Plague, (yes!), War (whoo!) and Hellfire (bonanza!)
In the western world, never before has the timing of our death been so often negotiable. Unless something very catastrophic happens, a person is quite justified in thinking a threatened end is maybe not the end, there could well be another encore so just hang on before you get out your seat and have to stop mid-aisle with one arm through your coat for the awkward stand-and-clap.
If you are unwell, often treatments can cure or at least delay, if you’re in a war, an injured body can be repaired, lifeboats and rescue helicopters can pull sailors from the sea, or at least the hope of them coming is not completely unjustified. If your house burns down, you could get rescued, and your possessions, while they may not be of the same sentimental value, can be replaced to the same monetary value.
But not in 1666. I loved this book. How people made it through the constant struggle that was existence without their brains turning to rice pudding is beyond me. It’s a very readable wander through a turbulent year featuring my personal favourite, the bubonic plague (the plague village of Eyam in Derbyshire is my idea of the Magic Kingdom), as well as the Anglo/Dutch war (I’ll admit, I never knew we’d had a war with the Dutch before reading this book. I hope if it happens again Leerdammer exports won’t be affected.) What I liked about this book was the tying in of the mundane, the word on the street at the time. Accounts of families separated and demolished by plague. The human face of a person who had lost everyone, and how they carried on.
And id doesn’t just feature just the strategic and political details of war, but a colourful painting of the experience. I found myself recounting the amputation of a leg, the owner of which didn’t flinch or pass out during the slicing and sawing, but bore it bravely, to my moaning daughter when she picked up the tiniest play-scratch from the cat. Also, when our ships were blown to bits and sunk it wasn’t just sailors that found themselves taking a permanent swim, but also the ladies that loved them (or at least were being paid by them). It’s interesting to note that after a battle where the Anglo side had their butts handed to them, our newspapers reported that in fact it had been a great (tremendous, we won bigly) victory, and people on the continent wondered how the leaders and press had the cheek to mislead the country in such a way. *sarcasm alert* We should all be relieved that would never happen today, and Piers Morgan and Rupert Murdoch are in fact, a figment of our imagination.
As a teenager I read a scary Chetwynd-Hayes book which was the diary of a haunted man, who quoted Samuel Pepys in his own entries, and that first made me interested in this naval secretary with a barnet not unlike my own. My favourite reference to him in this book is when the the wives of sailor POWs converge on his office demanding money. Although he feels very sorry for them, it messes up his plans as he’d brought a pasty in with him that needed to be cooked at the local bakers (No way Greggs would let you do that today). He fears getting through them with his precious savoury pastry will not be easy. All is not fair in love and lunch.
It appears by the time the second picture of was painted, he had run out of Wig-Frizz-Ease. Or Wizz-Ease, as I’d have called it.
And then of course, the great fire of London. It had been predicted, and very little done to protect against it. I get annoyed as much as the next person about all the risk assessments at work, but bearing in mind much of London was made of wood, that Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane was near stores of oil, tar, rope and brandy, more people really could have done with a visit from health and safety.
This book moves at a swift pace, it feels like a woven tapestry of the year, with interesting accounts of human drama threaded through the facts, and the way it changes directions keeps it interesting. And it also the mark of any good history book, middle pages full of glossy prints of paintings and illustrations.
And something cheerful to end on. Horrible Histories is about the best thing on telly, the songs are all genius. Watch out for Robert Webb as Christopher Wren!