For this British History edition of Love British Lifestyle, editor Megan Thomas chatted to British author Mike Biles about his book, A Bit About Britain's History: From a long time ago until quite recently, and more.
His book, based on his blog A Bit About Britain, has grown into much more than a personal project: it's an authoritative portal into Britain's history and heritage.
Britain's history is vast. How did you go about selecting which events to feature in your book, A Bit About Britain's History?
Of course, you have to be highly selective when compiling a book like this. My starting point was to provide a logical framework with defined periods for Britain’s story, from prehistory to modern times. I then developed articles from those periods and what seemed to me the most obvious events that shaped the Britain of today. I think they leave a trail that needs to be followed.
What is your background in history?
I caught history from stories that my dad told me at an early age, and have loved it ever since. History is obviously what makes us who we are. I was fairly good at it at school, studied it at university, and actually obtained a post-graduate qualification to teach it, but (maybe foolishly) never did.
What motivated you to write a book? Share with our audience a bit about the process from idea to print.
‘A Bit About Britain’s History’ began as a series of articles for the A Bit About Britain website, to provide somehistorical context for people visiting, and exploring Britain’s physical heritage. Later, I realised there was a gap in the market for a small book aimed at a wider audience. It was also encouraging and flattering to receive comments along the lines of, “you should write a book” and “wish you’d been my history teacher.” It seemed natural to develop the articles and timelines, great fun, and a relatively short step to bring it to print.
Your book is short, but punchy. Why was it important for you to provide a "bit" of history?
Thank you; I like ‘punchy’! As you say, British history is an enormous subject. It is impossible to know it all and most of us only ever learn a tiny fraction of it – the Tudors, or WW1, or whatever - at school. It is hard – and frankly time-consuming - to get a complete picture, and to see how everything joins up. I wanted to create something that did that, briefly and in a light, accessible, way. That is, essentially, the product. Hence – it is a bit about Britain’s history, aimed at people who want an introduction to the subject, or a reminder of what they might have learned at school if only they’d been paying attention. And the title of course matches the brand of the website!
If you could travel back in time to only one moment in British history, when would it be?
The 5th century, the sub-Roman period – what is sometimes called the Dark Ages. It was one of the most important periods in our history and it fascinates me – probably because we know very little about it, but also because this was when the foundations of our modern nations began to be laid. Wouldn’t it also be amazing to see those Roman cities and villas before they all became ruins?!
If you could have a conversation with one figure in British history, who would it be, why them, and what would you chat about?
That’s a tough one. Ignoring people whose company I’d probably enjoy over a beer, for various reasons Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell, Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Castile all sprung to mind. But I think I’d settle on Alfred the Great, without whom there would be no England or English-speaking world – and arguably no Britain as we know it, either.
Alfred is the only English king to be called ‘great’ and has always intrigued me. He not only prevented his kingdom, Wessex, from falling to the Danes; he was also an excellent administrator, law maker and lover of learning. I’d like to ask him about his political vision for the unified state that became England, his views on education - and how he overcame adversity, hiding in the marshes of Athelney and bouncing back to regain his kingdom.
What do you consider to be Britain's most important contribution to the world?
Goodness – that’s another hard one! Britain has contributed so much, I think, often punching above its weight, some of it good, some of it of course not so good. It has founded cities, even entire states, and British inventors, engineers and scientists have dreamt up innovations from the steam engine to the world-wide web. I guess British culture is an outstanding contribution, particularly the written word, through the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Austen, Dickens, Walter Scott, Conan Doyle, Tolkien, Ian Fleming, JK Rowling - and so many more. British literature has become even more widely known through film and TV.
So, by extension, maybe Britain’s most important contribution is the English language? It has evolved from so many different cultures, has become an international language – and that, in turn, can also be a force for unity.
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