Book review: Devon and Cornwall’s Oddest Historical Tales

Although it has the light, readable feel of a storybook, this book by John Fisher featuring 22 short stories from the county of Devon, followed by a further 20 stories from neighbouring Cornwall, is nevertheless history pure and simple. Both counties have a fair degree of myths and legend in their storytelling traditions and these tales which occasionally mention mermaids or weather-based folklore occasionally reflect that. Despite that, the stories which included that of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee (otherwise renowned as ‘the man they couldn’t hang.’) the legend of the pirate queen of Penryn, the amazing story of a lion attack on Regency-era Exeter stagecoach, the life of John Opie ‘the Cornish Wonder’ and the bizarre story of Napoleon’s post-Waterloo visit to Torbay, are no less incredible for being true. A light volume, ideal for holiday reading.

Book review: Devon and Cornwall’s Oddest Historical Tales, by John Fisher. Published by: The History Press.

Book review: The Little History of Devon

Beneath its placid, seaside resort, areas of outstanding beauty exterior, the county of Devon has had a livelier history than many.

Don’t believe me? Then pick a century at random. Try, the 16th: The heyday of many Devon-born explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Piracy and smuggling were rife. The county also played major roles in the Wyatt and Prayer Book Rebellions. The 20th? Remember the wartime devastation of the air raids on Plymouth and Exeter? The booming seaside of Regency Exmouth in the early 19th century. The ten sieges of Exeter. Perkin Warbeck’s march on Devon. The critical role played by the county in the Civil War. The trials of the Bideford ‘witches.’ The history of England is fascinating and Devon has certainly played an essential role in making it so.

This new book by Suze Gardner avoids jumping around all over the place as I just did. It tells the story of Devon in 21 easily absorbable little chapters, starting with details on the county’s geology (fun fact: only a small amount of the so-called ‘Jurassic coast’ is actually from the Jurassic era) and stretching right up to the lowdown on the early 21st century sitcom, Jam and Jerusalem.

With so much potential information to impart, there are potential dangers here, of course. Any history risks being overly dense as it seeks to burden the reader with too many facts. At the other extreme, a writer might go too far to avoid doing this and end up producing something so lightweight it ends up not really telling the reader anything substantial at all.

Happily, as in her previous book, The Little Book of Devon, Suze Gardner avoids both of these traps. Whether discussing the Honiton lace trade, sinister occultist, Aleister Crowley or the Battle of Jutland, she achieves the perfect balance between being highly readable and accessible while also remaining substantial and informative. There is also plenty of good history to be learned here generally too, not just about Devon. The next time anyone says to you they want to come to see Devon’s famous ‘Jurassic Park’ or tries to claim crime writer, Jessica Fletcher lived in Greenway, toss over a copy of this book.

I should declare an interest here. I do not know Suze Gardner myself and have not met her. I have, however written the book, Secret Exeter (2018) with Tim Isaac and also wrote A-Z of Exeter: Places – People – History (2019) myself. I regularly write features on local history for the magazines, Exeter Life and Devon Life and write a weekly history column which runs in the Sidmouth Herald, Midweek Herald and Exmouth Journal. I have definitely used Suze Gardner’s works to inform my own writing. I will doubtless do the same again in the future.

I do have one or two minor niggles with the book, however. For one thing, it occasionally, just sounds a bit wrong. Consider this, on James II: “The new king was a Catholic (the last Catholic in England). Worse still, he was intent on making the country Catholic again too.” I don’t think Suze Gardner means this to sound as if it’s bad to be Catholic. But it does rather come out sounding that way. She also doesn’t mention General Buller’s youthful bravery during the Zulu Wars: the heroic side of his reputation rests entirely on this, not on his later, rather more dubious record as a General during the Boer War.

Some of the sub-headings do sound a bit Horrible History-esqe too: ‘Awful Antarctic,’ ‘Hooray Henry!’ and ‘Awful Arsenic and Monstrous Manganese’. My worst criticism would be the excessive overuse of exclamation marks throughout the entire book. Often, they just seem inappropriate: “Remarkably, many Saxon government methods are still in use today!” “Often services had to be held outside to accommodate all the worshippers!” and ‘The people of Victorian Exeter had very bad luck with their theatres as three of them burnt down!” None of these sentences needs an exclamation mark, particularly as one of the fires referred to in the last one was actually a terrible tragedy. There are many more examples of this throughout the book.

But I didn’t spot any real factual errors. And ultimately as a concise and highly accessible guide to England’s third largest county, this is basically unmissable.

Book review: The Little History of Devon, by Suze Gardner. Published by: The History Press, 2021

Book review: Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90

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Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90

By Clive Bloom

Published by: The History Press

The Thatcher era was probably the most radically divisive in recent political history. The period is fascinating and has, of course, been well documented.

But what about the secret state? What was going on behind the scenes?

Thatcher has been out of power for almost a quarter of a century now and dead since 2013, but no one would expect all of the secrets of Britain’s espionage activity during her tenure to be revealed yet (or, indeed, ever) and Clive Bloom doesn’t claim this. This is nevertheless a fascinating and sometimes chilling read.

The book opens in 1974, at a time when Thatcher herself was still in Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. The nation, however, was already starting to experience the intense political polarisation which would characterise her time in Downing Street. It was a time of intense paranoia with groups of retired officers plotting a coup should the nation take a sudden leftward turn. Airey Neave, Thatcher’s confidante, who would himself be assassinated by the IRA shortly before Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election reportedly threatened Tony Benn with assassination if the latter ever became leader of the Labour Party. Bloom claims the chances of Benn ever becoming leader were “slim”. We now know of course that he never did. But would this have been obvious at the time? It seems doubtful: Benn might well have led his party had he stood in 1980 or had he not lost his seat in 1983. But anyway…

In 1976, Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister and soon began talking to journalists like this:

“I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room. Sometimes I speak when I’m asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. The blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere.”

Wilson was clearly long past his best: an alcoholic and probably suffering from the early stages of dementia. But MI5 had been plotting against him when he was in power. It was a fact.

Under Thatcher from 1979, the government’s enemies were clearly defined: the IRA, unions, the Soviet Union, British socialists and the Left, the last few often viewed as effectively in alliance. The enemy within. The government even took the view that the inner city rioting of the early Eighties could be blamed on left wing politicians stirring things up.

Covering everything from the still emerging scandal concerning high level paedophilia, to the battles with the IRA, the miners and the Soviets, to the alarming number of suspicious looking and unexplained deaths, this is the book not of a conspiracy theorist or even a polemicist but a balanced and well written insight into the world of those who lived and worked in the shadows during the most interesting decade (or so) in modern British political history.

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