My holiday started with a quick trip to Vienna and, as I like to have a few historical anecdotes up my sleeve with which to ‘amaze’ my travelling companions whenever I go somewhere new, I downloaded Simon Winder’s Danubia onto my Kindle before I went. (A choice dictated more by baggage allowance than personal preference.) Obviously, even when leaving out the Hapsburg possessions in Spain and the Americas, it’s going to be hard to impose any single historical argument on a hugely diverse collection of peoples over centuries. The first part of the book, therefore, is pretty much just a glorious set of narratives about the oddities of the Hapsburgs and their subjects, with an element of travelogue thrown in.(I enjoyed this greatly, but I fear that my companion became a little weary of being told about Rudolf II’s pet tigers and Joseph II’s attempts at coffin reform.) Winder’s argument didn’t really get going until the second half of the book as we reached the nineteenth century and the tone changed to fit in with a more coherent (and depressing) analysis of how nationalist historians, philologists and archaeologists created dubious, if not entirely fabricated national narratives that would be used to tear the empire apart. This was an interesting cautionary tale and Winder’s enthusiasm for the forgotten, idiosyncratic parts of the Hapsburg Empire was pretty infectious,, to the point where I might pick up a copy of Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms once I permit myself another Waterstones visit.
Refreshed from my trip, I then felt ready to tackle the copy of Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis that had been gathering dust on my sofa, and it is certainly not a work that can be accused of being light on argument. I’ve rarely felt this enthusiastic about a book since I read Anderson’s Crucible of War and it’s a similar kind of work in its geographical spread, ambition and, to utilise a bit of teaching patois, it’s mastery of overview and depth. I am fundamentally a 17th century enthusiast, so reading this has given me the particular pleasure that comes from encountering events and individuals with which you are familiar, while also seeing them in a wider, less familiar context. So I have gone, in a single chapter, from nodding along appreciatively as the Croquants and the Covenanters make their appearance, to reading avidly about the hitherto unfamiliar Neapolitan republic and the protracted and brutal transition between the Ming and Qing dynasties. It’s such brilliant stuff, that I’ve felt compelled to re-jig some enquiry plans and to work up some resources in order to take into account some of the things I’ve learned, about which, there will be more later.
Amidst all this reading, I’ve been woefully remiss in keeping up with the various events and broadcasts linked to the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (I did manage to pop into the free temporary exhibition at the British Library and would very much recommend it.) but, due to a couple of long car journeys I have started listening to the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride podcast, which is definitely worth a listen, particularly if you are into the history of art and material culture and if the prospect of reading anything at this point in the holidays makes your eyes hurt.