Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Review: Birdsong

As I mentioned in my last birdsong post, after watching the BBC adaptation I was going to pick the book up again and reread it. And reread I did. I certainly was not disappointed. As I mentioned previously, I picked this book up in the visitors centre at Thiepval (particularly appropriate considering as how Thiepval is mentioned many a time in the story!) - I fell in love with Thiepval, it was a very moving place and so this book holds a special place in my heart. Of course it has its flaws but then what book doesn't have flaws? In my eyes however, this book is as close to the perfect historical fiction as you can get.

Sebastian Faulks tells us the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young man who finds himself in Amiens; sent there by his employer to learn more about the fabric business. He stays with the Azaire family, and whilst there he starts to notice Madame Azaire (also known as Isabelle) - of course he falls in love with her and they begin an affair which eventually comes to a head and they leave the house together. The love story makes up the first portion of the book and if I'm honest it really wasn't my favourite part of the story although it does go some way to explain why Stephen is the way he is in later chapters. And by the time the second part of the story kicks in, when Stephen is in the trenches, so much has happened with Isabelle that he doesn't find out until much much later.

The second part of the story, where Stephen is in the trenches was my favourite part of the whole book and I'm glad it made up most of the story. And if I'm honest this part had me blubbing more than any other part. Here we see Stephen as he attempts to gain the love and respect of the me he commands, the strange friendship he builds with Captain Weir and his strange ability to stay alive despite the odds. Weir, in my opinion, has to be one of the best and most lovable characters in the story. He is a shy man, with a dependence on alcohol and a man who comes to rely on Stephen and his strange ways - he even admits to Stephen that he has never slept with a woman, leading onto a rather distressing incident in a brothel! Not only does he have this friendship with Weir, but he also develops a very close friendship with many of the tunnelers on the front line. One character in particular always sticks in my mind, Jack Firebrace - a man, not young, who came from digging the London Underground to digging tunnels in France to blow up the Germans, whose son is very unwell. Firebrace is immediately lovable, and I won't spoil what happens but let's just say that by the end of the novel I was sobbing so much I could barely breathe.

Of course, in a novel about the First World War, characters that you know and love will ultimately end up dead. And that is so well done in this novel, Faulks describes the battles as if he were an eye witness and his description of the battle of the Somme had my heart in my mouth for the entire chapter. I loved how Faulks used very short sentences to convey the scene, the horror, the desperation. I could honestly imagine I was there as Stephen watched his comrades fall as the advanced at walking pace into the enemy machine gun fire. The way Faulks created this scene, and indeed the whole book, was just utterly breathtaking.

The final part of the book deals with a young woman named Elizabeth, who is in fact Stephen's granddaughter. She spends a few chapters looking at the notebooks Stephen kept whilst he was at war trying to link to her past, visiting places like Thiepval. If I'm honest this could have been left out of the book, I really didn't like the character of Elizabeth (not sure why, don't judge me) and the fact that she was involved in an affair with a married man who kept everything secret, and then had a child with said married man. It was a little cliched and I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to the end of the section and read about Stephen's escape from being trapped in the tunnels after a German explosion.

The few chapters detailing Stephen's escape were mind blowing. To cut a long story short, Stephen and Firebrace end up trapped in the tunnels after the German army set a charge off in a tunnel above theirs. Everyone else dies (surprise), and Firebrace ends up very badly wounded. After finding a stash of explosives left by the New Zealanders and blowing it, Stephen ends up being dug out of the tunnels by the Germans who inform him the war is over. And he walks across No Mans Land completely safe, back to the British trenches but without poor Firebrace.

Reading this review back, I realise a lot of it sounds very very cliched, with the whole love story thing and the girl running off, man goes to war and in the end future person finds out about her past; but in all honesty I recommend this book to anyone whether they have an interest in the war or not. It is very well written and you really do end up connected to the characters. It is a roller coaster ride of emotion, which has you laughing at one moment and in floods of tears the next. And the historical moments dealing with the trenches and the battles are so well researched, despite its flaws I do honestly believe that Birdsong is one of the best examples of historical fiction that anyone can ever read.

Monday, 30 January 2012

On This Day In History: 30th January 1649

On 30th January 1649, Charles I, King of England was beheaded on a scaffold outside The Banqueting House at Whitehall. He had been condemned to death by Act of Attainder, and his death warrant was signed by 59 individuals. It is said that he went to his death wearing extra clothing so he would not shiver in front of the public, and he did not want them to think he was shaking from fear. But why was he condemned? It is well known that the Royalists lost the English Civil War and the country was taken over by Oliver Cromwell; and his trial found him guilty of inciting war, murder, rape, burnings and a number of other offences. Although Charles refused to admit his guilt, being under the impression that the King could do no wrong (he was a staunch believer in the Divine Right Of Kings), his silence was taken as his admission of guilt.

Charles I was executed with one clean stroke, his head held before the public though no words were spoken to the crowd.

After his execution, Oliver Cromwell allowed Charles' head to be sewn back on and his body returned to his family. King Charles was buried on the 7th February in a private ceremony in St George's Chapel, Windsor inside the same vault that Henry VIII was buried in.

Charles I is one of my heroes and I have always been staunchly royalist. For my sins I was even a member of the Sealed Knot at one point, and had joined a Royalist regiment (Henry Tillier's in case any one cares!). My love of the English Civil War knows no bounds and I have a huge respect for Charles I, for what he fought for, for what he died for. In my eyes the man is a hero, and certainly did not deserve the death that he got.

Monday, 23 January 2012


Last night, BBC 1 showed part 1 of an adaptation of one of my favourite historical fiction novels: Birdsong. And before I delve into just how amazing this show was (and how full of amazingly beautiful young men!), I thought I'd give you guys a bit of background on my rather intense love of anything First World War.

Back when I was at school, or rather Sixth Form and taking my AS/A Levels, we were studying First World War literature as part of my English Literature course. And the chance came up for us to go on a trip to Belgium to see the sites of the first world war, visit the cemeteries and learn about the place that these poets and authors were writing about. During the course I fell in love with the work of Wilfred Owen, so I jumped at the chance to go to a different country and see where all this destruction had happened. To this day Wilfred Owen is still my favourite poet from that era, and I can recite Dolce Et Decorum Est pretty much from memory, but that's a different story for a different day. Anyway, off we went to Belgium on a coach full of rowdy sixth formers and we ended up in a little hotel that served the most atrocious food I have ever known! I digress. During our week in Belgium we visited a number of sites including the Menin Gate in Ypres, the Lochnagar Crater on the Somme, and some preserved trenches (which we had a lot of fun running around in the mud...before going into the dug outs which was really rather frightening!). The place that stuck in my mind the most however was the memorial at Thiepval, a memorial to the lost soldiers that died on the Somme battlefield and were never found. As we walked around it I was struck by the number of names on there, the number of men who never came back from the war. As I'm sure many of you know, the battle of the Somme in 1918 was one of the most atrocious battles during the war with over 20,000 men being killed in the first few hours. Whilst we were in the visitors centre, I spotted a book for sale in the bookshop with a rather haunting cover: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, and I immediately delved into my purse for the 18 Euros it cost. And from then on I was hooked, the book was read over and over.

I found out a couple of weeks ago that the BBC were showing an adaptation of this wonderful novel, and I may have gotten rather excited. Though I did have to convince my other half to let me watch it instead of having the snooker final on (boring!). And I was certainly not disappointed.

First of all I want to say that the casting choices for Birdsong were absolutely fantastic. Those of you who have seen Pillars of the Earth and Game of Thrones will have recognised a few of the actors, most especially Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Wraysford (Jack Builder from Pillars) and Richard Madden as Captain Weir (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones). And as I watched last night, I honestly thought that the acting was top notch, definitely worthy of some awards! I lost count of the times that I sat sobbing over Eddie's portrayal of Stephen, especially as he held the hand of a young soldier who was dying from being hit by bomb shrapnel. And Madden's performance of Weir couldn't have been any better! When I read the book, I got a sense of Weir's terror, his shyness, his dependence on alcohol and everything Madden did in the episode pointed to that - he was charming (the scene where Weir's mother sent him a jumper for instance), the amount of times he took a swig of whiskey from a hip flask with shaking hands, when he admitted to Wraysford that he had never known a woman. Just perfection.

The story in Birdsong is just heart wrenching, and I'll try not to spoil you too much over what happens - honestly, pick up a copy of the book if you can because it will really open your eyes to what First World War fiction should be like. The story follows the career of Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford, a young man pulled into the War of 1916. To start with he is just a young man visiting France to learn more about the fabric business and he stays with the Azaire family only to fall in love with the beautiful Isabel Azaire. I shall say no more of this other than, watch next week to see some fireworks (or read the book!). Wraysford eventually finds himself a soldier in the war, dealing with loss and loneliness as he learns to lead his men, as he learns how to make the men respect him without being a horrible and nasty piece of work. He gets involved, he tends to the men as they lay dying and wounded and he makes so many friends along the way (Weir and Firebrace being just two of them) but all the time realising that death could come from any bullet fired from the opposing trenches. It really is heart wrenching, and I lost count of the amount of times I sobbed as I read the book and I expect that part 2 of the dramatisation will do the same to me next Sunday!

The cinematography of last nights Birdsong was just wonderful. I loved how they mixed up Stephen's life with the Azaire family and his time in the dark, dismal and muddy trenches. It was as if Stephen was sat in his dugout remembering his life before. And I loved how they did it, especially at the pivotal moment at the end of the episode where he lay there remembering his time with Isabel. I will say no more for fear of spoiling you all but honestly, it was so well done and I was crying so many tears by the end of the episode. Plus I have honestly seen no other show portray the horror of the trenches in the way that was done in Birdsong, they looked like real trenches, muddy, disgusting, crowded, dirty and dangerous. One particular part of the episode got me, when a young man who had been down in the tunnels with Wraysford and the tunnelers came out and stuck his head over the parapet, only to have a bullet skim past his head. Wraysford pulls him down and shouts, "DO YOU WANT TO GET US ALL BLOODY KILLED?!" - a very poignant moment which really brought home how dangerous it was in the trenches.

All in all, Birdsong was quite possibly one of the best historical dramatisations I have ever seen the BBC do, and it deserves all the awards. I honestly hope that the actors and the directors get the credit they deserve for turning the book by Faulks into an absolutely mind blowing television experience. I will most definitely be tuning in again next week, and I have also started reading the book again. All I need to do now is revisit Belgium and see the Somme again, and have another walk around Thiepval (plus I have family buried somewhere over there and I want to find them).

Saturday, 21 January 2012

A Witch With Six Fingers? Errr, no

"Anne Boleyn was the evil one wasn't she? The witch with 6 fingers?"

This very question was asked to me today during a conversation at work. I was horrified, and I ended up facepalming very much in the same style of Rodrigo Borgia

Cue a long and lengthy history lesson from me. No, Anne was not a witch. No she did not have six fingers (because let's use some logic here, would Henry VIII really have married her if she had such a deformity?), no she was not involved in an incestuous relationship with her brother and no she most definitely was (at least in my humble opinion, and I'm sure the opinion of many others) NOT GUILTY. The amount of times I heard, "well she must have been guilty because she was found guilty at her trial" no, no, no and no!

It amazes me every time I read something online that says about how Anne Boleyn was guilty of incest and gave birth to a deformed foetus, that she was a witch with six fingers. And it amazes me even more when I hear someone talking about it. Especially in this day and age where there is such a wealth of knowledge out there and Anne's story has been told over and over by historians through the ages. All these people have to do is pick up a history book. But of course, so many would rather believe tripe like The Other Boleyn Girl and not give real history a chance, or indeed even well written historical fiction (Wolf Hall for example is particularly excellent).

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Quick Reminder About the Book Give-Away!

Just a quick reminder that as soon as the facebook page hits 100 likes, I'll be giving away a copy of the book above. This book "The Borgias" also known as "The Borgias and their Enemies" (I stood there for ages in the bookshop utterly confused with a copy of both titles in my hand, it seems that the copy above is just another edition of the copy I have on my shelf!) is an utterly fantastic book telling the story of the infamous Borgia family, and it's so good I'll end up rereading it at some point in the very near future!

To be in with a chance of getting your hands on this wonderful book, all you have to do is like the facebook page. And as soon as we hit the magic 100 I'll be picking someone at random.

Please do spread the word about both this blog and the facebook page as we're not quite there yet! That and I'm really excited to get this book in the post to the lucky winner!!!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Review: The Artist, The Philosopher and The Warrior by Paul Strathern

In the autumn of 1502 three giants of the Renaissance period - Cesare Borgia, Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli - set out on one of the most treacherous military campaigns of the period. Cesare Borgia was a ferocious military leader whose name was synonymous with brutality and whose reputation was marred with the suspicion of incest. Niccolo Machiavelli was a witty and subversive intellectual, more suited to the silken diplomacy of royal courts than the sodden encampments of a military campaign. And Leonardo Da Vinci was a visionary master and the most talented military engineer in Italy. What lead him to work for the monstrous Borgia? And what attracted him to the cunning Machiavelli?

I’d been seeing this book everywhere in the months up until Christmas and thought how interesting it sounded; just think a book dedicated to three Renaissance men all about how their lives intertwined. Alas, I did not buy it for myself. Imagine my surprise when on Christmas morning I opened up a gift only to this peeking out of the paper at me!

This idea for this book really is wonderful, and I can imagine it having been very difficult to pull off. The book pulls together the lives of three men during Renaissance Italy and how their lives intertwined, how they met and how they worked together. And Paul Strathern does an absolutely astounding job with it. Not only that but his three subjects are quite possibly the three most interesting men of the period: Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia. All three of these men had a huge impact on Italy as they knew it; Da Vinci was one of the world’s greatest artists and scientists; a man who thought of windmill’s and tanks long before they were “invented”, Machiavelli was the creator of “realpolitik” and author of the controversial ‘The Prince’; a work that was banned and had poor Machiavelli labelled as an agent of Satan, and Cesare Borgia – a man known for his murderous ways, said to be involved with his own sister and a man who became the greatest military general that Italy had ever seen.

The first and main thing I want to say about this book is that Strathern’s writing style is just flawless. It is so easy to read, and as I was reading I could imagine what he was describing (and these days with books it’s very rare that happens to me) – I could imagine Leonardo working on his paintings and coming up with military weapons for Cesare, I could imagine Machiavelli sitting there writing his dispatches back to Florence, and I could imagine Cesare as he lead his armies into the Romagna to overtake them. The entire book was so well written and I enjoyed it from the very first word and despite the cliché, I just couldn’t put it down. I have read a few reviews of this saying that the way it is structured makes it very difficult to follow, and that the switches between characters means that it’s almost impossible to read without getting confused. I did not find this at all, in fact thought that Strathern pulled everything together excellently, staying in chronological order and tying the relationship between these three Renaissance men together with an expert eye for detail. It was really very interesting to read how these men eventually came together, how Leonardo and Machiavelli ended up working for Borgia and how Borgia himself developed such a respect for these men that he may have even considered them as friends.

I have to say as well, that I learnt a lot whilst reading this book that I didn’t know before. I did not know that Leonardo Da Vinci came up with things long before their time, like windmills, or diving suits or even the world’s first flying machine. According to Strathern the likelihood that this was tested is very slim, yet Leonardo made mention of his plans in his notebooks. With Machiavelli I knew that he was the author of “The Prince”, a book that I still have yet to read, and that he had an immense amount of respect for Cesare Borgia and I knew he spent time with Borgia, I did not know quite how hard up he was whilst he was staying with Cesare. According to Strathern Machiavelli kept having to write to the Signoria to beg for money, and begging to be recalled home. It seems he was also a bit of a joker with his friends, and one letter that Strathern quoted made me laugh out loud – although I must say it is rather cruel – when he spoke about how he went to buy a shirt, and the woman took him into a darkened room to try out the goods. There he made love to a woman he could not see in the dark, and when he turned the lights on he found her so ugly that he threw up all over her! And of course anything about Cesare I will eat up, whether they are facts I know of or not. With Cesare, whilst I knew he managed to escape from prison at the Medina Del Campo and fought with his father in law (which consequentially lead to his death), I did not know that before he was moved there he tried to escape from his previous prison, but injured himself trying to escape!

In all honesty, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is full to bursting with facts about three very interesting individuals of the Renaissance and it is all written in such a way that there were times I could have sworn I was stood in the same room as Leonardo as he painted his famous Mona Lisa. I found the exact same thing when I read Strathern’s book “The Medici” which, like this one, is just a brilliant and informative read. If you even have an inkling of an interest in any of these three men then I recommend picking up this book as you will be astounded by what you read, and more so you will begin to understand how these three Renaissance giants lives’ all intertwined, how they met, how they worked together and ultimately came to respect each other as friends. Yet I really don’t want to spoil the book for those of you who haven’t yet read it, I could type for pages and pages on the relationship between these men based just on what Strathern has written, but I won’t. I’ll let you discover it all for yourselves…

Friday, 6 January 2012

Yet More Books!

Today, as I was on my way to yet another doctors appointment, I found myself in front of a charity bookshop with a massive sale sign in the window. I decided to pop in and see what their history section was like. And when I came out my purse was much lighter than it had been when I went inside! What I found was a plethora of beautiful books, and that was just in the history section alone - I didn't really have time to check out the fiction section - and I could have spent hours in there. In the end I picked up a few books that caught my eye, the Jasper Ridley one in particular is one I've had my eye on for a while but never gotten around to buying, and the Mary Tudor one by Anna Whitelock was one I picked up almost straight away. I've only ever read snippets on Mary so it will be nice to actually read a full scale biography. But it was the one at the top of the pile that got me excited, "At The Court Of The Borgia" by Pope Alexander VI's Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard, and translated by Geoffrey Parker. You guys know me, I love the Borgia family and it will be really interesting to read something originally written by someone close to Alexander VI, and just how biased it is. Plus the front cover is actually gorgeous...

Not the best photo, blame my lame point and shoot camera, but it really is beautiful.

I have to say, I am really looking forward to getting stuck into these later on this year. I have a few to read before I start on them, but keep your eyes peeled for reviews when I finish them!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Inspirations from History: Edward Seymour

Edward Seymour Earl of Hertford and Duke of Somerset is a man who has interested me now for a very long time, especially the events leading up to his fall from grace and execution. Of course you all know of my love for his wife Anne Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset and I just have a huge fascination not only with her but of Edward's reign as Protector, and how he fell from Grace. I'm not going to lie, the Showtime TV series The Tudors inspired me to start reading more on Edward Seymour despite the fact I knew quite a lot about him anyway. It helped that I adored the on screen relationship (or lack thereof!) between Edward Seymour and his wife.

So who was Edward Seymour?
  • He was born in around 1506 to Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth
  • In around 1527 he had his first marriage to Catherine Filliol annulled on the grounds of adultery.
  • He married Anne Stanhope before March 1534
  • 5th June 1536, he was made Viscount Beauchamp
  • 15th October 1537 he was made Earl of Hertford.
  • Edward became Lord Protector upon the death of Henry VIII and the ascension of the boy king Edward VI. Henry's will did not include provision for a Protector, rather for the government to be looked after by a Regency Council however a few days after Henry's death the council decided to give Seymour almost regal power and 13 of the 16 council members agreed for him to take the post of Protector.
  • Edward's brother Thomas wanted a share of the power, and Edward tried buying him off but Thomas was hell bent on getting power, he began smuggling pocket money to the King. In 1549 after Thomas kept vying for power, and scheming to marry the Princess Elizabeth, the council had Thomas arrested. He was condemned by act of attainder due there being a lack of evidence for treason, and he was beheaded on 20th arch 1549.
  • Edward Seymour was an exceptionally skilled soldier, with a special interest in the war with Scotland. Due to his skill the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.
  • After April 1549 England was subject to social unrest, the best known of which being Kett's rebellion, caused by encroachment of landlords on common grazing lands. Government placed the blame at Seymour's door and was the start of Seymour's downfall.
  • By 1st October 1549, Seymour knew he was in danger and withdrew to Windsor with the young King. On 11th October the Council had him arrested due to his failures in war, his vanity, his refusal to listen to any one other than his own mind and doing things his own way. By Feb 1550, John Dudley Earl of Warwick emerged as the next Protector.
  • Somerset had previously been released from the Tower but by 1551/2 he was back there, and executed for felony in January 1552, for conspiring to overthrow Warwick's regime.
  • He is buried in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vicula at the Tower of London.
Despite his downfall, Seymour was known as The Good Duke and in all the books I have read about him seems to have been very popular with the people. In my opinion he wasn't vain or power hungry at all, he was trying to keep England running well until Edward VI came of age. However as often happened at the court, factions struggled for power and often overthrew each other, as is what happened here in quite possibly one of the most famous coup d'etat's of the late Tudor period.

If anyone is interested in reading more about Edward Seymour I recommend the following books:

Ordeal By Ambition: An English Family In The Shadow Of The Tudors - William Seymour (here at Amazon)
Edward VI The Young King: The Protectorship of the Duke of Somerset - W.K. Jordan (here at Amazon, but beware of prices as this is a pretty rare book nowadays, but very very good!)