About Me

My photo
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

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

"The fears of Henry IV" by Ian Mortimer

Ian Mortimer writes mediaeval history so readably. This biography of "England's Self-Made King" starts with 14 year old Henry in the Tower during the Peasant's Revolt and a retainer persuading the invading mob not to murder him. Henry had a glorious youth: son of John of Gaunt, England's richest and most powerful lord, grandson of Edward III (named as heir after Richard II and John of Gaunt), cousin and boyhood playmate of King Richard II, a talented musician, a big reader, a student who (in exile) attended lectures at the University of Paris, a star jouster from the age of 14, a crusader (with the Teutonic Knights in Lithuania) and a pilgrim (the only mediaeval English King to enter Jerusalem), and a key member of the opposition in Parliament to Richard II's increasingly arbitrary and tyrannical rule. All this potential seemed dashed by Richard's hatred (possibly caused by jealousy since the dashing Henry was everything that Richard was not). Richard continually promoted others over him (including naming them as heir) and slighted or spurned him. Finally Richard exiled Henry. In exile Henry must have felt that all his promise was for nothing. But he returned from exile to lead a rebellion against Richard, to depose Richard and to be recognised by Parliament as King in Richard's place. Then things began to go wrong.

All the early promise evaporated. His vow to be merciful was falsified almost immediately when he (probably) gave the order to ensure that Richard was killed in imprisonment (possibly starving him to death). Two harvest failures and an inability to be good with money meant that his manifesto commitment not to impose peacetime taxes plunged him into debt. Scotland, Wales and France all fought against him. There were many rebellions at home (including eight assassination attempts) culminating in the Battle of Shrewsbury when Henry decisively defeated and killed Harry Hotspur. Even peace left him at the mercy of a hostile and penny-pinching parliament. Finally some dreadful skin disease left him crippled and dying, dead before he reached fifty.

Mostly uncommemorated (Mortimer claims that his only statue is in Shrewsbury's Battlefield church) Henry started the tradition of giving to the poor on Maundy Thursday (his birthday) an amount proportional to his age. He owned an early (perhaps the first) portable clock (p93). In exile he stayed at Sangatte, outside Paris and in 'Newenham' Priory (I presume this is Newnham Priory which around this time was involved with Mowbray who was the Earl of Norfolk involved in a dispute about a rebellion with Henry which led to his and Henry's exile; Newnham Priory received a grant from Henry IV on 15th February 1409) in Bedfordshire on 7th July 1403 (p265). 

Fabulous history of a fascinating king. 

November 2011; 387 pages

Thursday, 24 November 2011

"The Devil's Cup" by Stewart Lee Allen

An interesting history of coffee is turned into a mesmerising thriller by the adventures of Stewart, following coffee from Ethiopian genesis to the USA. On the way this beatnik turned author travels on a gun-running boat from Djibouti to Yemen while these two countries are at war, negotiates a people-smuggling deal, is conned whilst trying to participate in an international forged art smuggling business, meets low-lifes of all sorts, travels from Italy to Rio, has his passport confiscated and his car searched, interrogates entranced mediums, and drinks every variety of coffee possible from Ethiopian brewed with the leaves to Yemeni, to Turkish, to Viennese, to Parisian, to Italian, to Brazilian, to American.

Unbelievable. Why have I never heard of this book before?

November 2011; 230 pages

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

"Possession" by A S Byatt

A penniless literary researcher discovers a love letter from the Victorian poet whose biography he is working on to another Victorian poetess. He and a lady lecturer trace the details of an unknown and illicit Victorian love affair. What happened and why?

Despite acres of Victorian allusive poetry, pregnant with myth, and a whole chapter of letters from poet to poetess, mostly discussing nothing, this book draws you in. But oh how shallow the modern world appears and how unromantic our couplings and uncouplings are compared with the enforced chastities and unconsummated desires of the past.

A mystery but also a satire on the obsessions of the modern biography industry.

Delightful.

November 2011; 511 pages

Sunday, 13 November 2011

"The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie

This book reminded me of a silk and velvet version of my own 'Don Petro de la Hoz'.

It was certainly lavish. A yellow haired wanderer and magician of Florentine descent related to Amerigo Vespucci and named after Niccolo Machiavelli but calling himself the 'Mughal of Love' arrives at the imperial Moghul court of Akbar the Great. He tells a story of Qara Koz, the woman he claims to be his mother, a princess of the line of Tamburlane and Genghis Kahn, who was multiply abducted through the fortunes of war until she found love with a Florentine Janissary. This makes him Akbar's uncle.

His stories weave magic around the Mughal court and enchant the great emperor (who has himself conjured up a fantasy queen). And the tale weaves back and forth from past to present, from India and Persia and  Ottoman Asia to Transylvania and Italy and the Nuovo Mondo, from history to fantasy, rich, gorgeous and romantic.


  • Philosophical: "If there had never been a God, the Emperor thought, it might have been easier to work out what goodness was." (Chapter 19). 
  • Political: "Was foreignness itself a thing to be embraced as a revitalizing force bestowing bounty and success upon its adherents, or did it adulterate something essential in the individual and the society as a whole?" (Chapter 19)
  • Witty: "Only the humble did not stumble" (Chapter 19)


Spell-binding.

November 2011; 443 pages

Monday, 7 November 2011

"The Pocket Encyclopaedia of Impressionists"

The Impressionists were an brilliantly talented bunch of artists who happened to meet in Paris  and studied together and worked together and exhibited together and in some cases lived together.

This books explains their incredible history and then gives an authoritative analysis of some of the leading lights including the incomparable Monet, anarchist Pisarro, unwillingly controversial Manet, balletophile Degas, working class Renoir and gentle landscapist Sisley. It explains about their key beliefs, such as painting landscapes in the open air and their use of brilliant colours and concentrating on patches of light but it also explains which artists followed which styles.

My only complaint about the formidably impressive book is that the illustrations rarely co-ordinate with the text so that you are reading about one painting while seeing another or you are flicking through the book to understand what they are talking about. Perhaps a slideshow version of the book might be the answer.

Friday, 4 November 2011

"After Me, the Deluge" by David Forrest

This tells the story of a young priest in a tiny French village who receives a telephone call from God commanding him to build and Ark for the forthcoming flood that is going to destroy the world. The eccentric villagers including a massive, ex-para, whore-mongering, poorly endowed barman, an officious policeman and a pompous mayor help construct the Ark. But word gets out via a cod-Jewish newspaperman called Morry. The government send the police in but the Vatican send a Cardinal.

It reminded me very much of The Mouse that Roared which I read when I was about 12 and so I assumed initially that this book was written about the same time (late fifties/ early sixties) but the rather more explicit sexuality of this book firmly placed it in the seventies.

Light comedy; a fun easy read (but with a disappointing ending).

November 2011; 189 pages

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

"Appleby House" by Sylvia Smith

A chronicle of a year in rented accommodation.

Sylvia rents a bedsit with kitchen in a four bedroom house, sharing with lonely Laura, Susanna and her sister Beverley, Sharon and her boyfriend Peter, and later Tracey. The girls bicker about the domestic arrangements and the noises they make to keep the others awake. They surf the highs of sharing a bottle of wine and getting a little tiddly and the lows of being ill at Christmas and redundancy. The characters are grey and thin, the dialogue is stilted and colourless, the book is banal and humdrum.

"The East End minimalist is back," says the Observer. "If her style were to be translated into an object, it would  be an antimacassar or a crotcheted white-lace doily." Which is fair enough. If that is your idea of literature.

Boring.

November 2011; 160 pages