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.