Although I don’t believe in any of the religious stuff, Christmas does come at a very dark and brooding time of year. Very often, in England, we suffer from the Dog Days – periods, often lasting two or three weeks, when the weather is dominated by high pressure, with little rain or wind, but not much sunshine either and lots of what the weathermen call ‘mist and murk’ (never one or the other, always both together). These are conditions for doing short spells of intensive work outdoors, before retreating into the house, lighting a fire and opening a good book. Last Christmas I read all three books of that remarkable Millennium trilogy by the late Steig Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. And why isn’t their superb translator, Reg Keeland, given more credit? For what it’s worth (not much), my friend Alan Cadbury said he was inspired by them – which I think probably says more about him, than the books. I certainly couldn’t put them down, but they were more than rather loosely-edited thrillers: they took one into another realm altogether, with its own rules and values – something which, dare I say it, good literature has always done. So why, O why, is crime writing seen by academics and critics as ‘genre’, as something that doesn’t really merit close attention? If I were a betting man, I’d wager quite a lot that the likes of Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers and Ian Rankin will survive into the 22nd and 23rd centuries, when other, supposedly more ‘literary’ writers will long have been forgotten. Anyhow, I’ll be reading Ian Rankin’s 12th and 13th Rebus books (The Falls and Resurrection Men), which clever Dick Alan Cadbury read when they first came out, back in 2001.
Variety is the spice of life, so unless I’m engaged in an all-encompassing marathon, like the Millennium trilogy, I also like to have a non-fiction book on the go too. And I like it even more if they’re written by friends, because Christmas can sometimes be a bit sticky, in a rather glutinous family sort of way, if you know what I mean. Too many smiles and coos, icing sugar and fixed smiles. From time to time I crave a bit of normality, when an old friend mutters something dry and a bit tasteless under his breath, which also smells slightly of gin. Not of course that I’m suggesting that any of the following would touch the stuff. No, far from it… But I digress.
The first of my books is by an old friend who has inspired all of my writing – and again (and for the last time, I assure you) Alan loves his books, especially Time Detectives. Brian Fagan is undoubtedly the best known archaeological writer living today, and rightly so: his books are never, ever dull or repetitious. You can hardly turn a page of a Fagan book, without learning something new, and always written in a lively, but never patronising style. For my money, he’s perfection. Another thing about Brian is that he has a life. Too many archaeologists live for their subject to the exclusion of all else; and often it shows, not just in their writing, but when you’re with them in the pub. Ten minutes in their company, and I’m thinking about a stiff arsenic and soda. I promised I wouldn’t mention him again, but I’m afraid Alan can be a bit like that: obsessive, myopic. Brian has always been a keen yachtsman and sailor and also writes for the sailing press, so his latest book Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans (Bloomsbury) is particularly welcome. Yes, it’s closely based on sound scholarship, but you can also taste the salty spray as you read. A cracker.
I haven’t known Hugh Thomson anything like as long as Brian, in fact we only made contact a couple of years ago, when he was researching for the book, but we got on immediately – then it turned out we’d both attended the same college at Cambridge. Small world. Normally Hugh writes exploration and travel books often about South America: Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru, is perhaps his best known so far, but he is also a distinguished film-maker. I suspect he’d be good at anything he turned his hand to – he’s that sort of person. He gave us a gorgeous amaryllis when he first came to visit and it actually bloomed six weeks later. I emailed him with the good news, and his reply came from Brazil, or was it Colombia – somewhere distinctly antipodean. But I digress.
This time Hugh is writing about his homeland and it’s a wonderful journey into the space that is not so Little England: The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England (Preface Publishing). It’s a journey along the entire length of the Ridgeway and Icknield Way, with diversions to interesting places, such as Flag Fen, Must Farm and Seahenge. I’m told he also meets some interesting people. It’s a sane, wonderful book, written by an archaeologist who has stood to one side and can observe the world and its inhabitants with detached amusement. I plan to re-read it over Christmas. It’s that good.
My last book is by far the most challenging, but that’s what happens when you try to do something genuinely new and original. It’s by Richard Morris, Time’s Anvil: England Archaeology and the Imagination (Weidenfeld and Nicolson). Like Hugh and Brian, Richard too has a life and in fact the first book of his I read was his superb, and very moving, biography of the great Leonard Cheshire, VC: Cheshire: The Biography of Leonard Cheshire, VC, DM (Penguin). Richard has always been a thinker and we got to know each other well in the mid and later ‘nineties, when I served on the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee for English Heritage. It was a very high-powered group which Richard eventually ended up Chairing, but although the issues we discussed could often be extremely contentious, he always managed to inject a note of reality and sanity into the discussions. I remember thinking at the time it was as if he was seeing us all from a short distance, and with some of the same detached humour I detect in Hugh Thomson. So what is this book about? To be quite frank, I can’t offer a quick snapshot, because the entire work is cross-cut with inter-weaving themes and observations. His family (an RAF background as you might have guessed), his life and the archaeology he has seen and done along the way are all taken together. It’s a book, I suppose, about observing the observer, observing. Or doesn’t that make sense? If not, I suggest you go out and buy the book. Only then will you be in a position to understand why, just for once, words have failed me.