BOOKS FOR CHILDREN: TRICKY SUBJECTS

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The Independent Culture
!A Very Peculiar History (Watts £7.99). This fact-packed series seeks to answer all those embarrassing but fascinating questions about people in the past: But where did they go to the toilet? Didn't they have baths? What was their underwear like? The first four books in the series are lively pictorial guides to Vanity; Underwear; Keeping Clean, and Mummies, the latter a fascinating if gruesome low-down on burial practices through the ages. Keeping Clean is mostly about toilets. The Vikings, we learn, wiped their bottoms with oyster shells - no wonder they went berserk so regularly! The French created the Velo-Douche, a shower that worked by pedal power, so you could exercise as you washed. There are lots of jolly pictures of medieval peasants pulling down their hose at the garderobe, and Romans chatting away on the communal loo. In 1183, the floor in the Great Hall at Erfurt Castle collapsed, precipitating the German emperor and his knights into the cesspit where many drowned. Underwear, with its chapter headings "Farthingales and Bum Rolls" and "Parachutes and Passionkillers" is no less entertaining. Anyone who thinks we're terrifically naughty now will have their eyes opened. Drawers were considered immodest in the 17th century, and at the close of the 18th, most fashionable women wore loose, practically see-through clothing with only a thin slip to preserve their modesty. Via bloomers, corsets and cami-knicks, we arrive at the bra: an American deb, Caresse Crosby, made the first really natural-looking one out of two hankies and some baby ribbon. Vanity is a whirlwind tour round human folly and usefully emphasises that today's adulation of the skinny frame is just one more whim of fashion.

!Ireland: A Graphic History by Morgan Llywelyn and Michael Scott, illus Eoin Coveney (Element £9.99) sets the Troubles in a historical context, with a portentous framing device of a teenage boy and girl injured in a Belfast bomb blast and flashbacks through Irish history. Two Stone Age lovers are condemned to walk the earth until there is peace in Ireland; they intersect with key points in history and encounter such great figures as Saint Patrick and Oliver Cromwell. Finally, their hands touch in hospital over a paper bearing news of the ceasefire. The action is split up into assimilable chunks and a sad tale it is, with betrayals, cruelty, brutal repression and wave upon wave of external violence. The writers steer clear of the Troubles themselves as over-muddied ground, and instead sweep over 6,000 years of history in fairly even-handed fashion, though with a definite bias towards a united Ireland as a fitting ending. Accessible and thought-provoking, it makes a gripping adventure story even for those with no interest in the politics.

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