Many of you will have read articles in the Press relating to the death of Napoleon on St Helena exactly 100 years ago. The latest appeared in today's Times where it has been suggested that his death was caused by overdosing on aftershave. Perhaps my mother was right after all in my teenage years!
But one new book, by a great history writer, is Ruth Scurr's 'Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows'. Ruth is the acclaimed author of a first rate life of Robespierre and this book on first glance (it arrived yesterday) looks equally well written, well researched, and is likely to provide new insights into the great man.
It has also been interesting in a contemporary political way to see how President Macron has been wooing the French Right by bigging up Napoleon as a great French nationalist, whereas the Left in France accuse him of the death of millions during his wars, the return of slavery to France (it had been abolished at The Revolution), and his attitude towards women. Macron obviously feels that there is a populist vote in being seen to be pro Napoleon.
However, before I launch into Ruth's book I really must finish Helen Carr's 'The Red Prince, John Of Gaunt'. Strangely little has been written in recent times about this important medieval figure. Helen gives great background to his life, and the idea of national identity which was arising in England at this time, with its clear relevance to British, or at least English, contemporary politics in 2021.
I am also reading a classic, which I must admit shamefacedly never to have read previously. This is Carlo Levi's 'Christ stopped at Eboli'. All about the continuance of a peasant lifestyle in deepest rural Italy during the time of Mussolini. A memoir not fiction.
I just wished I could read faster and take more in quicker than I do! Nothing to do with age, I have always been a slow reader. I blame those early Ladybird reading books of Janet and John. How I hated those two prigs!!
Two excellent new history books I MUST read are 'The Grey Men: Pursuing the Stasi into the Present' by Ralph Hope. It is fascinating how when East Germany collapsed many of The Stasi found profitable employment opportunities in the newly unified Germany; Much as their Nazi predecessors had done post 1945 in West Germany. Plus ca change etc.
The second MUST read is 'Silent Village' by Robert Pike, which tells the story of the tragedy of the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane where the Nazi occupiers carried out a massacre. 643 men, women, and children were murdered in 1944 by The SS. Today the ruined village, called by the French 'the martyred village', remains a ruin to remind the world of the atrocities committed in the name of Nazism.
Another history book, fairly sizeable, by the well known British historian Linda Colley (now Professor of History at Princeton University in The States) is the intriguingly entitled 'The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen'. It is in fact a history of written constitutions across the world. Again it is sat on my shelf begging to be read, but I anticipate it will be a demanding read - and none the worse for that.
The final book for this list is Cal Flyn's 'Islands of Abandonment'. This is an environmental book which is sub-titled 'Life in the Post-Human Landscape'. Its theme is how quickly nature restores the balance once human sites are abandoned. Her examples are all intriguing ones ranging from The UN Buffer zone in Cyprus to Chernobyl and many more besides. I love the new books centring on the environment because not only do they make us think about the places we ourselves live in and visit but because it brings up time and again what humankind has done and is doing to the planet. A last wake up call for all. My wife and I have become depressed during lockdown at how many masks and coffee cups are carelessly abandoned on the beach in front of where we live. How do we persuade people to behave more responsibly? I remember back in the day we had campaigns like 'Keep Britain Tidy' and we were taught about not throwing things down in public spaces. I suppose we live in a takeaway-throwaway society - but it must stop. Here endeth the lesson for today!!