History Should Never Be Dull
I’m a big believer in kids’ books like the Horrible Histories series, which give children the history bug at an early age.
My school history teacher was a man of such tedious, plodding tones that it’s a miracle we managed to stay awake, let alone learn anything. It wasn’t until I discovered Christopher Hibbert in my late teens that I started to fall in love with specific subjects. Hibbert died in 2008, and with his departure we lost the greatest historical voice. His real name was Arthur but he became known as Christopher after someone pointed out that he looked like Christopher Robin. His greatest books are ‘The House of Medici’, ‘The Tower of London’ and volumes on Elizabeth I, Napoleon and Nelson.
I’m hoping he doesn’t go out of print, otherwise I’ll end up putting him into my ‘Invisible Ink’ newspaper column. My favourite book of his is ‘The Destruction of Lord Raglan’, an astonishing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade that changed all future histories on there subject. Hibbert gave me the bug; I’ve loved everything from Lytton Strachey’s ‘Elizabeth and Essex’ to ‘A History of the Lives and Robberies of the most Notorious Highwaymen’ by Captain Alexander Smith, and my very old copy is rendered more exotic by having all of the Ss and Ts joined together, as was once the fashion.
My favourite Broad Subject history (as opposed to detailed studies of single subjects, which we’ll come to another time) is Jan Morris’s ‘Pax Britannica’ trilogy, which I’ve mentioned before. I’m raising them again because now there’s a stunning slipcased hardcopy edition available from the Folio Society, which is fully illustrated and has replaced my battered paperbacks. They’re simply unputdownable, and from them I offer this tidbit as an example of Britain’s influence around the world.
The pioneering British travel company Thomas Cook owned the funicular railway that went up to the edge of Vesuvius. It was destroyed in the eruption of 1944, but was commemorated in the song ‘Funiculi Funicula’, once sung by all those who loved to go a-wandering. They still part-own the chairlift that goes up the volcano. At its peak the British Empire (a phantom title without constitutional meaning) was four times larger than the Roman Empire, and the volumes are densely packed with stories to make the mouth fall open.
They’re the kind of books you drive everyone mad reading bits out of, yet their overview of the rise and fall of the British Empire is remarkably even-handed, offering praise and criticism where it’s due. They’re still not available as e-editions, but are worth seeking out.