There was an article in The Guardian today about the lamentable gaps in the History syllabus in Britain. A report complained that all our children werThere was an article in The Guardian today about the lamentable gaps in the History syllabus in Britain. A report complained that all our children were learning was a thin diet of 'Hitler and the Henrys', which sounds rather like a punk band to me.
I think they may have a point. History was one of my favourite subjects at school. What I learned in those classes has stayed with me for life, so I'm certain that I haven't simply forgotten large chunks of the curriculum. I'm fairly sure, for instance, that we never covered the Wars of the Roses. Admittedly I never studied History to A-Level standard (my chosen route was art and design), but I can't even recall the most cursory survey of the period.
I've found that this state of affairs has both its advantages and disadvantages. Yes, there are gaps in my historical knowledge which if filled could help enrich my perspective on life, but on the other hand — what enjoyment there is to be had for the enthusiastic autodidact! I can tackle books like Alison Weir's 'Lancaster and York' with a relish unspoilt by exact foreknowledge of the outcome.
And what a tangled web of intrigue, treachery and double dealing the Wars of The Roses were. Weir's excellent book exposes the 'divine right of Kings' for the platitude it always was. Kings it seems — in this country at least — were just as susceptible to the manipulation of powerbrokers and the whims of mob rule as ever democratic governments have been.
It's a labyrinthine struggle, played out across three countries and thirty years. Its principal instigators pursued power irregardless of responsibility, and consummately manipulated public opinion in a way that predates George Orwell's '1984' by 500 years.
At times it can be hard to follow the shifting dynastic allegiances and seemingly limitless supplies of Lords, but this doesn't actually detract from the overarching narrative, and the set-piece battles are clearly elucidated. The book ends in a period of stability. Edward IV sits comfortably on the throne, with two healthy sons waiting to succeed him. As somebody unwisely once said, "what could possibly go wrong?"...more
In a word, magnificent. I think this is one of the best works of historical biography — of history even — that I've ever read. The quality of Kendall'In a word, magnificent. I think this is one of the best works of historical biography — of history even — that I've ever read. The quality of Kendall's prose is really quite exceptional. Every page is enlivened by sentences so memorable you want to speak them aloud, just for the pleasure of hearing them roll off your tongue. His pen portraits are pithy and compelling: in just a few short paragraphs characters rise from the page, living again. And then of course there's the story he has to tell — what a story it is.
I knew little about Richard before I came to this book — an awareness of the Shakespeare play and the hunch-backed caricature of popular culture — but such is the power of Kendall's masterly portrait that I was moved to tears by the final pages. If you have any interest at all in this period — dammit, if you have any interest at all in the frailties of human nature and the struggle for power, then read it. Just read it.
This is an ambitious single volume romp through 5,000 years of Mediterranean history. I found the first half of the book most entertaining; where we gThis is an ambitious single volume romp through 5,000 years of Mediterranean history. I found the first half of the book most entertaining; where we galloped through pen portraits of great civilisations and leaders, interspersed with engaging anecdotes and titbits of contemporary gossip.
I got bogged down a little in the last quarter of the history, where I rather lost track of the dizzingly complex dynasties and regents jostling for position in the area. That's not to say it's not an interesting read, it's just that the first part of the book is rather easier to digest.
The book ends at the close of WWI, when, as the author notes, of the five empires contesting the middle sea, three were dismembered and one was in its death throes. The Mediterranean now is a very different place, but in a thoughtful conclusion, Norwich wonders whether becoming a mere playground isn't such a bad thing after all; " for isn't it better that waters which once ran with so much blood, should now run instead with a thin film of Ambre Solair?"...more
The 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan is a conflict I've read of several times before. As with his earlier book 'The Last Mughal' though, DalrympleThe 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan is a conflict I've read of several times before. As with his earlier book 'The Last Mughal' though, Dalrymple commands attention on even familiar subjects through both the mastery of his narrative style and the thoroughness of his research.
'The Last Mughal' was distinguished by its use of hitherto unpublished Urdu and Persian court documents. Similarly, for this book, Dalrymple has uncovered first-hand Afghan accounts of the war, bringing a new perspective to bear on a period usually only recounted from British testimonies.
As a cautionary tale it is without parallel, and one doesn't need the author's afterword to see the relevance of these long-past events to what is happening now. An interesting thing that comes out of the postscript however is just what long memories the Afghan peoples have. As Dalrymple says, the figureheads of the 1839 invasion, though long forgotten in Britain, are household names in Afghanistan. They have assumed mythic status; folk devils to scare the children with.
Folk devils could well describe the Victorian attitude to the Afghans themselves, but in this book they come into sharper focus than ever before. Here for the first time we see the shifting allegiances and motivations of a gallimaufry of tribes, and bloodthirsty though the denouement of this sorry affair was, it is hard not to admit that right was on their side.
For lovers of narrative history I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Amongst the popular historians working today that I've read, I'd have no hesitation in ranking Dalrymple in the top tier. His prose is elegant, his viewpoint balanced and his research formidable....more
An excellent primer to the 19th century battle which irrevocably changed the balance of power. At under 150 pages including notes this is only the briAn excellent primer to the 19th century battle which irrevocably changed the balance of power. At under 150 pages including notes this is only the briefest of introductions, and is necessarily light on background, but the salient points are tackled with verve and brio, and as an appetite whetter it can't be faulted....more
I've read all of Tom Holland's books to date, but this one has proved the most controversial by far. It recounts the birth of the three great AbrahamiI've read all of Tom Holland's books to date, but this one has proved the most controversial by far. It recounts the birth of the three great Abrahamic religions in late-antiquity, but predictably, given the current intellectual climate, it's his musings on the third, Islam, that has attracted the most ire. I read one review in particular, from a distinguished scholar that derided Holland's book in such excoriating terms as to make me take particular notice.
That review struck me at the time as having a more political agenda than its author was prepared to admit, and now, having read Holland's book I feel sure of it. I am no historian, nor yet an Arabic scholar, but one thing I do know: '...Shadow Of The Sword' is far from the sensationalist, Islamophobic tome that Glen Bowersock suggests. On the contrary, all of Holland's assertions seem well researched, fair minded and posed neither dogmatically nor idealistically. In short, Holland comes across as the historian, whereas Bowersock's review reeks of somebody afraid to rock the boat.
Besides all of that 'ITSOTS' is a fascinating history of a little-known (for me anyway) period. Holland's treatment of the religions is never less than respectful. The only point where he parts company with the faithful is in his refusal to accept divine intervention as history. Fair enough, I'd say....more
I vividly remember that spring morning in 1982 when my father opened the curtains with the declaration "Wake up boys — we're at war!". The Falklands wI vividly remember that spring morning in 1982 when my father opened the curtains with the declaration "Wake up boys — we're at war!". The Falklands was the first conflict I have any clear memory of. I can remember the crowds cheering the carriers off to sea, I can remember the talk of the awesome power of the new, untried Harrier jump jets, I remember the controversy of the exclusion zone and the infamous 'GOTCHA!' headline of the odious, rabble-rousing Sun newspaper. I can remember the whispered playground tales of the SAS, and the stories of the Argies turning tail when they saw the flash of the Ghurka's Kukri knives — said to demand the appeasement of blood once drawn from the scabbard.
So it was of great interest to me to read an account which separated the apocrypha from the truth. This book was written contemporaneously with the conflict, so it has the urgency of a first-hand report. Surprisingly, there seems to have been little else published about this most curious campaign since.
And curious it certainly was. I remember my Dad telling me at the time that this would in all probability be the last colonial war Britain ever fought, and I fancy he has surely been proved right. This is a very good account of that war. Written entirely, it is true, from the British perspective, but interestingly none the less biased for that. The summation of the diplomatic case is entirely even handed — in fact if anything the authors come down narrowly on the side of the Argentinians. The main point of the book though is that this was a war that could have been so easily avoided; it's as much a tale of the failure of diplomacy as the success of arms. Of a long-running, often bitter argument, over a wind-swept cluster of rocks in the unforgiving south atlantic. The opening lines sum it up very neatly:
"The Falkland Islands' misfortune has always been to be wanted more than they are loved"
As recent events have shown. The conflict resolved nothing. The arguments persist, and the unloved islands remain as wanted as ever....more
This was an interesting but also a frustrating book; a record of the mythical journey from Saint to Santa taken by the 4th century Turkish bishop St.This was an interesting but also a frustrating book; a record of the mythical journey from Saint to Santa taken by the 4th century Turkish bishop St. Nicholas, it was exasperating because the author used the story as the pretext to write a rather tedious Levantine travelogue.
Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I'd known that was what I was reading, but since it was Santa I was after, it quickly became annoying. Also, the balance of the book was wrong: there was far too much time spent in the eastern Mediterranean, trundling from church to church, and not enough on the later period, which is more interesting in my opinion, when the Saint starts to coalesce into the secular figure which we recognise today. ...more