The way that children’s attitudes to learning history have changed is a constant delight and amazement to me. I sat in a pub in Cumbria a couple of months ago and listened to an eleven-year-old called Henry dispute some World War II ‘facts’ a friend was airing – and then put him right. It was an amazing moment. The speaker is a history fanatic, and not often wrong. But Henry – politely and calmly – suggested he might have misread, misremembered or (horror of horrors) misinterpreted.
It was a weird moment, made weirder by the fact that Henry was absolutely correct, which the ‘expert’ munificently conceded (with delight, I must add). He wanted to know where Henry got his knowledge from, and was told ‘the horrible histories’ which he, being childless, had never heard of. ‘So do you like history?’ he asked. ‘Love it,’ Henry replied. ‘It’s so much more exciting than what goes on round here!’
When I was a boy, I hated history. It was indeed so boring, and I still can’t see much value in knowing the names of all the kings and queens who croaked hundreds of years ago. But Henry knew, in detail, the ins and out of plots to assassinate Hitler, and why, and when, and how. And loved it. He loved the nuts and bolts, the feeling that real people were involved. Which leads me on to Dennis Hamley’s Of Dooms and Death, the first part of ‘The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay.’
This book, these books, achieve the knack of ‘getting into’ history, and making you see, and feel, it through the lives and personalities of the protagonists. Joslin is the Gascon son of a Gascon troubadour, who has to flee toBritainafter his father is mysteriously targeted by assassins. Dying, he leaves Joslin very little – his harp, his troubadour’s tunic, a locked metal box, and some money. A canny English mariner relieves him of the cash, but does take him to the east coast – notWales, where Joslin has been told he has to go to find his mother and the answer to some knotty mysteries.
It is at a time of great political upheaval – the peasants are revolting, for want of a better rule of thumb – and it is not long after a major outbreak of Black Death. Joslin, in fact, spends his first night inEnglandin the ruins of a church. When he digs into the soft earth to hide his harp and his tiny residue of coin, he finds a rotting skull. He is in a burial pit. What’s more he’s being watched, and before very long he realises he is being hunted to the death.
The plot moves like wildfire, and Joslin’s troubles multiply at breathless speed. He meets a youth called Robin, a lovely girl called Alys (Joslin is quite susceptible to lovely girls), and at least one mysterious clergyman. There are lords and their hangers on as well, who have a habit of getting themselves serially murdered in the night. Poor Joslin, inevitably, is suspect number one. He is French, he is not a peasant…and he has absolutely no reason to be where he is. Rhyme, yes – he’s a troubadour. But not a reason in the world that the English can accept.
While the language avoids Middle Age mummery like the plague (forgive me), the whole thing has a wonderful authenticity of feel. Boys and girls get almost equal weight, and some of the dangers they must face are honestly exciting. My friend Henry up inCumbriais going to get a copy, believe me. I’d be astonished if he didn’t lap it up. It’s history, with plague pustules and buckets of blood thrown in, and it’s not just the baddies who get most horribly hanged. There are five more in the series to come. I want them now!
Reviewed by Jan Needle
Of Dooms and Deaths is available in Kindle format
(the other five are in process of conversion, A Pact with Death will be reviewed on this site in May)
Find out more about Dennis Hamley