There is not, sadly, a dedicated Trivia Books section in your local Waterstones, although at this time of year there really should be. But what would we call it? Trivia sounds too trivial. Loo Books sounds too lavatorial. Books for the Man or Woman who Has Everything, Except this Book is probably closest, but might need editing. Whatever we decide to call them, there is an unusually fine crop this year, and several are historically inclined. Gimson’s Kings and Queens (Square Peg, £10.99) is subtitled Brief Lives of the Monarchs since 1066, and gives us exactly that, in Andrew Gimson’s characteristically elegant and entertaining prose. ‘There are many admirable biographies of individual monarchs. But I do not know of a recent, readable volume which covers them all in under 250 pages.’
This is the stuff of history lessons long ago, and long forgotten by most of us. But did I ever know that the King of France gave Henry III an elephant, which lived in the Tower of London and died in 1257, ‘apparently after drinking too much red wine’? George I came to London without a wife, but with two mistresses and 18 cooks. According to Lord Chesterfield, ‘No woman came amiss to him, if she were only very willing and very fat.’ Edward I ‘had a sense of justice, but not of any very modern kind. In 1303, his treasury at Westminster was broken into and all the Crown Jewels were stolen. The thieves were caught and their skins were nailed to the treasury door.’ This is essentially Horrible Histories for grown-ups, splendidly enhanced by Martin Rowson’s typically scabrous portraits.
Reel History: The World according to the Movies (Atlantic, £12.99) collects Alex von Tunzelmann’s Guardian columns about historical accuracy in mainstream cinema. Each week she takes a different film and gives it a good going over. Elizabeth (with Cate Blanchett) gets an A for entertainment and an E for history. In Mel Gibson’s mad, anti-Semitic The Passion of the Christ, Jesus, being a carpenter, is building a dining table. ‘This will never catch on,’ says Mary. ‘Right,’ says Alex, ‘so Jesus isn’t just building a dining table; he has invented the dining table.’ Braveheart is ‘historically speaking, one of the daftest films ever made’ and ‘serves up a great big steaming haggis of lies’.
Her book, chronological in structure, starts with One Million Years BC (entertainment D; history Fail, not least because dinosaurs had died off 64 million years earlier) and ends with The Fifth Estate, that very dull film about Julian Assange, in which ‘the significant action... boils down to a few keystrokes on a laptop’. Just occasionally she overdoes the snark, but in the main she is fair-minded, eagle-eyed and great fun.
Robert Newman’s The Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution (Freight Books, £11.99) is a real oddity. Newman is a comedian, best known for his partnership with David Baddiel in the 1990s, who has lived a quieter life since, mainly writing novels. This book is based on a stand-up show that mutated into a Radio 4 series, and seeks to do two things: express wonderment at the wild multiplicity of the living world, and rescue evolutionary theory from ideologically inclined neo-Darwinists, ‘who for the past 40-odd years have told us that a more or less ruthless duplicity lies behind all human behaviour’. More serious than many comedians, and a subtler thinker than much of his audience, Newman can get carried away by the righteousness of his rage, but this is a fascinating and highly original book, the sort you pick up idly and then discover that two hours have gone by.
Nick Middleton’s An Atlas of Countries that Don’t Exist (Macmillan, £20) is another with a usefully explanatory subtitle: A Compendium of Fifty Unrecognised and Largely Unnoticed States. These are countries that would dearly love to exist but haven’t been allowed to: they ‘inhabit a world of shifting borders, visionary leaders and forgotten peoples’. So Tibet is here, along with Northern Cyprus, the Crimea and the Isle of Man, so legendary as a tax haven you are liable to forget it’s a real place. But there are others here you won’t have heard of, with strange and in many cases rather sad histories, of control by others, of failed independence movements and occasionally vast death tolls. This is geopolitics at its messiest and most human, and makes you feel relieved to be living somewhere else.
Finally, David Long’s Lost Britain (Michael O’Mara, £9.99) is a quietly beguiling A-Z of forgotten landmarks and lost traditions. ‘Over time,’ he writes, ‘priceless treasures have gone missing, exceptional constructions have been torn down, potentially world-changing technologies have been quietly killed off and entire villages have vanished.’ The last condemned cell in a British prison (at Wandsworth) is now a television lounge for prison guards. There are traces of a chariot racing track underneath Colchester: at five metres tall, 400 metres long and 69 metres wide, it may well have been the largest Roman building in the country after Hadrian’s Wall. King John’s treasure, according to legend, disappeared into the oozing slime of the Fens, and lunatics are still looking for it. If they found it, of course, it would only be a disappointment. Far better to read about it instead, in the warmth of your own home, idly dreaming of doubloons that are gone for ever.