The London Evening Standard runs a quiet column every Thursday which gives a list of bestsellers in the capital city. It takes its sources from Daunt Books, Foyles, Hatchards, Heywood Hill, John Sandoe and Waterstones. Whilst the usual bestseller lists tend to be stuffed with crime and cookery books, these provide a more interesting look into what people are reading and discussing. This month we see pure escapism as people stock up for summer; but also that sempiternal favourite, the Second World War, as well as our obsession with Englishness and the countryside.
This month, Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies has been at either the first or second position every week. It’s a riveting, mesmeric follow up to her Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall (a round up of reviews is here on Periscope.) It says a lot about our never-ending love of the Tudors (who, incidentally, never actually called themselves the Tudors – they did all they could to stake their claim to the throne, after all, and being a Tudor wasn’t the best way to do that.) And in Thomas Cromwell, her hero, we have a strange creature – a twenty-first century thinker transposed into the sixteenth century. It’s almost as if we have traveled back in time, and that we’re watching our own complicated neuroses played out in Tudor dress.
Our need to escape is also reflected in the presence of Juliet Nicolson’s first novel, Abdication, which taps into Downton Abbey fever (something into which Fay Weldon, no less, has also stuck her elegant nose, with Habits of the House– yet to come out.) Why do we love the Tudors and the beginning of the century so much? The sixteenth century is the first that we can recognize as being modern – before that people were too weird, too brutal. And with the early twentieth century, we can pretend that the Second World War never happened – might still, in another, sunlit world, never happen.
Closer to home on the timescale is Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo – although critics claim he hasn’t taken the temperature of the nation at all, it hasn’t stopped people buying him, perhaps more out of habit than not. Michael Frayn’s Skios, a delicious farce set on a Greek island, is another form of escapism. It could be argued that Asbo is itself a form of escapism – it does, after all, present a cartoonish view of the world that we can pretend we are not involved in.
Still more escapist is Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth, which envisages a universe in which there are endless, pre-lapsarian versions of earth to which people can, literally, escape. There we can throw off the shackles of our tarnished world – but can we throw off ourselves?
A special mention must go to HHhH by Larent Binet, a debut novel by a French novelist. Its strange title hasn’t stopped it selling – but perhaps that has more to do with the subject matter, which concerns the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. We love the Second World War, it seems, however much we’d like it never to have happened.
This is borne out by the behemothic presence of Antony Beevor’s ambitiously titled The Second World War, riding high at the number one spot all month. It does what it says on the tin. Double Cross by Ben MacIntyre reflects that same interest, with its tale of the D-Day spies.
We are also wistful, and self-examinatory: Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways sees the nature writer examining roads in his lush, evocative prose, whilst Harry Mount’s How England Made the English is perhaps a more useful examination of our national temperament than Lionel Asbo, with its thesis that our geography and stones and the very fact that we are an island made us who we are.
A book that combines all of these things is Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer. Roger Mortimer fought at Dunkirk, and was a prisoner of war. His son is a public school waster: the book is a collection of letters between the two. In its poignant humor it shows exactly how the English fail to communicate with each other – “Not much news. Old General Scobie died from a heart attack. He stopped Greece going communist in 1945. Your mother has had flu. Her little plan to give up spirits for Lent lasted 3½ days. Pongo has chewed up a rug and had very bad diarrhoea in the kitchen. Six Indians were killed in a car crash in Newbury” – whilst skating over important matters. Perhaps that’s really why we like to bury our heads in the past.