Category > History

Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood

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Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood, Fran Abrams, book reviewReferencing William’s Blake’s 1789 collection of poetry about childhood in its title, Fran Abrams’ new book Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood offers an account of children’s recent social history from the Victorian era to the present day. While I have read several other books on childhood history, they have tended to be quite academic and it was a pleasant change to read something a bit more entertaining in tone. Abrams is a journalist by training (she works a lot for Radio 4 and the Guardian, and it shows) but has written other books with a social or social history theme to them (“Below the Breadline: Living on the Minimum Wage” and “Learning to Fail: How Society Lets Young People Down” amongst them); this is the first I have read.


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London’s Olympic Follies: The Madness and Mayhem of the 1908 London Games

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London's Olympic Follies: The Madness and Mayhem of the 1908 London Games: A Cautionary Tale by Graeme Kent, book reviewHaving caught a bad dose of Olympic Fever this summer, I was pleased to spot London’s Olympic Follies: The Madness and Mayhem of the 1908 London Games: A Cautionary Tale by Graeme Kent in the recent Kindle sale. I was keen to find out more about the history of the modern Olympic Games, and particularly London’s place in that history.

London 1908 was the fourth modern Olympiad, if we’re not counting the unofficial games in Athens in 1906. The Olympic movement was still gaining fame and learning lessons. With a large stadium built in White City, London was ready to go, having taken over at fairly short notice from Rome which found itself unable to host the games.


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Sahibs Loved India

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Sahibs Who Loved India, Khushwant Singh, book reviewOnce upon a time when the map of the world was largely red and the sun never set on the British Empire, India was considered Britain’s greatest colony – the so called ‘Jewel in the Crown’. As well as a source of great trade and wealth, India became a place where young men – yes, mostly men – could go to make their fortune. The big employers were the Army, the Civil Service and for the less affluent and less classically educated, the Railways. India was for most a land of opportunity but for many a living hell. The heat, the dirt and the disease, as well as the sheer sense of nothing being at all like home, meant many who went didn’t come back or came back badly damaged by their experience.

In his introduction to Sahibs who Loved India, Kushwant Singh comments that many of the Brits who went to India did so because they couldn’t make it back home.


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The Diamond Queen

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The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People, Andrew Marr, book reviewWith the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II taking place this year, over the last year or so there have been a lot of books published about her life and reign, as well as on her family. There are bound to be a lot of rather trashy attempts to “tell all” in amongst this, but it can also be assumed there will be a few gems as well. But how to tell the difference and be sure you are buying a quality book?

The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People has a couple of things going for it before you even begin reading. Its author is Andrew Marr, a respected journalist with a few other well received history books under his belt.


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George VI

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George VI (Viking), Sarah Bradford, book reviewSarah Bradford’s biography of George VI deals with a king who faced a great deal of adversity in his short reign. The second son of George V, he ascended to the throne on the abdication of his older brother, Edward VIII, who chose marriage to Wallis Simpson over remaining as king. George VI not only had to deal with the upheaval and upset of the abdication and its aftermath, but he saw his country through the Second World War, the strain of which affected his health, leading to his death at only 56.

Known as Prince Albert prior to acceding to the throne, he was Duke of York and married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, better known to most of us as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as she became on his death.


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A Brief History of the Private Life of Elizabeth II

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A Brief History of the Private Life of Elizabeth II by Michael Paterson, book review“Never judge a book by its cover” goes the old saying. Yet that is exactly what I did when I spotted A Brief History of the Private Life of Elizabeth II on Amazon. With a cover picture of a carefree, laughing and relaxed Queen Elizabeth II, on the deck of Britannia and wearing a bright summery blouse, it was such a lovely picture that I immediately wanted to read the book.

The main clue is in the title. With a precursor like “A Brief History”, Michael Paterson’s book was never going to be a lengthy one. Weighing in at something over 200 pages in the print version, it is by its very nature a concise history – to the point, factual (or at least presented as factual), and neatly chronological. Opening in the 1920s, it takes us right up to the present day, as the Queen was approaching her Diamond Jubilee.


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Underground, Overground

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Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube by Andrew Martin, book reviewUnderground, Overground by Andrew Martin is subtitled “A Passenger’s History of the Tube”. Since he was young, Martin has been fascinated by the tube, and this is his attempt to tell its history, not from the historian’s point of view, but as a passenger.

Since I moved to London, I’ve developed an interest in the tube. I have read about it, but I’m not that interested in the technical or engineering side of its history. I am interested in the social history of the underground, of how it contributed to London’s growth and made it into the city it is today. From this point of view, Martin’s book seemed ideal for a reader like me.


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That Woman

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That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor - Anne Sebba, book reviewThat Woman by Anne Sebba is a biography of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, wife of the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, and blamed for his decision to abdicate in 1936. Hated by the royal family, particularly Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and mocked by society, history has painted her as a manipulative and cunning woman, allegedly using tricks learnt in Chinese brothels to exert her hold on the King.

Born Bessiewallis Warfield in Baltimore in the late nineteenth century, she was on her second marriage by the time she met the then Prince of Wales. Her first marriage was as a naval wife and ended in divorce, she spent time in China before moving to England and marrying Ernest Simpson, who offered her stability.


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The Lady in the Tower

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The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, book review The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir bears the subtitle “The Fall of Anne Boleyn”, which tells you just about everything you need to know about the book. Assuming you know Alison Weir is a historian, you will then be able to surmise that this is a historical study of the last months and days of the life of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIIIs second queen.

Henry VIII became infatuated with Anne while he was still married to Katherine of Aragon. For six long years she kept him obsessed with her, refusing to sleep with him until they were married. Finally he broke with Rome in order to take over as Supreme Head of the Church of England, and therefore set Katherine aside and marry Anne.


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The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama

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The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama, Nigel Cliff, book reviewIn the late fifteenth century, the small country of Portugal was neither particularly rich nor particularly significant. One of the five Kingdoms of Spain that had arisen in the wake of the Spanish Crusades, the young country was “Europe’s Wild West”; a poor cousin in largely backwater corner of the world. Europeans at this time had two great concerns that were inextricably linked together. Firstly, they were increasingly addicted to expensive exotic goods from the East, especially spices – goods ranging from cinnamon to pepper to cardamom, which were used for both medical and culinary purposes – but had no real idea where they came from. Secondly, the inflow of these wonders into Europe came through exclusively Muslim trade routes, which meant Christian countries were paying huge sums of money to merchants from nations that were considered to be the enemy.


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Tower

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Tower, Nigel Jones, book reviewWhen it comes to historical buildings, there are few with quite so much pedigree as the Tower of London. It has stood through so many years, so much history, that the past is almost literally seeping from its walls.

With a long-standing interest history, particularly the Tudor period, Tower by Nigel Jones was definitely a book for me. “An Epic History of the Tower of London” it was subtitled as – perfect, I thought, all this wonderfully fascinating history presented through its relationship to the Tower. Construction began under William the Conqueror in the 1080s, and throughout the centuries the Tower has been a fortress, palace, jail, torture chamber and zoo.


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Outnumbered, Outgunned, Undeterred: Twenty Battles Against All Odds

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Outnumbered, Outgunned, Undeterred: Twenty Battles Against All Odds , Rob Johnson, book review“What is it that compels men and women to fight, endure and perhaps emerge victorious, though all the odds may be against them? What conditions must exist to enable relatively small or weak forces to challenge and even overcome the strong?”

With these questions in mind, Rob Johnson – former British Army officer and current lecturer in the history of war at Oxford University – sets out to examine twenty examples of bravery on the battlefield to look for the characteristics of success in war when situations might suggest there is no hope left. His interest lies as much in uncovering why it is that some surrender or break under pressure while others triumph and show extraordinary levels of courage, as it does in explaining the historical and tactical events in each of his case studies. The result is his new book, Outnumbered, Outgunned, Undeterred: Twenty battles Against All Odds, which was published late last year.


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