Book review: The Little History of Devon

Beneath its placid, seaside resort, areas of outstanding beauty exterior, the county of Devon has had a livelier history than many.

Don’t believe me? Then pick a century at random. Try, the 16th: The heyday of many Devon-born explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Piracy and smuggling were rife. The county also played major roles in the Wyatt and Prayer Book Rebellions. The 20th? Remember the wartime devastation of the air raids on Plymouth and Exeter? The booming seaside of Regency Exmouth in the early 19th century. The ten sieges of Exeter. Perkin Warbeck’s march on Devon. The critical role played by the county in the Civil War. The trials of the Bideford ‘witches.’ The history of England is fascinating and Devon has certainly played an essential role in making it so.

This new book by Suze Gardner avoids jumping around all over the place as I just did. It tells the story of Devon in 21 easily absorbable little chapters, starting with details on the county’s geology (fun fact: only a small amount of the so-called ‘Jurassic coast’ is actually from the Jurassic era) and stretching right up to the lowdown on the early 21st century sitcom, Jam and Jerusalem.

With so much potential information to impart, there are potential dangers here, of course. Any history risks being overly dense as it seeks to burden the reader with too many facts. At the other extreme, a writer might go too far to avoid doing this and end up producing something so lightweight it ends up not really telling the reader anything substantial at all.

Happily, as in her previous book, The Little Book of Devon, Suze Gardner avoids both of these traps. Whether discussing the Honiton lace trade, sinister occultist, Aleister Crowley or the Battle of Jutland, she achieves the perfect balance between being highly readable and accessible while also remaining substantial and informative. There is also plenty of good history to be learned here generally too, not just about Devon. The next time anyone says to you they want to come to see Devon’s famous ‘Jurassic Park’ or tries to claim crime writer, Jessica Fletcher lived in Greenway, toss over a copy of this book.

I should declare an interest here. I do not know Suze Gardner myself and have not met her. I have, however written the book, Secret Exeter (2018) with Tim Isaac and also wrote A-Z of Exeter: Places – People – History (2019) myself. I regularly write features on local history for the magazines, Exeter Life and Devon Life and write a weekly history column which runs in the Sidmouth Herald, Midweek Herald and Exmouth Journal. I have definitely used Suze Gardner’s works to inform my own writing. I will doubtless do the same again in the future.

I do have one or two minor niggles with the book, however. For one thing, it occasionally, just sounds a bit wrong. Consider this, on James II: “The new king was a Catholic (the last Catholic in England). Worse still, he was intent on making the country Catholic again too.” I don’t think Suze Gardner means this to sound as if it’s bad to be Catholic. But it does rather come out sounding that way. She also doesn’t mention General Buller’s youthful bravery during the Zulu Wars: the heroic side of his reputation rests entirely on this, not on his later, rather more dubious record as a General during the Boer War.

Some of the sub-headings do sound a bit Horrible History-esqe too: ‘Awful Antarctic,’ ‘Hooray Henry!’ and ‘Awful Arsenic and Monstrous Manganese’. My worst criticism would be the excessive overuse of exclamation marks throughout the entire book. Often, they just seem inappropriate: “Remarkably, many Saxon government methods are still in use today!” “Often services had to be held outside to accommodate all the worshippers!” and ‘The people of Victorian Exeter had very bad luck with their theatres as three of them burnt down!” None of these sentences needs an exclamation mark, particularly as one of the fires referred to in the last one was actually a terrible tragedy. There are many more examples of this throughout the book.

But I didn’t spot any real factual errors. And ultimately as a concise and highly accessible guide to England’s third largest county, this is basically unmissable.

Book review: The Little History of Devon, by Suze Gardner. Published by: The History Press, 2021

DVD review: The Young Victoria (2009)

Title: The Young Victoria

Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong, Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany,

Directed By: Jean-Marc Vallee

Running Time: 104 mins

UK Release Date: July 13, 2009

Certificate: PG

Your Rating: 3 out of 5

Review first published on Movie Muser, July 2009  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Review: Queen Victoria didn’t just reign. She ruled.She in fact ruled for nearly 64 years, longer than anyone else, a record the present Queen may beat if she holds out until 2016 (update: this has since happened).

Yet while most films about, say, Henry VIII see him transformed from a handsome young Jonathan Rhys Meyers-type into an obese Charles Laughton-like glutton, movies about Victoria usually centre exclusively on her later years as a gloomy, sour faced old widow. This is different. Opening in the 1830s, we first meet Emily Blunt’s teenaged Princess Victoria as she develops an initially awkward romance with her German suitor, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), before we move onto her early years on the throne.

In the meantime, she finds herself in a constant battle to assert her authority over her Germanic mother (Miranda Richardson) and bossy baron, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong).

Although too tall and, frankly, much too attractive to be Queen Victoria at any age, Emily Blunt is otherwise perfect for the role while Rupert Friend is impressive as the crusading Albert. Some of the smaller roles are less well-handled, however. Paul Bettany just looks weird as the sixty-something Lord Melbourne and Jim Broadbent, while brilliant as ever as Victoria’s eccentric uncle, William IV, is so heavily made up that during the state banquet scene he resembles Bilbo Baggins at his eleventy-first birthday party.Yet, for the most part, the film is both visually authentic and well cast.

The problem really is the setting. Victoria came to the throne at a relatively peaceful time in the nation’s history. Her life wasn’t untroubled by any means, but despite a reasonable attempt to demonise Mark Strong’s Conroy, there’s little scope for dramatic conflict. Recognising this, screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) sexes up events by heavily fictionalising a major event towards the end of the film. This contrivance apparently provoked the ire of the present Queen, not a good idea if Fellowes ever wants a knighthood (update: Fellowes was elevated to the peerage in 2011).

The five featurettes here are all less than ten minutes long and primarily focus on the set design, costumes and historical background to the film. ‘The Real Queen Victoria’ is perhaps the best of these, enlivened by diary entries from Victoria herself, even if these are undermined by them being read by someone apparently auditioning for a part in ‘EastEnders’.

For quiet Sunday evening viewing though, The Young Victoria is hard to fault.

Overall Verdict:Blunt and Friend are okay and the central romance is well-handled but anyone fancying something racier should go for ‘The Duchess’ instead.

Special Features:

‘The Making Of Young Victoria’ Featurette

‘The Coronation’ Featurette

‘Lavish History: A Look at The Costumes and Locations’ Featurette

‘The Real Queen Victoria’ Featurette

‘The Wedding’ Featurette

Deleted Scenes

Trailer

Reviewer’s Name: Chris Hallam

Five things that don’t make any sense at all once you think about them…‏

Some things seem to make sense at the time. Others, make less and less sense the more you think about them…

1. What did “Nasty” Nick actually do?

In 2000, “Nasty” Nick Bateman was sensationally thrown out of the first ever Big Brother house. His crime? Bateman was accused of “plotting” and “writing things down using a pen and paper”. Just imagine! Thank goodness nobody on any of the subsequent series of Big Brother has done anything as sneaky as attempting to plot against any fellow housemates in the years since.

big-brother-10-logo-79088940

2. The Royals

Little about the royal family makes sense when you think about it. The Queen’s husband is always a Prince as with Prince Philip but the King’s wife is always a Queen, not a Princess. The Queen’s mother was called “the Queen Mother”. But there is never a Queen Father or a King Mother or King Father, even though Philip might still be alive when his son Charles becomes King. Also why is the Queen called Elizabeth II throughout the UK when in Scotland, there has never been another monarch called Elizabeth? And why is it called the United Kingdom when for most of the last two centuries. we’ve been reigned over by Queens?

1337187963293.cached

3. Pardon?

Sending a parcel by road? It’s a shipment. Sending something by ship? It’s a cargo. Let’s face it: the English language makes no sense whatsoever. Why are the terms “public school” and “private school” used to describe what is essentially the same thing when they should mean exactly the opposite? Why does everybody use both the Imperial and Metric systems at the same time? And a starter for ten: why is Magdalen College pronounced “Maudlin”? Is it simply to catch the non-posh people out?

4. Old TV was crap

Imagine it’s 1990. Want to know what’s on TV tonight? Easy! Look in the Radio Times. But what if you want to know what’s on ITV or Channel 4 (or, heaven forbid, even one of the early satellite channels)? Tough! You’ll have to get the TV Times as well! And even that only listed the commercial channels. So unless you were one of those people who only ever watched the BBC or in contrast, only ever watched ITV and Channel 4 (i.e. nobody on Earth) until 1991, you were forced to buy two separate magazines. For decades, this bizarre situatiion was accepted as normal. And even today, twenty three years later, your dad probably still automatically buys both every Christmas.

rtrt91

5. Politics is confusing

Okay. So there are two houses of parliament right? The House of Commons and the House of Lords. So members of both houses are called MPs (Members of Parliament) then? No! Only members of the House of Commons are called MPs. The Lords never are. Even though both are literally members of parliament. Got that? Is it any wonder people get confused?

Peers wait in in the House of Lords for the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II, and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to conduct the State Opening of Parliament

Why do the British like their Queen so much?

It seems a reasonable question. This is, after all, Elizabeth II’s sixtieth year on the throne. The jubilee celebrations across the UK suggest that support for the monarchy is at least as strong as it was when Elizabeth II became Queen as a young woman in 1952.

  Continue reading