"To start this Rhyming History,
I've chosen 55 B.C.
The Romans, who had got their hands
On all the European lands,
Could see this last annoying bit,
And thought they ought to conquer it..."
Thus begins A Rhyming History of Britain: 55 B.C.--A.D. 1966, one of the more original non-fiction historical literary concepts of the decade. James Muirden, its author, is self-admittedly not a poet by nature. In lieu, he introduces the book with various memories of his childhood days in the boarding house which his parents ran. Many characters passed through over the years, but one that stood out particularly in Muirden's mind was that of the architect Roderick Gradidge, whose enthusiastic readings of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses soon became ingrained in the boy's mind. Of course, the stanzas themselves mentally cycled on as Muirden grew, and eventually became the poetic form Muirden would decide to use when, for whatever reason of his own, he decided to write a history of the United Kingdom in couplet form.
Additionally, Muirden is no historian--although a prolific writer, his works predating this one have mostly been limited to astronomy and film. Yet he still manages to fill both this role and that of the bard surprisingly well.
In 12-line stanzas, with rhyming iambic tetrameter, Muirden takes everything British from the aforementioned Roman invasion to Kennedy's assassination (hey, it was an earth-shattering event) and condenses it into approximately 3500 lines. In keeping with the spirit of Belloc's verses, Muirden imbues the poem, whenever possible, with an air of gaiety, and more than the fair amount of wit. To wit, note the following exchange in the poem, spoken between King Henry IV and his son:
"'Don't worry, Pop,' young Henry said:
I'll have a ball till you drop dead,
But once they've given me the crown,
I guarantee I'll settle down!'
(To read the verbal transcript, see
Henry IV Part I, Act III.)"
Of course, this is only aided by the illustrations of David Eccles, which sometimes take arcane tangents from the orthodox history for the sake of comedy. Picture Hadrian using a miniature crane to slot puzzle-piece-shaped bricks into his famed wall, and you'll get the sense of how, on the whole, they appear. These drawings are almost always one to two per page, constantly aiding in humor (if not quite comprehension), especially when Muirden's lines fall flat.
Which they do sometimes, for his poetic amateurism is occasionally all too apparent. The slant rhymes "-aw/-or" and silly asides just to make a line fit into place are forgivable, but there are more than a few occasions where the reader has to do some fancy tonguework to put a line in proper meter. Muirden also took the odd path of creating 'chapters' in the poem based on the royal house Britain was ruled by at the time. As a result, the 'House of Hanover' section is 36 pages long, while the 'House of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha' chapter immediately following is one-ninth its length--and let's not even get into Oliver Cromwell...
These incidents aside, Muirden does a rollicking job with the work's rhyming nature and packs a huge amount of information into the verses. For his more obscure allusions or weaker references, he has the margins filled with annotations a-plenty, particularly with dates and coronations of new kings. ('Twould be a lovely poem to node, by its very nature... but I digress.) And for posterity, Muirden includes at the end a chart with the entire lineage of all the English and Scottish Kings--and, of course, some rhyming mnemonics for each.
This is a book that was obviously geared towards Britons and heavy Anglophiles; I came across a reference to the M2 (the roadway, I'm assuming) barely a page into it, and the poem itself actually ends with a (supposedly quite famous) quote pertaining to England's victory in the 1966 World Cup. Of course, there's no problem with the typical American reading it, in terms of transculturation; I first heard about the book on an NPR interview, so the publishers must have thought it possible for the book to succeed on either side of the pond.
It's a recent release, so it shouldn't be too hard to find. In short, anybody with a want to quickly fill their head with the history of England, or any person wishing to brush up on what they slept through in some class years (though hopefully not weeks) ago, would likely find this a short, yet entertaining read.
Muirden, James. A Rhyming History of Britain: 55 B.C.-A.D. 1966. New York: Walker and Company, 2003. 213 pages.
I'm also fairly certain that my brief quotations from the book fall under fair use; if anybody better versed in such matters feels that I am mistaken, please let me know at the first opportunity.