I am a bad, bad Nottingham devotee. I didn’t know that the Leen was a tributary of the Trent until I picked up this book and then Wiki-ed “Leen”. I know that the Fleet ran/runs underneath London, but I didn’t know what rivers and canals helped establish my home.
I also don’t know the entire history of the gentry and landowners around here, apart from a bit about Wollaton Hall and the Castle. But luckily there is a book like Leen Times (and its precursor, Narrow Marsh) which provides a highly readable background to early 19th century Nottingham, with a bit of plot thrown in against the slightly cardboard characters.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It wasn’t “good”, but it wasn’t that bad, and I liked it. I thought Narrow Marsh had more dramatic tension – the plot was clearer and the villain was less cardboard-cut-out – but I wasn’t reading it for the plot, really. I was reading it for the references to places I know, for the evocation of being where I am but not when I am, for picturing Nottingham and Beeston and Chilwell before they became almost one entity.
And that’s what I got. The main characters wandering through the streets and highways on their way to Beeston and Chilwell, stopping at some points that still exist today (and some that don’t). They talk about the Reform Act riots that happened in Wollaton Park – that was the topic of the last performance tour at the Galleries of Justice that I went on. They witness the burning of the Beeston Silk Mill and hear about the burning of Nottingham Castle.
It also made me wonder about the history of some things – like the Hallams. The greengrocer in Beeston is called “Hallam’s” – is that a connection to the Hallam who was manager of the Chilwell manor, or the Hallams of Hallams Lane? Was the Duke of Newcastle oppressive, or was he just conservative and uninterested? How long did it take to get Beeston’s silk mill running again, and how does the silk trade reflect in how Beeston is now?
But, like I say, the writing wasn’t great. There was more than one moment that could have used an editor, either to say “This is really obvious” or “This is unnecessary.” (A particularly egregious sentence pointed out the irony of the hero having gone down the same path as the villain, several years before. But the villain is unaware of the fact that it’s the same path! Look at the irony!) And I do think that the story itself, such as it was, suffered from having the same villain as the first book. The “revenge” storyline was weak and the villain became a little bit one-dimensional and insane because of it. I think if the main conflict storyline had been more interwoven with the railroad storyline – for example, have a villain be a canal rival who wants to stop railroad development, or even something more on the modern side where people don’t want to see their land going for a railroad – it could have been a stronger book.
As research goes, though, it’s clearly a labour of love, and evocative enough. People outside the Nottingham area aren’t going to be able to find it, I don’t think – but then they might not care about the background as much as I do.