Want to learn some history? Make a date with fiction
Never mind history books, it’s period literature and poetry that most vividly take you back in time
Forget the Booker longlist: as I get older, I find myself, more and more often, wanting to escape the 21st-century mindset and take refuge in history.
Contrarily enough, however, I find I’m reading fewer works by professional historians. We are lucky enough to have innumerable historians writing today, with great style and wit, yet I can’t shake off the feeling that they get in the way of the past. It’s not just that historians have their own prejudices and agendas. Reading a work of history can often feel like being taken round an art gallery by an unquenchably eager cicerone: yes, he or she may be hugely better-informed than I am, but sometimes I just want to form my own opinion about an artwork, make my own connection with it. And the literary equivalent is to turn to what scholars call primary sources — the fiction and poetry of past centuries.
Of course, I can spend many happy hours devouring a first-class work of history such David Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem, with its trolley-dash approach of bunging in as much detail as possible resulting in an unforgettable collage of post-war Britain. But if I really want a visceral sense of what it felt like to be alive in the 1950s — to feel that grey decade get into my bones like a chill — I’ll pick up Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and live vicariously through their downtrodden heroes, Jim Dixon and Jake Donaghue...