11th November 1994 at 00:00
Christopher Fitz-Simon's The Boys (Nick Hern Books pound;9.99) is sub-titled "A biography of Miche l MacLammo r and Hilton Edwards". Lovers and luvvies, the first was a flamboyant Englishman who reinvented himself as an even more extrovert Irishman. His partner remained English, formal to the point of wearing a suit even when rehearsing.

Together they founded and ran Dublin's Gate Theatre Company. They staged a heady mixture of new writing, classics and the occasional commercial potboiler. This is not actually their biography (it is woefully short on scandal) but more a meticulous (that is, over-detailed) chronicle of the Gate, its productions and ructions.

Just down the road, Yeats, Synge and the formidable Lady Gregory were equally busy founding Dublin's Abbey Theatre and inventing an Irish dramatic tradition to stage there. The two theatres were consequently known as Sodom and Begorrah.

Many of these colourful characters crop up in a variety of new books on well-worn Irish themes. Peter Costello's comprehensive James Joyce (Macmillan Papermac pound;10.99) covers 1882-1915 and shows how that period provided him with the raw material for Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

At this rate we shall soon know as much about Joyce as he tells us about Leopold Bloom's day in Dublin in the mammoth Ulysses - but Costello has found enough new information to justify yet another Joycean biography.

Dublin has now "accepted" another of its literary sons. Oscar Wilde has become respectable with the passage of time - but Gary Schmidgall's The Stranger Wilde (Abacus pound;8.99) does nothing to play down his gayness. It is a lively, almost tabloid-y biography that suggests his sexual orientation is the key to his plays. Whatever else it may or may not achieve, there is plenty of the sort of anecdotes that are so tantalizingly missing from Fitz-Simon's book.

While Oscar was in trouble on account of the boys, the politician Charles Stewart Parnell's little local difficulty was one Kitty (or, correctly, Katie) O'Shea. It was his being cited in a divorce case that ended his brilliant, short career.

As it was, as leader of the Irish party at Westminster, he still built the nationalist movement into a powerful political force - and Robert Kee's The Laurel and the Ivy (Penguin Books pound;8.99) is not only a lucid biography but an account of the rise of that movement and an insight into the traditions that still determine Irish politics.

While Kee takes a microscope to a decade, Johan Goudsblom races across the centuries in his highly original Fire and Civilization (Penguin Books pound;7.99) Basically, he tells the story of our use of fire and how we control it from the dawn of civilisation, stopping off in ancient Israel, Greece and Rome, up to the industrial revolution and on to modern times.

Arson, ritual and warfare all make their appearances. There is also plenty of fascinating detail. For example, fire brigades, made up of slaves, were suspect in Rome as they tended to turn into political parties. The heating in the Palace of Versailles was so poor that, during a banquet, the wine once froze to the table. A book to fuel a thousand classroom projects.

More formal scientific history can be found in the various hefty volumes that make up the Fontana History of Science. Among those published so far are Donald Cardwell's The Fontana History of Technology (pound;9.99) which stretches from antiquity to the space age; and John North's equally comprehensive The Fontana History of Astronomy and Cosmology (pound;12.99).

Rather more of a coffee table paperback in appearance is The Grand Tour by Ron Miller amp; William K Hartmann (Workman Publishing pound;9.99). Using a huge range of sumptuous photographs and paintings, the authors take us on a tour of the planets, moons and asteroids that form our solar system. I never knew there was so much in it.

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