The Magnificent Century by Thomas Costain

History books themselves have their own history.  History has always been a subject that interests people, and it was always a reasonably large proportion of whatever the available media of the day was.  And as parchment gave way to paper, and paper in turn became a mass market commodity more and more people were able to afford to indulge their interest in what had gone on in the past. So the popular history book intended for just anyone who was curious about the past started to appear in the 1930s and by the 1950s was an established genre.

One of the giants of popular history was Thomas Costain whose books sold in huge quantities. I think I missed out growing up because I have a feeling my teenage self would have loved them. The style of writing is the key.  This is history written as a story.

So what you get out of this history book is basically a rather old fashioned view of history – but that is in itself quite interesting.  How people in the fifties thought about history tells us quite a lot about what they believed in general.  They were interested in character and had a  much clearer idea of  what was right and wrong than we do.  So when a medieval king fiddles the system to his advantage, Thomas Costain regards this as a personal failing of the king involved. 

It is worth exploring this one a bit.  The king in question was Henry III and his modus operandum was to swear to comply with requests from this subjects for concessions.  And once he had done so, he would apply to the pope and get the agreement annulled.  This annoyed his subjects and in their exasperation they turned to Simon de Montfort. He proceeded to get parliament going, setting up history for several centuries of progress in the direction of democracy.

So basically the formula is that history is full of characters, and it is legitimate to invent stuff you don’t know to fill in the human side of things. History has a direction and a purpose and like fiction it always contrives to have a happy ending. 

Is this sort of history any use today?   I have to say I find it grating to read more than a small dollop at the time.  Hearing how pleased William the Marshall was when he finally got home after the wars for a bit of a rest is just annoying when you know there is simply no data on his emotional state.  The frequent value judgements are irritating even when the values expressed are ones we still hold, which we often don’t.  But it does make things very memorable, so if you want to have an overview of what was happening in the Middle Ages it isn’t a bad option. 

Labour – The Summer That Changed Everything BBC2 20/11/17

During the 2017 General Election I happened to be driving through Hastings, a town I know well and lived in for a few years. I was surprised to see a large group of Labour canvassers out in a fairly Tory part of the town. Hastings has gone Labour in the past but it was far from being an obvious target. I concluded that the folk I saw were enthusiastic but perhaps a little too optimistic. After all the media was assuring us that far from picking up places like Hastings Labour was on course to lose out badly. In fact one union leader set the bar pretty low by saying that if Labour only lost 20 seats it would be an acceptable result. Continue reading Labour – The Summer That Changed Everything BBC2 20/11/17

The First World War by John Keegan

The First World War by John Keegan is history as a story. Keegan is a journalist, and it is said that journalism is the first draft of history. (The first draft of anything is usually rubbish, so that is why I don’t read the papers.) And a good way to look at this book is as a journalist going back over the previous drafts and making the story tighter. This isn’t a book that probes deeply into the causes of the war or comes to any profound conclusions about its effects. It is just the story of what happened. If that is what you want, this is what you get.

And what a story. Continue reading The First World War by John Keegan

Betting The House by Tim Ross

Elections can often be dramatic and unpredictable events. But they are often soul destroying and boring as well. The UK’s 2015 one was just dispiriting. The referendum on the EU was not much fun either. And when Theresa May called her snap election in 2017 it looked like it would simply be the worse possible example of the genre. Continue reading Betting The House by Tim Ross

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 42 Part 1 – Establishment of the Lombards on the Danube

lombards settle in the balkans

We have given a lot of attention to the campaigns of Belisarius, especially those in Italy. Gibbon covers it all in sumptuous detail. I think we can assume that the court in Constantinople did as well. Big events like the recapture of Rome and Ravenna are bound to be seen as important and significant. Continue reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 42 Part 1 – Establishment of the Lombards on the Danube

What Is Happening With Political Parties?

Edward Heath led the Conservatives in the 1970s

I wrote this back in 2015 just after Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour Party leader, but before his MPs started the process of trying to get rid of him.  At the time his rise seemed the most surprising and unpredicted political event.  I didn’t trouble publishing it at the time.  It isn’t particularly insightful or even very well written.  But it does show how quickly events change how things seem.  

I really really wish I had kept the slip of paper I put in my jacket pocket one Saturday night in 1978. I was 18, and was devoting considerable efforts to try and get a girlfriend. This was the height of the Disco era, so it was discos I mostly went to. But a straight forward old fashioned dance was worth a try as well. So this particular weekend I had ended up in the Conservative Club in the seaside town where I grew up, at a dance. I seem to remember enjoying it, but didn’t manage to pull anyone which was my main objective at the time. It was only the next day that I realised that by picking the cheaper admission option I had actually joined the Conservative Party and had a membership card to prove it. Continue reading What Is Happening With Political Parties?

Trump Isn’t Hitler. He Is Augustus. And That Is Nearly As Bad

Ruler of the world, but not his own hair

I don’t think it is a great idea to use historical parallels as a guide to present day actions. Just because things played out a particular way back then there’s no reason they should do so again in the same way. And worse than that, historical parallels can be very bad guides to action. For example, the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden described Egyptian president Nasser as another Hitler to justify invading Egypt to take control of the Suez canal. Continue reading Trump Isn’t Hitler. He Is Augustus. And That Is Nearly As Bad

Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Reality turns out not to be what it seems. I have a feeling that there was never a time when people who thought about it actually believed that the Earth was flat. But we have certainly believed lots of things that are equally untrue since we evolved brains that had the capability to ponder these matters. Continue reading Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli