Book Group 4 – Books Read – NonFiction

About the book and a review

NonFiction   |  Fiction:  Authors A-G  |  Authors  H-L  |  Authors  M-S   |  Authors T-Z   

Philip – the Last Portrait by Gyles Brandreth

It is really good.  I am an admirer of both men, and the fact that they have been ‘friends’ for many years makes the book even better.  The myths about Philip being an inadequate father and grandfather are all dealt with.  He was an excellent father and a devoted grandfather, being there to help his family in any way he could, and suffering with them when their relationships went wrong.  (With the exception of Sarah Fergusson!). 

Both men show great humour and wit and most of the gaffes were untrue or taken out of context.  On the matter of Philip’s terrible start in life, he was philosophical and dismissive of it.  What he achieved in his early life is amazing .

The Worm Forgives the Plough: – Following the Plough;  – Down to Earth by John Stewart Collis

Published in 1973, these two short books in one volume are about Collis’s life in WW2.    His wife and children were heading to the USA as evacuees,  and he, as a veteran of WW1 and too old for active service, was destined for a desk job.  Instead he opted to work on the land – first in farming and later in forestry.  As an academic, this was very much a new experience and a steep learning curve for him.

Following the Plough tells of his work on a farm in the south east of England.  It is interesting because he is describing a way of farming – and a way of life – that was already changing and was soon to be lost.  It would appeal to anyone who is interested in the history of farming and in rural sociology.

Down to Earth is very different as it gives only slight mention to his work in forestry in Dorset.  He became fascinated by the natural world, in particular the lives and social organization of insect colonies.  Although it is often unscientific and knowledge has moved on, it still makes interesting reading for anyone with a love of nature.  Collis wrote other books about the natural world and is said to be one of the pioneers of the ecological movement.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: the biography by Peter Doggett

As a long time fan of their music, I have been reading this (fairly new) book about them.  This is about 4 supreme egotists, who, fuelled by large quantities of cocaine, created some sublime music between 1968 and 1974.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Hertmann’s grandfather – Urbain Martien,  born in 1891 – left him some notebooks in which he had recorded details of his childhood and youth and his experiences in WW1. 

The book is divided into three parts – the first part is about Urbain’s early life and is told by Hertmann.  It gives an interesting insight into the life of a poverty-stricken family in Belgium and the shocking conditions in which a 14-year-old Urbain was forced to work in an iron foundry. 

The second part is about Urbain’s time as a soldier in WW1 – this time Hertmann uses his grandfather’s voice to tell the story.  It makes for harrowing reading in places – the lack of food, the conditions in the trenches, and the horror of seeing ones friends blown apart.  Urbain himself was wounded – and sent back – three times.  It is also interesting in that it highlights how the Flemish speaking Belgians were considered inferior to those that spoke French and were generally treated unfairly.

The third part is mostly Hertmann’s own memories of his grandfather – in particular his love of, and his talent for, painting which he had inherited from his father – a church painter and restorer.

It is a beautifully written book and interesting in its descriptions of Belgian life in the early 20th century and the wartime experiences of the Belgians.

The Short Story of Women Artists by Susie Hodge

This is a beautifully illustrated art history book, which looks at the lives of a large number of female arts, the majority of whom have been almost ignored by other art history books.  It explores how they fit into the artistic movements of their time and how they broke through into a primarily male establishment.  This is not only a book for art lovers but also a book for anyone interested in women in a historical context.  Sadly this book is just A5 in size and has the feel of an A4 sized book which has been cut down to save on costs, with very small text.  It would be much better in a larger format.

I have always been interested in art and studied art history at college, and I was shocked at how few of these artists I knew.  For example, I was aware of Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, the wife of Rennie Mackintosh, but had not heard of Evelyn De Morgan, who was married to William De Morgan, who as an artist was just as gifted as her more famous Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries. 

Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes – The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson

In the 1950s, the stereotyping and low expectations of women meant that for most – regardless of class – their sole ambition had to be for marriage and motherhood.  Failure to achieve these goals meant failure as a woman.  The writer uses a variety of sources – firsthand accounts, diaries, publications of the time, and other academic works – from women of all walks of life.  This is the story of women who conformed – and women who didn’t.  A very interesting read for anyone interested in the social history of women.

Walking in Circles by Todd Wassel

This probably sums it up: Walking in Circles is an addictive, fun, inspirational travel memoir set in a Japan few outsiders ever get to see.  

I enjoyed it a story of a man trying to find himself and undertaking a 750 miles trek.  I’m not normally a travel memoir person, but this one was recommended by a friend so I gave it a go.  It’s an easy read between all the other things I’ve been doing. 

A Marriage of Inconvenience: The Persecution of Ruth and Seretse Khama by Michael Dutfield   [and]   Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation by Susan Williams

Last month we watched the film ‘A United Kingdom’ shown on BBC2 (and presumably still available to watch on iPlayer.)  It is based on a true story, so I decided that I would read the book(s).

In 1947, Seretse Khama, who was the heir heir apparent to the kingship of the Bangwato people part of Bechuanaland, was studying Law in London, when he met and fell in love with Ruth Williams a white English girl… 

(The British Protectorate of Bechuanaland was established in 1885. It was a very poor country and the people feared being overrun by the Zulus and so asked the British for help.)

Seretse’s uncle (who was acting as regent) was against any marriage and tried to prevent it.  They married anyway.  Apparently this was big news at the time in Britain.  Seretse went home to his people to try to convince them to accept his new wife.  At large open gatherings, where anyone could speak (if they were male), the situation was debated.  At first most people were against the idea of Seretse marrying a foreigner (and white), but he won the vast majority of them round.

Unfortunately for the couple, South Africa was just starting to implement its apartheid policies and put pressure on the British Government.  The Labour government acted appallingly and exiled Seretse and Ruth from Bechuanaland.  Many MPs argued against this, including Winston Churchill, but when he came to power with a Conservative administration, they were banned for life!

The situation was only rectified in 1956, when more liberal views prevailed, Seretse agreed to renounce his claim to be chief (something he had offered to do before in order to return to his country, but had been turned down).  The couple went to live in Bechuanaland, and Seretse became active in politics and the drive for independence.  In 1966 the country achieved this and became Botswana.  Seretse was overwhelmingly elected President.

At the time of its independence in 1966, Botswana was the world’s third-poorest country, poorer than most other African countries.  But due to the discovery of diamonds, strong leadership and policies against corruption and racism, between 1960 and 1980, Botswana had the fastest-growing economy in the world.

Unfortunately I read ‘A Marriage of Inconvenience‘, first.  Apart from some information about the historical background (Zulu wars, etc.), the one to read is ‘Colour Bar‘.  I found the book fascinating.

National Trust On Screen by Harvey Edgington and Lauren Taylor

This book looks at some of the properties and locations owned by the National Trust in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have featured as sets in films and in TV dramas.  It is in A5 format and is very well illustrated with colour photographs throughout.  Unlike some other coffee table books of this type, this one contains a decent amount of information about the properties as well as about the dramas.  I found the text a little small in size ,and it would be easier to read if it had been an A4 format.  It lists screen sets region by region and features a lot of properties and land in the west country.  Fans of Harry Potter, Poldark, Poirot, and Wolf Hall will recognise a lot of the west country film sets from the book. 

We are members of the National Trust and one day we hope to revisit some of these beautiful places.  This is a nice little book to dip into and dream then keep on the shelf for when you can visit National Trust properties.