LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

The Great Explosion

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3-star

by Brian Dillon.

Brian Dillon’s “The Great Explosion” takes us on exploration of the north Kent marshes, through the site and history of a munitions accident that killed 108 people in 1916. In the middle of WWI, weapons manufacture was at an all-time high, and the Cotton Powder Company, together with its neighbour the Explosives Loading Company were stretched to capacity and beyond. It was perhaps inevitable that, despite the many precautions taken against such incidents, something would go wrong. Dillon looks at the history of explosives, the set-up and running of the factories at Uplees, various depictions of explosions in art and literature, the after-effects of the 1916 tragedy, and a number of industrial landscapes in the area.

I’m content to have read this book – there were some good bits – but it didn’t flow: Dillon’s detailed descriptions of mostly empty landscapes, together with his repeated need to insert himself into the narrative (either by mentioning his pointed trespassing or his unusual camera), made for a dull and halting start, and finish. The middle section rambles through a world of explosion-related literature and art: e.g. “Russell Hoban’s [post-apocalyptic novel] ‘Riddley Walker’ is … as much in the atmosphere of cultural stasis it evokes as at the level of its hectic linguistic texture”. There follows seven pages of plot summary – excessively illustrated with quotes in the novel’s patois. Many other novels and paintings are also described in great detail (and we get two and a half pages about a dead horse). While Dillon’s extended philosophising and literary/artistic comparisons add another layer to the narrative, I found these references tedious; not because I don’t enjoy the arts (I do), but because his digressions rarely seemed to reach much conclusion, and felt out-of-place in an otherwise-scientific approach.

Sadly, the book’s illustrations are of little use; apart from the somewhat self-indulgent pictures at the start and finish, they are too small to see much detail and all lack captions. Many pictures are described in the text (sometimes in *huge* detail – in at least two cases referring to coloured aspects of pictures printed in black and white), but there’s no substitute for a decent set of prints. Frustratingly, there are only two map details included (with minuscule print), and although one is reprinted in full on the cover, the area affected by the explosions is heavily obscured by the blurb!

Dillon is at his best when sticking to the facts, and his descriptions of explosive manufacture, the accident itself, and the effects of the sound and shock waves, are informative; but overall, this book struck me as a mishmash, more an observation than an analysis, and without enough focus on any one approach to be satisfying. It’s piqued my interest on the subject of explosives, but I doubt I’ll want to read it again.

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