The Debatable Land – Graham Robb

The Debatable Land - Graham Robb
The Debatable Land – Graham Robb


I enjoyed the earlier chapters although the foreshadowing of The Big Reveal became a bit repetitive and the coverage of events in the Debatable Land under the Tudors and early Stewarts, as the borders between England and Scotland came more into focus, felt rather drawn out. The chapters on the Scottish Referendum and Brexit felt like articles tacked on at the end.

As for the big reveal? Well, I would have likes more insight into the competing theories as to the identity of legendary King Arthur, and the key maps that underlying the place name and Ptolemaic Map analysis needed to be larger scale and would have been better located in the relevant chapters – true for all the maps at the back of the paperback.

Publisher page: The Debatable Land – Graham Robb

The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature - Andrea Wulf
The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf

Who’s Humboldt?

The Invention of Nature is Andrea Wulf’s biography of Prussian scientist-naturalist-ecologist-explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, whose travels in the Americas gave us Humboldt’s Penguin, amongst many, many other things, and whose renown resulted in place names ranging from Mare Humboldtianum on the moon to Humboldt University in Berlin. Most importantly, via the publications,  lectures and correspondence that occupied Humboldt for the majority of his long life, he developed the concept that has been called Humboldtian science – a holistic view of science and nature, climate, the environment and ecology, and by extension encompassing art and society.

During his lifetime he engaged with politicians, revolutionaries, scientists and artists – Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, Charles Lyell, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – and his writings continued to influence key scientific, cultural and artistic developments of the 19th and 20th century; Darwin, Thoreau and John Muir were all fans, as were George Perkins Marsh and Ernst Haeckel who I’d not heard of before reading this book.

And you’ve never heard of him.

Not directly related to Humboldt, a quotation that I liked appears at page 324

‘Solitude,’ Emerson warned him [Muir], ‘is a sublime mistress, but an intolerable wife,’

Author page: The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt – The Lost Hero of Science

The Tartan Turban – John Keay

The Tartan Turban - John Keay
The Tartan Turban – John Keay

John Keay‘s biography of nineteenth century elusive adventurer Alexander Gardner.

Unlike many of the explorers and spies of The Great Game, Colonel Gardner didn’t leave behind his own polished account of his travels in Central Asia, nor of his years as an officer in the Sikh Empire, from the Empire’s glory years under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and through the familial treachery and turmoil that followed on from Ranjit Singh’s death. Even his younger years are veiled in the mists of time – but safe to say Scotland doesn’t feature (despite the tartan!)

So, there’s plenty of of scope for biographical sleuthing and rehabilitation from the always readable John Keay.

Author webpage: The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner – John Keay

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davis

Vanished Kingdoms - Norman Davis
Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davis

I put this book aside in the middle of Rosenau, the account of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and the intertwined lineages and lives of Queen Victoria and Prince Albrecht (Albert) of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. A rare event, to abandon a book.

I’d been drawn to this hefty history of lost kingdoms by the earlier chapters – the Britons and the Kingdom of Strathclyde, Tolosa and the Visigoths – and whilst I enjoyed the overall concept and the three part structure of each chapter, as we moved into the early modern period and beyond and the quantity of sources expanded, the wealth of detail this afforded grew too much for me: the later chapters were just too heavy going.

Author’s page (warning: slow to load): Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe – Norman Davis