The books that most influenced me I probably read as a child. Some now seem decidedly dubious, like Hoffmans’ Struwwelpeter which graphically portrayed the terrifying consequences of childhood misbehavior. As a teenager I liked Hemingway because he stuck to the point and avoided flowery adjectives. As an adult I read books that plug holes in my inadequate education, especially history and biography. So my list of five influential books are those I have read more recently and which I recommend as books that show an intimate connection between their subjects and historical events. They are all fairly easy reading or I could not have managed them, so if you haven’t read them I recommend them also as good holiday fodder.
- A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, is a 900-page riveting story of three young men in Paris at the dawn of the 1789 Revolution. Two are ambitious young lawyers: Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, and the third, the unreliable genius of rhetoric, Camille Desmoulins. The best and worst of times captured in reassuring historical detail and startling intimacy. Better, in my view, than Wolf Hall. The intimacy and interplay between idealists and ruthless pragmatists seems to me to echo everywhere.
- If historical intimacy works for you, read Jan Morris – who although better known as a travel writer recounts history and the people that populate it more engagingly and wittily than most. Next to her Pax Britannia trilogy, Fisher’s Face, a loving biography of Lord Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher (1841-1920), is my favourite. Intrigued and enchanted by an old photograph of Fisher’s face, Morris uncovers the man and his times. Born in Ceylon and from modest beginnings, Jack Fisher transformed the Royal Navy from one rooted in the 18th century into a modern fleet. He despised class differences, and democratically overhauled a navy that drew its officers overwhelmingly from the gentry. Morris is kinder to Fisher than some historians who blame him for the Allies’ disastrous Gallipoli landing in 1915.
- On the other side of that disaster and playing a significant part in the battle, was the emerging father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal. Atatürk: The Rebirth of a Nation by Patrick Kinross remains an authoritative biography of one of the 20th century’s most influential figures. Atatürk created a secular nation from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire as World War 1 re-drew the political lines of Europe. Trying to understand Europe’s ambiguous relationship with Turkey is made easier by this gripping biography, and as all good lawyers know, it never does any harm to look at a conflict from the opposite perspective. It is interesting that despite his radical secular reforms, Atatürk remains broadly popular in the Muslim world.
- Not history, but springing from history into magical realism, is the fantastical story of Saleem Sinai, an Indian boy born on the stroke of midnight, 15 August 1947, the moment that India became independent. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, sets Saleem’s story in Mumbai and the more the book protests its own unreality, the more real and evocatively it seems to display the richness and riot of India. It sometimes feels as if the author has lost all control and is as surprised as we are at the twists and turns leading to a convergence between the personal and historical events.
- Finally, a recommendation flowing from a personal interest in Ethiopia – where I was brought up – The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuscniski. As a youngster I met Haile Selassie when he used to visit my grandfather who had fought with him against Mussolini’s occupation. The Emperor was a charismatic man and we all fell a little under his spell. The King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia, reigned from 1930 until he was overthrown by the army in 1974. That marked the beginning of the revolution that overthrew a mediaeval order and led to us leaving the country as refugees. Kapuscinski, Poland’s leading foreign correspondent, travelled to Ethiopia and interviewed servants and close associates on how the Emperor had ruled and why he fell. His book at once dispels any misplaced notion that the Emperor did not deserve to be overthrown, but at the same time sensitively portrays how as an ageing monarch he was never sure of his power, and depicts his bewilderment that his people who he thought had loved him, did not materialise to save him at the end.
Andrew Walker QC, Vice-Chairman Elect of the Bar Council
In trying to identify just five books which have influenced me out of so many, I have sought examples from different stages in my life, which readers might be minded to turn to for summer reading. It is probably true to say that the influences are probably strongest from books which were required reading at school, several of which have left lasting impressions. I found both Aldous Huxley and George Orwell uncomfortable but compelling reading, as I did Kafka, but would pick out Orwell’s Animal Farm as having a particular influence. Orwell encouraged my antipathy towards totalitarianism, extremism, and hunger for power, but also contributed to a general wariness of idealism and the ‘greater good’, the cost of which is too often individual injustice.
- For summer fiction in a similar vein but closer to reality and with the pace of a modern thriller, I might turn to Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. Through the medium of what is essentially a crime novel, Smith paints an absorbing picture of the fault lines and paranoia within soviet society in the time of Stalin, the randomness of totalitarianism, and the bravery of individuals challenging the system. An eventually gripping book, Child 44 is worth sticking with through several gloomy early chapters, but is not one for those who shy away from any brutality on the page.
- In a different mould, but not without resonance, is a book that I read by chance, having decided in my twenties to start collecting the reprinted hardback Everyman series. Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, tells the tale of the impact of colonialism and Christian missionaries on the culture and cohesion of the Ibo tribe at the turn of the 20th century. He wrote in English, so the narrative remains true to the author, and for me at least, there is a discernible tempo to the book: the largo of an ancient continent and stable culture in balance with themselves (if not without flaws), an andante as initial contact takes effect, and then a final presto as the full impact hits home. If you are drawn in by it as I was, then you might also seek out the remainder of his African Trilogy.
- Another which sticks strongly in my memory from school is Silas Marner by George Elliot. I am not sure why it had such an effect on me; most of my classmates hated it. I suspect that I felt an affinity with the atmosphere created by Elliot. It may well, too, have opened my eyes to human relationships and fallibilities, and to the complexity of life and the decisions we have to make. I have little doubt that I was affected by the injustices at the book’s core. I have a firm memory of a struggle between country life and industrialisation in the early 19th century, and of a man cut off from the world and oppressed by circumstances who finds his own way through life’s challenges. I probably found deep satisfaction, too, in the ending, but will avoid the temptation to say more.
- In a different vein, I have always had a fascination with both history and those areas of the world forming parts (in very different periods) of the Macedonian, Byzantine and Ottoman empires: from Morocco, across North Africa, through Turkey and the middle east, into ‘high Asia’ (the ‘Great Game’ battleground, both politically and militarily), and leading finally into India. I know this interest started early, as I chose to take a year of Arabic in the sixth form at school (much now sadly forgotten). There is no shortage of books which have allowed me to indulge both interests, including several in which authors have followed the routes taken by much earlier travellers. All too many may now themselves reflect history rather than the present given the dramatic changes – and so many tragedies – of the 21st century, particularly for Syria, Iraq and Libya (even in comparison with those of the late 20th century). One ‘travelogue’, though, may hold particular poignancy: From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple. Written in 1997, and described accurately by the publishers at the time as ‘an elegy to the slowly dying civilisation of eastern Christianity and the peoples that have kept its flame alive’, it gives a glimpse of some of the diversity that history has bestowed on the region between modern Turkey and Egypt. I recall a less optimistic tone than I had hoped to find, but one which may already look nostalgic. If you doubt what extremism is destroying in terms of human as well as physical culture, or the difficulties for minority communities even without that threat, then Dalrymple’s record of voices from just some of those communities should change your mind. One can only speculate on how much and how many will survive the current onslaughts.
- My final suggestion is much more recent (2015) and shorter, and reflects a broader interest in geopolitics: Prisoners of Geography by the journalist Tim Marshall. Very accessible to a casual reader, you could do worse than to end your summer understanding a little more about the outlook of Russia, China, the USA and others, and how strongly that is (and has been) affected by geography. Its ongoing relevance might be encapsulated in the final quotation in the chapter on Europe, taken from an article written by Helmut Kohl, the former Chancellor of Germany, for the German newspaper Bild in 2012: ‘For those who didn’t live through [World War 2] themselves and who especially now in the crisis are asking what benefits Europe’s unity brings, the answer despite the unprecedented European period of peace lasting more than 65 years and despite the problems and difficulties we must still overcome is: peace.’