Age 69….Is this the best book I have ever read?

I love History, studied it at Manchester Grammar School and University, and have been 91XjOCuJA9L.jpgreading History books of all kinds ever since. It is high on my list of most intense personal pleasures. Now here is a book which has taken me two or three months to read with lots of concentrated effort, but which has been a joy from start to finish. Not only was it sheer pleasure, but I learned something new on virtually every page. It is deeply researched, masterful in its breadth, written with a loving hand, entertaining, full of surprises, and comprehensively covers English history from around 600 AD up to the Cameron government. All the time it is drawing conclusions and comparisons and linkages across the ages which show we are in the hands of a master. And, really, really important for me as a historian, it is not politically correct. How wonderful and surprising is that in this age of ours where we are not allowed to celebrate, for instance, the pluses of Empire as well as the minuses, where we are not allowed to judge actions in their own context instead of imposing our own standards. I can do no better than quote an equally enthusiastic reviewer in that left-wing rag The Observer……

“The English and Their History, by the Professor of French History at Cambridge, Robert Tombs, is a work of supreme intelligence. Intelligence cuts its way through orthodoxy, dogmas, traditions and shibboleths rather as engineers hack their way through forests and mountains, slice open outcrops of nature and forge exciting new routes to old destinations. In this vigorous, subtle and penetrating book, Tombs defies the proprieties of our politically motivated national history curriculum to rethink and revise notions of national identity.”

You can read from Tombs himself the positive way in which he approached this masterwork….“By the standards of humanity as a whole, England over the centuries has been among the richest, safest and best governed places on earth, as periodical influxes of people testify,” he writes. “Its living standards in the 14th century were higher than much of the world in the 20th… We who have lived in England since 1945 have been among the luckiest people in the existence of Homo sapiens, rich, peaceful and healthy.” He holds no truck with declinism as espoused by nearly all historians when discussing our post-war history, but he does draw many conclusions about our current position and where we go from here which should make us stand back and analyse how to proceed very much based on the lessons of history…which of course is what history is for.

I have absolutely no idea how Robert Tombs has managed to read around his subject so comprehensively and critically. Of course it is a lifetime’s work. The footnotes, references and further reading alone take up nearly 100 pages and believe it or not they are great reading. I take my hat off to this historian. This is a truly magnificent piece of work and yes I would say the best book I have ever read.

Unknown-1.jpeg‘Absolutely filthy’ was how screenwriter Andrew Davies, (well-known to Frances as a customer of hers at Kenilworth Books) described his adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Victorian lesbian romp ‘Tipping The Velvet’. “What’s it about?” …..’people sometimes asked me’, says Sarah Waters herself ‘when they had heard I’d written a novel – and I always had to brace myself, slightly, to answer. There was the awkwardness of explaining the rather risque title. There was the fact that I outed myself the moment I began to reveal the plot. And then there was the plot itself – because, oh dear, how lurid it sounded, how improbable, above all how niche, the tale of a Victorian oyster girl who loses her heart to a male impersonator, becomes her partner in bed and on the music hall stage, and then, cruelly abandoned, has a spell as a cross-dressed Piccadilly prostitute and the sexual plaything of a rich older woman before finding true love and redemption with an East End socialist.’

If you can put up with the antique lesbian lingo, using, or cheerfully misusing, some of the words and phrases – “toms”, “mashers”, “tipping the velvet” itself, you can have an enjoyable time reading this novel. And Sarah Waters isn’t a half-bad story teller. Good, light bed-time reading.

a9dc6a034278e24584ca3a173b908bd8.jpgHaving recently walked past Menabilly, the house where Daphne Du Maurier was a tenant and which she restored, I thought it was about time I read ‘Rebecca’. The front cover of my copy quoted Sarah Waters ‘One of the most influential novels of the twentieth century….A stunning book’ – sentiments  which I can understand, but don’t entirely agree with. Despite my 69 years of reading, amazingly I didn’t even know the plot line. I have to say I really enjoyed it. Du Maurier is a romantic novelist in the best sense of that term, not at all soppy, and she knows how to build and maintain a story. But this story is not a romance …it has rather darker themes. “It’s a bit on the gloomy side,” she told her publisher, Victor Gollancz. The idea for the book had emerged out of her own jealousy about the woman to whom her husband, Tommy “Boy” Browning, had briefly been engaged. She had looked at their love letters, and the big elegant “R” with which Jan Ricardo signed her name had made her painfully aware of her own shortcomings as a woman and a wife. On such foundations the tale is told. Well worth the read, I do enjoy Du Maurier as a writer.

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