Gripping Yarns by the Sea
Two recent eBooks by David E.P. Dennis: Mysteries of Sussex and Notes and Queries.
Review by Nick Pelling
There is a view that British History is a sort of pleasant pageant of the mind in which a procession of heroes, villains and eccentrics wander along the corridors of our imagination in order to amuse us. And then there is hairshirt History in which we read of crimes for which we must accept some distant responsibility and endlessly lash ourselves for inheriting such a past.
It is a curious division in some ways between historical optimists and pessimists. David Dennis, the author of the two eBooks under review, is an optimist; a collector of all the wonderful tales and factual baubles that the sunny Sussex past has to offer.
Both covers were designed by David E.P. Dennis
For those who don’t like too much guilt with their past, these two books are marvellously entertaining and endlessly diverting. Both books adopt a broadly chronological approach to Sussex History and offer up a fascinating series of vignettes of the county’s extraordinary past. Indeed, the sheer historical range of these books is astounding.
We are led from ancient Britons grovelling around with Sussex flint through to the extraordinary tale of the American WW2 bomber (nicknamed ‘Unstable Mabel’) which crash landed into Bulverhythe sports pavilion in 1943. And along the way we stop at Saxon and Norman invasions in which poor old Pevensey seems to be regularly pillaged. Each chapter is full of little details that leave you wanting to know more. Just why did St Cuthmann of Steyning spend years pushing his paralysed mother around in a wheelbarrow? Dennis has the answer.
The chapter on the Battle of Hastings is quite brilliant in putting forward the unsettling view that this landmark event in English history has very few reliable facts. The archaeological record of a supposed mass battle is virtually non-existent. This may be because historians can’t agree on where it happened.
Nor do we really know where the Norman fleet landed. Pevensey may not even have been pillaged. And apparently, we cannot be absolutely sure that Harold actually died on the battlefield. The certainties dissolve in what Dennis aptly calls “the cloud of unknowing”. But a shortage of facts does not prove an obstacle: Dennis loves to take readers down speculative paths.
Each chapter is full of little details that leave you wanting to know more
Dennis also shows that Sussex, for all its quirkiness, has always been open to bohemian spirits, particularly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. William Blake, for example, stayed for three years at Felpham and, just possibly, he may even have seen Christ near Bognor Regis. Certainly, it seems likely that Blake first asked himself that question about Christ’s feet in Felpham. The question that gave rise to his spiritual vision of England’s green and pleasant land. Blake was doubtless dreaming of the Downs.
As Dennis shows, romanticism flourishes in the Sussex sea air. JMW Turner, for example, produced several swirling seascapes hunched over his easel on the windswept foreshore at Hastings.
Mr Dennis, however, has unintentionally stirred up a recent controversy on the subject of Turner, because the painter enjoyed the patronage of one Mad Jack Fuller. Dennis’s work clearly relishes the tale of the life of
Mad Jack, the fiery, drunken philanthropist. But the current controversy stems from the fact that the Fuller family acquired much of its wealth from its ownership of slaves on the plantations in Jamaica and, indeed, Mad Jack spoke against the abolition of slavery in parliament.
Nevertheless, Dennis still wants to see Fuller, above all, as an important patron. Not surprisingly, many feel that the ugly fact of wealth drawn from a racist system of forced labour is possibly the most important point about Fuller and that this cannot be seen as a minor blemish on a jaunty life.
A recent edition of this paper even carried a letter from a representative of the Sussex Stand Up to Racism group who argued that the picture of Fuller painted by Dennis was merely perpetuating the “airbrushed myth” of Mad Jack as just a larger-than-life British eccentric, fond of booze and follies rather than a racist exploiter.
This is a little unfair on Dennis. The book Mysteries of Sussex contains a specific chapter on Fuller which acknowledges the source of the family wealth and even adds that more questionable cash rolled in from their armaments business. Dennis clearly admits that the Fuller fund was “tainted” with blood money. The problem is, perhaps, that he still tries to make the case for Fuller as an unsung national hero, and for many this will be unacceptable and maybe even enraging. Historical optimists can be strangely vexing, but readers will have to decide for themselves.
However one takes one’s History, it is evident that Dennis is a brilliant exponent of a certain brand of the past as a source of boyish amazement. And that is in many ways the strength of these books. Dennis himself is clearly something of a Renaissance Man.
He is not only an historian but also a linguist, a poet, a photographer, a conservationist, an antiquarian and even an ex-member of a mountain rescue team. Above all, he is a man who has never lost his sense of curiosity, and these books are an absolute testament to that quality. As he said, “There is enough wonder in Sussex to last a lifetime.”
• These eBooks are available at a number of online sites including Apple and Kobo.
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