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Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation, by John Sutherland, Aurum Press, RRP£14.99, 288 pages

John Sutherland, the literary critic, explores another of his interests: elephants. Here, he tells the story of Jumbo, the world’s best known elephant before Disney’s Dumbo.

Born in the early 1860s in what is now Eritrea, Jumbo came via Paris to London Zoo, where he gave rides to children (including a young Churchill). Zoo-goers didn’t know about the methods used to keep him crowd-friendly. But it got too much for his keepers when he reached sexual maturity and Jumbo was sold to PT Barnum, shipped to the US and paraded as the biggest elephant on earth before his possibly alcohol-fuelled death.

Sutherland intersperses the tale with personal memories and ponders everything from the presence of elephants in Heart of Darkness to how much wine it might take to kill one. Pithy, wide-ranging and very funny.

Review by Orlando Bird

Imagination and a Pile of Junk: A Droll History of Inventors and Inventions, by Trevor Norton, Coronet, RRP£16.99, 448 pages

Trevor Norton’s whistle-stop tour of the inventions that have shaped history has one eye firmly on the absurd.

Norton, emeritus professor at the University of Liverpool, rattles through everything from the discovery of fire to the development of rubber tyres. As the subtitle suggests, he has injected a wryness that at times consists of rather feeble jokes or unnecessary topical references. For example: “Archimedes’ screw lifted water to higher levels. Even today it’s used for mincing meat and ‘pumping’ sewage – though not both at the same time.” Elsewhere, Thor Heyerdahl’s raft is described as “safer than the Costa Concordia cruise liner”.

Yet, at his best, Norton tells engaging stories in a very readable manner; who knew that Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr contributed to torpedo guidance systems?

Review by Carl Wilkinson

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