One American Too Many

One American Too Many: Boss Badger and the Brisbane Trams, by David Burke

Queensland Museum, (2012), Paperback, 126 pages


One of my interests that I rarely get a chance to indulge in these days is historic trams and trains. I have had a long-term interest in the history and fate of the tramway system in my own home city of Brisbane. Between 1897 and 1969, Brisbane had one of the best-run, most efficient and most popular electric tram systems in Australia. Then it was casually thrown away, for no particularly good reason other than to allow more cars on the roads, and its loss has been regretted ever since, even by those who were responsible for its demise in the first place. However, this book doesn’t deal with the unhappy end of Brisbane’s trams, but rather the triumphant beginning and somewhat turbulent early years. The central figure in this tale is Joseph Stillman Badger, a no-nonsense American technocrat who presided over the electrification of Brisbane’s horse-drawn network, and then ran the system with an iron fist for the next 25 years. Badger was an autocrat in the finest sense of the word. A non-drinker himself, he made his tram crews into teetotalers by enforcing a strict liquor ban. Not surprisingly he had a particular aversion to trade unionism, and fought vigorously and sometimes nastily to keep the trams de-unionized. This led to a major confrontation in 1912, when he banned tram drivers from wearing union badges to work and then stood down those who defied the edict. This galvanized the union movement and led to a crippling general strike, which paralyzed Brisbane for weeks. The strike eventually petered out and a court decision forced Badger to allow his workers to wear the badges, but Badger’s iron grip remained on Brisbane’s trams until 1922, when the Labor government effectively nationalised the trams, buying out Badger’s company for what he considered a thoroughly inadequate price. This is a fascinating work of history, with excellent pictorial accompaniment, and provides a great glimpse of Brisbane’s early years as it struggled from dirt-streeted settlement to modern capital city. Thoroughly recommended for all those interested, not just in Brisbane’s history, but of the development of public transport in the 20th century.



Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz

Orion (2014), Paperback, 320 pages


Question: How do you write a Sherlock Holmes story that does not feature Sherlock Holmes at all? Answer: You write a story about Professor Moriarty after he and Holmes have allegedly disappeared over the Reichenbach Falls. Well, that’s not entirely true, because Moriarty only figures in this story initially as a corpse. However, as the novel is entitled Moriarty, the reader gets a fair idea that the criminal mastermind will turn up alive and well at some stage. But for the most part, the novel is the story of Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones and Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase, who team up to bring down a vicious gang of American criminals intent on taking over the London underworld. Holmes and Watson do not figure in the action at all, only mentioned in passing, although the shadow of the great detective inevitably hangs heavily over the story. To my mind, this is not quite as good a story as Horowitz’s immaculate The House of Silk, which took Holmes fan fiction to whole new levels. The lack of Holmes and Watson’s presence, despite the author’s best efforts, makes the story seem a trifle mundane and forced, although its still a good, solid read, and, in particular, the massive, gobsmacking sting in the tail is handled very well. As always, I look forward to Horowitz’s next outing in the series. Let’s hope he brings back Holmes and Watson from their enforced holiday this time.


Fatal Rivalry

Fatal Rivalry: Henry VIII, James IV and the battle for Renaissance Britain – Flodden, 1513, by George Goodwin

Phoenix (2014), 288 pages


It would be is no secret to anyone who has perused my little blog that I have a passionate interest in Scottish history. It is, after all, the land of my ancestors, and its particular history has always been chockful of the sort of real-life drama I adore. As it happens, the last two years have been particularly memorable in terms of Scottish history. Not only the historic independence vote, but the twin anniversaries, within months of each other, of two of the most significant battles in Scotland’s bloody history of warfare against its larger neighbour to the south. This year, of course, marks the 700th anniversary of Scotland’s greatest ever victory against the old foe, at Bannockburn, which has been well celebrated. However, receiving much less attention, for probably obvious reasons, is that last year marked the 500th anniversary of Scotland’s worst ever defeat at the hands of the English. The old saying, victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan, was never more appropriate. Whereas there have been at least a dozen books published to commemorate Bannockburn and/or the Bruce ascendancy, this is the only one I have been able to discover dealing with the tragedy of another promising Scottish king, who led Scotland’s largest ever army confidently over the border into the northern moors of England, and never returned, dying along with thousands of his soldiers in the mud of a nondescript piece of wasteland known as Flodden. Goodwin’s book lays out in detail the events leading up to this tragedy, from the both the English and Scottish points of view, starting with the ascent of the Tudor dynasty at Bosworth Field, the accession of the young. energetic and charismatic James IV to the throne of Scotland, and the ensuing rivalry between the youthful upstart Henry VIII and his Scottish counterpart for the title of premier monarch of Britain. Early on it seemed as if permanent peace might be at hand between the old rivals. James had married Henry’s sister, promising a future possible union of the crowns, and a Treaty of Perpetual Peace had been signed, However, it was not to be. Incidents, insults, misunderstandings, and the activities of the lawless elements who controlled the border between the two nations led to repeated threats of invasion and war, which finally came to a head in 1513, when James, taking advantage of the fact that Henry was fighting in France and had left his Queen Katharine in charge, decided to avenge a decade of slights by invading England with a massive army and a huge train of artillery. Outnumbering the English both numerically and in terms of firepower, James had a huge advantage, and by all rights should have won a comprehensive victory. However, he was brought low by, of all things, the wet and slippery ground of Flodden field, which meant his formidable army of pikemen could not gain the footing necessary to push the English off the field. The battle became a rout, James was felled by an arrow to the jaw, and the Scots were slaughtered, with hardly any of their senior nobles escaping. It was a devastating defeat that condemned Scotland to nearly a century of near-anarchy, but established Henry VIII, although he took no part in the battle, as one of the premier monarchs of Europe. This is a tragic story, excellently told by Goodwin in an economical but entertaining style that never gets bogged down in minutiae. Highly recommended for all history buffs, even those with no particular interest in Scottish history.