“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

Leave a comment

“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

Advertisements

“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

Leave a comment

“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

“Being A Beast” by Charles Foster (2016)

Leave a comment

“I am a human.”

Humans have a confusing relationship with every other animal species on the planet. There’s nothing else quite like us, which is either a good or bad thing. Some other animals we’ve domesticated, others we watch with awe, and quite often we anthropomorphise them and give them tweed jackets and a knowledge and society they can’t possibly possess. Charles Foster has decided he wants to get to know animals better and so begins a mission to become something else, as best he can. This book documents his attempts.

To achieve this, Foster must try to think like other species. This is easier said than done, as other animals experience the world in ways we cannot imagine. Some have better noses than us, some are faster, and while the base urges are the same, they differ enough in their methods of completion to make it all a bit futile. Nonetheless, Foster gives it a go, taking on the roles of five different animals.

He digs a hole in the side of a hill and eats earthworms to mimic a badger. He swims through Devon rivers at night catching fish with his teeth to get to know otters better. He raids the bins of East London for leftovers to become a fox. He allows hunters to chase him down across the Scottish highlands to know how a red deer feels, and finally he makes an attempt to become a swift, eventually tracking them all the way to Africa.

As nature writing goes, it’s a very unique piece and there’s no getting away from that, but my primary thought throughout is, “What sort of breakdown is this man having, and why is no one coming to his aid?” Sleeping in bushes and shitting on riversides is one thing, but swallowing mouthfuls of insects from the tops of trees just because he’s seen birds do it, and leaping at voles whenever he sees a tiny hint of movement is not, in my opinion, the behaviour of a man with all his faculties in tact. I don’t think we ever really needed to know in so much detail what worms taste like.

Unfortunately, while I like the concept of the book, I don’t find Foster particularly likeable. Most of this stems from the fact that, for many years, he was a hunter and while he’s now obviously changed his mind on the subject, in the long passage where he’s describing what it’s like to track and kill a deer, there’s a barely-disguised glee regarding the whole thing. I’m not exactly a pacifist, and I’m certainly not a vegetarian, but I’m against killing wild animals for “sport”, and I can find no entertainment in it. Foster must also have a very understanding wife, as occasionally his children join him on his jaunts. One of his sons lives with him in their badger sett, and he also tells all his children that, when they need the toilet, to go and do it on the river banks like an otter would. At one point he doesn’t shave, cut his hair or trim his toenails for months so he can feel more like a deer with matted, mud-filled hair and overgrown hooves.

There are some interesting facts up for grabs about these animals though, and while Foster attempts to refrain from giving them personalities and emotions, some still slip through. However, he’s more objective than many nature writers, and we get a lot of facts and figures about how animals may experience their environments. Much of it, of course, is theory – we can’t really know what happens inside a fox’s brain when it smells a particular scent, or quite how swifts cope living at speeds we cannot imagine.

All in all, I find that a good piece of exploratory non-fiction should come to a fascinating conclusion and teach us something new. Foster basically ends by saying that trying to be an animal is fruitless and we can never know what it’s like to be another species. Which, frankly, seemed obvious from the start and made me wonder what part I played in his mental breakdown by buying the book. Definitely an intriguing concept for nature writing, but worryingly handled.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt (2001)

Leave a comment

“Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors.”

Last week the weather did something strange on my home island. It got hot. Really hot. Tarmac-meltingly, skin-peelingly, eating-a-Twister-every-hour hot. The British are not equipped for this sort of weather, so it was almost a welcome relief when, four days later, we had a loud thunderstorm and the rain, drizzle and grey clouds returned en masse. Naturally, we’ve done nothing but complain since. (The British are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the weather.) I’m therefore a little late with a book of this title, but somehow that makes it even more fitting, as this book is here to explain why British summers are non-existent (or, alternatively, held on a Thursday).

The truth behind the perpetual rain of the British Isles is pissed-off Chinese water dragons, and why would it be anything else? One of these dragons, Karen, is currently working as an estate agent in London after falling in love with a human called Paul and taking a human form herself to be closer to him. Her efforts to make him notice her, however, are ruined when it turns out her father, the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North-West is missing, leading to an unprecedented spell of dry weather (seventy-four hours and counting).

But there’s much more going on than that. The Adjutant General has been kidnapped by a furious weatherman who knows its the dragons causing all the rain and is convinced that they’re doing it to spite him and make his predictions go wrong. He tries to convince another weatherman, the alcoholic Gordon Smelt, and the two are soon up to their necks in it. Elsewhere, a secret section of the British government is planning to use the dragons to increase British rainfall, under the impression that the only reason Britain had such a great empire was that they simply needed to colonise somewhere hot and dry. With even more rain bucketing down in the homeland, it would inspire the people to raise up and invade Australia. And that’s all before we get onto the suspicious-looking men in dark suits who are collecting up two of every creature, just in preparation for a worst case scenario…

I’ve only read Tom Holt once before, and at the time I remember thinking that he must be a bit mad to come up with some of the ideas he did. Frustratingly, while he probably is mad, the ideas are so solidly good that you can’t help grumbling that you didn’t think of them first as they all seem so obvious and easy. The gag-to-page ratio is matched only by Douglas Adams and surpasses even Jasper Fforde, meaning you are bombarded with really, truly hilarious lines, wacky similes, utterly preposterous metaphors and passages that are downright rude in the amount of comic timing they have. And yet still beneath it all is an incredibly smart story that plays with several old tropes, but also introduces a whole bunch of new twists and really seems to be enjoying itself.

I have a habit of sticking an impromptu bookmark in a page where I find a quote I like, but if I’d stopped to do it here, the book would be more train ticket than novel. A few of the lines that did stick with me however, include…

“This is a funny old country. You need to have all kinds of licences and stuff before they let you own dynamite, and yet there’s women walking around with long red hair, green eyes and freckles, and nobody seems to give a damn. But when you think of all the damage one green-eyed freckled redhead can do in just one afternoon–”

“Imagine Manchester. Sorry, had you just eaten? Let’s try a gentler approach.”

“Paul’s face suddenly solidified […] leaving him with that death-by-embarrassment stuffed stare that’s unique to the English during romantic interludes.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m the pub loony around here. This is my turf, and if there’s any gibbering to be done, I’m the one who does it. You want to gibber, find another bar.”

They probably don’t rank high in good quality jokes out of context, but they work so wonderfully well within the story. Holt is economical with certain details – we get good descriptions of what several of the dragons look like, but humans are rarely if ever given a physical description, presumably to acknowledge how we are seen to immortal beings – but he enjoys realistic dialogue that doesn’t go anywhere, and conversations that no one understands.

It’s a world that feels real enough, because all the humans are incompetent, even (or especially) the ones running the world behind the curtain. There are so many ideas in here that the book almost spills over with joy. I think it’s quite safe to say that it won’t be five years before I make my return to Tom Holt’s jottings. The man is a certified lunatic, and I can’t think of many lunatics I’d rather spend time swimming around in the brain of.

“Gimson’s Kings And Queens” by Andrew Gimson (2015)

1 Comment

gimson“William I conquered England.”

The throne of our island has been occupied by forty-one individuals: a Stephen, a John, an Anne, a Victoria, two Marys, two Elizabeths, two Jameses, two Charleses, three Richards, four Williams, six Georges, eight Edwards and eight Henrys. You’ll usually find the number racks up at forty though, given the odd co-ruling of Mary II and William III, but you can expand the number further if you’re going to include Matilda and Jane. In short, though, the role of monarch is one that is held by very few people. In Andrew Gimson’s marvellous and entirely up-to-date new book, he spills the beans on every single person who has taken control of England (and later Britain) since 1066.

Gimson explores each monarch in turn, starting from William the Conqueror with his 1066 invasion, and passing on right up until Elizabeth II, dedicated two to ten pages to each king or queen. A brief biopic of each character is then laid out, going over their greatest achievements (if any) and biggest failings, what the public thought of them, how their legacy lives on, and how they got on with the rest of the family and dealt with other issues of war, religion, politics, disease, sex and money.

Some of the kings and queens featured you’ll know rather well. Victoria, Henry VIII, both Elizabeth I and II, and perhaps Richard III, are the most well-known of the people who have worn the crown, but they are far from the only ones who are interesting. It’s a great book for realising that there are may well be some pretty huge gaps in your knowledge of the royal family. You might know all about Henry VIII, sure, but did you know that his father Henry VII was responsible for providing the royals with immense riches, working more like an accountant than anything else? Did you know that William II was so hated by his people that he when he was found dead, people thought it was more likely murder than accident? Do you know which king had a head shaped like a pineapple, who was an avid stamp collector, and which queen had two phantom pregnancies, so desperate she was to believe that she could provide the country with an heir? And do you know anything about Henry IV or William III?

While the book doesn’t pull any punches with pointing out the utter stupidity of some of the monarchs, noting which ones had no interest in art and culture, and which ones were always in debt, it also doesn’t really write any of them off. They are all important to some degree or another (possible exception to be made for Edward V who ruled for just 78 days) and they paint a fascinating picture of the country as it evolved. Gimson’s even fairly nice about Oliver Cromwell in the short section about the country’s brief time as a republic, and while he doesn’t outright accuse Richard III of murder, he’s going to lay down the facts for you anyway and let you decide for yourselves.

I’ve always been something of a monarchist, really, perhaps just because I’m a sucker for this kind of traditionalism. I know a lot of people are for abolishing the monarchy, but in reality I don’t think the country would ever really go for the idea. I’ve always found it fascinating that it’s been the same family – with rather widespread branches from time to time – ruling the country for nearly one thousand years. They serve to unite our history as a people, ruling first England alone and then adding in Scotland under Queen Anne. Gimson discusses some of the ideas as to why it’s survived as it as in a final chapter.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the most interesting family in British history, or want a quick refresher course in who was who and who did what, then you can’t ask for more than this book. Sharp, funny, astute and hugely readable, this should be the glanced at by everyone. It’s especially poignant right now as, should Elizabeth II still be on the throne on the 9th September this year (that’s in six days at the time of writing), she overtakes Victoria as the longest-serving ruler in British history, an absolutely outstanding achievement.

So whether you’re mad for Mary I, crazy about Charles II, gaga for George V, or just think that Richard III was rotten, I advise you to take a look at this book and see if still feel the same after. Or even if you’re not enamoured, it’s almost worth it just for the excellent cartoons of each king and queen preceding each chapter.

“A Very British Murder” by Lucy Worsley (2013)

1 Comment

No one does a good murder like the British.

No one does a good murder like the British.

“In his essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’, George Orwell describes for us the most satisfying kind of killer.”

Everyone loves a good murder, except their own. After all, sales of newspapers spike whenever there’s a story involving a grisly murder, and one in three of the books sold today are crime novels. More than perhaps any other nation on the planet, the British are particularly fond of reading about murders, whether real or imagined. From the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, the first murders to cause widespread national panic, right up until the films of Alfred Hitchcock, this book covers various aspects of his national obsession.

The author, Lucy Worsley, is a a brilliant narrator, and the book was written alongside her filming of a TV series on the same topic. Tragically, I don’t remember this being broadcast – although it was only on about a year ago – but I did see Worsley present a documentary about the Georgians earlier this year and loved her funny, almost whimsical style. She knows her stuff, and is just as thrilled by the topic as the rest of her fellow countrymen. She inserts herself into the narrative, adding in her adventures filming the series that take her around the country, investigating true murders and handling the grisly souveniers from the events.

The book opens detailing the aforementioned Ratcliffe Highway Murders, which involved the bloody deaths of a family that shocked the nation. This was in the days before there was an official police force, meaning that neighbours trampled the crime scene and much evidence was lost. Of course, this is also long before anyone understood things like DNA. Reading about murders was originally fascinating because they tended to end with the hanging of the guilty party, but times moved on and soon people began to love reading about the solving of crimes, allowing for creations like Sherlock Holmes to appear much later in the century. Before that, people enjoyed sensationalist literature and would line up in their thousands to see plays, hear stories and watch puppet shows that told of grisly deaths. Madame Tussaud and her waxworks became a great tourist attraction around the time too, as people became fascinated with her figures of famous criminals.

The book carries on through the changing tastes of the public, and indeed the changing tastes of murderers, such as during the Victorian era when poisons became the ultimate choice, and suddenly everyone from a ne’er-do-well on the street to your own doctor could be the one to finish you off. Finally, the book slips into the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars, when Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and, of course, Agatha Christie, were producing their work. It ends by showing how even these stories came to an end, to be replaced by thrillers and the up-and-coming new invention: film. Throughout it all, the British have retained their taste for blood.

Lucy Worsley and the Usual Suspects

Lucy Worsley and the Usual Suspects

Of particular interest to me are the chapters about Christie (obviously) which pay particular attention to the question of how she became the greatest of her generation, leaving her colleagues languishing behind and never quite as well remembered, but I was also fascinated to read about the other great authors – Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and many more – who contributed to the nation’s ever-burgeoning need for their crime fix. This book shows how it may well be Dickens who is accredited with the first detective novel. It’s also really interesting to read about the formation of the police force, the history of Madame Tussaud and her house of wax, and how hanging was once a popular afternoon attraction, but slowly fell out of fashion as the time changed.

As a combination of the studies of murder, history and literature, I’m naturally hugely attracted to it, although it does expertly prove how quickly and dramatically history can be rewritten. One chapter is dedicated to Jack the Ripper, who at the time of Worsley’s writing, was still unidentified, and yet only this year his identity has supposedly been proven. Was this as much of a blow to other murder lovers as it was to me? I’d imagine it was – I always preferred the mystery. Although, even now, still not everyone seems to agree.

As a Brit, naturally I adored this book. Worsley notes towards the end that she’s worried if she’s come across as flippant in her treatment of murder and notes that it is indeed a harrowing and terrifying topic, and yet that is what seems to attract us to the notion. The British turned crime into an art, and with that allowed for some of the greatest literature, performances and attractions in history to occur. Times are changing though, she notes, with thrillers replacing the cosy crime of Agatha Christie et al, but one thing seems certain – the British love of a good murder hasn’t been killed off for good just yet.