Chris West

This week, Chris West (author of the fascinating and impeccably named new book entitled A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps), offers what he’s dubbed “three oblique ways into British history.” Whichever side of the pond you live on, these sterling works of research — like West’s warm and inventive approach to his own scholarship — offer a transatlantic flight to fabulous worlds and bygone eras.

Revolution in the Head
By Ian MacDonald

“This looks like a book for Beatles aficionados only: it describes every track on every album, and goes into immense detail about how the song got written, how it was recorded, how angry Lennon and McCartney got with each other during the recording (and so on). Being both a former professional musician and a Fab Four fan, I love it for this alone. But the book also contains a fascinating interpretation of the intellectual and spiritual environment in which the songs were created. It’s not one I totally share – the author is deeply pessimistic about our modern world, which he regards as having fallen into a ‘post-religious’ hole that no amount of well-meaning humanism can get us out of. But he presents his view with fabulous lucidity. I love history done this way, working on two levels: one, the intricate examination of specifics, the other a big-picture narrative. Get these flying at the same time, and you have a fascinating read.”

A History of England in 100 Places
By John Julius Norwich

“By contrast this is a whistle-stop tour, cramming the entire history of a nation into 100,000 or so words. So don’t expect profound analysis of any era – we stop, look, learn a little then we’re off. But it captures a deep and exciting truth, that history and place are inextricably intertwined, not just intellectually but physically: go to some places and history is there. Who says ghosts don’t exist? For me, this is a ‘dip-into’ book rather than an end-to-end read, but the formula works well: imagine a place, feel the history, follow up the ones that send a shiver down your spine, with a visit if possible or further reading if the Atlantic is inconveniently in the way. My favorite places? Towton Cross on a wintry day, Newton’s apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, Hut 8 at Bletchley Park where World War Two was, arguably, won. But choose your own…”

How Roads Have Grown
By Philip Rush

“This is a book for kids, and I read it when I was about ten (it was published in 1960). I’ve put it in here for unashamedly personal reasons: it was the book that got me interested in history. It ‘does what it says on the tin’; it’s a book about Britain’s road network, starting with the Romans and ending in the late ’50s. But on this journey, I took in all sorts of wider lessons. Readers in search of a more sophisticated approach to the subject should read Joe Moran’s On Roads, which uses the British road system as a springboard for mediations on history, politics, and so on. But when I was ten, this was the book that did the job, and got me imagining Roman legions, lumbering medieval carts, and Georgian post-chaises. History must analyze, but it must also live; it must tell stories and get the imagination revving.”