Book review: The Official History of Britain

A history of Britain in statistics? Boring surely? Well, no actually. Believe it or not, this is actually a very informative and a genuinely very readable and yes, sometimes very funny read, packed full of “did you know?” type facts which you will instantly want to share with anyone nearby, regardless of whether they want to hear them or not.

Providing numerous insights into how our way of life has changed in the last 200 years – what we are called, what jobs we do, how long we live, when and if we marry, how many children we choose to have, what we choose to call them, how likely we are to divorce, when and how we die and what of and so much more.

The book also makes a compelling topical case for the importance of statistical information. During the recent Coronavirus pandemic, the public need for regular up-to-date and accessible data has grown dramatically. How, after all, could we ever defeat the virus without knowing how many people have it, where they live, who its affecting the most, how fast its spreading, how many people are dying from it and how many people have been vaccinated?

Mark Twain is often quoted as referring to “lies, damned lies and statistics.” But this is a nonsense. Assuming the figures are correct and the listener is fully aware of the context, statistics should not be seen as the same thing as lies, damned or otherwise. They are close to being the opposite of lies. This quote is too often used as a lazy rebuke by people who are either too stupid to understand the statistical data they’re being provided with or by people who want to undermine its credibility because too misquote Jack Nicholson’s character in the film, A Few Good Men, “they can’t handle the truth.”

Or as the comedian Stewart Lee quoted a sceptical taxi driver as saying, “you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”

This is an engaging, amusing and well-written book, but it’s interesting for another reason entirely: it’s the story of us.

Book review: The Official History of Britain: Our Story in Numbers as Told by the Office For National Statistics, by Boris Starling and David J. Bradbury. Published by: Harper Collins.

TV review: Normal People

As the nation has grown accustomed to lockdown in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have naturally turned more frequently to their TVs for entertainment, with some series inevitably faring better than others during this highly unusual period.

One notable success story in the last two weeks has been the new adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed 2018 novel, Normal People. Although only half way through its 12 episode terrestrial TV run (episodes 5 and 6 will be screened tonight – that is, Monday May 11th 2020 on BBC One from 9pm), the series which is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, has been a huge success on the BBC iPlayer. It has, in fact, become the most requested ever show on the BBC streaming service, beating a record set by the first series of action-packed international drama, Killing Eve in 2018.

Normal People is essentially the tale of the on-off love story over a number of years between a young couple, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, who begin a relationship initially while as teenagers nearing the end of their schooldays in County Sligo in the Irish Republic. Both are very bright and have much in common, although these things are not necessarily immediately obvious to those around them. At school, Connell (Paul Mescal) is sporty, amiable and popular. In the US, he would be described as a ‘jock’ and keeps his more sensitive literary side fairly well-hidden. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), in contrast, is clever and sensitive too but at school is spiky, rebellious and more socially intimidating. Although, she too, is attractive, she is so unpopular, the other pupils rarely acknowledge this, perhaps not even to themselves. Her relationship with Connell is conducted in the utmost secrecy, during their time at school.

Although he has a happier home life, the Waldrons are much less well-off than the Sheridans, Connell’s mother in fact working as a cleaner in Marianne’s mother’s house. We soon learn Marianne’s domestic existence is deeply unhappy, however. The household is unloving, cold, sterile and ultimately abusive. As the couple’s relationship progresses to Trinity College, Dublin, the two see their roles effectively reversed with Marianne becoming much confident and at ease than the now more awkward Connell, having reinvented herself in her new largely middle-class environment.

Doubtless some of the series’ popularity stems from the potentially voyeuristic appeal of the show’s frequent sex scenes, though these are never pornographic or salacious in tone. Beautifully acted, particularly by its two leads who are surely now both destined for stardom, sensitive and intelligent in its portrayal of an evolving relationship, Normal People is a drama which deserves its success.

There is talk now of producing a TV version of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, or perhaps a TV sequel to Normal People (no literary sequel to the book yet exists).

But, in truth, Normal People is that rarest of things: a TV series which is actually better than the novel which inspired it.

Exeter and the Black Death

Nobody would deny that 2020 has been a very challenging year for many people as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt throughout the world. However, it is worth remembering that hard as things are now, there have often been much darker times in the past, as this extract from my book, A-Z of Exeter – Places, People, History (Amberley, 2019) reminds us:

“Although historical detail on the outbreaks is perhaps mercifully rather lacking, the several outbreaks of plague to hit the city in medieval times were probably the worst things to ever happen in Exeter.

Just as the disastrous 1918-19 influenza pandemic was contributed to by the return of servicemen from the First World War, the return of warriors from the Sixth Crusade probably helped facilitate the spread the plague to many areas including Exeter in 1234. It is thought more than two thirds of the city’s population died. Life for the remaining 30% (or so) during this dark period could not have been very pleasant either.

In 1349-1351, the survivors’ great-grandchildren went through much the same thing when The Black Death hit the city with particular severity. This time, half of the city was wiped out. A further third were killed when the plague returned eleven years’ later. Amongst other things, the outbreaks led to a delay in the competition of the construction of Exeter Cathedral.

In general, it is believed the global population fell from 450 million to 375 million as a result of the Black Death with the population not returning to its previous level for around 200 years.

The plague returned again in 1479-80 and again (now after the medieval era) in 1542, claiming the life of the father of Tudro historian John Hooker amongst many others.

Later, the city braced itself for the arrival of the Great Plague in 1665. Preparations were made. Fear was widespread. Mercifully, this time, Exeter was spared.

Exeter has also been subject to other periodic outbreaks of disease. Just over 400 people were killed by a cholera outbreak in Exeter and St Thomas in 1832.”

A-Z of Exeter – Places, People, History (2019) is available now from Amberley books. https://amzn.to/2WpWHFH

Empty World: Revisited

If you studied English at secondary school during the 1990s, there is every possibility you will remember reading the book, Empty World, by John Christopher.

The book tells of a disease which originates in Asia before rapidly spreading across the world and devastating the global population. Although published in 1977, the book obviously has plenty of resonance to anyone reading in 2020 as the world struggles to tackle the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

The novella focuses on a teenaged boy, Neil Miller. Neil is living with his elderly parents after having been orphaned in a road accident when he first begins to hear news reports of a new mysterious disease coming out of India. Initially, just a minor story chuntering away in the background, concern rises as the news coverage gradually reveals that the ‘Calcutta Plague’ spreads further and further across the world. Soon there are rumours it has arrived in Britain. Neil’s grandfather is old enough to remember the Second World War. He suggests spreading rumours should be made into a punishable offence again, as it was then.

Soon the Calcutta Plague’s presence in Britain is beyond doubt. One of Neil’s elderly teachers succumbs to it, as do both his grandparents. The disease takes the form of a fever, before generating symptoms which appear to emulate a very rapid version of the ageing process. This is not very similar to COVID-19 at all, although the fictional plague does attack older people first. Eventually, it becomes clear that it is infecting pretty much everyone including some children Neil knows of his own age (fifteen) and younger. This resembles the progress of COVID-19 in some respects. The elderly are undoubtedly being hit harder by the virus although contrary to early rumour, children can get it badly and die from it too.

The key difference, however, is that while the vast, overwhelming majority of people who get COVID-19 survive, with the exception of a few random people like Neil who get the initial fever but subsequently seem to be immune, the fictional Calcutta Plague kills anyone who gets it. As the title of the book suggests, the story is essentially apocalyptic. Neil finds himself roaming or driving down completely empty streets, looting empty shops and  battling an inevitable brief explosion in the rat population, the disease having killed nearly every human on the Earth.

As terrible as the current COVID-19 pandemic is, we should be grateful it is not quite as bad as that.