Courtiers – Lucy Worsley

Do not switch off because it’s history. I repeat, do not switch off because it’s history. 

If you learn History in the English education system, it feels like you spend your entire educational life learning about the six wives of Henry VIII, the Spanish Armada, the Industrial Revolution and the Home Front during the Second World War in a depressingly repetitive washing-machine-like motion. If you’re lucky you get a bit of World War One, and if you take History GCSE you can get a bit more World War One and you can learn a bit about what happened to Germany/America/Russia/China after World War One. So frankly, Lucy Worsley’s insight into an oft-neglected area of history – namely the reigns of George I and George II,  is a breath of pure, clean air.

Chances are, if you know anything about the Georgian era you probably know that they all wore ridiculous wigs and make-up, and that there were some humongous dresses. Oh, and at some point there was a fat Prince, and Jane Austen wrote about a fella called Mr Darcy. Ignoring Darcy and the fat Prince, Worsley uses the painting on the staircase of Kensington Palace that depicts ordinary people from all levels of court-life during the reign of the first two Georges  as a starting point . Worsley takes a small, but select, group of courtiers and follows their roles in the sometimes tragic, sometimes farcical dance of court life and its dependency upon the mercy of the central player of the piece: The King.

Worsley, incidentally the curator of Historic Royal Palaces, treats her subjects sympathetically – but not sycophantically. She follows figures such as the unfortunate Henrietta Howard, the acerbically witty John Hervey, and the singularly tragic figure of Peter the Wild Boy – amongst many others, including the surprisingly sad and screwed-up royal family. With walk-on roles from Alexander Pope, Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Jonathan Swift, Worsley glides between people – and the attendant explanations of historical context – with consummate ease. With rather cinematic and charismatic prose  she draws the complicated webs of lust, ambition, half-truth and deceit in such a manner that they are as compelling as some of the best novels. Equally, issues such as the reversionary problem, the Gin Laws and the history of innoculation are made just as intriguing, as they are explained lucidly by someone enthusiastically in their element.

A dry and dusty old biscuit of a History lesson it is not. 5 out of 5 – read it or regret it. You will be permanently enriched, and you’ll have an entertaining book to re-read. Although, don’t look for Jane Austen; that was during the Regency and that’s an entirely different book altogether. Over and Out.

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Rain – Don Paterson

Strange that this guy is highly-lauded in the literary world, but hasn’t made a ripple outside of it. I blame microscopic poetry sections in bookshops.

People invariably groan when it comes to poetry – generally because of a bad experience with an apathetic/indolent/disenchanted teacher when they were in secondary school. Well, the fight back begins here: Viva la révolution!

In related news, this is a generally good collection of work by Don Paterson. My particular favourites are The Error, which speaks volumes about what it means to be human, and the title poem Rain – which is just a bit of understated genius. On the minus side in a collection of 29 poems, (well, technically 28 as one of them’s a blank page with a title), at least seven and a half are “after” someone else. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great poems amongst those – look out for The Wind and The Landscape –, it’s just a little confusing as a reader because you don’t know if what you like is Paterson, or if it’s Robert Desnos or Antonio Machado.

Overall, it’s a curiously uneven collection. Half of it is sheer brilliance, a mixture of imagery and emotion, as with The Rain at Sea and The Story of the Blue Flower; unfortunately the other half is either so-so or obscurely-put. For example, there is a rather long poem dedicated to a Georgian electronica musician called Song for Natalie “Tusja” Beridze which appears to have very little point, and is frankly a little baffling for an audience that doesn’t know as much about electronica and the related software as Paterson clearly does. There’s also The Day, which I suspect is meant to describe a divorce but gets a bit bogged down in Plathian imagery and Satrian existentialist angst.

I think this collection deserves a 3.5 out of 5; unfortunately because what’s good is so very very good, what isn’t really jars. Over and out.