My Week in Books: 10 February 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m reading two books:

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir, a proof copy – expected publication 5 May 2016. This is the first novel of the Six Tudor Queens series.

Blurb:

A Spanish princess. Raised to be modest, obedient and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years-old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection.

Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir has based her enthralling account of Henry VIII’s first wife on extensive research and new theories. She reveals a strong, spirited woman determined to fight for her rights and the rightful place of her daughter. A woman who believed that to be the wife of a King was her destiny.

History tells us how she died. This captivating novel shows us how she lived.

I’m also reading SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition.

Blurb:

Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. 

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us.

Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.

SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

I’ve recently finished Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane, crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders.

You can read my thoughts on this book in my previous post.

And next I’ll be reading Slade House by David Mitchell, or at least I think I’ll be reading this next. When the time comes I could fancy something completely different.

Blurb:

Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

What have you been reading this week and what have got in mind to read next?

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War by Susan Southard is an amazing, heart-wrenching book.

The facts are horrendous – on August 9th 1945, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a five-ton plutonium bomb was dropped on the small coastal town of Nagasaki. The effects were cataclysmic.

This must be one of the most devastatingly sad and depressing books I’ve read and yet also one of the most uplifting, detailing the dropping of the bomb, which killed 74,000 people and injured another 75,000. As the subtitle indicates this book is not just about the events of 9 August 1945 but it follows the lives of five of the survivors from then to the present day. And it is their accounts which make this such an emotive and uplifting book, as it shows their bravery, how they survived, and how they were eventually able to tell others about their experiences. Along with all the facts about the after effects of the bombing, the destruction, and radiation, it exposes the true horror of atomic warfare, making it an impressive and most compelling account of pain, fear, bravery and compassion.

Throughout the book the black and white photos illustrate the true horror of the effects of the bomb – photos of Nagasaki both before and after the bomb was dropped, of five survivors – Wada Kohi (aged 18 in August 1945), a street car operator; Nagano Etsuko (aged 16), who worked on a production line in a Mitsubishi airplane parts factory;  Taniguchi Sumiteru (aged 16), who worked at Minchino-o Post Office; Yoshida Katsuji (aged 13), a student at Nagasaki Prefecture Technical School on a ship building course; and Do-oh Mineko (aged 15), formerly a student at Keiho Girls High School, working at the Mitsubishi Arms Factory Onashi Plant. There are also maps showing Japan today and of Nagasaki 1945 showing the Scope of Atomic Bomb Damage.

Susan Southard’s ten years of research has resulted in this impressive book as she reveals what happened in particular to these five survivors, their immediate injuries, the radiation-related cancers and illnesses they have suffered, and their difficulties of daily living still in pain both physical and emotional.

In addition to all that Nagasaki ‘reveals the censorship that kept the suffering endured by the hibakusha [atomic bomb-affected people] hidden around the world. For years after the bombings news reports and scientific research were censored by U.S. occupation forces and the U.S. government led an efficient campaign to justify the necessity and morality of dropping the bombs’ (from the jacket sleeve).

I knew a bit about Hiroshima and Nagasaki before I read this book but it has opened my eyes to the true horror of nuclear war and the need to prevent anything like this happening again.

Many thanks to Souvenir Press Ltd for sending me a complimentary copy for review.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd (2 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0285643274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643277

Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince

I loved Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a King, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dora Jordan. It is both well researched and well written making it easy to read despite being packed with information, brilliantly bringing the late 18th and early 19th centuries to life as she tells the story of Dora and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV .  It’s based on material in the Royal Archives at Windsor; letters from Dora held at the Huntingdon Library, San Merino, California; various private family papers, letters and memorabilia, as well as numerous secondary sources from national and local libraries.  The resulting biography took her several years to complete.

Much of the information about Dora is taken from her own letters, written over 25 years, to her children and friends and many hundreds of those to the Duke of Clarence, the father of ten of her children (the FitzClarences) have survived. She was a remarkably strong character and an incomparable actress.

William, the Duke of Clarence and Dora Jordan were born into very different families – born in 1765 he was the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte,  and she was born in 1761, the daughter of Francis and Grace who although not legally married lived together as Mr and Mrs Bland.  He was not expected to succeed to the throne and as a boy served in the navy, later he was given a dukedom, an income and an estate. She became an actress, known as ‘Mrs Jordan’, although there was never a Mr Jordan. She made her stage debut in 1777 at the age of 15 and her first Drury Lane appearance in 1785. The two met and she became his mistress in 1790, eventually living together at Bushy House in Middlesex. Their relationship was a happy one until, as the years went by, William was put under pressure to find a suitable wife and, of course, marriage to Dora was out of the question. They separated in 1811 and she was heart broken.

There is so much in this book that fascinated me. The attacks in the press on their relationship were vicious and there were storms of abuse – as an actress and a prince they could not have private lives and the journalists and cartoonists were savage in their portrayal of the couple. The cartoons in particular amazed me. ‘Jordan’ was a common term for a chamber-pot, so her name came in very handily, and became an instantly recognisable visual symbol:

Sometimes it was put over the Duke’s head; sometimes he was shown standing in it, with her prettily draped round the edge, naked and mermaid-like. In other drawings the pot reverted to its domestic function under the bed; the words ‘Public jordan open to all parties’ were written round one of these. The most effective and cruellest was Gillray’s simple picture showing Dora as a giant chamber-pot, cracked and with a vagina-shaped hole into which the figure of William is disappearing, giving a nautical shout of pleasure as he does so. His braided coat is hanging on a peg to one side and her ankles and feet in dainty slippers appear below the pot. The caption reads ‘The Lubber’s Hole, alias the Cracked Jordan’, (page 123)

Dora comes across as a very likeable person, hard working, and devoted to her family. She was a talented and probably  the most popular actress of the time in Britain, based at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and also appearing in theatres throughout the country, acting throughout her pregnancies and often taking a baby with her on tour. Claire Tomalin writes

She was the best-loved and most admired comic actress of her time, hailed by fellow actors, critics and public alike as a uniquely gifted performer, fully the equal in comedy to Mrs Siddons in tragedy: for several decades they were generally referred to as the Muses of Comedy and tragedy. (page 3)

After she and the Duke separated the debts incurred by a son-in-law drawn on her account forced her to live abroad until they could be cleared, but she sank into illness and despair and died near Paris in 1816.

William succeeded to the throne in 1830, after the death of his older brother, George IV. One of the first acts of his reign was to commission a sculpture – he wanted a life-size representation of Dora, She had been dead for  fifteen years, so Francis Chantrey, the sculptor worked from portraits, finishing it in 1834. William’s intention was to place the statue in Westminster Abbey, but the Dean of Westminster refused to allow it and it remained in Chantrey’s studio. Eventually, after passing through several hands, the fifth Earl of Munster bequeathed it to the Queen and it is now in Buckingham Palace among the portraits of kings and queens in the Picture Gallery.

Like all good biographies Mrs Jordan’s Profession has an extensive bibliography, additional notes and an index. There are several photographs, family trees of and an appendix of Mrs Jordan’s Roles.

  • Paperback: 422 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin 1995
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140159233
  • Source: I bought the book

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015, Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015, TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley & William Allison

When I was asked if I would read and review a revised edition of The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley and William Allison, the book on which the 1986 BBC TV series was based I was immediately interested as I had watched the TV series.

Description from the Press Release:

In 1917 British, New Zealand and Australian troops stationed at the Étaples Training Camp in northern France protested against the inhuman conditions and the protest erupted into mutiny. Private Percy Toplis was named by the authorities as a leader of this mutiny. While several of the mutineers were executed in its aftermath, Toplis escaped and remained at large for three years. The Army immediately covered up the mutiny, thousands of the participants died shortly afterwards in the Passchendaele offensive while the survivors remained silent for over fifty years. After three years as Britain’s most wanted man Percy Toplis was killed in 1920 by a policeman.

My thoughts:

This is the 2nd and updated edition of The Monocled Mutineer, which  includes a new introduction and epilogue that expand on newly discovered information about the events of the mutiny and the government’s response to it. It is primarily based on interviews and correspondence with survivors of the First World War nearly sixty years after the events they describe. In 1976 the authors advertised in newspapers asking whether any veterans from the First World War had recollections of the events in Étaples in September 1917. They received many replies containing:

  … sharp, bitter accounts of events long ago, but far from forgotten. Inevitably they were careful handwritten stories in old men’s script, teased out without any other prompting than the brief enquiry in their local paper. (page 2)

In addition to the anecdotal evidence the authors have used other sources including the published personal reminiscences of Edwin Woodhall,  Detective and Service Days and Lady Angela Forbes. Memories and Base Details; journalists’ accounts in various periodicals; and have drawn background material from records about the First World War in the  Imperial War Museum, The Public Record Office and the British Newspaper Library.

Not many contemporary records have survived that relate to the mutiny. One of the surviving records is the war diary of the Commandant at the Étaples Camp,  Brigadier-General Andrew Graham Thomson. Thompson describes what happened as a ‘disturbance’ and as ‘riots’ and ‘breakouts’:

Disturbance in Reinforcement Camp between military police and troops, Corporal Wood, 4th Gordons being accidentally shot … a crowd of about 1,000 gathered at Étaples town, and about 7.30 pm tried to break into the Sevigne cafe where two policemen were hiding. (page 1)

But in 1978, after the publication of the 1st edition and the BBC dramatisation, the British government admitted that the events that took place at Étaples had been a mutiny and also that  it was probable that the records relating to the board of inquiry into the events had been destroyed many years ago. The files on the mutiny and Percy Toplis’ military records are closed until 2017.

Historical accuracy is never easy to obtain, especially where records have been lost and where there is a limited number of sources to compare one against the other. In this case the main sources of information are the personal accounts from the veterans as they remembered them many years later.

And the picture they paint is a most remarkable and shocking one of the brutal and inhuman conditions which were in operation at the camp. As for Toplis’ part in the mutiny, the letters from the veterans occasionally mentioned him and whilst some thought he was the main ringleader, few thought he was the only one, but that there were a number of soldiers involved. One remembered Toplis’ name on a wanted poster and wrote:

If he was a villain then he was not the only one around Étaples. Maybe he too was tired of being humiliated, deprived, brutalized and treated like a dog. We had all got tired of being treated with less consideration than that given to horses. (page 91)

Another reported that Toplis, heading a mob of about 1,000 deserters confronted Thompson, surrounding his car. Toplis climbed on the running board and dictated the terms for ending the mutiny (page 93). After the mutiny ended, whilst some of the ringleaders were executed, Toplis escaped. Others were killed in the battle for Passchendale which began on 20th September.

Maybe more information will be available in 2017 when the files are opened and a fuller picture of what happened will emerge.

The Monocled Mutineer also goes into detail about Percy Toplis’ life before and after the war. Coming from a working-class background, by the age of eleven he was already a con artist and a thief. He must have been a charismatic character, able to both charm and deceive people, successfully impersonating officers, able to melt into the background deserting and then rejoining the army seemingly at will, not sentenced to execution by the firing squad (the penalty for desertion). But after the war ended in 1920 his luck ran out as he was accused of murdering a taxi-driver. The inquest held that he was guilty in his absence. Toplis fled, evading capture for six weeks and he was eventually shot down in a police ambush near Plumpton in Cumberland.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition (7 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 028564310X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643109
  • Source: review copy from the publisher

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

I wanted to read a novel by a local author so I checked the library website for North East writers, where I found Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton.

Summary from the book cover:

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.

When 1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley.

Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice.

But William is struggling with demons of his own–he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife.’Catching the Eagle’, the first novel in the Regency Reivers series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

This is not just by a local author, and set in Northumberland, it is also based on a true story –  that of Karen Charlton’s husband’s ancestors.

I liked the opening of Catching the Eagle beginning with a Prologue, setting the scene as an eagle soared over the Northumberland landscape:

… its huge shadow caressed the ruined walls of crumbling castles and the creaking rotting stumps of ancient gibbets.The eagle plucked unsuspecting prey from the bleak, snow-covered fells and drank from remote rocky waterfalls dripping with golden daggers.

It landed in a tree above a labourer’s cottage where Jamie Charlton lived with his wife Priscilla and their children. I like Karen Charlton’s leisurely descriptive style of writing and found the whole book to be fascinating.  She has written an even-handed account of the robbery and the subsequent trials, so much so that I began to wonder whether Jamie Charlton was innocent or guilty, although you know from the outset that he was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money? And what will happen to the eagle?

This is the type of historical fiction that I like. The characters come across as real people, with real problems in a real time and place (Northumberland 1809 – 1811). It highlights the social and cultural setting. Jamie was without influence or money behind him up against a judicial system run by people with power who needed to find a culprit. His family suffered along with him as he languished in goal in squalor, where he was caged as he awaited trial – not once, but twice.

I wondered whether Stephen Lavender, the detective employed by  Nathaniel Ogle, the owner of Kirkley Hall was also a real historical figure. Karen Charlton has also written Seeking Our Eagle, another fascinating book, an account of how she came to write Catching the Eagle whilst researching her husband’s family history.  And yes, Stephen Lavender did exist and he was a detective. He later became the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester after the formation of the police force by Sir Robert Peel.

Indeed reading Catching the Eagle reminded me of The Suspicions of Samuel Whicher by Kate Summerscale, featuring Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, the book that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.

Karen Charlton has done her research very well and has written a novel full of intrigue, tension and realism that kept me captivated from start to finish. See her website, Karen Charlton, to read more about Karen and her books.

She has also written The Heiress of Linn Hagh, a spin-off novel from Catching the Eagle, which features Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick, Constable Woods. And there are more Detective Lavender Series books on the way!

Catching the Eagle:

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1 edition (19 July 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0992803640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992803643
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Source: Library book

Seeking the Eagle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1969 KB
  • Print Length: 166 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1st edition (7 Aug. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008UZYOR2
  • Source: I bought it

As always I didn’t read either book just for any Reading Challenges, but Catching the Eagle does fit very well into a couple – the 2015  Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge, in the book with an animal in the title category and Seeking Our Eagle into the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Stone circles are amongst the most tangible and durable connections to the past. They have fascinated me ever since I was a young teenager and saw Stonehenge. We were on our way to Girl Guide camp in the New Forest, travelling overnight by coach from Cheshire and reached Stonehenge just before dawn. I was just about awake as we scrambled down from the coach and made our way over the field to be at Stonehenge as the sun came up. It was magical.

We were the only people there and in those days Stonehenge was fully accessible. I’ve been there since, and seen it on TV but I am so glad I had that experience before full access to Stonehenge was available, before there was a carpark and a visitor centre, shop and café. Now you can only view the stones from a short distance away along a tarmac pathway – after you’ve planned your visit in advance, parked your car and been driven 10 minutes by a shuttle bus, because entry to Stonehenge is by timed tickets. (Access is free at the solstices.)  I understand the need for all this but it still makes me shudder.

When I discovered that there is a stone circle near Keswick I was keen to go there whilst we were staying in the Lake District last week. Although there were more people at Castlerigg Stone Circle than I would have liked I really did appreciate the informality of the site.  There are no restrictions and you can wander around the stones as much you like. I suppose you’d have to get there at dawn or at least a lot earlier than we did to be there on your own.

Castlerigg is set on a plateau near Keswick, surrounded by hills, including Skiddaw and Blencathra. There is no carpark, visitor centre or shop – and I hope it stays that way. You can park in a little lane, where there was an ice-cream van selling delicious home-made ice-cream on the day we were there.

This was our first sight of the stones:

Approaching Castlerigg Stone Circle (1)  P1010056

Stone circles are ancient monuments. There are over 50 stone circles in the Lake District, made with locally available stones. Nobody knows what their function was, although there is much debate about whether they had a ritual and religious use, an astronomical significance or an economic function.

Castlerigg dates from around 5,200 BC which makes it older than the pyramids! Here is part of the circle. It is about 30 metres in diameter, which makes it quite difficult to take photos of the whole circle:

Castlerigg view 2

As you can see that the stones vary in size. The tallest stone is 2.3 metres and the largest weighs about 16 tonnes.

Castlerigg P1010061

And here are two photos of parts of the interpretation boards:

Int Bd Castlerigg P1010051

Int Bd Castlerigg P1010052

Castlerigg Stone Circle is described A Guide to the Stone Circles of the Lake District by David Watson, published in 2009 with colour photographs, maps and directions to the sites. The cover photo shows Castlerigg Stone Circle.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Melinda’s blog West Metro Mommy Reads.

Lights Out

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 1914

Today it is exactly 100 years since Britain joined the first world war! Everyone in the UK is invited to turn off their lights from 10pm to 11pm, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.

Chronicle of youth 001I’m reading Vera Brittain’s Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary 1913 -1917. On Tuesday August 4th 1914 having heard that Germany had declared war on Belgium she wrote:

Stupendous events come so thick & fast after one another that it is impossible to realise to any extent their full import. One feels as if one were dreaming, or reading a chapter out of one of H G Wells’ books like ‘The War of the Worlds’. To me, who have never known the meaning of war, as I can scarcely remember the South African even, it is incredible to think that there can be fighting off the coast of Yorkshire.

To sum up the situation in any way is impossible, every hour brings fresh and momentous events & one must stand still & await catastrophes even more terrible than the last.

The Dance of Love by Angela Young

Angela Young‘s new novel The Dance of Love is historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century between 1899 and 1919. It is outstanding and I loved it so much. At times as I read it I could hardly see the pages through my tears – and there have not been many books that have that effect on me.  It’s a brilliant book, both a heart-rending love story and a dramatic story too, as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the devastating and tragic effects of the First World War impact on the characters’ lives.

It’s the story of Natalie, the daughter of Sir Thomas Edwardes, a wealthy business man, a self-made man who is socially unsure of himself, but who wants his daughter to be accepted into society. It begins in 1899, a period when young ladies were presented at Court for the London Season, an opportunity to meet their future husbands. Natalie’s friends, the daughters of Lady Bridewell, are looking forward to the London Season. But Natalie has little desire to be presented at Court, relishing the idea that she would be free to live without such restraints and marry for love, someone who will care for her for herself, not because of her family connections. However, she falls in with her father’s wishes and when she meets a handsome artist-soldier, Lieutenant Haffie, it seems her wish for a happy marriage will come true.

What I really liked about this book is the way historical background is seamlessly interwoven with the narrative and how it captures the changes in society as the years went by. Natalie grows from a young, impulsive teenager with passion for romance and dancing into a responsible young woman whose hopes for a happy marriage are in the balance.  The portrait of the Edwardian upper classes, with their lavish life style, glittering balls and all their extravagances is fascinating, contrasting with the enormous changes in society as the War takes its effect.

I liked all the details about paintings as Haffie shows his work to Natalie – Angela Young’s beautiful descriptions draw such vivid full colour images that I could easily visualise the paintings, which Natalie says are ‘mysteries made of light.’  And her portrayal of the settings, whether in London, Devon or the Scottish Highlands are just as vivid, making this a richly descriptive book.

But it is the effect of the War and the effect on the families of those people travelling across the Atlantic on the Titanic that really brought home to me the whole human tragedy that people lived through, much more than any historical account has done. I think it’s seeing these events through the eyes of the people left at home that has the most impact.

I had enjoyed Angela Young’s first novel, Speaking of Love and so was pleased to accept her offer of an uncorrected proof copy of The Dance of Love. I’m so glad I did as it’s a beautifully written, brilliant book that moved me deeply, and one I shall most definitely re-read (always proof of a good book for me).

The Dance of Love will be published on 31 July 2014.

Shakespeare and The Classics Club’s July question

The question this month is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

This question came at just the right time for me because I’ve just finished reading Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s taken me a long time to read because I began it in March and have been reading it almost daily a few short chapters each day.

Ackroyd Shakespeare I bought the book in Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago after going to the theatre there. I first came across Shakespeare’s plays at school – doesn’t everyone? Years later I took an Open University course and studied more plays and managed to see productions of each one, either at the Barbican in London or at the Stratford.

So, I’m familiar with several plays, which helps enormously with reading Ackoyd’s biography as he has structured it mainly around the plays.  But above all, he has placed Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. My only reservation about it is one I often have when reading biographies – there are inevitably assumptions, those phrases such as ‘must have’  ‘would have’, ‘most likely’, ‘could have’, ‘there is also a possibility that’ and so on that biographers use.

I learnt a lot that I hadn’t known before as my study of Shakespeare hadn’t gone much beyond the plays, and studying them as entities in themselves is not the same as seeing them in their contemporary settings, or as a part of his whole work. I knew very little (or if I did learn anything years ago, I’ve forgotten) for example of the theatrical world, of how the actors worked, their patrons and managers, nor about how Shakespeare interacted with other writers, or of how his work was received by the public and the monarchy. I particularly liked the sections on religion and the religious conflicts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and his discussion about Shakespeare’s own beliefs and practices:

This raises the vexed question of his religion, endlessly debated through the centuries. It is true that he used the language and the structure of the old faith in his drama, but that does not imply that he espoused Catholicism. His parents are likely to have been of the old faith, but he did not necessarily take it with him into his adulthood. The old religion was part of the landscape of his imagination, not of his belief.

His own adult beliefs are much more difficult to estimate. It is possible that he was, in the language of the period, a ‘church papist’; he outwardly conformed, as in the ceremony of christening, but secretly remained a Catholic. This was a perfectly conventional stance at the time. (pages 446 – 7)

Ackroyd’s account of the language of the plays is also fascinating. Understanding the plays can be demanding. I’ve found that when I’ve seen a play acted it makes much more sense to me than when I’ve only read it and I’ve often wondered how the plays were understood by their 16th century audiences. Ackroyd considers that

Some of Shakespeare’s more recondite phrases would have passed over them, as they baffle even the most highly educated contemporary audience, but the Elizabethans understood the plots and were able to appreciate the contemporary allusions. Of course scholars of a later age have detected in Shakespeare’s plays a subtlety of theme and intention that may well have escaped Elizabethan audiences. But it may be asked whether these are the inventions of scholars rather than the dramatist. (page 349)

In a book of over 500 pages there is much more to be said about it than I’ve attempted in this post – I’ve only just touched the surface!

My overall view of this biography is that it is well researched, with an extensive bibliography, notes and index. Ackroyd acknowledges that he ‘came to this study as a Shakespearian enthusiast‘ rather than as an expert and lists other biographies that he found ‘most illuminating’.

In answer to the Classics Club question on whether reading a biography has changed my perspective on an author’s writing I think the answer has to be that it hasn’t really changed it but it has enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and emphasised the fact that the plays are/were made for an audience:

Shakespeare relied upon the audience and, with such devices as the soliloquy, extended the play towards it; the drama did not comprehend a completely independent world, but needed to be authenticated by the various responses of the crowd. (page 349)

Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice

Sisters of SinaiThe full title of this book is Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels. This is biography so well written that it almost reads like a novel. In fact, if this was a novel I would think it was a most unlikely story of twin sisters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling to St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai where they discover one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac.

Janet Soskice has written a compelling account of two Scottish sisters – Agnes and Margaret Smith born in 1843 in Irvine, a town south-west of Glasgow. Their mother died two weeks after they were born and they were brought up by their father, John Smith. He was unusual in that he gave his daughters an unconventional education for that period. He approved of independence of mind and foreign travel. The girls had an aptitude for languages and mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian whilst they were still quite young – helped by visits to each country. Their taste for learning, travels and adventure was set for life with long hours of study and plenty of exercise. Add to this intensely-held Presbyterian beliefs and Bible study.

John Smith inherited a huge sum of money (today’s equivalent would be around £7 million) from a relative. He died when the twins were 23 leaving his fortune to them (which had built up considerably by then); they were very rich indeed. They decided to have a trip down the Nile. And that was just the beginning; their lives were transformed.

They learnt Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac and they returned to Egypt and Sinai many times, befriending the monks of St Catherine, despite their religious differences, and getting embroiled in disputes with Cambridge academics who were initially very reluctant to accept that these two middle-aged (by then) women with no university qualifications (women were not permitted to receive degrees from the university at that time), could possibly have found anything of value or interest to them.

What they discovered in a ‘dimly lit little room  below the prior’s quarters’ in the monastery was a dirty volume, its leaves nearly all stuck together, written in Syriac. It was a collection of lives of women saints, but written underneath that was something else that was clearly an earlier text – of the Gospels. This was a palimpsest – the earliest writing having been scraped off and overwritten at a later date, the old ink becoming visible at a later date through the effects of the atmosphere. This eventually proved that the Gospels had been written much earlier than had previously been thought, moving the date back to the late second century.

Not only is that remarkable in itself, but it is astonishing to me that these two middle-aged women travelled to Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and beyond at the latter half of the nineteenth century across the desert on camel or walking miles on foot. Their courage and resolve overcame all the difficulties they encountered, coping with physical discomfort and  dishonest dragomen abroad and the hostility and scepticism at home.

I would never have known of this enthralling book if it hadn’t been for Cath’s review of it on Read-Warbler. I was intrigued and looked for it in my library straight away and was delighted to find that there was a copy in another branch.  Biographies and historical books are probably my most favourite of non-fiction books and accounts of  the Bible and how it came to be compiled have long been of interest to me, but I hadn’t come across these two sisters before. Janet Soskine has throughly researched her subject and the book is complemented by a ‘select’ bibliography that runs to nearly 5 pages and an extensive index.

This is an excellent non-fiction book, just right for Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

New-To-Me Books

Just eleven days left to go before the end of March and the end of the TBR Triple Dog DareThe basic idea of the Triple Dog Dare is to spend the first three months of the year cleaning house by reading only books in your TBR stack as of midnight, Dec. 31 and with a few allowed exceptions I’m still on track. But I’ve downloaded books onto Kindle and got some books from Barter Books over these last three months and I’m really looking forward to reading them from April onwards. I wrote about some of them in an earlier post.

Here are some more of the ‘physical’ books I have waiting not-so-patiently to be read:

Sweet Thursday P1090384

  •  Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck – because I loved Cannery Row and this is the follow-up story. ‘Set in Monterey, on the California Coast, Sweet Thursday is what they call the day after Lousy Wednesday, which is one of those days that’s just naturally bad.’ I was really pleased to find this on the shelves at Barter Books – it just jumped out at me.
  • The Last Girl by Jane Casey – because I’ve read good things about her books, crime fiction of the thrilling kind. It’ll probably be a while before I read this book as I haven’t read the first in the Maeve Kerrigan series and this one is the third.
  • A Medal for a Murderer by Frances Brody – because I enjoyed the first Kate Shackleton mystery, Dying in the Wool. This is the second in the series, set in the 1920s in Harrogate where the leading lady in a play at the theatre is found dead in a doorway.
  • The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick – because I’ve read two of the earlier Father Anselm books and enjoyed them. In this one Anselm investigates events in Eastern Europe in the grip of the Cold War.

The books on Kindle include these:

Books on Kindle P1090385The one I’m most interested in is The King in the North: the Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams – because it’s history of the area where I live, set in the 7th century about Oswald, a prince of the Northumbrian royal house. He reigned briefly, from 634 – 642, but during that time he re-united and re-Christianized the North-East; forged a hybrid culture of Briton, Irish, Scot and Anglo-Saxon; and founded a monastery on Lindisfarne. He was the first British king to die a Christian martyr. Max Adams is a biographer, archaeologist,  traveller and writing coach who lives in North-east England.

I think I’ll be reading this book very soon!

The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser

The Steel Bonnets 001The full title of this book is The Steel Bonnets: the Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. It’s a detailed account of the Border between England and Scotland up to the accession of James VI’s succession to the English throne in 1603.

The people living in the Borders, both English and Scottish feuded amongst themselves, Scots against Scots, English against English, and Scots against English – robbery, blackmail, raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion were regular events during that period, amongst a number of families, including Armstrongs, Johnstones, Forsters and Hetheringtons, Elliots, Fenwicks, Bells and Nixons, Littles and Scotts, Maxwells and Kerrs. Some families had both English and Scottish members, making it all very confusing. Fraser searched many sources in compiling this history, including State and Border papers and letters, listed in the Bibliography.

There is a map showing the six Marches that made up the Border – three on each side, East, Middle and West. Each March had its own Warden. It’s not very easy to see on my copy of this map, but it shows the general locations:

Border Marches map

The seamen of the first Elizabeth might sweep the world’s greatest fleet off the seas, but for all the protection she could give to her Northumbrian peasants they might as well have been in Africa. While young Shakespeare wrote his plays, and the monarchs of England and Scotland ruled the comparatively secure hearts of their kingdoms, the narrow hill land between was dominated by the lance and the sword. The tribal leaders from their towers, the broken men and outlaws of the mosses, the ordinary peasants of the valleys, in their own phrase, “Shook loose the Border.” They continued to shake it as long as it was a political reality, practising systematic robbery and destruction on each other. History has christened them the Border Reivers.*

*Reiver, reaver – robber, raider, marauder, plunderer. the term is obsolete, but lingers on in words like bereave. (page 3)

The book is divided into five parts:

  • Part I a brief historical sketch up to 1500 from the Roman period.
  • Part II describing what the Border was like in that century, the people who lived there, who were the leading robber families, how they lived, ate, dressed, built their homes, the games they played (football, the fore-runner of rugby, soccer and American football, horse racing, hawking, hunting, fishing and gambling), and the songs they sang – Border ballads.
  • Part III – about the reivers, how they rode their raids, conducted their feuds etc and the Border Law, and how the March Wardens tried to keep order, what it was like for ordinary folk living in the frontier country.
  • Part IV – historical survey of the reiving century from 1503 – 1603, how the reivers fitted into the history of their time and the part they played in the long-drawn Anglo- Scottish struggle..
  • Part V – how their story ended when England and Scotland came under one king, and the old Border ceased to be.

James became the King of all Britain in 1603:

… he was determined to make one country where there had been two before, to bury the old quarrels, and to keep the peace. (page 360)

Fraser makes the point that whilst James pacified the Borders using a

‘heavy hand and it makes an ugly story’, … ‘at the end of the day he left the old, wild, bloody Border a fit place for ordinary folk to live. If the border riders were harshly dealt with, it is not irrelevant to point out that they had dealt fairly harshly in their time. Undoubtedly injustice and atrocity took place in settling the frontier, but the victims are not to be accounted any nobler just because of that.

It is also wrong to suggest that James was ignorant of Border conditions. He knew a great deal about them, from first-hand experience – certainly more than any occupant of the English throne since Richard III. He may be charged with cruelty, indifference and dishonesty in his attitude to Border affairs, but not with ignorance or stupidity. (pages 360 -361)

It’s taken me since the beginning of December to read this book. I read it slowly in small sections as there is a lot to take in and I found the structure of the book a bit confusing and disjointed, as inevitably it meant that information was repeated. There are a large number of footnotes, which interrupted the flow of the text if I paused to read them – which I did, as they contained much relevant information. I would have preferred it to have been incorporated into the main body of the book.

However, I’m glad I read it – it’s a tour de force, and a mine of information! An ideal book for Read Scotland 2014 if you are interested in the history of the region and/or the families, or like me, you live there.

George MacDonald Fraser (1925 – 2008) was a Scot born in England (Carlisle), a Borderer himself. In 1943 he enlisted in The Border Regiment and served in the Burma Campaign. He was later granted a commission into the Gordon Highlanders. After the War he became a journalist. He was the author of the ‘Flashman‘ books, other novels and movie scripts.

Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor

Shakespeare’s Restless World was an impulse buy last year. I saw it on display at Main Street Trading bookshop, took it down off the shelf to look at it whilst having lunch there and then couldn’t resist buying it. It’s such a beautiful book recreating Shakespeare’s world through examining twenty objects. It reveals so much about the people who lived then, who went to see Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s and 1600s, and about their ideas and living conditions.

The objects include an iron fork  found, when the Rose Theatre on the south bank of the river Thames was excavated, in the remains of the theatre’s inner gallery walls, relics, medals, gold objects, a rapier and a dagger and strange objects such as an eye relic mounted in silver, complete with photos and illustrations. Through looking at each object MacGregor explores a number of themes, not just the theatre, but including what people ate whilst watching plays, religion, medicine, the plague, magic, city life, treason, and the measuring of time amongst other topics. It’s all fascinating and informative, and easy to read. There are plenty of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays and puts both him and his work into context. For me, it was a new way of seeing into the past, which I missed when the series was broadcast on BBC Radio4.

Read Scotland mapIt may seem strange to include this book in the Read Scotland 2014 challenge, but Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, was born in Glasgow and the challenge is to “read and review Scottish books -any genre, any form- written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland.”

I would have read this book in any case, but I was pleased to find that there are sections in it that fit very well into the challenge, including a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ ie Macbeth. Shakespeare lived through a period of great change for Britain, not only the changes to be expected through the passage of time, but also changes nationally and politically with the death of Elizabeth I. The big question of the day in the 1590s was the constitutional question of who would succeed her, but in England the Treasons Act of 1571 forbade any discussion of the succession.  But dramatists addressed this through their plays – such as Shakespeare’s dramatization of the Wars of the Roses.

MacGregor covers James VI of Scotland’s succession to the English crown in 1603, bringing the whole island of Britain under one rule for the first time.  It was not clear then how things would change:

Everybody knew that with James as King of England and King of Scotland a new political world had been born. But it was not at all clear how things were going to change. …

But making a new nation turned out to be very difficult. For much of the previous 300 years England and Scotland had been at war; they had very different political and legal systems, a different established church, different currencies, separate parliaments and a long history of intense dislike and deep suspicion. James’s central ambition was to make two very foreign countries into one new state, with a new name – Great Britain.

The succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 created a dynastic union, and a personal union of political authority, but it did not create a union of the crowns in constitutional, legal, ecclesiastical or economic terms. Forging such a union was James’s paramount aim. (pages 204 – 205)

It was another hundred years before the formal Act of Union united England and Scotland into one state of Great Britain. These days Scotland is currently debating whether to break the union and once again things are very unclear – how will things change if Scotland becomes an independent state?

Mount TBR 2014

ShakespeareThis post is also my contribution to The Classics Club’s event Shakespeare in January, as well as qualifying for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014.

It’s also the first non-fiction book I’ve read this year.

The Steel Bonnets: the opening chapter

A friend has just lent me The Steel Bonnets : the Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser and having looked at the opening chapter I know I just have to read on, rather than waiting for January when Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge starts. It’s a long, detailed book so I shall probably still be reading it in January anyway.

The Steel Bonnets 001I live on the English side of the Border with Scotland and the history of the area just fascinates me. The Steel Bonnets covers the period from the building of Hadrian’s Wall to 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Four hundred or so years ago it was all very different around here and as the history of the Border Reivers is very complicated I’m hoping this book will guide me through it.

The opening paragraph took me by surprise:

At one moment when President Richard Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony, he appeared flanked by Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham. To anyone familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shudder through the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries away in time away from the Debateable Land, the threads came together again; the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes – families who lived and fought within a few miles of each other on the West Marches in Queen Elizabeth’s time – were standing side by side, and it took very little effort of the imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jacks or backs-and-breasts. Only a political commentator would be tactless enough to pursue the resemblance to Border reivers beyond the physical, but there the similarity is strong.

In the following paragraphs he goes on to describe their physical features, particularly those of Nixon and Johnson, as ‘excellent specimens of two distinct but common Border types.’ I hadn’t expected this at all.

For more Book Beginnings see Gilion’s blog Rose City Reader.

Gone With the Wind: Historical Fiction

Gone with the wind 001In a previous post on Gone With the Wind I wrote that I had learned a lot about the American Civil War and Reconstruction, about slavery (very different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and a lot about Georgia and Atlanta. In the comments Jane pointed out, quite correctly, that the book ‘shouldn’t be taken as history, but as reflective of a very strong point-of-view of American history, circa 1930.’

I hadn’t meant that I was taking GWTW as historical fact, but that it had led me to wanting to know more about the period and in that respect it had opened up new areas for me. For example, I’d never heard of ‘Reconstruction’ before in the sense of what happened to the southern states following the Civil War and I knew next to nothing about the causes of the war, other than the fact that the southern states wanted to leave the Union, that they wanted to be an independent nation. I was in no doubt, however, that the book is a novel – historical fiction, not historical fact.

All written history is a selection of facts and involves to a greater or lesser extent an interpretation of those facts. Its accuracy depends on the sources used, and in turn those sources inevitably are subject to perspective and bias. Similarly, historical fiction can throw light on the past; it can flesh out the facts, bringing the past to life – and it can be subject to the bias and opinions of the author.

I was fascinated to read that Margaret Mitchell, who was born in Atlanta in 1900 grew up listening to the war stories of Confederate veterans and yet she didn’t know until she was ten years old that the South had lost the war!

Margaret Mitchell was writing from a Southerner’s perspective, but that does not mean that her book is any the less invalid. She presents the Civil War period and its aftermath as seen through southern eyes and basically it is the story as seen through the women’s eyes. There is little about the actual battles, but this is still a war novel, even though it’s set mostly in the homes of the characters – in Tara, and in Atlanta. It depicts the hardships and suffering of the civilian population as well as the wounded soldiers, their grief and desolation and the devastating effect on the land and townships. You can see Atlanta going up in flames, the devastation of the countryside as the railroads and plantations were destroyed, and feel the hunger as the people starved.

Then there is the question of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, both essential elements in the novel. The depiction of slaves divides them into two categories – house slaves and field hands, raising racial issues and the different attitudes between the North and the South towards the slaves. The plantation owners are portrayed as viewing their slaves, in particular the house slaves, as part of their family, protecting them and caring for them, treating them as children and of lower intelligence, and the slaves responded with loyalty to their owners. Again this is one perspective on the past, one that is at variance that of the northern states – clearly indicated in the novel. There are several references in Gone With the Wind to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Margaret Mitchell contradicts Harriet Beecher Stowe’s scene of bloodhounds chasing runaway slaves. Similarly the view she gives of the Ku Klux Clan is not what I expected. This led me to want to know more about the history of slavery in America and I turned to the one book I own, specifically on American history – Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America by Carl N Degler to find out more.

This is one of the things  I like about reading historical fiction – as well as giving me a glimpse into the past, showing me areas of history I know little or nothing about, bearing in mind that there is always more than one side to a story. And I really need to do more research into these matters.

Remembrance Sunday

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day) marking the anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. Remembrance Sunday is held to commemorate those who served the country in two world wars and in more recent conflicts. There will be the traditional two-minute silence at the Cenotaph on Whitehall today and tomorrow at 11 minutes past the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – the symbolic time of the ending of the First World War.

Poppy Day was first held on November 11, 1921. The idea of wearing poppies in remembrance of the dead came from the poem In Flanders Fields by a Canadian medical officer, John McCrae, who did not survive the war. It is now a national tradition.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae

The First World War began in 1914, ending on 11 November 1918. The young men who joined the army had no idea what horrors were ahead of them. During 1915 however, the true character of the war began to emerge with the slaughter on the Western Front.

May, 1915

Let us remember Spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where all the wounded trees
Wait, with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun. And even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please
Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit to-day with their great Dead, hands in their hands, eyes in their eyes,
At one with Love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered things and changing skies.

Charlotte Mew

Poems from A Corner of a Foreign Field: The illustrated Poetry of the First World War selected by Fiona Waters. This is a collection of poems, some written on the battlefields and some with the benefit of hindsight, poems by men and women recording the experience of their daily lives, the war and its horrors and privations, poems of courage and comradeship in the face of darkest adversity.

Saturday Snapshot – Flodden

It’s the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden this year – it was on 9th September 1513 that the armies of England and Scotland met at Flodden Field, near Branxton in Northumberland. There have been events this year to commemorate the battle and the men from both nations who died in this last medieval battle between England and Scotland.

Living not far from the site of the battle this week we went to see what had changed as a result of the anniversary. There’s now a surfaced path leading up to the Monument.

(Click on the photos to see them enlarged)

500th anniversary P1010826

There are some more information boards and signs to guide you round the Battlefield Trail:

Battlefield trail signpost P1010837The monument isn’t actually on the site of the battle but stands on Piper’s Hill.

Flodden MonumentFrom the monument you can look towards the north down on the village of Branxton:

Branxton P1010831The two armies lined up south of the monument with a marshy dip between them. The Scots advanced first, unaware of the of the ground conditions below them. Now it’s a ditch but in 1513 there was a brook surrounded by a reeded quagmire downhill – where the Scots were bogged down, the rear ranks pushing forward into the front ranks, crushing the fallen bodies and causing chaos. They were then easy prey for the deadly English billhooks.

It looks like this now – the ditch between the hedge and fence is now nearly dry, after weeks of rain in 1513 it was a quagmire:

Boggy Ground P1010835

 and the two armies came face to face:

Tthe Killing Fields P1010858

Flodden 1513: Scotland’s Greatest Defeat by John Sadler is an excellent account of the strategies and tactics of both armies, with maps and plans showing how the battle began and a time timeline of the various conflicts giving a detailed account of events.

Having read this book and the information boards around the trail I was able to visualise the battle, even on a peaceful weekday afternoon 500 years later. The Scottish troops had moved from their original position on Flodden Edge as the English approached the battlefield, putting them at a disadvantage. The outcome could have been different if they had seen the dip below them as they charged down the hill – or even if the English had attacked first.

But then, the battle needn’t have taken place at all if James IV of Scotland had not invaded England in an attempt to divert English troops from their fight against the French. Indeed he had entered into a Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England in 1502. But in 1512 he had also renewed the Auld Alliance with the French, putting him in the position of either declaring for France against Henry VIII (James’s brother-in-law) or remaining neutral, which would make him vulnerable to any further English expansion, as Henry had revived his claim to the Scottish throne.

Despite pressure from senior members of his council to avoid an outright breach with England, when Henry arrived in Calais preparing to wage war against the French, James decided to go to war against the English. Prior to the battle at Flodden he had crossed the River Tweed into England where he then attacked and captured Norham Castle, and then destroyed both Etal and Ford Castles whilst the English were still mustering their troops. But the outcome was a disaster for Scotland and James was killed on Flodden Field:

The king’s was but one of many hundreds of bodies, sprawled and piled on the bloodied turf. The whole hillside from the brook northwards was a killing ground, the dead, maimed and horribly injured competing for space, severed limbs and streaming entrails spilling fresh gore. The din would have been terrific, with hoarse shouts and the screams of the dying men, the crash of spears, a crescendo rising and spilling like breakers against the shore. (page 82, Flodden 1513 by John Sadler)

Each time I go to Branxton, or see the monument as we drive south along the A697, I think about the battle and all those who died there in 1513.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Melinda’s blog West Metro Mommy Reads.

Books in Synch

South with Scott, The Birthday Boys, Race to The End

Birthday Boys & SWS Race to the End 2

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Birthday Boys is a fictionalised version of Scott’s 1912 Antarctic expedition. Ever since I bought South with Scott by Lord Mountevans when I was at school I’ve been fascinated by race to reach the South Pole and reading The Birthday Boys made me take down South with Scott from my bookshelves to compare the two. But even so I was wanting to know more and so, when I went to the library yesterday morning I thought I’d see if there was anything else I could read about. AND THERE WAS!

Race to The End cover

As Alex said last week when I wrote about the coincidence of finding The English Spy in the library when I had reserved Road to Referendum it really does seem as if books do call out to each other, because sitting there on the library shelves just as though it was waiting for me was this beautifully illustrated book – Race to The End: Scott, Amundsen and the South Pole by Ross D E MacPhee.

As I read The Birthday Books I was wondering how true to the facts Bainbridge had been in her novel. I’ve had time just to compare one event that is common to all three books, when Dr Wilson (Uncle Bill), Lieutenant ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard set off to Cape Crozier to recover emperor penguin eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter – and Bainbridge’s version seems remarkable accurate, bringing the terrible hardships vividly to life. I think she must have read South with Scott. I shall write more about these books.

Birthday Boys & SWS Race to the End 1(Click to enlarge photos)

Sunday Selection: Sisters

One of my aims this year is to reduce my massive backlog of unread books, hence the reason for joining the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.  I’m not doing too badly as so far I’ve read 19, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean. In June I wrote about some of the books I’ve owned for more than a year and today I’m looking at some more the books on the list – in some cases I’ve had these books for several years! It’s about time I read at least one of these sometime soon. I don’t like to plan too far ahead what I’m going to read but I like to have some titles in mind.

When I looked through my books I realised that I was picking out books about SISTERS:

First up for consideration are two non fiction books (the blurbs are extracts from Amazon/Goodreads):

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle – this is the story of the tumultuous lives of Lady Jane Grey, known as the “Nine-Day Queen” and her sisters. I’ve had this book for 3 years. I was full of enthusiasm when I first bought it because I’d been reading novels about the Tudor period and thought I’d balance them with non fiction.

Lady Jane Grey is an iconic figure in English history. Misremembered as the ‘Nine Days Queen’, she has been mythologized as a child-woman destroyed on the altar of political expediency. Exploding the many myths of Lady Jane’s life and casting fresh light onto Elizabeth’s reign, acclaimed historian Leanda de Lisle brings the tumultuous world of the Grey sisters to life, at a time when a royal marriage could gain you a kingdom or cost you everything.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley – a selection of unpublished letters between the Mitford sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. I’ve had this book for 5 years! I think two of the reasons I’ve not read it before now is that it is so long – over 800 pages and it’s in a very small font.

Carefree, revelatory and intimate, this selection of unpublished letters between the six legendary Mitford sisters, compiled by Diana Mitford’s daughter-in-law, is alive with wit, passion and heartbreak. The letters chronicle the social quirks and political upheavals of the twentieth century but also chart the stormy, enduring relationships between the uniquely gifted – and collectively notorious – Mitford sisters. 

And then some novels featuring sisters:

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton. I’ve not had this one for that long – just since last November. I down loaded it on my Kindle because it’s a free book and I thought maybe I should try another book by Edith Wharton, having failed to finish The House of Mirth. At the time I was not in the mood for it.

In the days when New York’s traffic moved at the pace of the drooping horse-car, when society applauded Christine Nilsson at the Academy of Music and basked in the sunsets of the Hudson River School on the walls of the National Academy of Design, an inconspicuous shop with a single show-window was intimately and favourably known to the feminine population of the quarter bordering on Stuyvesant Square. It was a very small shop, in a shabby basement, in a side-street already doomed to decline; its fame was so purely local that the customers on whom its existence depended were almost congenitally aware of the exact range of “goods” to be found at Bunner Sisters’.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger – I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book, but it’s about three years. I’m not sure I’ll like it as I wasn’t keen on The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it was the time travelling aspect that irritated me with that book – the constant switching backwards and forwards in time. This one looks a bit different.

Set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers with an abnormally intense attachment to one another. The girls move to their aunt’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London and as the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including–perhaps–their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen, a book I’ve had for six years! I bought it because I’d enjoyed Blessings a satisfying but sad novel about an abandoned baby. 

A novel about two sisters, the true meaning of success, and the qualities in life that matter most. It’s an otherwise ordinary Monday when Meghan Fitzmaurice’s perfect life hits a wall. A household name as the host of Rise and Shine, the country’s highest-rated morning talk show, Meghan cuts to a commercial break–but not before she mutters two forbidden words into her open mike. 

In an instant, it’s the end of an era, not only for Meghan, who is unaccustomed to dealing with adversity, but also for her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx who has always lived in Meghan’s long shadow.

I’ve nearly finished reading Third Girl by Agatha Christie, also one of my to-be-read books, so now all I have to do is decide which book to read next. At the moment I’m leaning towards Her Fearful Symmetry, despite my misgivings about The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Searching for the Secret River is Kate Grenville’s account of how she came to write The Secret River. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,who was the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people.

It is a fascinating book detailing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

She writes about reading. As a short-sighted child reading was her whole life:

I read in the bath, I read on the toilet, I read under the desk at school, I read up in my tree house, feeling the branches of the jacaranda swell and subside under me.

I can identify so well with this. I was a short-sighted child and read everywhere too, walking round the house, in bed under the covers with a torch when I should have been asleep, all the places Kate Grenville read, although not in a tree house – I would have loved a tree house!

She writes about writing. As a writer she couldn’t help examining how other writers went about their writing – seeing how books had been made. One book that helped her with writing The Secret River is Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, a novel based on historical events in which some of the characters are apparently versions of real people. She had come to the point in her book where she had written lots of notes, forty-seven folders of notes!! So she made lists to try to organise her writing and then began just writing scenes and descriptions of various aspects – about London and Sydney, the convict system, and what she called ‘elements of memoir.’ But she thought that lots of her writing was dry and dead.

Reading Anil’s Ghost, however she realised that she had to take herself out of the book and find a character to carry out the search for the story of Wiseman and his dealings with the Aboriginal people. To do this she had to see the scenes before she could write them:

The hard part of the writing wasn’t finding the words – they seemed to come reasonably easily. If they started to come reluctantly, I stopped writing and began with something else. The hard part was finding the picture. Once I could see and hear the moment, I could write it.

In her first draft some parts were in the first person, some in the third person, but always from Wiseman’s point of view. The first-person point of view seemed right but then she decided that that didn’t match Wiseman’s character and there were things she wanted the book to say that Wiseman couldn’t say – about the Aboriginal culture for one thing. So, it had to be in the third person, but the ‘third person subjective’ – ‘from Wiseman’s point of view but only partly in his voice.’

There is so much in this book – the research, the notes, the descriptive passage, the numerous drafts, finding the right voices, the characters, identifying the central drama of the novel, the right eighteenth century names, developing Wiseman into a character, renaming him William Thornhill and building a picture of the Thornhill family. Then the dialogue had to be right, to be convincing. She listened to a recording of Robert Browning, went through transcripts of Old Bailey trials, looked at how Dickens, Defoe and other writers put words into their characters’ mouths.She remembered her mother’s and grandfather’s sayings, phrases and idioms. In the end she decided that she wouldn’t try

to reconstruct the authentic sound of nineteenth century vernacular. My job was to produce something that sounded authentic. … I read all the dialogue aloud. If anything hit a false note, it was obvious straight away. This was a bad one for example: ‘That bit of land, he said. Remember, I told you. We’ll lose it if we don’t move soon.’

This sounded terribly drawing-room. I muddied it up: ‘that bit of land, he said. Remember he telled you. We’ll miss out if we don’t grab it.’

She deleted large sections of dialogue.

The whole book is compelling reading, not just because it’s about how she wrote the book and the enormous amount of work she put into research, but also because in itself it paints a picture of life in London in the late eighteenth century and Australia in the early years of settlement in the early nineteenth century. I was captivated from start to finish.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor a few weeks ago and have been mulling it over ever since. It began so well and I thought it was one of those books I was going to love. And then there are later passages which are so tedious and hard work to read, so full of dry facts and arcane words that I began to wonder why I was reading any further. But I did and then the writing swept me away and I became engrossed in the book again.

My reaction, I think, is to the two sides of this book, in which Patrick Leigh Fermor describes his travels on foot in 1933 from the Hook of Holland through Germany, to Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, on his way to Constantinople. (He continued his journey in Between the Woods and the Water, which describes his experiences up to the Iron Gates border between Rumania and Bulgaria.) The two sides are because he wrote this book in later life so his direct experiences and reactions are intermingled with the results of his later research and with the benefit of hindsight. I prefer the immediacy of his earlier writings taken from the diaries he kept along the way, bringing the countryside to life and recounting his encounters with the local people.

There are passages like the one below where he linked his journey to painting:

When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse, or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel. The white flakes falling beside the Waal – or the Rhine or the Neckar or the Danube – and the zigzag gables and the muffled roofs, were all his. The icicles, too, and the trampled snow, the logs piled on the sledges and the peasants stooped double under loads of faggots. … When the wintry light crept dimly from slits close to the horizon or an orange sun was setting through the branches of a frozen osier-bed, the identity was complete.

In the end I scan read page after page of detailed descriptions of churches, of sociological, political or historical people and places.  I was too impatient to read all those details and I was reading the book too quickly. It’s a book to take your time with, to read a section, put the book down and come back to it later – and I didn’t do that, I swallowed it down with the result that parts were indigestible.

In a way his journey was a gilded experience as he had introductions to people in different places – people who gave him a bed for the night, or longer stays. There were also people who didn’t know him who welcomed him into their homes as a guest – as the title says it was a time of gifts. It was the period when Hitler came to power in Germany:

Appalling things had happened since Hitler had come into power ten months earlier: but the range of horror was not yet fully unfolded. In the country the prevailing mood was a bewildered acquiescence. Occasionally it rose to fanaticism.

But whereas not everyone liked the English there were some who did:

I answered many earnest questions about England: how lucky and enviable I was, they said, to belong to that fortunate kingdom where all was so just and sensible. The allied occupation of the Rhineland had come to an end less than ten years before, and the British, she said, had left an excellent impression.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. There are many passages so vividly described that I can remember them now weeks later – the vision of this young man, nearly nineteen years old striding through the German countryside reciting Shakespeare, in a loud voice and accompanied with gestures, sword thrusts, a staggering gait and with his arms upflung, looking as though he was drunk, or a lunatic. Then there was the time in Vienna when the money he was expecting hadn’t arrived and Konrad, a Don Quixote type character, took him round to a block of flats and encouraged him to knock on doors asking if the occupants wanted to pay him for a sketch of themselves.

In fact even with the dull passages, I liked this book well enough to buy the second book by Fermor Leigh, Between the Woods and the Water and I see that a third book is to be published later this year – The Broken Road, completing the account of his journey to Constantinople.

Following his walk across Europe, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) lived and travelled in the Balkans and Greek Archipelago. He joined the Irish Guards and during the occupation of Crete led the party that captured the German commander. He was awarded the DSO and OBE.

Saturday Snapshot

This is the Flodden Visitor Centre. It’s in a former telephone box in the village of Branxton in Northumberland. Flodden Visitor Centre P1080503It claims to be the smallest visitor centre in the world:

Flodden Visitor Centre P1080499

It’s part of the commemoration of the Battle of Flodden which took place 500 years ago in September between the English and Scottish armies in the fields near Branxton.

Flodden Visitor Centre P1080501Inside there is a map showing the routes of the two armies and indicating several sites related to the battle. There are leaflets and even a button to press the hear about the battle.

If you are in London on 14 May you can get tickets for a lunchtime lecture on the Battle of Flodden 1513 by historian Clive Hallam Baker at the Tower of London. He is the author of The Battle of Flodden: Why and How.

Other books about Flodden, with links to my reviews:

Fiction:

Non fiction:

  •  Flodden: the Scottish Invasion of Henry VIII’s England by Nigel Barr
  • New Light on Floddon (sic) by Gerard F T Leather – I have not written about this short book published in 1938, which Leather, a member of the Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club had written after studying the battle for a talk. As he explained there were actually four distinct fights going on a more or less the same time and the old name of the battle was that of Branxton Moor, a more correct title, in his opinion, as the battle scene was a mile and a half from Flodden.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

Turn of the Century Salon: March

Turn of the Century SalonThe Turn of the Century Salon, is a monthly literary event where you can share recent posts related to literature or authors from the 1880s-1930s. One of Katherine’s suggestions for this month’s post is to find a work of art or music within the same time-period that reflect the book and share it.

After reading Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man I decided to read more of his works, including his poetry and bought The War Poems of Siegfried SassonWorld War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others, edited by Candace Ward. I’ve also borrowed Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Siegfried Sassoon: a Biography by Max Egremont and am slowly reading through these.

I’m familiar with some of the World War One war poets, such as Rupert Brooke (The Soldier – ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England), Wilfred Owen (Dulce et Decorum Est), and Thomas Hardy (Channel Firing) and so on, but I hadn’t read any of Sassoon’s poems.

They are satires condemning the war. Sassoon described his poems such as The One-Legged Man as “satirical drawings”, which he intended to “disturb complacency”. Here is his poem In the Pink

So Davies wrote: ‘ This leaves me in the pink. ‘
Then scrawled his name: ‘ Your loving sweetheart Willie ‘
With crosses for a hug. He’d had a drink
Of rum and tea; and, though the barn was chilly,
For once his blood ram warm; he had pay to spend,
Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.

He couldn’t sleep that night. Stiff in the dark
He groaned and thought of Sundays at the farm,
When he’d go out as cheerful as a lark
In his best suit to wander arm-in-arm
With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
The simple, silly things she liked to hear.

And then he thought: to-morrow night we trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten.
Five miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge,
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he’s in the pink; but soon he’ll die.
And still the war goes on; he don’t know why.

Looking for more information about this poem I found this description in Siegfried Sassoon: a Study of the War Poetry by Patrick Campbell (page 94):

“The first of my ‘outspoken’ war poems.  I wrote it one cold morning at Morlancourt, sitting by the fire in the Quartermaster’s billet, while our Machine-Gun Officer shivered in his blankets on the floor.  He was suffering from alcoholic poisoning, and cold feet, and shortly afterwards departed for England, never to return.  Needless to say, the verses do not refer to him, but to some typical Welshman who probably got killed on the Somme in July, after months and months of a dog’s life and no leave.  The Westminster refused the poem, as they thought it might prejudice recruiting!!”

Reading Sassoon’s war poems brings home the horrors of war, the deaths, the devastating injuries and the appalling indifference of the war leaders and the lack of understanding of the people back home.

Similarly some works of art were considered controversial and not suitable for public viewing. Such a painting is Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson showing the corpses of two dead British soldiers lying face down in the mud among barbed wire behind the Western Front. Their helmets and rifles lie in the mud next to them.

Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson 1917 Oil on Canvas Collection: © Imperial War Museum

This painting is held in the Imperial War Museum website. Its description is:

“The title is a quote from ‘Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard’ by Thomas Gray. ‘The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.‘ Whereas the poet reflects on bodies dead and buried in a church-yard, the so-called ‘Paths of Glory‘ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland.

Paths of Glory‘ was famously censored by the official censor of paintings and drawings in France, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee. His concern presumably being the representation of the rotting and bloated British corpses at this stage in the war. The decision was confirmed three months before the opening of his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1918 but Nevinson still included the painting with a brown paper strip across the canvas, blatantly inscribed with the word ‘censored’. As a result, Nevinson was reprimanded for exhibiting a censored image and for the unauthorised use of the word ‘censored’ in a public space. Predictably, the stunt created the publicity Nevinson desired. The painting was purchased by the Museum during the course of the exhibition.”

This was the ‘war to end war’! The pity is that it didn’t.

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon

Turn of the Century SalonMemoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfied Sassoon is a perfect choice for the Turn of the Century Salon. It’s the first part of his fictionalised autobiography. The other two books in his trilogy are Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress.

The Book

Fox-Hunting 001

Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 and in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man he relives his childhood, youth and experiences as an officer during the First World War. He wrote it in 1928, ten years after the War had ended, calling himself George Sherston. Life for young George/Siegfried was almost idyllic, living in the country as part of the privileged upper class, although his lifestyle exceeded his income. His aunt’s groom, Dixon, taught him to ride and introduced him to the fox-hunting world. At first Siegfried’s sympathies were with the fox and, at one of his first hunts, on spotting a fox he was alarmed so much that when his companion shrieked ‘Huick-holler’ (meaning the fox has been seen) he uttered the words ‘Don’t do that; they’ll catch him.’

Sassoon paints a beautiful picture of the English countryside and country life at the turn of the century. In the passage quoted below he wakes early on the morning of the local village flower show, looking forward to playing in the Flower Show Cricket Match:

When I unlocked the door into the garden the early morning air met me with its cold purity; on the stone step were the bowls of roses and delphiniums and sweet peas which Aunt Evelyn had carried out there before she went to bed [in preparation for the Flower Show]; the scarlet disc of the sun had climbed an inch above the hills. Thrushes and blackbirds hopped and pecked busily on the dew-soaked lawn, and a pigeon was cooing monotonously from the belt of woodland which sloped from the garden toward the Weald. Down there in the belt of river-mist a goods train whistled as it puffed steadily away from the station with a distinctly heard clanking of buffers. How little I knew of the enormous world beyond that valley and those low green hills. (page 53)

The first part of the book is carefree, as Siegfried passes through his school years and time at Cambridge University, which he left before completing his degree. Not a lot happens. His life, despite his lack of funds was a seemingly endless round of riding and hunting. He describes his friends and fox-hunting companions with affection and realism – the old country gentlemen, the benevolent gentry, the newly rich and the dare-devil younger riders, who were ‘reckless, insolent, unprincipled and aggressively competitive; but they were never dull, frequently amusing, and, when they chose, had charming manners.’ (page 235)

Siegfried, himself comes across as a likeable young man, shy, reserved, and modest, happy-go-lucky but aware of his own shortcomings.

All this changed with the onset of the First World War. He enlisted and was eventually posted to France, where because of his connections and abilities, he was appointed as a Transportation Officer stationed behind the trenches and the Front Line. But war brought him face to face with the grim realities of life and death. At first he was philosophical about the War – it seemed ‘inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue.’ But writing in 1928 he considered:

And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War, which as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity. (page 256)

He sees men under his command die and suffer appallingly, his friends die, and Dixon his former groom who had enlisted died of pneumonia. Whilst home on leave as he talked to an old friend of Dixon’s he realised the past had gone …

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; 2nd edition (31 Jan 1974)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057106454X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571064540
  • Source: library book

The Author

Siegfried Sassoon 1915 (from Wikipedia)

Sassoon is one of the of the War Poets. Unlike others, such as Rupert Brooke, he survived the War. He came to the conclusion that the war was being needlessly prolonged. In 1917 he wrote a protest to his commanding officer. Its impact was reduced because rather than facing a court martial he was tried by a medical board and was judged to be suffering from severe shell shock. His account of the ruling is in the second part of his trilogy Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1931). He was sent to Craiglockhart military hospital where he met Wilfred Owen, also one of the War Poets. It was in the hospital that Sassoon published some of his war poems. I’ll write more about those in another post and also more about his life when I’ve read Siegfried Sassoon: a biography by Max Egremont (which I’ve reserved at the library). In his later years he wrote The Old CenturyThe Weald of Youth andSiegfried’s Journey, three volumes of non-fictionalised autobiography.

January’s Books

If you look at how many books I read in January it doesn’t look as though I did much reading with just 4 books completed. I usually average about 8 books a month! But that statistic is misleading because I’ve read just as much if not more than usual because of the length of the books.

Jaunary 2013

I began reading Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang last year but by January I’d only read less than a quarter of it, so I began January by reading the rest of the book, which took me up to the middle of the month. Wild Swans is an amazing book (720 pages). I wrote about it in this post.It’s a harrowing book to read, but it’s also an eye-opener (for me at any rate) about what happened in China under Mao. It’s a personal story, reflecting the twentieth century history of China. A remarkable book, full of courage and spirit.

I read just one crime fiction – The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner (from TBR books). I was disappointed really with this Perry Mason book and didn’t think it was as good as other books by him that I’ve read.

Next was Deaf Sentence by David Lodge, which I liked but didn’t love. Unlike the reviewer in the Literary Review (quoted on the back cover) I didn’t find it had ‘many laugh-out-loud moments‘, just a few amusing bits that made me smile. But is it a moving and at times melancholy book.

In a much lighter vein, although sad in parts is Paw Tracks at Owl Cottage by Denis O’Connor, which I read on my Kindle. It chronicles O’Connor’s experiences with four more cats, all Maine Coons, at his Northumberland cottage.

So, not a large number of books but a lot of reading, because I’ve also been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, another long book which I’ve finished this morning. I suppose that goes under February’s books!

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

It’s taken me a couple of months to read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (first published in 1991), Jung Chang’s book about her grandmother, her mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Needless to say that this is a harrowing book to read, but it’s also an eye-opener (for me at any rate) about what happened in China under Mao.

Jung Chang was born in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. She was briefly a Red Guard at the age of fourteen, and then a peasant, a ‘barefoot doctor’, a steelworker and an electrician. She came to Britain in 1978, and in 1982 became the first person from the People’s Republic of China to receive a doctorate from a British university. ‘Wild Swans’  won the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year. She lives in London.

In Wild Swans she casts light on why and how Mao was able to exercise such paralysing control over the Chinese people. His magnetism and power was so strong and coupled with his immense skill at manipulation and his ability to inspire fear, it proved enough to subdue the spirit of most of the population; not to mention the absolute cruelty, torture and hardships they had to endure.

I wondered how she knew so much about what happened to her mother and grandmother (I don’t know nearly as much about mine) but in the Introduction she explains that when her mother came to visit her in London they talked every day for months. She talked about their eventful lives – her grandmother had been a concubine of a warlord general and her mother had joined the Communist underground at the age of 15. She also recorded sixty hours of her memories.

I wrote a bit about the book in a Book Beginnings post at the end of last November, when I’d just started to read it. It’s a personal story, reflecting the twentieth century history of China. A remarkable book, full of courage and spirit.

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; New edition edition (1 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007463405
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007463404
  • Source: borrowed from a friend

Scottish History

Ever since we moved to live just south of the border with Scotland I’ve been interested in learning more about its history. My knowledge was limited to the basics and mainly related to the monarchy – Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland and I of England, the Jacobite Rebellions, and Bonnie Prince Charlie and so on.

Many books have been written on Scottish history and when I saw this little book some years ago I thought it could be a good place to start to find out more:

A Short History of Scotland by Richard Killeen is by its very nature a summary account and a basic introduction. There are 31 short chapters covering the period from Prehistoric Scotland up to the Twentieth Century – all in 69 pages, including coloured illustrations of people and places.

I found the early chapters the most interesting (maybe because it was mainly new information for me) covering the early periods – Iron Age Celts, Roman Scotland and later invaders – Anglo-Saxons, raiders from Dalriada in Ireland (Irish Celts), Picts and Vikings.

Much of the book is the history of the monarchy. Kenneth MacAlpin was the first King of Scotland (9th century) but not of all modern Scotland – he never established himself in the Borders, which was held by the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians. Northumbria had formerly extended from the Humber right up to the Forth, and it was not until Malcolm II (1005-34) won the battle of Carham in 1018 that the land north of the Tweed became part of his kingdom.

The book traces the history of Scotland through the various battles for power and control – the Norman settlement of the lowlands founding abbeys and cathedrals, the contest for the crown between John Balliol and Robert Bruce (both members of the Norman aristocracy) and the intervention of Edward I of England in choosing John Balliol as king in 1292 and claiming formal overlordship for himself and his successors.

Scottish kings had paid feudal homage to English kings before the 1290s. As far back as 1174, William the Lion had acknowledged himself the formal vassal of Henry II. Such acts did not imply that Scotland was a dependency of England. In the first place, England and Scotland hardly existed in the modern sense. The age of centralised states with uniform laws, secure boundaries with centralised administration – all things we take completely for granted – lay well in the future. (page 28)

Edward’s actions triggered Scottish resistance, with William Wallace winning victory over the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297. Wallace was then defeated within a year at the Battle of Falkirk. Robert the Bruce gained the crown, and in 1314 defeated Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn: ‘the battle which confirmed Scotland as an independent kingdom.’ (page 31)

Moving forward in time, Killeen describes the history of Scotland until the Reformation as ‘a guignol of intrigue, faction and murder mixed with solid achievement.’ The rest of the book includes chapters on the Stewarts, Mary Queen of Scots, the Union of Crowns (1603), the Civil War, Glencoe, the Act of Union (1707), Scottish Enlightenment, the Clearances and the Industrial Revolution.

Reading this little book has spurred me on to read more detailed histories and I’ve started with Neil Oliver’s A History of Scotland. More about that another time.

Book Beginnings: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

I’m currently reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

It begins:

At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general, the police chief of a tenuous national government of China. The year was 1924 and China was in chaos. Much of it, including Manchuria, where my grandmother lived, was ruled by warlords. the liaison was arranged by her father, a police official in the provincial town of Xixian in southwest Manchuria, about a hundred miles north of the Great Wall and 250 miles northeast of Peking.

Wild Swans is a family memoir – the story of three generations of woman in Jung Chang’s family – her grandmother, mother and herself. This is the 2003 edition with an introduction by Jung Chang explaining how she came to write the book. She had always dreamed of being a writer, but growing up in Mao’s China it seemed out of the question, with most writers suffering in endless police persecutions. It was only after she had been allowed to come to Britain in 1978 to study that she had the freedom to write and to write what she wanted.

So far, I’m finding it fascinating, reading about her grandmother, who was one of the last generation of Chinese woman to suffer the practice of binding feet. I knew of this practice, but hadn’t realised just how much the little girls suffered and continued to suffer throughout their lives.

As this book is so long (over 600 pages in a small font) it’s going to take me quite a while to read it. I’l probably write a few posts on my progress.

First Chapter, First Paragraph is hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea.

October’s Books

October has been another good month for reading. As in September I read ten books, listed below (the titles are linked to my posts on the books):

  1. The Judgement of Strangers by Andrew Taylor 4/5
  2. Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers 3.5/5 (library book)
  3. Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson 3/5 (Kindle)
  4. The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas 4.5/5 (library book)
  5. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan 3/5
  6. The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz 4/5
  7. Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie 4.5/5
  8. Mrs Harris MP by Paul Gallico 4/5
  9. The History of Scotland by Richard Killen 4/5 (from TBR books)
  10. The Expats by Chris Pavone 3.5/5 (Kindle)

So, a total of 9 fiction books of which 6 were crime fiction, and 1 non fiction. Two of the books were library books, 2 were e-books and 1 book was from my to-be-read books (books I’ve owned before January 2012).

It’s difficult to pick a Book of the Month this time as I’ve rated all of the books as 3 and over (meaning they were good, enjoyable books), with just two as 4.5/5 (meaning I thought they were very good and I wanted to get back to them each time I had to stop reading).

I was tempted to say my Book of the Month is Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, because it’s good on characterisation, but overall I think it has to be The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas for it’s sheer quirkiness and cleverly constructed plot.

For more books of the month see Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Pick of the Month on her blog Mysteries in Paradise.

 

Book Beginnings on Friday

This morning I finished reading Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks, a book I’ve been reading slowly for a few weeks (my review coming soon). It’s time to choose another non-fiction book to take its place. It’s got to be a book I can read in small bites and not lose the thread, maybe a biography/autobiography, or a diary, collection of letters, or a history book.

I’ve looked at a few and have decided on this one:

The half-timbered mansion disappeared long ago, and the paved thoroughfare lies buried beneath the dust of centuries. The Great Fire tore the heart out of this corner of Elizabethan London, devouring books, buildings and streets. One of the few things that survived is a small and insignificant-looking map – crinkled, faded, but still bearing the proud name of its owner. (page 1)

This is the beginning of Giles Milton’s about the first English settlement in the New World in the sixteenth century. It’s Big Chief Elizabeth: how England’s Adventurers gambled and won the New World. I’ve read his earlier book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which is a fascinating tale of the ‘competition between England and Holland for possession of the spice- producing islands of South-East Asia throughout the 17th century.’

I like the beginning of Big Chief Elizabeth, which within a few words captures the mystery and appeal of history for me. I’m looking forward to discovering more about the map and its owner.

Blurb from the back cover:

Big Chief Elizabeth has it all: gallant English seadogs, coiffured courtiers, exotic locations and lots of fights with pirates, Spaniards and Indians. (Sunday Telegraph)

Plus I’m interested to read Giles Milton’s newest book, Wolfram: the Boy who Went to War.

Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Katy at A Few More Pages.

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre: a Book Review

Subtitled The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II, Operation Mincemeat is about the Allies’ deception plan codenamed Operation Mincemeat in 1943, which underpinned the invasion of Sicily. It was framed around a man who never was.

The success of the Sicilian invasion depended on overwhelming strength, logistics, secrecy and surprise. But it also relied on a wide web of deception, and one deceit in particular: a spectacular con trick dreamed up by a team of spies led by an English lawyer. (page xi)

At first I found this book a little confusing and far too detailed, but as I read on I became absolutely fascinated and amazed at what had actually happened. The plan was to take a dead body, equipped with false documents, deposit it on a beach in Spain, so that it would be passed over to the Germans and divert them from the real target into believing that the preparations to invade Sicily were a bluff.

Operation Mincemeat would feed them both a false real plan, and a false cover plan – which would actually be the real plan (page 58)

The corpse was a Welsh tramp who had committed suicide. His body was clothed in the uniform of an Royal Marine with documents identifying him as Major William Martin and letters about the top-secret Allied invasion plans. This involved creating a fictional character, a whole host of imaginary agents and sub-agents all with their own characteristics and imaginary lives – just as in a novel. The details of the deception were dreamt up by Ewan Montagu, a barrister and Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley), a flight-lieutenant in the RAF seconded to MI5, the Security Service. Both were enthusiastic readers, which stood them in good stead:

For the task of the spy is not so very different from that of the novellist: to create an imaginary credible world, and then to lure others into it, by words and artifice. (page 62)

The plan was not without its faults and and indeed it contained some potentially fatal flaws, but incredibly it succeeded.

Operation Mincemeat was pure make-believe; and it made Hitler believe something that changed the course of history. (page 307)

This is a book, totally outside my usual range of reading. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did and I think I did enjoy it because it was so far-fetched to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. I marvelled at the ingenuity of the minds of the plans’ originators and the daring it took to carry it out.

Book Notes

I’ve recently finished reading two books:

It’s taken me several weeks to read Eden’s Outcasts and at one point I nearly abandoned it because I thought it was too much about Louisa May Alcott’s father. I’m glad I persevered because the second half of the book  concentrates much more on Louisa and I realised that the title does convey the subject matter very well as it reveals the relationship between them. Bronson Alcott was a complicated person who appeared to have mellowed as he grew older. Louisa, well known and loved for her children’s books never achieved her ambition to write serious books for mature readers, enduring debilitating illness in her later years.

I learnt a lot from this book about their lives and their relationships with other writers such as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. It’s a very detailed book and there is no way I can summarise their lives in a few words and a double biography is even more difficult to deal with. In the final  paragraph Matteson sums this up very well:

To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them. However, as Bronson Alcott learned to his amusement, the life written is never the same as the life lived. Journals and letters tell much. Biographers can sift the sands as they think wisest. But the bonds that two persons share consist also of encouraging words, a reassuring hand on a tired shoulder, fleeting smiles, and soon-forgotten quarrels. These contracts, so indispensable to existence, leave no durable trace. As writers, as reformers, and as inspirations, Bronson and Louisa still exist for us. Yet this existence, on whatever terms we may experience it, is no more than a shadow when measured against the way they existed for each other. (page 428)

Turning to Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams,  I thought an autobiography would maybe include more personal recollections and descriptions of events. It starts off very well with her descriptions of her early childhood – her earliest memory from 1933 when she was three and fell on her head from a swing at the Chelsea Babies’ playground. I was very impressed by her memories of the time she spent in America as a young girl during the Second World War and her self-reliance and independence.

However, much of the book consists of her accounts of her political life, making it very much a political history of Britain, rather than a personal account of her life. There are some personal memories and I particularly liked her descriptions of her fellow politicians – Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and so one – very little about Margaret Thatcher and a few pertinent comments about Tony Blair. Having said that she comes over as a very honest, genuine person who cares deeply about being a good politician. And maybe it is more personal than I originally thought because in the last chapter she writes these words:

Being an MP is like being a member of an extended family. You learn to love your family with all its knobbliness, perversity, courage and complexity. You learn respect and build up trust. …

To be a good politician in a democracy you have to care for people and be fascinated by what makes them tick. … The politician whose eyes shift constantly to his watch, or to the apparently most important person in the room, feeds the distrust felt by the electorate. It is a distrust born of being manipulated, conned, even decieved and it is fed by a relentlessly cynical national press. (page 389)

A side effect of reading this book is that I’m going to read her mother’s book, a best seller published in 1933 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Shirley describes it as

… an autobiography of her wartime experience as a nurse and her personal agony in losing all the young men she most loved … (page 13)

In the preface to Testimony of Youth she wrote:

Testimony of Youth is, I think, the only book about the First World War written by a woman, and indeed a woman whose childhood had been a very sheltered one. It is an autobiography and also an elegy for a generation. For many men and women, it described movingly how they themselves felt.

This looks like a much more personal autobiography.

Weekly Geeks – The books you’ve waited too long to read

This weekend, Weekly Geeks host EH asks about books we have waited too long to read.

Is there a book that has been hanging around your reading pile for far too long before you got to it. A book that probably got packed away until you accidentally got to it or a book that you read a few pages in and never got back to.

There are quite a few books over the last few years that I have started to read and not finished. I don’t mean the ones that I don’t intend to finish. Rather these are books I would like to read all the way through but have not so far got round to it. They are mainly non-fiction and the reason I’ve not finished them is usually that they take more time to read than fiction and so I slot other books in between reading sessions and sometimes just don’t get back to the non-fiction.

These are some of them – all books I do intend to finish:

  1. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin – I stopped reading this partway in as I decided I needed to read more of Hardy’s own books before going further. I’ve read a few more of his books, but have never got back to this biography.
  2. A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela – I must have read about half of this book before I stopped. It was so long ago that I can’t remember why I didn’t finish it.
  3. A Dead Language by Peter Rushforth – this one is fiction. I loved Pinkerton’s Sister by Rushforth. I found A Dead Language hard-going, but I will get back to it one day. The downside is that I’ll have to start it again as I’ve forgotten who all the characters are.
  4. 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro – I can’t remember any specific reason I haven’t finished this book.
  5. Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each essay that I’ve read so far. As the essays are self-contained there is no problem in reading it in instalments.

Flodden: the Scottish Invasion of Henry VIII’s England

Flodden by Niall Barr is an account of the Battle of Flodden between the English and the Scots in 1513, which challenges the traditional view of the battle.  In 1512 James IV, Henry VIII’s brother-in-law, had renewed the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France, promising mutual support should England attack either country. So when Henry made war on France, James had no alternative and he crossed the River Tweed into England with about 40,000 men.

The weather that September was much like it’s been this September – wet and stormy. The battle field was at Branxton, then just a few houses surrounded by bog and woodland. The two armies came face to face separated by a small valley with the English at the bottom of Flodden Hill. The Scots attacked down the hill and were chopped to pieces by the English and James himself was killed. Barr shows how, contrary to the traditional view, James led a well organised and prepared army and considers that it was using new, continental weapons and military tactics in the wrong situation that led to his defeat.

There is a bit too much detail about the weapons used and military history for my liking and I scan read the chapters dealing with that. But the book as a whole gives a real flavour of the times, the diplomacy, the main protagonists and the battle. I found it interesting, maybe because I live in the area where it all took place. I’ve been to the battle field, which today is so peaceful and tranquil, but I could imagine the terrible carnage that took place there nearly 500 years ago.

Map on the notice board in the car park below Flodden Field

Friday Finds – Books and a Bookshop

New-to-me books this week are Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh,  and The Sisters who would be Queen by Leanda de Lisle.

Louise Welsh is the author of The Cutting Room, a dark mystery, which I read several years ago and thought was good, if rather scary. Naming the Bones looks promising:

Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? (Blurb on the back cover)

Dipping into the book I see that the story moves from Edinborough and Glaslow to the Isle of Lismore a small island off the west coast of Scotland. I’m tempted to start reading at once and as I’m nearing the end of Barbara Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye I think this will be my next book.

I seem to be drawn these last few months to the Tudor period. Having read fiction – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell) and currently reading Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Thomas More’s family) I also bought a book of non-fiction, namely The Sisters who would be Queen: the tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle. This is the story of the tumultuous lives of Lady Jane Grey, known as the “Nine-Day Queen”,  and her sisters. I nearly didn’t buy this book as I don’t like pictures of headless women on book covers! But the blurb by Julian Fellowes attracted my attention:

An enthralling story of tyranny and betrayal … meticulous history that reads like a bestselling novel.

I bought these books in a real bookshop – Main Street Books in St Boswell’s. I first found out about this shop from Cornflower’s blog (where she has lovely photos of the shop) and it is a real find – not only books, but a cafe and gift shop and they also sell antiques. We’d been to Melrose and stopped in Main Street Books on the way home (just a short detour), where we browsed and had lunch.

Friday Finds is  hosted by Should Be Reading.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson

The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicolson is a fascinating look at life in Britain during the summer of George V’s Coronation year, 1911.

When I finished reading this book I decided that the summer of 1911 was not “the perfect summer”. It was one of the hottest years of the twentieth century, making life most uncomfortable at a time when most people had no means of getting out of the sweltering heat. Even a trip to the seaside for working class people meant they donned their Sunday best clothes and spent the day standing because they couldn’t afford to hire deck chairs!

Men rarely removed their hats, and the poorer female holidaymaker, possessing neither a special holiday outfit nor light-weight summer clothes, was constrained by the weight of her ‘Sunday best’ – since women dressed for a holiday as they did for a strike – from scrambling over the rocks. These women made an arresting sight against the backdrop of a sparkling blue sea in their artificial-flower-laden hats, their long black skirts brushing the sand as they stood, stifling, in their sturdy black shoes. (page 224)

It was also a summer of discontent as the country was almost brought to a standstill by industrial strikes and the enormous gap between the privileged and the poor was becoming more and more obvious.

Focussing on just the period from May to September this book covers a wide spectrum – from King George’s accession to the throne, Queen Mary’s anxiety over the Coronation and worries about their visit to India (what could she wear?) to debutantes, politicians, poets, factory workers, writers, and women trade unionists. There is little about the suffragettes – they agreed a summer truce for the Coronation. With the benefit of hindsight the threat of the First World War is evident, with the new German warship Panther on its way to Morroco, feared by Winston Churchill (then Home Secretary) and Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Secretary) to be an excuse for territorial aggression.

For me this book was at its best in describing the minutiae of everyday life of both the rich and the poor. One character that sticks in my mind is Eric Horne, a butler. He kept a secret diary:

Not quite the faithful servant he was assumed to be by the deluded individuals who employed him, Eric’s was an increasingly cynical view of the changing world. Some of the noblemen and women he worked for had what seemed to him ‘a kink in the brain’. … Eric bridged the gap between the servers and the served. The evolving memoir, written in his idiosyncratic and uncorrected style, recorded what life was like not only in his pantry below-stairs but in the drawing rooms and bedrooms above. It was incriminating and explosive stuff. Eric knew too much; in fact he knew the truth. (page 149)

He later published two volumes of his memoirs: What the Butler Winked At (1923) and More Winks (1932).

I borrowed The Perfect Summer from the library but there is so much in it that I think I may buy a copy for myself. All the time I was reading it I was thinking this was the world when my grandmother was a young woman and I wondered what it was like for her – how she felt and how much she knew of the national events, living as she did in Wales. The Royal Pageant was at Caernarfon Castle on 13 July that year for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales where ten thousand people attended – I doubt very much she was there!

There is a helpful Dramatis Personnae, a bibliography and useful index. Although the bibliography is extensive, I think I prefer non-fiction to have footnotes, even though they can be a bit distracting, because I like to see the source of the information.

Flodden Field

Whilst searching for a house D and I were near Flodden Field, so of course we just had to go and have a look at it. Flodden Field is near the village of Branxton in Northumberland, a peaceful setting now, but nearly five hundred years ago this was the site of the most famous battles in the borders between the kings of England and Scotland – the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. It was disastrous for the Scots when their King, James IV was killed.

An information board in the little car park next to the field gives many details of the battle.

FF info board

The field is on a hill overlooking Branxton and there is a steep climb up to the monument. In 1513 the battleground was an undrained boggy morass in which the Scottish troops were knee-deep in mud with more troops  coming down the hill behind them, whereas the English troops were on the higher ground with room to manoeuvre.

FF hillside

At the top of the hill there is a monument and wonderful views of the surrounding countryside.

FF monument

FF monument2

Below is the village of Branxton.

FF view of Branxton church

The wider scene

FF view from monument

FF view from monument2

I haven’t read Flodden 1513: Scotland’s Greatest Defeat Campaign by John Sadler and Stephen Walsh but I think  it looks interesting. If you look at it on Amazon you can read a few pages of the opening chapter: The Origins of the Campaign.

Seventy Years Ago Today …

… Neville Chamberlain broadcast that Britain was at war with Germany. In Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner she quotes from the diary of  a twenty-four year old civil servant living in Croydon on 3 September 1939:

The sun is shining, the garden never looked lovelier – everything is in bloom. Tiger [the cat] lies there in the sun; all looks happy and peaceful. But it’s not. War has broken out between England and Germany, beastly, beastly war.

 Winston Churchill’s frame of mind was rather different. He wrote in his memoirs, The Second World War Volume 1: The Gathering Storm, that he knew if war came a major burden would fall on him. On 3 September 1939 he wrote

As I sat in my place [in the House of Commons], listening to the speeches, a very strong sense of calm came over me, after the intense passions and excitements of the last few days. I felt a serenity of mind and was conscious of a kind of uplifted detachment from human and personal affairs. The glory of Old England, peace-loving and ill-prepared as she was, but instant and fearless at the call of honour, thrilled my being and seemed to lift our fate to those spheres far removed from earthly facts and physical sensation.

And so it began …

The Sunday Salon – After the Victorians

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In my last Sunday Salon post I mentioned I was reading about the 1920s in A N Wilson’s After the Victorians. This week I’ve moved on to the 1930s – today’s chapter is called “Puzzles and Pastorals” and I enjoyed it immensely.

after-the-victoriansI like word puzzles and most days do one or more  Alphapuzzles, also known as Codewords. I also like doing crosswords, although I’m not very good at the cryptic puzzles. The Times Crossword became a regular feature dating from 1930. It soon became competitive with letters to the editor boasting of how quickly the writers could solve the puzzle, culminating in the account of M R James, the Provost of Eton and ghost-story writer who could complete the crossword in the time it took to boil an egg ‘and he hates a hard-boiled egg.’ The editorial crowed about the evidence that ‘the best brains in the country’ were viying with each other to complete the puzzle whilst Britain was lagging behind in solving the unemployment crisis or reviving British Industry.

From crosswords Wilson then moves on to discussing the ‘whodunnit mystery story’, another product involving solving a puzzle. Amongst others, he mentions Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Ronald Knox who wrote six detective stories between 1926 and 1937. The appeal of the mystery genre during the 1930s is not simple to explain as it falls into many different categories – the ‘locked room’ mysteries, books based on deductive reasoning, mysteries that rely more on their settings than on plots and the enclosed world of the country house. Wilson sums up the Thirties in this little paragraph:

The 1930s turn into a murder story on a grand scale. Old scores will be settled. Old injustices avenged, new resentments expressed in murder. Of the dominant figures who cross the pages in the early years – Hitler, Laval, Mussolini, Ribbentrop – very many, like characters in Cluedo were headed for violent ends.

In writers of the 1930s a sense of  ‘Englishness’ developed – such as in the mysteries of John Dickson Carr, ‘Michael Innes’, Somerset Maugham and John Cowper Powys. Reading about these writers makes me want to read their books, particularly the four Wessex novels of Powys – Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle, Weymouth Sands and his Autobiography .

Wilson ends this chapter by describing the work of Stanley Spencer, whose return to his childhood village of Cookham, is emblematic of Britain’s retreat into itself after the First World  War. Wilson writes:

British Elegy, and most specifically English Elegy, is the overriding note of serious art and literature for the next twenty years. So much had been lost and destroyed in the war that it is as though the creative intelligences in Britain wanted to recover Eden, not to chart new lands.

I’ve passed the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham many times but I’ve never gone in; I’ve only seen reproductions of his work. Stanley Spencer’s paintings are according to Wilson ‘stylishly executed landscapes of a highly traditional style’. There are religious pictures – the villagers of Cookham experiencing a General Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, scenes of life and death during the war, and his lowlife paintings of ‘overweight women and randy, bewildered little men like himself.’  Maybe next time I’m in Cookham I’ll stop and have a look for myself.

Wilson concludes that in all this Britain turned its back on the rest of the world and pulled up the shutters:

The troops had come back from the war. The politicians and the businessmen had conned everyone into thinking that life would be different. It wasn’t a land fit for heroes. It was still as unfair and as class-riven and silly as before, simply less rich, and less certain of itself.

There is so much in this book – more than a history of the period, encompassing literature, politics, economics and culture, ranging from ephemera to character sketches and anecdotes. It’s entertaining –  popular history rather than the standard historical account of events.

The Second World War

Sometimes I’m amazed at the links between the books I’m reading. I read the following books by choosing them individually without realising that they all had similar themes. Recently I read One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, set in England in 1946 just after the Second World War had ended. Then I read Playing with the Moon by Eliza Graham set in 1943/4 up to the present day and now I’ve just started The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning, set in Bucharest at the start of the War (currently I’m in the “Phoney War” period. I’m also joining a local book group my friend goes to and the book for discussion is Surveillance by Jonathan Raban. I picked up that book yesterday and started to read it. To my surprise, although it’s set in Seattle post 9/11 one of the characters, a journalist has been assigned to interview a historian, who had been “an orphaned child caught up in the worst barbarities of World War Two”, spending his boyhood “among the displaced and terrorized people of central Europe, overrun now by Hitler’s, now by Stalin’s armies”.

I didn’t plan on reading books about the War at all and it was quite by chance that it was near to Remembrance Sunday, but it all seems so appropriate. I decided I should know more about the War and so went to the library. There were so many books that I decided to get a couple of books specifically about D-Day as my father took part in the Normandy landings and also a huge book called Chronicle of the Second World War. I then went to a bookshop and was spoilt for choice with an enormous range of books to choose from. In the end I bought Wartime Britain 1939 – 1949 by Juliet Gardiner. Juliet was the editor of History Today for five years, a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, author of several wartime books, and historical consultant for Channel 4’s The 1940s House and The Edwardian Country House. Thank you to Litlove who recommended this book. I thought it looked a good place to start.

So, I’ve now got lots to get me started on my search to know more about the War.

House History

Danielle and Simon have recently posted photos of the views from their windows. As I’ve posted before the view from my window is shown at the top of the blog. It’s very wet now and the buttercups are starting to fade now, so the view is a bit different today. I’m not sure how old this house is and I’m researching its history. It was certainly built before 1870, possibly in 1848 as one of my neighbours in a similar house has a poster dated 1848 advertising the sale of two “newly built cottages” by auction.

It’s one of a group of 8 cottages set in pairs in a square around an old apple orchard three miles from a small market town, some 40 miles away from London. Some of the old apple trees are still growing in my neighbour’s garden. Originally it was a one-up-one-down cottage, which has had extensions over the years. It was part of a large landed estate dating back to the 11th century and is still in a quiet backwater away from the busy main road, even though that is at the top of the lane. I have seen records in the National Archives at Kew detailing the people who lived here in the early 1900s and want to look at the Census Returns to see how far I can go back to find out who else has lived here. My aim is to write about the house and its owners/occupiers.

I have one of Cassini’s historical maps, which shows the area as it was in 1822 – 1834 and although it is on a small scale it looks as though the cottage was in existence at that date. I shall be visiting our local County Record Office to see what else I can find out from maps and other documents.

Monarchy

Monarchy has just arrived from Amazon and it looks as though I’ll have to start reading it straight away, even though I’m in the middle of several other books. Elizabeth, also by David Starkey is an absorbing account of Elizabeth’s early life, so it’ll be interesting to read about her in this book.

I watched Monarchy when it was on Channel 4 and D says do I have to read the book walking slowly?