Book review: The Time Travel Handbook brings history to life

Voyagers can enjoy 18 trips to crucial events, to savour the sights and sounds of moments when the world pivoted on its axis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 3:38pm

The Time Travel Handbook

Wyllie, Acton and Goldblatt

Profile Books

History writer and screenwriter James Wyllie, author Johnny “Lord” Acton, and author and sports writer for The Guardian and BBC radio David Goldblatt have teamed up to produce a travel guide with a difference.

Reading The Time Travel Handbook is like being handed the keys to a DeLorean time machine; you’re invited to skip back and forth, visiting defining moments in history. There are 18 trips on the menu, organised under themes from “Cultural & Sporting Spectaculars” and “Extreme Events” to “Epic Journeys & Voyages”.

Before you set off, you’re asked to read the fine print on terms and conditions, such as respecting local dress codes, and more importantly, not messing with the space-time continuum (anyone who’s seen Back to the Future will know how that can complicate things). There’s a strict no mobiles policy, so selfies are out of the question.

You’re assigned a suitable cover for each trip: in 1275 Xanadu (Shangdu) you’ll pose as one of Marco Polo’s domestic staff, for example. On the 1942 Birth of Bebop trip in New York on the other hand, you’re a jazz loving French aristocrat (you’ll be welcomed with open arms as Paris has long been a refuge for jazzmen) and you get a VIP pass into the city’s elite nightlife.

Essential tips include what to eat and drink – or not. At The Field of the Cloth of Gold – a ceremonious meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I, kings of England and France, near Calais when it was part of England in 1520 – you’ll want to go easy on the roast swan. Wash it down with ale; water here is strictly for washing in.

Before you set off, you’re asked to read the fine print on terms and conditions, such as respecting local dress codes, and more importantly, not messing with the space-time continuum

Leaf through the handbook like a travel brochure and select the adventure that most piques your curiosity: wonder what it’s like, for example, to hang with The Beatles in Hamburg at the beginning of the 1960s, just before they became famous? You arrive to find the band washing their faces in the toilets of an adult cinema where they’re renting a back room, in the city’s dodgiest red light district (now a tourist attraction), St Pauli.

They have been contracted to play at the Indra cabaret, and deliver a clumsy set of covers. But what they lack in coherence they make up for with their energy and punk attitude; spitting, swearing and hurling abuse at the rough and ready crowd of strippers, sailors and “rock kids”. John taunts them about Hitler (many of the waiters are former Nazi thugs), while George, just 17, shouldn’t even be there.

While this book would probably fascinate young readers, not all the itineraries are family friendly. More sensitive children may be put off watching Charles I’s head roll at his 1649 execution, while at the Hamburg gig The Beatles are buzzing on over-the-counter speed and you’re encouraged take some to keep up with them. This is nothing compared to what’s on offer at the 1969 visit to Woodstock, where services are available to “talk down” bad-trip casualties.

Meticulous research gives the itineraries a cinematographic quality that successfully immerses you in the moment. Photos, maps and old postcards liven up the stories, as do humorous glimpses into the personalities of the times.

As a result, this book will entertain, delight and educate even those who don’t consider themselves history buffs. And at the same time, it’s a friendly reminder of how understanding our past can give us insight into humanity today.