million years“The shrill klaxon of the alarm clock startles us from a deep snooze.”

I don’t have many regrets, but a big one is that I didn’t study more history in school. It was compulsory for the first three years of secondary school and then became optional, at which point I stopped, meaning I haven’t had a proper history lesson since 2002. In the past five or six years, however, I have got back into history and started finding it fascinating. OK, I have limited interest in the particulars of warfare, and anything about the textile industry seems important but is just really dry, so I prefer the darker, weirder, funnier and less recognised parts of history. This brings us to Greg Jenner.

Greg Jenner is a historian who was the sole person responsible for historical accuracy in the Horrible Histories TV series, a series that I’m well aware was for kids, but nonetheless was hugely entertaining. This time he’s turned his attention to an older audience, sharing with us a strange history of every day life. In this book, he details the events a modern Saturday and explains how all the things we take for granted have long, and sometimes bizarre, historical origins.

By looking at an average modern day, he follows us from waking up to our morning routine, meals, dog walking and socialising, right up until bed time comes and we set the alarm clock once more. Along the way he introduces us to the chequered and interesting histories of toilet paper, toothbrushes, champagne, bread, underwear, dogs, newspapers, table manners and even time itself. Along the way we’ll discover that what we do isn’t really that much different to anything humanity has been doing since the time of the Stone Age.

Witty, sharp and occasionally silly, the book is nonetheless completely factual and straddles that perfect line of educating while entertaining, whether discussing how forks came to exist, the fastest ways to send messages, or detailing just what exactly the customs were throughout history regarding sleeping arrangements. We meet history’s most famous faces and encounter some that we may not know so well, even though their achievements continue to be important in modern times. I’m thinking of the monk Dom Perignon for one, whose addition to society is probably obvious from his name, or Pierre Fauchard, the man who invented false teeth, fillings and braces.

It’s a book that will undoubtedly make you think, and make you realise that so much of what we take for granted has such hugely complicated origins, as well as that history does indeed move in circles, as people chop and change their habits depending on what’s fashionable. Perhaps the most pervasive of the ideas is that all of this has been going on a lot longer than we think, and that clothing, beer and beds have been going on since our caveman days.

The notion of breaking the book up into chapters comparing history to modern day is brilliant. It means that each chapter has a specific topic. For example, the first chapter, in which we bash our alarm clock into silence upon waking allows for a talk about how we measure time and have come to use the calendars we do. The second chapter has us attend to natural business at the toilet, giving us a chapter on the history of this essential item. And on it goes, from breakfast to bedtime.

Anyone with even a passing interest in history can enjoy this, and it’s full of tasty nuggets to bring out at any social occasion at any time of day, although maybe some of the ones about hygiene and the ever-changing standards of cleanliness throughout the ages are best avoided over the dinner table. A really compelling and hugely fascinating read.

Advertisements