This is the annual reading list compiled by parliamentary bibliophile Rt Keith Simpson MP
This guide to interesting books published this autumn has been compiled at a time of great crisis over the future of the Brexit agreement, the ability of the Prime Minister to continue and a Parliament and nation divided. Thirty years ago the late Julian Critchley, MP for Aldershot, said the safest thing for MPs in moments of great excitement was a bag of boiled sweets. My suggestion is to read a good book, preferably with a drink, and to switch off one’s mobile phone.
Once again I have selected a number of books based on politics, history and conflict with a few “stocking fillers”.
Not many MPs know that Alex Burghart, MP for Brentwood and Ongar, has a doctoral thesis on Anglo-Saxon history – how Harold Macmillan would have approved. Through Alex I learnt that the British Library had established a marvellous exhibition with accompanying book Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms Art, Word, War edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story. A long way from the old fashioned definition of the Dark Ages.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is a distinguished historian of the Tudor period and the author of a biography of Thomas Cranmer. He has now turned his talents to Thomas Cromwell A Life (Allen Lane) which compliments and challenges the literary fiction of Hilary Mantel. Based on a deep knowledge of the archival sources but beautifully written.
Another Tudor historian is Tracy Borman who has written extensively about the men and women of the period. In Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him (Hodder & Stoughton) she looks at the Royal servants, many of whom lost his confidence and went to the scaffold.
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A book for the SNP, but alas its scholarship will challenge the myths they propagate, is T M Devine’s The Scottish Clearances A History of the Dispossessed (Allen Lane). This book is a powerful social and agrarian history of Scotland from the seventeenth century and deals with the Lowlands and Borders as well as the Highlands.
Anne Lister was an active lesbian in the early nineteenth century and kept a detailed coded diary. A fascinating and remarkable woman who dressed as a man and has found her biographer in Angela Steidele’s Gentleman Jack A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist (Serpent’s Tail). A book which would have shocked Queen Victoria.
Adrian Tinniswood is the author of The Long Weekend Life in the English Country House Between the Wars and has now turned his pen to Behind the Throne A Domestic History of the Royal Household (Jonathan Cape). A book crammed full of information and wonderful anecdotes since the reign of Elizabeth I.
The outstanding political biography this year is Andrew Roberts’s Churchill Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane). Don’t be put off by yet another book on Churchill and the nine hundred pages. Andrew Roberts has written many political biographies and his command of the sources is breath taking, including the use of George VI’s diary. This biography now supersedes that written by Roy Jenkins twenty years ago.
Allen Packwood is the Director of the Churchill Archives, and he has used its magnificent resources to consider how Churchill made his strategic decisions in How Churchill Waged War – The Most Challenging Decisions of the Second World War (Frontline Books).
Like drinking flat champagne, but for the political anoraks a must is Philip Cowley and Denis Kavanagh The British General Election of 2017 (Springer International). A good bluffer’s guide on lessons to be learnt in today’s period of instability.
Kenneth Rose was one of the most astute observers of the postwar establishment. With private means he plied his trade as an upmarket journalist and was the author for nearly forty years of the Sunday Telegraph gossip column “Albany at Large”. He had a wide network of friends, writers, politicians, Royalty, courtiers, headmasters and louche characters with whom he wined and dined. The historian D R Thorpe has edited his substantial diaries and the first volume is Who’s In Who’s Out The Journals of Kenneth Rose Volume One 1944-1979 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
In No Tradesmen and No Women The Origins of the British Civil Service (Biteback) Michael Coolican, a former civil servant, examines the origins of the civil service and how it has adapted or not to outside pressure.
Sadly, a few weeks ago we lost Peter Carrington, a long serving public servant and member of the Conservative Party, but not enthusiastically so. He died in ripe old age at the same time that Boris Johnson resigned as foreign secretary – something Carrington had done nearly forty years ago but with more style. Christopher Lee knew Carrington and spent hours talking with him and was able to produce off the literary backburner a biography Carrington An Honourable Man (Viking).
John Nott, former defence secretary who resigned after the Falklands War, is a lively and opinionated former politician. A former soldier and businessman, and later an MP, he has written Memorable Encounters (Pen & Sword) about twenty individuals he has known from Cabinet ministers, to heads of the armed forces, scientists, a Poet Laureate, a farmer and not least his wife.
John Nicholson became the Victorian “Hero of Delhi” after he died of wounds during the capture of the city in 1857. A charismatic and opinionated Ulsterman of strong Christian beliefs he now appears as an outdated and anachronism. Nevertheless, Stuart Flinders has written a thought provoking biography Cult of Dark Hero Nicholson of Delhi (I B Tauris).
David Gilmour wrote a substantial book on the British Indian Civil Service in the Victorian and Edwardian era – The Ruling Caste. Now he has written a superb study about the different British people who went to, lived and worked in India based upon a deep knowledge of archives and family papers. The British in India Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience (Allen Lane) is thought provoking and a good read.
The British Indian Army has come back into fashion and for more than accounts written by the British officer class. George Morton-Jack’s The Indian Empire at War From Jihad to Victory, the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War (Little Brown) attempts to see the war through the eyes of Indian soldiers. Peter Stanley has done the same with a truly superb account of the experience of Indian soldiers at Gallipoli in Die in Battle, Do Not Despair The Indians at Gallipoli 1915 (Helion and Company).
To understand the regular British officer in the First World War it is necessary to look at the late Victorian and Edwardian Army. An academic work but full of information is Ian F W Beckett A British Profession of Arms The Politics of Command in the late Victorian Army (University of Oklahoma Press).
Michael Palin has been fascinated by the failure of the Royal Navy’s Arctic expedition in 1845 and the disappearance of two ships the Terror and the Erebus. A fascinating account which he explores through the story of HMS Erebus in Erebus The Story of a Ship (Random House).
We have just been commemorating the centenary of the Armistice and Guy Cuthbertson has written a sobering and informative book Peace at Last A Portrait of Armistice Day 1 November 1918 (Yale University Press).
Helen Parr’s Our Boys The Story of a Paratrooper (Allen Lane) combines a moving account of the death of her nineteen year old Uncle Dave, in the Falklands, with the culture and ethos of young working class men serving in the Parachute Regiment. A classic book on an important subject.
There must be as many biographies of Napoleon as there are of Churchill. Adam Zamoyski’s Napoleon The Man Behind the Myth (William Collins) strips away many of the accepted stories about Napoleon and draws a portrait warts and all.
Randall Nicol has written a most impressive two volume history of the Scots Guards on the Western Front in the First World War. One officer’s diary and letters he used was Miles Barnes, a former regular officer who volunteered again in 1914 and was tragically killed in 1917. A compassionate and dedicated officer who, perhaps, lacked the necessary hard nosed ambition to command, his life is revealed in Miles Barnes’ Diary A Suffolk Countryman at War 1915-1917 (Helion and Company).
A Centenary of Remembrance (Imperial War Museum) is written by Laura Clouting of the IWM, and explores the deeply personal way in which people mourned their loved ones and how individuals, localities and national governments memorialised them.
Oxford University Press has established a series of books on Great Battles, which move beyond a description of the fighting to consider how they have been interpreted and re-interpreted over the years. Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel look at how the British, French, Germans and Belgians have done this in Great Battles Ypres (OUP) from the First World War.
Nazi justice was extensive and deadly and Helmut Ortner considers this in Hitler’s Executioner Roland Freisler, President of the Nazi People’s Court (Frontline Books).
Doris Kearns Goodwin is a distinguished American historian who has written extensively about Lincoln and the Roosevelts. Her Leadership Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times (Viking) draws on her research and has some useful conclusions that could be absorbed ty the score of would-be Conservative leadership candidates.
One of the most impressive books published this year is Vietnam An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 (William Collins) by Max Hastings drawing upon the author’s experiences there as a young journalist and his extensive research.
Cedric Delves was a distinguished British army officer who served in the Special Forces in the Falklands. In Across An Angry Sea The SAS in the Falklands War (C Hurst & Co) he writes with passion about the role and history of Special Forces on the ground.
Patrick Porter’s Blunder Britain’s War in Iraq (OUP) concludes that bad ideas, sincerely and widely held, bear primary responsibility for what went wrong. This is now fifteen year old history and rarely receives a mention but is important for decision makers today.
The fascinating wartime correspondence between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt is set in historical context by two distinguished editors – they range from intimate personal greetings to major exchanges on strategy and war – David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov (eds) The Kremlin Letters Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt (Yale University Press).
Published against the background of events in Salisbury Mark Urban The Skripal Files The Life and Near Death of a Russian Spy (Macmillan) tells the story of the Russian Spy Sergei Skripal and the role of the Russian intelligence agencies and their active killer instincts.
A book originally published in 1968 and updated in 2016 is Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat A Practical Handbook (Harvard University Press). This should be required reading for Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker following their bungled attempt to overthrow the Prime Minister. Politicians should always remember LBJ’s advice – first rule is learn how to count.
A recommendation by our former colleague Sir Simon Burns is Michelle Obama’s Becoming (Viking) which is far better than the usual political memoir of a former President’s wife.
Finally two stocking fillers are Charles Oliver’s Dinner at Buckingham Palace Secrets and Recipes form the reign of Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II (John Blake) and the wonderfully eccentric book by the Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie A Field Guide to the English Clergy A Compendium of Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates and Adventurers, All Anglian, Some Even Practising (One World Publications).
A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my Readers.