Tuesday 14 August 2012

Useful Books Catherine Johnson

It's August, and my holiday is long passed. I have so much to do my mind has rendered itself almost entirely blank, my to do list is piling up and I could happily leave my keyboard and go walking around London's preternaturally quiet streets. But, sadly stuff must be done, and given that I still can't tell you much about next years' book I thought I would share some of my favourite history books. Books that have inspired and excited and set off questions in my mind that have grown into stories.

This one, Lords of the Horizons, by Jason Goodwin, is a fascinating, if unorthodox, history of the Ottoman Empire. It's not chronological, but it does offer wonderful set piece essays illuminating palace life, wars, cities and even the dogs of Constantinople. There are chapters on the cage, where the sons of the sultans were shut away until needed, and the special swaying walk of the Janissaries. It's a fantastic read and if I find myself re reading this and The Letters of Lady Wortley Montagu, anytime I need a fix of Ottoman history.

 OK, fast forward to the Twentieth century and a biography of a
notorious character from British and Caribbean history. Michael de Frietas was a hustler from Trinidad, a mixed race boy who could be black as you like or pass for white and who took swinging London by storm. John and Yoko patronised him, the great and the good paid him court. His skill was to be whatever people wanted him to be, a radical, a pimp, a drug dealer, a leader. He believed his own hype and ended up hanged in Trinidad for a double murder. I am not an apologist, but his story is fascinating. It illuminates and lays bare early sixties race politics in Britain.

Then there is Vive La Revolution by Mark Steel. I picked this up in my son's bedroom. It started really well, Mark Steel is a stand up and it is written in his voice. I was hooked to start with, swept along by events. Before I read this book had a sort of limited knowledge about the French revolution which was mostly based on a viewing of Carry on Don't Lose Your Head and the fact that women knitted around the guillotine. This book filled in a lot of gaps and reminded me that whoever is writing it, history is always biased. And even though the end of the book really could do with some work I would still recommend it as a sort of counterpoint to whatever else you might read about the period. And I like Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity too.

What can I say? If you have never ever read any books by Liza Picard you are a lucky, lucky person because you can go and read them now! She has written a series of wonderful books that dissect and reveal London life over different periods of history. I have learnt more from these than any school lessons. They are so easy to read and digest, everything is clear and Liza Picard is so obviously delighted with the facts that she uncovers any reader cannot fail to be delighted too. I think the Dr Johnson one pictured here is my all time favourite. At one point I had two copies as I had misplaced it and could not bear to think it was lost.

Finally, this is actually what I would rather be doing. Editing, schmediting, I would cut off my right arm for a magic keyboard that meant everything came out absolutely right first time.
The same goes for knitting. I am currently knitting a Gansey, Staithes in case you were wondering, four steel pins that look like some kind of fiendish weapons. And I have had to re edit the sleeve three times so far. I am the same with knitting as with writing, I rush at it terrified to take my time in case I lose confidence and stop. But rushing is no good. You need to take your time. Step back. Look. Do it again. Better.
Happy writing!


H.M. Castor said...

These books ALL sound fascinating! I haven't read any of them & you've made me want to read every one (I do have Liza Picard's book on Elizabethan London, though, so I know how fab her books are)... if only I could hibernate for a month & read, read, read! Thank you for this wonderful historical smorgasbord, Catherine.

Michele said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michele said...

I've got Liza Picard's Victorian London and it's marvellously informative and wonderfully well-written. I wish she'd do one on early C20th London - I'd buy it like a shot!

Must see if the library has the Goodwin.

Jennie Walters said...

Thanks so much for these reccomendations, Catherine. Ashamed to say I haven't read any Liza Picard! Lucky me, have them all ahead...

adele said...

I've always wished that life was more like knitting...that you could undo bits and rework them...thanks for fascinating post!

Penny Dolan said...

Oh no! Just when - for a moment - I thought I was gaining on the reading list, along comes this list of treasures. Thank you, Catherine, for an enticing selection.

Picard's Victorian London came in useful as background reading for "A Boy Called MOUSE".

Leslie Wilson said...

Off to my Kindle now.. I have been so busy I haven't got to HG for ages, now I'm mopping up loads of great blogs. Thanks, Catherine!