One of the benefits of researching for my creative-reading groups is finding new authors, and mostly that only means new to me. Recently, for instance, while googling for background information on Lorna Doone, the tome I’m sharing with five groups this autumn, I wandered off route.
I was looking for a concise summary of the reigns of Charles II and James II. Maybe I accidentally miss-typed the date, because I found myself reading about their distant relatives, who took over the British throne two steps on down the line. I’d wanted Stuarts, but found Hanoverians (that’s the kings, Georges I to IV, and William IV).
The problem with having so many Georges at once is that they tend to become blurred and to be known vaguely as the four Georges, or any old man in a wig. How to tell the Georges apart is something of a problem.
This, I thought, is the kind of history teacher I would have appreciated at school. Despite it being of no use what-so-ever for my Lorna Doone research, I read to the end of the extract.
George the first was the one who couldn’t speak English, and didn’t try. …He was brought over by the commercial interests and reigned until 1727 without the least notion of what anyone was talking about.
During this time there was no Queen of England. George the first kept his wife in prison because he believed that she was no better than he was.
What I like, when I’m trawling around for quotes to throw to my students, is something succinct, and challenging. This writer, I thought, would surely have something interesting to say about Charles II or James II. So I checked the title. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy. It was first published in 1950, but – oh joy! – there was a copy in one of our local libraries. I put a request in.
‘It sounds wonderful,’ said the librarian. ‘I might borrow it after you.’
This week I picked up my copy. A handy little paperback, with attractive illustrations on the cover. It looked promising.
Imagine my disappointment on finding not a chronological history book, but a random dipping-in approach to history.
Let me qualify that. The essays were delightful. Witty, concise pen portraits that gave me a glimpse of characters and times drawn in absurdist style. But neither Charles II nor James II featured.
…Menes, King of Upper Egypt… in 3400 BC… is said to have been devoured by a hippopotamus, a rather unlikely story, since this animal is graminivorous and has never been known to eat anybody else. Modern scholars, therefore, were inclined to regard Menes as a myth until recently, when it was pointed out that a slight error in feeding habits of the hippopotamus does not necessarily prove that Menes never existed.
Cuppy’s subject choices are varied and intriguing. I enjoyed them all, and feel that I might now manage to sound quite knowledgeable, in an irreverent sense, about Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Lady Godiva, Lucrezia Borgia and Philip the Sap, amongst others.
To say the least, I now know that graminivorous means an animal that eats grass and/or grass seeds. Which seems so much more precise than using herbivore.
As for Lorna, and the last of the Stuart kings, I’m consulting elsewhere.