.

This is not an in-depth study of any of the cases, but rather a quick survey with a few details of the biographies and circumstances of some of the stars, whose lives became as well-known and exposed to the public attention as that of their characters. Despite that, although I thought I was familiar with the majority of the actors and actresses the book talks about, I discovered I didn’t know many of the details, perhaps because they were not discussed at the time or have been revealed later, and many of the pictures where totally new to me (and I thoroughly enjoyed them, especially those showing the stars when they were young). I am sure, though, that experts or true fans of these actors and actresses will not learn anything new, but I enjoyed the combination of text and pictures (and I particularly relished the introduction, which offers interesting insights into the effects of some of these scandals, like the Hays Code, that went beyond the content of the movies and affected the personal lives of the stars as well), that makes it ideal as a present for people of a certain age who enjoy celebrity magazines of the time, and also for the younger generation who might not have been exposed to these stories and the old-fashioned notion of celebrity and stardom.

It is impossible to read this book without comparing many of these scandals to some of the recent ones. The big studios spent a lot of money on lawyers, on keeping the press at bay, and of course, power has always talked. Thankfully, some of the things that were considered normal practice at the time have now become unacceptable and are the subject of legal procedures. 

To give you a better idea of the content, there are fourteen chapters, each focused on one of these stars: Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Jean Harlow, Errol Flynn, Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Elvis Presley, Roman Polanski, Joan Crawford, Rock Hudson, Jim Bakker & Jimmy Swaggart, and Woody Allen.

I thought I’d share a couple of the quotes I’ve highlighted, so you get some idea of what to expect. Here, referring to James Dean:

“The star of East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause was bisexual and had affairs with actresses Pier Angeli and Ursula Andrews but when asked if he was gay his reply was: “Well, I’m certainly not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back!” (Blundell, 2018, p. 8).

In the chapter about the TV preachers Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart (a fascinating phenomenon that seems pretty unique to the USA), it explains that Swaggart confessed and apologised to his congregation and the viewers of his TV channel the first time he was caught with a prostitute. But the second time, he truly spoke his mind:

“This time, rather confessing to his congregation, Swaggart brazened it out with the rebuff: ‘The Lord told me it’s flat none of your business’ (Blundell, 2018, 143).

In sum, this is a fun book for people who love anecdotes and to peep into the lives of the Hollywood famous, especially those from the era of the Hollywood big studios. If you want a brazen and amusing book, with its dark moments and plenty of pictures to get the conversation going, or are looking for a present for somebody who loves movie memorabilia, I recommend it.

Blundell, N. (2018). Images of the Past. Fallen Idols. A Century of Screen Sex Scandals. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword.

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