Reading matters…….

Wanting some lighter reading I picked through our shelves and chose a Fifties copy of 006 copy.jpgGeorge Simenon’s ‘The Blue Room’. I often think it is quite surprising how French (and other) writers are stylistically worlds apart from British authors. Same with films of course. It was a real pleasure to read this short but very satisfying novel so quickly. Just recovering from a hernia operation I hadn’t much else to do….I certainly couldn’t walk anywhere. French authors seem much more capable of getting right inside a character so that you almost become the character yourself and feel what they feel. In this case an adulterer on trial for a murder he did not commit as a result of what the French call ‘une grande passion’  or an intense relationship and affair. The ingredients of the novel were straightforward – a small French village where everyone knows everyone, an illicit affair, an interrogation. The result – something extraordinarily powerful. This book is in translation although you certainly would not know it, and who is to say how good the translation is. But the writing is top quality and expressed with economy. Having said all  this I am glad that I have just, by accident, seen on-line the following comments on Simenon by John Banville………

‘He has a Nabokovian ability to convey in words the tactility of things, although the words that he employs and the sentences he makes of them are always humble and plain. He prided himself on his modest vocabulary and the spareness of his language; having finished a book – which he would do in the space of 10 days or so – he would emerge from his study shaking the finished manuscript by the spine, in order, as he joked, to get rid of the last remaining adjectives.’ 

Wonderful! ( I don’t think he used a single exclamation mark either).

We have quite a large Crime section on our shelves (bigger than in either of our s-l300.jpgbookshops), and there are quite a few novels which we perhaps haven’t read or have forgotten reading. One such was Nicci French’s ‘The Red Room’. Totally coincidence that I chose The Red Room immediately after The Blue Room! In fact fool that I am I have only just noticed……..Anyhow what an unexpectedly great read this was. In a somewhat different way to Simenon, French also got right inside the head of our protagonist, a female psychologist helping to solve a series of murders whilst trying to get a grip on her own private life. The scenario and plot were utterly believable and all the characters well drawn. A really gripping Crime novel of the first order.

Unknown.jpeg‘How Many Socks Make A Pair?’  is what’s called a book about surprisingly interesting everyday maths. It does fulfil its function. However, Rob Eastaway sometimes explains the maths and sometimes doesn’t – with his ‘you get the idea of this, but I won’t go into it in detail as the maths is a bit complicated’. I found this frustrating as sometimes you get the impression that he is just serving you up one puzzle or conundrum after another. Still, enjoyable on the whole……..

Reading matters……

Unknown.jpeg‘Friends At Court’ was the book that inspired me to take up the Law……I never did. But the fascination remains. A judge has said ‘No-one has ever caught more precisely or wittily the atmosphere of litigation’, and this certainly comes through. Although very witty at times, at other times you feel you are in the hands of a barrister ( I nearly wrote barista) who is talking about real cases in which he is himself involved. I am sure that much is taken from real life. As this was published in 1956 you might think that it would be very old-fashioned. It isn’t. The law changes slowly. having read this I was looking forward to the other ‘Brothers In Law’ Penguin we have on our shelves, but my wife cautioned it started off well but got very silly indeed. I don’t know whether to read or not. problems, problems.Having liked the P D James Dalgleish novels that I have read I thought I wouldgetimage-18-651x1024-copy.jpeg start at the beginning and read the first couple in a long, long series. However my plans went awry when the first arrived. It was half in French and half in English. I just couldn’t read it. I therefore had to start with the second in the series ‘Cover Her Face’. I have to say that although quite well written, it was a little turgid, and I soon spotted the perpetrator of the murder which in a ‘Who Dunnit’ is not really a good sign. It reads like a second novel. having enjoyed the depth and the literary excellence of later novels it perhaps was a mistake to return to the beginning!                                                                                                                                             8533d57736153adf6bcf90a50851c681.jpgI try not to buy books for the sake of it, particularly now that we are retired, but some of the Folio books on our shelves have been sitting for a long time just looking good. I am working my way through them and it is a pleasure to read such well-formed books with often top-quality illustrations. In fact I am sure Folio could do good business selling the illustrations as prints. The covers are good too….this is ‘Dracula’. Now we all think we know the story, but how many of us have truly read this novel? I steer away from anything vaguely relating to Fantasy. I personally regard it as somewhat childish. I did enjoy Fantasy at school, but surely I am past that now. Well this is the book that put paid to that argument. It is Fantasy but it is exceedingly well-written on the whole and, although long, it is gripping. I wanted to get  to bed each night to read more. I have to say I really, really enjoyed it. The limited cast of characters are very well-drawn and the atmosphere unsettling. The fact that a lot of the story is told through various people’s journals also adds to the pot. If you haven’t read it now’s the time.         1709151 copy.JPG                                  Another beautiful Folio, this time ‘Brideshead Revisited’ .Now everyone must have read this or seen the film or seen it on TV but it amply pays a re-read. If you can get yourself this Folio edition it is certainly worth the investment. Background…..Charles Ryder’s cousin warned him against taking rooms on the ground floor of his Oxford college, so when the young Lord Sebastian Flyte is sick through his window, it seems he should have heeded the advice. However, no one is immune to Sebastian’s inimitable charm and soon a relationship develops that will change Charles’s life for ever. Chosen as one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest novels of all time, this is Waugh’s most popular book, combining aching sympathy for the passing of privilege with the best of his razor-sharp wit. You feel the time and place you really do………….22cd54af39caaed636c664a6f77434b41716b42.jpg

 

Reading Matters……

61e4zqgxqkl._sx324_bo1204203200_.jpgIn 1346, at the age of sixteen, he won his spurs at Crecy; nine years later he conducted a brutal raid across Languedoc; in 1356 he captured the king of France at Poitiers; as lord of Aquitaine he ruled a vast swathe of southwestern France. He was Edward of Woodstock, eldest son of Edward III, but better known to posterity as ‘the Black Prince.The Prince learned the graft of warfare the hard way. At the famous English victory at Crécy in 1346, the 16-year-old Edward was placed in notional command of the vanguard. When he became severely pressed by a French onslaught (the English were outnumbered by almost two to one), his father is reported to have delayed sending his son any reinforcements, saying: ‘Let the boy win his spurs.’ And so the boy did, with a characteristic display of the courage and steadfastness that so impressed his contemporaries. Here and throughout, Jones captures the drama and press of a medieval battle. I normally shy away from the second tier of historians and go only for top league authors. So I was a bit reluctant to buy what I regarded as a ‘chancer’. I’m glad I did.  Not only does Michael Jones tell an exciting tale of a chivalrous knight’s life, but he brings to the table his detailed research and telling use of original sources including the letters of the man himself and his friends, as also using contemporary chronicles both French and English ( and others). You get a very rounded picture of a man who was extolled as the greatest warrior of his day but also a man who was extremely religious in this very religious age. Michael Jones doesn’t shy away from discussing his alleged ruthlessness and misdeeds either. It’s a great pity that Edward and his father Edward III had such differences and misunderstandings which led to the eventual loss of all that the Black Prince had gained in France. A pity too that he died so young. Nevertheless his name and aura live on and you can do much worse than enjoy this book as much as I did.

Another great history book ‘Bosworth’ by a well-known historian (and politician) tells in detail the71lmt42eeyl-copy-1.jpg story of how a Queen’s love match with a Welsh servant led eventually to the birth in a following generation of Henry Tudor and the successful if rather surprising overthrow of the Yorkist dynasty. Skidmore is an excellent guide to how all this led to its culmination in the Battle of Bosworth. He describes the background in terrific detail as well as giving us a blow by blow understanding of the battle itself. Well researched and told in a lively manner, the only criticism I would have is the lack of clarity at times as to who we are reading about. I can’t count the number of times I had to peruse the genealogical chart to see which Margaret or which Edward he was talking about. I can only assume all those reviewers who praised its clarity didn’t read it in as much detail and with as much care as I did! Still buying two history books which I didn’t want to put down is a good result……..9781509856251_1.jpg

This hardback book ‘Bomber Command’ was purchased as a £5 remainder at WHS. I have tried for some time now to research my father’s experience as a Bomb-aimer. No luck in getting his personal details so far and very frustrating considering I have his Forces ID number. However reading the book has given me an excellent idea of how lucky he was to survive, how brave he and the others were, how professional, and I also can appreciate why he didn’t say very much about his experiences and why he had a lifelong antipathy to war and armed struggles of all kinds. The only time we had a short chat he told me how sometimes when a plane returned they would literally have to hose out the remains of the Rear Gunner. I felt I couldn’t really take it any further, but as historian myself I really really should have done! ‘Bomber Command’ is terrific for the details but also covers the overall strategy and the controversies that have arisen since. Max Hastings is willing to be more critical of the key personnel involved than some other historians, but I found the research and output very balanced indeed. £5? A great buy!

 

 

 

Reading matters……

Ill-Keep-You-Safe-262x400.jpgAnother of F.’s books, I just got in first again. Peter May is a Crime writer, but for the greater part of this book I wondered where this was going in terms of a Crime plot. It seemed more ‘Welcome to the island of Harris – we’ll tell you some things you didn’t know about this special place’. Well it certainly is special. But I couldn’t help thinking all along that my son had spent a week there with his school pal who comes from Harris and he has always said ‘Never again’. What a dispiriting place it seems. So, the plot. The two protagonists own a company that makes an upmarket alternative to Harris Tweed, one of them is blown up by a car bomb in Paris. There is a desultory search for the perpetrators. Some off-beam characters are drawn as possible suspects and then, right at the end, and as obvious as obvious can be, the partner turns out not to have been blown up after all. Weak. I would say so. I was thoroughly disappointed at the end and rather glad to get onto something else.

Sarah Langford’s ‘In Your Defence’ is one of those brilliant books that keep you up at9781784163082.jpg night, that you don’t want to put down, you don’t want to end, and which teaches you so much you didn’t know. Whilst it was her love of words that inspired her to take up the law, Sarah took an unprivileged, unconventional route that however stood her in good stead and made her determined to succeed in what is still a profession full of privilege and some bias against women. However this story is not about her it is very much about her clients, and in particular 11 clients in 11 different cases which she outlines in some detail. Each case starts with the location of the trial (changed along with personal details to protect clients’ anonymity) and a tiny note on the law involved in the particular case. These get your mind racing before you know anything about the case.  Sarah then takes us through each story from start to finish. All of the cases are to do with Family or Criminal Law. And wow how you get involved. Of course her job is to represent clients whether she believes them innocent or guilty, and to us looking in from the outside, this in itself poses incredible moral dilemmas. But, as she says herself,  “Life is not binary,” “There is very rarely a situation where there is no other version of the story.” Intricate points of Law are explained in notes at the end of the book. The cases range from a woman charged with conspiracy after a burglary, and a young man accused of assaulting three police officers during an arrest that leaves him with cuts and bruises on his hand, ribs and head to a child whose views are, unusually, taken into account in deciding which of his divorced parents he should live with. You come away feeling battered, hugely impressed with the Judges and Barristers involved, and scandalised by how little someone like Sarah is rewarded for the efforts she puts in. A thrilling book.

Reading matters…….

51YNGSmcaXL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg‘Thomas Cromwell : the untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant‘ by Tracy Borman is a splendid history of the man and his times. It is amazing, and indeed reassuring how closely all of this ‘real’ history follows Hilary Mantel’s novels. As with all well written and researched histories Tracy’s book flows, and is almost like a Crime novel in that you want to keep turning the pages to see what happens next. And believe me a lot does happen. Cromwell, who I studied at school and Uni as a great administrator is a man of his times. A great administrator yes, but also a philosopher, a well-read man of huge intelligence, a deeply religious man, a brutal and cunning and ruthless but loyal politician who right up to his last few days in the Tower knew how to manipulate the King and his Council, many of whom looked down upon a man risen from the gutter just as they had looked down upon his predecessor Wolsey a butcher’s son. It is no wonder that King Henry lived to regret his decision to cut off his head. As I say, this biography is absolutely compelling reading. The only little criticism I can make is that Tracy Borman, when no other sources are left to her, is willing to use the same ambassadors’ letters home (the Venetian and Spanish ambassadors particular) that she criticises in another breath as being difficult to give too much credence to. Having said that, I so much enjoyed getting to know Thomas Cromwell, and didn’t want the book (or his life!) to end………

Rummaging around in a WHS remainder shop in Plymouth (I hadn’t realised they existed), we found a couple of  books which were extremely good value. So I bought a9780007950096_1.jpg new copy of the hardback ‘The Complete Great British Railway Journeys’ priced at £40 for just £4. Amazing! The book is a compilation of ‘Great British Railway Journeys’ and ‘Great Victorian Railway Journeys’ and based on the very enjoyable BBC programmes fronted by Michael Portillo with those names. It is really for dipping into but I read it straight through, over a few weeks admittedly, and really loved all the insight into the ‘history, landscape and people of Britain’ that it gave. Partly a reflection of how much things have changed since the publication of Bradshaw’s Guide to the lines in question, but also a celebration of how much has survived and the progress that has been made, I found such a lot to interest me and so many references to subjects new to me. From the Victorian find of the Bronze Age Gristhorpe man, still on display in Scarborough, to the Preston cotton mill riots (I was born there, opposite a cotton mill) and the establishment of the Temperance Movement in Preston, I was surprised at my lack of knowledge. Great, and very satisfying, to remedy a few gaps.

51PZw3NJuxL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWith her Christmas present of a National Book Token, F. bought 4 books when we were out the other day and I have already finished one of them. In truth it didn’t take me long. It was so good. It was the kind of book you would walk around the house reading not wanting to put it down. I rationed myself to bedtime reading mainly, and there followed a few nights of reading till well past 1am. ‘Dead If You Don’t’ is the book in question and the author Peter James stand at the pinnacle of Crime writing. His DS Superintendent Roy Grace novels are set in Brighton where he lives, and where he has astonishing contacts with the Police and others and which means all the procedural stuff is spot-on. This one is about a kidnapping and about the Albanian criminal fraternity living in Brighton. It is also about many other things including the corruption of wealth, the dangers of gambling, and of course about the personal interactions of Grace with family and friends. It is taut, well written and exciting. Can you praise a Crime novel more?

Reading Matters….

the-daughter-of-time-7.jpgDuring our recent visit to Edinburgh I found this ‘The Daughter of Time’ on my daughter’s shelves. I had already read it but was anxious to do so again as I got terrific enjoyment the first time. I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination you could call Tey a great writer….I have read other of her titles and been immensely disappointed, but this is something else. A detective recovering in hospital, flat on his back most of the time, comes across, amongst the gifts friends and colleagues have been bringing in, a portrait of Richard III. He asks himself…is this the face of a man who could commit the murder of his two nephews in the Tower, an event heinous even then. His detective brain starts whirling and he is soon loaded down with serious histories, copies of documents and more trying to sift the evidence looking for clues as to who did actually ‘commission’ the murders. A brilliant tapestry of the times is woven as he refuses to accept the history written by the winners, in other words the Tudors, unless there is factual back-up. Although a Lancastrian myself, and a historian, I have always had a soft spot for Richard III and thought him ill-used by History. Although this is a novel it grips as real history always does. My two favourite subjects, History and Detectives, and this is part History/part Detective. I really couldn’t ask for more.

Since we had a leak in the new roof in the conservatory I have had to move a lot of Unknown.jpegthings out of there, including many books. Noticing one of these, ‘Shakespeare’s Restless World’ I picked it up and started idly leafing through it. I saw immediately that this was only part-read so I resolved to start again. I am so glad I did. It is so well-produced with clear text and beautiful images, and so well-written by ex-Director of The British Museum Neil MacGregor, that it is sheer pleasure. Neil has chosen 20 objects (not only from the BM) to illustrate various aspects of what Shakespeare’s world was really like. These range from the failed attempts of James I to put together a joint flag for the Great Britain he wanted to be a reality, to a woollen apprentice’s cap in absolutely remarkable condition, to a pedlar’s trunk complete with contents, to a brass-handled iron fork lost at the Rose Theatre, the ownership of which was a sign of absolute sophistication. And he uses the objects to telling effect, delving deeply into the full range of Shakespeare’s work. So, my other favourite subject History/Shakespeare is well catered for in this splendid book.

hamlet-arden-shakespeare.jpegWhich leads me on to saying that, having aroused my interest in WS once again, I could not forgo the immediate and absolute pleasure of reading again for the umpteenth time the play ‘Hamlet’ which for me represents the height of literary achievement. It was something I studied in great detail for ‘A’ levels. I have seen the play a few times. I have seen a couple of films. For me it never palls. I read this time round the Arden edition which has copious footnotes and explanatory material, but I must admit that I am easily distracted by these and actually found all of this tiresome as the Editor Harold Jenkins seemed to be engaged a lot of the time in scoring points off previous editors and commentators. Hamlet is too good for this. Best just to read it straight through and make your own sense of it.

Reading matters….

080717_Rimington_Stella-e1502230798638.jpg

So, Dame Stella Rimington. Joined MI5 in1968 and worked in all the main fields of the Service before being appointed D-G, the first woman to hold the post, in 1992. Does her life experience lead to her novels being excellent representations of what the Sevice does? It surely does. Her books are bang up-to-date. Each theme she tackles is sparklingly relevant to what is happening in the world today. In fact her Liz Carlyle novels are frightening in their relevance. In quick succession I read ‘Rip Tide’, ‘Close Call’ and ‘Breaking Cover’, all excellent reads, all unputdownable. The back stories about family and love life are credible (and presumably like the plots based on real life), and the stories themselves are exciting in the extreme. Do read them. You will not be disappointed. The fact that I read all three without any interruption and F. is doing the 51MxbEeDujL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgsame speaks volumes. Having finished my trilogy I moved on to ‘The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye’ which I have to say was one of the most boring reads I have had for a long long time. Stieg Larsson’s original books were sensational and have been made into excellent films of course, but this…..considering it is supposed to be a thriller there was not one iota of excitement in all of its too many pages. if this is the best that can be done the franchise has certainly had its day. I won’t bore myself any more by talking of the plot….there wasn’t one!

71x1YeoiE1L.jpgOver Christmas I happened to mention to my son-in-law the novel that Julian Barnes put together based on how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took up the case of a Birmingham half-caste solicitor George Edalji who was imprisoned as the guilty party in the so-called Great Wyrley Outrages where animals were savaged in the Midlands locality where he lived. A shocking miscarriage of justice about which Conan Doyle created a huge fuss in real life is subsumed in a gripping story which relates the development of the two main characters into the people they were and then their inter-reaction. A literary masterpiece, shortlisted for the Booker, it should surely have won. Anyway I shall be posting it off to Nasar and hope he enjoys it as much as I did for the second time.

Reading matters…..

cicero_cvr1_h750-1.jpgAnother Folio read from my collection – this one still in its cellophane wrapper, unopened for, what, 15 years, and what a find. Apart from the moderniste illustrations which I disliked intensely this was an amazing read. Basically it is Cicero’s speeches in court usually for the defence. The florid language and the egotistical approach are to the fore but the content is mind-boggling. Apart from the fact that the extensive notes in this issue take you right through Roman history up to the first Emperors, the speeches themselves take you right into the heart of what it was to be a Roman. I studied Latin to A Level and have always liked reading about Roman history, but this was something else. You really felt you were there in the Senate or court house listening to someone who has always been regarded as one of the greatest orators of all time. And the daily life described, and the political machinations, so like what we know ourselves. These people, apart from obvious differences, were human beings with human foibles who could be living next door to us now. What a privilege it was to read (over a period of several months) these extremely detailed accounts of what was going on in the late Republican era. Unlike modern court cases Cicero’s defences usually rested on the question Crassus apparently alway asked ‘Who stands to benefit?’, and thereafter minute dissection of character. So they were hardly objective, but that all adds to the spice. A book to lose yourself in….

Not sure I have talked about this before but this highly illustrated edition of ‘Under Milk51eKHyeFcJL._SX418_BO1204203200_-1.jpg Wood’ is a wonderful thing to have. I just love the beautiful language of Dylan and his over-fertile imagination. The nearest thing I can think of is Homer with his ‘wine-dark sea’. No-one but no-one else could have written this, and the fact that his life was, in a sense, so tragic and cut short is to be heavily regretted. Peter Blake the famous British artist spent 28 years on a labour of love drawing and painting all of the characters and imaginings from the story/poem and this is now a wonderful accompaniment to the text. It just adds an extra dimension. Having spent some time living and working in South  Wales which I always remember fondly, I do find myself reading with a Welsh lilt trying to replicate Richard Burton. As if!

item_XL_10610563_13939767.jpgNow here’s an interesting book. I have never really bothered with it, thinking it to dwell in the realms of the astrological, which is not for me. However, having dipped into it I find that, far from that, it takes pains to examine the great stories of Myth in all the main cultures and religions. ‘Here, from every corner of the globe, are tales of the world’s creation, undying love, the Sun and the Moon, gods of the weather, tricksters, terrible monsters, the afterlife and the underworld, and more.’ Christopher Dell shows how many myths share common patterns, and this is the really fascinating thing about it. I found it, to be honest, quite astounding how stories in one religion are very nearly exactly the same in another. So, just as the ancient Greeks, when dead, crossed the river Styx so the Japanese crossed the river Sanzu. Or take honey. The OT is full of references to honey, suggestive of sweetness and leisure, and one of the chapters of the Koran entitled ‘The Bee’ describes it as ‘a cure for men’. In Hinduism honey is used in worship or as a sacrifice.  To us the most famous example of flooding comes from the OT where Noah builds his ark to save every species in The Great Flood. In the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh Utnapishtim is advised by the God Enki to build an ark before his brother sends a great deluge. In Greek mythology, Zeus decides to flood the world too…..Prometheus however forewarns his son who prepares a chest of provisions in which he and his wife float around for 9 days. In Hindu myth the human Manu is warned of the flood by Vishnu and is able to save himself in time. One can only imagine that a lot of the Myths had a common source, and that in turn leads to lots of philosophical questions. I’ll leave those to someone else!

 

 

Reading Matters….and a film

140460.jpgStella Rimington makes use of all her history and knowledge as Director General of MI5 in her series of novels about her alter ego Liz Carlyle. I hadn’t read one of her novels for some time but having picked up this at a good price it was to be my bedtime reading for some nights. However ‘The Geneva Trap’ was so good that I couldn’t resist delving into it during the daytime too. It was a great read from beginning to end. Basic outline of the plot from Bloomsbury (terrific publisher)….’Geneva, 2012. When a Russian intelligence officer approaches MI5 with vital information about the imminent cyber-sabotage of an Anglo-American Defence programme, he refuses to talk to anyone but Liz Carlyle. But who is he, and what is his connection to the British agent?
At a tracking station in Nevada, US Navy officers watch in horror as one of their unmanned drones plummets out of the sky, and panic spreads through the British and American Intelligence services. Is this a Russian plot to disable the West’s defences? Or is the threat coming from elsewhere?
As Liz and her team hunt for a mole inside the MOD, the trail leads them from Geneva, to Marseilles and into a labyrinth of international intrigue, in a race against time to stop the Cold War heating up once again…’

But the plot is just a part of the enjoyment – the relationships between key personnel in MI5 and MI6 are a significant element in the development of the story. And the locations are characterful (I do actually think Stella Rimington could make a bit more of ‘location’). I really would highly recommend this novel. Just as good as Le Carre, Graham Greene etc and you can’t give higher praise than that. I must buy some more.

the-girl-in-the-spiders-web-1-e1537879398393-700x356.jpgYesterday we went to Vue Plymouth to see the latest Scandi-Noir film – ‘The Girl In The Spider’s Web’. Now I have read the book (an unfinished script by Stieg Larsson) which I enjoyed, but the reviews of the film were what you call mixed, so I wasn’t anticipating a great afternoon. However I really enjoyed our outing to the cinema (so much more of an experience than sitting at home watching on a small screen, as I have said many a time). And the lead was just great. We had seen both Swedish and American versions of ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, both with good lead actresses, but the Swedish version infinitely superior, so I was really apprehensive about seeing Claire Foy (recently, I hear, good as Queen Elizabeth II / Princess Elizabeth) in the demanding role. I regarded her as a somewhat conservative actor. She was absolutely marvellous here. The film itself was a bit James Bond-like with massive action, chases, gadgetry and all the rest, the plot obviously implausible. But that mattered not at all. You sank yourself into the adventure and went along with it. The only annoying thing? Film scheduled for 1.15pm, didn’t actually start until 1.50pm after all the adverts and previews. Far too long.

My worthy reading matter for a few months has been ‘Soul of the Age’ by Jonathan 51AKsVqp0TL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgBate, subtitles ‘the Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare’. An incredible piece of work, almost a lifetime’s work you would say (except that Jonathan is still young). David Crystal concludes ‘completely fresh and full of surprises…’. It is certainly that. And Simon Russell Beale..’bursting with new idea and crafty analysis…’. I just wonder whether Jonathan is at times, quite often in fact, too clever by half. His knowledge is certainly immense. From the early stages when he talks of Lear’s fantastic garland

‘Crowned with rank fumiter, and furrow weeds,                                                                         With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo flowers,                                                                     Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow                                                                                                                                         In our sustaining corn.’

and comments that these are exactly what one would find in an arable field and its margin in England at the end of Summer, one is almost bewitched by the superior knowledge on display and keen to learn, so that we can appreciate Shakespeare in a new light. But the more Jonathan delves into Shakespeare’s life and his world,  and the wider he casts his net, the less plausible do I find his conclusions. He is keen to castigate critic after critic, but his own jumps in reasoning based on the flimsiest of evidence or downright supposition led me fairly soon to lose faith. Having said that, I found the whole book incomparably interesting and, as his friend Beale said, a dazzling portrait.
27/11/2018

Reading matters…….and an important film

51ZsJbutzLL.jpgThis book has been at the back of my mind for some reason, so I dug it out for  a re-read after, what, 40 years or more. It is one of George Orwell’s most powerful and best novels. Let’s get it clear, I am one of those currently politically-incorrect people who believe the British Empire did far more good in the world than critics (who tend to concentrate on single events or themes) would have you believe. And in any case, as a historian, I would argue that it is absolutely impossible to set huge infrastructure improvements, educational and civilising influences, the keeping of the peace world-wide for long periods, etc etc against slavery in the early stages of the Empire, and various unjustifiable (in today’s terms) massacres and ill-treatment of subject nations. The Empire was of its time. It was what it was. However this novel by Orwell is a very, very powerful rebuke to people like me and an antidote to any positive reading of the ‘benefits’ of Empire. I was surprised to find out that this was Orwell’s first novel. It certainly doesn’t read like a first. Basically it tells the tale of a minor English player in Burma in the waning days of the Empire, how he lives and loves, how he reacts unsuccessfully to the embittered views of other members of the Club in the little town in Burma where the story is set. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, and the protagonist’s life and death are perhaps a metaphor for Empire itself. It is based actually on Orwell’s own experiences, he spent five years from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma. In a letter from 1946, Orwell said “I dare say it’s unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen”. It was dynamite in its day and only published in the States at first, and it’s not hard to see why. In my opinion a great read.

We recently found a WHSmith’s remainder outlet in Plymouth. I have never seen one before. Anyhow it inevitably led to the buying of some books. We got a Peter James 817flfX-18L.jpgsigned hardback ‘Dead Man’s Time’ for £6, not bad. It has been my bedtime reading. As always Peter has interesting characters including his protagonist DS Grace. But all the major and minor actors are well-drawn. And as always there is a slightly unusual story line. In this case a 95 year old wanting revenge for something that happened in his childhood, and revenge for the recent torture and murder of his elder sister. The plot is interesting and takes lots of turns. Brighton doesn’t feature quite as much as in some of his novels…a shame as I like a strong ‘Place’ element. But with the plot capturing you and lots of small chapters (ideal for bedtime reading) what’s not to like. Procedure, one assumes, is exemplary as Peter has intimate access to lots and lots of Police folk in Brighton and he makes full use of his detailed knowledge of how the Police work. All in all another thoroughly enjoyable novel by one of the creme de la creme in Crime writers.

1_PeterlooFilm.jpgWe saw recently the Mike Leigh film ‘Peterloo’. Maxine Peak, one of my favourite actresses, is one of the main characters. A review I had read in The Times had slated it, mainly it seems on the grounds that there was too much dialogue in meetings etc and not enough action. How feeble critics are. What a world we live in where there has to be movement and action all the time! It was quite long at two and a half hours but I didn’t notice this ……unlike The Times critic I was absorbed. What it is about is the background to, and the events of, the Peterloo ‘massacre’ in 1819. The Guardian precises it nicely…’     On 16 August 1819, at what we would now call a pro-democracy demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, an excitable band of cavalry and yeomanry – whose commander had airily absented himself for a day at the races – charged with sabres drawn into a crowd of 60,000 unarmed people, many of whom were unable to escape the enclosed space. The troops killed 18 and injured hundreds more……It was Britain’s 19th-century mix of Sharpeville and Hillsborough. The government was entirely delighted with the result, and not displeased with the nickname “Peterloo”, as it felt like a rerun of its victory over Napoleon, the creature of something it continued to fear intensely: the French Revolution.’                                                                                                                             But the thing is, it was in many ways a victory for democracy – for never again would any Government allow such dramatic military actions to be taken against people expressing their free will in a public meeting. And eventually the Great Reform Act and Anti-Corn Laws legislation would be passed. It also led The Times to take up, to some degree, the whole issue of Reform, and almost directly led to the founding of The Manchester Guardian ( a great newspaper, sadly since its move to London a shadow of its former self). So a film on very important issues with some relevance to today and a topic ‘Peterloo’ which is hardly on the syllabus in schools. Mike Leigh himself has said children should be taught about Peterloo. “They will know about 1066 and Magna Carta and Henry VIII and his six wives and they may be told about the French revolution and the battle of Waterloo … [The massacre] was a major, major event which resonated down the 19th century into the 20th century in the context of democracy and suffrage.” Manchester Histories, a charity, is leading the campaign for Peterloo to be taught in all schools. What I didn’t like about the film (this and many others!) was how unrealistic the settings and stages were. It’s all very well finding a great location but covering the streets with sand of all things in order to hide yellow parking lines just doesn’t cut the mustard. The same with the characters. The poor of Manchester were atrociously dirty and smelly. It’s no use just dressing them up in costumes Hollywood-style. And everywhere was so clean. In reality you couldn’t see a hand in front of you because of the smoke and the smog. All wrong, wrong wrong……..