A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan

My last post mentioned that we’d just been away on holiday and, for once, I didn’t take anything set in the area (the Hebrides and Skye) to read. However, we did visit lots of archaeological sites so reading the latest in Yale’s ‘Little History’ series seemed very appropriate. I’ve always been interested in archaeology – I’m old enough to remember both the raising of the Mary Rose back in 1982 and the Tutankhamun exhibition in London in 1972 (good old Blue Peter…), I followed Living in the Past in 1978 (bedtime permitting) and, of course, I do love a bit of Time Team. Also I worked for quite a few years in academic bookshops: always in stores connected to Universities with highly regarded archaeology departments. Let’s face it, I’m a stones and bones groupie…

36125250This short book (less than 300 pages) gives a whistle-stop tour of the history of archaeology from the early days of, effectively, tomb-robbing to the present where technology has almost taken away the need for digging at all. Of course, as well as explaining the development of archaeology as a science the book also explores the human history which archaeology covers. From early stone tools, through the rise of farming, the splendours of Egypt and other near-Eastern civilisations and onto the Romans and Greeks. We also visit China – the amazing terracotta armies – and cultures in North and South America, and in Africa we go beyond the usual to look at Greater Zimbabwe.  As well as the history and the science we also meet the archaeologists themselves: from the early days of gentleman amateurs to increasing levels of scientific and academic rigour. For every showboating Schliemann there is the less well-known Vincent Gaffney. (Which then takes me back to the years I worked at Bradford University where his brother Christopher developed the ‘geophys’ used on Time Team, and his niece Bella, a talented local folk singer – talk about six degrees of separation…). I feel I know a fair bit about archaeology and still managed to learn from this book. Because care is taken to explain any even slightly specialist term it is also a great introduction for anyone (from a keen youngster onwards) who wants to delve deeper than just watching an Indiana Jones film.

Jane

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May round-up

I don’t usually do a monthly round-up. They are popular with book bloggers, as are posts showing planned reading for the month, book hauls etc, but I would prefer to be posting a bit more regularly. I suppose other bloggers also do author interviews, Q&As, blog themes and the like but I enjoy reading and telling you what I’ve read. To quote a famous Russian, ‘simples’… However, sometimes life gets in the way. Over the last month I have had a holiday (which may get mentioned in a bit…), changed my hours at work (dropping my hours – which should mean more blogging time but I have been trying to get back into my running and gardening) and been doing lots of other non-reading stuff. Also I discovered Microsoft Jigsaw. If you want to be productive at all, in any way, don’t even think about Microsoft Jigsaw…Anyway, here are a few of the things I’ve been reading in May.

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

whistledark.jpgI managed to miss Healey’s first book, Costa-winner Elizabeth is Missing, but I heard such good things about it that I was keen to read this. The story is told by Jen and describes the aftermath of what must be one of any parent’s worst nightmares. Lana, Jen and her husband Hugh’s teenaged daughter, went missing for four days while on a painting holiday in the Peak District. The holiday itself and the four days of parental panic are skimmed over a little: what we are really exploring in this book is the relationship between mother and daughter and Jen’s reactions to both the disappearance and Lana’s refusal (or inability) to say what happened.

It is understandable why Jen is worried – Lana has had episodes of depression in the recent past, culminating in an overdose attempt which led Jen to visits to all local pharmacies with a request not to sell painkillers to her daughter – but it seemed to me that Jen is experiencing mental health issues of her own. She obsesses over what could have happened – fearing all the usual worsts since Lana had befriended a teenaged boy on the holiday and was eventually discovered by a man on an isolated farm – becoming anxious, suspicious and a bit paranoid. The whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that the media follows the story closely and that one of the other people on the painting holiday is a slightly strange man whose religious beliefs include the possibility that some children can travel to hell and back. Jen almost stalks her own daughter to try to find answers – listening in on phone calls, searching bedrooms and following her to school – but doesn’t find them until she returns to the Peak.

Not quite a psychological thriller this is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman driven to extremes by the fear of what could have happened to her daughter. The characters are realistically drawn, both Jen and Lana but also Hugh and the older daughter, Meg, and the situation is plausibly dealt with. The final answers (which I won’t give away) are perhaps a little more far-fetched but possible all the same. I’m not a parent but the pain and worry of learning to deal with the fact that a beloved child is both growing apart from you and potentially putting themselves in danger seems very well described.

The House of Islam – Ed Husain

39988957I’m an atheist but I would never deny others the right to follow any religion – although I would really prefer their religion to promote tolerance, peace and fairness. I have friends who are Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Hindu and, since I live and work in Bradford, many who are Muslim. I am always interested in learning about what other people believe in and also how their faith is reflected in their everyday life so I was keen to read Ed Husain’s House of Islam. I read his earlier book, The Islamist, an account of his youthful brush with the world of more politicised, radical Islam and how he moved away from it: this book promised to be a more rounded and mature look at a major world religion.

Firstly we get a pretty comprehensive history of Islam – its origins, its early schisms and spread around the world. The rise of various sects is covered and some of them are fairly roundly criticised. What is important to Husain – whose particular brand of Islam is based on Sufism, a very spiritual form of the faith – is the essence of the religion, the feelings it should create, rather than strict obedience to man-made laws. As a person who doesn’t follow the directions of any religion this is a good distinction – I like the idea of a world filled with good people rather than Christians/Jews/Muslims/Jedi who follow a set of rules which can cause difficulties, or even suffering, to those who are not following in the same way. Specific areas are considered – sharia law (which almost certainly doesn’t mean what you think it does…), the role of women, education and sex, the relationship between Islam and Judaism and attitudes to death – and some suggestions are made. These mostly seem to be a plea for a greater understanding  of the full range of possibilities for Islam. Although there are many Muslims in the West the view of them held by many non-Muslims is that of one particular aspect of the faith. Often this is that of more extreme versions of what is, at heart, a peaceful faith.

I realise that Husain is giving his opinion here. He doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even for all moderate Muslims. But he does speak very passionately and persuasively about something he seems to believe in wholeheartedly. Solving the problems of extremism (in all religions) can never be easy but a deeper understanding of other faiths would be a good place to start. I feel I have gained some of that understanding by reading this book.

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People – Julia Boyd

34594504Okay. So this doesn’t, on the face of it, sound like fun holiday reading but it was actually fascinating. It looks at the rise of the Nazi party in Germany between the two world wars from the first hand reports of non-Germans visiting or living in the country. The reports – diaries, journalism, letters and memoirs – are from a wide range of people. Diplomats, tourists, socialites, opera-buffs and school children are all represented and British, American and New Zealand voices are heard. Some are serious reports and some are more jokey in tone but, as we are repeatedly reminded, none of these people have the benefit of hindsight.

The majority of the travellers in this book (school-children excepted) are of an age to remember the Great War. This means that many of them are willing to accept many things in order to prevent another conflict. It seems shocking that so many were convinced, even after the persecution of the Jews began, that Hitler was the best hope for peace in Europe but, again, we have history to inform us and they did not. One of the points repeatedly made is that anti-Semitism was widespread and generally accepted in this era (although there is no suggestion that the methods ultimately used by the Nazis to deal with the issue would have been accepted in the same way). These reactions and reasonings are given without criticism – after all, we have no way of knowing what future generations will think of the way we are dealing with the global issues we face today. The main lesson I would like to draw from this gripping book is that we must not fall for smooth-talking political leaders who try to persuade us against our personal morality. Whatever religion (or none) we draw that morality from.

Jane

Deeds Not Words – Helen Pankhurst

It was an interesting time, a century ago. A war which affected most of Europe and beyond, a flu epidemic which killed even more people globally than the war (bloody as it was) and authors as diverse as Muriel Spark and Spike Milligan were born. And, as we have been reminded widely on the news and through social media, women got the vote. Well, not all women. Women over 30, who owned property or were married to a property owner – compared to all men over 21 (or over 19 if they were in military service) – so it wasn’t exactly equality but it was a start. But how much more equal are things now? In Words Not Deeds Helen Pankhurst (a great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) looks at the progress of women’s rights from 1918 to the present day.

9781473646858Pankhurst looks at a number of areas – politics, money, identity, conflict, culture and power – and discusses the historical background from 100 years ago, talks through the developments and, finally, gives a score (out of 5) for how far we have progressed. In some sectors we have done pretty well – identity in particular get 4/5 because women now have so much more freedom to dress as they please and conduct their personal relationships in their own way. It isn’t a perfect situation but great advances have been made. Conflict, on the other hand, which includes issues of violence against women and their feelings of safety sadly only scored 1/5. Reading the case studies and the personal stories it is hard to see how any higher score could be given. I won’t spoil the overall score for you but suffice it to say we still have nearly as far to go as we have come…

The most important thing I have taken from reading this book is that all women’s experience of life is different. Meaning that although I have had a good life – with access to a loving family, decent food and housing, an excellent education and healthcare – this is not the same for everyone. Whether we like it or not there are many factors which can affect how women are able to access all the things we take for granted – ethnicity, age, disability, sexual and gender identity among others – and we need to stop assuming that our own experience is the norm. Reading the stories from women who have had such different lives from my own makes me appreciate such diversity. When we remember to listen to all these voices we will be able to improve life for everyone, women and men.

Jane

Yorkshire: A Lyrical History of England’s Greatest County – Richard Morris

I’ve lived in Yorkshire now for nearly 17 years – I’ve lived in the North for most of my life even though I’ve never quite picked up the accent – and I have, on Yorkshire Day, taken the declaration of integrity. Yorkshire is now home and, by declaration, I am a Yorkshirewoman (even if trips down to Essex to see my Mum are referred to as ‘going home’ – home is also where your Mum is…). I am fascinated by the history, geography and people of my adopted home so was very keen to read Morris’ book – I do also love the idea of history being ‘lyrical’!

34807279Years ago I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which explained, among other things, how geography guided the way that civilizations, represented by guns and steel, spread around the world. Reading this book reminded me of this – the part that Yorkshire’s geography, the rivers, hills, valleys and coasts,  played in history. In where settlements were built, where roads led and where industry developed: which, in turn, led to art, poetry and literature, and, maybe more importantly, to the Yorkshire character. It is not a linear history – we move back and forth through time to a certain extent – and it isn’t just about places. People feature strongly some, like J.B. Priestley or Winifred Holtby, well-known and others either known locally (like Richard Oastler in Bradford) or just to their families. Some should be better known, in my opinion, and, like so many good history books, this one has suggested lots of subjects I need to find out about. If you don’t know much about Yorkshire then read this book: you’ll learn a lot. And if you think you do know a lot about Yorkshire (am I looking at Rob here? possibly…) then still read this book: there’s so much more to know than you think.

Jane

Queens of the Conquest – Alison Weir

As a small child I was often told that I had eyes bigger than my belly. You know, I’d see a great big slice of cake or an adult-sized portion of fish and chips and would think I could eat it all. Which would end up with a poorly looking Jane and a plate still half full of whatever it was I had been sure I could eat all of? Well, to be honest, I don’t have that problem any more. Not much is bigger than my belly any more! Although I have sort of transferred that over-enthusiastic optimism to books so maybe now my eyes are bigger than my, um, (frantically tries to think of a body part I read with which isn’t my eyes – fails) free time. At the start of the year I set my Goodreads Reading Challenge target and, since I was expecting to blog about twice a week, I decided that I’d set it for two books a week. That’s 126 books in the year. Not a problem when I do include quite a lot of children’s’ titles (picture books are brilliant for keeping your target in sight) but I have had a couple of blips. At the end of August I was way ahead of schedule and had even had a chance to finish a history of the Spanish Flu (although that took a month of slotting a few chapters here and there amongst the fiction) so I settled down to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for our book group meeting in mid-September. I read in the introduction that Pullman considers it to be one book, in three parts, so listed it on Goodreads as one. By the time I finished it, two weeks later, I realised my mistake. I had lost my lead over my target (even after I changed the listing to show that I had read three books rather than one…) and was concerned that I’d not be able to allow myself to read any of the things I enjoy but which take more time – usually non-fiction like popular science or history. Boo.*

33638252Well, of course, there’s history and there’s history. And for me any history written by Alison Weir is pretty much irresistible. Like me she has an abiding interest in medieval history (although we’ll both dabble in Tudors if pressed…) and wants to think about how women shaped that world. In Queens of the Conquest Weir is looking at the very earliest queens of England – the wives of the Norman kings, William the Conqueror, Henry I and Stephen – and the Empress Maud, daughter of Henry I and rival to her cousin Stephen during a bitter civil war known as the Anarchy. Which took me back to reading my Mum’s Jean Plaidy books as a child and my realisation that the best way to be a Norman queen was to be called Matilda…

The problem with books written about this period is that primary evidence is fairly thin on the ground and that which does exist is not necessarily easy to work with. Charters issued by queens on both their own and their husband’s behalf, a few letters and, in the case of Maud, some fairly scathing comments from the Gesta Stephani (a contemporary history written very much on Stephen’s side of things). The book works with this material well – it can seem a little dry at points but it certainly made me realise that the phenomenon of women being judged on their looks, compliant personalities and ability to bear children is not the invention of modern celebrity magazines. All of the queens in this book seem to be strong women, acting as regent for their husbands and making decisions both political and financial on their behalf. Maud was the queen best known to me – the daughter of a king, wife of a king and mother to a king but, sadly for her, never crowned as queen in her own right.  I was intrigued to read about the possibilities of her relationship with her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I’m quite excited to read that this is the first book in a projected series of four books. I have really been enjoying Weir’s fiction about the wives of Henry VIII but reading about the unvarnished facts (or as many as are available to historians) of the wives of earlier kings is a different kind of pleasure. More like a medieval ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ than a 12th Century Hello magazine – both popular generally but the former is far more my cup of tea.

Jane

 

 

*Yes. I know the Goodreads target is just a bit of fun. I can read whatever I like and take as long as I like but, heck, I just enjoy setting a goal and going for it. Whether it’s a two book a week reading schedule or eating every single slice of the pizza I ordered – I should be able to put this on my cv…

The Long Road from Jarrow – Stuart Maconie

We seem to be living in an era of anniversaries. As well as the whole period from 2014 to 2018 being a commemoration of the Great War (with honour given to major individual battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele) 2017 has also seen the Centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration and the birth of Arthur C. Clarke, the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the film The Graduate and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Closer to home it is the 150th birthday of the beautiful building my workplace is housed in (an excuse for a party of some sort? I do hope so…) I’m not sure I remember quite so many major anniversaries in my childhood and youth (the only ones that stand out are the Queen’s various Jubilees – mostly because of time off school/my own wedding….) but perhaps I just didn’t care enough to remember them. One event which has recently (October 2016) marked what I tend to refer to as a ‘tombola’ anniversary – one ending in a 5 or a 0 – is the Jarrow March. You know, the Jarrow March? The march from Jarrow to, um, London? Because of jobs? Or something? The one which so many people have forgotten about, never heard of or have dismissed as some kind of bolshie nonsense? Well, that’s the one which Stuart Maconie has made the subject of his latest piece of travel writing.

9781785030536Maconie’s travel writing is always worth a read. He is a keen observer of the places he visits and is never afraid to give you his own views. In this book he decides to follow in the footsteps of the Jarrow Marchers, to find out why they marched, how they were received and whether they are remembered: also, he fancies a nice long walk. Along the way he compares 1936 – with its rise in right-wing politics, wide-spread unemployment and reliance on food handouts and other benefits, and frequent protest marches – with the present day. Some of the comparisons are quite chilling, if I’m honest – at some points the only improvement we seem to have is the NHS – but he is also happy to point out that his nightly accommodation, at least, was a great improvement on the drill halls, schools and churches the marchers were offered. He never downplays the physical effort the march represented but, in order to keep appointments with certain people he meets via social media, he does occasionally jump on a bus. These meetings are often with people who are able to fill in background information on the marchers but he also takes in choral music, a classical piano recital, a pub covers band and a wake. He speaks fondly of many of the marchers themselves (and their dog) and of the Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, but is scathing of most of the Labour party of the time (who made every effort to distance themselves from the marchers). He’s not fond of Corbyn either but does end his march by meeting Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen (elected after the murder of Jo Cox) in the House of Commons.

This book is a fascinating history of the Jarrow March of 1936 but also of the country as it was at the end of last year. In many ways it feels as if very little has changed but maybe books like this can help us – through gentle humour and a little anger – to make sure that the history of the late 1930s is not allowed to repeat itself.

Jane

 

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

It always seemed unlikely that anyone would write a book which combined two of my specific reading interests – fiction set in the early modern history period (think Tudors to Regency) and steampunk. Those pre-industrial eras just don’t lend themselves to the genre as well as the Victorian and Edwardian periods but they are an age which lends itself to the magical and mysterious. Which is why, I suspect, that Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird reads, for me, like a steampunk novel with Elizabethan overtones – specifically like one featuring John Dee. Let me clarify….

9781784297619Rotherweird is a very unusual town. Back towards the end of the reign of Queen Mary a group of children came to light – brilliant but somehow potentially dangerous – and they are sent into isolation in the small town of Rotherweird. There they are placed in the care of Sir Henry Grassal who educates them, against the wishes of the Queen, so that they develop their prodigious abilities in maths, philosophy and sciences. Scroll forward to the modern day and Rotherweird is still cut off in many ways from the modern world. No cars (bar one), no computers, no connection to the politics or government of the real world – governed by their own laws: the comprehensive regulations. There are some familiar things – pilates for example – and the community funds itself by selling the products of its brilliant scientific minds. For Jonah Oblong the new history teacher at the town’s school, however,modern history is the only permitted subject. In fact the laws of the town mean that no-one can study its history or anything at all from before 1800. This is a town which history is meant to have forgotten but history has a habit of asserting itself.

This book has a huge cast of characters – mostly with strange names which I would find far too Dickensian in a Dickens novel – and a fascinating plot involving an isolated community, an unsettling parallel world and strange and powerful forces. It has humour, action, adventure and just a hint of romance. Some of the mysteries are resolved but many more remain. There are still more of Rotherweird’s secrets to be revealed in future so I’m pleased to hear a sequel is in the pipeline.

Jane