Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain series

Last year, I read a hundred books. Well, actually a couple more than a hundred, just to make sure. But it was something I’d really wanted to commit to, and I did it.

Problem was, what was next? I didn’t think that increasing the number for this year would really do much for me; I have a life, of sorts, and I knew I’d end up resenting it. I was also a bit concerned about my behaviour round about this time last year, when I started choosing shorter or ‘easier’ books just to be sure of meeting my target.

So, this year, I decided to Read Less. Fewer books, but longer ones. Classics (of which more later). More non-fiction. It had the added benefit of being unstructured, something I probably needed, and of expanding my horizons. Like a lot of people, I think, I didn’t read much non-fiction when I was younger. It was probably only about 18 months ago, at 28, that I really started to value true stories as much as the made-up ones. I don’t know why. Maybe a growing appreciation for the idea that life is sometimes a bit messy, and any overarching plot isn’t always in evidence. (Much like this post, in fact.)

Anyway, browsing in the history section of Waterstones Piccadilly one day in about March, I picked up ‘Seasons in the Sun’ by Dominic Sandbrook from the buy-one-get-one-half-price table. At the time, I didn’t realise that it was the latest in a four-volume (so far) project to chronicle the history of Britain since 1956 – if I had, being a bit of a stickler for a series, I probably would have started at the beginning. All I knew, as I picked it up and took it to the till, was that I knew almost nothing about the world immediately before I was born.

That feels like it needs an explanation, but I bet it’s more common than I think. I was a youngest-child, and by a number of years. My parents and siblings never really engaged much in politics (as far as I’m aware) or felt the need to talk about the semi-recent past; why would they? They were there. So reading Seasons in the Sun, covering the years 1974-1979, almost every page was like finding out some half-buried scandal about a close-ish relative. Some were shocking (‘I didn’t know that Britain needed an IMF bailout as recently as 1976’), some horrifying (‘I didn’t know how close Enoch Powell came to being the leader of the Tory party’), some just funny stories for parties (‘I didn’t know that the Green Cross Code man was Darth Vader’). In all cases, I was hooked. Over the course of the year, I’ve acquired and read all four volumes – I’m about 200 pages from the last one right now. And. They. Are. Brilliant. Seriously, I can’t recommend them highly enough. I can’t imagine a more comprehensive commentary on the political, financial and social life of the UK during the third quarter of the twentieth century. That’s not to say they’re not sometimes hard going (they are; at 800-odd pages apiece it’s hardly surprising), or that I haven’t had to intersperse them with some lighter reading (I do, and have, a lot). And it’s also not to say that the author isn’t without bias, although I think he tries harder to be fair-minded than some people give him credit for. And, while we’re griping, I could do with him getting a move on as well – the next volume, covering the early eighties, isn’t due to be published until 2017. However, I can genuinely say that I haven’t learned more from anything or anyone this year, than I have from Dominic Sandbrook.

Never Had It So Good: ****

White Heat: *****

State of Emergency: ****

Seasons in the Sun: *****

Overall: *****

 

Literary pilgrimage – Margaret Mitchell’s House, Atlanta

Gone With The Wind is easily in my top 10 books of all time. I feel a little nervous saying that, in case anybody asks me what the others are. The answer changes on almost a daily basis, but GWTW would pretty much always have a spot. I first read it in 2007 on a trip to China; I’m a nervous flier and there were lots of internal flights on airlines I didn’t altogether trust, so its thousand-plus pages really helped me to stay calm. Well, calm-ish. I re-read it the year before last and found so many subtleties of character and plot that I’d either forgotten or missed the first time around, and then I started it again this summer in preparation for a trip to the South (my first).

Imagine my joy, then, at rocking up here:

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As you can see, it was a beautiful summer’s day in Atlanta, and I was beyond excited to be at the home of the great Margaret Mitchell. I only had half an hour before I had to go and meet my friends (as usual, we were trying to cram far too much into our one day in Atlanta), but I’m so glad I got to go there and learn a little more about the life of the woman who created such remarkable characters. And who kept me calm on Chinese aeroplanes in 2007, of course.

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Times I should not be allowed into a bookshop

My relationship with bookshops is a long and not particularly complicated one. They are, effectively, my mistress. I give them all my money, willingly. They are on the highest of pedestals in my head. I feel a new city is unfriendly until I’ve figured out the closest and friendliest book palace, and by extension, drawn my conclusions on that city’s attitude to books and reading. Recently I went to Sonoma, and my fondest memory isn’t wandering round the gorgeous Spanish mission, or taking my time over an excellent wine tasting session, but the happy half-hour I spent in the delightful Reader’s Books, followed by lunch at the Italian restaurant over the road, sharing my duck ragu pasta with my new-old copy of The Grapes of Wrath.

I run to bookshops when I’m happy, sure, but more particularly when I’m sad, or hurt, or angry, in need of being soothed, calmed, returned to myself. I would call it straightforward retail therapy, but I don’t always have to buy the books in question (although more often than not I do, no doubt to the utter despair of my bank manager).

Which brings us to this. I’ve been having a bit of a tough time at work lately. Internal politics, mainly, and no doubt some overreaction on my part, but I’ve found it all pretty hard to escape from. A couple of weekends ago, I stayed in all day on Saturday, and then on Sunday thought that my mood had improved sufficiently for me to trust myself with a coffee at my local Waterstone’s. Sadly, my mood hadn’t improved quite as much as I thought, and so this happened:

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And then the following weekend, things being not that much improved, I went to a different coffeehouse, in a different bookshop, in a different town, and somehow emerged with these:

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You’ll notice this time that the books are resting on a ‘Books are my Bag’ bag. The bookseller, ringing up my purchases, asked whether I wanted one. ‘They’re free…and it would seem to be appropriate.’ Hmm. If even your bookshop comments on your buying habits, then it may be time to admit that you have a problem.

And so, a new plan. I am no longer allowed to go to bookshops (or onto Amazon, for that matter) when in a state of heightened emotion or distress. I have to at least try to stick to this, for a while at any rate, or run the risk of being the first person ever to be crushed to death by their own TBR pile.

You don’t need to worry too much about the financial health of the country’s bookshops just yet, though. Knowing myself as I do, I give it a week.