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

Thursday, 25 April 2013

"William the silent" by C. V. Wedgwood

This is a wonderfully old fashioned history with a narrative that rattles along like a thriller. I found myself at one stage reading about the siege of Leyden and desperate to know whether Leyden was relived or whether it fell, as excited as if the battle was today.

William the Silent, Prince of Orange, grew up in the Netherlands after their Duke, Charles, had become Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain; William was on the side of the disunited Dutch provinces when they began their rebellion against Charles' son Philip II of Spain and became leader of the Netherlands' revolt.

Of course the book has faults. Biographers are often in love with their subjects and, while Wedgwood recognises flaws within the personality and policies of hers, she clearly adores him. "There have been politicians more successful, or more subtle; there have been none more tenacious or more tolerant" she concludes. And she dislikes or despises all those against whom William battled. The Dutch are dim-witted Bruegel peasants. The Spanish are almost all bigots, fanatics and evil persecutors. The French are a little shifty. Like so many writers of the thirties and forties, Wedgwood appears to believe that character is written in a face: both Philip of Spain and William have a "determined" chin although Philip is also damned with a "bulbous forehead and the anxious blue eyes, the turned-up nose and the loose, thick mouth." Williams bastard son Justin is "rather bovine". Usually she is not explicit in her assumptions that physical or racial features define characters; occasionally she is, to modern ears, outrageous: Don John, the illegitimate son of Charles V, feted across Europe as the victor of Lepanto, "had failed, all his life, through a certain egocentricity, an uncertainty of himself masked in arrogance, the common failing of the bastard" (my italics). Thus she damns all those born out of wedlock! This is in a book dedicated to a man who fought for (religious) tolerance.

But you have to read old books as a product of their time. What if her story presents a very one-sided view of the birth of Holland and Belgium? What if the pace of the narrative allows almost no time for analysis in any depth? She can certainly tell a great story. And I love her device of summarising where we are with a few words at the top of each right hand page: "A proud people"; "The sea beggars"; "Antwerp dissatisfied". These helped me keep up with the yarn.

And I learnt lots of little things:

  • Antwerp once "controlled exclusively the money market of the world."
  • The Knights of the Golden Fleece were Dutch nobles who were allowed, in chapter, to criticise their sovereign
  • William once tried to romance Mary Queen of Scots
  • Peter Paul Rubens the painter would never have been born if William the Silent had not pardoned his father John from the expected death sentence after Mrs Rubens had not begged for forgiveness for her husband after John had committed adultery with William's wife
  • William founded the University of Leyden
  • William's third wife, Charlotte de Bourbon, was an ex-nun
  • William's fourth wife's father and husband were both murdered at the same time during the St Bartholomew's Day massacre
  • William was the first head of state to be assassinated by a handgun (and he had been shot a couple of years earlier so he could have been even more the first)


Flawed but great fun. May 2013; 257 pages




Sunday, 21 April 2013

"Chatterton" by Peter Ackroyd

Charles Wychwood is a failure both as a poet, his ambition, and as a provider for his wife and son. But he stumbles upon a painting and some papers which suggest that Thomas Chatterton, the famed eighteenth century forger, poet and suicide, may have faked his own death. But severe headaches portend his own fatality.



This is a book about reality and forgery, about plagiarism and originality, about truth and lies. It flits back and forth between Chatterton's London in 1770, the London of 1856 in which Henry Wallis paints the iconic Death of Chatterton using young poet George Meredith as the model, and a modern London peopled with Dickensian caricatures. These are among Ackroyd's most grotesque creations: mousy librarian Philip, gay gallery owner Cumberland and his jolly hockey sticks secretary who always refers to herself as the Head Girl, and the wonderfully vulgar and tactless drunk novelist Harriet Scrope.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. April 2013; 234 pages

A rather lighter take on literary forgery, without such Dickensian characters, is Ackroyd's The Lambs of London.

Friday, 19 April 2013

"Skios" by MIchael Frayn

This is a classic farce. Oliver Fox, floppy haired charmer, pretends for a moment to be Dr Norman Wilfred. He is whisked off to a Foundation for Civilisation with twenty four hours to go before he gives the keynote lecture on Scientometrics. Meanwhile the real Dr Wilfred is taken to a remote villa where he finds Oliver's girlfriend.

And it progresses. Bedrooms are hopped. Identities are confused. More girlfriends and boyfirends arrive. Sinister Russian oligarchs are building mysterious swimming pools. Spiros and Stavros are interchangeable Greek taxi drivers.

It should be a play. There are only three scenes: the airport at the start and then the Foundation and the Villa interchangeably.

It is all a little predictable. There are the usual jokes at the expense of academics and anyone rich who spends time at Foundations and Conferences. There is humour mined from the confusion between Greek and English. All the characters are stereotypes: the chef, the American lady who used to be a dancer and married the rich man who bequeathed the money to the foundation, the slightly sad professor, the good time girl, the crisp, cool PA etc.

It becomes interesting for a moment at the start of chapter 48 when the author discusses how the storylines are about to come together in a great denouement and suggests alternative endings. This suggests that Netownian determinism is impossible because of the inherent impossibilities of understanding any single initial state, a theme Frayn also touched upon in his philosophical work 'The Human Touch' (which I disliked). He suggests that only probabilities exist and then casts doubt even on this. This theme of the book has been manifest throughout: Oliver's penchant for pretending to be someone he is not and thereby throwing spanners into all sorts of works and Dr Wilfred's essential belief in predestination.

Skios is quite fun. It is easy to read and lightly humorous. But it is a farce of the old school.

April 2013; 277 pages

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

"Watership Down" by Richard Adams

This is the famous story of some rabbits who, warned by a prophecy, leave their warren shortly before it encounters disaster to set up a new warren on Watership Down. Then they try to find does. In their adventures they encounter dogs, cats and foxes; and they meet rabbits who are fed and harvested by humans; pet rabbits; and rabbits in a warren run by a military dictator.

What a strange book! Although marketed as a children's book and about bunnies it pulls no punches. The prose is not easy, the paragraphs are long. Every chapter is introduced with a quote; the quotes start with Aeschylus and include Xenophon, Yeats, Tennyson, Blake, Clausewitz, a company prospectus from the South Sea Bubble, Plato, Congreve, Shakespeare and many more. I cannot imagine the typical child buying the book; I can imagine middle-class mothers buying it for their children.

As Tolkien did with Elvish, Adams invents Lapine, with words like silflay (to eat?) to hraka (rabbit poo) and pfeffah-rah (king of cats). They rabbits also have a rich folk-lore; Adams recounts some of their myths. He also requires his rabbits to communicate with other creatures and so he invents a rather comical lingua franca. When Kehaar the gull talks he speaks with French vowels, (Meester 'Azel), German and Welsh consonants (v for w and p for b) and the odd lapse into Jamaican patois. (It is rather difficult to talk Kehaar seriously.)

There are clear sub-texts to the work. Wild creatures should be allowed to wander where they will, and feed  and defecate when they will. Nature is beautiful and should be enjoyed. Building is bad. Animals, and by extension humans, should be free.

On the whole I enjoyed the book. I stopped in the middle and it took sometime before I got started again (during which break I read two different books) but this is almost because the book itself is in two halves: first the escape to Watership Down and second the quest to find the does.

And it is a quest. Adams, I think deliberately, weaves the classical quotes and the strange language and the folk-tales of the rabbits themselves into the great Ur-myth of the warren. It is a little like Virgil's story of the founding of Rome by the refugees from Troy followed by the Rape of the Sabine Women.

I don't think this is a children's book at all. It is written for adults but, because it is about bunnies, it had to be marketed for kids.

Mostly enjoyable, April 2013; 478 pages


Sunday, 14 April 2013

"A street cat named Bob" by James Bowen

Drug-addicted busker James discovers a stray ginger tom. He starts to look after the cat and takes him busking. As their relationship develops, James begins to journey away from the chaos of his former life.

This book is a charming chronicle of the relationship between a man and the incredible character Bob the cat. You follow them through the highs and lows of street life. Will Bob get ill? Will Bob be attacked by dogs? Will James go back on drugs? Will he be arrested for illegal busking? Will Bob run off?

You realise the fundamental insecurity of living on the streets. Even when things are going well, busking makes James £60 in a day. When James decides to go legal and sell the Big Issue, money is even tighter. I had not realised that a Big Issue seller buys the magazines for £1 each to sell them for £2. Any unsold magazines are worthless. So a Big Issue vendor has to carefully calculate how many magazines he will sell and make sufficient profit to pay for any over-confidence. They also have to sell a lot of magazines to make a decent living.

And they are on the streets in all weathers and get over-looked and scorned and insulted by people like me who think that they are work-shy and should get a 'proper' job.

I was amazed at how much this simple story meant to me. It is told with raw, fresh honesty. Sometimes such a naive narrative grates. For example, three times in three pages he use the phrase "worried sick". I was a little surprised to discover that Bowen did have a co-author who is a professional writer. It reminded me of Forty Years Catching Smugglers, another autobiography, although Street Cat is much much much better written. It must be difficult to know when to edit and polish and when to leave it raw.

Bob is also celebrated on YouTube, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vl2nBSqpsRA

This was a simple, honest and touching tale which penetrated the defences of even a cynical old cat-hater like myself.

Delightful. April 2013; 275 pages

Thursday, 11 April 2013

"The end" by Ian Kershaw

This is the story of the last 10 months of Nazi Germany, starting with the failure of the Stauffenberg plot to  assassinate Hitler and overthrow the government. Kershaw seeks to understand why Nazi Germany  unlike almost any other regime, should have fought to the bitter end when it was plain to most outsiders that the Reich was doomed. By this time the Allies had established themselves in Normandy and the Russians were pushing the Eastern front back. Mussolini had been deposed and Rome had fallen. The devastating bomb raids on German cities were destroying civilian morale; the Luftwaffe could offer no significant resistance. The German troops were clearly outnumbered and, despite the incredible efforts of armaments minister Speer, were also massively outgunned. Yet the Germans fought on. Roughly as many Germans died in the last ten months as in the four years previously.

The reasons Kershaw advances are several. He dismisses the idea that it was the Allies unprecedented requirement for unconditional surrender that led to the bitter resistance: many Germans did in fact try to negotiate with the Western allies. However, this uncompromising stance may have hardened Hitler against any possibility of capitulation.

Other possibilities include the fear of the Russians, bolstered by the success of the Nazi propaganda campaign to demonise the Bolsheviks and helped by the Russian predilection (to some extent in revenge for what the Nazis had earlier done to them) for raping, looting, killing and generally terrorising the civilian population of the towns they occupied (only one in three German soldiers captured by the Soviet forces made it back to Germany after the war). Certainly, most of the Reich leadership's discussions around surrender involved the vain hope that they might be able to surrender to the Western Allies and then join forces with them to fight the Russians. This hope continued after Hitler's suicide.

Kerhsaw also considers the possibility that Germans are, simply, obedient to authority. He does not put it as crudely as this but he talks about the cultures of loyalty in both the army and the efficient civil service bureaucracy.

He also points out that many people were simply terrorised into continuing to fight. People who tried to surrender were shot or hanged, sometimes only minutes before the Nazi executioners themselves fled from the approaching enemy forces. He suggests that most of the population wanted to capitulate but that the few who wanted to fight on, for whom their past crimes meant that they had no future after the warm, were those with the power of life and death.

The main reason that Germany fought to the end seems to be because Adolf Hitler created a government that could not disobey him. He was head of government, head of state, commander in chief and head of the Party. He governed for years without a cabinet. When he made a new appointment he would ensure that whoever was appointed had their powers balanced by someone else; blurred responsibilities were endemic. In the end everyone had to check with Adolf. And the people in his inner circle were mutually antagonistic. The only person to whom they were all loyal was himself. In the bunker the day after Hitler's suicide, Goebbels killed himself, his wife and his six children. Goering and Himmler both were dismissed in the final week for attempting to usurp Hitler but both did it by mistake. Speer, who recognised early that the war was lost and attempted to undermine Hitler's scorched earth policies so that the industrialists he worked with would have something to begin again with after defeat, made an incredibly risky flight back to Berlin in the final week to say goodbye. Kesselring refused to surrender Italy until Hitler had died (although hjis second in command did surrender on his behalf).

The proof is that the final surrender came just one week after Hitler's death (and would have come earlier had Eisenhower agreed to any of the requests that Hitler's successor Donitz put to him).

There are haunting images of pointlessness. There are the starving and pathetic concentration camp prisoners, too weak for forced labour,  who are force-marched from one camp to another for no obvious reason. There are the efficient bureaucrats in the German civil service who are still shuffling paper as Berlin is surrounded. There is the Donitz regime who discuss the new Reich flag in the two weeks after unconditional surrender and before they are imprisoned by the Allies.

One criticism I would make is that there are two few maps. Towards the end there were many references to Berchtesgaden where the Germans might have made a last stand. It was clearly an important place. It isn't on any provided map; I had to find it using Google.

There are moments when this book is gripping. There is also much scholarship here and this sometimes makes the book drag. But overall this is a fascinating read.

April 2013; 400 pages


Wednesday, 10 April 2013

"The sea on our left" by Shally Hunt

Shally and her husband John walked clockwise (ie in the opposite direction to most of the long-distance guides) around the coast of Britain. They weren't the first or the second although they are probably the only husband and wife pair to have completed this 4,300 mile trek. But they did occasionally cheat, taking the bus and once a lift.

I should love this book. I adore long distance walking although I have never attempted anything on this scale.  I have walked half the Thames path (Greenwich to Windsor) and Oxford to Cambridge, and St Paul's to Canterbury, and the Lea, and Brighton to Folkestone, each walking lasting about a week and travelling about eighty miles. Shally and John regularly walked twenty mile days. They lost a lot of weight. They each used three pairs of shoes. Whereas I insist on a B&B they did rough camping. So I admire them so much and I would love to do something epic like this. But...

I know how intense a walk can be. Even though your sore feet and your aching shoulders often distract you, because you are travelling so slowly, you have the opportunity to observe more. And she doesn't. I understand her problem. A three hundred day walk cannot be adequately described in three hundred pages. And this frustrated me immensely because I lost that feeling of intensity.

I learned a little about the places they passed through. She describes the Pocahontas statue in Gravesend but she doesn't explain why it is there. To be fair, I felt she would have liked to learn more about the places but their demanding itinerary meant they could rarely spare the time. (And I know how it can be when your flagging energy means that you can't be bothered to find out something that at any other time would be fascinating.) But I often felt that she actually didn't like the places she walked through or the people who lived there.

I learned more about the bird life of the coast. Her husband is a keen ornithologist and she describes birds very well.

I learned a great deal about the frustrations and near-disasters they experienced. I learned about the campsites that were poorly equipped, and the many times she felt ill, or exhausted. There was a lot about the rows they had as John walked ahead and she limped behind. A lot of the book seemed to be a long complaint.

A travel book which promised much but delivered sourly. April 2013; 312 pages

Thursday, 4 April 2013

"Swallowdale" by Arthur Ransome

Swallowdale is one of the least well known of the dozen Swallows and Amazons books but it deserves its place high up in the canon.  I first read it nearly 50 years ago and I returned to it having read Arthur Ransome and Capt Flint's Trunk this January.

On only their second visit to the lake, John, Susan, Titty and Roger wreck their dinghy Swallow and have to swim ashore. Deprived of the opportunity to camp on Wild Cat Island and desperate not to ruin their holiday they camp ashore in Swallowdale. Meanwhile the crew of the Amazon, Nancy and Peggy, are also out of action because their Great Aunt has come to visit and they have to become Ruth and Margaret and wear frilly dresses and recite poetry and be on time to meals. But new adventures always beckon: they climb Kanchenjunga, get lost in fog and race Amazon against the mended Swallow.

As a kid all I wanted was the adventure: other children allowed to camp and sail and climb by themselves. But as an adult I can appreciate the brilliance of the writing. Ransome describes sailing and the countryside perfectly. Every character is carefully drawn: Captain John who feels the shame of having lost his ship, Mate Susan who worries about meals and bedtimes, romancer Able Seaman Titty who fantasises about a character called Peter Duck (eponymous hero of another S&A book), and irresponsible but irrepressible Ship's Boy Roger who always gets himself into a scrape (literally on the Knickerbockerbreaker). Amazon pirate Nancy has a fine range of expressions and only Peggy is underdrawn. Although the adults are mostly bit parts there are deft touches. Mother remembers her childhood in Australia and can therefore put her worries about their safety into perspective. The perfect example of 'show don't tell' is the woodman: the adult reader deduces the relationship between him and Mary Swainson but the author scarcely hints at it. And the Great Aunt is the most wonderful plot device: a tyrant who poses the impediment that makes the story come alive (and who reappears in The Picts and the Martyrs later in the series).

And on the top of Kanchenjunga, in the flush of their success, Roger discovers a biscuit tin in a stone cairn. In it is a label: "August the 2nd 1901. We climbed the Matterhorn. Molly Turner. J Turner. Bob Blackett. 'That's mother and Uncle Jim,' said Peggy in a queer voice. 'Who is Bob Blackett?' asked Susan. 'He was father,' said Nancy. Nobody said anything for a minute..."

Suddenly the mood changes. Triumph becomes sad thoughtfulness. A children's adventure story acquires depth. This is what makes Ransome such a superb story-teller.

Brilliant. April 2013; 441 pages.