Hilaire Belloc

Growing up in Sussex, I was aware of the name Hilaire Belloc from a young age, although I don't remember actually reading any of his books. I think I would remember if I'd read his Cautionary Tales for Children which included such fun-sounding titles as Rebecca: Who Slammed Doors For Fun, And Perished Miserably and Matilda: Who Told Lies, And Was Burned To Death.

Page from The Stane Street
Fast forward a few decades and I came across a copy of his 1913 The Stane Street, a detailed and illustrated book on the Roman Road which ran between London and Chichester.

Starting with a general description of Roman Roads in Britain, he moves on to more specific information about the Stane Street and ends with a detailed description of the journey from Chichester to London.

In different hands this could have been a very dull text book. However, Belloc has a very easy style that draws the reader in. Full of facts and information, there is never any doubt in the reader's mind that the book is accurate and authoritative.

Belloc was clearly very interested in local topography, having written several other books on the subject. But perhaps one of the best doesn't mention him by name at all.

Several years ago, Lindsey gave me a copy of A&C Black's Sussex, one of the publisher's '20 shillings' series of lavishly illustrated county guide books dating from 1907. Uniquely in the series, the book makes no mention of the author, simply titled Sussex, Painted by Wilfred Ball.

I thought little more about this until I discovered that the author was, in fact, Belloc. It seems he was particularly hard up and wrote the text for what he regarded as a rather down-market book - but on the strict condition that he was never named in the book.
The Market Cross, Alfriston, from A&C Black's Sussex
When Belloc took on the job, the A&C Black series was quite new and he probably never imagined that the attractive books would become so collectable thanks to their combination of well-written text and beautiful, full-colour illustrations.

We're still finding long-forgotten books which have surfaced as a result of moving house. So I was pleased to come across his posthumously published Advice on Wine, Food and Other Matters. The original manuscript was a wedding present to a friend and Harvill Press published it as a thin volume in 1960.

It includes advice for the newly-weds on food, wine, coffee and other domestic matters, all delivered in his unmistakable direct, non-nonsense style.
In all ordinary cases decanting wine is a folly. It looks genteel and makes the wine less good. That does not apply to the heavy wines like Madeira, or Muscatel, but it is most true of Claret and even Burgundy.

However, if you have to - or choose to - decant wine, at least use the right kind of silver funnel such as was used by our fathers.

Three very different books, all written in his familiar style: matter-of-fact, authoritative and expressing absolutely no self-doubt. Little wonder, therefore, that he was a controversial figure who came in for some criticism during his lifetime.