The Dangerous Book of Heroes by Conn and David Iggulden HarperCollins, 496pp, £20 Review by DAVID SEXTON
THREE YEARS AGO, THE IGGULDEN brothers made a decisive intervention in British publishing. They came up with The Dangerous Book for Boys, a retro-packaged anthology of Boy's Own stuff and nonsense. It had sections on making catapults, building treehouses, skinning a rabbit and playing conkers, interspersed with little history lessons about famous battles and the kings and queens of England. Even more restfully, there was no mention of the modern world throughout: no mobiles, no iPods, no laptops or other such disagreeables.
Conn Iggulden was already a successful historical novelist, producing violent sagas about Julius Caesar and, more recently, Genghis Khan, appealing strongly to readers who prefer swords to thinking. But in devising The Dangerous Book for Boys, he brilliantly realised that you could set men off daydreaming about the kind of adventures they would have liked to have had as boys even more simply by presenting them with a book of cod instructions and not bothering with a plot.
Perhaps the best section was the very short one on girls. "If you see a girl in need of help – unable to lift something, for example – do not taunt her. Approach the object and greet her with a cheerful smile, while surreptitiously testing the weight of the object. If you find you can lift it, go ahead. If you can't, try sitting on it and engaging her in conversation." It is all that any man or boy needs to know, indeed can ever hope to know, on this most difficult of dilemmas.
The DBfB quickly sold half a million and was soon much imitated by other publishers. Some of them simply printed photocopies of old, out-of-print boys' books. Many irrelevantly adopted the nostalgic packaging for half their list. One even presented us with The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, having sadly forgotten that girls are not boys. For their part, the Igguldens themselves put their names to endless spin-offs, including pocket editions and yearbooks. Here, though, is their first attempt at a real follow-up, expanding on the history lessons in the DBfB – Nelson, Douglas Bader, Rorke's Drift, all that.
Written in simple, assertive language, and illustrated with kiddy-book line-drawings, these sketches preach a form of history that is now otherwise largely extinct, saying Britain is best and it is brave individuals who shape the course of history. We begin with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, end with The Unknown Warrior, and en route meet Lawrence of Arabia, Clive, Rhodes, Wolfe, Scott of the Antarctic, the Few, the Gurkhas, the Men of Colditz, Winston Churchill, Hereward the Wake, Henry Morgan, etc
Brave themselves, the Igguldens have grasped the nettle and included some women too, if a slightly odd selection. There is Florence Nightingale, of course; Edith Cavell; the Women of SOE; the true heroine Lisa Potts; Gertrude Bell, who drew the map of Iraq though it hasn't turned out too well; and, lastly, perhaps a little wildly, Aphra Behn, who courageously wrote plays and novels.
Our authors are not shy of drawing a moral. The Japanese were so inhumane to prisoners of war partly because they believed no soldier should surrender alive. "However, when Emperor Hirohito surrendered Japan on 15 August 1945, he absolved his soldiers, sailors, airmen and himself from the obligation of ritual suicide. You can't have it both ways," the Igguldens tell him, fearlessly.
Having gleefully described the bloody career of Henry Morgan, they conclude: "He was without doubt a ruthless devil when he needed to be. However, it is worth pointing out that empires are never built by vicars. They are built by men like Henry Morgan." Yah boo sucks to vicars.
And perhaps a little sweepingly, even by their own broad standards, they say at one point: "The history of the last 500 years can be summarised in just a pair of sentences: the nations of Europe exploded outwards into the world, claiming territories as their own. One by one, they came into conflict with Britain, were beaten and sent home again."
Easy to remember, anyway. We're the top dogs, after all, despite recent setbacks. As they rather worryingly put it in their envoi, "we can know that in our history is the blood of greatness". The only question remaining is: to what age of reader is this book pitched? Surely, for pity's sake, not adults? But then the Igguldens affirm that their book is needed as inspiration because "in this day and age, it is all too easy to become mired in paying the mortgage, being promoted, filling the hours with hobbies and anything else we can find".
Paying the mortgage! So they really think not merely that all men remain boys forever but that they are boys at best.
The most dedicated misandrist could not ask for more.