Five Books By My Bed

The author of Berlin: The Story of a City and Partition writes about his favourite books to read this Summer.
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Five Books By My Bed

Maybe holidaying at home will give me more time to read this summer. I do hope so. I have never found the Mediterranean combination of sun and sand to be very hard back friendly but hopefully this year the garden and coastal breezes of the West Country should lead to many relaxing hours with a book.

I am starting with Philip Mansel’s King of the World, his wonderful new biography of Louis XIV. Immaculately researched, and as fluent and witty as are all Philip’s books, I am looking forward to both his stories of life at Versailles and also his overall appraisal of The Sun King as both a French and European leader.  From what I have seen, I am expecting this not to be very complimentary.


Next I will finish Ferdinand Addis’ Rome: Eternal City. I have already dipped into it and loved it. The biographies of cities fascinate me (hence my recent Berlin: The Story of a City) and what is so good about Addis’ book is that he tells the complete story of Rome. Too often city histories concentrate on just one particular period but by doing so they can so often miss the spirit and continuity of the place.


Third will be Rebellious Scots To Crush: The Military Response to the Jacobite ’45 edited by Andrew Bamford. A series of essays looking at the various regiments fielded in Cumberland’s army, this is a book for serious military historians and spotters who, like me, are fascinated by how the British Army has raised and organised its troops over the centuries. We have always been good, or at least quite good, at raising irregular forces and the response to the ’45 was no exception. It is a really important contribution to army historiography and has been very well reviewed in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research.

Fourth, contemporary history in Tales from the life of Bruce Wannell – Adventurer, Linguist and Orientalist. Wannell, who died last year, was one of those extraordinary, charming and talented eccentrics who loved the Orient, spoke its languages and lived in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. A gifted linguist and musician, his understanding of those countries and their cultures has already made a significant contribution to several histories. This charming and very funny book – Wannell was both a genius but could also test the patience of his many friends – is a tribute to him by Barnaby Rogerson, who alongside his wife Rose Baring publishes Eland and Sickle Moon Books.

Lastly, one from the past and this summer it is Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War. I sometimes think that the Boer War warrants another look, given its importance and impact both to the UK in general and to the British Army in particular, and how it is seen today. It’s difficult though to improve on Pakenham’s 1979 study, a really excellent and very readable combination of the political and the military with the personal – he was still able to interview men who fought in South Africa. One of the very best military history books I have read and consequently one that I keep re-reading.

Barney White-Spunner is author of Berlin: The Story of a City.