Britain’s Last Tommies by Richard
Van Emden, Pen & Sword, £19.99.
Only a few of the six million men who
served in the Great War are still alive. Soon
the tragic events of 1914–1918 will cease to
be classed as living history and will become
past history. This book is a timely reminder
of the experiences these men faced some
90 years ago. Britain’s Last Tommies is not
unique in using the stories of those few
remaining veterans, and of their recently
deceased comrades, but it certainly does
justice to their remarkable lives and to the
war in general.
Richard van Emden, one of Britain’s
foremost oral First World War historians,
places the veterans’ reminiscences in
chronological order, and interlaces them
with historical context at each stage of the
war. Interestingly, he also includes his own
memories and observations about the men
he interviewed: Richard Hawkins, who
could never quite manage to disguise his
enjoyment of battle; Ted Francis, who
started out with an idealised picture of the
war and ended with a deep hatred of all
the bloodshed that it involved; ‘Smiler’
Marshall, always ready with a song, along
with many other veterans that the author
met over many years.
The author powerfully documents the
suffering, courage, humour and friendships
that these veterans experienced during the
Great War. The inclusion of events in 1919
is welcome, as we learn how they managed
to get on with their lives after the conflict.
The book has an excellent collection of
black and white pictures of the men in the
war, together with more recent images of the
same men at home, revisiting the Western
Front and at the various veterans’ reunions.
I thoroughly recommend this book as a
splendid reference and fitting tribute to the
remarkable lives of the Great War veterans.
The Google Story by David Vise,
Macmillan, £14.99. ISBN 1405053712
In 1998 two young, poor but very clever
students dropped out of graduate school at
Stanford University to, in their own words,
‘change the world.’ Their idea was to set
up an internet search engine that would
organise every bit of information on the
Web for free.
Whilst far too complicated to understand
let alone explain, Larry Page and Sergey Brin
somehow downloaded the entire content
of the internet by buying up lots of bargain
computers and linking them up with cables
in an old garage. Google was born.
Based on scrupulous research, David Vise
takes the reader on an extraordinary rags to
riches story. We learn about the venture that
turned an academic project to an explosive
Wall Street IPO in 2004, and transformed
Brin and Page into billionaires.
The different Silicon Valley firms
that refused to buy the search engine for
$1million must still be kicking themselves
as Google rapidly overtook all existing
players like AltaVista and Ask Jeeves.
Such is the power of the technology
that apparently the CIA even uses Google
to track terrorist groups. Not surprisingly,
the days of working in a garage have long
since gone and the company is now based
in new futuristic offices ‘Googleplex’.
Vise is clearly taken in by Google’s
promotion of modern idealism in the work
place. Examples include the fact that there
is a free canteen serving organic food, and
that 20 per cent of employees’ time can
be spent on research that is personal and
has no obvious benefit to Google.
Stories and anecdotes about the
extraordinary growth of this ‘upstart’
company, and of its unconventional
founders, abound. Indeed the strength of
Vise’s book comes from its command of
the many small details, and its focus on the
human side of the Google story, as opposed
to the merely academic one.
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt, Fourth
Estate, £18.99. ISBN 100007173989
Fans of Frank McCourt’s previous books,
Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis, will no doubt enjoy
his reminiscences of a career as an English
teacher in the public high schools of New
A book about teaching may not sound
enthralling, but McCourt’s background as
an impoverished, illiterate and idealistic Irish
teenager, combined with his ability to tell a
good story, make his reminiscences of thirty
years in a classroom highly entertaining.
Indeed, the lilting style and phonetic
writing style that so marked out his last two
books, continues to be ever-present in this
third, and most likely, final memoir.
The story of how he became a teacher
is more impressive than his experiences as a
teacher, but the latter nonetheless makes good
reading. After talking his way into New York
University and gaining a literature degree,
McCourt embarks on a career in which he
estimates he probably taught 12,000 pupils.
He was an unconventional teacher and
this led to his removal from a number of
schools – most notably it seems for talking
about himself rather than the subjects in the
syllabus. Indeed, thanks to this third memoir,
we now know how often he rehearsed and
refined the stories about his Irish childhood
prior to Angela’s Ashes being written.
McCourt’s oratory and energy was,
however, for the most part popular and
inspiring with the pupils. Less imaginative
colleagues frowned on his teaching style
and he was often not far away from trouble.
One incident he still regrets was when,
following an argument with his wife at home,
he brought his temper into a lesson and
slapped a troubled boy who had defied him.
His views on education make interesting
reading and he vehemently argues against a
system intent on attaining grades and going
to college. There is certainly a lot of selfcongratulation
about his lessons, along with
some mitigating self-depreciation, but it
is hard to begrudge a man whose effortless
prose and fascinating life make one want
to read on.
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