Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Books - Double-take on local tales brings history to life for kids (Notts)

DID you know about the Great Meat Riot of 1792, when an angry mob chased Nottingham's butchers out of the Market Square and made a bonfire at which they "danced around like savages"?

Have you heard about the hanging of local cow rustler John Milner – whose rope snapped as he dangled?

Or the villainous highway lady Joan Phillips who – dressed as a man – robbed coaches along Loughborough Road in Notts?

If the answer to all these questions is "no" then you can soon ask your children about them because such grisly stories can be found in two new children's books about Nottinghamshire's history.

The new books tell the county's history from earliest times to the present day with the help of cartoon illustrations and lots of quirky tales about little-known stories and strange characters.

The authors know that a guaranteed way of grabbing a child's interest in history is to throw in a few battles, executions, riots and other blood-thirsty goings-on.

And Notts has had its fair share of those, when you include Roman, Viking and Norman invasions, the beginning of the English Civil War, machine-smashing by Luddites and the burning of Nottingham Castle in the 19th century.

"You've got to give children that 'wow' factor and a sense of amazement," says Michael Cox, a full-time writer whose A Grisly History of Nottinghamshire in 10 Spine-Chilling Chapters is the first children's book to be published by Nottinghamshire Archives.

His text is complemented by cartoons by Clive Goddard, whose work can usually be seen in magazines such as Private Eye and New Statesman.

The other book, A Children's History of Nottinghamshire, is by Ian Douglas, who writes children's fiction when he's not working part-time in social care.

Ian's book is in a bigger format and, unlike Michael Cox's book, uses full colour throughout.

It also takes a more serious tone which perhaps reflects the fact that the publisher, Hometown World, wants the book to contribute to learning history at school.

"The publisher basically asked me to look at time periods such as the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Victorians because ideally they want the book to link up with the school curriculum," says Ian.

"I did the research two days a week for about five months and there was so much that I learned myself.

"I didn't know that Nottinghamshire was part of the Danelaw and that the Danes were here for about 40 years, living in a divided town with them on one side and the Anglo-Saxons on the other.

"It was the same when the Normans were here. Imagine if that was to happen now? It's mind-boggling."

Neither Michael nor Ian know each other and were not aware that the other's book was coming out.

Publication of both in the same month is pure coincidence.

Of the two authors (who, incidentally, wish each other good luck) Michael is the more experienced, with over 50 children's books to his credit.

A former teacher at the old Cottesmore School in Radford, he knows well what gets children interested in history and has taken great delight in using his new book to recount such strange stories as that of Kitty Hudson, the 18th century Arnold church-cleaner who swallowed pins.

Other lesser-known historical episodes in the book include the Great Cheese Riot of 1764 and the crushing to death of spectators who turned out to see the hanging of Colwick Woods murderer William Saville in 1844.

The book begins with an imagined mammoth hunt at Creswell Crags in 15,000BC and moves forward to the founding of Nottingham in the 6th century AD by that lovely Anglo-Saxon called Snotta.

Yet one character who doesn't make an appearance in Michael's book is Robin Hood – indeed, he almost didn't make it into Ian's book either.

There were two big reasons for this: first, Ian's view is that Robin Hood is a myth, not a historical character.

Secondly, he was tired of hearing about him.

But, says Ian, "the team of historical experts the publishers have to verify the facts seemed to think that Robin Hood was a real person.

"They wanted to know when was he born? When did he die? So I had to write a chapter about Robin Hood."

Where Michael Cox's book begins with woolly mammoths, Ian's starts with the Roman invasion and he devotes two pages to the long-disappeared Roman town of Margidunum near East Bridgford.

After the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons settled around the Lace Market and founded a town called Snotengaham (or, as Michael Cox's book has it, Snotta Inga Ham).

Differences aside, what the publication of both books suggests is that publishers still believe that children want to read history in those old-fashioned paper things called books, as opposed to in e-books or on Wikipedia.

"History is incredibly important," says Ian. "It gives you a sense of identity and place so you know where you're going. It's mind-blowing how people used to live."

* A Grisly History of Nottinghamshire in Ten Spine-Chilling Chapters by Michael Cox is published by Nottinghamshire Archives, £5.95.

* A Children's History of Nottinghamshire by Ian Douglas is published by Hometown World, £7.99.

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