Right, here’s an upfront confession. I wasn’t an avid reader growing up who couldn’t put books down. I do recall an intense Roald Dahl phase (who doesn’t) but when I was younger you’d be more likely to find me watching Friends on loop with a massive bowl of pasta and cheese or dancing around to Take That in my replica England Football squad shell-suit. (It was the 90s)
But, I’ve certainly always had a love of storytelling and understood the power of history. I wrote my first book when I was six, called “The Magic Apple”. When I bit into that luscious green apple I was magically transported to wonderful historic places like the pyramids and Buckingham Palace.
Neil Gaiman said: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” But, as I’ve got older, the books I remember are those that had a profound impact and shaped the joy history plays in my life. Those books where the sheer experience led me somewhere, made me appreciate or understand something better or sparked an adventure.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
The letters, diaries and autobiographies of major historical figures are fascinating- a truly personal insight into their thoughts, recollections and emotions so they feature three times in my list.
For a reason, I can’t quite recollect, at my school-leavers assembly I was presented with an achievement award and the gift I had asked for. I distinctly remember my friend before me being presented with ‘best of hip-hop’ album and the presenters surprise when he handed over to me the hefty tome, Long Walk to Freedom.
I was about to study Politics and International Relations at University and it was an exceptional autobiography with life-lessons about freedom, responsibility, leadership and strength.
“I realized that they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. They could not take those things. Those things I still had control over. And I decided not to give them away.” Nelson Mandela
Fast-forward to January 2015. I caught the boat and sailed the 45 minutes across to Robben Island from Cape Town. I saw the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. I was shown where he ate, slept and took daily exercise until his release in 1990. Our guide was a former political prisoner. Everyone was captivated. Some were crying.
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Many study Anne Frank’s diary in school. We did J. B Priestly’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ so, until the summer of 2015, I’d never read it.
But, I was presented with the perfect opportunity. A stop within a five-week trip around Europe dubbed ‘From Rome to Home’ included Amsterdam. Being super-organised, I pre-booked tickets to visit Anne Frank House.
Anne Frank’s diary had been in my bag for three weeks. I’d been saving it for the 7-hour train ride from Venice to Salzburg, Austria. Without missing the breath-taking scenery of northern Italy and the mountains I was captivated by the diary. Here was the adolescent Anne, in the secret annexe, writing and confiding her deepest thoughts and feelings to Kitty. Feelings about sharing space, her difficult relationship with her mother and unexpected attraction to Peter van Pels, also hiding with his family.
When I reached Amsterdam, cast against the craziness of constantly feeling like I would be run over by a tram or out-of-their-depth tourist on a bike, Anne Frank’s House was sombre and calm. It was larger than I thought it would be but all the rooms were all empty. I learnt it had been gutted after they were taken, but Anne’s father Otto, the only one to survive, had requested it stay that way.
It was unforgettable and emotional. I’d gotten to know Anne and her family. Every page of the diary was fresh in my mind including how it suddenly cut off after she was discovered after two years, transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, dying just three months before her 16th birthday. It was an honour to be there.
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Until this book, I had never read any historical fiction. I don’t think I even knew it was a thing! It’s cliche but I could not put this down and it introduced me to a true literary love of my life. From then on, I devoured everything she wrote. The White Queen, The Other Queen and The Red Queen were particular favourites as the stories of spectacular women in English history like Elizabeth Woodville, Mary Queen of Scots and the formidable Margaret Beaufort were majestically laid out before me.
But, I didn’t stop there, I moved seamlessly into historical period dramas like The White Queen, The Tudors and Victoria (to name a few 🙂 I also started visiting historic sites such as Hampton Court and Kensington Palace
Historical fiction is the perfect companion to my love of ‘real’ history. I am so passionate about growing my blog on Smart History Blogging but it would be a dream to write one someday.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
“′Classic′ – a book which people praise and don’t read.”
― Mark Twain
This is so me. I have huge admiration for the English ‘classics’ but I struggle to read them. However, Evelyn Waugh was a graduate of Oxford University, and his book had been used as a case study during a creative writing course I took at Christchurch College. So, when I was browsing Blackwells book shop in the city that afternoon, feeling very literary, I thought “Ok, I’ll give this modern classic a chance.” (I also picked up William Shakespeare’s Star Wars “I beg thee, Sir. O help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, help. Thou art mine only hope.” : )
Anyway, Brideshead Revisited is an elegant novel about duty and desire. It details the recollections of protagonist Charles Ryder and his relationship with the wealthy Flyte family, most notably Sebastian and Julia, who live at Brideshead Castle, England between the 1920s and 1940s as war ravages the world once again.
When I’d finished the book (and the course), well let’s just say it didn’t take me long to visit Castle Howard where the TV series Brideshead Revisited was filmed in North Yorkshire. It also got me blogging about history again, which has snowballed into where I am now advising history bloggers, so I’ll always be grateful I picked up Brideshead Revisited that day.
The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher
Before I started Smart History Blogging, I worked at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall, London.
I did a weekly commute, so every Friday I waited at Kings Cross Station with my M&S pasta and Cosmopolitan in a can (two if it had been a tough week) ready to join the stampede when the platform for the 19:03 to Leeds was announced.
I’d settle into my seat and have two hours chilling with a book in the quiet coach. Not being a kindle fan, I got a bit tired of lugging books and spontaneously thought I’d try my first audiobook.
I did a brief scan and by chance found Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography The Downing Street Years, a hefty book I’d had for a while at home but never read. Pressing play, I was genuinely shocked when Mrs Thatcher herself started talking to me. She had narrated it herself.
So for the next few weeks, unbeknown to my fellow passengers, I sat in my little book bubble sipping my Cosmo with the former British Prime Minister talking about the Falklands, the IRA Brighton Bomb and explaining what it felt like to be ousted out of No.10. It was so powerful.
Margaret Thatcher died on 8th April 2013 shortly after I’d finished her audiobook. We were allowed to stand on Whitehall and watch the funeral cortege go past from the Palace of Westminster. With a few minutes to go, I thought ‘no-one’s coming out’ and after all, she had been a very divisive figure in office but then the doors opened up and people poured out clapping as she went past. That’s once in a lifetime stuff.
Elizabeth Hill-Scott runs the popular blog Smart History Blogging. She teaches entrepreneurs and bloggers who want to start, grow and monetise a successful niche blog in the fascinating field of history. She is also a post-graduate and communications expert who spent over 15 years advising senior UK politicians and public figures.