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I am no good at history. I'm fascinated by it, but when I try and learn it, it all just kind of swirls around my head in an interesting and informative way before dissolving into nothing. Try as I might, I will never be knowledgeable about What Happened When. The upside of this is that even at the mature'n'sensible age of 34 I can delight in the Horrible Histories series, which for most people of my age will just be a rehash of stuff they learned at school. For me, as for the kids it's aimed at, it actually can teach me stuff. The Horrible Histories and Horrible Sciences are the kind of books I would have loved as a kid - irreverent yet not patronising, educational yet light hearted and silly, in a similar vein to "The Whizzkid's Handbook" of the 80s. (Does anyone remember that one, or is it just me?) Despite being a slim 127 pages and liberally scattered with illustrations and cartoons, there's a lot of information packed into this book. There are timelines from prehistory to the modern age, and sections on topics ranging from the Tower of London, Cockney rhyming slang, London's worst jobs, and a history of the underground. Being dedicated as this series is to all things horrible, you get detailed descriptions of how people were put to death in the tower - told from the perspective of the recently deceased - as well as many in-depth descriptions of hangings, the inadequacy of the sewer system, and exactly what happens to you when you catch the plague. The format of the book is an appealing, almost scrapbook style, with text frequently depicted as though fragments of writings from long-ago Londoners or excerpts from books. Quotes from the unfortunate people whose crimes, illnesses, deaths or death sentences are described often come in the form of a speech bubble attached to a witty illustration of the individual in question. There are also a couple of quizzes which add an extra dimension. The upshot of this is that no two pages are alike, and it's very easy to whiz through the whole book in one sitting as the style never gets tired or stale. Many of the illustrations are laugh out loud funny - I particularly enjoyed a depiction of a group of mediaeval Londoners peering at a sign telling them how to avoid the plague, with a thought bubble arising from one bemused head saying "What am I doing here? I can't read." And the wickedly apt image of Death with a backdrop of plague-ridden London, saying "You know, I love this town". Perhaps my favourite is the front cover, with a weary palace guard contemplating the Great Fire of London raging in the distance: "Red sky at night - your duvet's alight." For those who actually know a lot about the history of London, this book is probably superfluous, but for anyone young or old who struggles with the subject of history, this is a great place to start. I was attracted to this book due to my love of all things London, but I intend to build up a collection of the series. You never know - I might actually end up knowing a bit of history!
One of the more recent books in the excellent Horrible Histories series, Loathesome London covers the history of England's capital as well as more general topics about life in Britain over the past 2,000 or so years - "the bad old days" as author Terry Deary puts it! Unlike most Horrible Histories books, Loathesome London does not specifically cover any one period in history, although the main focus of the book is London in Medieval times up to the late 19th century. Rather than a history book per se, this book is more of a collection of stories and anecdotes. Sort of like a 'best of' compilation, Deary has compiled an entertaining bunch of gruesome facts and grim tales. 'Cool for Criminals' is a particularly dark and witty section, including a run down of the various notorious London criminals over the centuries, as well as examples of "quaint and cruel criminal activity through [London's] history" - including body snatching, pickpocketing and highway robbery. I was particularly tickled by the story of Jack Collett, who robbed people on the road dressed as a clergyman, and Jenny Diver, a pickpocket who devised a pair of artificial arms so that she could surreptitiously steal from rich ladies in church! There's a whole section called 'Awful to animals', that covers cruel pursuits such as bear baiting, bull baiting, cock fighting, dog fighting, horse baiting and badger baiting. I think this section would give kids a great insight into how views have changed over the years, and is supported by quotes on the subject from writers at the time. It's not all grim though - not only is the writing style light hearted, there are also several asides that are more concerned with odd and amusing quirks of London life than anything else. There's a great section about Cockney Rhyming slang, accompanied by an illustrated dialogue between a Victorian Cockney gentleman and a policeman that doubles up as a quiz. 'London's Lousy Jobs' gives a few examples of some rather undesirable jobs that have been carried out over the ages, including the ambiguous sounding "Pure Finders", who spent all day picking up dog droppings from the streets to sell on to Tanners. Overall, Loathesome London is another entertaining addition to the Horrible Histories series. Although it may be less useful for school than some of the other books that cover specific eras in history, it is still a good read with plenty of information that will captivate children and grow their interest in history.
Go underground to discover London's putrid past, take a trip to the terrifying Tower and then dip into the River Thames - London's largest toilet. Find out the ten worst ways to make a living in the city and the most disgusting way to die. History has never been so horrible! Ages 8+.