Thomas More: A Very Brief History by John Guy

Very brief indeed…

🙂 🙂 😐

According to A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More was a man of principle, willing to sacrifice his life rather than compromise his beliefs. Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of him in Wolf Hall gives an alternative view, of a man who was happy to burn heretics, sarcastic and cruel to those around him, and something of a misogynist. In this truly very brief history, John Guy tries to reveal the real man behind the myths.

My existing knowledge was that More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor during Henry’s attempt to ditch Katherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn; that More drew the line when Henry decided to ditch the Catholic Church, too, and declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England; and that for his defiance, More was executed. Oh, and that he wrote a book called Utopia, which I haven’t read. And tortured and burned heretics, although of course he wasn’t alone in enjoying that sport.

Paul Scofield as More in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Sadly, once I had read this, I found that my existing knowledge hadn’t really expanded much at all. The book runs to 144 small pages, including notes, etc. I was reading the e-book, but at a guess I’d say 100-110 pages of text maximum, during which Guy romps through his life, discusses the writing and history of Utopia, talks about the portrayal of him in art following his death and in literature more recently, and finishes up with his route to sainthood. When I tell you that More dies at the 40% mark, you will be able to tell that the book doesn’t go into much depth regarding his life.

Guy always writes well and Thomas More has been a subject of study with him for many years, so there’s no doubt of the scholarship. But truthfully the biography section is so superficial as to be almost pointless, unless one literally knows nothing about More going in. (Which begs the question: why then would you be motivated to read the book in the first place?) And the rest reads like the epilogue to a biography – the kind of thing that historians put in as a last chapter to round the thing off.

Anton Lesser as More in Wolf Hall (2015)

Some of it is quite interesting, like the fact that Marx adopted Utopia as a socialist text and as a result there was a statue to commemorate More along with other great socialists in the USSR. Or that his sainthood only came through in 1935, by which time one would have hoped that the Catholic Church might have stopped sanctifying heretic-burners. (Mind you, Wikipedia tells me the Anglican Church recognised him as a martyr of the Reformation in 1980, so look out anyone who doesn’t conform to Anglicanism – the days of burning may not be as far behind us as we thought!) It is mildly amusing in a surreal kind of way that in 2000, Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of politicians…

John Guy

Which brings me neatly to my conclusion – it grieves me to say it since I’ve been an admirer of John Guy’s work for years but, frankly, reading the Wikipedia page on More is just about as informative as this book. I guess very brief histories just aren’t my kind of thing. Guy wrote a longer biography of More some years ago (although still only 272 pages, according to Goodreads), so I may read that some day to see if it’s more satisfying.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, SPCK.

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

An avoidable disaster…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

dead-wakeOn a day which had earlier been foggy but was now clear and calm, some passengers aboard the Lusitania stood on deck and watched the ‘dead wake’ of a German U-boat torpedo heading towards the bow of the ship. It was 7th May 1915; Europe was engulfed in war while the USA was desperately maintaining its position of neutrality. Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

Larson starts with a prologue about the evening before the attack. Before she sailed from New York, the Germans had threatened they would attack the Lusitania, but the passengers weren’t particularly anxious. The Lusitania had been built for speed, the fastest ship of its time. Captain William Turner was confident she could outrun any U-boat. Anyway, given the threat and the knowledge that U-boats were operating around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, there was a general confidence that the Royal Navy would be on hand to escort them for the last dangerous stage of the journey.

lusitania-advertising-poster

Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Eerily reminiscent of the Bletchley codebreakers of WW2, there was the same dilemma as to how often to act on information obtained – too often and the Germans would work out that their codes had been cracked, and change them. So some ships were left unprotected, sacrifices, almost, to the greater war effort. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and was desperate to draw the US into the war on the British side. There appears to be little doubt that he felt that if German U-boats sank ships with American citizens aboard, this might be a decisive factor.

U-20 - the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo...
U-20 – the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo…

Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. By using Schwieger’s logs amongst other sources, Larson creates an absorbing and authentic-feeling depiction of life aboard the ship, including a lot of fascinating detail about how U-boats actually worked – the logistical difficulties of diving, with the weight constantly changing as the amount of fuel aboard decreased; and how the crew would have to run from place to place to keep the boat level when manoeuvring. Larson widens this out to tell of some of the dangers for these early submarines, and some of the horrific accidents that had happened to them. And he takes us further, into the ever-changing policy of the German government with regards to the sinking of passenger and merchant ships.

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The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. Politically hoping to sit it out while Britain bore the brunt, Wilson was also suffering personally from the loss of his much-loved wife, closely followed by what sounds like a rather adolescent rush of passion for another woman. It appears that he spent as much time a-wooing as a-Presidenting, and his desire to spend his life taking his new love out for romantic drives meant that he seemed almost infinitely capable of overlooking Germany’s constant breaches of the rules regarding neutral nations. (I should say the harshness of this interpretation is mine – Larson gives the facts but doesn’t draw the conclusions quite as brutally as I have done. Perhaps because he’s American and I’m British. But he leaves plenty of space for the reader to draw her own conclusions.)

Wilson getting his priorities in order...
Wilson getting his priorities in order…

The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them. There were many children aboard, including young infants. Some people were bringing irreplaceable art and literary objects across in the way of business. There were pregnant women, and nannies and servants, and of course the crew. Larson explains that the crew were relatively inexperienced as so many sailors had been absorbed into the war effort. While they carried out regular drills, logistics meant they couldn’t actually lower all the lifeboats during them, so that when the disaster actually happened this lack of experience fed into the resulting loss of life. But he also shows the heroism of many of the crew and some of the passengers, turning their backs on their own safety to assist others. Even so, the loss of life was massive, and by telling the personal stories of some who died and others who survived but lost children or parents or lovers, Larson brings home the intimate tragedies that sometimes get lost in the bigger picture.

1915 painting of the sinking
1915 painting of the sinking

And finally, Larson tells of the aftermath, both personal for some of the survivors or grieving relatives of the dead; and political, in terms of the subsequent investigations in Britain into what went wrong, and Wilson’s attempts to ensure that even a direct attack on US citizens wouldn’t drag his country into war.

Larson balances the political and personal just about perfectly in the book, I feel. His excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. He doesn’t shy away from the politics though, and each of the governments, British, German and American, come in for their fair share of harsh criticism, including some of the individuals within them. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told – highly recommended.

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Henry V: The Conscience of a King by Malcolm Vale

Peaceful pursuits of the warrior-king…

😀 😀 😀 😀

henry VIn his introduction, Malcolm Vale suggests that Henry V’s reputation as a warrior-king shows only one aspect of his character, and not necessarily the most important one in letting us understand the man. To make his case, Vale looks at Henry’s other activities – how he carried out the daily business of government, how he dealt with matters of the Church, his involvement in encouragement of the arts, etc. Since, unusually for the time, Henry often wrote letters in his own hand, Vale suggests that for the first time we get to hear the actual ‘voice’ of a monarch.

This book is neither a history of the period nor a full biography of Henry. It is an extremely detailed look at various aspects of Henry’s reign, but makes no attempt to tell his whole ‘story’. Because of its focus on Henry’s peaceful activities, it only touches on his wars in passing. It’s academic in tone and assumes some familiarity on the part of the reader with the events and main players of the time. It’s therefore not a book for beginners. Since I most definitely am a beginner to this period of history, I would have struggled badly had it not been for the fortunate circumstance that I very recently read a biography of Henry IV, which gave me some background to the political situation in England and Europe. However, this is not in any way a criticism of the book. Vale sets out his agenda clearly in his introduction and fully meets it.

Henry V - artist unknown. Vale speculates that the portrait is in profile because the right side of his face would be disfigured after the wound he received at the battle of Shrewsbury...
Henry V – artist unknown.
Vale speculates that the portrait is in profile because the right side of his face would be disfigured after the wound he received at the battle of Shrewsbury…

Each chapter covers one aspect of Henry’s reign. Vale starts with a look at how the daily business of government was carried out, showing the high level of personal involvement of Henry in decisions large and small. He shows how a bureaucracy grew up to streamline this and take some of the pressure off the King, and also to provide a consistent approach during Henry’s long absences in France. Vale goes into great detail over the uses of the various seals and signets and under what circumstances each was used. Henry is shown as having taken his duty as a monarch seriously, trying to provide justice and working closely with his council. Vale shows that, more than previous Kings, Henry’s own manual signature often appears on documents, suggesting that this was done as an extra indication of his personal will in certain matters.

Vale also discusses Henry’s involvement in Church matters, both at home and abroad. Henry is shown as genuinely religious, with a desire to support and protect religious establishments while expecting them to live up to their part of the bargain by curbing absenteeism, reforming some of the areas of abuse and tending to the cure of souls. Partly because of the weakness of papal authority due to the Schism, Henry had considerable power over appointments, and Vale suggests that he was effectively head of the church within his own territories, two centuries before Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

...but clearly that can't be right as we can tell from this later portrait. (Doesn't he look just like Kenneth Branagh? Yummy...)
…but clearly that can’t be right as we can tell from this later portrait. (Doesn’t he look just like Kenneth Branagh? Yummy…)

Henry’s interest in the peaceful arts comes under scrutiny too, showing his direct involvement in encouraging and even participating in them. It appears he may have composed music himself, as well as playing the harp. He read fairly widely, both religious and imaginative works, and commissioned translations. He also commissioned artistic work that formed part of the trappings of power – tapestries and textiles, ornamental and military metalwork, etc.

The chapter I found most interesting discusses Henry’s increasing use and promotion of the English language as his reign progressed. At the beginning of the reign, Norman French and Latin were still the languages of government, but from about the middle of his reign on, English begins to appear more often and Henry himself begins to write letters in that language. Vale suggests that this is a result of Henry’s desire to show that, should he succeed in gaining the crown of France, the two countries would remain separate, distinct entities with their own laws and identities. At that time, English was seen as an unsophisticated language without the vocabulary or nuance required of a language of government. Vale shows how much of the formal language was adopted wholesale from Norman French, either anglicised or literally translated. He also shows that even now, six centuries later, some of the phrases put into use in Henry’s time are still used in formal Parliamentary documents. This was the time of Chaucer and other early writers in English, and Vale discusses the literary development of the language, suggesting that the King’s influence in promoting English was crucial in its growth.

Hmm... yeah. Could be English. French or Latin, but my money's on Chinese...
Hmm… yeah. Could be English, French or Latin, but my money’s on Chinese…

In conclusion, I feel Vale makes his case that there was much more to Henry V than simply being the warrior of Agincourt fame. The research that has gone into the book is clearly immense and it is well written and presented. Obviously I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the facts or conclusions, but I found it a convincing read. Personally I found parts of it a little dry and repetitive and perhaps too detailed, but I put that down to a mismatch between reader and book. In tone, I would suggest it is aimed more at the academic reader, or at least a knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateur, than at the casual reader. Nonetheless I learned a good deal, not just about Henry, but about governance of the time, the growth of the English language, and the relationships between monarchy, religious institutions and the Papacy. 4 stars for me, but I’m confident this would be a 5-star read for someone with greater pre-knowledge of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Boys will be boys…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the wicked boyFor ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. They slept downstairs in the back parlour of their house, with a family friend who had come at their request to look after them. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from the house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.

This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. The idea of the matricide itself horrified contemporary society enough, but it was the cool behaviour of the boys over the following ten days that made the crime seem even more shocking. Evidence showed that the murder was planned – Robert had bought the knife specially a few days earlier, and he later claimed that he and Nattie had arranged a signal for when the deed should be done.

The first part of the book concentrates on the crime and the trial procedures and Summerscale covers these with her usual excellent attention to detail. Because they felt that their case against Robert would be stronger if his brother gave evidence, the prosecution were keen to have the charges against Nattie dropped, since at that time defendants were not allowed to tell their story in court. In the early proceedings, Robert had no lawyer or other representation and was expected to cross-examine witnesses by himself. The boys’ father was a steward on board a transatlantic cattle vessel, and wasn’t even aware of the murder till after the first hearings had taken place.

The front page of the illustrated Police News 1895
The front page of the illustrated Police News 1895

Although this all sounds horrific to our modern ideas of justice, especially for children, there seems little doubt that Robert was indeed guilty, and some of the court officers did their best to make the process as easy for him as they could within the system. The boys were held in an adult jail during the trial process, but had individual cells – a luxury they might be unlikely to get today. The boys’ extended family did show up for the hearings, so Nattie at least had some adult support.

The defence quickly decided to try for an insanity ruling, which meant that they actually preferred for there not to be a rational motive, while the prosecution felt Robert’s guilt was so obvious they didn’t need one. The result of this is that no-one ever really asked why Robert did it, and so the motivation remains unclear. Summerscale suggests on the basis of some fairly circumstantial evidence that the mother may have been cruel to the boys in her husband’s absence – there is a suggestion that she too suffered from “excitability” and extreme mood swings, and may have beaten the boys badly, but this is largely speculation.

In this first section, Summerscale also widens her discussion out to look at the society and living conditions of the time. Robert’s family was working class, but not grindingly poor – his father had a decent income, and the boys got a good education. However, at that time, there was much debate as to whether educating the poor was a good thing, especially since the ability to read allowed boys access to the “penny dreadfuls” of the time, which many considered to have a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Robert had a collection of such pamphlets, and the press made much of this. The crime took place in Plaistow in Essex, an industrial area within the range of the heavily polluted atmosphere of London. There was also much debate at that time about the general poor health of the urban poor, while the acceptance of the theory of evolution brought with it a belief in the possibility of its opposite, degeneration. It all reminded me of the “bad boy” culture that Andrew Levy discussed so thoroughly in his book about Twain’s young hero, Huck Finn’s America.

Robert Coombes as as adult around the late 1930s
Robert Coombes as as adult around the late 1930s

The second half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robert after his conviction. Summerscale is asking, and answering, the question of whether someone who has done such a dreadful thing can go on to lead a normal, even worthwhile life. Robert spent several years in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where again because of his youth he was in fact treated more kindly than we might expect. This whole section is fascinating in what it tells us about the treatment of those judged criminally insane. In fact, from time to time there were complaints that the treatment was too kind – that people were faking insanity to avoid the much harder regime in normal prisons.

Kate Summerscale
Kate Summerscale

This is not the end of Robert’s story, though. Following his eventual release from Broadmoor, Summerscale follows his trail through the rest of his life, uncovering some interesting and unexpected details about how he turned out. So often true crime stories from the Victorian era end with a conviction and capital punishment. This one, being somewhat later and also because it concerned a child, is intriguing because we are able to see the aftermath. At the point of conviction Robert would undoubtedly have been seen as some kind of monster, but Summerscale lets us see whether the rest of his life confirmed that or allowed him to find some kind of redemption. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is easily the equal of Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and personally, having worked with boys of that age with troubled and often criminal histories, I found this one even more interesting. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Group.

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Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy

The woman behind the myth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Elizabeth The Forgotten YearsIn his preface, John Guy suggests that biographers of Elizabeth I of England tend to have paid less attention to the later years of her life, often relying on the accepted story created by earlier writers. Guy has gone back to the original source documents, stripping back the accumulated layers of mythology surrounding her to reveal the complex and very human character beneath.

During the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, she was under continual pressure to marry, partly to provide an heir but also because of the prevailing feeling that women were not suited to be monarchs. Having seen the unhappy and unsuccessful marriage of her sister Mary to Philip of Spain, not to mention the hardly idyllic marriage of her tyrannical father to her soon-to-be-headless mother, Elizabeth was always reluctant to reach a decision that would make her subordinate to a husband. However, marriage negotiations rumbled on throughout her child-bearing years.

But by the age of 50 when it was finally clear that the Queen would have no direct heir, Guy suggests she was for the first time really accepted, however reluctantly, as a monarch in her own right – a Prince or King as she often referred to herself – and felt herself freer to stamp her royal authority on those around her. These later years – the period covered in this book – were dominated by the interminable wars in Europe, concern over the succession, power struggles and conspiracies at home, and, of course, Essex, her arrogant young favourite.

The ageing Queen... Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595
The ageing Queen…
Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595

As well as being a serious historian, Guy has a gift for storytelling which always makes his books a pleasure to read. It seems to me he has mastered the art of presenting history in a way that makes it fully accessible to the casual, non-academic reader without ever ‘dumbing down’. He does masses of research, from original sources where possible, then, having decided what ‘story’ he is going to tell, he distils all that information down to those people and events that will illustrate his arguments. It’s a simplification in presentation, but not in scholarship. As with all the best historical writers, he knows what information should appear in the main body of the text and what can be left to the notes at the back for people who wish to look into the subject more deeply. As a result, the cast of ‘characters’, which can often become overwhelming in history books, is kept to a small, manageable level, and the reader gets to know not just the principal subject but the people who most closely influence events.

So in this book, as well as a revealing and convincing picture of the ageing Elizabeth, we also get a thorough understanding of those who were most relevant to her at this later period: an equally ageing Burghley, and the younger men, struggling amongst themselves to win her favour and the political power that came with it – Burghley’s son Cecil, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Essex, who almost shares star billing with the Queen herself.

The dashing Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
The dashing Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

The first few chapters romp through the early years of Elizabeth’s accession and reign, really just to give the reader a bit of background, then each subsequent chapter focuses on a particular person or event. As is my usual way, I found the sections relating to the wars least interesting, though Guy does a good job of explaining all the shifting allegiances and showing how the various campaigns led to the rise or fall of those leading them. He also shows the contrast between Elizabeth’s concern for her aristocratic commanders and her casual disregard for the welfare of the ordinary soldiers, sometimes leaving them unpaid and with no way to get home from their campaigns. But throughout the period, as usual in these endless wars, those at the top were constantly changing sides or even religions, and no-one really ever seems to win or lose, and I just don’t care!

Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh attributed to William Segar
Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh attributed to William Segar

Much more interesting to me are the power struggles at home and Guy gives a very clear picture of the personalities involved here. In the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign, Burghley was ageing, while Walsingham’s death left a vacancy Elizabeth found difficult to fill. But worse, she had also lost Leicester, the love of her life. She may have had disagreements with all three of these men at various times, but she also depended on them and trusted them to a degree that she would find difficult with the young men coming up. Guy makes clear that, while Essex was a favourite, he was no replacement for Leicester and Elizabeth was fairly clear-sighted about his weaknesses and unreliability. Burghley was keen that his son, Cecil, should succeed him as the main power in the government, while Ralegh and Essex looked to war and naval exploits to gain favour. (Interesting aside for non-Brits – the Cecils have lasted well. The most recent, a direct descendant of Burghley, was leader of the House of Lords as recently as 1997. We do seem to cling on to our aristocracy!)

John Guy
John Guy

Once it was clear that Elizabeth would never have a child, her advisers wanted to settle the question of the succession. However, Elizabeth would never allow this to be discussed, partly through a dislike of thinking about her death and partly because she feared that a settled succession may lead to conspiracies to force her to abdicate or, worse, to murder her, thus making way for the new king. The obvious successor in terms of bloodlines was James VI of Scotland and he had the further advantage of having been brought up in the Protestant religion. Elizabeth’s refusal to name a successor meant that, as she approached the end of her life, even her nearest courtiers were carrying on secret correspondences with James – Essex primarily for his own advantage and possibly to the point of treason, but also Cecil who, while looking out for his own interests too, seemed genuinely to want to avoid major disruption on Elizabeth’s death.

Guy’s portrait of Elizabeth feels credible and human. She seems to have been vain and capricious, temperamental, cruel when angered and vindictive when she felt betrayed. But as we see her age, with all her early advisors dying one by one, including Leicester, her one true love, and eventually also Kate Carey, her greatest friend, in the end she seems a rather lonely and pitiful figure. Another first-class biography from Guy – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking Books.

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The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

50 ways to kill your lover…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

 

the secret poisonerLiberally illustrated by true tales of crimes from the Victorian era, the book’s real focus is on advances and developments in the science of detection and the prosecution of poisoning cases. In each chapter, Stratmann looks at one aspect of these and gives one or more examples to show their impact in practice.

Stratmann opens with the case of Eliza Fenning, a maidservant hanged for the attempted poisoning of her employers. This case came to be seen as a major miscarriage of justice, highlighting the inadequacies of the justice system as it related to poisoning cases. Cases were dependant on proof of two things – that the victim had in fact been poisoned, and that the accused had deliberately administered the poison. The science at the time was so weak that proof of the first part was almost entirely dependent on observation of the victim’s symptoms, and the second was complicated by the fact that poisons were readily available without any safeguards, and in fact were often used in small doses as medicines.

Arsenic was the poison most often suspected in the early days of the period, and at this time women were the ones most likely to be accused of using it. Although the focus of the book is on the science, Stratmann also touches on the social conditions behind many of the cases she discusses. Arsenic was easily obtainable and simple to use, and its use as a rat poison meant that there was nothing particularly suspicious about women buying it. At the time, divorce was difficult, especially for the poor, and especially for women. While men could divorce an unfaithful wife, a woman could only divorce her husband for much worse things; for example, if he was violent or deserted her. Married women had no property rights – whereas a widow could inherit her husband’s property. So the temptation to do away with a brutal (or sometimes just boring) husband was always there…

Eliza Fenning... before the hanging!
Eliza Fenning… before the hanging!

But it wasn’t only inconvenient husbands who could be disposed of with relative ease. During this period, the Government changed the law so that an unmarried mother could no longer get maintenance from her child’s father through the court. Add to this the rise of ‘burial clubs’ – an insurance scheme where payouts greater than the cost of the funeral would be made on the death of the insured – and it’s hardly surprising there was a rise in the number of cases of infanticide amongst the poor. Stratmann makes two interesting points about these cases – firstly, that women murdering their children tended to use laudanum rather than arsenic because it was a ‘kinder’ death, causing less suffering to the victim; and, secondly, that juries, who probably had a good understanding of the impossible poverty some women found themselves in, tended to take a more sympathetic and lenient view of such cases than we might expect from Victorian men.

Stratmann makes the point that, although there were indeed many poisoning cases in the period, much of the hysteria around the apparent prevalence of poisoning was due in large part to the effect of ‘moral panic’, as the media and special interest groups whipped up fear amongst the populace for their own advantage. The new Pharmacists Association and the forerunner of the British Medical Association saw panic over poisons as a means to boost recognition of their own professions as the best people to sell and control drugs, while nothing sells more newspapers than a horrific murder and, preferably, a good public hanging to follow.

The trial of Dr Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner
The trial of Dr Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner

As the science of detection gradually improved and the Government slowly began to take measures to make the purchase of arsenic a little harder, the focus changed somewhat to vegetable alkaloids, such as the infamous strychnine. Since these poisons were harder to get hold off and in some cases required a bit of knowledge to use effectively, the ‘moral panic’ pendulum swung and it was now men who were seen as the main poisoners, especially well-educated, respectable men. Again Stratmann raises some interesting points here, such as the reluctance of doctors called in to such cases to suggest poisoning because of the elevated social positions of the ‘suspects’. She gives us examples of cases where a wife would be slowly poisoned, with her attending physicians suspecting poison for days, even weeks, before death but doing nothing constructive to stop it. The British class system at play as usual – isn’t it great?

Death mask of Dr William Palmer... after the hanging!
Death mask of Dr William Palmer… after the hanging!

Meantime, the science was improving but unfortunately the egos of the scientists were growing alongside. Now both prosecution and defence would call ‘expert witnesses’ who would battle it out in court, more interested sometimes in their own reputations than in the guilt or innocence of the accused. This had the double effect of making it next to impossible for jury members to decide on scientific points they didn’t understand, while undermining public faith in science in general. In some of the examples Stratmann cites here, I was frankly glad I hadn’t been on the jury, as both sides set out to destroy the reputation of the other. She also compares the British system to the French, where the court would appoint its own expert, thus avoiding this kind of courtroom confrontation (but also meaning that perhaps too much reverence and faith was placed on one man’s opinion).

Linda Stratmann
Linda Stratmann

So, interesting stuff. Unfortunately overall, I found the interesting bits were pretty deeply submerged under a lot of scientific stuff I didn’t really understand and didn’t think was explained clearly enough for the layperson. Also, there are far too many examples of cases given, all complete with very similar gruesome descriptions of vomiting, bodily excretions, autopsies and horrific scientific experimentation, mainly on dogs. All the cases eventually merged into one mass of yuckiness – a few cases more carefully chosen would have been much more effective, in my opinion. By the final few chapters, I was skipping over the cases, and the science, I must admit, to get to the little bits of interest to me. In the end, I felt it was all too detailed and had too much repetition of points already made. However, it is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched and well written book which will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the science, justice system or social conditions of the time.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman

gandhi and churchillCometh the hour, cometh the men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.

Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel...
Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel…

Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.

Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.

Churchill with his beloved cigar...
Churchill with his beloved cigar…

Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.

And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.

Arthur Herman Photo credit: Beth Herman
Arthur Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!

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Henry IV by Christopher Given-Wilson

henry ivThe Lancastrian Usurper…

😀 😀 😀 😀

My existing knowledge of Henry IV amounted to the assumption that he probably came somewhere between Henry III and Henry V. So I hoped that this biography, part of the Yale University Press English Monarchs series, would fill a pretty big hole. And, with a large degree of success, it does.

In the introduction, Christopher Given-Wilson makes it clear that the book is a political biography of the man rather than a history of the period, though obviously the two are intertwined. Most of the book is a fairly linear account of Henry’s life, starting with an explanation of the growth of Lancastrian wealth and power under his father, John of Gaunt. While political life in England was more centred on the monarchy than in many other countries, he gives a very clear picture of the factionalism and rivalries between some of the major landowners, and how the major players would build their own ‘affinities’ – paid knightly retainers who would fight for their overlord when required. I gathered from the notes that these affinities are a field of special expertise for Given-Wilson, and I found his detailed insights into this aspect fascinating.

Henry’s forays to the Crusades gave him the opportunity to win a reputation as a knightly hero, while Richard II was making himself increasingly unpopular at home. Even before this, Henry had been heavily involved with others in trying to curtail what some saw as Richard’s misuse of power, so when the opportunity arose, Richard sent him off into exile. But when John of Gaunt died and Richard attempted a land-grab of Lancastrian property, Henry returned and, largely with popular support, usurped the throne.

Henry of Bolingbroke, flanked by the lords spiritual and temporal, claims the throne in 1399. From a contemporary manuscript, British Library, Harleian Collection, via Wikipedia
Henry of Bolingbroke, flanked by the lords spiritual and temporal, claims the throne in 1399. From a contemporary manuscript, British Library, Harleian Collection, via Wikipedia

For me, this section was considerably more interesting than the account of Henry’s time as King. Given-Wilson goes into immense detail on subjects such as finances, tax-raising and the cost of foreign ventures. Necessary in an academic book, but I’m afraid much of it made for rather dry reading, and often used terminology unfamiliar to me without explaining it clearly enough.

I was more interested in learning about the various wars and skirmishes going on around Henry’s borders, with Welsh, Scots and Irish all causing problems, not to mention the ongoing struggle for Henry to maintain his claim to the title of King of France. Given-Wilson explains well the lead up to the Hotspur rebellions and their aftermath, and I also felt that I got some insight into the background to Henry V’s later adventures in France. But again, I found parts of these sections confusing as so many names came and went (and, as is always a problem, people frequently changed their names as they inherited titles or rose through the ranks of the aristocracy) leaving me frankly bewildered on occasion as to who was on whose side.

In the final few chapters of the book, Given-Wilson changes from a linear narrative to concentrating on one aspect of Henry’s life or character at a time – for example, personality and image, wars and tactics, lawlessness among the gentry (which Given-Wilson calls by my favourite new phrase – “fur-collar crime”), etc. For me, these worked better than the earlier chapters in finally making me feel that I was beginning to understand the man behind the history. Given-Wilson concludes that Henry IV was more relevant than history sometimes suggests, and puts the blame firmly on Shakespeare for creating an inaccurate picture of him. Certainly the picture Given-Wilson paints in this book suggests Henry was more or less forced into usurpation by Richard’s desire to smash Lancastrian power.

Chris Given-Wilson is emeritus professor of medieval history, University of St. Andrews, and author of nine books on medieval history.
Chris Given-Wilson is emeritus professor of medieval history, University of St. Andrews, and author of nine books on medieval history.

With any biography or history, the author has to decide what audience he is addressing. Given-Wilson is clearly aiming at people with some pre-existing knowledge of the period – i.e., not me. That’s not to say I didn’t glean a lot from the book. But I also found many times that I was at something of a loss. For example, I’m sure that way back in the Dark Ages when I was at school, some poor history teacher probably explained the Great Schism to me, and possibly even Lollardy. But I fear the brain-cells where I stored that information must have been recycled somewhere along the way. (It’s interesting to speculate what might have over-written them – I’m guessing it’s my in-depth knowledge of the history of the various incarnations of the USS Enterprise…) I am certainly not criticising Given-Wilson’s decision not to explain the background to some of the things that impacted on Henry’s reign, but it does mean that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one for the casual reader or total newcomer to the period.

However, it’s well-written and thoroughly researched and, assuming one has the necessary background knowledge, gives a clear, well laid-out and informatively detailed account of Henry’s life and reign.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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Winston Churchill at The Telegraph ed. Dr. Warren Dockter

winston churchill at the telegraphDon’t mention the war!

🙂 🙂 🙂

Before he became a politician, Churchill was both a serving soldier and a war correspondent, forging a relationship with the right-wing Telegraph newspaper that lasted on and off for the whole of his life. This book is an amalgamation of articles which appeared in the paper, either written by or about Churchill over his long career. Having thoroughly enjoyed another Telegraph publication last year, The Telegraph Book of the First World War, I had high expectations of this one, which sadly it didn’t wholly meet.

Some of the articles written by Churchill are outstanding. His description of the naval war in WW1 is lucid and revealing about the arguments over tactics between the politicians and Admiralty bigwigs. It’s a potted history of the whole thing, from the positioning of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow through to the U-boat war and the measures taken to combat it – the Dover barrage and the adoption of the system of convoys. As always in his writing, Churchill’s personality comes through – his criticisms of the Admiralty feel personal on occasion – but he is very good at making complicated issues clear for the less well informed reader.

Churchill in the uniform of the Fourth Queen's Own Hussars. Do you think that's a disgruntled cat in the background?
Churchill in the uniform of the Fourth Queen’s Own Hussars.
Do you think that’s a disgruntled cat in the background?

He also speaks intelligently and perceptively about the ‘dole’ – how National Insurance should be used, in his opinion, to support those people who are left without work for a period of time. Many of the arguments he was putting forward back in the middle of the last century are still being debated today and he was unusually perceptive at recognising that the future would probably lead to an ageing population with all the pressures that would place on the newly-formed Welfare State. It’s rather depressing to think that present-day politicians seem to have been taken by surprise by issues Churchill foresaw 60 or 70 years ago.

There is also a rather excellent section in the book on Churchill’s post-WW2 plea for the formation of a United States of Europe, where he envisions much of what has subsequently come to pass, and pretty much in the way he suggested. He felt that it was crucial for France, still reeling from the war, to reach out a hand of forgiveness to defeated Germany, and to forge unbreakable bonds between first the major and then the minor nations of Europe to prevent the never-ending wars that had brought the entire continent to its knees. He believed both the United Nations and a treaty between Europe and the US (subsequently NATO) would be crucial in ensuring peace and in providing a bulwark against the encroachment of communism in the form of the USSR. All familiar stuff to us now, but prescient and influential when he was writing.

Churchill the artist - The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell 1932
Churchill the artist – The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell 1932

So there’s plenty of good stuff in here. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest is either filler or not set well enough in context to make it informative without pre-existing background knowledge. Each section has a little introduction, but these don’t give enough information to explain the background to the following articles. Therefore, the bits I’ve picked out as excellent are the things that I already had some knowledge of. But when Churchill is talking about his time in India way back before WW1, for example, I was completely at a loss – I didn’t know who we were fighting or why, or who won, and I was none the wiser afterwards. Like the First World War book, this one has no notes, but while I felt in worked in that book by pushing the reader into the same position as the original readers of the newspaper, in this one it felt like a real weakness – the original readers would have been aware of the context in a way that most modern readers won’t be. I also found the articles about Churchill arriving at train stations, complete with descriptions of what he and his wife were wearing, or the articles about his pets(!), lacked much relevance or interest to all but the most dedicated Churchill enthusiast.

Churchill with Rufus the poodle
Churchill with Rufus the poodle

My other main complaint is that the book is by no means complete. We are told that Churchill wrote a series of fortnightly articles for the paper during the run-up to WW2. But we only get to read a couple of them. Had the bits about his budgerigar been left out, perhaps the space could have been filled with something more enlightening. Also, the way the book has been divided up into sections by subject means that the timeline jumps all over the place – one minute we’re in the 1940s and then suddenly we’re back in the 1910s. And oddly, WW2 seems to be almost entirely missing! I grant that Churchill probably didn’t have much time for article writing at that period; however, presumably the paper was reporting on the war and on Churchill’s role, but the mentions of it in this book are few and far between.

So, despite a few excellent articles, overall I found the book pretty disappointing. A missed opportunity – with more focused editing, a linear structure and fuller contextual information I feel this could have been done so much better. As it is, I can’t give it more than a lukewarm recommendation at best.

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London Fog by Christine L Corton

london fog coverThe story of The Smoke…

😀 😀 😀 😀

From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835

Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.

Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening
Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening

Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.

Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927
Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.

Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.

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The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

the year of lear“Let every man be master of his time.”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro sets out to show how this burst of creativity reflected the events and concerns of the times and to reveal what Shakespeare may have been thinking as he wrote.

Shapiro reminds us that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean playwright as an Elizabethan one, and suggests that these later plays show how the English world had changed since James I came to the throne in 1603. For most of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, the major concern of the political classes had been the question of succession, but now that question had been resolved. Not only had James succeeded peacefully to the throne but he had two sons, securing the continuance of his dynasty for at least another generation. There was now a new question – as King of both Scotland and England, James was eager to create a union between them, a plan that was less attractive to the powerful elites in either nation. It was in this context that Lear was written, though Shapiro makes the point that it’s unclear whether the play is pro- or anti-Union – apparently scholars have continued to argue it both ways over the intervening years.

Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse Photo: Johan Persson
Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse
Photo: Johan Persson

As well as the contemporary context, Shapiro looks at Shakespeare’s use of sources. In the case of Lear much of the play is based on an earlier play, King Leir by Samuel Harsnett. Shapiro shows how Shakespeare retained the basic structure and some of the language of the earlier work, while changing much of the text and creating a considerably darker ending. He speculates on how these changes would have played with the expectations of a contemporary audience familiar with the earlier play, making Shakespeare’s ending even more shocking in its unexpectedness.

The end of 1605 was marked by the Gunpowder Plot which, though it failed, revealed the rising anxiety over religious divisions and led to an atmosphere of fear and tension. Shapiro shows the links of the plotters to the Midlands and hence to the society that Shakespeare knew well. Following the plot, there was a threatened uprising near Stratford with friends and neighbours of Shakespeare on either side. Shapiro gives a good picture of how small the world of the gentry was at this time, and how Catholicism may have gone underground but hadn’t gone away. All of this would have meant that Shakespeare would have felt more than interested – involved almost – in the plots and their aftermath.

This was also a time obsessed with tales of witchcraft and demonic possession, subjects in which James himself was deeply interested, becoming personally involved in investigating some of the cases of alleged possession. Shapiro shows how both these contemporary concerns – plotting and the supernatural – fed into the writing of Macbeth.

Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth For me, the definitive production - and available on DVD!
Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth
For me, the definitive production – and available on DVD!

Shapiro’s own writing is very readable and it’s clear he has researched both the period and the plays thoroughly. However, I feel the book sometimes lacks focus, becoming more of a history of the year than an analysis of the plays. While he ties contemporary concerns well into both Lear and Macbeth, I felt the section on Antony and Cleopatra was looser and therefore less successful. He also discusses some other aspects of the year, such as theatre closures due to plague, which, while interesting in themselves, didn’t seem to have much relevance to the creation of these specific plays. I feel the book rather falls between two stools – the attempt to tie everything back to the plays makes the history feel a bit superficial and occasionally contrived, while the lack of information about Shakespeare’s life means that a lot of Shapiro’s analysis is necessarily based on assumption rather than fact. In terms of interest, I found parts of it fascinating and other parts frankly rather dull – of course, I realise that much of that is subjective. But I felt that a tighter structure focused more clearly on the plays would have worked better. Or alternatively perhaps, a structure that focused exclusively on the events and concerns of the year with less of an attempt to show their relevance to the plays. Trying to do both somehow left me feeling a bit shortchanged on each.

Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra Wow! I wish I'd seen that one!
Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra
Wow! I wish I’d seen that one!

However, there is certainly enough of interest to make the book well worth reading even if it didn’t quite meet my expectations. In amongst the other stuff, Shapiro gives a good picture of contemporary theatre, from Ben Jonson’s masques to the collapse of the boys’ companies as a result of the plague. He discusses how Shakespeare’s own company was ageing by this period, allowing Shakespeare to write some older parts. He shows the pressure that companies were under to produce new plays to feed the appetite for performances at court. But he also goes off at a tangent at times – for example, discussing how Kings were traditionally expected to ‘cure’ the King’s Evil (scrofula) – leaving me wondering about the relevance to the subject of the book.

A bit of a mixed bag then – I’d be tempted to recommend it more strongly to people with an interest in the society and culture of the period than to people primarily interested in Shakespeare. And, since I am interested in the period, in the end I got enough from it to feel my time had been well spent.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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The Murder of King James I by Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell

the murder of king james iThe plaster and the powder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. Over the intervening period these rumours have been dismissed by historians, partly on the grounds of lack of real evidence and partly as a result of developments in the field of forensic medicine, which suggest other, natural causes for his death. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions. They set out to prove that the allegations played a major role in the downfall of Charles I, and were still exerting a political influence many decades after the event, all through the period of Cromwell’s Protectorate, through the Restoration, and on to the final demise of the Stuart dynasty.

The authors start by examining the relationship between James, his son Charles, and Buckingham, favourite of both Royals. They show how Buckingham had worked his way up on the basis of favours granted by James to a position of extraordinary power and influence, a position which his contemporaries felt he abused. Through marriage and patronage, Buckingham had advanced many of his family and friends and this was thoroughly resented. Buckingham was also close to Charles and, by the time of James’ death, he was seen as exerting too much influence over the new King.

James VI and I by Daniel Mytens
James VI and I by Daniel Mytens

The authors then go into the actual circumstances of James’ death in great detail. They use an interesting technique, to examine the same event or period from a variety of different perspectives. So they look at the medical practices in place at the time, the medical protocols put in place by the King’s chief physician, letters written by a courtier giving the layman’s view of events in the sickroom. Then they discuss the aftermath – how the King’s death was immediately mythologised as a ‘good’ death – i.e., that he died sure in his Protestant faith, and how this view was spread to the populace. They look at the evidence, and subsequent rumours, relating to Buckingham’s behaviour in the sickroom, when he apparently gave the king a ‘plaster’ – some kind of poultice – and a potion, without the full sanction of James’ doctors. And they look at how this was the period when the practice of autopsies was in its infancy and how that played into the rumours.

Prince Charles, later Charles I by Daniel Mytens
Prince Charles, later Charles I by Daniel Mytens

This approach of coming at the thing from various angles gives a slow and thorough build-up to an extremely detailed picture, and it’s the approach they take with each section of the book. The other main participant in the ‘story’ is George Eglisham, who put in print the rumour that Buckingham had in fact poisoned James, in his pamphlet The Forerunner of Revenge. Starting with a biography of Eglisham, they circle through printing and distribution methods, the growing use of propaganda on both sides of the religious divide, how this division has to be seen in a European rather than simply British context, and so on. They then follow the journey of the pamphlet, arguing that it and the rumours it contained played a crucial role in the failed Parliament of 1626, a role not given due weight by more recent historians. And they suggest that the pamphlet maintained its important influence throughout Charles’s reign and beyond, with his defence of Buckingham’s role making Charles seem complicit in his father’s murder in many eyes. This, they suggest, helped to define the public attitude to the Stuart dynasty through the rest of the century, and they show how the pamphlet was frequently re-edited and re-produced to further the schemes of various factions, with Eglisham being represented as everything from the disaffected Catholic that he actually was through to being some kind of Protestant hero when it suited.

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham by Michiel J van Miereveld
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham by Michiel J van Miereveld

As any regular reader of the blog will know, I am a bit of a history and politics geek, and I found the story the authors told fascinating. However, I will say this book is much more academic in style than most of the history I’ve reviewed, therefore a tougher read. It is a brick, coming in at about 550 pages plus notes, and goes into a great depth of detail, including extensive quoting from sources – I’ve barely touched on the ground it covers. It is very well written, though – thoroughly explained and convincingly argued, and free of academic jargon, so still quite accessible to the general reader. Personally I found it an immersive experience, at some points feeling that I knew the players and politics of the period of and just after the ‘murder’ better than I do the contemporary political scene. Although I’d say it’s perhaps geared more towards an academic than a general audience, it certainly isn’t necessary to have an existing knowledge of the period going in – my knowledge of the Stuart era could be described as sketchy at best, and I found the authors gave me all the information I required to understand the background to the events they describe. In fact, as well as the specific arguments of the book, I feel I now have a thorough grounding on the general political history of the period. The book is also extensively illustrated throughout, particularly with the frontispieces of the various books and pamphlets to which the text refers, which is extremely helpful in understanding the authors’ explanations of their symbolic features. So, with the proviso that it’s not what I’d think of as a light, casual read, highly recommended.

Alastair Bellany is associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England. Thomas Cogswell is professor of history at UC Riverside. His books include The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621-1624.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

(P.S. I forgave the authors for the book title since in the first line of the introduction they give him his proper title of King James VI and I. 😉 )

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Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman

edmund burke coverThere is such a thing as society….

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

There have been at least three editions of this biography since it was first published in 2013, each with a different subtitle: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics; The First Conservative; and Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. Pretty impressive claims for one man! The message that the book is going to be complimentary to its subject is reaffirmed in the first sentence of the introduction:-

Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years.

I must admit that all of this made me worried that the book was going to be completely hagiographic. While I prefer biographies that are sympathetic, I also look for biographers to take a balanced approach and to criticise where criticism is due. I’m glad to say that the bulk of the book is not quite as fawningly sycophantic as these early impressions had made me fear, though it is clear that the author is coming at his subject from a position of deep admiration.

Jesse Norman is a British politician and a Conservative Member of Parliament. Prior to that, he gained a degree in Classics from Oxford, and went on to study and later lecture in philosophy. In the introduction, he advises that the book does not contain primary research, but instead represents his personal interpretation of Burke’s life, philosophy and legacy.

The book has a rather unusual structure for a biography. The first half is given over to a fairly standard account of Burke’s life and career, while the second part takes a closer look at his thought. I felt this divide worked quite well, although since Burke’s life was considerably less interesting than his thought, equally the second half of the book was a good deal more interesting than the first.

edmund-burke

Born in Dublin in 1730, Burke saw at first hand the repression of the Catholics in Ireland and the negative effect this had on society. Norman suggests this early experience remained an influence throughout his life, feeding along with later experiences into the seemingly contradictory stances he took over the American and French Revolutions at the end of the century. In summing up Burke’s core beliefs, Norman says he held that “the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present and future.” Thus, he agreed with the American colonists that there should be no taxation without representation and felt that it was important that colonies were embedded socially by creation of the kinds of institutions that existed in nation states, rather than being controlled remotely from afar. On the other hand, while he accepted the cruelties of the inequalities that led to the French Revolution, there he felt that the revolutionaries were crushing and destroying those very institutions that are required to maintain social cohesion.

This dichotomy gives the impression of him as a very practical politician and philosopher, willing to examine each event on its own merits, but with his opinions firmly embedded in his core beliefs. However this in turn meant that he didn’t please those in power all the time, being in and out of favour with his electorate, political colleagues and the King depending on what subject was uppermost at the time. This may explain why, despite his obvious intellect and talents, he never reached the upper echelons of parliamentary power. However, Norman shows the influence that Burke’s thinking had on how Parliament developed in Britain (and, Norman claims, in America) – an influence still felt today. It was Burke who argued that government should be representative – that once in Parliament MPs should be governed by their own opinions rather than bowing directly to the wishes of their electorate. This rested on his idea that it is the duty of politicians to study deeply and understand the history behind current events and the institutions that form the basis of stable societies.

Jesse Norman
Jesse Norman

There really is too much in the book to cover in a review without it becoming unwieldy. I found it well written and accessible, and Norman has the ability to compress large historical subjects into easily understood summaries, leaving him plenty of room to make his arguments about Burke’s influence and importance. As usual, I am in the position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of either the facts nor Norman’s interpretation of them, but I found his arguments convincing. Bearing in mind that Norman is a practising Conservative politician, his conclusions read a little like a plea for the Conservative Party, amongst others, to reacquaint themselves with the founding principles of the party – to accept, for instance, that, contrary to Mrs Thatcher’s claim, in fact there is such a thing as society, and that markets and other institutions are cultural artefacts to be mediated through good governance rather than to be left entirely to their own devices. Norman also makes the point that Burke believed that, since man is a social animal, then society’s needs should take precedence over the wishes of the individual – something that seems to have become forgotten in the last few decades of rampant individualism. (Interestingly, he points out that since most social studies research is carried out in American Universities with students as subjects, then this may skew results to increase the apparent appeal of liberal individualism.)

Overall, a thought-provoking read which doesn’t require any pre-knowledge of Burke’s contribution to philosophy or political thinking – interesting both in its historical context and in how Burke’s influence still resonates in politics today.

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The Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

the telegraph book of the first world warFrom our own correspondent…

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The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, established in 1855. This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in the paper during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.

There is a very informative introduction, written by Michael Wright, discussing the role of newspapers in general and The Telegraph in particular as organs of propaganda throughout the war. Much of the information they printed, especially in the early days of the war, was controlled by the War Office and, indeed, there was a feeling amongst parts of the Government, including Winston Churchill, that the course of the war should be reported entirely from London. However, permission was given for correspondents to travel to the war-zones, and while reporting was still restricted and censored, the experienced and talented correspondents were still able to give vivid accounts of events soon after they happened.

Between the two parapets of these adversaries, so near to each other, corpses lie, mud-caked, rotting, in their last tragic gesture – German corpses and Italian. The air of death is all around; a heaviness as of sepulchre pervades the life in the trench. A German lies on the parapet of the enemy’s trenches. He thrusts out his hands and his head from the trench. No one pulls him in or casts him forth. You see the spikes of helmets pass and repass this horror tranquilly. It is an indifference terrifying and splendid. Death has become a familiar. He is always there; he comes and goes, tapping this or that one on the shoulder, gathers all, and for those who fall is neither shuddering nor respect. A dead body is a companion who sleeps and will not waken.

13th February 1915

The articles and reports are given entirely without footnotes or contextual explanation, and there are no notes at the end of the book. At first I found this an exceptionally strange editorial decision, especially given the advance warning in the introduction that the truth and accuracy of the reporting could not always be relied on. Since my knowledge of the conduct and progress of the war could at best be described as sketchy, I was sure, rightly, that I wouldn’t spot where the reporting veered from what we are now told by historians.

This feeling lasted for the first hundred pages or so, when I suddenly realised that I wasn’t reading the book as history any more, or at least not as war history. The lack of notes in fact put me in the same position as any contemporary reader of the paper – I had no other sources of information so had to rely on the reports entirely, and try to see through the words to the truth they were revealing, distorting, exaggerating or minimising. I don’t know if that was the reason for the decision not to annotate the book but, whether or no, it turned out to be incredibly effective in giving me an insight into how it must have been for the mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers and sailors far away and in mortal danger. And that had the odd effect of giving me a different perspective on the use of propaganda in such situations. I began to feel that, if I was the mother of a son on the Western Front, of course I would want to be told that morale was high, that the food was good, that the Tommies were better equipped than Fritz. Of course I’d want to think they were singing Tipperary as they marched to the Front, that they were achieving something, that their deaths were not wasted. Because, if it were my son and I was powerless to help him, how would it help me to know that for the most part the soldiers were dying for nothing?

The men who were going up to the battle grinned back at those who were coming out. One could not see the faces of the lying-down cases, only the soles of their boots as they passed; but the laughing men on the courier – some of them stripped to the waist and bandaged roughly – seemed to rob war of some of its horror, and the spirit of our British soldiers shows very bright along the roads of France, so that the very sun seems to get some of its gold from these men’s hearts.

Tonight the guns are at work again, and the sky is flushed as the shells burst, over there where our men are fighting.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914 Photo: The Telegraph
British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914
Photo: The Telegraph

That’s not to suggest that the correspondents didn’t paint a starkly horrifying picture of the war-zones – they did, and some of the images will haunt me for a long time to come. But they tended to ‘spin’ it so that the rotting corpses and body parts embedded in the mud and trenches are almost invariably German, and it’s the Germans who commit the horrors like releasing poison gas – when the Brits do it, it’s only in perfectly fair retaliation. German poison gas kills civilians, Allied poison gas is much more discriminating. However, they also frequently express admiration for the enemy – his courage, his gallantry – especially in the sections relating to the war in the air. One of the things that struck me most was how much more similar the fighting was in style to the wars of the nineteenth century than to the later wars of the twentieth. We see the progression from a ‘traditional’ war with cavalry and bayonets, to the tanks and aircraft of the later days of the conflict.

At that moment neither in France nor in England had the question of gas as a weapon even been considered. It was, indeed, months after the Germans began the use of gas that Commissions were appointed in England and France to commence the study of the question, and more months again elapsed before we had prepared any gas at all. Finally, when we did start using gas, all we had were tear bombs, with which we tried to reply to much more dangerous gases sent over by the Germans.

The German reply to the Geneva Red Cross is thus the most cynical lie even the German Government has ever been guilty of. It is satisfactory, by the way, to learn from those who know that for a considerable time past the enemy is being paid back in his own coin, and that though late in this field of scientific barbarism we now have gases that are worse than any German gases.

25th September 1918

The book is enormously wide-ranging. The sections on the war itself don’t just concentrate on the Brits; there are reports about the contributions of all of the Allied nations and some from the other side too. (Scots, Irish and Welsh people should note that most of the journalists refer to Britain as England throughout, but they do mention nationalities when discussing specific regiments.) The Russian Revolution is covered – not in depth, but enough to give a flavour of how bewildering it must have been at the time. And there’s lots of stuff about the ‘home-front’ too – the civilian effort, the munitions workers, the land workers, the internment of enemy aliens. We hear about food supplies, about the American Santa ships bringing toys for the children of the servicemen on both sides in the period when they remained neutral. And we are shown the pressure that was put on young men, especially single men, to ‘volunteer’, with the word ‘shirker’ being thrown around freely by politicians and journalists alike.

The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914 Photo: The Telegraph
The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914
Photo: The Telegraph

The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. If these reports could affect me like that one hundred years on and knowing something of the truth, how much more effective must they have been at the time?

Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world were driving at express speed through endless tunnels, in which they met each other with frightful collisions. Some of these shells, fired from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high, tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one’s bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvoes, and great clangorous strokes, as if iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of Death.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

This is a massive book – 570 large pages of small print and no illustrations. It’s beautifully printed on high quality paper and is a tactile delight, despite its fairly considerable weight. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war. If they didn’t always get it right, if they allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes from time to time, they still provided an invaluable service to their readers, and now again to modern readers in giving an insight into how the war was seen at the time. One I would highly recommend to anyone interested either in the war itself or in the social history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Aurum Press Ltd.

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Rebellion: The History of England Vol. III (aka Civil War) by Peter Ackroyd

rebellionA plague on all their houses…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The time of the doomed Stuart dynasty (in England) has always been one of those periods where I felt I knew the basics but didn’t really understand the ins-and-outs of it all. Peter Ackroyd’s history takes us from the accession of James I (VI of Scotland) to the throne of England on the death of Elizabeth in 1603, through to the flight of James II (VII) to France and the arrival of William of Orange and Mary in 1688. Since this is the third book in what I understand is to be a six-book series, Ackroyd doesn’t delve much into the pre-Stuart era, nor does he say much about what happened after the events he is describing, but that doesn’t present problems because he thoroughly explains the main players and factions as he goes along.

And what a bunch they were! I don’t think I’ve ever read about a war where I so emphatically felt that I didn’t want to support either side. While the Stuarts seem to have been a particularly inept, corrupt and often depraved crowd of absolutist monarchs, the Parliamentarians come across as a bunch of deeply unpleasant, power-hungry, money-grubbing, squabbling incompetents (the start of a proud Parliamentary tradition we carry on to this day). When Cromwell’s military dictatorship begins to look like the good times, then it gives an indication of the awfulness of the alternatives. What a pity M. Guillotin hadn’t been born yet…

Charles I by van Dyck
Charles I by van Dyck

Ackroyd’s style is very accessible and he incorporates quotes from many contemporaneous sources – not just the people in power, but many fairly ordinary onlookers who give a flavour of the despair that must have been felt by the pawns in this bloody chess-game. Of course, we still can’t hear the voices of the illiterate poor, but Ackroyd shows the impact on them of the various machinations of both sides, and the manipulation of them, usually via the various religious factions. Ackroyd also looks at the plays and writings that were produced at the time, showing how they were influenced by events, and how they would have been understood by the audiences of the day. And he discusses the impact of plague and fire, both as physical events and as how they would have been perceived symbolically.

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

As well as this clear picture of events in England, Ackroyd also sets the story well into the international context. He manages to keep the reader on top of all the shifting treaties and loyalties, showing how dependant international affairs were on personal relationships at that time. We get a feel for the beginnings of the various European empires and how important that was becoming in determining alliances and enmities. And he reminds the reader that both Scotland and Ireland, now linked to England by a shared monarchy, played important roles in providing support or distraction to the English factions.

Overall, this is a very readable and interesting account of the period, written in a way that makes it easy for the non-academic reader to follow. It’s certainly left me feeling much clearer about the reasons behind the events and the personalities of the people involved. I appreciated that he didn’t romanticise either side – his treatment felt very even-handed to me. But I’m afraid the question of whether I’d have wanted to be a Roundhead or a Cavalier remains unresolved – Cavalier probably, but only on the grounds that their hairdos were more fun…

Charles II (eat your heart out, Kenny G...)
Charles II

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

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The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

the churchill factorBlood, toil, tears and sweat…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Winston Churchill needs no introduction and, in the UK, nor does Boris Johnson, but perhaps he does elsewhere. Boris is one of those few people who are known to all by their first names – if you mention Boris over here, everyone will assume that it’s this Boris you mean unless you specify otherwise. A leading light in the Conservative Party, he has been the Mayor of London for the last six years and is strongly tipped in many quarters to be a future leader of the Party and possibly a future Prime Minister. This is pretty spectacular for a man who is best known for being exceptionally funny on panel games, having a silly hairstyle and being an upper-class buffoon who would fit in well in the Drones Club. But that public persona doesn’t quite hide the other facts about Boris, that he is a highly intelligent, extremely knowledgeable and articulate man, whose political ambitions reach to the very top. Prior to going into active politics he was a political journalist and editor so he knows how to write entertainingly and engagingly. You may already have guessed that I have a huge soft spot for Boris – it’s just unfortunate he’s as right-wing as Mrs Thatcher. But it’s that ability to camouflage his views under his larger-than-life personality that enables him to attract voters who wouldn’t normally vote for his party.

As for his amazing achievement in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is conventional to treat this as a joke, an embarrassing attempt by the Swedes to make up for their neutrality in the war. Even relatively sympathetic historians such as Peter Clarke have dismissed the possibility that there was any merit involved. “Rarely can an author’s writings have received less attention than the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953,” he says. This is not just a little bit snooty, but surely untrue. Look at the list of Nobel winners in the last century – avant-garde Japanese playwrights, Marxist-Feminist Latin Americans, Polish exponents of the Concrete Poem. All of them are no doubt meritorious in their way but many of them are much less read than Churchill.

In this book, Boris sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. In fact, this reader couldn’t help feeling that Boris sees Churchill as something of a role model, and that his desire to understand how Churchill achieved all that he did is partly so that Boris can emulate him – hopefully not by becoming a great leader in another World War though! (Though I suspect Boris might be a little sorry he missed the last one…)

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

In each chapter, Boris looks at one aspect of Churchill’s life – his childhood, his writing, his early army career in the Boer War etc – and analyses it to see what we can draw from it in terms of what made Churchill tick. Over the years, Churchill has had as many detractors as admirers, and Boris takes their criticisms of him head on, dismissing them with his usual mix of bluster and brilliance. That’s not to say he brushes over the big mistakes in Churchill’s career, but he puts them into context and finds that he consistently acted in accordance with his own convictions. (If only we could say that about many of today’s politicians.) This didn’t always make him popular but, had popularity been his main aim, he probably wouldn’t have stood out so strongly against coming to some accommodation with Nazi Germany at the point where Britain stood isolated and close to defeat. Boris makes it clear that he believes that it was Churchill, and Churchill alone, who carried the argument in the Government for Britain to fight on, and who was crucial in persuading the US to finally become involved.

…if he was exhausting to work for, his colleagues nonetheless gave him loyalty and unstinting devotion. When he came back from New York in 1932 after nearly dying under the wheels of an on-coming car, he was presented with a Daimler. The Daimler had been organised by Brendan Bracken and financed by a whip-round of 140 friends and admirers. Can you think of any modern British politician with enough friends and admirers to get them a new Nissan Micra, let alone a Daimler?

Although there is a considerable amount in the book about WW2, as you would expect, there is just as much about Churchill’s achievements and failures both before and after. In a political career that stretched for over 60 years, he was involved to one degree or another in all of the major events in the UK, and indeed the world, from the 1900s to the 1960s – the Boer War, WW1, the establishment of Israel, the abdication of Edward VIII, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of the Soviet Union, the formation of the Common Market (now European Union). Boris shows how he was often at first a lone voice, perceptive through his deep understanding of history and politics, with other people dismissing him until he was proved right (or occasionally wrong). He also shows how Churchill was capable of changing his mind over time and admitting to it – for example, over women, where their contribution to the war effort persuaded him they should be entitled to rights he had previously argued against. A conviction politician certainly, but not hog-tied by it.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

There’s so much in the book that I’ve missed out far more than I’ve included – Churchill’s writing, art, speech-making, personal bravery, etc., etc. It is however a surprisingly compact read considering the ground it covers. It’s not a full biography – it doesn’t set out to be. Boris has selected those events and episodes that he feels cast most light on the character of the man and what formed it – the Churchill Factor, as he calls it. It’s brilliantly written, as entertaining as it is informative and insightful, and I feel it casts nearly as much light on the character of the author as the subject. For anyone who still thinks Boris is the buffoon he plays so well, this might come as a real eye-opener. And for those of us who already know that, like the iceberg, the important bit of Boris is the bit you rarely see, this reminds us that we better decide soon if we really want to buy tickets for the Titanic.

There are Churchill nightclubs and bars and pubs – about twenty pubs in Britain bear his name and puglike visage, far more than bear the name of any other contemporary figure. Sometimes it is easy to understand the semiotic function of the name – you can see why a pub-owner might want to go for Churchill. He is the world’s greatest advertisement for the benefits of alcohol. But why is there a Churchill Escort Agency? And what do they offer, apart from blood, toil, tears and sweat?

Simon Shepherd
Simon Shepherd

As if two huge personalities aren’t enough for one book, I listened to the Audible audiobook version, which is beautifully narrated by another of the great loves of my life (yes, I know there’s a lot of them…), Simon Shepherd, who has one of the loveliest voices known to man (or woman) and the perfect rather plummy accent for this kind of book. It’s a great narration that does full justice to the book – held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. In fact, I found myself frequently doing that ‘just one more chapter’ thing which normally only happens with the written word. Going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon has been a lot more fun than you might imagine…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK.

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Audible UK Link
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A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

a spy among friendsEt tu, Philby?

😀 😀 😀 😀

The post-war Cambridge spy ring holds an endless and rather strange fascination – a group of men who betrayed their country and its allies to the Soviet regime for the most nebulous of reasons and whose actions are considered to have cost many lives. And yet somehow they are held up as anti-heroes, a bit like the Great Train Robbers or Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a strange phenomenon and one that always leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. So it was with a mix of anticipation and apprehension that I started to read this one about the infamous ‘Third Man’, Kim Philby (the inspiration behind Graham Greene’s screenplay for the film of that name). Ben Macintyre is a journalist by trade and has written several books about real-life spies. In this one he has approached his subject by looking at the friendships that to a large extent shielded Philby from discovery for years, even after suspicions had become aroused.

Kim Philby
Kim Philby

Philby had already become a Soviet agent before he joined MI6. Like all the spies, he would claim this was because he was convinced by the arguments of communism – but, again like them all, that didn’t stop him living as lavish and hedonistic a lifestyle as he possibly could. Rather than making him stand out, his heavy drinking and constant partying meant that he fitted in perfectly to the overgrown-boys’ club that was MI6 at that time. (Oh, how I wish I believed it was different now…) And this is really the point that Macintyre is making in this book – that MI6 in particular was filled by the upper-classes, selected not so much for their characters as their families and old school ties, and living in a kind of closed community where they didn’t talk to outsiders but revealed secrets casually to each other on the grounds that of course they could all trust each other.

Macintyre tells the parallel story of Nicholas Elliott, a loyal servant of the Crown, who was (or thought he was) Philby’s closest friend and confidant. As they both rose in their careers, Elliott admired Philby’s charm as much as his skills as a fellow spy. Philby was also particularly close to the flamboyant and outrageously behaved Guy Burgess, and won over James Jesus Angleton, who was on a simultaneous rise through the ranks of the newly formed CIA, and would later become Chief of its Counterintelligence branch. When Burgess was finally outed as a double-agent and fled to Moscow along with Donald Maclean, Elliott and Angleton were pivotal in deflecting suspicion from Philby as a possibility for the ‘third man’ known to still be operating. When the truth finally became unavoidable, Elliott was given the task of trying to get a confession from Philby – a task complicated by his conflicting feelings of friendship and betrayal.

Orson Welles in The Third Man
Orson Welles in The Third Man

I found the first few chapters of the book a bit tedious, as Macintyre would stray from the main thrust of the book to describe some of the exploits of various spies not really directly involved in the Philby story. I suspect however that these bits would appeal to someone with more interest in spying games than I have. But once the story focused on the path towards Philby’s eventual downfall I found myself gripped by it. Macintyre is a good storyteller and the book felt well researched. By the time he got to the crux of the matter, I felt that I knew the major participants well and this meant that I could sympathise with Elliott in his anger and disappointment. I was pleased that Macintyre didn’t try to show Philby as any kind of hero – he made it clear that his actions had led to many deaths, not just of spies on both sides, but of other people caught up in the games he played. He showed Philby as a curiously amoral character, whose charm gave him an appearance of warmth belied by the coldness of his actions. I didn’t feel, however, that Macintyre gave a particularly plausible reason for Philby’s seeming loyalty to the Soviet regime – perhaps there isn’t one. It seemed that he perhaps just liked the excitement of fooling everyone.

Ben Macintyre
Ben Macintyre

An interesting story that tells as much about the class-ridden power structures of British society as it does about Philby and Elliott – a class that sometimes puts loyalty to its own members above all other considerations, including patriotism. Have things changed since then? I guess it might be another fifty years before we really find out the answer to that question…

Thanks again to Lady Fancifull, whose great review brought this book to my attention. You can also see her review of another of Macintyre’s books, Double Cross – The True Story Of The D-Day Spies, here.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing.

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Ten Cities that Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

The sun never sets…

 

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

After sporting pastimes and the English language (to which might be added Anglicism, the parliamentary system and Common Law), Jan Morris has described urbanism as ‘the most lasting of the British imperial legacies’.

ten citiesTristram Hunt, historian and Member of (the British) Parliament, has chosen an innovative way to look at the history and legacy of the British Empire by considering ten of the cities that played important roles in the two centuries when the Empire was at its height. There can be a tendency to think that the Empire came into being at some defined point, existed for a while, and then ceased. Hunt’s city tour gives a much clearer picture of how the Empire was always evolving, always changing, as global events raised and lowered the importance of products and markets – and he makes it very clear that the Empire’s primary purpose was indeed economic rather than political, at least initially. Hunt admits that there were many other cities with as good a claim to be included as the ones he chose, but his purpose is to show how the Empire shifted geographically and politically over time and his choices work well for this purpose.

Starting with Boston, Hunt sets the pattern he subsequently follows with each city. He gives the reasons for the city’s founding (or colonisation if it already existed), explains its importance to the development of the Empire, describes the culture of the society and discusses how the city developed physically in terms of its architecture and industrial or trading infrastructure.

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" - 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party.
“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor” – 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party.

The book is not immensely long, so each city only gets around forty pages. This is long enough to give a reasonable overview of the city’s place within the Empire, but clearly Hunt has had to set himself some limitations to keep the length down. The major limitation for me was that he only told us about each city at the point that it was at its height in terms of Empire. As the Empire rolled on and away, we aren’t given much feel for what happened to the cities afterwards. This is truer of the early cities more than the late ones – Boston is more or less dropped at the point of Independence while the current political situation of Hong Kong is briefly discussed. At first, I found this abrupt departure from each city very disconcerting, but as the book went on it became clear that Hunt was portraying the Empire like a wave or perhaps a bandwagon that rolled into town, changed everything, and then rolled on. I found that in the end it did give me a much clearer picture of how all the various geographic bits fitted in at different points in history.

Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly known as Viceroy's House, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly known as Viceroy’s House, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

So from America, Hunt takes us to the West Indies, stops off in Dublin, and then heads east – to Africa, China and, of course, India. India’s importance to the Empire is indicated by the fact that three of its cities are covered – Calcutta, Bombay and New Delhi, showing how the Empire in India developed from an initial trading zone to the full scale colonial undertaking it eventually became before gaining independence. Hunt balances the book well between the colonies and the Dominions, showing how the Dominions were seen as a means of disseminating British values and of building an interconnected anglicised world that would come to the support of the mother-country in times of need (as indeed they did in both WW1 and WW2). He finishes off with a look at Liverpool, the only British city to merit a chapter, showing its importance as a trading hub under the Empire and discussing the economically devastating effects, still being dealt with today, of the end of Empire.

The strange and macabre Nelson Monument in Liverpool - the first public sculpture to be erected in the city at the height of its prominence as a major trading hub of the Empire. Along with a nude nelson, there are four prisoners in chains (representing Nelson's major battles apparently, but somehow more resonant now of the city's involvement in the slave trade...)
The strange and macabre Nelson Monument in Liverpool – the first public sculpture to be erected in the city at the height of its prominence as a major trading hub of the Empire. Along with a nude Admiral Lord Nelson, there are four prisoners in chains (representing Nelson’s major victories apparently, but it has been suggested they might also have been making a veiled statement about the cruelty of the slave trade…)
Tristram Hunt
Tristram Hunt

While I was glad that the book was kept down to a reasonable length, I’d have liked to learn more about what happened to the cities post-Empire, and I’d have been happy to sacrifice some of the architectural detail to make way for that. However, I think that’s probably more a matter of personal preference than a criticism. All-in-all, I found this an interesting and well written read that took an innovative approach to telling the much-told story of the Empire, and recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about how the Empire worked. I read an advance copy of the book, so can’t comment on the illustrations, but I believe there are over forty colour plates plus maps in the final copy, which I imagine would greatly enhance the enjoyment of the book.

The Ten Cities are: Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi, Liverpool.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books (UK).

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Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

roy jenkins2An affectionate portrait…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Roy Jenkins was one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. The son of a miner, he was however far from working-class. His father had risen to become a successful Member of Parliament and made sure his son was given an advantageous education culminating in an Oxford degree. His socialism therefore was always of an intellectual kind rather than being rooted in the unions as his father’s had been. And like many socialists, especially of that era, he gradually moved from the left towards the centre. A prominent Cabinet minister in the ’60s and ’70s, Jenkins held at different times two of the great offices of state, as Home Secretary and Chancellor, and was accounted to be successful in both positions. In the first role he is credited with pushing through the socially liberal legislation that some later claimed led to the ‘permissive society’, while as Chancellor he was seen as having transformed the balance of trade and fiscal position of the UK, which were still suffering from the aftermath of WW2. Consistently pro-Europe, he was one of the strongest proponents for Britain’s entry to the Common Market.

The Gang of Four who led the breakaway SDP Party - David Owen, Shorley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers.
The Gang of Four who led the breakaway SDP Party – Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen.

Had the tensions between left and right within the Labour Party not become so toxic during the 1970s, there is very little doubt that Jenkins would have become party leader and quite probably Prime Minister. Instead, he decided to leave parliament to take up the post of President of the European Commission. But on his return, when the Labour Party was showing every sign of lurching even further to the Left, Jenkins ended up leading the breakaway group that was briefly known as the Social Democratic Party, before merging with the Liberal Party to become the Lib-Dems we (in the UK) all know and love today. Jenkins returned to Parliament for a while as MP for Glasgow Hillhead, but it was soon clear that the SDP was not going to fulfil the hopes of its followers by replacing the Labour Party as one of the two major parties in Britain, and Jenkins was defeated at the next election.

Alongside this lengthy political career, Jenkins had a second career, perhaps equally successful and certainly more lucrative, as a journalist and political biographer of, amongst others, Asquith and Churchill. Add in a complicated personal life, and a huge network of friendships with many of the most influential people of his time, and it’s clear that any biographer of Jenkins himself has his work cut out for him.

John Campbell
John Campbell

John Campbell is the author of many political biographies and won the 1994 NCR Award for his biography of Edward Heath. He admits in the introduction to this book that he admired Jenkins a good deal, and hopes that he has not allowed this to stop him being critical when required. I, on the other hand, always found Jenkins to be a pompous, arrogant buffoon who was serially disloyal to the parties to which he belonged. So the question for me was whether Campbell would be able to persuade me that I, in my youthful ignorance, had misjudged the man.

The biography is hugely long and detailed, but written with a clarity and flow that make it a pleasurable read. I kept feeling that surely something could have been cut to make the size more manageable, but concluded eventually that it was the fullness and complexity of Jenkins’ life that led to the length, rather than any failing on the part of the author. There is a fairly heavy emphasis on Jenkins’ personal life in the early part of the book – specifically his relationships with Tony Crosland (another Labour politician), then his wife and his multiple mistresses. But happily, once Campbell had made his point about the unconventionality of Jenkins lifestyle (or perhaps one should say conventionality, since it bears comparison with that of politicians of earlier days), he allows the subject to fade into the background and concentrates much more on the political side of his life.

The wedding of Roy and Jennifer Jenkins - a marriage that lasted till Jenkins' death despite his many affairs.
The wedding of Roy and Jennifer Jenkins – a marriage that lasted till Jenkins’ death despite his many affairs.

I did feel that Campbell’s partiality for Jenkins showed through too clearly in some places, letting him off the hook on occasion, and giving him a little more praise than necessary. In general, though, I prefer affectionate biographies to hatchet jobs, so overall Campbell’s approach worked well for me. I was somewhat less keen on the way he portrayed some of the politicians on the left if the Labour Party – it wasn’t so much that I disagreed with his depiction of them as that I felt he adopted an almost sneering tone at times that led his account to feel as if it were being somewhat biased by his own personal political stance.

Overall, though, I found this a well written and hugely informative biography. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages and as such this is also a revealing look at the wider political history of the second half of the twentieth century. Jenkins lived a well-rounded life indeed, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature, but Campbell convinced this reader at least that the charge of laziness that was sometimes made against him was unfair. While I still stand by pompous and arrogant, Campbell has persuaded me that I must retract the word ‘buffoon’ – no-one who achieved so much in so many fields deserves that title. And while he was disloyal to his parties, it seems he remained loyal to his core beliefs, which in the end may be more honourable – so I acquit him of that charge. Jenkins’ life was a full and interesting one, and this biography does its subject justice – highly recommended (to political nerds like me, that is, not to normal folk).

In his later life, Jenkins was a high-profile and well regarded Chancellor of Oxford University.
In his later life, Jenkins was a high-profile and well regarded Chancellor of Oxford University.

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Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir

elizabeth of yorkMay or may not, that is the question…

😦 😦

At what stage does biography become pointless? I would suggest that the answer to that question is when the historical record doesn’t provide enough information to allow for any real insight into or knowledge of the subject. And that, in a nutshell, is why I have abandoned this book at the halfway point.

Elizabeth of York probably had a fascinating life. She may have been in love with her husband, Henry VII. On the other hand, she may have been cruelly treated and suppressed by him. Or perhaps he loved her. Maybe she was seriously affected by the probable murders of her brothers. Or perhaps she was so ambitious for the throne that she tried to persuade Richard III, the probable murderer, to marry her. She may have conspired against Richard to bring Henry to the throne – a ballad written during Henry’s reign suggests so, though that hardly seems like substantive evidence. Or perhaps she had nothing to do with it at all. She may have been influential on Henry in many ways following her marriage. Or she may have done little more than breed heirs. Interesting questions, and I was hoping for interesting answers – but there are none, as Weir freely and repeatedly asserts.

Elizabeth of York and Henry VII Credit: © Stapleton Collection/Corbis
Elizabeth of York and Henry VII
Credit: © Stapleton Collection/Corbis

Weir has, I assume, done her best with the available material, but I’m afraid that still leaves Elizabeth as an unknown entity. In fact, I felt I knew her better from reading Thomas Penn’s Winter King, than I do now after reading chapter after chapter of lightly supported and indecisive speculation. It’s good that Weir has made clear the lack of information rather than making assertions about her own beliefs as if they were truths. Admirable – but makes for a dull and rather pointless read. And I’m afraid Weir’s writing style is not sufficient to carry the book – she writes in a dry academic fashion that, for me at least, fails to bring the characters to life and makes even the most dramatic episodes into a tedious recounting of conflicting sources, including extensive quotes, much of which I felt could happily have been relegated to the notes at the back for the use of any serious historian. As a casual reader, I hope for the historian to plough through the sources on my behalf and then present me with a well argued and convincing hypothesis.

Alison Weir
Alison Weir

The final point where I decided that I couldn’t take any more was when Weir suggested that Elizabeth ‘may have been influential in the development of royal pageantry’. The ‘evidence’ for this is that she would have seen the Burgundian-influenced pageantry at the court of her father, Edward IV. It’s that crucial word ‘may’, with its unspoken implication of ‘or may not’. I could as easily say ‘Elizabeth may have been one of the world’s foremost acrobats’ and bring just about the same amount of evidence to bear – i.e., she doubtless saw tumblers and fools at her father’s court too. And I’m afraid ‘may’ is one of the words most used in the book. (338 times, according to the Kindle search facility.)

So in conclusion this book ‘may’ be of interest to some people – in fact, clearly it is since it is garnering some positive reviews. But I’m afraid I’m not one of them. Perhaps at some point I’ll try one of Weir’s books about a later period in history where enough evidence exists for the word ‘may’ to be replaced by something a little more substantial. In the meantime, I will assume, based on the evidence of this book, that Elizabeth of York may have to remain an enigmatic figure about whom too little is known to allow for an interesting biography to be written.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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