I do like trivia books, I must confess. Give me a lot of facts mixed with a reasonable dose of humour and I’m in cloud nine. I got more than my money’s worth with Dr Oliver Tearle’s most excellent ‘Britain by the Book’.
I hope Dr Tearle will forgive me to comparing him to one of my great writing heroes but I found his literary walk around the UK to be rather like the amalgamation of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a Small Island’ and ‘Mother Tongue’, taking the best humour of the former and the same level of accuracy of the latter. The result was a book which could have been written just for me.
Tearle’s humour is gentle and there is none of the venom of the aforementioned American author’s style, which is a good thing. This is a jovial, friendly book from start to finish. I can easily imagine that Tearle, who is a lecturer at Loughborough University, being a popular and much-loved teacher by his students rather than stand-offish. I could be wrong, I suppose, but his writing style feels like being in the presence of a fascinating chap with a good sense of fun who might just enjoy nattering away about such things over a pint in the local pub. In other words: my kind of guy.
To be fair, I’m not just gleaning this from the book itself. Tearle is the founder of one of my most favourite blogs, Interesting Literature, which has been used as a source for various things, not least for the wonderful TV programme QI. The blog is almost as much a joy as Tearle’s book and certainly every bit as fascinating and informative. I’ve followed the posts for many years now and no doubt will continue for as long as Tearle and his companions choose to keep it going.
So what exactly do we have here? Like Bryson’s ‘Notes’, we’re taken on a journey around Britain. The difference is that in each place we’re interested in the poets, novelists and nursery rhyme creators who have inhabited, visited or been inspired by these locations. Where there is a juicy plum, a nugget of gold, or whatever other metaphor you wish to employ, Tearle has found it and relished in the telling thereof.
I have no wish to spoil the delights of these moments so, rather than reveal any, I’ll try to tantalise you with a few things you will find out. Within these pages you’ll discover:
*Who dressed up as polar bears for a non-fancy-dress party;
*Which town is twinned with Ankh-Morpork;
*The truth about our national anthem;
*Who was the originator of the expression (much loved by my father!) ‘the great unwashed’;
*Whose obscure science-fiction novel is completely forgotten except for one single word which is found in supermarkets all over the country;
*Who really did open a novel with ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ (no, not Snoopy);
*Who was the first to use a kiss;
*Where Hardy is really buried (sort of…probably…);
*What Jane Austen really thought of Bath.
For me though, the part which was worth the price of the book – and actually made me splutter my tea across the room as I read it – was the chapter on the author of ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ and Tearle’s description of her future brother-in-law. A classic moment.
I’ve picked out my personal favourites but, of course; I’ve ignored hundreds more. It is safe to say, you’ll probably find your own parts which fascinate, intrigue or just plain make you laugh. Tearle finds precisely the right balance between the well-known and the totally forgotten which means there’s something for everyone here.
In short, this is a perfect book to have on the coffee table for guests to dip into and a good choice for that literary fan in your life. Light, fun and easy to read – but with every sentence packed with well-researched facts – Dr Tearle has converted me with this book. I’m a fan and look forward to more this off-the-wall academic. As he hints at the end of ‘Britain by the Book’ there’s room for a sequel…
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org