Books and real people


So many bloggers write about their experiences writing fiction that I’ve begun to look long and hard at what I read.  Mostly diaries, letters, biography, autobiography and history.

Why? I’ve been asking myself. I think of a panorama of people, living and dead and what I love about these accounts of real life are the moments of humanity and truth that emerge, lighting up the character of each person, and giving me such an insight into the goodness, variety, and endless capacity for living which we humans are capable of.

Though fiction gives us these moments too, I love to see them embedded in the life of people we know in history, and to see how we have changed so much – and not changed at all.

So there’s the Venerable Bede, who introduced the terms AD and BC into our language and wrote dozens of books in ‘Englisch’ for the first time in history. This gentle, scholarly man was a foodie in the seventh century, and spiced up the basic monastery fare in remote Northumbria by using rare and expensive peppercorns. He bequeathed his little store to his fellow monks when he died…and also his handkerchiefs… another luxury in that far-off century.

And talking of food – what an intriguing insight into the character of Ulysses Grant – to read that this great soldier, who was responsible for sending hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths in the struggle between the Union and the Confederates – hated the sight of blood. All his meat was overcooked to the point of being crisp. He never went hunting, refused to attend a bull – fight held in his honour in Mexico when he was president, and was probably the first horse whisperer, a superb horseman who could do anything with any horse.

Another great general, Wellington – whose horse Copenhagen, was as famous as Robert E. Lee’s Traveller – loved dancing, and any officer on his staff had to fulfill the job description of being a good dancer. Onlookers were surprised by their frivolity and their dedicated efficiency, but between battles, these dashing young aristocrats danced their way around Vienna, Brussels and Paris, their most famous dancing date being the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. When Napoleon surprised Wellington (“Humbugged, by God!” exclaimed Wellington) many of these officers had to rush straight from the ballroom to the battle in their dancing shoes.

I read seventeenth century John Evelyn’s diaries, and his account of passing Stonehenge in a carriage, and attempting an act of vandalism, hammering at one of the huge stones, and failing to make a dent. He reaches across the centuries when his eldest son, five year old Jack died suddenly, and he wrote what so many bereaved parents feel: “Here ends the joy of my life, for which I go mourning to the grave.”

On the other hand, famous philanderer, English MP Alan Clark, shows that the hard arrogant swashbuckling man is a complex unpredictable human being, when he writes of seeing the heron who’s been poaching the fish in his moat. (He lived in a castle… doesn’t everyone?) and seizing his rifle shoots it. He describes the slow dignified ebbing of life as the beautiful creature keels over, and he weeps in horror as he feels the enormity of what he has done.

I love the story of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, who had had a dreadful carriage accident with two bolting horses. As he lay in pain in bed at home, missing all the action and excitement around the start of Lincoln’s second term, Lincoln came to visit him, on his return from Richmond. He lay down on the bed, alongside the agonised man, propped himself on one elbow, and told him all that was going on, asked his advice, and made him feel he was still an important and valuable cog in the wheels, instead of a sick bystander. The tenderness and sensitivity of the long, lanky President lying on the bed, looking into the eyes of his suffering colleague moves me deeply.

As does the picture of Isabella Burton, the famous explorer Sir Richard Burton’s wife, sitting on the dusty ground in her voluminous Victorian skirts at their house in Damascus, cradling her pet panther in her arms until he died. He’d been poisoned by a neighbour.

Yes, I love fiction, especially the oldies like George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, the inimitable Jane, and others, but it’s that feeling of recognition and empathy that I love when reading about the humanity of these ordinary, or great or historical people. Like crusty old King George V complaining about his eldest son’s suits, with turn-ups on his trousers, and Queen Victoria writing to her second son Alfie ticking him off for his smoking, putting his hands in his pockets, parting his hair in the middle, as well as his “frightful stick-ups” – high collars – they remind us that parents’ disapproval of their childrens’ clothes and habits is a long- standing tradition.

Waiting in a stuffy men’s club, I saw a book- case filled with old books. One title jumped at me – the memoirs of Count Lichnowsky. I had no idea who he was, and became entranced by his historic and vivid descriptions of being German Ambassador in England on the outbreak of World War One. He wrote of his heartbreak as he left London where he admired and respected all the statesmen there, and I read all his frantic telegrams to the Kaiser, trying to stop the immoral invasion of Belgium which triggered the conflict in France.

But best of all, I read his description of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary who spoke those immortal words on the eve of World War One: “The lights are going out all over Europe.” Sir Edward, a humble and rich man who rode a bicycle to get to and from friend’s houses – up to thirty miles away –  used to feed by hand the red squirrels who came to the window of his house in Scotland.

Tender glimpses of real people, moments of gentleness, of love and goodness… these are the reasons I love non-fiction … insights into men and women’s souls, windows into their lives… the history of the human race in these moments of truth and intimacy. And this, of course, is why blogs are such addictive reading. They give me the same connection with truth and reality.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

One of the things that I’m never without are packets of chipped or slivered almonds (not flaked). They make a difference to every dish I use them in. I toast them in a dry frying pan  and sprinkle them over cauliflower cheese, and they give it a wonderful crunch to contrast with the smooth cheese sauce and soft cauliflower. I toast them to add to raw cauliflower salad for that crunch too.

And they are wonderful in rice salad. This is the basis for a cold chicken salad, which I’ll share in the next post. The rice has peas, juicy soaked sultanas, chopped parsley- plenty – and lots of toasted almonds for the crunch factor. At the last minute, add a vinaigrette dressing and gently mix it through.

Food for Thought

“Oh King, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time which is unknown to us, it seems like the swift flight of a sparrow through the banqueting hall wherein you sit at supper in winter with your thanes and counsellors.

In the midst there is a good fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another.

While he is inside, he is safe from winter storms; but after a short space of fair weather, he vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he came. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before or what is to follow, we know nothing.

The Venerable Bede  AD 672/3 – 735   Monk, historian, teacher


Filed under books, cookery/recipes, great days, history, literature, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

61 responses to “Books and real people

  1. Brenda and Don

    Hello Valerie

    I love reading your blog – thank you. I have all these books on my bookshelf as well. I am re-reading Anne de Courcy’s book the Viceroy’s Daughters. A fascinating glimpse into a world gone by.

    Best wishes Brenda Wilkinson


  2. OneHotMess

    I simply adore your blog!! I am a die-hard foodie who can no longer stomach fiction, after a lifetime diet of it. I need to read something that tells me what matters and what doesn’t. I need to read “real,” and I can only write the same. Thank you, Valerie!


    • Thank you so much for your lovely comments. So good to hear from you, and to have your enthusiasm… when I wrote it, I thought maybe it would be boring for some people – so great to have your feed-back, connect with another fact foodie, and know we enjoy the same ‘diet”!!!


  3. Michael

    Happy Valentine’s Day Valerie !!!


  4. My father used to bribe me to read non fiction. He only had to bribe me once. Ah…the stories and narratives of the past and present are addictive….


  5. Amy

    Beautiful post, Valerie. The tenderness and sensitivity of Lincoln was so moving. I love how you describe the reasons of reading real people. Now, I know why I enjoy reading non-fiction. Thank you!


  6. Ah….to travel back in time..I so would love to do so. But until that gift is truly here I will continue to turn the pages of those from long ago. Whereupon I will realize they are so much like us now, that it makes them real. Then I realize that I have time traveled and feel luck for it.

    Excellent post!



  7. The Venerable Bede also developed a finger-counting system that could count up to…a million, I believe. Imagine that, our hands as calculators and no batteries required! xoxoM


  8. marcelino guerrero

    So I don’t wander too far, will just say indeed on “real” people. Prefer the odd reflections also, currently reading for the 3rd time the Nixon Tapes.


  9. elisaruland

    Another lovely post, this one truly inspiring me to pick up a book more often, like used to. I was especially touched by the image of Lincoln’s care and support of his Secretary of State. I know I’ll be thinking of that wonderful tidbit for a long time.


  10. Michele Seminara

    Just wonderful Valerie, such a pleasure to read.


  11. I read everything, fiction, non-fiction, politics, biographies; everything. My mood drives me. I haunt used book stores so I can replace books I love with hardbacks, better to preserve them and keep them in my library forever.

    Like you, my fascination with real people is endless. This was lovely.


  12. Non fiction is my favorite too!


  13. The study of humanity through books and first hand accounts is so fascinating. I always feel that much more full myself. Thanks, Valerie for all your passion to pass on these wonderful stories.


  14. I enjoy fiction… but the historical kind. I learn a lot that way. Ken Follett is just wonderful at the craft. Pillars of the Earth taught me a lot about medieval society, and the Fall of Giants filled in a large number of gaps in my WWI knowledge. I frequently run to look up the things I learn, fact checking and just curiosity.
    Happy Valentine’s day to you!


  15. I love your blog Valerie as you introduce me to so many writings and thoughts I have to follow through!


  16. What a wonderful collection of snapshots into the hearts and souls of people, Valerie. It reminds us that we are so much more the same than we are different and that when the trappings and fripperies of life are stripped away, we can connect with each other.

    It’s the little things that give us the most insight into the personality and you have some lovely snippets here.

    Thanks for sharing.


  17. Thank you Corinne – good to hear from you, so glad you enjoyed the peeps into other lives… It’s endlessly fascinating isn’t it


  18. And that is why I love non-fiction! So much to be learned in this short time we have with dear Mother Earth. So many stories, so many lives, so much intrigue, so much love, joy, sorrow and too much war. But even in war do we find such wonderful love stories!


  19. Wow, thank you Sharla.. I’ve perused and enjoyed, and am amazed at all your energy, not just writing your blogs but creating and orchestrating all these other activities… congratulations….


  20. Thank you for all those ‘tender glimpses’ of real lives – some of them so touching. Until recently I have read fiction but find myself more drawn to real lives. ‘Not Without My Daughter’ is one such.

    Slivered almonds! Yes! On top of all sorts of dishes from fish to chicken and I love the idea you’ve given me of putting them on top of cauliflower cheese – next time! 🙂


  21. I always thought my preference for historical literature rather than fiction reflected a lack of imagination on my part so I enjoyed reading your explanation of why you enjoy ‘real’ literature!


    • I know what you mean.. until I looked hard at this I wondered why I had no appetite for modern fiction… but history and humanity are so satisfying… just finished Ulysses Grant’s fascinating memoirs on the Civil War after a real binge on all the histories of that time


      • You’re right about history and humanity. I think I’ve a bent for history which invariably predisposes me to steer away from straight fiction. The novels I do read tend to be semi historical such as the Flashman Papers by George Macdonald Fraser or social commentaries like Dickens.


  22. We share an appreciation for non-fiction, Valerie, and it appears for a similar reason. After reading this, I feel I’ve benefitted from an English tutorial. Many, many thanks. In addition to biographies, I also download biographical movies and research them after to check the facts. Without the movie version, some stories would not have hit by my radar. (Modigliani, for example. Or Coco Chanel)

    I watched the movie “Lincoln” and I am left with such a sad sense that he was so terribly alone most of the time!


    • Interesting, Amy… people are so fascinating aren’t they?… now I must go and mug up on Modigliani… Yes, Lincoln did have a happy marriage, but their time in the White House was marred by the death of their brightest son, and then of course, you are right – the decisions he had to take made him a very lonely man… without a lot of support from his party…


  23. Helen Eisenhofer

    Hello Valerie, Thank you so much for this, agree totally. Am enjoying your blogs – best wishes, Helen


  24. There’s something very comforting about your blog. The juxtaposition of food, ponderings re the human condition, and your life in the army is unexpectedly – complete in its own way, and thus, satisfying. Your description of your plates and dishes is almost a kind of Eastern spiritual commentary: about being fully present, making a meal something beautifull and deliberate, not squandering life, and being fully aware. (I have no idea how to separate an egg, what one would grease paper WITH, nor how any flour would have found its way into my apartment. There’s something shocking about that kind of ignorance, I know…)
    BTW, I have found the plethora of African-American autobiography that has emerged throughout the past decade to be more meaningful than any other genre. I believe you would love The Beautiful Struggle, a love story to his father written by the young Te-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in the slums of Baltimore. Also, the astoundingly beautiful The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride, who grew up in the slums of Brooklyn.
    Sorry to rattle on, just one more thing: your army story is hilarious – its tone is perfect and its content more unique than you might realize. I can assure you that in the U.S., at least, your experience is a glimpse into an unknown world. It’s also Women’s History, as well as Military History. You should really send a synopsis to some New York literary agents (since it would be considered more unusual, even exotic here)
    Thank-you very much for visiting my blog, and for liking it!
    Sorry again for such a long comment.


  25. Claire Marie, Thank you so much for your wonderful comments – as you would know to receive such perceptive appreciation is such a gift. So glad you enjoyed my posts- which are written as you can tell, just as my life ambles on…
    The books you suggest sound really intriguing, and I will try to get them on the internet… they sound just the sort of books I love, real, and valuing the life we are given..
    I was very tickled that you enjoyed my little army story ( there are several other in the archives under ‘A soldiers life is terrible hard’ – a play on the old poem) They are such fun to write, sending me and everyone else up!
    It would be lovely to think that they could be of interest outside the blogging world.
    Anyway, thank you so much for your heart-warming comments, they could never be too long, warm wishes


  26. Pingback: Red Stripe Sunset « Elisa Ruland

  27. Nice to be introduced, Valerie (courtesy of Elisa). Intriguing insights you come up with, and I love almonds so maybe I’ve come to the right place!


  28. Lovely to read your post. In my younger years I was a fan of fiction but for some time now, at least a decade, I have been increasingly drawn to non-fiction. I can make my life connect to non-fiction and, unlike, fiction, it rarely has any plot holes.


  29. Pingback: Red Stripe Sunset | Elisa Ruland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s