Friday, 5 November 2010

A Little Bit of History, Part 1

I must say that History was one of my least favourite subjects in school, that and Geography. At the first opportunity, when I had a choice in my subjects and I believe that was when I was in Grade 10 at Brookfield Secondary School in Ottawa, I dropped both. I don't know if it was the teacher, what history we were learning, but I do recall when we took Canadian history, just finding it so boring.

I tried again in University to take a couple of history courses, when I had to pick up some half courses in second year. I think one dealt with the Spanish Reformation, the other with the history of Spain after the Spanish armada (something like that anyway).. Yawwwwwnnnnn!! I guess the problem wasn't so much history itself (see my Blog on the first of my Top Ten books, The Guns of August), more likely, I just didn't like the analyzing and writing essays on the subject. Yes, I'm basically lazy.

So with that preamble about history as a subject, I thought I'd go through some of my favourite history books. I think the theme this time will cover England and the period of the Boer War through to current history of the country. Firstly, what do I enjoy about reading a particular history? And here I go analyzing.. lol, amazing. I think part of it is comparing a particular period to the present, also maybe getting a picture of a particular period that I've discovered in reading fiction or mysteries set in that time frame. Basically, I just like a good story and that's what history basically is I guess, a story of a particular time, and if it's presented well, it's worth reading. That's why I liked The Guns of August so much. Barbara Tuchman displayed the period so well, described the characters and events in such a manner to put you in the events taking place.

So on to the books for this particular Blog. I'll cover 5 books here.

The first is The Great Boer War, by A. Conan Doyle. It was written in 1900. This particular edition was published by George N. Morang @ Company of Toronto, third Impression of January 1901. I bought it at the Grafton Book Shop in Victoria, BC. They have a really nice collection of old books and I did like to wander through it, admiring their collections.

The first thing I liked about this book was its age and the excellent condition it was still in. It's got that texture to the pages where they develop little ridges (I think that's the way to describe it best). It makes you take a great care when you sit down to read it.

As well, there are five maps inside of the different points of the battles that Mr Doyle describes throughout. Basically, it's a lovely book first.

The Boer War was fought between the British Empire and the two Boer nations, The Orange Free State and the Transvaal. As Arthur Conan Doyle describes the book in the forward, 'The book was begun in England, and continued on board a steamer, but the greater part was written in a hospital tent in the intervals of duty during the epidemic of Bloemfontein. Often the only documents which I had to consult were the wounded officers and men who were under our care.'

Doyle worked in a field hospital during the war. It's a somewhat dry exposition, but a good description of the nations involved, the causes of the war and an overall description of the events and personalities. I quite enjoyed the book. Doyle expresses concerns about the qualities of equipment and tactics of the British army. You will find this is followed on by Barbara Tuchman when she describes the British involvement in the early days of WWI. Did the British army learn anything from the Boer War regarding tactics, equipment, training, etc? A good read if you want to find out more about the Boer War.

Book Number 2 - Paris 1919 was written in 2001 by Margaret Macmillan is the grand daughter of Olwen Elizabeth Lloyd George, daughter of David Lloyd George, who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain during the events described in this novel. She received her PhD from Oxford and is provost of Trinity College and professor of history at University of Toronto.

This book covers the peace conference after World War I. At this conference, the Big Three, President Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French premier Georges Clemenceau, met in Paris to create a peace.

It is these events that Margaret Macmillan describes so very well in this excellent novel. She writes this story so clearly and knowledgeably that it becomes a page turner that you would have great difficulty putting down. The events that took place at this conference still echo in today's world. These leaders and the personalities from all other countries that took part had to divide and sort out the various warring regions of the world to try and make a peace that would hold and prevent future catastrophes. Obviously it wasn't a success considering the events which followed, such as World War II, the Balkan crises of the late 1980's, events in the Middle East.

But as you read this book, you get a feel for the events, the difficult decisions that had to be made as each of the main players tried to appease the competing parties, each who wanted something from this conference. Fascinating and an excellent book.

Book 3 - With this story I move up the events leading into World War II. Troublesome Young Men was written by former White House correspondent Lynne Olson. It covers the events after Hitler's invasion of Poland and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's attempts to appease Hitler.

The troublesome young men are a group of rebellious Tory MP's who risked their political careers to bring down Chamberlain and his policies. They included Harold Macmillan, Robert Boothby, Leo Amery and many others.

The fact was that a great majority of the press and powers that were supported Chamberlain. Not only did they not want another war, many actually supported Hitler.

This group of politicians worked behind the scenes in difficult circumstances, risking everything to have Chamberlain removed. Oddly enough, Churchill did not vocally support them as he was a loyal party member. The wheeling's and dealings are covered very well in this novel. The results are obviously known by all, with Churchill taking over as Prime Minister during a critical period in Great Britain's history and standing firm against Hitler and the Nazis. The book covers a critical time in World history and is well written and well worth reading.

Book 4 - William Stevenson was a Canadian soldier, businessman and senior representative of the British intelligence during the Second World War. His codename was Intrepid. During WW II he was sent by Churchill to the US to head the British Security Coordination service in New York, whose responsibility was to try and get the US into the war, basically.

In this book, Spymistress, the Life of Vera Atkins, Stevenson tells the stories of one of his greatest recruits, Vera Atkins, 'the greatest female secret agent of World War II'. She was born in Romania of Romanian/ Jewish descent. He recruited her at the age of 23 where she became involved running dangerous spy missions in the 1930's. When war was declared, she was propelled to the leadership of the Special Operations Executive, where she recruited and deployed countless agents, including dozens of brave women who were to penetrated deep into enemy lines to aid local resistance fighters, help Allied pilots escape, etc. Little was known about here and Stevenson kept her secrets until her death, He was the only person she would let write about her exploits, with the condition that it could only be written after her death.

This is a fascinating story about a young women sending brave men and women into great danger and possible torture and death. William Stevenson is very sympathetic in his coverage of Vera and her group who seemed to love her very much. The book did leave me wanting more but on the whole, it is an interesting account of the training, dealings with suspicious levels of government, battles to get money for the Resistance and to save her spies from sure death. Vera Drake was definitely one of a kind and an unsung hero of the war.

 Book 5 - This last book, A History of Modern Britain, covers the history of Britain after the Second World War. Andrew Marr is a newspaper journalist and also has been the BBC's political editor. He wrote this book in 2007 and it covers the people, personalities, life styles, culture and a bit of everything about Great Britain from the period after the Second World War until the 1990's.

Besides the fact that it's extremely well written, I think I liked it especially because it covers my era, the 50's and onwards. I also got further insight from my lovely wife, Jo, who hails from Britain. As personalities or events were mentioned, I could use her as a sounding board as she was familiar with much of what was written especially as I got into the 60's and onward.

I enjoyed the book and its format. Andrew Marr has an easy style of writing and he took the time to cover key political events and ideas of each period he was taking about and also got into the cultural and even pop culture of each period, including music, housing, industry, art. It really gave an excellent picture of a period of Britain's history and a perspective on how the country changed and struggled and grew as each crisis hit it. I really enjoyed this book.

Well, there you go, maybe I do enjoy history after all...


  1. Excellent, Excellent, Excellent!!!

  2. Very interesting...I will have to scout out some bookstores here in the valley. However being in NS, most books here dont sell unless they have colour pictures...

  3. Try Amazon, you can usually get them a bit cheaper and if you spend more than $25 per order, you get free delivery.

    Nice to see you reading the Blog. :0)


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