Nick Rennison selects the year's best history books

Slip a Spartan into your stocking: From Ancient Greece and Rome through to Shakespeare, Russian secret agents and Fifties seaside holidays, Nick Rennison selects the year’s best history books

  • Nick Rennison picked a selection of the best history books from through the year
  • He selected a series of books to suit a range of budgets this year
  • Top picks included Scoff by Pen Vogler and Shakespearean by Robert McCrum


by Pen Vogler (Atlantic £20, 480 pp)

‘Tell me what you eat,’ pronounced 19th-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, ‘and I will tell you what you are.’

In Britain, few things better reveal our place in the nation’s complex class structure than our eating habits. When do you eat ‘dinner’? At midday or in the early evening?

Why did the avocado become such a signifier of ‘middle class’? How did oysters, food of the poor in Victorian England, become a delicacy for the better off?

Pen Vogler provides a fascinating social history of British food through the centuries and throws in a selection of enticing recipes from the past for good measure.

BRITISH SUMMER TIME BEGINS by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (Little Brown £18.99, 352 pp)


by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (Little Brown £18.99, 352 pp)

‘Donkey rides, oysters for sale, Blackpool rock: I loved it.’ This is shipyard worker’s son Dugald Cameron remembering childhood holidays in Blackpool.

But this hugely enjoyable book, ranging from 1930 to 1980, is not just about seaside holidays. Its subject is that ‘vast stretch of untimetabled time’ which began with the school bell ringing for the last time in July and went on until lessons began again in September.

Drawing on the memories of dozens of people, it’s a wonderful portrait of long summer weeks when so many of us, free from adult scrutiny (‘My parents had no idea where I was’), found our true selves through play.


by Tim Harford (Bridge Street £20, 352 pp)

There are some surprising entries on Tim Harford’s list of game-changing products and inventions. It’s no wonder that the credit card, the printing press and spreadsheets make the cut.

But who knew that the Wardian case, a Victorian means of transporting plants, was so important? Or that cellophane helped to revolutionise food retailing?

Or the reasons the QWERTY keyboard was successful? From the postage stamp to the pencil, the brick to the bicycle, Harford provides a succession of surprising insights into the things that have shaped our world.


by Robert McCrum (Picador £14.99, 400 pp)

In July 1995, Robert McCrum was, as he puts it, ‘poleaxed’ by a massive stroke. He had long been a lover of Shakespeare’s plays but, during his convalescence, they became his ‘book of life’.

Passages from them proved ‘almost the only words that made sense’. In this passionate argument for Shakespeare’s continuing importance in the 21st century, he examines how the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, shaped by the upheavals of his era, still speaks to us in our own times of trouble.

Why is Shakespeare a global icon? And what exactly is that quality we call ‘Shakespearean’?

AGENT SONYA by Ben MacIntyre (Viking £25, 400 pp)


by Ben MacIntyre (Viking £25, 400 pp)

In 1945, the inhabitants of Great Rollright in the Cotswolds were used to seeing Mrs Len Burton bicycling through the vil- lage streets.

She was a familiar figure in the community, particularly renowned for the quality of the scones she baked.

What the villagers didn’t know was that Mrs Burton was really Colonel Ursula Kuczynski (right) of the Red Army, a Soviet spy and dedicated communist.

The extraordinary story of her career in espionage, from the dangerous, multicultural melting pot of Thirties Shanghai to operations in Britain when she passed on atom bomb secrets to Moscow, is brilliantly told.


by Charles Spencer (Collins £25, 352 pp)

On the night of November 25, 1120, a ship set sail from Barfleur, Normandy, heading for England. Its passengers, many drunk, included William, the 17-year-old heir to the English throne.

Soon after it departed, a few of Barfleur’s inhabitants heard a distant noise across the waters.

They assumed it was the sound of continuing revelry. In fact, it was a collective scream for help. The ship had struck a rock and was sinking. The king’s son and dozens of other courtiers drowned; only one man survived.

Charles Spencer’s book vividly conjures up this half-forgotten medieval tragedy and its consequences.


by Peter Stothard (W&N £20, 288 pp)

Fourteen years after the assassination of Julius Caesar, a man named Cassius Parmensis was living in a small house in Athens. Parmensis was a poet, playwright and naval commander.

He was also the last of the assassins still alive.

After the killing on the Ides of March, Caesar’s heir, the future emperor Augustus, instigated a ruthless pursuit of those who had plunged their daggers into his adoptive father.

With the eventual execution of Parmensis in 30 BC, that hunt came to an end.

Peter Stothard’s gripping account of it is also the story of how Rome was transformed from republic to empire.

Nick Rennison reveals some of the top books on history from 2020, including Andrew j Bayliss’ The Spartans (file image of the film 300)

THE SPARTANS by Andrew J Bayliss (OUP £10.99, 192 pp)


by Andrew J Bayliss (OUP £10.99, 192 pp)

Most people know something about the Spartans and their last stand at Thermopylae against the vast Persian armies invading Greece in 480 BC, if only through the film 300, starring Gerard Butler and his bulging biceps as Leonidas, the Spartan king.

But what is the truth behind the mythology that has long surrounded these ancient warriors? Andrew Bayliss unveils the reality, both good and bad, of Spartan life.

Their women, renowned for their beauty, were given a freedom unusual for the times but Spartan society was appallingly cruel by our standards and based on the ruthless exploitation of the near-slaves known as helots.

HITLER: Downfall 1939-45

by Volker Ullrich (The Bodley Head £30, 848 pp)

In 1939, Hitler seemed unstoppable. The war initially brought nothing but victory but, two years later, his enormously foolish decision to invade Russia put him on the road to defeat and suicide in his Berlin bunker.

There have been dozens of biographies of the Führer over the years, but Volker Ullrich draws on the most up-to-date scholarship to complete his definitive work.

Without insight into Hitler’s warped personality and world-view, we cannot understand why World War II took the course it did.

Ullrich’s book throws new light on the man who drove Germany and the rest of Europe towards disaster.


by Trevor Barnes (W&N £20, 352 pp)

Winston Churchill once wrote of the world of espionage that ‘the actual facts of many cases were in every respect equal to the most fantastic inventions of romance and melodrama’. His words could certainly be applied to the Portland Spy Ring, memorably recounted here by Trevor Barnes.

VICTORY IN THE KITCHEN by Annie Gray (Profile £15.99, 400 pp)

After the CIA told MI5 in 1960 someone was stealing secrets from the submarine research base at Portland, Dorset, the information led to extra- ordinary revelations.

Unlikely spies were living in suburban Ruislip and, under false identities stolen from the dead, a circle of deep-cover KGB agents was operating in Britain.


by Annie Gray (Profile £15.99, 400 pp)

‘We all had a scrumptious dinner,’ Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter Mary recorded on her father’s 68th birthday. Two years later, the birthday dinner featured oysters, goose and caviar. There was also, as Mary put it, an ‘ICED cake — wow’.

Both meals were the work of Mrs Georgina Landemare, Churchill’s favourite cook. Annie Gray charts her remarkable culinary career from her rural beginnings via stints in Paris and Prohibition-era New York to satisfying her most famous employer’s appetite.

PUTIN’S PEOPLE by Catherine Belton (Collins £25, 640 pp)


by Catherine Belton (Collins £25, 640 pp)

As the Soviet empire was imploding in 1990, a KGB man returned to Leningrad from Dresden where he’d been working as a liaison officer with the Stasi, the East German secret police.

Allegedly, he told a friend he feared there might be no better job awaiting him than that of a taxi driver.

The KGB man’s name was Vladimir Putin and, it turned out, he never needed to drive a cab. Belton has unearthed the story of Putin’s ruthless rise to power and his destruction of hopes for a new Russia after the Soviet collapse.

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