By Neil Oliver
Back in 2010 I asked for a copy of A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor for Christmas. It’s a great book although, I have to admit, I’ve not read it so much as browsed it. However, I know what’s in it as I, like so many other Radio 4 listeners, listened to the fantastic serialisation on the radio. That book seemed to start a bit of trend and I’ve seen similar ideas including Neil MacGregor’s similar book about the Elizabethan period which was also rather good. However, part of the trend seems to be people called Neil doing histories in 100 things with the latest being Neil Oliver’s Story of the British Isles in 100 Places.
Most of you will know Neil Oliver as the bloke who came to prominence with the TV series Coast that seemed to capture everyone’s imagination. Whatever happened to the bloke with the umbrella cleverly stuffed down his backpack? I thought that was a rather good idea.
Anyway, I digress. Neil Oliver’s Story of the British Isles in 100 Places is a series of short essays that starts in Happisburgh in Norfolk, just under just under a million years ago, and finishes at Dungeness in Kent in modern times. (That’s not a spoiler as there’s no narrative to spoil.) Every location in the book has a date attached to it, a particular event such as a famous battle, the Roman invasion or the birth of the Industrial Revolution; you get the picture.
Anyway, at this point, I have to admit to a bit of an ulterior motive for reading this book. I was in the midst of doing some pre-publication teaser promotion of my forthcoming book In SatNav We Trust (for which I’m currently seeking representation, see my newsletter) and I discovered that a few of the places I visited were featured in Neil Oliver’s book, including Happisburgh and Dungeness. Then, one day, I discovered he was going to be visiting Colchester on his book tour and I thought, ‘I know, I’ll go along and hang around outside the stage door and try to catch him in the hope of getting an endorsement.’ Of course, it didn’t work out like that. The way it transpired I found myself sitting in Row G so captivated by his lecture that I dashed out in the interval, leaving my muse to pick-up the interval drinks, where I met his glamorous assistant and paid the 25 quid to have my very own copy.
And I’m so glad I did. The book is a wonder. It’s not so much prose or history as poetry. Oliver started out as a journalist on Fleetstreet and, presumably, somewhere less glamorous (or less grubby) before that. And his career as a scribbler shines through. You might imagine histories to be dusty old tomes both literally and metaphorically but this is far from it. His writing is engaging and evocative. He captures the moments he describes and transports you to these places in ways that historians might not. He’s also an archaeologist and an academic so he knows his stuff. Having been a TV presenter for many years he’s also extremely well-travelled so he will talk of visiting these places in ways that speaks of direct experience and gives you flavour of them in ways that you simply don’t expect. In short, he’s not a TV presenter to can write a bit, he’s a proper writer and it shows.
It turned out that, having bought my copy of The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places I didn’t have to hang around the stage door with all the groupies and street pharmacists, I simply had to queue up with all the other locals and I’d get to meet the man and he’d even write his name in my book. We had a chat about my project talked for hours about the life of a writer and how our two projects contain similarities. We shared a drink in the theatre bar and said we’d stay in touch. In the end he asked if there was anything he could do to help get my project off the ground. It was marvellous.
Okay so I just made that last bit up, most of it in fact. We did chat briefly and shake hands but he had a line of fans queuing up and I was holding up his book signing. However, I got the impression that he’s a thoroughly decent chap and that does come out in his writing. Some of the stories he tells gives you an insight on where he might stand on some of the subjects touched on by the arc of history.
You can detect a love for what he calls these islands. In his conclusion he describes his book as a love letter to this land, but there’s more to it. He points out what we have of value here, what we might be talking for granted and what we might lose if we fail to be vigilant. I’m not saying this book is political because it’s not but, between the lines, he does warn against those who might take hold of and sell off, or abuse, the wonders we have. Again none of this is stated explicitly but it is a warning. Beneath that there’s also a reverence. Personally, I find myself standing with a foot in the two worlds of the scientific and the mystical (for want of a better term). I detect some of that in his writing. He has a taste for the sacred, not dismissing that which is only understood by people of very different cultures to our modern scientific world view. I would say that he understands that there is more to life than that which can be measured with a scientific instrument.
Still, you should decide that for yourselves, get out there and get yourselves a copy. I think there might even be some tour dates if you search for them. Put in a good word for me it you meet him.
It’s a great book. Five out of five stars.