Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

#24 Augustus

In Books, Fiction, History on 09/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#24 Augustus.JPGJohn Williams’ final novel is set in ancient Rome and is built upon a series of fictional letters between historical figures: the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, the poet Virgil, the tragic leader Mark Anthony, etc. It also deals with Caesar’s rise to power and his estranged relationship with Julia, his daughter.

Although I know very little about Roman history, if I do not include the BBC television series I Claudius, I am assured that the novel is impeccably researched. Shakespeare fans will recognize the Anthony and Cleopatra story, but will be less familiar with the Octavius and Julia story which threads here into the later half of the novel. And Williams, skillfully using the personal address of the epistolary form, is the ideal guide to light up this dark corner of ancient history.

My one criticism would be that the letters, memoranda and dispatches come from too many sides, making an at times too heady mix of character portrayals. However, apart from the confusion caused by the many viewpoints, I think that Williams last work of fiction shines a bright light onto this fascinating period of ancient history.


#13 Sapiens

In Books, History, Non-Fiction, Science on 24/03/2017 at 12:00 pm

#13 SapiensWilliam Golding said that courteous historians will generally concede that written history is a branch of fiction. If one believes this to be the case, than one is freed to enjoy history books as pastimes, or judge them by the quality of the writing. Most history books fail to tap into the best seller market because they are stuffy and academic texts written by stuffy and academic historians. Sapiens, on the other hand, is bubbly, antagonistic and–to use that most twenty-first century of words–cool. As fiction, it attempts the impossible and arrogant task of pigeonholing the whole history of humankind into five hundred pages. This is all achieved with clean prose, alongside pictures and diagrams, organized into twenty chapters. As a set of essays, it forms an intertwined series of convincing arguments, questioning the pillars of civilization: money, science, religion, culture and history itself. Yuval Noah Harari is perhaps the Montaigne of our day, condensing a great deal of reading into popular arguments aimed at the layman. His final chapters on the scientific revolution, like the book of Revelations, argue that humanity is heading towards its own destruction. This idea is pure science fiction, and hardly anymore visionary than an episode of Star Trek, but entertaining nonetheless.

39: The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 23/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-making-of-modern-britain-by-andrew-marrThe start of the twentieth century marks a dramatic turning point in British history. Queen Victoria was reaching the end of her long life, having ruled for sixty-four years over the greatest empire the world has ever seen. In an era before radio and television, music halls entertained the masses in huge urban auditoriums. Gathering in the passageways of overcrowded slum housing, the urban working classes drank from shared water pumps and uncomfortably breathed beneath a thick, polluted fog. Beyond the charity of wealthy philanthropists, there was no support for anyone unlucky enough to fall ill or loose their job. Britain may have been the wealthiest country in the world, but it functioned without the publicly funded hospitals and benefits systems we have in place today. Woman were classed as second class citizens, unable to vote or own property. Beyond the kind of violent revolutions seen elsewhere, something had to be done to address the gulfs between the classes and the sexes. There would be many complaints from the more conservative quarters of the old establishment, but Britain was progressively becoming more liberal and more democratic, with socialism also beginning to play an important role within British politics. Meanwhile, as his aunt lay on her deathbed, the queen’s nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II was beginning to strut up and down the deck of his newly built navy’s flagship.

This book grabs readers by the scruff of the neck, dragging them from Victoria’s death to the end of the Second World War. The pace is fast, with each of the four parts of history covered (e.g. 1919-1939) being given a title and around one hundred pages of text. Writing for the BBC viewing British public, Andrew Marr does not write overly academic essays; instead Marr adopts an anecdotal style but is nonetheless authoritative, listing many of his sources in the notes section at the back of the book. His approach to history is to focus on a particular event or character, bridging out to broader issues from there. This makes the whole work very readable, and is one reason why the book version of the television series has been a bestseller. In a way, Marr is following a long line of journalists who have worked prolifically to feed the British public’s need for news, views and opinion. In order to achieve such a mammoth task, he appears regularly on television as a presenter and political commentator, writes for the national newspapers as often as he can, and composes books of both non-fiction and fiction — when he not busy filling in his journal with the day’s events.

I should imagine that such a prominent journalist has a pretty tight schedule — as well as access to the contact details of every important person in the country and beyond. It is therefore admirable that Mr. Marr still has time to support the community he lives in here in Primrose Hill. Whereas most of us average folk go about our daily business making little impact on the thoughts of NHS workers in Birmingham or Scottish nationalists in Dumfries and Galloway, such esteemed journalists — some of which I happen to occasionally see walking along Chalcot Road on a Friday afternoon — are in the business of forming public opinion on a grand scale. The whole thing must be incredibly tiring and stressful, but some people thrive in such environments.

Personally, I prefer the less significant work of publishing here every Friday afternoon at 12 o’ clock precisely.

37: Oxford by Martin Garrett

In Books, History, Literature, Music, Non-Fiction, Travel on 09/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

oxford-by-martin-garrettThis excellent guidebook is presented as a series of essays on the historic city of Oxford. Each chapter focuses on a different cultural aspect of the city: from its long history to its place in literature; and everything in between. Be prepared for a fair amount of literary quotes and humorous anecdotes, as you dip into this fascinating and insightful book. For example, did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien once drove a whole bunch of undergraduates through town in a stolen bus? Well, now you will.

In a style which is equal parts authoritative and amusing, Martin Garrett guides you with erudition and a perfectly light tone. Rather than presenting a series of facts (i.e. punting in oxford lasts until October) or giving you tips on restaurants and sights of interest, Garrett presents a cultural and an historic guide to Oxford in the manner of the good old-fashioned essay. The result is a relatively recent book (published 2014) which is less likely to date as changes are made to bus timetables and hotels readdress their website URLs. A trusted companion for someone new to city, or a welcome reminder for those who wish to reminisce.

And I am certainly in the second category, having lived in Oxford as a Brookes undergraduate, and shortly after as a bookseller. Oh Oxford! Oh poetry! Oh! Well you get the idea. Anyway, this Tuesday I return to my second home; from the metropolis which was named London many moons ago (and what Tolkien might have had in mind when he created Mordor). It also happens to be my birthday, and a beautiful time of the year for falling leaves and pleasantly mild climes.

Can’t wait to revisit places of old.

22: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, History on 27/05/2016 at 12:00 pm

The Last Runaway by Tracy ChevalierTracy Chevalier was a reference book editor before she took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Having not worked in an office since 1993, she has written several successful historical novels. Her second novel Girl with the Pearl Earring (1999), inspired by a Vermeer painting, was adapted for a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.

The Last Runaway (2013) is set in nineteenth century America before the American Civil War. It is about a young Quaker woman called Honor from England who gets involved in the illegal transportation of slaves. Beset by tragedy early in the novel, Honor is caught between family duty and moral obligation. Patchwork quilts are employed throughout the novel to represent memories and emotions.

Historical novels require much research, and Tracy Chevalier is kind enough to provide us with a list of the books she used to help recreated this difficult period in American history. The language of this lightly entertaining book is full of rich colours, often provided by the bonnets and quilts which Honor encounters. Like so many historical novels, written in essentially a crisp, clean and conservative prose style, it provides a safe window into a troubled past.

An easy book to pick up and enjoy.

14: Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Literature, Non-Fiction on 01/04/2016 at 12:00 pm

Something of Myself by Rudyrad KiplingRudyard Kipling lived an interesting life. He traveled to many places, met many historical figures and wrote some world famous stories. This book, written late in his life, is his autobiography, and gives you an impression of the public face behind the great words.

Very little is revealed about Kipling’s private life, but the book does reveal a fair amount about his worldview. When Kipling encountered people, he viewed them in racial terms and drew on racial stereotypes when forming opinions. To put it plainly, he was a racist.

But he was also a man of his age, a period when men like himself ruled the British Empire. And in his life as a writer and journalist, he was at the forefront of history, reporting on events and influencing public opinion. Although his blatant imperialism may jar one hundred years later, it was a valid part of a free press.

Well written by a great writer, but not very revealing for an autobiography.

08: Coriolanus by Plutarch

In Biography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 19/02/2016 at 12:00 pm

Coriolanus by PlutarchFulltime postgraduate education has stopped me reading for enjoyment. Now I study books, reference journals and visit research libraries. When I do read for pleasure, it has become harder to sustain interest. A chapter of Conrad before bed maybe, or perhaps a book review in the paper. There was a time when I could get through a whole Dostoyevsky in a week (as long term readers of this blog will have followed).

The main reason is that time is precious. If you have a busy rota of guitar students and assignment deadlines (which I now do), these must take priority.

Studying serious literature at a higher level takes away some its enjoyment. Instead of being fuel for a healthy imagination, these courses teach us that books are discourses on British imperialism or assertions of an entire peoples’ individual human rights. No longer is it possible to simply enjoy where a story takes you, everything must be thought about on an analytical level. The book reviewer part of me, who used to write what he actually thought about books, is currently being educated to become a serious book critic.

So understandably, I don’t have as much inclination to read for pleasure outside of my coursework. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing…

Now I have a tutor who reads my essays in some considerable depth, marking them so that I can improve my work as I progress. In our tutorials, our course books have opened up intelligent conversations on a whole variety of topics. We are no longer floundering about where to go with our writing, now our work has a clear and assessable direction to travel towards. To the delight of this guitar teacher from Primrose Hill in north London, the English masters course at the Open University has focussed my reading so that every hour of every day can be potentially filled with something either educational, creative or enjoyable.

Such as my regular Friday morning writing on here, followed by a trip in search of a Plutarch translation from the 1570s by Thomas North.

05: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 29/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill SchoolThe post office in Primrose Hill has been closed for refurbishment. I now walk along Chalcot Road to buy my mother’s daily newspaper. On Thursdays I pick up three papers, and on Sundays I get two, but on most days it’s just the one.

The man who runs the corner shop on Princess Road has been there for decades. He has good manners and always calls me Sir. My old primary school is opposite his shop. When I was a child, there were three places where you could buy sweets on the way home from school. One was the corner shop, which always stocked the small 1p cola bottles and the large 10p cola bottles. A cola bottle is a sweet shaped and coloured like a miniature 330ml bottled coke, tasting vaguely like the fizzy drink we all recognize. In those days, if your mother gave you 30p to spend, that would either get you a real can of coke, thirty 1p cola bottles or three 10p cola bottles. All of which was good for your arithmetic, but bad for your teeth.

Since going back to the corner shop, I have been seeing my neighbours. Like my mother and I, decades ago, when a Mars Bar was still under 30p, my neighbours are walking to school each weekday. My old school was built by the Victorians. Like many buildings of this period, it has very high ceilings. In many ways it looks like a prison: huge black metal railings tower above the children trapped inside its looming walls; there are disused signs, etched into eroded stone arches, to segregate boys from girls and infants from juniors. There is a pervading sense of history, seeping from the very bricks and mortar.

During my residency at Primrose Hill Primary School, I was taught that Victorian children were forced into child labour at the age of eight. According to our teacher Sally, minors were enslaved into sweeping up inside dirty chimneys because of their shortness. As she expressed her imagination, using Gothic imagery wherever possible, Sally taught to us to fear the Victorian age. The overall impression was one of abject poverty, cruel injustice and total misery. According to the book of Sally, the Victorians were the villains of history, whereas the Elizabethans were glamorous.

Those were the post-Thatcher days, Britain was about to be ruled by a man in a grey suit. Teachers could be called by their first name. Our school had no uniform. Milk would never be taken away from our children ever again.

Maybe Sally was right to frighten us with stories of child slavery. Perhaps we were lucky to be at school in 1991, where our worst fear was being shouted at by one of the dinner ladies.

This morning, the corner shop was open as usual, and my neighbours took their children to school on time. These days, I get the sense that life has always gone on like this, and always will.

There is a human tendency to rate one historical moment above another one, but we perceive the universe only through our senses and our imaginations.

33: Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

In Books, Fiction, History, Non-Fiction on 14/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

Duskland by J. M. CoetzeeThis chilling debut novel contains two first person accounts: firstly, the disturbing thoughts of an American propagandist during the Vietnam War; and secondly, the brutal narrative of a frontiersman and elephant hunter. The first account is by all appearances a work of fiction, whilst the second account is framed by the translator as an historical document (pg. 85). By melding supposed fiction with supposed history, Coetzee asks the reader to question the validity of historical truth. When we consider this in the light of J.M Coetzee’s autobiographical work Boyhood (1997), we can begin to understand the difficult relationship that Coetzee has with historical truth.

As America was suffering huge defeats in Vietnam, across the world steps were being taken by colonialist nations to decolonize. A quick Wikipedia search will show that forty two African nations were granted independence between 1955 and 1975 (the twenty year period in which the ‘American War’ was thought). By the time Dusklands was published in 1974, Portugal’s African empire had collapsed. African politics scholar Jonathan Farley sees this as a turning point, leading to independence of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe (1980) and South Africa achieving majority rule in 1994 (see Southern Africa by Jonathan Farley). This is the historical context within which Coetzee was finishing his novel, a creative process which involved literary research at The British Museum.

It is fascinating to think of Coetzee living in London, before the two Booker Awards and the Nobel Prize for Literature, sifting through the archives of my local museum. In fact, it is inspiring to know that his scholarly novels can still be published and appreciated by a wide audience. The more I learn about fiction and history, the more I realize how important novels are to me. The novel form can work independently from the dates, figures and ideologies purveyed by historians and journalists. Humanistic storytelling can help the reader to feel empathy towards other cultures, and to question the received wisdom of politically motivated ‘non-fiction’. Dusklands has been criticized for not being harsh enough on the frankly genocidal eighteenth century explorers portrayed in the second half of the novel. Instead of being condemned by Dr. S.J Coetzee (the novelist’s father) in his 1951 edition (pg.85), they are celebrated in the afterword as ‘honorable’ (pg.166). However, if this slim novel fails to fully address the warped education system of apartheid era South Africa, this overhanging issue is explored more fully in the autobiographical work Boyhood.

Today he would probably be keeping a blog for that sort of thing.

09: Southern Africa by Jonathan Farley

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 27/02/2015 at 12:00 pm

Southern Africa by Jonathan FarleyThis concise history book is focused on Southern Africa as a region, expertly bringing together the central events and personalities that have shaped contemporary South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia. The book is divided into four heading: the economic and social dimension, the political dimension, the security dimension and the foreign policy dimension – with conclusions forming a fifth part. In an authoritative way, the work draws together map-changing events such as the collapse of Portugal’s African empire (1974), the independence of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe (1980) and South Africa achieving majority rule in 1994.

Jonathan Farley has taught African politics on naval officer courses in Greenwich, and expertly guides the reader through the complex and inter-connected politics and issues. He is first to admit that Southern Africa has immense problems – such as AIDS, general insecurity, violence against woman, injustice in Zimbabwe and lack of reconciliation across the colour line (pg. 139) – but is often convincing when discussing solutions to these problems. For example, he supports ‘the onward march of education that will eventually bring about greater enlightenment, greater tolerance and the greatest happiness’. But, the difficulty is, Southern Africa needs to develop a system that can support such luxuries as education, health and lower crime rates. In historical terms, the region is still in its infancy – if we take 1974 as a turning point, as Farley does – and so far, when we consider the relatively recent transference from minority rule to majority rule, it should be credited for the forward steps it has taken. However, one thing is clear, on an unacceptable scale, too many Southern African people continue to suffer from preventable disease, sexist attacks, political corruption and racial division.

On the whole, I enjoyed studying this book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in general history. It is small in size, but packs a big punch, covering the most essential incidents and characters (eg. the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck to the the Cape in 1652). My main criticism is that, for a book published in 2008, during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, it is already dated. One example that stood out for me, is the optimistic way Farley discuses the sacking of Jacob Zuma in regards to the political dimension. When he was deputy prime minister, the current president was rightly fired for taking back-handers. In hindsight, when Farley holds this up as a good example, it is rather disparaging to read. Still, this only goes to show how important it is that we read history books, digest what we have learnt and reflect on this knowledge.

That’s why I write about history.