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History: 2008: Juliet Gardiner offers some seasonal suggestions.

History Today asked some of Britain's leading historians which history book or books they had most enjoyed reading in 2008. Here we publish their choices. Mixed in with these are reminders of other books published recently--some of them paperbacks--that might make good Christmas presents. And mixed in with these are a handful of DVDs, a CD and a board game, too--anything we think that a reader of History Today might enjoy when he or she has some time off.

Armchair travellers with an interest in the past have two possible Christmas stocking delights. Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day by Philip Matyszak (Thames & Hudson, 12.95 [pounds sterling]) carries on the pleasing conceit of his Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day, providing an intriguing short history of the ancient world in the style of a modern guide book--where to stay, what to do, what to see, plus useful tourist info such as 'Wine Krater Refills (in Dionysian Measures)', a currency conversion table and 'Temple Geography for Beginners'. Traveller's Guide to the Ancient World: Egypt in the Year 1200 BCE by Charlotte Booth (David & Charles, 9.99 [pounds sterling]) performs a similar function for the land of the pyramids and Ramses, Thebes and Luxor, with lots of 'what to expect' boxes offering tips on festivals, music and local crops, a guide to the Valley of the Queens as well as that of the Kings, and ending with a glossary of useful (ancient Egyptian) words and phrases.

Still on the guidebook theme, every village has a church. There are some 16,000 parish churches, most scattered round the English countryside, and Roy Strong, who, as Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, organized an exhibition about them in 1977, has now written a short and appealing appreciation of some of them, A Little History of the English Country Church (Vintage paperback, 9.99 [pounds sterling]). It is neither an architectural history nor a potted history of English religion, but rather a celebration coupled with a plea that the vital role that churches play in the life of the rural community should be preserved.

Another pleasing meander is The Highways and Byways of Britain (Macmillan, 12.99 [pounds sterling]) edited by David Milner, who has selected extracts from a series of books published for over a half a century from 1897 (the apogee of the Empire) to 1948 (the austere postwar years). A melange of history, travel guide and anecdote, the territory ranges from Mrs E.T. Cook's essay on shopping in Kensington and Chelsea in 1902, and Walter Jerrold on early suburbia, 'Harrow and its Environs', in 1907, through Shakespeare's country on the outbreak of the First World War, to that prolix journalist S.P.B. Mais writing on the Welsh Marches on the eve of the Second.

Britain again, but no pleasant meander this time, with a tranche of books published on both world wars, clearly speaking to a publishers' view that British readers have a never-ending fascination with the subject. For the First World War there is Martin Gilbert's revised The Routledge Atlas of the First World War (3rd edition, 15.99 [pounds sterling]) and, while Joshua Levine's Forgotten Voices of the Somme (Ebury, 19.99 [pounds sterling]) piercingly evokes that terrible muddy, bloody grave from recordings in the Imperial War Museum's Sound Archive, other books rely more on the visual for their impact. H.P. Willmott's World War I (Dorling Kindersley, 20 [pounds sterling]), again a reissue, is now profusely illustrated with photographs of battles and the artefacts of war, timelines, charts and maps. Trumping even this is Gary Sheffield's The Western Front Experience 1914-1918 (Carlton, 30 [pounds sterling]), the latest in the 'History in Your Hands' series, which provides not only an authoritative history and photographs of battle scenes and artefacts, but dozens of convincing facsimiles too--in this case maps, documents, letters, carrier pigeon messages all to be slipped out and handled.

The documentary The Battle of the Somme was released in August 1916, while the battle was still being fought. It provoked a fierce and unending debate about the authentic depiction of war. It has now been digitally restored by the Imperial War Museum's Film and Video Archive and issued as a 74-minute DVD (19.99 [pounds sterling]) with an accompanying booklet and a medley of light music, folk tunes, popular songs and military music recommended for the cinema organs that would have accompanied the showing of the original film.

Max Arthur, who pioneered oral history compilations of the First World War, then moved onto the Second, and his latest book Dambusters: A Landmark Oral History (Virgin, 20 [pounds sterling]) features 'voices' gathered from the May 1943 raid. Alex Kershaw's The Few (Penguin, 8.99 [pounds sterling]) is an account of the Battle of Britain, that raged against the odds from May 1940, and has become, along with Dunkirk, the Blitz and D-Day, an iconic milestone of war; and Normandy: Breaching the Atlantic Wall, From D-Day to Breakout and Liberation (Zenith Press, 30 [pounds sterling]) traces the province's story from the German occupation in May 1940 until its liberation--or rather the start of its liberation--in June 1944. It has a stunning series of black and white images--some from the author Dominique Francois's own family's collection--detailing the planning that went into Operation Overlord, how knife-edged was its success, and how long and arduous the follow-up to victory. The subtitle of Max Hasting's The Faces of World War H is The Second World War in Words and Pictures (Cassell, 25 [pounds sterling]). Although the words are sparse, they are well chosen, and the pictures, used large in a large format book, are, in the main, stunning, salutary and have that authentic, undoctored, slightly jarring roughness of war, which makes them compelling.

Derek Jarman's War Requiem, first seen twenty years ago, has been released on DVD (Second Sight, 19.99 [pounds sterling]). It features poems, readings, declamations, archive footage, appearances by Laurence Olivier, coaxed out of retirement just before he died by Jarman, and Jarman's muse, Tilda Swinton. Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem' builds the film to a crescendo of the horror, futility and utterly unforgettable nature of war.

There are many ways that the stories of war can be told; one is through the clothes of the time, both uniforms and fashion. Jonathan Walford's Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look (Thames & Hudson, 24.95 [pounds sterling]) provides an unusually wide panorama that encompasses 'Black Forest maidens' on the cover of a Nazi party propaganda magazine, home-made dresses worn by women in occupied France, 'Make Do and Mend' British garments and a housecoat made from 'Dig for Victory' Jacqmar fabric, siren suits, practical for underground sheltering during the Blitz, V for Victory spelled out in costume 'diamonds' on a Canadian beret, American women clad in Allied flags and finally, of course, the New Look influenced by Dior and joyfully embraced by women weary of wartime. Also on the Home Front, Gill Clarke's The Women's Land Army: A Portrait (Sansom and Company, 24.95 [pounds sterling]), published to accompany an exhibition at the St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery at Lymington, uses paintings and their painters beautifully to tell the story of the Land Girls from the formation of their Army in the First World War to its final disbandment in 1950, while Stuart Antrobus's 'We Wouldn't Have Missed It For the World': The Women's Land Army in Bedfordshire, 1939-50 (The Book Castle, 16.99 [pounds sterling]) fills in the details of the Land Girl's life in one English county.

Food grown and rations queued for had to be cooked. As well as the Ministry of Food's 'Kitchen Front' broadcasts, advertisements and recipe handouts, most newspapers came up with suggestions since 'new times necessitate new cookery'. The Daily Telegraph's Good Fare. A Book of Wartime Recipes cost 1/- (5p) when it was first published in 1941. Now reissued by Macmillan at 7.99 [pounds sterling], it will provide a wave of nostalgia for those who made 'cut-and-come-again eggless cake' or 'mock tongue' (of ox heart)--and a shudder of sympathy from those who never had to. Life on the Home Front is also 'revisited' in Felicity Goodall's The People's War: Reliving Life on the Home Front in World War II (Reader's Digest, 25 [pounds sterling]), largely through a series of powerful, mainly black and white photographs, some well known, but many not, and a text that draws on diaries and memoirs. Some of the sounds rather than the sights of war have been collected in a CD produced by the National Gallery, This is London Calling (12 [pounds sterling]), which strings together such wartime hits as Vera Lynn's 'Wish Me Goodbye', Noel Coward's 'London Pride', Glenn Miller's 'In the Mood' with several of Winston Churchill's speeches, the chilling sound of the air raid siren and the welcome 'All Clear'. To round up a Home Front roundup, Julie Summer's Stranger in the House: Women's Stories of Men Returning from the Second World War (Simon & Schuster, 18.99 [pounds sterling]) recounts from letters, diaries and memoirs how it was to be back in 'civvy street' after maybe years away, the joy as well as the difficulties and tensions and readjustment in a nexhausted, austere world at peace. It is the world that 'Housewife 49', Nella Last crisply evokes in the Nella Last's Peace: the postwar diaries of Housewife 49, edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson (Profile Books, 8.99 [pounds sterling]). Last characterizes the postwar years as 'the age of frustration'. Her wartime diaries, kept for Mass-Observation, have become well-known through their recent republication and Victoria Wood's dramatization. That world is also portrayed with perception and empathy in David Kynaston's Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (Bloomsbury, 9.99 [pounds sterling]), now in paperback, and the first volume in his eagerly awaited series Tales from the New Jerusalem.

Stretching beyond Britain's shores are the paperback versions of two much acclaimed histories of Empire. Peter Clarke's The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire (10.99 [pounds sterling]) is a masterly telling of how, in less than five years after the Second World War, the sun started inexorably to set on Britain's Empire, starting with the 'jewel in the crown', India, which Winston Churchill had been so determined to retain. In taking the longer view, Piers Brendon's The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1991 (Vintage, 9.99 [pounds sterling]) has achieved what his model Gibbon (whose title Brendon echoes) valued. Brendon has not been one of those historians who 'in avoiding details have avoided difficulties', for in a massive three-century sweep he has not only followed major contours but has also skillfully filled in the crevices, often with wry humour.

Edward IV, Henry VIII and Mar), Tudor are the three latest, clearly signposted, not over-long biographies in Routledge's Historical Biographies series (13.99 [pounds sterling] each). Hannes Kleineke's Edward IV adjudicates the controversy over the young king--self-indulgent playboy or potential wise monarch, tragically cut down? Henry VIII by Lucy Woodings locates the powerful, flamboyant, destructive monarch squarely in the context of the English Renaissance and the fierce currents of religious change that characterized the English Reformation. And Judith M. Richards aims to reinstate Mary Tudor as a decisive, active, engaged queen, who, had she lived longer, might have reversed aspects of the Reformation and ensured that England remained Catholic.

Jackie Wullschlager, author of Chagall: Lowe and Exile (Allen Lane, 30 [pounds sterling]), is Chief Arts Correspondent of the Financial Times and her extensive biography shows evidence of a European sensibility as she follows the artist, son of a Russian herring merchant, from his home in Tsarist Russia to Paris, Berlin and New York against a background of European revolution, war, persecution and exile. A figurative painter, Chagall found an artistic language for the twentieth century, reflecting an inner life amidst the turmoil, a Jewish folkloric imagery floating through a time of modernity.

Jane Wellesley, a successful television producer, is the daughter of the 8th Duke of Wellington and the great-great-great-grand-daughter of the 1st. As the title of her biography of the hero of Waterloo explains, she has taken A Journey Through My Family (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 20 [pounds sterling]), filling out quite marvellously details of the Duke's life garnered from personal papers, before moving through his descendants to her own father--who knew a relative who knew the Iron Duke--and a great many other interesting and influential people, too.

Simon Sebag-Montefiore has counted off his 101 heroes, written about the old and the young Stalin and has now added a further gallery of villains to his original one. Monsters: History's Most Evil Men and Women (Quercus, 20 [pounds sterling]) kicks off with Jezebel, whips through the obvious ones--Attila, Genghis Khan, Lucrezia Borgia, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Hitler, Pol Pot, Nicolae Ceausescu and more--detours round some less well known ones--Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, Pedro the Cruel, Selim the Grim, Pancho Villa--before rounding up some whom one might not wish to condone or admire, such as Lenin or Mao Zedong, but who seem slightly out of place in his historical typology, where they are labelled 'blood soaked monsters' along with Dr Crippen, Al Capone and Jack the Ripper.

Another sort of monster fills the pages of Jonathan Evans' Dragons: Myth and Legends (Apple, 16.99 [pounds sterling]), a journey from Babylon, China and India via Iceland, Ancient Greece and Rome to the Red Dragon of Wales, the one St George of Cappodocia slew in Turkey, qualifying him to be brought back to England by the Crusaders as a patron saint. A rousing tale by the author of a book on Tolkien, truly lavishly illustrated.

After war and monsters Lucy Moore's Anything Goes: a Biography of the Roaring Twenties (Atlantic Books, 19.99 [pounds sterling]) is the sort of sparkling book it would be a delight to find under any Christmas tree--even the purple and mauve jacket twinkles beguilingly. Moore, an elegant and page-turning writer, has taken the 'jazz age' in America as her subject and recreated the glamour and the talent, as well as the unsettling moments, such as the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Ku Klux Klan's march through Washington DC.

The palm for Christmas-stocking books seems to have passed recently to popular science, with best selling titles every year such as Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze? This year there has been a gallant attempt at a historical fight back. Scotland: 1,000 Things You Need to Know (Atlantic Books, 12.99 [pounds sterling]) asks (and answers) such post-turkey questions as 'How many kings of Scotland died in their beds?', 'Who on earth decided that the Declaration of Arbroath was the cornerstone of modern democracy?' or 'Why is iron brew spelled Irn-Bru?' More questions are to be had in Philip Ardagh's The Scandalous Life of the Lawless Sisters (criminally illustrated with what was to hand) (Faber & Faber, 9.99 [pounds sterling]), the revelation of the Victorian underworld's most notorious and feared all-female gangs, a spoof hilariously woven round illustrations from Punch in the 1880s. A delight.

Not intended to make one laugh out loud, but nevertheless entertaining and amusing--and pocket--or stocking-sized--is Ruth Bellville: The Greenwich Time Lady by David Rooney (National Maritime Museum, 12.99 [pounds sterling]). It is a fascinating story of the way accurate--or synchronized--Greenwich Mean Time was distributed by the Bellville family who carried an eighteenth-century pocket watch they called 'Arnold' around to their subscribers in central London from 1836 for an amazing 104 years.

The so-called festive season is a time when many who would never join in a board game or a game of cards at any other time are prepared to drop their guard for the duration. But if Monopoly has rather lost its lustre in these times of plummeting property prices, maybe a game of time travel in which contestants assume a historical persona such as that of Napoleon, Elizabeth I, Genghis Khan or Joan of Arc might appeal. The aim is to guess the dates of various key events dating from 2008 back to 1000BC while avoiding such pitfalls as being challenged to a duel, catching the plague or being held up by a highwayman. Moreover, in case remembering dates sounds a bit too much like back to the classroom, 'there are no wrong answers, you only have to get closer than the other players'. Historical relativism indeed (About Time, 29.99 [pounds sterling]--for players aged fourteen and over).

History in Quotations (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 18.99 [pounds sterling]) edited by M.J. Cohen and John Major (historian, not one time politician) might come in rather useful as a crib for About Time, but its value far exceeds that. An immense collection of 9,000 quotations covering 5,000 years of world history, chosen because they 'carry a certain compacted freight of historical significance and that capture the essence of time past' according to the editors, are arranged with an intelligence and profundity rare in such books. This is undoubtedly because the quotations from different eras, from different countries, have been selected (and if necessary explained or contextualized) by specialists in the particular field, who provide what Simon Schama describes in his foreword as an hors d'oeuvre, a dim sum, a tapas, of the most interesting, the most illuminating, the most revealing of words that resonate down five millennia.

Another useful book to have to hand at Christmas quiz time is 1001 Days that Shaped the Worm (Cassell, 20 [pounds sterling]) edited by Peter Furtado, which starts at the Big Bang and ends with the earthquake in China in 2008.

The beautiful, tranquil, reflective fifteenth-century painting of the Virgin and Child by Jean Fouquet seems a fitting Christmas image to end with. It is included in a small but finely produced collection of Faces of Power and Piety by Erik Inglis, the second book in the Getty Museum's series The Medieval Imagination (British Library, 12.95 [pounds sterling]) intended to reveal the medieval conceptions of the world and its expression in art. The text is light and straightforward, the images glow and entrance.

"The Third Reich at War (Allen Lane) by Richard Evans is the final part of his important trilogy. The accumulation of detail, combined with the clarity of prose and thought, makes this a devastating account. Tapping Hitler's Generals, Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942-1945 (Frontline Books), edited by Sonke Neitzel with a foreword by Ian Kershaw, provide fascinating extracts of what German generals said to each other while in British captivity. Attitudes to Hitler, the SS, the Holocaust and the July 20th plot reveal the thinking of the German officer corps as never before."


Antony Beevor

"What is so brilliant about Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his slaves in the Anglo -Jamaican World by Trevor Burnard (North Carolina UP) is that, although its source, Thistlewood's diary, is apparently unpromising and contains almost no personal material, Burnard manages to paint an utterly convincing mental and physical portrait of his life and times by careful anthropology, imaginative reading and, not least, really good writing."


Stella Tillyard

"Mark Bostridge's Florence Nightingale (Viking) is my book of the year. I have long been interested in the woman and the legend starting with Lytton Strachey and moving on to Cecil Woodham Smith. Reflecting on Nightingale's life is crucial to an understanding of Victorian history and while, as Bostridge suggests, she may be a biographer's nightmare because of the vast archive she left behind, it is because he has made such good use of it that this book is so impressive. He deals impeccably with her character, which still retains elements of mystery, and with her extraordinary personal and institutional relationships."


Asa Briggs


"Global and, particularly, Atlantic history has again been reshaped by David Abulafia's brilliant The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus (Yale UP). I also enjoyed Timothy Brook's Vermeer's Hat: the Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Profile Books) and was enthralled by the superbly researched The Witches of Lorraine (Oxford UP) by Robin Briggs."

James Raven


"Hugh Trevor-Roper left a large number of almost-completed books. The second of these to be released is the joyously teasing The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History (Yale UP)--three essays with a common theme, the ability of the Scots to invent their own past and then to cling to the invention, especially when the English explain their mistakes. Only those who believe the myth that the Scots are not prone to self-delusion can possibly fail to find this a great read."

John Morrill


"Andrew Saint's Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry (Yale UP) is a magisterial review of the evolving relationship between the two professions over three centuries (from Vauban to the Millennium Bridge), across three countries (Britain, France and the United States) and in structures of masonry, iron, steel and concrete. Saint's book is monumental in its scope and ambition. I have also hugely enjoyed The English Parsonage in the Early Nineteenth Century by Timothy Brittain-Catlin (Spire Books), which portrays the evolution of the parsonage, as a distinctive social typology, during the period in which restrained Georgian elegance gave way to the exuberance of the Gothic revival, while creating buildings that were carefully designed to serve the changing needs and aspirations of their occupants."

Neil Cossens


"Let's hope that the publishers are prompted to issue my choice of books, highly priced for the library market, in cheaper paperback editions: Priestley's England: J.B. Priestley and English Culture by John Baxendale (Manchester UP, 50 [pounds sterling] in hardback) is a powerful vindication of a man now too often condescended to, who once deservedly had a grip on the social conscience and imagination of the nation; Kitty Hauser's Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology and the British Landscape, 1927-1955 (Oxford UP, 68 [pounds sterling] in hardback) is brilliantly suggestive of bow historical consciousness in modern Britain can be inspirational and creative and need not be anti-modern."

Peter Mandler


"The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn (Harper Perennial) is an astonishing book that defies categorization. Part memoir, part mystery, part reportage, Mendelsohn illuminates world history by way of trying to find out about six Jewish relatives who were murdered by the Nazis in pre-war Poland. As he goes from wanting to learn how his family died to discovering how they lived, his achievement is to make them ordinary and yet rescue them from the anonymity of victimhood. This is a book that asks the historian's most profound moral and philosophical questions--How much can we ever know about the past? And what do we owe the dead?"

Alison Light

"I disagree with Peter Wiseman on almost everything to do with early Rome. But he writes with such elegance, enthusiasm and learning in Unwritten Rome (Exeter UP) that you would need tremendous cynicism not to believe him. Even we cynics enjoy the attempt. My other choice also goes against the grain. I usually hate those 'this is what you need to know about Greece' type books. But in It's All Greek to Me Charlotte Higgins (Short Books), the Guardian Arts Correspondent, does a great job in conveying the heart of Greek culture to a general audience. Perfect for the stocking."


Mary Beard

"Linda Colley's The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (Harper Press) is a tour de force of historical reclamation. The life of an obscure woman travelling through Britain's eighteenth-century empire is reconstructed through her marriages, alliances, financial dealings and her own fragmentary writings. The book is a master class not only in finding and matching up an obscure and varied archival trail, but also in illuminating the general through the particular. Rosemary Hill's God's Architect: Pugin and the building of Romantic Britain (Allen Lane) takes a very different subject, but is equally accomplished. As well as re-creating the obsessions and passions of her engaging, infuriating and sometimes distinctly batty subject, Hill explains a great deal about Victorian England's uncertain relationship with Catholicism, the development of 'taste', the worlds of Covent Garden backstage and architects' offices, and the perceived connections between morality and architecture."


Roy Foster
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Author:Gardiner, Juliet
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Buyers guide
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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