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Customer Review

22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Once upon a time....", 15 May 2008
This review is from: Great Tales From English History: Cheddar Man to DNA: A Treasury of True Stories of the Extraordinary People Who Made Britain Great (Paperback)
What we have here is a collection of historical material that was originally published in three separate volumes. Robert Lacey introduces it with some especially interesting comments: "There may be such a thing as pure, true - what actually, begin italics] definitely [end italics] happened in the past - but it is unknowable. We can only hope to get somewhere close. The history that we have to make do with is the story that historians chose to tell us, pieced together and filtered through every handler's value system." With that acknowledgment, Lacey then reassures his reader that the tales he shares are true, based on "the best available contemporary sources and eyewitness accounts" rather than on revisionist versions decades and even centuries later. his approach to this book was not cynical: "it is written, and recounted for you now by an eternal optimist - albeit one who views the evidence with skeptical eye...the things we do not know about history far outnumbers those that we do. But the fragments that survive are precious and bright. They offer us glimpses of drama, humour, incompetence, bravery, apathy, sorrow, and lust - the stuff of life. There are still a few good tales to tell..."

Each of the hundreds of tales Lacey shares averages 3-5 pages in length and covers a period that begins with "Cheddar Man" (c. 7150) and concludes with "Decoding the Secret of Life " (1953), indeed offering "a treasury of true stories about extraordinary people - knights and knaves, rebels and heroes, queens and commoners - who made Britain Great." Before reading this book for the first time, as I always do, I checked out the table of contents and then began to cherry pick entries that immediately caught my eye, such as "The Legend of Lady Godiva," "Murder in the Cathedral," "Geoffrey Chaucer and the Mother Tongue," "Thomas More and His Wonderful `No Place,'" "Elizabeth Queen of Hearts," "Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada," "Isaac Newton and the Principles of the Universe," "Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man," "Rain, Steam, and Speed - the Shimmering Vision of J.M.W. Turner," The Greatest History Book Ever," and "The Battle of Britain - the Few and the Many." Reading those took less than an hour so the next time I took up the book, reading other accounts that dated from "The Legend of Lady Godiva," c. AD 1043. Then I eventually returned to re-read "Cheddar Man" (c. 7150) and the accounts that followed. In the future, I will probably re-read all of the accounts (nor more than two or three at a time), with the selection depending on my mood of the moment and what interests me then.

Here in Dallas, we have a "Farmers Market" area near downtown at which merchants graciously offer slices of fresh fruit as samples. In the same spirit, I now offer a few "slices" of Lacey's wit and style, provided in chronological order.

"...in the village of Berkeley, tales were told of hideous screams ringing out from the castle on the night of 21 September and some years later one John Trevisa, who had been a boy at the time, revealed what had actually happened. Trevisa had grown up to take holy orders and become chaplain and confessor to the King's jailer, Thomas Lord Berkeley, so he was well placed to solve the mystery. There were no marks of illness or violence to the King's body, he wrote, because Edward was killed `with a hoote brooche [meat-roasting spit] put into the secret place posterialle.'"(Piers Gaveston and Edward II, 1308)

"Many of Caxton's spelling decisions and those of the printers who came after him were quite arbitrary. As they attached letters to sounds they followed no particular rules and we live with the consequences to this day. So if you have ever wondered why a bandage is `wound' around a `wound', why `cough' rhymes with `off', while `bough' rhymes with `cow', and why you might shed a `tear' after seeing a `tear' in your best dress or skirt, you have William Caxton to thank." (William Caxton, 1474)

"Imagine that you have been devoting your principal energies for nearly twenty years to a Very Big Idea - a concept so revolutionary that it will transform the way the human race looks at itself. And then one morning, you open a letter from someone you scarcely know (someone, to be honest, you never took seriously) to discover that he has come up with exactly the same idea - and has picked you as the person to help him announce it to the world." (Charles Darwin and the Survival of the Fittest, 1858)

"Winston Churchill wrote all his own speeches. He would spend as many as six or eight hours polishing and rehearsing his words to get the right impact - and it was worth the effort...He cracked jokes: `When I warned them [the French government] that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did,' he related at the end of December 1941, `their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken. `Some chicken! [Pause] Some neck!'" (Voice of the People, 1945)

I envy anyone who shares my interest in English history who has not as yet begun to explore the material that Robert Lacey has so carefully assembled and then presented in this volume.
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