Adventures in Bookland: The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici by Christopher Hibbert

Ever gone into a second-hand bookshop? Have you glanced over the shelves of books, dusty and overlooked, their authors fading into forgetting? Writing a book is a tilt against futility, a challenge to eternity and entropy – but the shelves of second-hand bookshops tell us that almost all such challenges end in failure. Run your finger along the spines, reading off the names of the authors. Have you heard of any of them?

Unless it’s the inevitable row of Dickens, then probably not. They are being forgotten, consigned to oblivion as the graves in a cemetery slowly disappear under ivy as the rain wears the names from the headstones.

Christopher Hibbert, the author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, was one of the best-known writers of popular history in the 1970s and ’80s (he died in 2008). But, having taken this book off a shelf where it was slowly gathering dust, and having read it, I hope that the veil of oblivion will draw back from Hibbert’s work for a while, for this is an excellent book, with all the virtues of the best popular history – verve, narrative drive, vivid characters – and very few of the drawbacks. It deserves to be read, rather than forgotten. So if you’re at all interested in the history of the Renaissance, and the plots, intrigues and assassinations that drove it on, then this is a book for you. Fight back against entropy and decay: take the book off the shelf.


Adventures in Bookland: The Cambridge Companion to Bede edited by Scott DeGregorio

Probably the definitive single volume looking at Bede, his life, work and influence. An array of scholars examine what we know of his, generally uneventful considering the turbulence of the times, life and place Bede in the context of those times, when the first heroic generation of missionaries to the pagan Anglo-Saxons had died and the church was decided what it was and what it would be. How could an institution founded by a man whose refusal to take up the sword in his own defence find resonance and a home among a people so devoted, at least in their upper echelons, to violence, as passion, past time and purpose. There is an interesting contrast with the Romans and Romanised peoples in southern Europe. The Empire had fielded a professional army (it continued to field a professional army in defence of its eastern iteration in Constantinople), allowing for a separation in the state and the people between the civilian and the military. Indeed, this contrast endured in Italy, so that the city states there, during their interminable wars, generally preferred to employ mercenaries, condottieri, rather than calling on the citizenry or the nobility to fight. But in the north, among the descendants of the tribesmen who had settled in France and Britain, the elite fought. Indeed, the nobleman, the knight, was defined as a man who fought, a warrior. How to find purchase in a society like that?

One way was for a heroic religion, one marked by feats of spiritual daring that matched the feats of physical heroism and endurance that called forth songs from the scops. Such had been the approach from many of the Irish monks, men more than a little mad with God, who would as soon cast themselves upon the waves for providence to take them where it would as they would stand to their necks in the Irish Sea, singing psalms and prayers. Such endurance called forth the admiration of warriors. But another way was the way of prayer and study and learning, the new magic of writing that allowed a man and his words to be present where he was not. This was the way of Bede, and doing it, he became the greatest scholar of his age: a remarkably acute and subtle mind. This book is a worthy companion to his study.

Adventures in Bookland: Hitler’s Home Front by Nathan Morley

Life during wartime – in Germany. Hitler’s Home Front is arranged year by year, taking the reader through World War II, briskly covering what it was like to live in Germany during the war. The writing switches nimbly from diary extracts and reminiscences to statistics and overviews, providing a series of snapshots of the war experience for the different layers of German society. The research is fascinating, from the Ferntrauung, weddings conducted when the groom was serving at the front, where he made his vows to his commanding officer and the bride made hers to the mayor, with her husband represented by a steel helmet on the seat beside her, through to the widespread use of government prescribed amphetamines, basically crystal meth, to keep soldiers and workers doing. Recommended for a view of what it was like on the other side.


Adventures in Bookland: Double Eagle by Dan Abnett

Is there any theatre of war the Dan Man can’t write? In Double Eagle he turns his pen to air warfare, to the struggle for air supremacy in the 40k universe, and he does his customary taut and expertly paced job. In fact, I propose that the Dan Man should set himself the Stanley Kubrick target. You know how Kubrick set out to make the best film in every genre of film making, from the SF of 2001: A Space Odyssey, through war movies (Full Metal Jacket) and even porn (Eyes Wide Shut), I therefore set the Dan Man the task of covering every theatre of war. So, by my reckoning – and I haven’t read everything he’s written since I actually have a life outside of reading – that means that the Dan Man needs to write books on submarine warfare and naval warfare (of the marine rather than the space variety) to make the full set. Then, it will truly be possible to acclaim Dan Abnett the Warmaster!

Adventures in Bookland: Doors in the Walls of the World by Peter Kreeft

This may be the best front cover I’ve ever seen: it certainly tells the story of what the book is about, possibly even better than the book does itself. The question is: are there doors or is this all there is? Peter Kreeft, a notably clear philosopher, uses this slim book more as a meditation than an exposition, visiting many of the themes he has explored in his previous books – in particular, that beauty is not subjective but the clearest presence in this world of that which lies beyond it. In that sense, the book is not rigorous. As an argument, it will convince no one who does not already think this way. But as a sign… that it might. For, sometimes, people know, without being able to put into words, that there is more, that they are being sold a dud when told to limit themselves to the cares and concerns of this world. They sense it, from the corner of the eye, from intimations of things glimpsed and sensed and felt. This book is about some of these intimations. If you have felt them, then you will know there are doors in the walls of the world. But of course, the only way to know for sure is to pass through the final door, and face death’s blank denial, and see then whatever we see.

Adventures in Bookland: The Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal

It’s unusual to read a contentious book where one agrees wholly with the arguments the author is making, finds his irony biting and his jokes (written 350 years ago!) still funny, and yet remain glad that while the writer undoubtedly won the literary battle, he lost the theological war. For Blaise Pascal wrote in defence of the rigour of his spiritual brother at Port-Royal, the Jansenist school and convent that, following an Augustinian view of the depravity of human nature, produced as the sculptural expression of their theological view versions of the crucifix where Jesus’ arms are raised above his head, the hands almost touching, to indicate the narrow way to salvation and that few shall walk that narrow path. But, significantly, around the same time as Pascal was writing and the Jansenist controversy was at its height, St Mary Margaret Alacocque, also in France, had visions of Jesus in which he told her to spread the devotion to his sacred heart. The pictures and statues – perhaps the most typical of popular Catholicism – show Jesus with his arms spread wide, open to all. So while Blaise Pascal had by far the best of his argument with the lax-minded Jesuits and their tendency to write off sins – and by way of a side effect, inventing French lettres and paving the way for Montaigne – God answered personally against the Jansenist tendency to restrict the Divine Mercy. But then, God did speak to Blaise Pascal, in fire and light, and answered for him as well, in the Sacred Heart.

Adventures in Bookland: Europe’s Lost World by Vincent Gaffney, Simon Fitch and David Smith

It’s there. Under the dark water. Beneath the cold surface. A lost Mesolithic world that once connected Britain to Europe and jutted far up into the North Sea. A low-lying land of rivers and marshes and shallow hills, with a great inland lake. Doggerland, it is rather unromantically called, after the Dogger Bank, which once would have been hills but are now fishing grounds. But unlike other lost lands, it seems to have left nothing at all behind in the way of folk memories, myths or legends. There are no tales of the North Sea flood, nor of the great wave that was unleashed by the Storegga Slide, no cuneiform tablets awaiting excavation that tell a northern version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The land vanished beneath the sea and took its history with it, into the silence there. This book is the, slightly technical, account of the archaeologists who are trying to bring it back from the dark and the surprising amount of detail they can find of the geography of Doggerland. A fascinating book, but probably best suited for those with a working knowledge of archaeology.

Adventures in Bookland: The Return of Christendom by Steve Turley

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember well the proposed doomsday scenarios that haunted the world then. Apart from the obvious fear of all-out thermonuclear war between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, there were confident predictions of a coming ice age and even more confident predictions of world wide famine as population outstripped food supply in a doomsday Malthusian scenario. None of them happened. So I remain somewhat sceptical of confident predictions about the future, even when the prediction is for something I would hope for, as in Steve Turley’s book. The point he is making is straightforward and one that has been taken up by quite a few demographers. To put it simply, religioius couples have significantly more children than non-religious couples, and children tend to follow the religioius persuasion of their parents. So, in a truly ironic example of Darwinian selection, according to this model the religious shall inherit the earth since the irreligious aren’t sufficiently invested in the non-personal future to produce the children that will affect it. The argument is sound, and is also reflected in what appears to be a normal shelf life of an officially atheistic culture of between 70 and 100 years. But as with all such arguments, it depends on current trends continuing on into the future, and… well, events, dear boy, events. Things don’t normally turn out the way we had predicted. So while I hope that Christnedom will return, I treat these predictions as nothing more than signs to a possible future.

End of the Line 5: Wimbledon to Richmond

That a walk so near to the heart of London can summon such variety is a wonder, to be ascribed to the fight to save common land, which led to Wimbledon and Putney Commons being protected by Act of Parliament in 1871, and through the creation by Charles I of a deer park away from plague pits of 17th-century London. The walk from Wimbledon tube station up Wimbledon Hill Road to the Common takes the walker past any number of designer fashion outlets and delis, so the Common itself comes as a relief to the booted and anoraked. And what a relief. Despite the name, Wimbledon Common is more wood than heath; walking through it, trees receding into the distance, it is easy to think that you could spend a lifetime walking it and never penetrate its mystery. Maybe that is what inspired the Wombles.

Following the Capital Ring from the western side of the Common takes the walker into Richmond Park which, with its expanse of deer-grazed grasslands and flocks of ring-necked parakeets, seems almost savannah like in contrast to the deep green depths of Wimbledon.

The deer, sufficiently blasé about people to allow walkers to pass quite close to them, are magnificent, particularly in the autumn when the stags carry their full set of antlers. The last part of the walk provides great views over the Thames, a section along the Thames and even more opportunity to window shop high-end designer outlets.

Walk here: Turning right out of Wimbledon station, head up Wimbledon Hill Road and the High Street to first part of Wimbledon Common. Take one of the westerly paths through the common (wood, really) to join the Beverly Brook Walk, then head west on the Capital Ring Walk into Richmond Park. Follow the Capital Ring Walk through and out of the park and on to the Thames Path, then head downstream to Richmond for its tube station.