Category Archives: History and Fiction

Book Review: ‘Music and Silence,’ by Rose Tremain.

Some books are beautifully written, some are skilfully and intriguingly plotted, whilst others still possess a pace that compels the reader to turn the page and devour the book leaving them wanting more; few manage to combine all three elements. Music and Silence is one of those novels that excels in one of these categories – for its prose is undeniably alluring – and yet fails in the other two. It is written prettily enough, but it lacks pace, and the plot meanders hither and thither, the perspectives constantly toing and froing from one character to another, none of whom I found to be particularly sympathetic. 

The lutenist, Peter Claire, his fingers frozen by a Danish winter, pining for a love denied; the Danish Queen Kirsten, despising of her doting husband, scheming and prone to sadomasochistic horseplay with the German Count Otto, or having herself pleasured by black slave boys; the benevolent King Christian IV, touching his elflock for comfort, forever disappointed by all that is ‘shoddy’, including his marriage to his contemptuous and contemptible second wife, his schemes for bringing wealth and happiness to his people seemingly doomed to failure: these are three of the primary protagonists around whom the ‘plot’ revolves. There are many others, but they fail to move me to mention them.  

Before coming to this book, I had read another of Tremain’s novels – Restoration – which I found to be highly engaging and well paced, so when a friend recommended Music and Silence to me as her ‘favourite book’, I had high hopes for it. At the same time, however, I also possessed certain nagging misgivings, for when someone commends a book so highly, the fear creeps in that I will find in it some significant flaw, and so, in this case, it proved to be. Perhaps my failure to find any great satisfaction in the book derives from the fact that it is aimed, predominantly, at a female readership, or then again, perhaps not. It was its lack of pace that made the reading of it so laborious and turgid, for it lay partially read on my bedside table for some five months or so before I compelled myself to complete it, wolfing down the prose with as much pleasure as if it had been unsalted raw cabbage. Thankfully, unlike the cabbage, it did not leave me with wind afterwards, but neither did it leave me with a desire to read anything else by Tremain, which was a pity.  

The 17th century is a fascinating period in which to set a novel, as it was a time of such intellectual, political and social ferment, but, alas, Music and Silence somehow manages to render it less interesting than it was. In contrast, An Instance of the Fingerpost written by Iain Pears, set in Restoration Oxford and employing four separate perspectives in the narration of the same set of events, is utterly compelling and convincing; it is beautifully written, skilfully and intriguingly plotted, and leaves the reader wanting more at its end.

Review: ‘Poldark: Ross Poldark’, by Winston Graham.

Like many readers of this book and subsequent volumes, I first encountered Poldark on the small screen, initially as a child in the 1970s, and more recently during the BBC’s latest adaptation of the Poldark novels. I therefore came to the book with certain expectations, and found, to my delight, that they were not disappointed. In fact, as is often the case with works which are adapted for either television or the cinema, the book proved to be better still. This is not to say that the recent television series lack anything, for they do not, but out of necessity the full richness of a 450-page novel cannot be condensed into a handful of television episodes without omitting something. 

This first book, originally published in 1945, proves to be a gripping read. Although the covers of the Poldark novels have been aimed squarely at a female readership over the years, this one being no exception, what with Aidan Turner broodily peering from the front cover, this is by no means women’s fiction insofar as there is plenty within to engage readers of both sexes. There is certainly a romantic core to this book, but as to whether it should most appropriately be placed in the category of historical novel, or historical romance, I shall leave that to the reader to decide.  

The novel is well paced and comprised of many intertwining strands, with an engaging cast of characters, a sense of drama, and a liberal dose of humour, with the latter often being focused upon Ross’s idle servants Jud and Prudie Painter. Although Ross is confronted with a succession of challenges and setbacks, he somehow manages to weather the storm, and, at the end of this volume, obtain a certain solace in his marriage to Demelza. The theme of hardship, both material and emotional, runs through the book, and it is plain that the author – Winston Graham – by making Ross a champion of the poor and the powerless of Cornwall, possessed a significant social conscience. It did, perhaps, chime with the times in which it was published, emerging as the war came to an end, with rationing and austerity looming large, enabling his readers to identify readily with the plight of the common folk in this tale. Within this volume, you will find the social tensions and snobbery of late-eighteenth-century Cornwall brought vividly, and arrestingly, to life. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Watch this blog for news of the author’s forthcoming historical novel set in 17th-century Cornwall – Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return – a tale of superstition, greed, slavery, and religious fanaticism.

Review: ‘Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760’, Second Edition, 1997. J.A. Sharpe.

A wide-ranging and commendably balanced piece of historiography spanning the period 1550-1760. It aims to provide an overview of how life was lived by the people of England, from the highest to the lowest, during the period in question, although, alas, the sieve of history has captured far less relating to the lives of the meaner sort when compared to those of the middling and upper orders. This is an unavoidable consequence of differential rates of literacy, and what the literate deemed worthy of recording, or not.

From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, however, the rapid growth of printed material of varying types accompanied the development of a more literate culture as the population became more educated, with the consequence that we possess a far more rounded picture of everyday life during the latter part of this period.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on popular culture and the world of work, as these helped to flesh out the daily experience of the lower strata of society, which, alas, is a theme frequently neglected or glossed over in histories that concentrate more on politics, economics and religious change. This material would prove particularly useful to any author looking to set a novel, or shorter piece of fiction, in the world of this time.

One theme that came through strongly in the book, was the fact that whereas London had already grown to be a considerable metropolis by the middle of the sixteenth century, England was still a predominantly agrarian society two centuries later, with many of its towns still being no larger than what we would term villages today. The section on the village community is therefore of particular interest.

Overall, Sharpe’s book serves as a useful complement to Keith Thomas’s three major works on early modern England; it makes for a fascinating read.

The Year ahead in Writing

The past year has been a busy one in terms of writing and publications, with two novelettes and four novellas having seen the light of day, as well as an anthology of near 80,000 words containing five of these tales. That said, I’ve not published anything ‘new’ since February. ‘What has this slugabed been up to since then?’ you may justifiably ask yourself, taking note of this creative hiatus. Well, quite a bit, as it turns out, although nothing which has allowed me to issue anything new thus far.

Two further tales have been planned and plotted in some depth, and a third has been outlined. One of these, a mystery with occult elements, this time set in Yorkshire, is progressing well, with several thousand words already having been written. Its action plays out over three years – 1949, 1906 and 1537 – and incorporates an unexplained and unpleasant discovery made in the vicinity of Barden Tower. Another, a mystery set on Dartmoor in the early 1920s, draws upon a famously peculiar piece of period folklore that attracted the attention of the national press at the time. I take the raw bones of this legend, clothe them in a little fictional flesh, and add a suitable twist or two. The third, which is currently in a rather more embryonic state, is a contemporary tale of the supernatural and psychological horror that focuses upon the unforeseen consequences attendant upon the restoration of a church monument.

Which of the three tales outlined in the above paragraph sees the light of day first remains to be seen, for most of my time is being consumed by my other long-term project – the completion of my novel, ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return’. It may therefore be the case that either this longer piece is published later this year, or I once again put it on the backburner to release one of the novellas/novelettes in the interim. Hopefully, you’ll find each of these tales to your taste.

If you should be curious as to what is already available, click here to begin unravelling the mystery.

Novel Progress

More than two years into its writing, and I’m making good headway with the penultimate draft of my novel. It would have been finished sooner, but I got sidetracked into writing, and publishing, half a dozen shorter pieces in the interim. I hope to have it finished and published before the year is out, but this should be seen as an aspiration, rather than as a definite plan, for I have a terrible habit of revising, and then revising the revisions. The first chapters have been reworked so many times that few of the words remain from the original, although the structure has altered little as I had the plot clearly mapped out from the outset. Despite this fact, the first five words that open the story remain unchanged. As to what they are, you’ll have to wait and see.

What is this book about? There is, as in most of what I have written thus far, a liberal dose of humour, much of it black, but as for its primary themes, they are rather different: superstition, greed, jealousy, slavery, piracy and religious fanaticism; nothing that wouldn’t have been familiar to an ordinary resident of a seventeenth-century Cornish fishing village, but much which would, perhaps, be a surprise to the reader today, for the slavery and piracy outlined in these pages was real enough, but is now largely forgotten. The case could even be made for saying that the form of slavery dealt with in this tale has been airbrushed out of history, because it jars with the simplistic, and simplified, ‘Black’ victim/ ‘White’ oppressor narrative that dominates historical and popular discourse today. The evil of slavery, in its many forms, has never been a simple matter of black and white, irrespective of what some may claim in support of manufactured racial ‘grievances’ and political agendas in the present.

If we are to take the dictum that it is the victors who write history, what does it tell us about the state of the world that we live in today, when the enslavement of somewhere in the region of 1 to 1.25 million Europeans by North Africans, between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, goes unmentioned? Moreover, when considering that this form of raiding and slavery was justified, and legitimised, through reference to religious texts and traditions – specifically Islamic ones, citing the example of the ‘Prophet’ himself – does this form and practise of human bondage not have something to tell us about the worldview of a certain religious tradition? I have omitted from these figures the even greater number of men, women and children taken by Islamic slavers in the territories that now comprise Ukraine, Russia and the Balkans.

There is, quite rightly, much written about the evils of the Transatlantic slave trade, and this should not be forgotten, but at the same time, we should not let this skew our historical perspective so that we fall into the error of forgetting ‘inconvenient’ facts because their existence happens to upset some people. We should not let the old racist hierarchy of White = good/superior and Black = bad/inferior simply be replaced by an inverted racism where Whites are seen as innately bad and evil, and Blacks as essentially good and virtuous. Human stupidity, vice and cruelty are the monopoly of no portion of humanity, and neither are its virtues. The novel does not position itself as some crude anti-Islamic tirade, but as a critique of the stupidity of dogmatism and superstition in its many forms, both religious, and political: there are bigots of many stripes, and they can exist on the Left, just as readily as on the Right.

I’d better shut up now, and add that the book’s primary aim is to entertain. Those who delight in finger-wagging will be disappointed.

The Cerne Giant gains a Consort

The Cerne Giant, often known as the Rude Man of Cerne, is the most priapically preeminent figure in the country. Singularly commanding, and seemingly holding his club in ireful threat over the tranquil Dorset village of Cerne Abbas, he has stood upon the hillside since time immemorial. His origins are obscure, with a handful of theories relating to his genesis having vied for the public’s attention down the years. The most colourful and, indeed, popular of these, now an integral part of local lore, relate to his supposed status as a fertility figure, with his manly appendage having hitherto become the focus of much attention from childless couples. As, however, his manhood is now protected from public trespass, few are likely to repeat the visit that the Marquis of Bath and his wife Virginia made to lie with him one night in 1958, in the hope that their five barren years would be brought to an end. A daughter – Silvy – was duly born to them within ten months.  

Who, or what, is he? An Iron Age fertility figure? A Roman depiction of Hercules dating from the reign of Commodus? A memorialisation of a real giant who was beheaded upon the hill for his violent predations upon the village? Or, is it that he is a lewd seventeenth-century satire of Oliver Cromwell?  

His form is certainly crude, and those who favour an Iron Age provenance point to a certain stylistic congruence between it and the artwork found on some of the coinage of that era from this part of England. Those, on the other hand, who favour a Roman dating of the figure, point to the discovery within the last twenty years or so of evidence for the Giant once having held a cloak over its left arm, which they interpret as representing the skin of the Nemean lion, as was the convention in Roman depictions of the hero. Both explanations seem plausible, until, that is, one takes into account some highly salient factors relating to the parish, one of which should be obvious from its name, for it was once home to a Benedictine Monastery – Cerne Abbey – which was integral to the life of the local community from its foundation in 987, until its dissolution in 1539. It seems peculiar both that its records make no mention of the Giant, and that the monks should have permitted the regular scouring of the hill figure’s lines necessary for its survival. Secondly, the first reference to the Giant dates only from 1694 – a repair bill amounting to three shillings in the churchwarden’s accounts – and an earlier survey of the parish from 1617 makes no mention of any chalk figure. These facts would seem to militate against the figure’s survival from antiquity.  

Thus we are left with the alternative theory that the carving of the Giant dates from the seventeenth century, and represents a fanciful joke at the expense of our then Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. What better way to rile the Protector and his godly supporters, than to create a massive and libidinous depiction of this ‘English Hercules’ (as Cromwell was often termed, as depicted in this satirical Dutch cartoon dated 1653) waving his club and his manhood at onlookers and passers-by?  

English Hercules: Cromwell, portrayed as the mythic Greek hero, dissolves the Long Parliament. A Dutch print of 1653.

Whereas it would seem that the Cerne Giant is modern in origin, the feature lying above his head atop the hill – the Trendle, or the ‘frying pan’ – would seem to date from genuine antiquity or prehistory. 

The Giant is, of course, without a consort: he has neither wife nor lover. However, if we take him to be a representation of the humourless, self-righteous spirit of seventeenth-century puritan religiosity, he now has a spiritual heir in the form of Beatrice Clemens – the Rude Woman of Cerne. Although a Christian, of sorts, her fundamental beliefs are held within the cage of a rigid, highly dogmatic interpretation of a certain type of politically correct socialism, that result in her being without doubt as to the righteousness of her cause, and conduct. Her heart may be in the right place, but her head is a zone of confusion, stuffed with contradictory beliefs thanks to her ideological blinkers, that transform her into an egregious canting hypocrite. Despite her steadfast profession of belief in the principle of equality, she thus ends up treating her guests and others around her, in a very unequal fashion; her inclusive zeal is expressed through an active discrimination.  

Beatrice Clemens, like Cromwell, proves to be very much out of step with the spirit of the place, and it is to this spirit that she must ultimately answer. And so, I bid you: come! It is time for you to keep your appointment with the Rude Woman of Cerne.

Book Review: ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic,’ Keith Thomas, 1971.

Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Although my first reading of this was as an undergraduate many years ago, I have lately re-read it for the first time since, and enjoyed it even more than the first time around.  

One of the pleasures of this book is that it provides a window into the everyday beliefs and practices of ordinary people, rather than those on the upper rungs of the social order, although they are not completely neglected. Furthermore, the many anecdotes and incidents that it relates provide rich pickings for the author, and it is one of these bizarre incidents, reported by Thomas, that furnished me with the idea for my occult tale The Cleft Owl. 

Whereas beliefs relating to these matters during the period in question – a period of great social, political and intellectual upheaval – were far from uniform, towards its end in particular, the beliefs of the educated elite had diverged greatly from those still adhered to by the uneducated mass of the people. By 1700, Aristotelian scholasticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the attendant paraphernalia of beliefs in astrology, occult forces and mystical correspondences had largely been consigned to the intellectual fringes, where they have since remained, supplanted by the rationalistic natural philosophy. Advances in science, technology and – perhaps surprisingly, insurance – served as the solvents in the dissolution of the old beliefs, which still lingered on in the remoter rural communities into the nineteenth century. 

Magic, prophecy, witchcraft and astrology – the outmoded, discredited, untenable intellectual debris of a former era; so one would think, but during the past half century in particular, there has been a recrudescence of interest in each of these, and as for religion, it hardly needs me to draw the reader’s attention to the revival of its poisonous fanaticism across the globe.  

To end on a lighter note, reading this book has, seemingly, and very surprisingly, led me to find an effective remedy for hiccups. As befitting a superstitious folk practice, it sounds ridiculous, and what makes it seem even more so is the fact that it stipulates that the remedy only works for men. This latter assertion with respect to its efficacy I have yet to put to the test, as my other half hasn’t had hiccups since I discovered the remedy, but what I can say is what has happened on the three occasions that I have tried it: my hiccups stopped instantly. Was I surprised? I most certainly was. What is the cure? Well chaps, the next time that you are beset with hiccups, grasp your left thumb in your right hand, and wait. If any ladies amongst you would care to test this remedy, I should be most interested to hear of your results.