I invested in the hardback when it appeared ten years ago and it has proved a positive treasure trove of observations, denunciations and celebrations. Anyone teaching the Industrial Revolution or the history of science (and technology) must have his or her own copy.
One particular aspect of this pandmonium is chronicled in greater detail in Jack Simmons' The Victorian Railway (Thames and Hudson #163;16.95). A proper social history rather than a railway buff's plaything, it considers the Victorian railway mania and its impact on the landscape; its vandalism of such towns and cities as Shrewsbury, Newcastle and York; the ways it so radically altered postal communication and also created the concept of popular leisure travel.
Turning from technology to pure science, Orion Publishing is reissuing its "Science Masters" as Phoenix Paperbacks (#163;4. 99 each). Quite the most fascinating is Paul Davies' admittedly speculative The Last Three Minutes in which he ponders the end of the world.
This could be on August 21, 2126 when the comet Swift-Tuttle crashes into our planet. Then again, you could accept the calculations of those scientists who think (hope?) it will miss us by two weeks. His conclusion is that, if the universe has a purpose, it will have an ending. Whether that is a bang or a whimper (or rather a crash or a long freeze), we don't know. The really bad news is that, if it's a crash, the intergalactic object (be it a neutron star, brown dwarf or black hole) is already on its way.
Two other titles in the series are less worrying in that they look backwards. In The Origin of the Universe, John D Barrow brings us up-to-date with the debate over the Big Bang theory (this non-scientist found his prose less accessible than that of Davies); while in The Origin of Humankind, Richard Leakey updates us on the great fossil hunt.
In his very readable book, he shares his enthusiasm for the study of primitive human remains and also tells us what the constantly changing science of anthropology now says about the development of modern man. Why, for example, did our ancestors' brains expand by a third 2.5 million years ago? And why do human adolescents (alone among mammals) experience a sudden spurt of growth of about 25 per cent?
That the past is another country is immediately apparent from James Joyce's Ireland by David Pierce (Yale #163;12.95). This weighty, profusely illustrated guide to the topography and contemporary allusions of Joyce's writing pictures everything we might need picturing. Since there is a fleeting reference in Ulysses (episode eight, line 743) to Plumtree's Potted Meat, here we have a photograph of the said potted meat.
It is easy to mock some of its minutiae but it is highly evocative and will help any student of Joyce to visualise such locations as the Jesuit college, the streets of Edwardian Dublin and also the writer's contemporaries.
Focusing on a literary figure on another scale, Harry Thompson has produced a warts-and-all yet sympathetic biography of Richard Ingrams: Lord of the Gnomes (Mandarin #163;6. 99). This story of the man who so often steered Private Eye into the courts (and out again) will fascinate anyone who was at Shrewsbury School in the fifties, addicts of the Eye and the reader of Ingrams' Observer column. If you really want to know what Dempster thinks of Hislop, Hislop of Peter Cook, Ingrams of them all . . .
Mr Ingrams is 58.