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

Is 76 too old to be Pope?

The new Pope Francis I is 76 years old.

Yes, that’s right. At the start of his tenure as Pope, he is already older than most people are when they retire. He is the ninth oldest Pope to have been elected since 1295. Would you be happy if your doctor, dentist, solicitor or bank manager was 76? Perhaps not. However, if you are Roman Catholic, you have no choice. He is now the head of the Church.

Let’s put things in perspective. Only three monarchs in the whole of British history have exceeded the age of 76,: Victoria, Elizabeth II our present  Queen and George III during his mad phase when his son ruled as Regent.

In elected situations, only one US president Ronald Reagan has exceeded 76 years while in office. He was arguably in the first stages of dementia when he left office aged 77 in 1989. In Britain, both William Gladstone and Winston Churchill ruled into their 80s. Both were great leaders, but both were past their best by this point.

Times have changed since the 81 year old Churchill faced the 72 year old Labour opponent Clem Attlee in the Commons in 1955. Leaders have got younger since then. Perhaps it is as well. Three PMs retired in a row on grounds of ill health in the fifties and sixties: Churchill in 1955, Eden in 1957 and Macmillan in 1963. All did live to a good age though (Macmillan and Churchill were both over 90 when they died) unlike Labour Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell who died suddenly in his 50s in 1963.

Thereafter, leaders got younger. Harold Wilson may have looked portly and unglamourous next to President Kennedy when he visited him in 1963. But Wilson (born 1916) was actually only one year older than JFK. He was to be the youngest PM of the century so far when he entered Downing Street aged 48 in 1964.

Wilson retired aged 60 in 1976 and thereafter Labour leaders got older again. his successor Jim Callaghan, already prone to afternoon naps and stints on his rural farm, was 64  when he took over. Callaghan reportedly wanted to be succeeded by someone younger when he stood down in 1980 with Labour back in opposition. And, technically, he got his wish. Michael Foot was 67 and thus a full year younger than Callaghan. Indeed, Foot was two years younger than the dark haired charismatic Ronald Reagan who was elected president one month after  he became leader.

But Foot with his walking stick and long scruffy white hair seemed much older than his years. “Do you want this old fool to run Britain?” was the cruel Sun headline during the 1983 General Election. “Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!” urged comedian Kenny Everett in front of an audience of cheering Young Conseravtives during the same campaign. Labour lost heavily.

It thus took until 1983 for Labour to elect a leader born after the end of the First World War. Perhaps overreacting slightly, they elected Neil Kinnock, a man of 41 with no cabinet experience. Kinnock never got to Downing Street either but the trend towards younger leaders has continued (with a few exceptions notably sixtysomethings Michael Howard for the Tories and Menzies Campbell for the Lib Dems) ever since.

John Major became the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century, taking over at 47 in 1990. But his successor Tony Blair (who, like Kinnock, had become Labour leader at 41) was younger still in 1997. William Hague was only 36 when he became leader in 1997 and is widely seen as having peaked too early in this regard.

But Cameron was only 39 when he became Tory leader in 2005. He had no Cabinet experience at all and had barely been in parliament for four years. He was younger than Blair or Major had been when he succeeded to Downing Street. Today all three party leaders are in their 40s. George Osborne, the Chancellor is barely 40.

What does all this mean? Much was made, after all, of Tony Blair’s youth and inexperience in 1997. But, in practice, even his opponents would agree, he actually took to the job of being Prime Minister with far more ease than ostensibly more experienced souls like Callaghan and Eden had done.

Old age need not be a disadvantage either and it should be noted that the Queen continues to do her job very well. But the Papacy is starting to resemble the last days of the USSR with one elderly leader such as Brezhnev – who once famously addressed an audience of communists while facing in the wrong direction – being succeeded by another (Andropov) and then another (Chenenko) within a couple of years.

Happily, the Vatican is not a nuclear power. And it is worth remembering that the upshot of the succession of geriatric leaders in the USSR was that it eventually led to the appointment of a younger man Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformer who presided over the destruction of a corrupt and archaic regime.

Is it too much too hope that history might repeat itself?

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Bye bye Benedict! Now time for our Queen to abdicate as well

Nothing becomes Pope Benedict XVI more than the manner of his retirement.

He is the first Pope to resign since 1415, the year of the Battle of Agincourt. This is absurd. Where on Earth has this stupid idea come from that people should remain in certain positions until they die? The Pope is eighty five. He is slightly older than the last Pope was when he died. He is already the fourth oldest pope since 1295. He was already too old to be Pope when he took over in 2005. Of course, he should retire. In any other job, he would have been pensioned off years ago.

Remember the last Pope? Jean Paul II. Considered a successful Pope by many, his last years were painful to watch as he visibly deteriorated in front of the world’s eyes. The satirical magazine The Onion captured the mood with the headline “Ageing Pope ‘Just Blessing Everything in Sight’ say Concerned Handlers”.

There is much to condemn about the Roman Catholic church but the Pope and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands who announced she is to stand down recently (she is in her mid-70s) are here setting a good example.

Queen Elizabeth II should heed these examples. She is doing well now but do we really want her to feel she has to go on if her health seriously declines? It is time the Queen removed the stigma attached to the concept of abdication left by her uncle Edward VIII.

She is not Edward VIII. There is no scandal here. Furthermore, her son – the future Charles III – is not a reluctant George Vi type as in 1936.

The Queen should wait until Image On that date, her own reign will finally surpass her great great grandmother Queen Victoria’s reign by precisely one day. Elizabeth II will thus become the longest serving monarch in British history.

Then she should abdicate.