Fascinating Footnotes from History by Giles Milton

Japanese cannibal lovers, treacherous mountaineers, and celebrity grave-robbers, they’re all here in Giles Milton’s Fascinating Footnotes from History. From the great and the good, to the bad and the psychotic, Milton has a assembled a gripping and grotesque rogues’ gallery for our delectation.

The title makes it sound like the book will be composed of short paragraphs, but actually each section is like a short story. They often focus on either a larger-than-life character or a complete nutter. While Churchill’s enthusiasm for biological warfare may cause some raised eyebrows, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise to discover that Hitler was on a daily cocktail of powerful narcotics for much of his time in power:

[Doctor Theodor] Morell began administering cocaine to the Führer by means of eye-drops. Aware that Hitler expected to feel better after taking his drugs, he put ten times the [normal] amount of cocaine into the drops … Hitler soon began to ‘crave’ the drug. … He now began to snort powdered cocaine ‘to clear his sinuses and soothe his throat’.

Who needs Strepsils?

In his introduction, Milton wonders whether we, the readers, may one day also end up as footnotes in history. There are plenty of people who here who stumble into the limelight (and in many cases soon perish in horrible ways straight afterwards).

Even though I was familiar with a few of these stories already, the book is still a great read because Milton is such a stylish storyteller. He introduces dozens of topics, places, people and time periods and never leaves the reader scrambling to keep up.

There is also plenty of sardonic wit:

Smoking is confined to the smoking saloon, where all accessories for the smoker are at hand and where there are no restrictions.

The smoking rules for passengers aboard the Hindenburg, kept airborne by 7 million cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen gas

Fascinating Footnotes from History is the perfect book to take on a long plane journey, as long as you don’t get chucked out mid-flight by your fellow passengers, the unfortunate fate of much-loathed millionaire Alfred Loewenstein.