history

Anniversaries and remembrance of things past

WordPress sent me a cheery anniversary message today, 6 years of blissful blogging. Apart from making me shudder (as anniversaries tend to do) at the speed with which life seems to slither past, it made me think about anniversaries and reading.

The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war burst upon us this week in a cloud of poppies and subdued pride (yes, some people did some brave and amazing things but wouldn’t it have been marvellous if they’d never been in that situation in the first place) and it’s been nudging me towards re-reading Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, or more likely digging out my battered old hardback Wilfred Owen. Aside from poetry, which doesn’t seem to count in the re-reading stakes, I’d rather turn up books from or about the war that I haven’t already read (what with life slithering past at an alarming rate and there being only so many books a person can fit in) so if anyone has any recommendations, let me know. In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard was a good one I read and reviewed recently.

Undoubtedly there are many people reading around world war one this year, but what about other anniversaries or major events? Do you have a book you re-read every birthday, or on the anniversary of some treaty or battle, or the day you left school? I’ve said before that Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every December, but I don’t have anything similar (except a couple of cartoon books) since I rarely re-read books (though I have been revisiting Psmith these last couple of weeks, via the pages of PG Wodehouse, and most glad I am about it. First borrowed in paperback from BB over 20 years ago and now freely available for e-readers, hurrah).

So the question is, I suppose – should I? Are there any books I should build into my year, leave a free weekend for or dip into to revive memories (my own or other people’s)? Even as I typed that I got a sudden flash of a book I read a few times as a child and haven’t seen or probably thought about for nearly 20 years, An Inch of Candle by Alison Leonard. It’s set in world war one but beyond the possibility that the girl scandalously rides a bike, I can’t remember a thing (and a quick google makes me none the wiser). I wouldn’t want to remind myself any further by actually reading bits of it, it might not be as good as the memory. Which I think answers my question: remember the old, but use the occasion to find something new. There’s a whole world of books waiting.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time’s Echo is a time-slip novel I read last year, set in both contemporary and late sixteenth-century York. Sparked by a few interesting names and a badly-behaved dog the author came across in court records during her PhD in Medieval History, the resulting novel is a flight of fantasy that feels as authentic and believable as Tracy Chevalier at her best, with enough detail to make the historical element seem well-researched without turning it into a textbook.

Grace Trewe, an independent young woman who’s travelled all over the world, inherits a terraced house in York. She could just leave everything to the solicitor, but on a whim she goes to the house for what’s meant to be a brief stay in an interesting historic town she’s not familiar with, before she joins some friends on another continent. Are her nightmares and strange experiences only a result of having been caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami? For Grace, who’s used to being able to pack up and move on whenever she needs to, the feeling that this time she might not be able to is most unnerving. Meanwhile in the sixteenth century, Hawise (try saying Louisa without the initial L and you won’t be far off) meets a stranger at the market and sets in motion a dangerous obsession that will echo down the centuries.

Time’s Echo is not simply a ghost story (though there is an element of the supernatural), it’s an entanglement of two time-frames. The story explores the patterns in our own lives and through history, the repeated mistakes and the seemingly inconsequential moments on which history pivots. The tension and sense of anticipation are accentuated by the swinging of the narrative between time-frames and there are echoes of some of the sixteenth-century characters and events in the contemporary narrative.

There was an inevitability to Hawise’s story, not least because we came in at the end of it; nevertheless, the final subtle twist was powerful and unexpected. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a compulsion to read on just in case it was averted at the last minute. For a nearly five hundred page novel, this was a swift, fluid read and I found myself gripped from quite early on. I would say fans of well-written historical fiction (possibly even historical romance) would enjoy this as long as they’re not averse to a smattering of the supernatural and equally, fans of mild horror who fancy something historical might like to give it a go. There’s also a strong Yorkshire interest, set as it is among the streets of York.

At Home by Bill Bryson

As a rule I like Bill Bryson books, they’re cosy while not being afraid to point out some uncomfortable truths, and they’re usually quite funny while they’re about it. At Home definitely had its funny moments, and a plethora of interesting facts, but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

At Home is subtitled ‘A Short History of Private Life’, and promises to give us insights into history via a tour of Bryson’s Norfolk rectory; the chapters are named after each of the rooms in his house. I enjoyed (via the iplayer) Lucy Worsley’s TV series If Walls Could Talk, in which she explored the changing nature of household life and the notion of privacy by looking at the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room over the centuries, and I anticipated something similar in this book. Though probably with a  lot more asides and entertaining anecdotes.

In the end I think I found there were so many asides I lost track of the point, if there ever was one. In some chapters I was left with the feeling that he’d dug up some fascinating stories and couldn’t think of an obvious way to tie them to a room, so he’d sort of shoe-horned them in using a link so tenuous it had become invisible. The book is brimming with enthusiasm, as is usually the case with Bill Bryson, and I did enjoy (and read to the long-suffering OneMonkey) most of it, plus I learnt a few things (always a good thing when reading). However, it did feel a bit like a jumble at times, more like one of those books they put out at Christmas and people keep by the toilet for occasional browsing, than a history of anything in particular.

One (minor) niggle was that while he’s using an English house as a starting point, and mainly talking about English history, occasionally he’ll drop something American in. Logical, you might say – he is American, after all – but there was the odd startling fact that made me sit up and say ‘Really? I never knew that’ then it would become clear that I never knew that because it’s not true over here. That would have been fine, but there were places where I wasn’t sure if he meant in England, America or both, and I was left wondering.

All that said, I would imagine if you’ve ever enjoyed a Bill Bryson book you will find much to please you in At Home, particularly if you go into it without expecting much of a thread.

Thomas More’s Utopia

I’ll refer to it as Thomas More’s Utopia because, despite the modern meaning of the word, it wouldn’t be for everyone. For a start, they have slavery. However, given it was written in the 16th century there’s still a lot in there to learn from, and if you replace the word ‘prince’ with ‘prime minister’ I would endorse a big chunk of his advice to anyone ruling a nation (Messrs Cameron and Osborne, please take note. Or perhaps someone could give Ed Miliband a copy).

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s couched as a conversation taking place between More and a well-traveled man who has found through vast experience that the most contented and best-governed nation in the world is the (fictional) nation of Utopia. He then explains to More and his friend why it is that Utopia is so great, and how it differs from England or other European nations of the time. This includes its justice system, foreign policy and welfare system, parts of which are now in place, parts sound ludicrously old-fashioned, and most of it I’m sure would have been thought mad (or subversive, or both) in the 19th century, let alone the 16th.

I believe it may have been written in Latin, so possibly depends on the English edition you get hold of, but I found it surprisingly easy to read, of great historical interest, and it shone a light on the great constants of socialist thought (for Utopia is a recognisably socialist nation, for all its oddities of antiquity).

Utopia is a book I vaguely intended to read in my late teens, but put off by the idea that it might be hard to read because of its age, and potentially long and dry (it turned out to be neither), I never got round to it. Being of Yorkshire birth and ancestry, naturally the prospect of free e-books piqued my interest so when I did get my e-reader a couple of months ago, I went straight to the online repositories of out of copyright books. A combination of resurgent interest thanks to Jonathan Rose’s book (The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes), and the ease of carrying several long books at once, plus a novel for light relief, means that I’ve been reading all sorts of books I never quite got round to at nineteen, as well as ones that weren’t on my radar back then. I’ve particularly been enjoying John Ruskin lately, and for that alone I salute the rise (but never the domination) of the e-reader.

The Cult of the Classics

Working men making their own exploration into culture in the 19th century were often stuck in the past as far as their reading material went. They looked to Pope, Milton, Shakespeare, Carlyle etc. All of which I as a teenager, beginning to explore literature for myself, read or attempted to read, or felt guilty for not reading. The kind of books that featured on Sir John Lubbock’s Victorian list of books you ‘should’ have read in order to be considered cultured. Although for working men in the 19th century, reading the whole lot wouldn’t guarantee that. But I digress…

More than 100 years later, for GCSE in the early 1990s, I studied Shakespeare and Wordsworth. We have stagnated, or worse, we are regressing because every year that goes by takes us a year further from the time when any of those works was fresh and new. And as the list is added to (very slowly) the chances of anyone getting through the lot at a reasonably young age grow slimmer.

It is important to know what foundations your culture was built on, but at what cost? If you have to struggle with the language, delve into sideroads of history to understand what was at the time a passing reference to a contemporary person or event, doesn’t that lose some of the pleasure? Which is not to say you shouldn’t do that if you want to – overcoming the challenge may lead to a depth of enjoyment hitherto unknown – but I don’t think it should be expected.

These books or authors were held up at their own times and those just after as the best example of, in Dickens for instance, social conscience in literature. Haven’t we got any other examples yet? If not, we must be doing something wrong.