Stories gory and glorious;Children's books;Reviews;Subject of the week;History

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Kevin Harcombe on two books that put a fresh, and refreshing, slant on British history.

BRITANNIA: 100 great stories from British history. By Geraldine McCaughrean. Illustrated by Richard Brassey. Orion Children's Books pound;20.

THE HUTCHINSON BOOK OF KINGS AND QUEENS. By Tony Robinson. Hutchinson pound;14.99.

The spoof history textbook 1066 And All That, by Walter Carruthers Sellars and Robert Julian Yateman, said the only history that mattered was memorable history - which made a valid point in a flippant way.

These two hugely enjoyable volumes offer memorable stories about people and events that will enthral readers and and listeners.

Britannia is gripping historical fiction. McCaughrean sets out to put the story back into history, explaining at the end of each tale how much is true. She takes us from pre-history and myth (Gogmagog) through the 17th-century witch-finder general Matthew Hopkins, to the 19th-century grave-robbers Burke and Hare and orphans' home founder Dr Barnardo to the 20th century, with Sir Bob Geldof's Live Aid and the Braer oil tanker spill.

Richard Brassey's colour illustrations are a perfect complement to the text. An excellent bibliography lists a range of works of historical fiction arranged by period.

McCaughrean likes to find new angles. For example, she adds a 1990s twist to the tale of Grace Darling, revealing that Grace received hate mail claiming she had rescued shipwreck victims for money. She regularly displays an economy of phrase that can be more affecting than other overwrought passages: "There were nine on the rocks, including one woman, clasping her two dead children, not realising the cold had stolen them from her."

British upper lips may stiffen to her tales of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, the "Titanic" and Dunkirk, but these are rattling good yarns nonetheless.

Robinson's book tells British history through the history of the monarchy, and he neither patronises his primary-age readers nor bowdlerises the tales. We are presented with Edward II's execution by red-hot poker, Cromwell's brutal and fateful role in Ireland, Edward VIII's Nazi sympathies and Princess Diana's troubled life and death. Finally, Robinson ponders the monarchy's future - "Perhaps Queen Elizabeth would be the very last Queen of England" - although there is no republican agenda here.

Some of Robinson's jokes are aptly antique, including the one about the song "Greensleeves" being inspired by Anne Boleyn's alleged habit of wiping her nose on her sleeve. His wit ranges from the mordant ("Mary started to persuade the English back to the Catholic religion. This persuasion involved burning people to death"), to the juvenile ("Under William and Mary, two big gangs arose (the Whigs and the Tories). They became known as 'parties' - although there were no games or birthday cakes").

This is not a "horrible history" in the style of Terry Deary, although it does parade such class-pleasing characters as the "groom of the stool", whose job was to talk to the king while he was on the throne. Robinson is also good at making children aware of interpretation - history books, he warns, are written by the victors.

The illustrations (by Tony Ross, Babette Cole and Anthony Browne, among an illustrious company) are a joy. A "meanwhile" section, detailing significant events for each reign, has sufficient dates for the most fervent traditionalist. The bibliography, sadly, is not at all child-friendly.

A skilful teacher could use these always readable volumes to illustrate historical interpretation. I was struck by the similarity of the two descriptions of Henry VIII in later life. Robinson, the history teacher every primary child would wish for, tells us: "Henry got very fat, bloated and ugly. He was riddled with diseases, had bad breath and smelt horrible."

McCaughrean, with a literary brief, portrays the king as "a mountain of bejewelled lard, sweating cheeks bulging through a square beard, eyes piggy ... a whiff of disease from his lap and legs and feet". And the Windsors think they get a bad press.

Kevin Harcombe is headteacher of Orchard Lea Junior School, Fareham, Hampshire.

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