History Should Never Be Dull

Reading & Writing


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.

6 comments on “History Should Never Be Dull”

  1. John says:

    Oddly I’ve learned most of my history by reading novels. I’ve learned more about history from reading the books of Elliot Pattison (colonial America), Stephen Saylor (ancient Rome), Ellis Peters (medieval England), and Paul Doherty (ancient Greece and medieval England) than any textbook or high school or college course I ever took. But I think I’ve lucked out in my tastes for historical fiction because, apart from Pattison, each of these writers is also a historian.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I have just finished Mantel’s Bringing Up The Bodies, which I enjoyed a lot, even if it’s not straight history. (I may be a late comer. but I believe I have even stratified myself as to why the first volume was so darn confusing in its lack of directly naming Cromwell and spreading most confusing pronouns about. In the first book, Cromwell was an outsider and most unsure in swank society, so he blended into the crowd: alone at a cocktail party! and knowing no one of worth.) In the second book he is well named, even nicknamed by the same people he regarded before because in the interim he has become so important. So a dah award for me, but at least I’m prepared for her book three. Working title? I’ve forgotten, but I have catalogued to buy it under “Another Bites The Dust.”
    I am also enjoying Danubia by Simon Winder, who wrote the excellent Germania. I bought from Britain in paperback hoping to take it to Germany, but it’s more than double the size of her first book, so it isn’t going to be packed.
    John: John Maddox Roberts also does an excellent series on ancient Rome with a map and expanding explanatory notes in each book. Doherty is also very good, for history and story especially when he fictionalizes history most closely. Good books on ancient Egypt, too.
    I, too, became interested in history, not so much from school as from the books I was read and the books I was given.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I was just noticing the other day how many Christopher Hibbert books we had, purchased through the Readers Union – remember them? Charles I, George IV (2 vol.), Samuel Johnson, and the Rise & Fall of the House of Medici. Saylor certainly is great on Rome at the time of Caesar & Cicero, but was Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) an historian? She was a translator of (Hungarian? Czech?) and a resident near Shrewsbury and wrote that 4 parter about the real princes of Wales. Loved Germania, which has given me some great mental images (sorry I won’t get to the Teutoberg Forest so I could see the statue of Herman the German) but I am now falling for Steven Ozment’s “A Mighty Fortress” which is clarifying all the German history I never knew or understood. Must read his “The Burgermeister’s Daughter”, although, judging by the footnotes in Fortress he’s written about every aspect of German life and history and collateral foreign topics.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    I guess I was lucky because I enjoyed history at school, but I’m just as nosey as hell when it comes to anything. I guess it helped with the Industrial Revolution living in Manchester, the first industrialised city AKA The Shock City . Not that you would know it, Manchester is hell bent on burying it’s past, and always has been.

    I’ve always been interested in the WW1, with the on-going anniversary I wonder if they will look beyond the western front. The collapse of Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire and there after effects are something I’d like to know more about. anyone know any good books from that perspective?

    Horrible Histories are a joy, I can’t wait to get them for my little one when she is old enough.


  5. snowy says:

    The Ottoman Empire had been in decline for decades before WWI, but in the 20C the key event would probably be the Young Turks Revolution of 1908. This set in train a series of events that would lead to them joining the Central Powers in 1914 and when the Armistice came in 1918 what was left of the empire was split up and shared out by the winners.

    [The Anglo-French end of this had been stitched up in the Sikes-Picot Agreement as early as 1915, it’s a plot point in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’].

    The Austro-Hungarian Empire was split up to prevent it being a power block that could ally with Germany at any future point under the Treaty of Trianon.

    As to books, that is a good question. My best guess would be to go to a well known online encyclopedia and having found those two empires, find the appropriate section and scroll right down to the bottom and check where the references, [the numbers in the square brackets] are coming from.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    Cheers Snowy,

    Germany and the rise Communism are rightly examined between the wars but I’ve always been interested in Atatürk and the modernisation of Turkey. It shows that once the allies were forced out that the sultanate was abolished.

    Just read a short piece Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in Africa.


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