(2013) Terry Pratchett, Doubleday, £12.99, hrdbk, 137pp, ISBN 978-0-857-53324-1
This book sort of accompanies Terry’s novel Dodger. It is very much the stocking filler, an ideal book for a Christmas or birthday gift. It is not a story but, as its name implies, a collection of interesting background information on the London of Dodger's day (which was the early Victorian period). It is not at all necessary to have read Dodger though it goes well with it, especially if, like me, you have just read the novel.
It provides an insight into life in London at the time, and that was not particularly pleasant for most people. Perhaps the very rich were having a good time, but the people below them struggled, and the lower echelons of society struggled daily to even stay alive. Whilst we look back with rose-tinted glasses to the warm pleasures of a simple life as described in some of the works by authors such as Dickens, the reality was very far from that. If we think life can be a struggle now, it was terrible back then - there was no social security, no unemployment benefit, no social housing. It was entirely up to you to find some way (often not at all legal) of keeping fed and watered (not that you would want to drink the water), to find a roof (or something waterproof) over your head at night, and if you failed to do so on a daily basis then that was the end of you. We really have never had it better than we do today!
Enough of such despondency; this little book is designed to entertain and amuse as well as inform. It is stuffed full of little sections on this and that, explanations of old words and terms, old ways of doing things, and so on. It makes an interesting read though is best dipped into a few pages at a time.
As well as being full of facts, it also quotes little excerpts from Dodger to illustrate various points. Throughout this is hardly a heavy textbook but Dodger’s quotes add a pleasant lightness, and it is up to the reader to remember that Dodger and his friends from the Rookeries are fictional characters but nonetheless are based very much on the real people of the times. Certain of the characters appearing in Dodger were real people (such as Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew), though used in a fictionalised way, and references in this book to these friendships are equally fictional but illustrative.
I have just one criticism and it is that, at times, larger font sizes would make it easier to read. Some of the quotes from Dodger are in a small, italic font and the reprinted cartoons and illustrations (such as from Punch magazine) have equally small and difficult to read text. Make sure you have a bright reading light!
All told, this is an entertaining and informative book. Whilst hardly a textbook for historians, it makes an enjoyable gift for those with at least a passing interest in our past.
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