Connecting at Waterloo – Gordon Corrigan’s New History

waterlooThis post is not so much a book review as a thank you to Alison at Atlantic books.  When the last Atlantic books catalogue came out there was, as ever, several titles that interested me. I’m gradually learning not to gorge myself on the titles offered in these glossy brochures of temptation, because I just end up feeling guilty about the pile of unread books stacked on the shelves. One book that did catch eye, though I knew I’d never read it, was Gordon Corrigan’s Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and its Armies. I wouldn’t read it; my dad however would love it.

Those of you who read regularly will know that my Dad suffers from Parkinson’s. This is a great source of sadness in my life, and the posts about it aren’t particularly cheery. All through my life Dad has spent his spare time, either in the garden or surrounded by toppling piles of history books about Wellington, Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo. He is an amateur historian, but he loves it. I figured he’d love this book, but there was a problem. Dad’s Parkinson’s makes it very difficult for him to read. When he’s off, and forced to sit in a chair, he can’t hold a book or turn the pages (or even operate a touch screen).  When he’s able to move, the last thing he wants to do is sit in chair.

My passion for books (and maps) comes from my Dad. His reading of the Hobbit to me as child engendered a love of fantasy. He helped me cross the traverse between solo gamebooks and roleplaying games, by patiently reading Jackson and Livingstone’s ‘Fighting Fantasy‘ to me. I used to spend hours with him as child pouring over the almost fantastical maps of ‘Muir’s Historical Atlas‘, a book I love looking at even now.

Once I’d grown up, for Christmas and birthdays, it became a challenge to find a book that would interest my dad; usually military history, hopefully on some aspect of the Napoleonic Wars he wasn’t fully conversant with. Then, about seven or eight years ago, I noticed he didn’t read them any more. Even now I find myself thinking, ‘Dad would like that’ but there’s almost no point in buying it for him. It will sit unread.

This cut out a great shared experience. For as long as I remember we’ve talked about books, bonded over them. Whether it be an Ian Rankin, a historical novel, or military history tome, we’ve talked about books. Even when it was just him indulging me by listening to my teenage-self bang on about the latest plans for my Warhammer Army. Parkinson’s, that bastard of an illness, steals the person away gradually; so slowly you almost don’t notice it. The theft of conversation is its most insidious trick of all.

Nevertheless, I asked Alison whether she would mind sending me a copy. I explained to her that I’d probably never review it, that it was for my dad and he’d quite possibly never read it. Despite this she was kind enough to send me a copy. It arrived around father’s day, and I sent it to him with a card and he thanked me for it, and then, I guess I sort of forgot about it…

At the end of July dad moved down here for the summer. Some temporary respite for my mum, he took up residence in care home around the corner from us, which is great because we can see him regularly and he can enjoy his three grandchildren without them driving him crackers and exhausting him.

I noticed he’d brought his Waterloo book with him.

‘Are you reading this?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’ he said, ‘It’s good. So good, I actually want to finish it.’

It’s hard to sum up what high praise this is. Gradually, over the summer, dad worked his way through the book. To maintain his interest despite the difficulty of reading, makes it a rare book indeed. Better still it rekindled conversation. It’s not only that talking is physically difficult for dad. His frame of reference has shrunk so much in the recent years, it’s hard to sustain conversation when you see him everyday. There’s only so much we can talk about football. The book reignited his passion for all things Napoleonic and he talked animatedly about it.

I’m not an expert in this area at all but this is what he thought of the book.

Dad liked the narrative style. It overlooks the battle as whole, and not just from one side or point of view. It’s authoritative; whilst it takes an omniscient view of the battle, the available evidence is interpreted in one way only. Other interpretations are available but they are not offered here.  This clearly might not be to everyone’s liking but it met with dad’s approval.

There is lots of background information and it’s covered well. The battle itself doesn’t start until after halfway through the book. This is unusual, and contained some information that dad hadn’t heard before. There are details about Napoleon becoming emperor placed in context of the French revolution. There is lots of stuff about the preliminaries before the conflict; more of the book isn’t about Waterloo than is. Of the stuff that is about Waterloo, dad didn’t find anything he thought was wrong, greatly adding the book’s authority. The subject of  the latter part of the book, the battle itself, has been extensively written about elsewhere, so there are less revelations. In short the first half of the book is excellent and enlightening, the latter half is solid and well explained, if unremarkable.

Gordon Corrigan’s interpretation of Waterloo, met with dad’s approval and has spurred several father and son conversations, which has greatly improved my understanding of the period. It’s enabled dad and I to talk about something that goes beyond ‘how are you feeling today?’ and for that I am eternally grateful to Gordon for writing his book and Alison for sending me a copy. Last night dad I were discussing the aftermath of Waterloo, whilst I used my phone to check facts on Wikipedia (well hopefully they were facts). 21st century bonding stemming from a 15th century innovation, discussing 19th century history. Parkinson’s may be shit, but the world can be an amazing place.

Many thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me this book. May the sun shine upon her always! 

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