TWO THOUSAND YEARS OF BRITISH LIFE
By Muriel V Searle
Muriel V Searle worked in Publications Division, Atlantic House, and was a frequent contributor to SO Review. In June 1977 she produced the following review of a book written by Plantagenet Somerset Fry, then HMSO's first Editor of Books, Publications Division.
What would most interestReview readers about one of the latest publications written by HMSO's own Editor: the book or the man? That was the question confronting me when asked, as a fellow author, to comment upon Two Thousand Years of British Life (Collins, £4.95) by Plantagenet Somerset Fry, to quote the full tongue twister identifying one of the more approachable among HMSO gods.
In practice, of course, the question answered itself since, to translate a classic French literary saying, 'Style is the man himself'. A book is an inseparable part of its author.
Writers of adult non-fiction books often turn to books for young people for the basic facts on which to hang more complex work, because juvenile books of top value best demonstrate the most useful qualities for reference tools, often absent in complicated reference volumes: utter precision of factual presentation, and complete clarity unclouded by literary play of words. These are the very qualities striking one first on scanning this new Somerset Fry book, which theoretically is for the young but in practise is good reading for children up to the age of eighty. In such topics as the Industrial Revolution and General Strike, for instance, nothing of major importance is omitted, but nothing of only secondary interest is added to obscure the outline. We thus clearly see not only how the event happened, but why.
I have deliberately taken the Industrial Revolution and General Strike as examples of the book's scope, because this is a human history played against the background of national events but primarily concerned with ordinary people, how they lived, worked and built while history was being made by their kings, and how events affected them. Thus Somerset Fry looks not only at battlefields but at such diverse subjects as monasteries, the introduction of tobacco, and the growth of education, as well as the building of defensive castles.
This is therefore a book for those who always hated history for its dry dates, politics and royal family trees, because it looks closest at believable ordinary folk living everyday lives; how they travelled, traded and ate, what they wore, how Scotsmen and Welshmen lived, as well as Englishmen.
Why select this particular book for review here, from among 24 others by the same author? Not only because it is new, or good value at some 250 pages and 300 illustrations, but because it also typifies the author's preoccupation in general with making British history digestible instead of serving it up as indigestible scholarly porridge.
Why Plantagenet, and why Somerset? These are the first questions striking the average HMSO denizen on encountering our Editor. A childhood nickname explains Plantagenet, derived from the interesting fact that he is descended, over many generations, from King Edward III; a convenient nickname indeed, which he naturally exploited on becoming a writer on English history. Somerset derives from his branch of a family which inhabited that county for generations, though ironically he is only male descendant not actually born in that county; whilst the surname Fry denotes a long ancestry whose collateral branches include the mouth-watering Bristol chocolateFrys, the reformer Elizabeth Fry, and the interlinked Gurneys of Norfolk, a famous philanthropic family whose Victorian heyday led W S Gilbert to coin the expression, 'as rich as the Gurneys'. Among these distant forebears is one of local Atlantic House interest; Samuel Gurney, initiator of public drinking fountains for cholera-ridden London, whose first fountain still survives just down the road in the churchyard wall opposite the Old Bailey.
Readable and popular history has remained Somerset Fry's chief subject from his first book, published while he was still an Oxford undergraduate, to the disgust of certain history dons whose resentment that a student should thus earn hard cash led him, to avoid conflict, to turn temporarily to law.
The turning point as an author came in 1955 when he won the first of the subsequently long-running TV series, Double Your Money (he later became to only person to win it twice), the attendant publicity inspiring several publishers to commission books. It was not the end of a career, but a useful beginning.
He now has about 24 books to his credit (one loses exact count with such a prolific author), mostly for children, including a best-selling History of the World in one giant volume, the only one of its kind written expressly for juveniles; the first full length biography of Caesar for children; books on antiques and antique furniture; and 'HMSO's forthcoming History of Chequers. Happily the list included all the books he wanted to do from the first, notably Caesar and A Thousand Great Lives. Altogether Somerset Fry has sold nearly a million copies, no mean achievement for any writer. He is, however, quick to acknowledge that the saddest fact of authorship applies to himself; that few can live by the pen alone; his three top sellers, running into several editions, were all sold in what he calls his greener days for lump sums, ensuring continued sales for their publishers but no royalties for their author.
Mr Fry migrated to HMSO after, apart from one short break, about eight years' Civil Service experience, notably with the then Ministry of Public Building and Works, where he was Editor of unpriced publications, and later Head of Information, responsible among other things for publications of the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, an off-shoot of DOE. He now combines his editorial post in HMSO with constant spare time work as an author, which naturally complements his official activities.
In 1980, after five years as HMSO's Editor of Books, Peter Somerset Fry left to concentrate on full-time writing. He also became a Senior Member at Wolfson College, Cambridge. He died by his own hand, in September 1996 aged 65, on being diagnosed with cancer. He was survived by his wife Fiona Whitcombe. His papers are held at the University of Reading..