London Calling…

clash_albumWith our trip to UK coming up, I’ve been doing some swotting to give us at least some direction when we land – London’s a big place and I’m as much a tourist as anyone else seeing how I’ve lived in the US for a long time. Didn’t want to arrive at St. Pancras and then go “Hmm. Where shall we go?” so have been doing some prep work. (And you know me – I love that sort of stuff.)

book247So – decided to get some of English history sorted out and whilst wandering the library aisles came up with this one: Great Tales of English History Volume III by Robert Lacey. (There were also Volume I and Volume II but they cover earlier pieces of English history when I really enjoy the nineteenth century more than anything.) So – this was an extremely readable collection of famous English history events and people (like Dick Turpin and Dick Whittington and cricket). I still don’t really understand cricket (the game itself), but at least now I know the history of the Ashes!

The History of the Ashes in cricket:
In 1882, England was defeated by Australia in one of their big matches. A newspaper reported on this result along with a mock obituary of English cricket that concluded that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” This led to the burning of a cricket stump which was put into a cremation urn and then taken to the English team next time the Aussies played them. Thus became the ASHES. I think they live permanently in Lord’s Cricket Grounds (N. London), which is the HQ of the Marylebone Cricket Club (or MCC) which is cricket’s governing body (established in 1787). The English cricket team traveled under the name of MCC until 1976.

So now you know.

What I really enjoyed about Lacey’s book was his light-handed touch and excellent sense of humor which would creep in every now and then. The book chapters were arranged chronologically, and mixed up famous historical events with other ones that I was not familiar with. For example, Lacey mentions the Tolpuddle martyrs, Spion Kop, Dr. Crippin (Victorian murderer who was chased, Victorian style, like OJ Simpson and his ridiculous car “chase”). And Lacey also covered notable women who played roles in English history such as Edith Cavell  (provided safe shelter for English POW in WWI in Belgium) and Mary Seacole  (who was a nurse at the same time as Florence Nightingale but gets less press as she was a person of Afro-Caribbean descent).

Anyway, all fascinating stuff and filled in some holes in my historical knowledge. (It’s quite interesting how quite a few Americans ask very detailed historical questions and are then bemused when I don’t happen to know the answer to some esoteric inquiry. I think I’ve increased my chances of at least looking like I’ve heard of what they mention now… )

book248And then I read London: A History by A. N. Wilson, again another series of essays covering history but this one was much more *serious* and I had to rather gird my loins to pick it up and read it sometimes. However, Wilson is a good writer and again covered various chronological events in London’s history from Romans to Ken Livingstone. This was certainly not as easy a read as the previous Lacey book, but was focused towards a different audience, I would imagine. Each chapter picks an aspect of the city’s history as time moves past Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys, Dickens with the most recent title being 1940’s Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (which Wilson loves). Wilson also really admires fellow writer Peter Ackroyd – he mentions him a few times and the book is dedicated to him. Wilson is obviously a Fanboy about him for some reason. Perhaps I should get my courage up and read the brick of a book that Ackroyd wrote about London. (Cue: SBB Challenge here.)

So – Wilson was a good read, but he gets a bit serious and a bit grumpy in places. Lacey was the funner read. If you also have some holes in your British/English history, this is a fun intro book that covers a lot of years with minimal fuss:
Remember, Remember: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About British History with all the Boring Bits Taken Out – Judy Parkinson (2009). (It’s not deep or scholarly, but it is fun to read.)

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