Eyewitness to History
John Carey (editor)
(Harvard University Press, 1988)
This is a wonderful book, spanning the centuries and jumping from Roman times through to the 1970s, taking in such events as the Peasant's Revolt, the beheading of Mary Queen Of Scots and the first world war. However, its not just the big events that are covered. If you want to read about a group of pissed medieval women turning up at jousts and behaving badly, this is the book you need. It's a perfect book to install in your toilet and will ensure your guests stay in there even longer than is imaginably possible. So, not only fascinating, but invaluable for those annoying guests you want to see the back of for half an hour.
In the Springtime of the Year
(Hamish Hamilton 1973; Long Barn Books, May 2006)
This is a completely miserable yet brilliant book with more poetry in it than most poetry books. Ruth loses her husband in a forestry accident at the beginning of the novel and there then follows a superb description of her attempts to cope with the loss. Along the way there are lots of setbacks and dark times and although her situation is not resolved in a tidy way, there is some hope at the end of the book. Don't read it if you are depressed unless you have a masochistic element to your personality.
Neil Astley, Editor
(Bloodaxe Books, 2004)
This is a poetry anthology divided into sections such as nature, life, death and so on. It has some fantastic new poets in it that I hadn't come across before as well as some old favourites. I like poetry because sometimes it is the only thing that will do when certain things happen in your life that you struggle with - like losing a loved one or being elbowed by your partner. It's cheery, too, for the good times and for those of us who have blunted emotions and don't necessarily want to read about the death of a hedgehog while we're having our tea.
Moments of Reprieve
(Penguin, 1986; 2002)
By now, I expect you think I am a miserable old bag who only reads sad things - and this book also fits into that category with ease. Primo Levi was a prisoner in Auschwitz during the second world war and this collection of short essays relates his experiences. However, Moments of Reprieve attempts to pull together experiences of people he met that made his life bearable or gave him some hope, from guards who smuggled in food or other prisoners who entertained him. It's a lovely book about one of the darkest times in our history.
A Christmas Carol
(Chapman and Hall 1843; Penguin Classics 2003)
Good old Charlie. He's written so many brilliant books, but this epitomises his positive nature and makes me believe that even right wing, grumpy old sods can change their colours and become generous human beings. It also gives an insight into the dreadful conditions and the gap between rich and poor that existed in Victorian times; and the wonderful character of Bob Cratchit, the humble, sweet-tempered, hard-working, put-upon hero is a counter-template for all those horrible bastards whose bitterness at their lot in life is turned into a bad temper and misanthropic philosophy.
Each Peach Pear Plum
Janet and Alan Ahlberg
(Kestrel Books 1978; Viking Children's Books 1999)
This is a glorious book for children, taking in fairy tales and puzzles, which moves effortlessly from page to page, has fantastic illustrations and can be read over and over again. Robin Hood, Cinderella and the Three Bears are all in there and I'm sure if more kids forced their parents to buy this they wouldn't be quite so keen on all that Barbie cack that is forced down girls' throats these days.
The Rough Guide to England
(Rough Guides; 6th revised edition, 2004)
This is an invaluable book when I'm on tour, which gives you a flavour of pretty much every town in England you are likely to visit. Witty and informative it gives you such gems as: 'Bedford ... the town need not detain you.' (Sorry, Bedford.) Whether you want information about restaurants, things to do, or which beaches have the most dog poo on them, you will find the Rough Guide covers them all. And as I often used to inform the residents of slightly down-at-heel areas: 'Sorry, you're not in the Rough Guide to England you're in the Fucking Rough Guide.'
Joyce Brand's Common Place Book
(Joyce Brand, self-published)
Due to lack of telly and decent nightclubs, the Victorians used to spend their time gathering their favourite poems and pithy sayings together in a book to give some flavour of the way they wanted people to see them. My mum, Joyce, has continued the tradition. She had it vanity published as she thought it wouldn't be a massive seller and now has several hundred of the buggers sitting in her attic, as she isn't actually allowed to sell it. It's lovely for me, though, to have something personal to keep and I often use it when I am on Countdown as there's a lot of humour - and, thank god, not much of me in it.
Her selections can be purchased here.
A portion of the sales from purchases made through Red Pepper/Eclector's book store contribute money to Red Pepper. Not all titles are available.