I am just back from visiting my mother in New Zealand. I would say I was revitalised and totally ready for the Christmas rush (hand me that tinsel) but, although I had a fabulous time, two round the world flights and a fortnight with the siblings can leave one feeling slightly less than refreshed. Why is it that the minute you are in a room with a brother, you revert to personality traits you thought you had left behind when you turned six?
The trip itself was especially tedious. Due to a mixture of parsimony and poor scheduling I was compelled to use a particularly circuitous route (three stops and long layovers). During those sky bound hours I did get an opportunity to catch up on my reading, and to look for some gift ideas guaranteed to bring Christmas cheer to shoppers at The National Archives.
First up, there are some absolutely beautiful big ticket items for your nearest and dearest. Buy the best for those who truly deserve. Maps are always fascinating and in Map: Exploring the World Phaidon has put together a collection of over 300 maps from the very beginning of cartography up to contemporary digital mapping. Phaidon are known for their art books, and the quality of illustration makes this a desirable, beautiful to behold item. The Mapmakers’ World is another such book, a richly illustrated cultural history of European maps of the world. Medieval maps are just amazing, so much more than a guide from A to B: they tell a story in themselves.
They are a little expensive, but remember you get what you pay for. Hold this thought when doing your shopping, and think about what has gone into the presents you buy. Take a book. Someone has devoted hours and hours, in some cases years, to researching and writing this tome. The paper is thick and creamy, the illustrations carefully sourced and richly coloured. It has been printed, dispatched to the shop, displayed and advertised – and if you talk to the bookseller they will draw on their experience to help you find the perfect match for your friend or relation. That’s surely worth a little extra cost!
For the military historian, 2015’s juggernaut of anniversaries has provided plenty of great choices. There are some great books on Waterloo and Agincourt, and an abundance of riches exploring the First World War. Victoria Cross Heroes and Men of the Battle of Britain stand out. What is special about these books is they remind the reader that war is about individuals. A tremendous amount of effort has gone in to providing biographies – and in most cases, pictures – of the men who were awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War, and of the airmen who participated in the Battle of Britain. If you know someone researching either period, these would be an invaluable resource. Even better, if you know someone whose ancestor might be listed this would be a very special present indeed.
There are also some quirky and fun things. I would love to receive a copy of Dearest Margherita, a story told through postcards – literally (OK, I admit it, I couldn’t wait and bought one myself). In 1900 Margarita eloped with a dashing gold prospector in defiance of family opposition, and her story is revealed in a little insert and in reproductions of the postcards she treasured her whole life long. This is a not a book, it is a box of postcards. You can send them on (the backs are blank and the pictures charming) or try to decipher the messages on the front (they are not all in English). Each one reveals a little more. It is like dipping into another person’s life: delicious, fascinating and with the slight frisson of reading someone else’s mail.
Spin forward half a century and A Notable Woman contains excepts from the diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt – beautiful, humorous and candid ‘Dear Diary’ entries of someone who so could have been a friend. You never had the opportunity to meet her, but you can get close through reading her words.
Finally, don’t neglect the diaries and calendars in the bookshop – always a fail-safe fallback for those difficult to buy Christmas presents for. My favourite this year is the British Library’s Alice in Wonderland Diary (in either desk or pocket format), handy little hardbacks with such pretty illustrations, brought out to mark the 150th anniversary of this much-loved childhood favourite. Or if your giftee (is that a word?) is of a more martial frame of mind, then check out Osprey’s Military History Calendar.
Do start thinking Christmas now – you will thank me for it. A list made today is time saved for eggnog in December.