Reading Matters….and a film

140460.jpgStella Rimington makes use of all her history and knowledge as Director General of MI5 in her series of novels about her alter ego Liz Carlyle. I hadn’t read one of her novels for some time but having picked up this at a good price it was to be my bedtime reading for some nights. However ‘The Geneva Trap’ was so good that I couldn’t resist delving into it during the daytime too. It was a great read from beginning to end. Basic outline of the plot from Bloomsbury (terrific publisher)….’Geneva, 2012. When a Russian intelligence officer approaches MI5 with vital information about the imminent cyber-sabotage of an Anglo-American Defence programme, he refuses to talk to anyone but Liz Carlyle. But who is he, and what is his connection to the British agent?
At a tracking station in Nevada, US Navy officers watch in horror as one of their unmanned drones plummets out of the sky, and panic spreads through the British and American Intelligence services. Is this a Russian plot to disable the West’s defences? Or is the threat coming from elsewhere?
As Liz and her team hunt for a mole inside the MOD, the trail leads them from Geneva, to Marseilles and into a labyrinth of international intrigue, in a race against time to stop the Cold War heating up once again…’

But the plot is just a part of the enjoyment – the relationships between key personnel in MI5 and MI6 are a significant element in the development of the story. And the locations are characterful (I do actually think Stella Rimington could make a bit more of ‘location’). I really would highly recommend this novel. Just as good as Le Carre, Graham Greene etc and you can’t give higher praise than that. I must buy some more.

the-girl-in-the-spiders-web-1-e1537879398393-700x356.jpgYesterday we went to Vue Plymouth to see the latest Scandi-Noir film – ‘The Girl In The Spider’s Web’. Now I have read the book (an unfinished script by Stieg Larsson) which I enjoyed, but the reviews of the film were what you call mixed, so I wasn’t anticipating a great afternoon. However I really enjoyed our outing to the cinema (so much more of an experience than sitting at home watching on a small screen, as I have said many a time). And the lead was just great. We had seen both Swedish and American versions of ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, both with good lead actresses, but the Swedish version infinitely superior, so I was really apprehensive about seeing Claire Foy (recently, I hear, good as Queen Elizabeth II / Princess Elizabeth) in the demanding role. I regarded her as a somewhat conservative actor. She was absolutely marvellous here. The film itself was a bit James Bond-like with massive action, chases, gadgetry and all the rest, the plot obviously implausible. But that mattered not at all. You sank yourself into the adventure and went along with it. The only annoying thing? Film scheduled for 1.15pm, didn’t actually start until 1.50pm after all the adverts and previews. Far too long.

My worthy reading matter for a few months has been ‘Soul of the Age’ by Jonathan 51AKsVqp0TL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgBate, subtitles ‘the Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare’. An incredible piece of work, almost a lifetime’s work you would say (except that Jonathan is still young). David Crystal concludes ‘completely fresh and full of surprises…’. It is certainly that. And Simon Russell Beale..’bursting with new idea and crafty analysis…’. I just wonder whether Jonathan is at times, quite often in fact, too clever by half. His knowledge is certainly immense. From the early stages when he talks of Lear’s fantastic garland

‘Crowned with rank fumiter, and furrow weeds,                                                                         With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo flowers,                                                                     Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow                                                                                                                                         In our sustaining corn.’

and comments that these are exactly what one would find in an arable field and its margin in England at the end of Summer, one is almost bewitched by the superior knowledge on display and keen to learn, so that we can appreciate Shakespeare in a new light. But the more Jonathan delves into Shakespeare’s life and his world,  and the wider he casts his net, the less plausible do I find his conclusions. He is keen to castigate critic after critic, but his own jumps in reasoning based on the flimsiest of evidence or downright supposition led me fairly soon to lose faith. Having said that, I found the whole book incomparably interesting and, as his friend Beale said, a dazzling portrait.
27/11/2018

Reading matters…….and an important film

51ZsJbutzLL.jpgThis book has been at the back of my mind for some reason, so I dug it out for  a re-read after, what, 40 years or more. It is one of George Orwell’s most powerful and best novels. Let’s get it clear, I am one of those currently politically-incorrect people who believe the British Empire did far more good in the world than critics (who tend to concentrate on single events or themes) would have you believe. And in any case, as a historian, I would argue that it is absolutely impossible to set huge infrastructure improvements, educational and civilising influences, the keeping of the peace world-wide for long periods, etc etc against slavery in the early stages of the Empire, and various unjustifiable (in today’s terms) massacres and ill-treatment of subject nations. The Empire was of its time. It was what it was. However this novel by Orwell is a very, very powerful rebuke to people like me and an antidote to any positive reading of the ‘benefits’ of Empire. I was surprised to find out that this was Orwell’s first novel. It certainly doesn’t read like a first. Basically it tells the tale of a minor English player in Burma in the waning days of the Empire, how he lives and loves, how he reacts unsuccessfully to the embittered views of other members of the Club in the little town in Burma where the story is set. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, and the protagonist’s life and death are perhaps a metaphor for Empire itself. It is based actually on Orwell’s own experiences, he spent five years from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma. In a letter from 1946, Orwell said “I dare say it’s unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen”. It was dynamite in its day and only published in the States at first, and it’s not hard to see why. In my opinion a great read.

We recently found a WHSmith’s remainder outlet in Plymouth. I have never seen one before. Anyhow it inevitably led to the buying of some books. We got a Peter James 817flfX-18L.jpgsigned hardback ‘Dead Man’s Time’ for £6, not bad. It has been my bedtime reading. As always Peter has interesting characters including his protagonist DS Grace. But all the major and minor actors are well-drawn. And as always there is a slightly unusual story line. In this case a 95 year old wanting revenge for something that happened in his childhood, and revenge for the recent torture and murder of his elder sister. The plot is interesting and takes lots of turns. Brighton doesn’t feature quite as much as in some of his novels…a shame as I like a strong ‘Place’ element. But with the plot capturing you and lots of small chapters (ideal for bedtime reading) what’s not to like. Procedure, one assumes, is exemplary as Peter has intimate access to lots and lots of Police folk in Brighton and he makes full use of his detailed knowledge of how the Police work. All in all another thoroughly enjoyable novel by one of the creme de la creme in Crime writers.

1_PeterlooFilm.jpgWe saw recently the Mike Leigh film ‘Peterloo’. Maxine Peak, one of my favourite actresses, is one of the main characters. A review I had read in The Times had slated it, mainly it seems on the grounds that there was too much dialogue in meetings etc and not enough action. How feeble critics are. What a world we live in where there has to be movement and action all the time! It was quite long at two and a half hours but I didn’t notice this ……unlike The Times critic I was absorbed. What it is about is the background to, and the events of, the Peterloo ‘massacre’ in 1819. The Guardian precises it nicely…’     On 16 August 1819, at what we would now call a pro-democracy demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, an excitable band of cavalry and yeomanry – whose commander had airily absented himself for a day at the races – charged with sabres drawn into a crowd of 60,000 unarmed people, many of whom were unable to escape the enclosed space. The troops killed 18 and injured hundreds more……It was Britain’s 19th-century mix of Sharpeville and Hillsborough. The government was entirely delighted with the result, and not displeased with the nickname “Peterloo”, as it felt like a rerun of its victory over Napoleon, the creature of something it continued to fear intensely: the French Revolution.’                                                                                                                             But the thing is, it was in many ways a victory for democracy – for never again would any Government allow such dramatic military actions to be taken against people expressing their free will in a public meeting. And eventually the Great Reform Act and Anti-Corn Laws legislation would be passed. It also led The Times to take up, to some degree, the whole issue of Reform, and almost directly led to the founding of The Manchester Guardian ( a great newspaper, sadly since its move to London a shadow of its former self). So a film on very important issues with some relevance to today and a topic ‘Peterloo’ which is hardly on the syllabus in schools. Mike Leigh himself has said children should be taught about Peterloo. “They will know about 1066 and Magna Carta and Henry VIII and his six wives and they may be told about the French revolution and the battle of Waterloo … [The massacre] was a major, major event which resonated down the 19th century into the 20th century in the context of democracy and suffrage.” Manchester Histories, a charity, is leading the campaign for Peterloo to be taught in all schools. What I didn’t like about the film (this and many others!) was how unrealistic the settings and stages were. It’s all very well finding a great location but covering the streets with sand of all things in order to hide yellow parking lines just doesn’t cut the mustard. The same with the characters. The poor of Manchester were atrociously dirty and smelly. It’s no use just dressing them up in costumes Hollywood-style. And everywhere was so clean. In reality you couldn’t see a hand in front of you because of the smoke and the smog. All wrong, wrong wrong……..

 

 

 

 

Reading matters….

Unknown.jpegAnother slow-burn Brunetti novel whose main elements are the setting – Venice, and Brunetti himself and his relationships with colleagues and family. The plot or plots take second place. A corrupt pharmacist, an entangled female doctor, and possible murder – all a bit humdrum. But how I like following Brunetti around Venice and seeing how his personal ups and downs work out. Quite a lot of philosophy in this one too, and moral dilemmas to make us think. And at the end of it all not a happy ending. I just love it…..Donna Leon is an excellent writer and certainly gets right beneath the skin of Italy and Italians, allowing us to understand things like the North-South divide, the irritation at tourists, and much else.

41Q9A8KC1YL_SS500_.jpegNow, we are off to Manchester for 5 days (it’s where I come from), to see whether this might be a place for our next house. Cornwall v Manchester – sounds like there is only one winner, but I’m not so sure. What Manchester has got (apart from some rain…..actually less rain than Plymouth over the year), is culture….restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatre, music, museums,  football (ManCity my team is the best in the world right now according to some authorities, and probably the best that there has been in the Premier League era), and loads of visible and easily accessible History. We were last up there for the Commonwealth Games and it had much improved from my youth. My thinking is that it will have improved another several notches, from what I read. Anyhow, as always, before going anywhere I have done lots of research and dug out three or four books in particular. Charles Nevin’s ‘Lancashire’ is the pick of the bunch, a book that I simply couldn’t put down despite having read it at least twice before. It is so so funny, so enlightening, so full of mischief, and gets right to the heart of what it means to be a Lancastrian. And, for me, it is so nostalgic. Nevin talks of places I know, football line-ups which take me back 50 years, and  big names of Rugby League I had forgotten all about but which I can picture in full 3D colour or should that be Black and White. But don’t let that put you off. Nevin is everywhere – from listening in to old ladies on the bus, to discussing Shakespeare’s Lancashire period with eminent historians, to some of the higher reaches of philosophy, taking us on a journey at break-neck speed through everything Lancashire. Have you heard of Donizetti’s opera ‘Emilia Di Liverpool’? No neither had I! Think Southport has a touch of Paris about it – particularly in the tree-lined Lord Street? Think again. Haussmann modelled his new Paris on Southport (probably). Why, Balzac of all people has a character in his  ‘Le Lys Dans La Valle’ tell her seducer that Lancashire is ‘the county where women die of love’!! Thus the subtitle of this splendid book. I could go on, almost indefinitely, about why Lancashire is the best place to live, and Nevin certainly does go on, but let me leave you with this quote from Abraham Lincoln – talking of the Lancashire cotton workers’ solidarity with his North in the Civil War, and support for the abolition of slavery, whilst most of them were absolutely destitute – because of this support (cotton could no longer be got from the South to keep the mills running)….Lincoln called this ‘an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country’. Well!! I am proud.

41FFVDXZ9QL._SX257_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgOn now to my factual books each telling me about Manchester in very different ways. The modern Pevsner’s architectural guides are usually rather good, and in fact in my opinion a lot better than the originals which, although a massive and unparalleled achievement, are dry as dust. ‘Manchester’ by Clare Hartwell is much more contemporary. It discusses all the major buildings in Manchester at the date of publication. As this was 2002 it shows the real drawback of this type of book…..so much has happened since which isn’t covered. Still, an excellent introduction.

‘Manchester Compendium’ is different again. It is basically a street-by-street history of image-1.jpgthe city. So we are taken on walks through the centre and its most important suburbs. And interesting walks they are too. Glinert is a great guide. All human life is here, as the old News of the World used to say. Everything from the history of the buildings themselves, the people, their culture, it is a real mish-mash of often quirky stuff which is very engaging indeed. I learned a lot about my city that I didn’t know.

51zz2helysl-_sx345_bo1204203200_.jpg‘Manchester The Hidden History’ is a more conventional history but based mainly on the more recent archaeological surveys. and with all the new building that has been going on in the last 30 or so years there have been more than a few of those. More for the serious historian (as I sometimes imagine myself!). Can’t wait to get there.

 

 

 

 

Reading matters…

51YRVWrN1PL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgF. and I do have bus passes which enable us to travel free on all local buses – well except in Wales and Scotland, which is a pity. Still, what a privilege and how we make use of them. There are arguments currently going the rounds that the elderly are well-off and that the young should be given free bus passes in their place. However, how else would half the country spend their time, and what mischief would they get up to? Perhaps more to the point, if a pensioner takes a bus journey to somewhere he or she wouldn’t otherwise be going and spends money in that place, even if only a cup of tea and a biscuit then economic benefit has been gained. And before any political party is brave enough to abolish bus passes for the elders (and betters), they should first do the economic sums. All this a result of me picking up my copy of ‘Bus-pass Britain Rides Again’. A terrific book with individual contributors talking in some51fioyn7hol.jpg detail about their favourite (free) journeys. So many places to see, so little time! Having thoroughly enjoyed my re-read I sent away for ‘Route 63’ where Dave Hadfield travels the length and breadth of England on his bus-pass. A book of mild enjoyment. It is more stream of consciousness pub humour than anything else. You have to admire Dave. His free bus pass is because he has Parkinson’s. He is obviously someone you would really like to have a few pints with, but I could have done with just a bit less humour and witty asides and very subjective assessment and more nitty gritty.

Robert Harris has to be one of my very favourite authors. His books are so compelling and so well-researched. His Cicero trilogy was so convincing that you 51wi66ojsil-_sx331_bo1204203200_.jpgreally felt he had got to grips with what it was like to live in Ancient Rome. In ‘Munich’ he turns his attention to what went on in the two Governments – Germany and Britain – as events took their turn for the worse. He builds up a very believable main character in Hugh Legat a member of the Diplomatic Service who becomes intimately involved in key events as he does more and more work for Chamberlain. But I was particularly impressed with how we get a very rounded impression indeed of what Chamberlain was like and what he stood for. Much maligned by many historians this novel gives an alternative view and is all the better for that. And who is to say it is not correct? The Victorian historian Maitland cautioned ‘We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future’ (something many historians do not understand), and it is from this exact premise that Robert Harris constructs his novel. Very enjoyable indeed. there was program on TV recently about the Booker Prize where one commentator bemoaned the fact that someone such as Robert Harris would never win the Booker. How right he was. Better Robert Harris than a lot of the pretentious crap (excuse me) that does actually win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading matter and reading matters….

As ex-bookshop owners you would expect us to say that, but of course reading does matter and we are really glad to see our predictions come true and e-readers take a tumble in favour of real books. Our ex-shops Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books are thriving we are glad to Unknown.jpegsay. I have had quite a variety of reading material recently. From my shelves, previously unread, the Folio edition of ‘Sir Harry Hotspur’ by Trollope. Well, Trollope is always a slow-burn, and all the better for that, but this was a long drawn-out tale. It encompassed some of the themes Trollope does so well – class, ne’er-do-wells, Victorian morals, fate, love stories, pride before a fall, and once I got into it (which was a bit difficult) was very enjoyable indeed. It is in fact regarded as one of Trollope’s finest short novels and describes the vacillations of a land-owning father, torn between the desire to marry his daughter off to a cousin destined to inherit the family title, and his fear that the cousin, reportedly a gambler, liar and much else, is unworthy of her. The tale has an unhappy ending – top marks for that

A recent buy at half-price from the very much improved Waterstones was the new hardback Strike novel ‘Lethal White’. Here’s the blurb…’When Billy, a troubled young 91qWWm0iVML.jpgman, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.                                                                                           Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.                                                                                            And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that . . .’                                                                The key points about this very long story, more than 600 pages, are that the plot is convoluted (therefore difficult bed-time reading, at least in my eyes), rather far-fetched and at the same time rather boring, but the on-going relationship between Strike and Robin is by far the strongest theme running through it (and a good one). I can imagine Andrew Davies making hay with this! A little disappointing, certainly not a riveting thriller, but worth a half-price hardback purchase!

9781846682131_Z 2.jpegA book on railways? Surely for anoraks only, but no, this history of the railways covers an amazing array of aspects of social and industrial history and the profound influence that the railways had on them, and tells us a lot about the Victorian period and onwards which I for one, historian though I am, didn’t know. Indeed the book was The Sunday Times History Book of the Year in 2015Also, the publisher is Profile Books who publish the most interesting books around. And, the author is not any old railway nerd, (although he is a railway nerd ), but the joint editor of the Pevsner architectural guides so he has a wonderful pedigree.                                                                                                                           So what does Simon Bradley tell us? Or what doesn’t he tell us……I was interested for instance to learn that Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office tells, in his Autobiography, how he found “after a few days exercise I could write as quietly in a railway carriage as I could at my desk. In this way was composed the greater part of Barchester Towers.” In other words, railways changed lives. They changed the landscape. They changed the way Industry and Agriculture operated. They reinforced the class system. They were the basis for much technological change. And their building was one of the greatest physical achievements in our history.                                                                   But all at a cost. The social reformer Edwin Chadwick for instance compared the chances of death or serious injury among the workforce building the infrastructure with those of one of Wellington’s battles, concluding that a private soldier had a better chance of coming away unscathed from Waterloo or Salamanca than a navvy from Woodhead. This is what is great about Bradley’s book – as well as painting the big picture he supplies all kinds of memorable details that make this a book that anyone, not just enthusiasts for railways, would want to read. I heartily recommend it – to anyone.

 

 

Reading Matters……Hidden Histories, and more

A1SjTWkBayL.jpgNow this is one of those books for browsing. Subtitled, ‘A Spotter’s Guide To The British Landscape’, ‘Hidden Histories’ is just that. It answers lots and lots of interesting posers…..’Is that an ancient tomb?’; ‘It’s straight, but is it Roman?; ‘How old is this drystone wall?’; ‘What was kept in there?’. Basically it enjoins you to get out there and get your eye in. But many points of interest are mentioned throughout. For instance I didn’t know but Mary-Ann Ochota assures us, “Britain has more ancient trees than most of the rest of Europe”. Something we can all be delighted in. The Chartered Institute of Archaeologists concludes ‘This is an ideal introductory book for someone who wants to know more about British landscapes.’ And it is indeed, something to prepare you for the ‘deeper’ books of Richard Muir and Oliver Rackham. There are plenty of great photos and illustrations and each section is followed by a selection of the best sites and monuments. It certainly encouraged me. On our way to Plymouth just off the road we see a lump in the ground which looks to me exactly like a barrow. So I halted in the nearest lay-by and marched up the side of the busy dual-carriageway quite a long way to take a photo or two. I have consulted an archaeologist who says it may be a farm rubbish dump. I still favour a barrow.

Dusting my shelves one day I noted for the umpteenth time a set of two books in a slip-Unknown.jpegcase looking very enticing but still in their plastic cover, unopened……‘Gaudi : Complete Works’ Why, when I love Gaudi so much, had they never been opened? I cannot answer that question. It was a sheer joy to revisit some of the Gaudi buildings and works which we know well ourselves from our many visits to Barcelona, and to see some of his work of which we were entirely unaware. Gaudi can be classed as working in the Art Nouveaux style, or in the Spanish or Catalan term as ‘Modernista’ but actually he was of course entirely unique. His work is a sheer joy calculated to bring a smile to anyone’s face. It is Arts and Crafts meets Gothic meets Mediterranean vernacular. Some of the buildings we see in Barcelona are now old friends…..these books make them resident right here…beautifully illustrated too.127ec586d92525c6d130dd59a194d4f8.jpg

9200000032978692.jpg‘Sweet Heart’ by Peter James is a book I picked up in Morrisons for £4, something I have never done before…… I usually give a quick glance at the book section and conclude….’trash’. But I thought I was short of something to read and we know Peter from events he did for us at our bookshops and know he is an excellent author. It is not one of his usual and very good detective novels with DS Roy Grace set in the streets of Brighton. Rather it is a ghost story, but one with a difference. It is about someone who regresses under hypnosis, something I happen to believe in. After all if genes can be passed through the generations with all kinds of information why on earth not memory? On Peter’s site the blurb gives…                                                                            ‘After Charley and her husband Tom move into Elmwood Mill, sinister memories of a previous experience start to haunt her. Despite both their attempts to dismiss everything with rational explanations, the feeling turns to certainty as these memories become increasingly vivid and more terrifying. Persuaded to undergo hypnosis, each session stops in a feeling of doom and terror. There is something hidden that the therapist cannot reach. Something that was safely buried in her past – until now. In searching back she has unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box of evil. It is too late to close the lid. The terror is free.’ The book did remind me very much of a Stephen King. You are drawn in and become part of the story. The only quibble I have is that the main character seems incredibly brave, far more so than I would be, and I did begin to query some of her actions. Other than that, a creepy read which will almost certainly have you on edge.

Now why have I not read ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ before now as it has 227910.jpgbeen in my possession quite a long while and it is my type of book. Or so I thought. In fact I have found it extremely annoying. When one talks of the peoples who lived here thousands of years ago, obviously material remains are few, and assumptions will be made, which you can agree with or not. But not to the extent of telling us their daily lives and how they were feeling. It’s absolute rubbish, and I don’t know why Nicholas Crane expects to get away with it. On and on he drones ‘acquainting’ us with our remote ancestors. It reminds me very much of ‘Time Team’ and the way that at prehistoric sites if they can’t think of anything else, or have no real evidence, they conclude that such and such a site must have been developed ‘for important ritual purposes.’ What nonsense! If there is no evidence, don’t try to draw any conclusions. I persevered with Nicholas Crane for several chapters and, as a historian myself, at great mental and emotional expense, thinking it all might get a bit more realistic, but no. A very, very disappointing book which I had been looking forward to. Shame.

 

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.