Book review: ‘Who?’ by Donough O’Brien

'Who?' by Donough O'Brien
'Who?' by Donough O'Brien

Most of us are intrigued by the question ‘Whatever happened to...?’ but now the ever-inventive Donough O’Brien has taken the idea one step further by asking ‘Whoever was . . .?’

Author of several ‘quirky history’ books, including Fame by Chance, Numeroids, In the Heat of the Battle and Banana Skins, O’Brien has trawled through the archives to unearth over 200 of the most remarkable people you have probably never even heard of.

‘Who?’ is a real labour of love, a coruscating cornucopia of amazing facts and charismatic characters, some of them remarkable for their hidden deeds of merit, others for their deceitful, dangerous, crooked or cruel dealings, but all of them fiendishly fascinating.

As O’Brien points out, ‘in a world dominated by often shallow celebrity, many remarkable people have remained unknown and unlauded.’ High time then that the legion of ‘unrecognised’ were finally given some overdue recognition.

Discover who made rock music possible, who created the ‘Green Revolution,’ who stopped Catholic priests marrying, who inspired the Red Cross, who really made penicillin work, who was the ‘bravest man at Waterloo,’ who first broke the sound barrier and who brought us jazz, swing, country and rock ‘n’ roll.

There are also answers to the eclectic questions of whose hand does the Foreign Legion salute, who designed the first bra, whose driving error started the First World War, who invented the ‘hole in the wall’ ATM and whose blood cells are ’immortal.’

The north of England has produced its own curious conundrums. Take the strange case of Leslie Jackson, the illegitimate son of an 18-year-old girl from Blackpool, who took the assumed name of John Patrick Kenneally after being jailed for deserting the Royal Artillery under his real name, joined the Irish Guards and was awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery in North Africa in 1943.

He received a radio tribute from no other than Prime Minister Winston Churchill who praised ‘Lance-Corporal Kenneally’ as an Irish hero little realising that he was actually more English than himself.

And how about Professor Chaim Weizmann of Manchester University who created acetone out of horse chestnut ‘conkers’ for Britain’s shells in the First World War and was rewarded with a state called Israel, of which he was later president.

When a grateful PM Lloyd George asked the Zionist professor after the war what he would like as a reward for his vital work, Weizmann pleaded for help to establish a homeland for the Jews in Palestine and the historic ‘Balfour Declaration’ was inaugurated.

Another notable but unsung North West personality is Oldham-born Ivan Hirst who rescued Volkswagen from the ruins of war, got it working, tried unsuccessfully to give it to the British and eventually had to hand it back to the Germans who made it the world’s biggest car company.

Oldham features too in the story of American-born socialite Jenny Jerome, the beautiful and scandalous mother of Winston Churchill. Having cruelly neglected him in childhood, she threw her weight behind the rising star from the moment he won the Oldham seat in the 1900 general election.

O’Brien has also dug out the entertaining stories of New Yorker Mary Phelps Jacob who created the first real ‘bra’ in 1913 to improve the appearance of her sheer evening gown, Leeds-born gangster ‘Owney’ Madden who terrorised the streets of New York in the 1920s and Tommy Flowers, a GPO engineer born in London’s East End, who helped build the world’s first computer.

From learning who discovered Guinness to finding out the identity of John F.Kennedy’s first dangerous lover, this is an impressive anthology of the unknown that you will want to dip into, enjoy and return to time and time again.

Discovering the undiscovered has never been so much fun!

(Bene Factum Publishing, paperback, £12.99)