About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 26 December 2009

"KIng Rufus" by Emma Mason

This is a biography of William II. It is well written if not riveting and the print is rather small.

She is clearly on his side. Generally protrayed as a bad king in both senses of the world (not to mention a sodomite), she suggests that he was very capable, a good military leader (though he never actually fought a pitched battle) and competent administrator who successfully prevented rebellion until his murder. He is likely to have had illegitimate children although he never married and we do not know any names of any sexual partner male or female.

His favourite oath was "By the (Holy) Face of Lucca" (or once, "By the Face at Lucca") but, to my immense frustration, Ms Mason NEVER tells you who or where Lucca was and what the face was. This is symptomatic of a slightly too scholarly history. Wikipedia does!

I came across a bumper of interesting bits: the king of Scotland, Malcolm Canmore, ambushed and killed by the earl of Northumberland who later rebelled against Rufus and got imprisoned for life; Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, defending Worcester against rebels; Rufus using English mercenaries to fight his brother, Duke of Normandy; Edgar Aethling, Saxon hope for the crown, working with Rufus and the King of Scotland; Ranulf Flambard, the flamboyant chief minister, who was imprisoned by Henry I after the death of Rufus only to escape the Tower; Gundulf who worked on the White Tower and Rochester Cathedral (it cost £60 to build) and then on the walls around the Tower; Rufus also had Westminster Hall built; Westminster was a dodgy place for a palace because criminals claimed sanctuary in the Abbey and then used it as a base to mug courtiers arriving at the Palace. Much fascinating stuff!

Rufus extended Norman rule into the north, defending his realm against Malcolm Canmore of the Scots. He built a New Castle on the north bank of the Tyne and settled Cumbria, refounding Carlisle (it had been devastated by Scottish scorched earth) and rebuilding its Castle.

Finally, his death. He was shot with an arrow by Walter Tyrrel who fired at a stag in the New Forest but hit the king "by mistake"; he then left the scene and the country and became quite pally with the King of France who clearly had reason for wanting Rufus dead (Rufus was a much wealthier and more powerful king who was threatening to take over lands adjoining the tiny Kingdom of France). Was it an accident or was it murder? The best evidence for the accident was the total lack of people who claimed it was murder at the time ... but given that Henry I hot-footed it from the scene (the New Forest) to Winchester to claim the treasury and the throne he might have silenced those who claimed it was a killing. The best evidence against the accident is the fact that the King's nephew was killed by an arrow in a hunting accident in the New Forest a few months before. Dodgy or what!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

"Valley of the Dolls" by Jacqueline Susan

Perhaps the original bonkbuster this book follows three impossibly beautiful and talented women as they move from young girls about town in 1945 through incredible success to married despair, pills (the "dolls" in the title are sleeping and slimming pills) and booze. Neely, the Irish singer, becomes a film star (Garland?). Jennifer, a nobody from small town America, is first met married to an Italian prince, then marries a singer and film star (Sinatra?), then becomes a star in French sex films and finally dates a senator. Anne, the all time heroine, is engaged to a millionaire within six weeks of arriving in New York and taking a secretarial job; she later dates the impossibly handsome author and later becomes a model and TV star.

The writing is almost entirely dialogue and action and is as improbable as the plot.

Trash.

December 2009, 467 pages

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Kiran Desai "The Inheritance of Loss"

This book won the Booker in 2006.

Sai lives with her grandfather, a retired judge, and his dog, Mutt, on a decaying estate north of Darjeeling near the Nepal border. Their cook mourns his son, Biju, who is living in New York. Some Nepali freedom fighters ("Gorkhaland for the Gorkhas") raid the house and take the judge's ancient hunting guns. Sai's secret boyfriend, her maths and science tutor, who is Nepali, doesn't turn up for their lesson...

The story starts to explain the back story, how the judge and Sai came to be living their, Sai's relationships with her tutor and the others in the village: gay Uncle Potty, Father Booty, sisters Lola and Noni. Intercut are scenes from the cook's son's life in the Big Apple as an illegal immigrant and impoverished restaurant worker. Slowly (and I found it very slow indeed) the story meanders back to the present day.

Suddenly the violence flares up and life will never be the same again...

Deftly written, with subtle observations building portraits of the characters, but in the middle bit I got extremely bogged down and found myself not caring about the characters. But the final third suddenly becomes a different book: the cosy gentility of life is overthrown and ugly chaos reigns.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

"The Human Touch" by Michael Frayn

I hate this book. I wanted to throw it across the room.

Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn exposes the inadequacies in Science, Maths, Logic, Linguistics, Philosophy and Psychology through the power of his introspection and rhetoric.

I don't think so.

Sorry, Michael, but most of what you have to say has been said before. Your primary thesis seems to be Man is the measure of things which was around before Socrates. Your tool for demolishing Physics seems to be Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle although I think you have confused it with Chaos Theory. Maths has long understood and accepted Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. Logic knows the limitations of the syllogism. The people who work in these fields are well aware of the philosophical paradoxes that lie at the heart of their endeavours. These do not mean that all of Science, Maths etc are wrong. It means they aren't perfect. What is?

I object to your apparent belief that you can, just using introspection, revolutionise ideas have been developed through hard work by intelligent people over hundreds of years. Having admitted "The only way I can begin  to approach it [science] is through the supposedly 'accessible' books that some scientists write for laymen, and I can't honestly claim to understand more than a fraction even of these" you go on to ridicule the attempts of scientists to explain their theories. You sneer that these scientific laws are nothing more than explanations. And? Your point is?

I could go on and on. You certainly do. One of the flaws of this book is the endless repetition which your rhetoric demands.

Just one other moan. You claim that it is impossible, by introspection, to decide how or when decision are made. But psychologists using cleverly designed experiments can throw light on how humans think. But you ignore the hard work of so many because you are carried away with your own arguments.

I hated this book. It is endorsed by A.C. Grayling. This makes me not want to read anything ACG has written.

Superfreakonomics by Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Another compendium of mad statistics from the Freakonomics people. I discovered:
  • It is more dangerous to be a drunk pedestrian than a drunk driver (so don't confiscate those car keys!)
  • Prostitutes practise price discrimination which is possible because they can easily identify which customers are likely to pay more and they can prevent resale of the product
  • Pimps add more value than estate agents
  • Every year the shoe bomber costs the US 1,065 years of extra security checks at airports
  • You could mask the effects of global warming by attaching long hoses to power station chimneys: pumping the sulphur dioxide high into the atmosphere would create a blanket that would cause global cooling
  • And you could prevent hurricanes using big rubber rings
  • An experiment to see whether monkeys could understand money not only had the monkeys trading coins for treast but also engendered the first observed case of monkey prostitution (a male monkey gave his coin to a female, they had sex, the female then used the coin to buy a treat!)

Even with all this it wasn't as good as the first one!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

"Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Truman Capote

This is a bijou little novellette; it describes Holly Golightly, a young lady who lives in the apartment below the narrator. She is a penniless "society girl" who lives on men, some of whom she takes to bed, who pay for her to accompany them to parties etc. At the outset Holly is a mysterious and elusive girl who might have had a Hollywood screen test once. Slowly we learn more about her background and her past (though many of the revelations are contradictory and confusing) and we begin to fall in love with her multi-faceted character. Suddenly, all is snatched away and she disappears into a mysterious future.

Beautifully written.

September 2009, 100 pages

Thursday, 24 September 2009

"Goldfinger" by Ian Fleming

This was published in 1959; it is more dated than the film, it is darker and cruder and more human than the film, and it is better than the film. Iam Fleming is a very good thriller writer.

It starts with James Bond sitting in an airport departure lounge and thinking about the man he has just killed. He philosophises. You don't get that feeling in the books. Then he is recognised and his adventures start. All the key elements are there: the womanising (although the literary Bond is a lot less casual about sex than his cinematic counterpart), M and Moneypenny, the Aston Martin (with a lot fewer and less fancy gadgets), Goldfinger, Oddjob and Pussy Galore. Yet it is also a lot simpler and starker than the film. Oddjob drives a Ford Popular! Goldfinger's house is in Reculver. The Aston's armaments are a hidden compartment containing a long-barrelled Colt .45.

There are attitudes that immediately set the book before the modern world. A maitre d' is described as "a pansified Italian"; later Bond 'turns' lesbian Pussy Galore straight because, she says, "I never met a man before" (although she comes from the South where the definition of a virgin is a girl who can run faster than her brother!). Du Pont reveals that Goldfinger is not a Jew; if he had been he wouldn't have got into Du Pont's hotel. Bond earns just over 4,000 dollars a year.

But some things never change. Goldfinger is "dressed for the beach by Abercrombie & Fitch".

A delightful book from a master thriller writer.

September 2009, 264 pages.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

"Bridge on the River Kwai" by Pierre Boulle

One can't help thinking of the film! Of course there are a lot of differences.

I could never quite understand why the medical officer didn't tell the Colonel straight off that he was providing aid and comfort to the enemy. Even at the start when the Colonel refused to let his men escape from Singapore because they had been ordered to surrender....

The book is very interested in the psychology of the Colonel and his officers, particularly the engineer who takes such pride in building the best bridge he can; and of the saboteurs who wonder whether they will be able to cut a man's throat if they need to. It is actually very detailed in its descriptions of wartime sabotage and the jungle etc. It is  racist, of its time, when it contrasts the brutish Japanese officer Saito with the noble Brits and when it goes on about the advantages of Western technology over Eastern. Yet it almost redeems itself when it realises that the primary fear in both the Japanese and the English was the fear of losing face.

It is a simple narrative with lots of detail. It reminded me considerably of a James Bond book - much better and much more stark and brutal than one would expect from the films.

September 2009, 189 pages

"Millennium" by Tom Holland

I came to this book with great anticipation having read "Rubicon" (about the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire) and "Persian Fire" (about the wars between the Greeks and the Persians) by the same author. The latter of these was particularly brilliant, engrossing and informative.

I suppose that with such high Expectations "Millennium" was bound to disappoint. It rambled. Having started with the humbling of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV by Pope Gregory at Canossa, which Holland believed to have been a turning-point in the fortunes of Europe, it then took over 350 pages to get back to it. I was never quite certain whether this was his theme or whether it was the concept that Europe was conditioned by the belief that the Millennium would see the appearance of the Anti-Christ (even more than 50 years afterwards) or whether everything was leading up to the Crusades (he ends with the massacre when the Crusaders take Jerusalem).

Nevertheless, "Millennium" has loads to enjoy. Like a Hollywood epic it has a cast of thousands, including the pope, Octavian, elected at 16,  notorious for promiscuity who installed a brothel in his palace and died "from a stroke, the result of overly strenuous grapplings with a married woman" (p69, well it had to be!). We also discover that King Harold (a Saxon with a Viking name) was much less entitled to the throne of England than either Harald Hardrada or William the Conqueror and that Hardrada, who was killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge, made a fortune in Constantinople, married the daughter of the Prince of Kiev and then became King of Norway. The town of Verdun, meanwhile, was famous for gelding Wends and then selling them as slaves to the Saracens of Spain They specialised in carzimasia who were eunuchs deprived of their penises as well as their testicles; the considerable medical risks causing wastage which "served only to increase the survivors' value" (p102). Ethelred the Unready became king aged 10 when his half-brother was assassinated, probably at the command of his mother. England was a united, stable, prosperous kingdom (apart from the Viking raids) whereas France was ruled by warlords who set up castles for their own defence and to terrorise and rule the peasantry; at this time the peasants declined from being fairly independent farmers to being robbed and taxed until they were forced to sell themselves into serfdom.

So actually it was a cracking read but still not as good as "Persian Fire".

September 2009, 413 pages

Sunday, 30 August 2009

"The Riddle and the Knight" by Giles Milton

This book searches for the truth behind the Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Giles Milton is the author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, a delightful account of the man who fought to keep a spice island from the Dutch and, even though he lost the battle, inadvertently won New York for England. This book is constructed in the manner of minority channels' documentaries that promise exciting revelations just before every commercial break; they last an hour but the meat is packed into the last ten minutes. In the same way Nathaniel's Nutmeg kept promising what was revealed in the last chapter; however there was sufficient colour to keep one going.

Similarly this book is really very thin on the ground in terms of actual discoveries and revelations and is heavily padded with (charming, interesting and funny) descriptions of the author's travels through the middle east in order to verify the truth about Sir John. I felt at times that the book was the script for a TV documentary in which the presenter wanders round modern day cities describing "the scenes Sir John would have seen".

Milton works hard to verify details of Sir John's book. This is necessary because many authorities point to the wealth of extravagant detail (eg "men with no heads") to suggest that Sir John never travelled or even that he never existed (although someone must have written the book). So Milton takes great triumph in discovering details that seem to suggest Sir John is wrong (a missing orb in a bronze statue of Justinian on horseback) and yet prove him right (the orb was damaged and was being repaired when Sir John was in town).

Milton also tries to track Sir John down and suggests he was born in St Albans, he visited Scotland in 1312; was pardoned for his role (with his overlord, Humphrey de Bohun) in the murder of Piers Gaveston in 1313; had his father ransomed from Bannockburn in 1314 (Robert Bruce had an English estate not far from Black Notley near St Albans where Sir John lived and contributed to the ransom); that he was a clerk who worked on negotiations between Edward II and Robert Bruce in 1320; that he sold land in 1321; then was involved with the 1322 abortive rebellion of Humphrey de Bohun which was put down at Boroughbridge and fled abroad. Exactly how he knew he would have to sell land in 1321 so he had the readies with which to flee the following year is not made clear. He then returned to England in 1356, wrote his book and died shortly afterwards.

Which is rather less than the 280 pages Milton takes!!!

Page 163 particularly annoyed me: Milton quotes a paragraph in Latin "the significance of which even my schoolboy Latin could detect" and then FAILS TO GIVE A TRANSLATION. Why do authors do that??? It is so affected: I can do Latin and I expect anyone who is reasonably well educated to do the same.

A mildly interesting book but so much more could have been made of it. Milton says he took ten months to research it. Doesn't show.

August 2008, 280 pages.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

"Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre

This is a rant. It is witty and amusing and packed full of information but nevertheless it is a 16 chapter rant. Ben Goldacre is angry about nutritionists, homeopaths and assorted quacks but not because they are deluded crackpots who are making a fortune from deluding the public. Ben is angry because they bring Science and in particular evidence-based medicine into disrepute.



So as part of this rant Ben educates the reader about the placebo effect, regression to the mean, controls, double-blinds, cherry-picking, meta-analyses and funnel plots and a huge number of other tricks and techniques that make the difference between scientific evidence and wishful thinking. This book can be a little hard going at times but it is worth the effort.



There are gems of humour:

How does a water molecule know ... to treat my bruise with its memory of arnica, rather than a memory of Isaac Asimov's faeces? I wrote this in a newspaper once, and a homeopath complained to the Press Complaints Commission. It's not about the dilution, he said: it's the succussion. You have to bang the flask of water briskly ten times on a leather and horsehair surface, and that's what makes the water remember a molecule. Because I did not mention this, he explained, I had deliberately made homeopaths sound stupid. p36



He also attacks directly Dr Gillian McKeith PhD ("or, to give her her full medical title Gillian McKeith") who is a nutitionist who believes that dark leaved vegetables are good for you because the chloroplasts will oxygenate you (chloroplasts work in the presence of sunlight; "it's pretty dark in your bowels: in fact, if there's any light in there at all something's gone badly wrong" and even if there was, you don't want the methane in your gut to mix with oxygen unless you desire spontaneous human combustion). He attacks Professor Patrick Holford who says that there are now oranges containing no vitamin C (so buy my supplements) and he fiercely attacks Matthias Rath who has used advertising campaigns to persuade South Africans that AZT is bad for HIV sufferers and they should instead use his vitamin pills.



He also attacks big pharma for using distorted medical evidence to sell its products.



At the end he describes the MRSA hoax and the MMR vaccine scandal. Some time ago the press went to town about MRSA in British hospitals. Much of the evidence came from swabs that journalists sent to a single lab in Northamptonshire which turned out to be run by a man with a mail-order PhD who had set up his lab in a garden shed. The MMR scandal was based on a single, anecdotal paper; none of the controlled medical trials have found any evidence whatsoever to suggest that MMR causes autism.



So Ben perhaps reserves his greatest anger for journalists. When they "stood by" the MRSA lab analyst we had the scenario of "a tabloid journalist telling a department of world-class research microbiologists that they are mistaken about microbiology." p284.

This is what Ben believes: "the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years; but there is an attack implicit in all media coverage of science: in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science. On this template, science is portrayed as groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously 'hard to understand'." pp224-225

Ouch! This is scary stuff. How on earth do we counteract this? Scientists are used to being paid peanuts while arts graduates swan about doing sod all and earning much more. But this lazy journalistic parody is actually dangerous because it promotes quacks, cranks and crackpots which, in the end, kill people. Science is the only method of enquiry which has produced progression in our understanding of the world. We cannot afford to lose it.

At tne end Ben proposes a number of websites to look at to enthuse young people with the excitement and discipline of science: badscience.net would be a good place to start.

An important book.

August 2008, 339 pages

Thursday, 20 August 2009

"Mutual Aid" by Peter Kropotkin

Prince Pyotr Kropotkin was a Russian anarchist ("The Anarchist Prince") whose studies of zoology led him to the belief that cooperation between individuals is at least as important a factor in evolution as cooperation. He then extended this concept to a consideration of history and society: he endeavoured to show that, if left to themselves, individuals will cooperate and that therefore a society free of laws is possible (hence the anarchism). Mutual Aid is his principal scientific offering to back up these ideas. It was written in England in the 1890s.

The discipline of sociobiology has now superseded Kropotkin's work. It is now clear that altruism and cooperation have evolutionary advantages; it depends on your ecological niche. Certainly it would be surprising if social animals such as humans did not have some instinctive programming towards cooperation within their family, group or tribe. It seems to be a case of in-group/ out-group: soldiers will sacrifice themselves for their comrades whilst doing their utmost to kill their enemies. Mutual Aid is interesting in the extensive evidence that it chronicles for co-operation and for the its interpretation of the history of mediaeval guilds but it is not astonishing to most people.

Points of interest:
  • In bees "both periods of scarcity and periods of an unusually rich supply of food lead to an increase of the robbing class." p19 This is an interesting fact which, if true, needs explanation.
  • His interpretation of "savage" and "barbarian" history seems to fail to acknowledge the necessary difference between hunter-gatherers and agriculturists. His village is essentially a tribe with land attached. p80
  • He sees the dark ages as a time when individual communities developed democratic institutions which were only later destroyed by the nation building of post-mediaeval war-lords. p103 and p105
  • Markets enjoy special and necessary protection from feuds: trading necessitates trust. He shows that, in history, markets enjoyed legal immunities. p118
  • He claims that workers only worked 48 hours per week (or 8 hours per day; Sunday off) in the middle ages. p121
  • "At the beginning of the eleventh century the towns of Europe were small clusters of miserable huts .... Three hundred and fifty years later .... the land was dotted with rich cities ..." p128
  • He describes the Eiffel Tower as "a meaningless scaffold" p130
  • He believes that modern society has abdicated responsibility for justice to policemen and for looking after other people to taxes; quite a modern Tory point of view! p140
  • "To speak of the natural death of the village communities in virtue of economical laws is as grim a joke as to speak of the natural death of soldiers slaughtered on a battlefield" p144
  • "Henry the Eighth not only ruined the organisation of the guilds but also but also confiscated their properties, with even less excuse and manners ... than he had produced for confiscating the estates of the monasteries. Edward the Sixth completed his work." p160. A historical fact of which I was unaware.

I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would and there were some interesting insights. However, whilst it might have been revolutionary at the time it has rather been superseded by the principles of sociobiology as articulated by eg Stephen Pinker.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

"The Perfect King" by Iam Mortimer

This is a biography of Edward III. It is most noticeable for the astounding suggestion that Edward II was not murdered after his assassination (by a red hot poker inserted into his anus) but was taken to Italy and kept there for many years until his death. Edward III was told that his father had died (after being deposed and held captive), accepted the story, told it to others, accepted that he was true king (initially a puppet of his mother, Isabella, and her lover Roger Mortimer) and did not find out until after Edward III had in turn deposed Mortimer.

The book is well written. It begins with the breathtaking coup against Mortimer in which some bold knights entered Nottingham Castle through a secret passage and kidnapped Mortimer. One cannot keep up at this sort of romantic level but there is loads of excitement in Edward's life: he won battles in France and Scotland against all the odds using the then revolutionary tactics of projectile warfare (Britain had longbowmen); there were jousts and tournaments and chivalric knights battling alone against many opponents and then escaping and swimming the moat; there were intrigues and politics and important new laws; and Edward invented the Order of the Garter. This is a film script waiting to happen.

Mortimer starts with Edward's childhood, pointing out that "of all the stages in the life of a resourceful and imaginative individual, childhood is the most important and the most difficult to understand." Even for a king. Edward's childhood was in particular conditioned by the deposition and imprisonment of his close and affectionate father by his mother and Roger Mortimer, a man (and more or less a step-dad) whom Edward must have admired for his courage and administrative and political skills but must also have feared and hated for keeping him, Edward, a subservient puppet.

Edward, born in November 1312, was brought up first in the manor house at Bisham which had belonged to the Knights Templars until their 1312 dissolution and then taken to Wallingford Castle which had been the home of his father's 'friend' Piers Gaveston.

In January 1324 Mortimer persuaded parliament to depose Edward II. Edward III refused the throne until Edward II had abdicated (which he did reluctantly having been convinced that he could abdicate in favour of his son or he could let Mortimer seize the throne). For the next few years Edward III was a puppet king, even after the announcement that his father was dead. Mortimer fought with the Earl of Lancaster (one of Edward II'scousins) until the Earl capitulated "near Bedford" (I cannot find a clearer reference than the Annales Paulini) in 1328. Soon after, in 1330, the Earl Of Kent (a brother of Edward II) discovered (some say he was set up) that Edward II was still alive and conceived of a plot to spring him from Corfe Castle; this being discovered, Mortimer demanded that Kent be executed for treason and Edward III was obliged to confirm this sentence although the soldiers all refused to carry out the sentence and they had to find a latrine cleaner, himself sentenced to death, to behead the Earl in exchange for a pardon.

This was March. By October the coup against Mortimer had been staged; he was taken to the Tower and, because he had escaped there in 1323, he was walled in. He was hanged at Tyburn.

By 1332 Edward was sponsoring Edward Balliol who was trying to regain his father's Scottish crown. At Dopplin Moor, Balliol's army was well out-numbered by that of Donald Earl of Mar but the English archers destroyed the force of the Scottish cavalry, for the first time showing the destructive power of longbows. In this campaign a Scottish pirate called John Crabb who was harassing English ships off Berwick was captured by Edward's Sir Walter Manny; he became Edward's expert on naval warfare. Still later, Edward Balliol was surprised at Annan and escaped by riding bareback in his nightshirt to Carlisle. Edward also developed cannon. Already, in 1327, when Edward was on campaign in Scotland with Roger Mortimer, the army had used what they called 'crakkis of wer' which were probably bronze, vase-shaped cannon which shot arrows more than 1km. Edward manufactured both cannon and gunpowder at the Tower of London. Edward finally led his men into battle against the Scots at Halidon Hill outside Berwick where the English annihilated the Scots in a fight to the death.

Religious debates were important in Edward's time. Wycliffe attended his court and William of Ockham was around.

In March 1337, Edward created his son Duke of Cornwall. This was England's first Duke. Ian Mortimer argues that the boy could not become Prince of Wales until Edward II (who had not abdicated that title) was truly dead; this is ancillary evidence to the theory that Edward II survived (on 6 September 1338 Edward met 'William le Galeys' (William the Welshman) who Mortimer believes was his father). Edward also created six Earls choosing mostly men who had helped him overthrow Mortimer: Montagu (Salisbury), Henry of Grosmont (Derby), William Bohun (Northmapton), Hugh Audley (Gloucester), William Clinton (Huntingdon) and Robert Ufford (Suffolk).

There is a suggestion that Edmund, Edward's seventh child, was illegitimate. He was born at least 16 days pre term if Edward conceived him. He was born at King's Langley (which had been Edward II's favourite manor); he was belatedly made an earl at an age much later than his brothers; he was not mentioned in his father's will.

Edward supported John de Montfort in his claim for the Duchy of Brittany against his half-niece Jean who had married the French king's nephew Charles de Blois.

The Prince of Wales crest of 3 Ostrich feathers originally belonged to the blind King John of Bohemia who had commanded the French vanguard at the battle of Crecy (yes, despite being blind) and, realising the battle was lost, had ridden into battle and died with his knights holding his bridle. When Edward II met the Black Prince after the battle the Prince handed his father the ostrich plumes with the words Ich Dien (I serve). The archery-led English victory at Crecy annihilated the French, killing eleven potentates and many thousands of Frenchmen for an English loss of 300 men. Crecy was the victory of dirty little commoners with longbows against aristocratic knights; it led to the death of feudal society. The power Edward had now led to the capture of Calais (despite King Phillip of France bringing an army to Sangatte; he retreated before fighting). During the siege in 1348 Edward was told that King David II of Scotland had been captured after the battle of Neville's Cross in Durham. King David lived in various places during his long captivity (11 years) including Odiham Castle which had been built by King John's, probably because it was half way between Windsor and Winchester.

William of Wykeham directed the rebuilding of the royal apartments in Windsor Castle in 1358. Wykeham also worked on Sheen Palace in 1358. Edward also built Eltham Palace in 1350, Henley in 1351 and, in 1353, a manor house at Rotherhithe where he spent £1,064. All this was during the aftermath of the Black Death. Wars, plague; England must have had a fundamentally very sound economy!

At the Battle of Poitiers, in 1356, the Black Prince commanded an outnumbered army which again destroyed a French army, this time capturing the King of France (by now John). So Edward had two kings in captivity at the same time, surely an unequalled feat. The French King John was lodged in the Savoy Palace.

Edward started JPs and Quarter Sessions. This legislation which he enacted in 1361 set up a system which is still going today more than 600 years later.

Edward's son Lionel married the daughter of Galeazzo Visconti, Lord of Milan; Petrarch attended the wedding. Chaucer's father was Edward's butler; Chaucer got captured on one of Edward's French campaigns and Edward contributed to the ransom. Langland wrote in Edward's time. It was during Edward's days that English became used in parliament and a law required court proceedings to be in English; this was the moment that English became the dominant language of England as attested by the birth of English literature at this time.

Edward held many (almost annual) parliaments and became the first monarch to regularly grant parliamentary requests; his legislative programme was therefore mainly shaped by the people. In return for this he received generous taxes to prosecute his wars and build his palaces. The first speaker (who became quite critical of Edward) was the steward of the Earl of March (Roger Mortimer's great-grandson!) called Peter de la Mare.

Finally, Ian Mortimer believes that the majority of English people of English ethnicity will have Edward III in their family tree! He might have been my ancestor!

A brilliant book.

August 2009, 402 pages

Monday, 10 August 2009

"My favourite wife" by Tony Parsons

I haven't read this author before.

This is a slightly predictable story about a hot shot lawyer who goes to work in Shanghai; he is corrupted by the neo-colonial lifestyle in the Wild East and falls in love with a Chinese girl and has an affair with her after his wife and daughter have returned to Britain. The story is redeemed from the simplicity of a morality fable by the sincerity of the love shown by the lawyer to both wife and mistress, and by the strong character of the wife whose actions are in large part responsible for the lawyer's situation; in short there are genuine dilemmas posed here and no character is perfectly black or white.

The story is set against the colourful background of a town in which poor people are getting rich quick by exploiting other even poorer people. Genuine clashes of culture are explored and real economic dilemmas posed: is the capitalist way of enriching some while exploiting others right; should there be any limits on how a person exploits their talents to make money to survive (ie is prostitution OK?).

So it is a good story and even-handed in its treatment of most of the characters, so why didn't I enjoy it more? In some ways it was too well written: you could see the hallmarks of thorough research, the moral debates were too structured and too staged. One character's destruction was too obvious; Shanghai was too black and white a setting; the final pay off was too goody goody; the main character was too hot shot (given all the time off he kept sneaking one wondered how he ever got any work done at all let alone "he was billing more hours than anyone in the firm"). In short, the characters seemed like puppets against a theatrical background rather than flesh and blood. I never really believed.

August 2009, 405 pages

Thursday, 6 August 2009

"The Periodic Table"by Primo Levi

Levi is an Italian Jew from Turin who studied chemistry and worked as a chemist throughout the second world war, including (having been captured as a partisan) just outside Auschwitz. This book tells stories from hislife which are linked to one element or another. Thus, in one job he uses potassium to purify benzene and almost burns the lab down; at anothertime an acquaintance gives him a piece of uranium he had acquired from Germans feeling to Switzerland at the end of WWII.

It reminded me a little of Faulk's A Fool's Alphabet in its somewhat artificial structuring (but it is at least chronological) but more of Richard Feynman's Surely you're joking Mr Feynman which is a much more amusing scientific autobiography .

Nevertheless, this was an interesting read.

August 2009, 232 pages

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

"The Dante Club" by Matthew Pearl

This book has a puff from Dan Brown on the front which made me fear the worst. Happily it is nowhere near as bad as The Da Vinci Code; indeed it is nearly as good as The Rule of Four.

Set in Harvard in 1865 it chronicles Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher J.T. Fields, the Dante Translation Club, as they prepare the first American translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. But there is an evil professor at Harvard who seeks to stop them, damning Dante as obscene (and Catholic). Worse, a psychopath is killing people in ways that mirror punishments described in the Inferno.

Amusing hokum. As a whodunnit there were not nearly enough clues to identify the psychopath although one (a la Da Vinci Code) was obvious; as a thriller it was far too interested in the characters of the four famous Club members and the ins and outs of the Inferno and Dante's life and character. Me being an unusual reader I found these the most interesting parts of the book and I am now resolved to read The Comedy (and maybe the Vita Nuova as well) and to find a biography of Dante.

August 2009, 420 pages

Sunday, 2 August 2009

"The Cross-Legged Knight" by Candace Robb

This is an Owen Archer mystery, set in York in the days of Edward III. It is a whodunnit.

As such it is well researched. I learned a lot about medieval herbs and healing (Owen's wife is an apothecary) and the difference between a tanner and a tawyer (who dealt in the hides of small animals only). I enjoyed the way the mediaeval people are described as if they had real concerns and normal lives; they work hard and live in their time. But I felt that the book spent too much time trying to educate me about the middle ages and too little time establishing characters. There are also rather more loose ends than Agatha Christie would leave.

A quick and simple read. An entertainment but not a great whodunnit and certainly not a great piece of literature.

August 2009, 367pages

Saturday, 1 August 2009

"On Green Dolphin Street" by Sebastian Faulks

I found this book in the library of the Hotel Majestic Palace in Sorrento and quicklyrealised it was the only readable thing there. Actually it was a fantastic find.

Charlie is a diplomat at the Washington Embassy at the start of 1960; he is falling apart through a combination of financial problems, a general world-weariness and depression, and the excessive amounts of alcohol he drinks to keep the blues away. Mary, his wife, falls for Frank, a journalist assigned to cover the Kennedy-Nixon election. As their affair develops she has to choose between her family life with her alcoholic husband and her children (sent to boarding school in England) and her dying mother and grieving father, and the passionate love she feels for Frank.

Faulks handles with brilliance the feel of the age, the children doing A-bomb drill, the jazz, the cold war (and the scenes in Moscow are stupendous). He writes about the experience of the two men in their respective wars, killing for their country, and their meeting in the mess that is Dien Bien Phu. He writes about grief and alcoholism and passionate love and bereavement and boarding school and, best of all, about the futility of existence seen through a depressive's eyes.

I wanted to scream at the end.

This was a wonderful book, my favourite of his that I have read so far. It certainly trumps Birdsong!

August 2009, 335 pages

Thursday, 30 July 2009

"A fool's alphabet" by Sebastian Faulks

By the author of Birdsong.

By a strange coincidence I read this in the shadow of Vesuvius; the book starts "Vesuvius was erupting".

The book traces the first 41 years of the life of Pietro in an alphabet of places that are significant to him. These are not, as the rubric referred to in the book implies, places where Pietro has spent a night; they include A=Anzio where his father was injured which led to a meeting with his mother and M=Mons where his grandfather fought. Many of the places are also embedded in other places as reminiscences. However the demands of the form makes the narrative flicker backwards and forwards through time. It becomes difficult to work out key details about Pietro's life; sometimes this is enough to make you keep reading but at other times you are just plain confused. The overall impression (surely the author's intention) is that life is a random jumble of events, some of which have significance far beyond their apparent importance.

It does get you wondering what your biographical place alphabet would be. Here is a first attempt: Athens, Bedford, Cambridge, Downing (?), Eton, France, G, H, I, J, Kingston, L, Malvern, N, O, Paris, Q, Rome, S, T, U, V, Wootton, X, Y, Z. Some of these might need further work!

July 2009, 274 pages

Monday, 27 July 2009

"Testimony" by Anita Shreve

This novel begins explosively as a headteacher at a posh private school in Vermont watches a video of three of his male adult students having sex with an underage female student. He immediately thinks of expulsion and cover up although he is upset because he recognises and likes the male students involved. The book then explores, through the viewpoints and testimonies of each ofthe people involved, including the parents, the ramifications of this single act. As a fiction the book is excellent, "uncluttered" in Steph's phrase, and each different voice is captured so that you really get an impression of each of the characters. The book is sympathetic to each of the character's viewpoints, although the girl (totally not a victim) is clearly an utter airhead.

There are a number of moral issues left hanging. Given that the headteacher's own sex life is scarcely a model of rectitude (he slept with his wife the night that he met her at a party) it is difficult to understand why what the boys did was so totally awful that it led to such shame. Yes it was filmed and yes she was underage but older boys sleep with younger girls regularly and the sky does not always fall in. The other question is whether the school should have attempted to cover up: the consequences of what happens after the press find out are so awful that a cover up is the best thing. If this could have been just 'boys will be boys'it would have blown over.

A powerful and thought-provoking book, somewhat American in its love of details and the way it wrings the last drops of drama from the situation. Well-constructed although rather clearly constructed.

July 2009, 305 pages

Sunday, 26 July 2009

"Garibaldi; invention of a hero" by Lucy Riall

This is not really a biography at all but an examination of why Garibaldi became this extraordinary hero who could, almost single-handedly, overthrow the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

Riall's thesis is that Garibaldi was invented by Mazzini to fit the current model of a romantic hero. Taking the cue from Walter Scott's historical romances and other romantic fiction, Mazzini and Garibaldi together concocted a persona that was based on the real man but meant much more. Mazzini then used the exploding new medium of journalism to propagandise Garibaldi even whilst he was still a revolutionary gaucho in Montevideo. Garibaldi also took past in this project of mythologisation with his speeches, his writings and,above all, a carefuly cultivated dress. Riall points out that after the disasted of Rome, when Garibaldi tried to get a job with the regular armed forces of Piedmont, Garibaldi's dress was as befitted a slightly elderly middle class general.But when he went on this pirated ship to capture Sicily with his Thousand the last thing he did before stepping aboard was to change his clothes to his trademark red shirt,feathered hat and poncho. Garibaldi manufactured and cultivated his brand and, Riall maintains, this was the secret of his success.

He was the romantic hero come to life.

An intriguing hypothesis but is you want a book about Garibaldi I would start elsewhere.
July 2009, 392 pages

Sunday, 19 July 2009

"The Ascent of Money" by Niall Ferguson

This book is subtitled A Financial History of the World and tells the story of finance from Mesopotamian days to the 2007 credit crunch. It accompanies a Channel Four TV series, traces of which can be seen in the prose (there are frequent references to places which are clearly camera shots: the East End of Glasgow, Memphis, and Stowe House for example).

It is not organised as history but in themes (presumably the programmes). Thus: one chapter considers government bonds, one traces the history of shares, one considers insurance and one property. There is a considerable emphasis on the recent turmoil on the financial markets; as a history it has a definite bias to the more recent. There are many interesting moments; I was, for example, charmed by the anti-capitalist antecedents of Monopoly. But there are also occasions when I wanted to know more, more, more: he mentions the Dutch Tulip bubble and the South Sea bubble both of which I know something about but I wanted more; he tantalisingly mentions (twice) the collapse of Overend Gurney but he never tells us what happened. Not only this but I was left floundering by his explanations of what a hedge fund is; and of put,call and swap options.

All in all this was an interesting book but not a fascinating one and it left me frustrated with a lot of unanswered questions.

July 2009, 362 pages

Monday, 13 July 2009

"Anansi Boys" by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is best known, according to the Daily Telegraph, for the Sandman series of graphic novels. This is my first Neil Gaiman book. It is an adult version of a Terry Pratchett book but not so funny.

When 'Fat' Charlie Nancy's dad dies he discovers that he is the son of the trickster God Anansi, the Spider. Then Charlie's brother Spider turns up. Within a day Spider has stolen Charlie's fiancee and enmeshed Charlie in a fraud. But Charlie's attempts to get rid of Spider have even worse consequences.

There are some delightfully funny parts of this book: the characters, especially the old ladies, are convincing and the situations are those classic comedy situations which are totally and utterly ridiculous but are less than a feather's breadth away from everyday embarrassing reality. Gaiman can write some classic prose (and some classically cliched prose) and there was one moment when I actually laughed aloud: Grahame was "ready, as the poet said, to risk it on a turn of pitch and toss. He had risked and he had won. He was the pitcher. He was the tosser." (Chapter 8).

I enjoyed the reality bits but I thought the god bits were a bit unsubtle. I would have preferred the story to have been entirely real except for the hint of mystery when the gods are acting.

Gaiman writes fluently. Although he audaciously mixes myth and reality he is NOT one of "fiction's most audaciously original talents" as it says on the back. In many ways the book is deeply unoriginal. The character of the evil but slimy theatrical agent is standard, as is the ice mother-in-law; most of the plot elements are predictable (night out leads to hangover leads to problems at work); there are homages to Reggie Perrin amongst other works; the demi-God Spider discovers that he needs real love from a real woman rather than his cool magical life; the story theme sounds like a novelist justifying himself. All in all this was a fairly standard romp and Pratchett is wittier.

July 2009, 451 pages

Sunday, 12 July 2009

"Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

I massively enjoyed Gladwell's Tipping Point and quite enjoyed his Blink but I found this book rather lightweight in comparison. Like the others it was extraordinarily easy to read (less than two days) but the first two books seemed to be bursting with strange ideas whilst this one recycled a few ideas I had met before.

The book is an attempt to describe why some people (Bill Gates, Jewish lawyers, the Beatles) are especially successful. Here is the Gladwell formula:
  1. You have to be born at the right time. He notes that star Canadian ice hockey players tend to be born in the first three months of the year. This is because the cut-off date for junior players is 1st January. Thus those born in January are physically more mature and stronger than their youth team mates born in December; this difference is crucial when talent scouts pick young players; those picked then get more practise and match experience and so develop into stars. Furthermore, Bill Gates was lucky to be young when the computer industry was taking off and the most successful Jewish lawyers were all born in 1930 or 1931 so they escaped both depression and WWII.
  2. You have to put in 10,000 hours of practice. Getting the opportunity to do this is mostly luck. Bill Gates happened to go to a school which bought an early computer; he happened to live near a university that offered him free overnight access (there was a bug in the program so he got it free). The Beatles played Hamburg. Gladwell believes the success of Chinese immigrants to America is because of the culture of rice paddy farming: whilst European peasants worked hard at planting and harvest they lazed through the rest of the year; rice paddys need such careful planned cultivation that a rice farmer can never relax. 10,000 hours of hard work adds up to success.
  3. You have to come from a culture that will allow you to succeed. The rice paddy example above is an obvious one but Gladwell also mentions deleterious cultures such as the vendetta culture of the Appalachians (imported from the Irish and Scottish border countries apparently) to the high PDI (power distance index) culture of Korea and Guatemala responsible for plane crashes (because First Officers don't dare to tell their Captains that they are running out of fuel or about to fly into a hillside).

Of particular interest to me were the bits about education. Gladwell points out that middle class children are parented in what he calls concerted cultivation. Thus through the holidays middle class kids are taken to museums and made to read books. On p257 he shows that children from every class (Low, Middle or High) make about the same improvement over their school year. But High class children continue to improve during the vacations. Middle class children improve slightly but much much less than High class; Low class children lose ground in holidays. "The school year in the United States is, on average, 180 days long. The South Korean school year is 220 days long. The Japanese school year is 243 days long" (p260).

I was, of course, also interested in what the aeroplane crashes taught about the dynamics of a management team.

An interesting book but, on the whole, a disappointment.

July 2009, 285 pages

Sunday, 5 July 2009

"Edward I: A great and terrible king" by Marc Morris

This is a biography written about a fascinating king whose life was full of chivalry and derring do: this is a swashbuckler of a biography. I absolutely loved this book. It is exactly my sort of history: kings, battles and politics. But there were also loads of interesting snippets about the middle ages and items that raised questions about what happens nowadays. Here are many snippets I adored:

Edward's father was Henry III, son of King John. Henry was a pretty feeble king, not very good at warfare and prone to policy reversals that veered from wimpishness to ferocity: the classic poor leader. One of the few good things about Henry was his reverence for Edward the Confessor, after whom he named his son (Edward was the first king to be given a Saxon name since the Conquest - there had been two Guillaumes, three Henris, a Ricard and a Jean). This reverence also led Henry to rebuild Westminster Abbey in the gothic form with which we are now familiar.

Edward's mother was Eleanor of Provence whose maternal uncle, Peter of Savoy, came to England to advise her. Henry gave Peter a house on the Strand in London (p7) which later became Savoy House and is now the Savoy Hotel and Theatre.

The later part of Henry's reign, whilst Edward was an active teenage prince, was taken with the struggle against Simon de Montfort. This was the 'Baron's War', a civil war in which de Montfort fought for the administrative reforms known as the Provisions of Oxford (1258). De Montfort won the Battle of Lewes (1264) against a numerically superior royalist force but was the defeated and killed at the Battle of Evesham (1265). In the intervening year, de Montfort ruled England at the head of triumvirate who 'advised' the king; he also summoned a parliament. This was not the first parliament (Henry had already been summoning parliaments which he expected would agree to new taxes but didn't). What made de Montfort's parliament a first was that he asked every county and selected boroughs to elect two representatives each and send them to Westminster. This was therefore the first elected representative parliament. His intention was clearly to pack it with his men because his support was strong among the towns but weak amongst the aristocracy.

Simon de Montfort's son, Guy, later took revenge for the death (and mutilation) of his father by assassinating Henry of Altmain, his cousin, in the church of St Silvester, in Viterbo near Rome (p106). For this act of wickedness he was placed in the seventh circle of Hell by Dante in the Inferno.

Hugh Bigod was the younger brother of Roger Bigod, a leading member of the council of fifteen set up by the provisions of Oxford. His father had been one of the 25 "sureties" of the Magna Carta. In 1258, Hugh was sent out on a "countrywide judicial tour to correct all manner of wrongdoings" (p41). He became Chief Justiciar of England between 1258 and 1260 and was succeeded by Hugh Le Despencer.

It was during Henry III's reign that the legends about Robin Hood began. When Henry wanted money he found himself unable to raise it via loans or taxes so he encouraged his officers (eg the sheriffs) to raise money via fines. The story about young Robert of Locksley, Earl of Huntingdon, being deprived of his inheritance may reflect the punitive measures adopted by Henry III after the Battle of Evesham: rebels were deprived of their lands and known as the Disinherited. "One group laid waste to the counties of East Anglia; others began to create similar havoc in the Midlands and in Hampshire." (p76) The Hampshire leader, Adam Gurdon, was based in Alton Woods. Prince Edward, heir to the throne, personally defeated Adam but was "so impressed with the skill of his adversary that he allowed him generous terms of surrender" (p76). Robin Hoodlike indeed!

When Edward decided to go on crusade he summoned a special parliament to Northampton, presumably "because of its spectacular Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by a knight of the First Crusade [Simon de Senlis] in imitation of the original he had seen in Jerusalem" (p83).

When Edward's queen (Eleanor, just like his mother, but she was Eleanor of Provence whilst he married Eleanor of Castille) dies Edward erected an Eleanor Cross at every place the funeral procession stopped overnight on the way from Lincolnshire to Westminster Abbey. Some crosses still survive (eg at Hardingstone in Northamptonshire) whilst others (Charing Cross) don't. After the funeral, Edward spent Christmas 1290 in Ashridge in Herfordshire. He held a parliament there.

About this time the Maid of Norway, who was the last heir of King Alexander III of Scotland, who had conquered the Isle of Man before riding his horse off the edge of a cliff during a storm, died on the sea voyage from Norway to claim her kingdom. As well as becoming Queen of Scotland she would have married Edward of Caernarfon, Prince of Wales, Edward I's last surviving son (one of his now dead elder brothers had been called Alfonso, Queen Eleanor having come from Castille, so we might have been ruled by King Alfonso!). Not only did the Maid's death ruin the chances of uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland but it also threw the succession for the Scottish crown into complete confusion with 13 different claimants including Florence, Count of Holland (so Scotland could have had a King Florence!; later Edward arranged for Florence to be kidnapped, in the course of which he was murdered). Edward manipulated this confusion until he was granted overlordship of Scotland and appointed chair of the committee that eventually awarded the throne to John Balliol, son of the man who founded Balliol College in Oxford.

Scotland was, at this time an ethnic melting pot of ancient Britons (around Galloway), Anglo Saxons from Northumbria (around Edinburgh), Vikings (Hebrides and Orkneys) and Irish (the 'Scottii') (p241).

In 1293 Edward married his daughter Eleanor (confusing family, mother, wife and daughter all called Eleanor) to Henry III Count of Bar. Bar was where Joan of Arc came from some centuries later.

Edward used Italian bankers called the Riccardi. Basically he granted them customs duties from wool in return for loans. But when their bank failed (classically, by being unable to cash in investments when required to return deposits) Edward arrested them. Banking was still a dodgy business; only the Jews were allowed to practice usury. But anti-semitism built up in England partly because people borrowed from the Jews and then couldn't repay so their estates were forfeit but because the Jews couldn't hold land the estates were bought up for a song by speculators who included Edward's Queen. This got to the point at which the landowners who made up the parliament more or less forced a not very unwilling king to expel the jews in return for being granted a tax.

In April 1299 Edward held a parliament in Stepney! (p317)

In 1304, during the siege of Stirling Castle, Edward's troops used gunpowder (p343). They also used a huge trebuchet called the Warwolf (lup de guerre).

In 1303 the crown jewels were stolen from Westminster during a nationwide crime wave which included thugs called trailbastons (because they dragged big clubs called bastons along the ground behind them) (p 346).

Edward of Caernarfon (Prince of Wales) had a manor in Kennington (which was turned into a Palace by his great grandson the Black Prince) where today the Oval is part of the Duchy of Cornwall and thus owned by the present Prince of Wales.

Another royal residence mentioned is Sheen. This was a manor house just to the east of what is now Richmond Bridge; it later became Sheen Palace and then Richmond Palace. This was where, in 1305, the Commissioners for Scotland went down on their knees to pay homage to Edward I.

When Edward II was knighted vows were said over two golden swans which "set a fashion for swearing oaths on birds for the next two centuries." (p355)

Edward I died at Burgh on the Sands in Cumbria whilst preparing to invade Scotland again. His body was buried in Westminster Abbey in a plain box of black Purbeck marble. An inscription was added in the sixteenth century but this seems to have been a copy of one that dates from at least 1320. The inscription reads EDWARDUS PRIMUS SCOTTORUM MALLEUS HIC EST PACTUM SERVA. This translates as Edward I Hammer of the Scots is here. Keep the Vow. This would have been the vow that the nobility of England "had all sworn at Whitsun 1306 ... to avenge the rebellion of Robert Bruce" (p378).

Gosh I enjoyed this book.

July 2009, 378 pages



Saturday, 4 July 2009

"Stuart. A life backwards" by Alexander Masters

This is the biography of Stuart Shorter, homeless man. It starts with his death and moves backwards through the prison sentences and, hostels, crimes etc to his traumatic childhood. It seeks to explain how the 'chaotic' homeless have beome who they are. It is the story of a remarkable man who suffered tremendously at the hands of nature, his family and 'The System' and is yet perceptive, funny and wise.

As well as the story of Stuart we have the framing story of the developing friendship of Stuart and Alexander. The catalogue of misunderstanding as Alexander tries to explain the inexplicable (Stuart) is extraodrniarily funny. I suppose the humour was the last thing I expected in a book about such a grim topic and yet it is perhaps the funniest and most charming biography I have ever read.

Funny and also moving; Mark Haddon calls it 'Bollocks brilliant'; I agree.

June 2009, 292 pages

Sunday, 28 June 2009

"Terrorist" by John Updike

I haven't read Updike before (another in a very long line of authors I should have read). I don't know whether this was a good book to start. I only know that it was a superb read.

As a thriller it has, perhaps, too slow a build but when the climax comes the last pages are utterly unputdownable and the will he won't he question is only answered with less than five pages to go. But it is too well written and the characters are too real and multi-dimensional to be a thriller.

It centres on Ahmad, a serious young man about to graduate from high school, the offspring of an aging hippy, red-haired, Irish, health assistant-cum-painter and an absent Egyptian father. Ahmad has been attending the mosque and studying the Koran since he was 11; he is virginal, clean-living and convinced that God is inside him and with him. His perspective on America provides Updike with pages of beautifully written condemnation of consumerism, immorality, greed and selfishness in the archetypal New Jersey town of New Prospect. Ahmad visits a church (because he is invited by African-American Joryleen whom he fancies the pants off, but stays pure) and has a near fight with Joryleen's boyfriend and talks to his guidance counsellor Mr Levy and learns to drive a truck for a furniture firm.

Updike achieves the difficult task of putting flesh and blood upon this strange religious boy. He is moved by temptation. He is afraid. He loves his mother even as he understands her weaknesses (she has a lot of temporary boyfriends). He even has doubts about his Koranic teachers (though never about being with God).

The other major character is Mr Levy, the school guidance counsellor. He is a secular Jew, born of a lapsed Jewish father who embraced communism. His wife, Beth, is a fat, lazy American woman who works in a library (but the passages written from her viewpoint make her much much more than a stock character). Mr Levy takes an interest in Ahmad (and a greater interest in his mother): he feels Ahmad is too bright to waste his life driving a truck.

There are beautiful passages from this book. The struggle for Beth to pick up the remote control she has dropped on the floor. The confrontation between Ahmad and Joryleen's boyfriend. The relationship between Ahmad and his co-driver, Charlie. The fabulous, life affirming walk that Ahmad takes to his truck: "An unseen dog in a house barks at the shadow-sound of Ahmad passing on the sidewalk. A ginger coloured cat with one blind eye like a crazed white marble is huddling close to the front screen door as it waits to be let in; it arches its back and flashes a golden spark from its narrowed good eye .... The air tingles on Ahmad's face but there is not enough of a drizzle to soak his shirt." Four pages later, however, he is less happy. "The shabbiness in the streets, the fast-food trash and broken plastic toys, the unpainted steps and porches still dark from the morning's dampness, the windows cracked and not repaired .... Women's voices rise from back rooms in merciless complaint against children who were born uninvited and now collect, neglected around the only friendly voices in their hearing, those from the television set."

This is a superb book by a writer on top of his form.

June 2009, 310 pages

Saturday, 20 June 2009

"Reading the Oxford English Dictionary" by Ammon Shea

This weird book describes the year that Ammon Shea took to read the entire, 20 volume, 21,730 page Oxford English Dictionary.

There are, unsurprisingly, 26 chapters. Each chapter gives a little background about events that happened during the year such as the Convention for Lexicographers he attended all of whom thought that reading the OED was mad. This autobiographical fragment is then followed by his favourite words for the appropriate letter.

It sounds like a dreadfully boring book but actually it is quite funny. Some of the words are delightful and some are bizarre. The little commentaries he gives on each word are often gems. Often he is delighted to find a word for something he did not think needed to be named. Sometimes the definitions are enthralling.

Favourite word: "Unbepissed (adj) Not having been urinated on. Unwet with urine." (p188). As Shea points out, one must live a strange life is being wet with urine is the norm.

A strange book with delights for vocabularians (p194) such as myself but beware: I started mentioning some of the words to my family and they did not want to know!

"The name of Isaac Bickerstaff Steele borrowed from his friend Swift, who, just before the establishment of the Tatler, had borrowed it from a shoemaker's shop-board, and used it as the name of an imagined astrologer, who should be an astrologer indeed, and should attack John Partridge, the chief of the astrological almanack makers, with a definite prediction of the day and hour of his death. This he did in a pamphlet that brought up to the war against one stronghold of superstition an effective battery of satire. " Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer by Richard Steele. Papers from Steele's Tatler by Henry Morley http://schulers.com/books/ri/i/ISAAC_BICKERSTAFF/ [Accessed 20th June 2009]


The book containing the collection of early Tatlers became known as The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff. Lucubration, which means to study or meditate, literally means to work by artifical light.

Later an Isaac Bickerstaffe was a playwright who had some success with The Hypocrite (1769), a play that starred a hypocrite called Mawworm. "Irish playwright whose farces and comic operas were popular in the late 18th century. There is no apparent connection between his name and the pseudonym earlier adopted by Jonathan Swift and also used by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele for The Tatler. " Encyclopaedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/64674/Isaac-Bickerstaffe [Accessed 20th June 2009].

June 2009, 223 pages

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

"The Immoralist" by Andre Gide

The hero narrator, Michel, is a student of archaology and paleography. He gets married (one feels it is an arranged match) and travels into North Africa for his honeymoon. On the journey he discovers he has tuberculosis. He nearly dies. As he convalesces he realises that there is more to life than thoughts and ideas; there is a world of sense and feeling. He begins to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the Arab boys in it. After recovering and returning to his old life he becomes more and more drawn towards sensuality. Then his wife becomes ill...

It is a strange tale. The "story in a story" device dresses it up as a true story yet the author carefully contrives an artificially symmetrical plot. The other main character is his wife; she is a goody two shoes but a cipher; she has no character of her own (perhaps this is because the narrator is so absorbed in himself). It is a tale based on the idea that the world of ideas is not enough; he uses words (beautifully) to convey sensations. The implication is that the narrator plunges into immorality although his actual actions are remarkably chaste (he even blushes when accused of preferring boys to his new wife). Perhaps this was racy in 1902.

The basic idea is that we are sensuous animals which the civilized world covers with a veneer of respectability. Why? Most people "believe that it is only by constraint that they can get any good out of themselves" (p 100). Yet "of the thousand forms of life, each of us can know but one" (p105). Even memories fade, shrivel and decay. Live for today! "Let every moment carry away with it all that it brought" (p107).

But these interesting and controversial ideas are in a book of elegant prose and devastating beauty. Shadows are "transparent and mobile" (p 38). "The song of the flute flowed on" (p 41). "The regular palm trees, bereft of colour and life, seemed struck for ever motionless" (p 47). "This African land ... had lain submerged for many long days and was now awaking from its winter sleep, drunken with water, bursting with the fresh rise of sap; throughout it ran the wild laughter of an exultant spring..." (p 46).

He is particularly lyrical about male beauty. Although the only sex acts are heterosexual there is little doubt where the author's interest lies. Lachmi showed "a golden nudity beneath his flowing garment" (p 42). Moktir "did not irritate me (becuase of his good looks perhaps)" (p 44). Charles is "a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissom, so well-made..." (p75). A Sicilian boy is "beautiful as a line of Theocritus, full of colour, and odour and savour, like a fruit" (p 144).

A book of fascinating ideas and gorgeous prose.

June 2009, 158 pages

Sunday, 14 June 2009

"Iron Kingdom" by Christopher Clark

Iron Kingdom is subtitled The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. It tells the history of the Hohenzollern dynasty and beyond from their days as Electors in Brandenburg, the Mark around Berlin through their becoming kings in Prussia, one of their possessions which lay outside the Holy Roman Empire and so could become a Kingdom, through the Bismarckian conquest and unification of Prussia into Germany and the Hohenzollerns becoming Kaisers of the new Reich, through the dynasty's end with the closure of the First World War, to the decreed abolition of Prussia after the Second World War.

It is a well written book in that it alternates my kind of history (kings and battles) with social history so that I never got too bored by the latter. It is however, long (688 pages); despite this there were times when I wanted to know more. There were moments when I felt the author assumed I knew more than I did: for example, he talks about thalers and groschen as if I can understand their relative values. At other times he is simply too brief. There is almost no mention of either the First or Second World War as if these were German events which did not affect Prussia. I would have liked to know more about Kaiser Bill and the Franco-Prussian war.

There are times when the language departs from academic and becomes more compelling: his description of a poetic epic containing fragmented scenes as being like a film shot with a hand-held camcorder is evocative.

The author does not like Hindenburg! Hindenburg was c-in-c of German forces on the Eastern front during the First World War. "He blackmailed the Kaiser, to whom he professed the deepest personal loyalty .... it was a systematic insubordination born of vast ambition and an utter disregard of any interest or authority outside the military hierarchy he himself dominated ... Hindenburg deliberately cultivated the national obsession with his own person, projecting an image of an indomitable German warrior .... Although Hindenburg was among those who urged William II to abdicate and flee to Holland in November 1918, he subsequently shrouded himself in the mantle of a principled monarchism .... In the last days of September 1918, Hindenburg urgently pressed the German civilian government to initiate ceasefire negotiations, yet he later disassociated himself entirely from the resulting peace, leaving the civilians to carry the responsibility and the opprobrium. On 17 June 1919, when the government of Friedrich Ebery was deliberating over whether to accept the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Hindenburg conceded in writing that further military resistance would be hopeless. Yet .... he claimed in November 1919 ... that the German armies in the field had not been vanquished by the enemy powers, but by a cowardly 'stab in the back' from the home front .... As a military commander and later as Germany's head of state, Hindenburg broke virtually every bond he entered into. He was not the man of dogged, faithful service, but the man of image, manipulation and betrayal." (pages 653-4)

June 2009, 688 pages

Sunday, 31 May 2009

"The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein" by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd has written many books, both fiction and non-fiction. My favourite was his first, Hawksmoor. This present book is one of my least favourite.

There is a twist right at the end but it was heavy going. Ackroyd weaves a story about the fictional character Frankenstein which purports to explain how the novel, Frankenstein, was written. The action oscillates between Geneva, Oxford and London. There are deaths, resurrectionists and a certain amount of philosophical discussion about the nature of God's act of creation and how men might 'Play God'.

But it is mostly tedious stuff. In my review of Thames: Sacred River in this wiki I complain of Ackroyd's tendency to list; this present novel seems like a list of all his research (it also advertises a number of his other books!):

  • Frankenstein comes from the village of Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc. Mary Shelley visited Chamonix and set an encounter between Frankenstein and his monster here.
  • Frankenstein meets Shelley (whom he calls Bysshe) in Oxford shortly before Shelley is sent down for writing (anonymously) "The Necessity for Atheism".
  • Subsequently, Frankenstein goes with Shelley to London where he meets Daniel Westbrook and his sister Harriet. Shelley later elopes with Harriet. Harriet was of a much higher class in real life than in the book but she did become Shelley's first wife.
  • In London, Frankenstein attends a lecture given by Sir Humphrey Davy, whose work on galvanising cats he has already read.
  • Shelley and Frankenstein watch a theatrical production of Melmoth the Wanderer, a gothic novel about a man who sells his soul to the devil for an extra 150 years of life and then spends the time trying to find someone to relieve him of this burden. Oscar Wilde later used the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth after his enforced sojourn in Reading Gaol. Ackroyd has previously written The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.
  • Frankenstein hears of famous anatomist John Hunter whose life parallels that of Frankenstein: they both live for some time on Jermyn Street and they both experiment on dogs. Whilst dissecting corpses Frankenstein meets Jack Keat (John Keats) who has consumption. Keats however studied at Guys rather than St Thomas Hospital (as in this book) and Hunter studied at St George Hospital.
  • Frankenstein reads Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther", a book about unrequited love.
  • On page 165 the monster points at Frankenstein and declaims "Thou art the man" which is the title of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Ackroyd wrote a biography of Poe.
  • Frankenstein meets Shelley with new girlfriend Mary Godwin (who wrote Frankenstein) at Marlow. They go boating on the Thames. Mary sees the face of the monster at her window, although she initially thinks this is a dream. Mary asks where the source of the Thames is and a debate ensues. Later she mentions the theory that the Thames and the Rhine were once the same river. Ackroyd researched these in his previous book Thames: Sacred River.
  • Frankenstein meets Byron and Dr Polidori. They will be present at the house party when Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein. Polidori writes The Vampyre, the first English vampire novel, as a result of this house party. Byron uses the phrase "The Modern Prometheus" to Shelley; this will become the subtitle of Frankenstein. Polidori talks to Frankenstein about the Golem (a monster made of clay and given life by Kabbalistic incantations); this presumably links to Ackroyd's earlier novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Limehouse is, of course, the district where, in this novel, Frankenstein's laboratory lies.
  • The penultimate act of the story takes place in the Villa Diodati where the famous ghost story telling competition is held. Later Shelley is drowned as he was in real life (though not till 1822)
  • On page 262, Byron quotes from Paradise Lost. Ackroyd has previously written Milton in America.

A disappointment from a gifted writer. Perhaps he is writing too much these days.

Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein is much better!

May 2009, 296 pages

Friday, 29 May 2009

"Wise Children" by Angela Carter

On her 75th birthday, Dora Chance tells the story of her life with twin sister Nora. The Lucky Chances were a dance act during the declining days of variety but what really set them apart was the interlocking of their lives with the Hazard dynasty of classical actors including their father Melchior, who is celebrating his 100th birthday. Twins, bastards and intra-family affairs permeate this romp through this comedy of the legitimate and the illegitimate theatre.



This is a fantasy, a fairy tale. It is often necessary to willingly and consciously suspend one's disbelief; the pay off in entertainment terms is well worth it. Coincidences abound (there are 5 sets of twins; Nora and Dora share their 75th birthday with their father Melchior (and his twin Peregrine) and Shakespeare. Peregrine is a magician; he arrives out of the blue at key dramatic moments and then disappears (in one case presumed dead) and then returns having made a fortune out of gold, or oil, or... A lot of Perry's back story is secret.

There are many Shakespearean themes (twins, fathers) and motifs:
  • Melchior's father murdered his mother and her (presumed) lover and then committed suicide after he had played Othello to her Desdemona (and the presumed lover was playing Iago); later Melchior plays Othello and marries HIS Desdemona
  • Tiff goes mad on live TV, carrying flowers, singing a song and subsequently drowning, like Ophelia in Hamlet;
  • The twins dance as fairies in a film version of Midsummer Night's Dream starring their father and written by their uncle.
  • Lady Atalanta is cast out of her house by her two evil daughters, as Lear is cast from his kingdom by his Goneril and Regan.
  • The musical show What? You Will! is the alternative title for Twelth Night which features a pair of twins
Birthday parties throughout are excruciating occasions full of betrayal and unhappiness. The funniest moment of the book comes when Melchior gives his twin daughters Saskia and Imogen (who aren't actually his daughters) a present at their 21st birthday: the present is a new step mother.

As well as twins, mirrors crop up as a theme. Deefholts explains in detail that the theme of the twins is in itself a theme of reflection, with the mirror image often being the literally perverted or evil aspect. Dulaities include Dora versus Nora, the "legit" theatre vs the music halls, north Londond vs South London, Peregrine vs Melchior, Nora and Dora vs Saskia and Imogen etc.



This book is immense fun and an exhilirating read.

May 2009, 232 pages

Monday, 25 May 2009

"Where Angels Fear To Tread" by E. M. Forster

In this short, delightful comedy an English widow travels to Italy, falls in love and marries an 'unsuitable' young Italian man, the son of a (shock, horror) dentist. She dies having a son by him.
The family of her first husband decide the baby must be brought up in England and travel to Italy to retrieve the child. The central question asked by the book is "Do you want the child to stop with his father, who loves him and will bring him up badly, or do you want him to come to Sawston, where no one loves him, but where he will be brought up well." (p130)

The novel vividly portrays the suffocating bloodlessness of the English Middle Classes for whom correct grammar is more important than passionate prose; for whom doing the right thing supersedes enjoying your life.

The principal characters:
  • Lilia the widow who has been trapped by her in-laws after her husband's death and longs to escape their clutches; her marriage is, however, unhappy although the letter to her daughter describing her misery is intercepted by her mother-in-law and destroyed.
  • Philip, her brother-in-law, the main protagonist, who is a disinterested spectator of life, who loves the Tuscan sunset because the guide books tell him how marvellous it is. His best expectation of life is to be an honourable failure, and of course he is.
  • Harriet, the sister-in-law, a dour, determined, low Church woman whose certainty that she is right blinds her to any other points of view.
  • Caroline, Lilia's companion on the Italian trip, a sensible, church-going woman, who reacts to events in Italy with hysteria.
  • Mrs Herriton, Lilia's mother-in-law, the spider at the centre of the web, who has dominated her children and her friends with her complacent self-belief.
  • Gino, the classic macho Italian, for whom life is good if you are a man in Italy, who doesn't really understand anyone else but who loves his son: "He is mine; mine for ever. Even if he hates me he will be mine. He cannot help it; he is made out of me; I am his father." (p121)
The modern reader is immediately appalled by the arrogance of the English family in their self-satisfied belief that they are inevitably right. The widow's daughter, staying in England, is not even told of the existence of her little brother, despite her mother dying in childbirth, because this would upset her. The retrieval of the baby is only mooted because it might bring discredit on the family. However, a strength of the novel is that nowhere is this arrogant self-assurance tackled; it is merely assumed and described.

The hallmark of a really good book is the way the author brings the characters to life. Forster's writing is of its time, clipped and stagey like a drawing room comedy, but the characters are immediately real. Brilliant!

Also read Howards End and A Room With a View and Maurice.

Points:

One thing that infuriates me about authors is when they quote something in a foreign language and assume that their readers will recognise the quote or be able to translate it. On page 29, Signor Carella quotes Dante's Inferno:
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita"
My Italian is poor but this means roughly:
"In the middle of the track of our life
I rediscovered myself by a dark wood
Where the direct road was lost."
Philip, Harriet and Caroline go to the opera in Italy to see Lucia di Lammermoor. This is the opera featured in Mme Bovary, a fact which is referred to in the text.
In the room that acts as a memorial to the dead Lilia ("if we shall resent anything on earth at all, we shall resent the consecration of a deserted room" p109) a "coon song lay open on the piano". Clearly this word was not taboo when Forster was writing.
"A wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and - by some sad, strange irony - it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy." (p121)

May 2009, 160 pages

Sunday, 24 May 2009

"Escape from the Atlantic" by Sir Ernest Shackleton

This tiny book tells a fraction of the story of The Endurance commanded by Shackleton which was attempting to land men for a trans-Antarctic expedition when it was caught in pack ice; after some months drifting the ship was crushed and the men had to camp on the drifting ice floe; they then got into two small boats and headed for Elephant Island where they camped. This book completes their adventures from this point.

Shackleton and five others sailed a small boat through mountainous seas 800 miles to South Georgia. Just sighting the sun through a sextant in a pitching boat in the middle of a hurricane when there was precious little sun made the navigation difficult, almost impossible. They endured days of hurricane and gale. When they reached South Georgia they had to stand away from the shore because the seas were driving the boat inland and threatened to smash it on the rocks. Finally they made landfall and captured baby albatross chicks to stew.

Then Shackleton and two others trekked across the South Georgia mountains which had never been crossed, or even explored, before. Finally they reached the whaling station and obtained relief for their crew mates. Even then it was weeks before they could charter a ship which could penetrate the newly forming pack ice and rescue the 22 men abandoned on Elephant Island.

Sometimes Shackleton gets bogged down in the details and this story is marred by only being a fraction of the full adventure but it was a delightful little read.

Two favourite moments:

  • "At midnight I was at the tiller and suddenly noticed a line of clear sky between the south and southwest .... a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days."

  • "I know that during the long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, 'Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.'" It is this paragraph that led T. S. Eliot to write in The Waste Land:

"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you"

May 2009, 90 pages

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This novel was originally written by Mary Ann Shaffer; Annie Barrows took over after Mary Ann became ill. Both authors are American.

It is written in the form of letters (except for a small diary near the very end). It is set shortly after the end of the second world war. Dawsey Adams, a small holder in Guernsey, writes to Juliet Ashton, a writer, about Charles Lamb. He reveals the existence of the eponymous society which was set up during the German occupation of Guernsey. As the correspondence continues, Juliet learns more about the lives of the islanders under occupation and begins to fall in love with Guernsey. A lot of the stories she reads deal with Elizabeth, who was taken from the island for sheltering a slave worker and is now missing.

It is a charming tale in many ways but there were one or two features that rather grated with me:

  • There are so many weird names. Elizabeth is normal and Juliet, Sophie, Amelia and Sidney are OK but there are also Eben and Eli, Markham, Dawsey, Isola and "Billy Bee" (there are all first names!!!). Surely during the period of austerity after the war English names were as reserved as their manners!
  • Equally, the books chosen by the members of the literary society suggest a checklist of "good" books chosen because they are classics rather than because they might have been read at the time. Even the writer, Juliet, is famous for writing Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War for The Spectator (and she wrongly credits the creation of Bickerstaff to Addison rather than Steele).
  • The author has clearly done a lot of research into occupied Guernsey and isn't going to waste it. Some of the letters,written by characters who do not reappear, seem to be included just so another story can be told.
  • There is an atrocious little sub-plot involving a pantomime villain seeking to steal some letters which are, of course, by Oscar Wilde. This sub-plot was entirely unnecessary and made the willing suspension of disbelief suddenly a little harder.
  • Equally there is an unlikely legacy to enrich the happy ever after ending.
  • One of the characters revealed his homosexuality to another character. Not only was this also unlikely since homosexuality was, at the time, a criminal offence; it was also totally unnecessary for the purpose of the plot. Sometimes it seems that every American book nowadays has to have at least one gay character in case the author is accused of discrimination.

Having said all that, the book was interesting and elegantly written and I did want to find out what had happened to Elizabeth and whether Juliet was going to marry the right man. Chick Lit.

May 2009, 240 pages

Thursday, 21 May 2009

"Blenheim" by Charles Spencer

I have also read "Prince Rupert" by this author which is probably a better book if only because the subject is easier. A life, especially one as colourful as Prince Rupert's, has a natural structure and the episodes in a long life lend themselves easily to a narrative. Blenheim is rather more difficult: the first section describes the political conditions of Europe during the latter part of Louis XIV (the Sun King)'s reign; it goes on to describe the career of Marlborough and his partner general at Blenheim, Prince Eugene of Savoy; then there is the dash across Europe from the Netherlands to Bavaria; and finally the battle itself.

I am not an aficionado of military history (I know very little about army life) and consequently I am in no position to judge whether Spencer's verdicts on the armies, the generals and the battle have any validity at all. Certainly there seemed to be a significant element of luck in Blenheim and a certain amount of Marlborough's vaunted military prowess seemed to consist in sending squadrons (or are they battalions) of soldiers straight at an enemy position and then slogging it out. Had the opposing general attacked as Marlborough's men were crossing a marshy stream instead of waiting till they were firmly established on the near bank and had he not ordered a significant portion of his army to hold the little village of Blindheim (not Blenheim!) at any cost which allowed Marlborough to encircle them and pen them in until the rest of the battle had been won, things might have gone very differently.

When one reads books like this what you most realise is how incompetent everyone seems to be. The French general was so short-sighted he had to have his aides describe the battle to him. One of the Allied generals was so cautious he would only permit the army to besiege towns rather than fight battles; Blenheim was won while he was away besieging. Generals would refuse to combine their forces because they didn't like one another. I am sure (I think) that it is just the benefit of hindsight that allows this perspective but it does sometimes seem as if the world is run by fools.

May 2009, 342 pages