Friday, 17 November 2017

Losing an Empire - Take 1

Another straightforward history blog this week. It's about Napoleon, as posts about l'Empereur seem particularly popular.

We all know that Napoleon finally lost his empire at Waterloo. What people often forget was that this was the second time he had lost it.

Napoleon was initially defeated in 1814. His series of brilliant military victories were followed by some dramatic defeats – notably the failure of his Russian campaign.

For the attack on Moscow, Napoleon gathered his forces into a spectacular Grand Army of 680,000 men. Although the force was hampered by the condition of the roads as the Russian winter approached, Napoleon successfully reached Moscow and occupied the city. The conventional wisdom of warfare at the time was that once your capital was lost you admitted defeat and sued for peace. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Czar Alexander was unsporting enough not to surrender, so Napoleon found himself stuck in Moscow with no obvious way forward. The situation would have been bad enough in any case, but much of Moscow was destroyed by fire – either as a result of carelessness by the French or deliberate arson by the Russians. Napoleon was now stuck there with winter setting in and no obvious way forward. After a month, he moved his forces out of the city and attempted to engage the Russians, but the Czar's army avoided a pitched battle.  

Supplies were running short and his army was no longer in any position to continue an offensive campaign. Napoleon decided to retreat.

Painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov

The retreat from Moscow has become the stuff of legend. The French army had a policy of living off the land, foraging for food in the countryside that it was moving through. The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying food stores in all the areas that the French would have to move through. Unable to find food, struggling with roads that had turned to mud under the weight of the traffic, trapped in the Russian winter without proper winter clothing and constantly harried by Russian troops who refused to form up for battle but who raided the column mercilessly, Napoleon’s Grand Army was reduced, according to some estimates, to just 22,000 men.

The losses suffered by the Grand Army were never to be made good – there simply weren't enough men of fighting age available to replenish their ranks.

Napoleon now faced the wrath of the Russians, the Prussians and the Austrians. What is often forgotten is that, by moving against Russia, Napoleon committed the classic error of European strategists and found himself fighting a two front war. When we talk about Wellington's Peninsular campaign we usually think of it as being confined to fighting in southern and central Spain and Portugal. Napoleon had had significant successes in Spain but once he left the country and concentrated his efforts on Central and Eastern Europe, the French armies there were noticeably less successful. By 1814 Wellington had driven them north and actually crossed the Pyrenees into France itself. He prepared to march on Paris, but was too late. The combined Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies had already got there.

Off to Elba, 1814 - classic contemporary cartoon by Gillray

With the fall of Paris, the French government (unlike Czar Alexander after the fall of Moscow) surrendered to the Allied powers. Napoleon, whose armies were south of the city, wanted to advance northward and try to recapture it, but the government no longer supported him and his marshals refused to carry out his plans. On 11 April 1814, Napoleon signed his abdication as Emperor and he then headed south to Fréjus (near Cannes) where he boarded the British ship HMS Undaunted, which was to carry him into exile on Elba.

A word from our sponsors

The Napoleonic wars provide the background to my series of books about James Burke. Napoleon's exile to Elba was, as we all know now, was not to mark the end of his influence in France. Even while he was exiled, Bonapartists were plotting his return and their attempts to assassinate Wellington is the starting point for Burke at Waterloo.

After being unavailable in the UK since summer, all three books about James Burke are being republished by Endeavour in January and February next year. I'm hoping that they will be available to pre-order in December and I will certainly be writing more about that over the next few weeks.

Burke served in the peninsula too. My book about his activities there has already been written, but publication depends on sales of the first three. In the past I haven't been able to work myself up into the paroxysms of anger that many authors show over book piracy, though I know that there are people who have stolen my books. Sadly, nowadays piracy is getting so bad that it is affecting people's ability to publish. If you enjoy the Burke books, please buy them. If you don't pay for them my publishers won't commission any more, which would be a shame as I've enjoyed writing them and I know many people have enjoyed reading them.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Exciting news!

I've changed the header on the blog. The new one is not a thing of beauty, but it's there temporarily to let everyone know that the James Burke books are about to be republished by Endeavour Press. There will be new covers then and a new header here.

The last few months have been very frustrating for me because my books have been unavailable outside North America since I left Accent Press. When I left Accent the idea was to be published by Endeavour Press, but I didn't realise how long it would take for my books to become available again. Actually, it was only a few months, but when you have had six books published and suddenly nobody can buy any of them it leaves you feeling a bit bereft. I'm therefore really excited and delighted to say that I have a re-publication dates for all my books.

The first to come will be the three existing books about James Burke and publication dates will be:

JAN 5: Burke in the Land of Silver
JAN 19: Burke and the Bedouin
FEB 2: Burke at Waterloo

All three books should be available to pre-order a month before publication. They will be published as Kindle e-books, which are available exclusively through Amazon. They will also be published in paperback, although they may not be available immediately the e-books are out. You can order paperbacks through your local bookshop, but you are much better off just going to Amazon.
The John Williamson books are also being republished by Endeavour and will be coming out in February/March.
I will be saying a lot more in the next few weeks about James Burke and why you should be reading the books, but for now I just wanted to let you know that we have a definite publication date. Readers in the United States and Canada have been able to buy my books all year through Simon & Schuster, but it has been frustrating not to be able to sell my boys to UK readers since I moved publisher in the summer. Everybody has told me that Endeavour are brilliant publishers and I am hoping that James Burke will be able to get to a much larger audience from January 2018.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Armour then and now

My research efforts have taken me down the sewers of Paris, onto the battlefield at Edgehill, and even through the snows of the Andes on horseback. Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier than that. My son has, for the past nine years, served as an officer in the Royal Logistic Corps of the British Army. His first-hand experience of trying to stay awake on sentry and how long it takes to dig a trench have filtered into the life of James Burke and his colleagues. These days, however, you are more likely to find him in a lab coat than in the mud as his current work sees him providing technical advice on ammunition and equipment. In between answering questions from the Army and police he occasionally has time to discuss the colour of gunpowder smoke or the explosive power of a 19th century mill (wait for the next Burke book). Here he is to talk about his personal pet subject of military history: body armour.

Body armour is an often overlooked piece of equipment. It isn’t as sexy as guns so tends not to get much screen time in Hollywood. Besides, in a movie it’s easier to just have your baddies miss than protect your heroes with ceramic plates that would cover up their toned abs. The exception is found in history. When we watch films set in the days of yore you can’t have a shot without a knight in his armour astride a noble steed.

And yet, a little over 200 years later Sharpe and Burke were fighting Napoleon dressed like this:

Renactors from the British 95th Rifles

Cut forward 200 years again and the fashion has swung the other way. Today’s soldiers go to war almost as armoured up as their medieval counterparts.

US solider, Iraq 2008

Why the change? Why the change back? The answer lies largely with one man.

The story of defence technology is a perpetual cycle of better weapons leading to better armour, leading to better weapons. In the 1300s the longbow was the guided missile of its day. The bleeding edge of military technology, her devastating bodkin arrows were cutting down armies in a similar way to the machine guns of the First World War. However, by the 16th century, the longbow was already being phased out in favour of firearms. The thin plate of Richard of York just couldn’t stand up to a bullet and armour was becoming ever thicker, heavier and all encompassing. Pretty soon knights were being lifted onto horses by winches, but the gunpowder and firearms development kept pace. By 1530 arquebuses so large and powerful they resembled portable cannon, complete with support stands, were in use in Spain and Italy. The days of the heavy knight were over.

By the time of the English Civil War, the use of armour was limited. With the demise of individually commissioned knightly armour came the opportunity to dress your armies in uniforms. In England, the Civil War marked the beginning of the idea of uniformed armies. At the start of the war, the infantry on both sides wore their civilian clothing but gradually the idea of issue clothing took hold. The Parliamentarian forces were more likely to wear some sort of uniform, as the Parliamentarians had more financial resources (they controlled London with its economic power) and were thus better positioned to provide clothing to their troops. An early order from Parliament said “that all soldiers should have delivered unto them at their first marching coats, shoes, shirts and caps, in all to the value of seventeen shillings for every man”. The issue of armour, though, was limited. Helmets, backplates and breastplates were issued to pikemen, though often only the front ranks would be armoured, the rest relying on thick leather or cotton clothing to provide them with some sort of protection. Musketeers usually didn't wear armour at all.

Civil War soldiers at Edgehill (Thanks to the Sealed Knot)

As an aside, it's worth noting that the clothing here was "uniform" in the sense that standard clothing was issued. Uniforms were not used to distinguish between opposing armies. People often wore coloured sashes to indicate which side they were on. Given the quality of dye technology at the time, the colours were often not that clear and there were frequent instances of clashes between different units on the same side or, indeed, of people failing to attack the enemy because they were unaware of which side they were on.

Cavalry was a different matter. There was no central supply of uniform to the cavalry by either side. The dress of cavalry troops was left to the commanders and often reflected the personal vanity of the senior officers. (This remained this case with some units even in the Napoleonic Wars.) The King's Lifeguard of Horse became known as "The Troop of Show” because of the fineness of their uniform. Most cavalrymen wore leather coats known as "buff coats" which were considerably more expensive than the clothing issued to the Foot. The average cost of a trooper’s buff coat was between twenty-five and thirty shillings with officers coats costing considerably more. Back and breastplates were supposed to be worn over the coat (although, in practice, they often weren't). The armour and thick leather did offer practical protection, but the clothing worn by cavalry officers was at least as much about display as functionality.

Today’s Household Cavalry wear armour as a nod to their past. Photo by Marco Verch

By the time of Waterloo the British had almost completely done away with metalwork on their uniforms. The French Carabinier-à-Cheval still wore breastplates (cuirasses) and after the battle British intelligence agents were sent to investigate the dead to see how they had performed. The results were not good.

Cuirass holed by a cannonball at Waterloo
It seemed that the days of body armour were over. Conventional wisdom held that it was not possible to stop a bullet with anything that could be worn on the man and for 50 years the engineers and scientists of the day stopped trying, in much the same way they had given up alchemy 100 years before; it simply couldn’t be done.

Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in Australia in 1854. In October 1878 he, his brother and two friends killed a sergeant and two police constables. The “Stringyback murders” caused the Kelly gang to become outlaws: a parliamentary act authorised police or private citizens to kill them without trial. However, Ned and his gang evaded capture and embarked on a series of ever more daring bank robberies. By the time the Act lapsed in 1880 the reward for the Kelly gang was £8,000.

In June of 1880 the police tracked and surrounded Kelly and his gang to a hotel in Glenrowan. A shootout ensued that lasted most of the night and, as day broke, Kelly made his break. A large man, he seemed to tower over the police in his knee length great coat and head obscured in the morning mist. The police would, according to fokelore, later describe Kelly as a demon or the devil as he moved coolly amongst the bullets, seemingly unharmed by the firepower raining down on him. Eventually he was shot in the leg by police sergeant Steel and the truth came out.

As their robberies had become more dangerous, Kelly and his gang had commissioned a blacksmith to make them suits of armour out of ploughs. Each weighed around 40 kg and covered the head, shoulders and thighs. Worn under their greatcoats it wasn’t immediately visible to the police, who had dismissed intelligence reports of the Kelly gang’s imperviousness to bullets as tall tales. However, with Kelly down and a high profile trial and hanging to follow, the truth was plain to see and the press ran with the story everywhere.

Kelly’s armour is still on display in Victoria, complete with 18 bullet strikes
The story of Kelly’s armour was the talk of the civilised world. (Imagine if today the Hatton garden robbers had been found to use newly discovered force fields or teleporters.) Questions about why British troops weren’t using Kelly-style body armour were even asked in parliament. The four suits of armour were split up and sent across the globe (even today there is some confusion about where they all ended up) and Europe’s armies and scientists turned to developing Kelly’s suits into mass producible equipment. Thirty years later the militarisation prior to the First World War would accelerate technological innovation yet further and by the outbreak of war suits not dissimilar to Kelly’s were on display amongst all the major powers.

The Germans favoured a 'lobster' armour that was fairly effective but heavy and cumbersome. (It tended to be reserved for machine gun crews who didn't need to move a lot.)

German WWI “lobster” armour. (Photo by Halibutt)
The British design was generally considered better, as the bravery citation for Lt. Hugh Cowell Kinred, 14th Bn. Gloucester. Regiment, reveals: "For conspicuous gallantry. When a bomb thrown by the enemy fell at his feet in the trench, he at once threw himself on it, and was blown into the air and much bruised and cut by the explosion, his life being saved by his steel waistcoat. His plucky action saved many casualties."

As body armour proved itself in battle over and over again, it became increasingly prevalent. Although in 1914 very few soldiers were equipped with any sort of armour, by the end of the war the Brodie helmet would become synonymous with the British Tommy. Body armour was here to stay, all thanks to the notoriety and ingenuity of four bushrangers from Victoria.

A Word from our Sponsor

I love writing these blogs – or getting other people to write for me – but the idea is to encourage you to read my books. I've been fairly quiet about this lately because since the summer they have only been available in North America. Come January, though, all three of my books about James Burke and his adventures during the Napoleonic wars will be republished by Endeavour Press. They should be available on pre-order soon after Christmas. I'll be writing a lot more about this between now and then, but if you could promise yourself that you will buy one as a slightly delayed Christmas present, I'd be thrilled. Wonderful as it is to know that so many people read and enjoy this blog, it would be nice if that translated into more sales of the books.

Thank you.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Some news and some pretty pictures

Here we are with the end of another week fast approaching and it's time for me to produce my weekly blog post. 

I generally turn out around a thousand words a week on a range of subjects. I try to keep it vaguely focused on history or writing, but tango and other things do sneak in. Fortunately I enjoy producing my blog, which is a good thing because I spend quite a long time doing it. I'm thrilled that thousands of you read it. I know very few of you actually "follow" it – largely, I suspect, because unless you're on Google+ (and who is?) there's no real point. You can follow me on Twitter (@TomCW99), though, and get a link to every new blog post as it comes out. I’d appreciate the Twitter follows: I have 560 at present and people tell me I should have more.

Writing the blog is an opportunity for me to write about things that interest me and, when I'm lucky, to connect with some of my readers. I'm always hoping to hear from people through the ‘Comment’ box at the bottom of the page, although I know that not very many people will write. Please do – I read them all and it's always appreciated.

What's bringing on this burst of introspection? Well, since the summer the blog really has been a labour of love. In theory it helps me sell my books, but unless you live in North America (where you can buy my stuff through Simon & Schuster), you won't have been able to get hold of anything I've written. This is because I have been changing publishers and publishing schedules mean that there is a hiatus between leaving one and taking up with another. However, this week I've been told that Endeavour Press will be publishing all six of my books in fairly rapid succession starting in January next year – which is now just two months away. This means that over the next few weeks you can expect to see slightly more about why you should buy my books and rather less about tango.

For now, though, as you've been kind enough to read this I'm just throwing in some nice pictures of dancers that I've taken over the years (plus one that someone took of me).




La Boca - Buenos Aires

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

A word to my American friends

At the moment, my books are not available in the UK. They are shortly to be republished by Endeavour Press, but until that happy day you can only buy them in North America, through Simon & Schuster.

I blog about once a week and, given that I'm not selling any books in my own country, I see this as largely a public service. The public certainly seem to appreciate it, because I know lots of you read it. What I didn't realise, until I did my sums today, is that about a third of my blog readers are from the USA. So this is just to say that if you would like to click on THIS LINK and buy one of the books, I really would be most awfully grateful. Think of it as a contribution to my blog writing efforts – though if you read the book, you might find that you really enjoy it.

Thank you.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Edgehill: the first great battle of the English Civil War

Monday marked the 375th anniversary of the battle we now call the Battle of Edgehill, but what was known all those centuries ago as the Battle of Kineton. It was the first great battle of the English Civil War, an inconclusive affair which, nonetheless, left thousands dead and wounded. Estimates of the number killed vary wildly, but a casualty figure of 2,500 casualties (dead, wounded or captured) is often quoted.

There is still a small village at Kineton, but where much of the fighting took place is now Ministry of Defence land and closed to the public. Once a year the Kineton Officers' Mess hosts a dinner in commemoration of the battle and invites representatives of the sealed Knot, a Civil War re-enactment organisation. There is a talk by somebody who knows about the battle (this year it was Mr F Baldwin) and a small display of Civil War drill. I was lucky enough to be a guest this year, and, besides enjoying an extremely good meal, I now know much more about the battle than I did a fortnight ago.

Edgehill was a battle fought by accident. The Royalist army, led by Charles I came across scouts from the Parliamentarians, under the Earl of Essex, quite unexpectedly on a Sunday morning when the Parliamentarian forces were planning to observe the Sabbath. Essex himself was at church at Kineton.

Charles probably drew up his plans for the battle on the hill, more or less where you can see what looks like a castle tower in the photo below. It's actually a pub called the Castle, which wasn't there at the time.

Although a modern commander would enjoy the advantages of such high ground, 17th-century warfare was different. There were definite advantages to being at the top of a slight slope, but battles had to be fought on more or less flat land. Pikemen were key to battlefield strategy. An indication of the length of the pikes is given in the picture below and you can imagine the difficulty of manoeuvring over rough country, even without a hill. In order for pikes be used effectively, the infantry had to move as a solid block – an isolated pikeman would be a dead pikeman. Battles were therefore fought on ground that was more or less flat, preferably without too many fields and hedges to get in the way.

Both Charles and Essex wanted a battle that day. Although they had not been planning to meet, both saw the opportunity to deal a resounding blow against the enemy and stop the Civil War almost before it had started. It's likely that many of the troops believed that the whole thing was going to be over in a matter of months and they, too, wanted the chance to resolve the issue quickly.

Fortunately for the commanders, the land between Kineton and Radway was flat and relatively open, with streams and hedges marking off the sides of the field which made it harder for the forces to be flanked. The picture below shows what Charles I would see below him nowadays, although things have changed a lot with the area now being heavily cultivated and broken up into fields.

Charles' view was probably less misty. In 1642 the day was cold with light rain, but visibility was good, as opposed to the warm overcast weather in 2017.

Both armies drew up with cavalry on their flanks. The white farmhouse in the centre of the picture below marks the left of the Royalist line.

The right flank probably extended to beyond the brown field in the centre of this photograph.

This gives some idea of the size of the battlefield. The two armies totalled almost 30,000 men, although many of the Parliamentarians did not actually reach the field in time to fight – including, notably, one Oliver Cromwell.

The Royalists achieved early victories with successful cavalry charges on both wings, but as is often the case with cavalry, horses and riders became overexcited and galloped all the way to Kineton – lost in the mists in the photographs. Some of the Parliamentary horse rallied and returned to the field where they were able to give crucial support to the infantry while the Royalist infantry remained without cavalry support.

The result can be seen as a draw. The cavalry battle was won by the Royalists but the Parliamentarians probably got the better of the infantry fighting. However, the level of carnage left both sides withdrawing to lick their wounds and the next day the armies faced each other but neither moved forward to fight. After that the Parliamentarians yielded the field, making it technically a Royalist victory. Charles, however, failed to take advantage of his temporary control of the roads to London and remained in the area – seizing Banbury, of all places. (It's hardly a major strategic town – barely more than a village really.) The failure of the Royalists to take the opportunity to march directly on London may have undermined their chances of winning the war. By the time Charles did turn his attention to London, Parliament was ready for him and his inability to take the capital, with its arms manufacturers and its significant financial resources, crippled the rest of his campaign.

The English Civil War was horrendous. Four per cent of the entire population of England died during the war – probably nearer to 10% of the young men essential to an economy that was still largely agricultural. The casualty rate in Ireland was substantially higher: the exact level is still the subject of controversy. Yet nowadays, the English tend to romanticise it and the dinner night did provide a wonderful spectacle of men in very impressive uniforms. (There were women, too, but we’ll pretend they were all men for the purposes of historical accuracy.)

Are these Cavaliers or Roundheads? I've really no idea, as each regiment was uniformed differently (if the soldiers had uniforms at all) and they could tell which side they were on only by the sashes they tied round themselves ahead of the fight and most of this lot aren't wearing any sashes. The Royalists wore read and the Parliamentarians orange, which on a rainy day with dye technology fairly primitive meant that the differences weren't as clear as one might hope. The situation was further confused at Edgehill when some Parliamentarian cavalry defected en masse to the Royalists in mid battle, but forgot to change their sashes. Many of them were killed by their new allies.

Civil wars are always messy. The English Civil War was very messy indeed.

A word from our sponsor

My books are all available in the USA and Canada (click HERE for the link). Endeavour Press will be republishing them in the UK soon. If you contact Endeavour ( they will know that you are waiting for the books. That can't slow things down, can it?

Thank you.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Living with history

A few weeks ago I blogged about Marble Hill House and English Heritage’s plans for the property. I'm coming back to this because I think that the way that we fit historical buildings and landscapes into our modern world is important. This post provides a bit of an update and some more detail on the issues that "heritage" can raise.

The essence of English Heritage’s plan is to carry out improvement works in the park and to develop significant parts of the park back toward more what they might have looked like in the 18th century. They have done detailed archaeological work and the plans are not fanciful, but based on the best possible evidence that they can gather. For those (and there are many of them) who believe that heritage is about restoring our historic past, the proposals are an exciting opportunity to restore grounds which were significant in the development of the English garden. For many local residents, this is a bunch of historians messing with a much loved park in order to rebuild something that may or may not have been there two and a half centuries ago.

Marble Hill Park

I leaned rather toward the second point of view and drafted a post attacking English Heritage and their plans for widespread tree felling. The words “Jane Austen theme park” may have appeared. Fortunately, I sent the draft to English Heritage for comment and John Watkins, their Head of Landscape and Gardens came to talk me through the plans and explain where I had got them wrong.

I learned a lot about the history of the park and quite a bit about the trees, but mainly I learned how the planning system is hardly the best way forward in moving projects like this to a satisfactory conclusion.

Woodman spare that tree

Marble Hill House is set within a small area of woodland (described as “wild wood”). The vegetation is mainly self-seeded. There is a lot of holly, ranging from small bushes to large trees. There is a thick canopy and little light reaches the ground, which is largely covered with ivy. A few animals – mainly squirrels and foxes – live there, but the density of the trees and the amount of ivy means that it is not an especially helpful habitat in terms of biodiversity. There are strong arguments that from the point of view of maintaining the grounds and improving the health of the trees generally, some clearing and coppicing would-be a positive step.

The house from the north

So far, so uncontroversial. Unfortunately, Richmond Council, in the interests of ensuring that no trees were unnecessarily removed, asked for a survey that counted every individual tree or shrub in the wood and a note of each one that was to go. The result was headlines like this one on Twitter.

A petition has been set up and, at the time of writing over 2,800 people have already signed it.

It’s a petition I would once have been happy to subscribe to, but two hours of looking at the site with Mr Watkins has made me see it in a somewhat different light.

Firstly, the majority of the 300+ "trees" are small, damaged, or near the end of their life. Anybody interested in the health of the woodland must appreciate that the current density of trees and uncontrolled undergrowth is not a healthy eco-system. The woodland floor gets little sunlight and is covered in ivy. It does not support wildlife. Some of beautiful trees in the area are difficult to see because of the scrub surrounding them and all of the trees suffer because they do not they do not get the light or nutrients they need to grow. Removal of many of these "trees" would not worry anybody who has been in and looked at them up close.

There are trees in the area which should be preserved. It's possible to argue about the merits of individual trees. For example, we looked at a yew that is scheduled for removal because of damage to the trunk which, it is argued, means it is not a healthy tree. However, looking at it with Mr Watkins he agreed that there is certainly room for disagreement on the point. There are several trees where it's not really possible to make a final decision on removal or retention at this stage, but the planning process means that all the trees that might be removed have to be listed. It would clearly be better if the planning consent was in two stages – one for the smaller shrubs that are definitely coming out and then a careful consideration separately of the larger trees that may or may not be removed later. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the way that planning applications work.

This oak show significant storm damage but is structurally sound and will be retained

More seriously, the details of the trees that are to be removed have been released ahead of the details of the trees that are to be planted. My concern that the current blocks of woodland will be replaced with a much more open view containing a few neatly laid out trees such as may have been planted in the 18th century turns out to have been mistaken. Yes, some trees will be removed and there will be a small number of trees planted in neat rows very unlike what is that at present. However, the northern margins of these blocks will be built up with additional planting to maintain the same sort of appearance from the north, whilst opening the area up to visitors. At present, the whole area is fenced off as the vegetation is thick and the ground-cover not conducive to walking.

Butcher's broom in the woodland. So called because it was traditionally used by butchers to clean their blocks

Some people will still be unhappy with the planned changes, but many people will be reassured if they only knew what they were. In any case, whether you like the proposed changes or not, it would surely be helpful if they were clearly explained ahead of any planning decision. The idea that the planning consents could be given in stages is surely worth looking at.

Butcher's broom again. This is a female plant (with berries)

Restoring the original gardens

Some of the problem with the discussions of what is planned for Marble Hill is that there are two distinct aspects to the work. Part of it is essentially about woodland management but this is being done in the context of attempts to restore the original 18th-century garden plan. As I explained in my previous post about Marble Hill, the gardens are important in tracing the development of landscape gardening in England. Henrietta Howard’s plans seem to combine the strict formality of gardens from the 17th century and before with the more informal approach to landscape that was, arguably, to find its finest expression in the works of Capability Brown.

English Heritage will argue that the restoration of parts of the 18th-century gardens in the apparently incongruous environment of a modern municipal park is actually very close to the original concept which saw different kinds of land-use sitting alongside each other. Whether the hidden pathways and wooded areas of an 18th-century garden actually make aesthetic or practical sense next to a 21st-century rugby pitch is a serious question and one which I think deserves to be seriously addressed. It does go to the whole question of how we protect England’s historical heritage within the context of the modern world. I'm not sure that the planning process is the best place to be having this discussion.

Self-seeded elm in the woodland. English Heritage at looking at possibly reintroducing elms to the park
I was very sceptical about the whole idea, but I must admit that John Watkins makes a convincing argument. When you explore these blocks of wild woodland in detail, sometimes stepping over the fence into areas that are not generally open to the public, a surprising amount of the 18th-century plan is still visible. Unfortunately, you really do have to be there together with an expert. The sheer quantity of vegetation means that photographs, whether taken at ground level or from the air, basically show lots of leaves. It's only when you stand with a guide you can see the gaps in the trees where open rides would have led through the woodland area all that time ago. One of the blocks has a more open area hidden at the centre. There is lots of ground-cover but no larger trees. The 18th-century plan shows that there was a secret flower garden at this point and English Heritage intend to restore it. A surprising amount of Lady Henrietta Howard's landscaping is still preserved, although it is visible only to a landscape archaeologist.

Living with heritage

It seems that everybody locally has a view on whether or not their favourite tree should be chopped down. (In at least one case, sadly, it must be, because the roots are beginning to attack the foundations of the house.) They all care about whether the whole of the park should still be open to dog walkers – a substantial element of the park using community. They care about the playing fields and the children's playground and the future of the local cafe. All these issues are being aired, but there doesn't seem to be any forum for a serious discussion of the heritage issues.

English Heritage are trying hard to engage with the public, as evidenced by the amount of time that they have been prepared to give to me, but this appears a dialogue of the deaf. English Heritage are only now learning just how deeply people feel about a park which many of them have been using on an almost daily basis since they were children. (The number of people who stood up at a public meeting and presaged their remarks with the statement that they had been walking their dogs there for over 40 years was eye opening.) Local people, on the other hand, know little, if anything, about the historical importance of the grounds and see only vandals who want to attack treasured woodland. How this mutual incomprehension is ever going to resolve itself into a plan generally acceptable to everybody is not clear. I would love to think that this blog might be a starting point. If anybody does want a conversation, you could begin by posting in the ‘Comments’ below. 

Valuing heritage

Any discussion of English Heritage's plans for Marble Hill – and, indeed, for many other sites – can't ignore the financial constraints that English Heritage works under. In this country we claim to be very proud of our heritage and it brings in a lot of money from tourists as well as giving much pleasure to the many people who visit heritage sites every year. Yet English Heritage has moved from being a government-funded organisation supported by taxation to being a charity which will soon be expected to raise the money that it needs to maintain England's heritage by charitable contributions.

Realistically, people are not going to put enough money into collection boxes for them to keep places like Marble Hill properly maintained. (If you do want to support English Heritage financially, you can join HERE.) The result is that many sites are now expected to generate income to cover their costs. Hence the plans for an on-site cafe, which have raised many complaints locally. Despite concerns that trees will be felled and the nature of the site will be changed, the cafe will not have any significant effect on woodland or on the park’s landscape. This is not to say that it's necessarily a good thing, but it does seem to be a necessary thing unless we are to accept that the park should not be properly maintained.

If the cafe doesn't raise the sort of money that English Heritage are hoping for then the plans could leave us with an elaborate exercise in landscaping that will soon become overgrown, dirty, and (given the number of hidden spaces in the woodland) potentially squalid and dangerous. Alternatively, English Heritage will have to make up the shortfall from its other income, leaving other properties short of resources. 

Of course, if this really is our English Heritage, one solution would be for the government to fund improvements to the landscaping from taxation, but while politicians can find money for their pet vanity projects, heritage funding is a victim of austerity and likely to remain so. English Heritage’s plans are therefore defined almost as much by the financial realities as by any ideal view of how the park should be presented. 


Whilst I'm not sure that I share English Heritage’s vision for Marble Hill, I do acknowledge that they are doing their best to meet what they see as their remit. English Heritage put significant resources into what is essentially a municipal park that they never asked to take responsibility for but which they were landed with as a result of the political changes discussed in my previous post. The park is, as I hope my photographs show, an amazingly beautiful place, free for anybody to enter and enjoy. Just because I may not agree with their future plans, doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the efforts that they are making.

I'm particularly grateful to Kate Pitt and John Watkins of English Heritage for giving me so much of their time and answering some very ignorant questions, and to the on-site archaeological team for explaining to amateurs like myself how they know so much about what the gardens would have originally looked like.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Red Room Tango

“I met her in a tango bar …” It’s the stuff of stories, plays and films, these tango bars where dancers pivot between the tables and dangerous liaisons form in the clouds of cigarette smoke. Sadly (or maybe not) the tango bar is almost entirely a product of fiction. Yes, there may be a bar at a tango club, but when the dancers are dancing they tend to take over the place, and, after the first couple of collisions, dancing round the tables is less fun than it sounds. But the idea still has a romantic appeal. What if you retreated from the rain and found yourself in a bar where people were just getting up and dancing. Can you imagine it?

Imagine no longer, for such a bar exists – and conveniently to hand near London’s Liverpool Street station. Theatre Delicatessen is at 2 Finsbury Avenue, EC2M 2PA. It’s a regular cafe bar, serving coffee, sandwiches and both alcoholic and soft drinks. Prices are what you would expect in this part of the world, but the toasted sandwiches are good and the staff are friendly. So far, so normal. But at 7.30 on a Tuesday night, the lights go down, tango music starts playing and gradually people get up and start to dance. By nine o’clock the dancers outnumber the drinkers, but it remains a regular bar with people sitting and watching. There are studio rooms off the café space, so every so often, as one sort of class or another ends, people flood into the room and stop and stare. There is even someone wheeling a bicycle across the dance floor. It’s a milonga (tango dance party) but in a space that is definitely not reserved for dancers.

Somewhere around ten o’clock, Alfredo Martin Espindola starts singing sad country tango songs to his guitar and the dancers pause and then translate his singing into movement and the people come and go and the bar staff serve, quietly but efficiently, and Spaniards explain the lyrics and, outside, it starts to rain. It’s a tango bar. It’s definitely worth a visit.

For me, the atmosphere was quite a change from the rather intense milongas that I’m used to. There was rather more talking and rather less dancing. The place is open until 11.00, so there’s no rush. Have a chat. Have a drink. Take a turn or two around the floor.

As far as dancing goes, the place works well. Tables are pushed back, so you have room to dance. The floor was usually busy, but not over-crowded. (The photo was taken at the end of the evening as it got quieter.) The sound system is good and there wasn’t too much background noise from the bar. In fact, if anything, the place was on the quiet side, without the buzz you often get at a milonga. It was definitely a chilled Tuesday evening rather than a lively weekend feel. Inevitably, but with some justification, women complained of a shortage of men.

The floor is some sort of lino-type tiling, easy enough to move on, but you have to take care where the tiles are not perfectly level, so you can trip on the joins. The dancers all knew what they were doing and the line of dance moved easily round the floor.

Red Room Tango is never going to be the highlight of the week, but for an after-work venue on a Tuesday, it hits the spot really well. And if you fancy watching some dancers while you enjoy an early-evening beer, it’s somewhere you should definitely consider. It’s a tango bar (but without the cigarette smoke). What’s not to like?

Friday, 6 October 2017

A book review that has nothing to do with history

I don't think I've ever reviewed a horror novel before. It's a completely random change from the historicals that feature here fairly regularly, but it's by a lovely author from New Zealand who spent her summer digging up Roman remains on Hadrian's Wall so there is a sort of historical connection. And it lets me say 'archetype', which is my word of the month.

Here we go.

Painted by Kirsten McKenzie

If you are going to see just one horror movie, I recommend Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods. It’s a horror movie that deconstructs horror movies and then sends the whole genre up while remaining a horror movie and with, arguably, the most horrific ending of all horror movies ever. It’s both terrifying and hilarious.

I mention this now because Whedon’s explanation of what makes a horror film fits so wonderfully to Kirsten McKenzie’s venture into the genre: Painted.

According to Whedon, the archetypal horror story takes a group of people to an isolated location. On the way they will meet the Harbinger, who will try to warn them away. McKenzie’s Harbinger is a local farmer, who warns her heroine to flee the isolated old house.

“If … you knew what was good for you, you’d not stay here. Place isn't right. Never has been.”

There will be five people in the house: the scholar, the jock, the idiot, the whore and the virgin. McKenzie’s five characters fit these archetypes without too much of a stretch. One by one, they will die. In Whedon’s view, the virgin is always the last to be threatened and her death is optional.

McKenzie’s characters die one by one as their souls become trapped in the portraits painted by a ghost of one of the previous owners of the house. Additional creepiness is introduced by assorted other ghosts, spectral dogs howling in the darkness outside, and the crying of dead children trapped on an island in an iced-over pond. Did I forget to mention that the house has been cut off by a blizzard? It’s fair to say that every horror-story trope features. This is not a criticism at all: Joss Whedon throws all the standard horrors into The Cabin in the Woods and that’s what makes it so good. Horror needs to be full-on if it is to work and, though McKenzie holds back on the gore, Painted doesn’t let anything pass that it can get away with.

If I have any complaints about the number of extra twists packed in, it is that sometimes they become a little over-complicated. Some, dare I say it, don't entirely make sense or are just a little too tortuous for me to be able to follow late at night (and what better time to read a book like this?). Still, it is a ghost story, so a strictly logical plot isn’t an absolute requirement.

There is a more complex story in the relationship of the characters than at first appears. I'm not going to give it away, because the shock is a good one. If you're like me, it won't come as a complete surprise but you will have a growing sense of unease about one of the people trapped in the house and when everything finally becomes all too clear you will feel a definite frisson.

The five are there to value artworks and antiques ahead of disposal following the death of the house's owner. McKenzie works in the antiques business and the minutiae of the characters’ cataloguing efforts is convincing and surprisingly gripping, especially as they are regularly interfered with by supernatural forces.

[Possible spoiler in this paragraph.] McKenzie does break away from Whedon’s model when it comes to the ending. The advantage of this is that it provides something new and edgy and, in its way, far more horrific than the conclusion that Joss Whedon (and most readers) would have expected. Respect to her for daring to be different, but I'm not sure that it works. Whedon's point is that horror stories have been handed down through millennia, always following the same basic plot and are hence simultaneously terrifying and reassuring. Making them terrifying and then a bit more terrifying is, arguably, a step too far.

McKenzie has blogged about how she now writes very quickly and this produces a pacey style entirely suited to a gripping story. It's an easy read and will hold anybody who likes this sort of thing. And if you don't like this sort of thing, why on earth are you reading it? The cover surely told you what to expect.


Friday, 29 September 2017

Book Review: Fools and Mortals

I got sent a copy of Fools and Mortals, Bernard Cornwell's latest, by HarperCollins through NetGalley. If you're not a member of NetGalley already, I recommend that you sign up.

I was interested in reviewing this book, set in the world of Elizabethan theatre, because I'm a big Bernard Cornwell fan and reading Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows has given me a taste for fiction set in the 16th century. Perhaps this meant that I came to it with too many preconceptions. In the end, though it is a pleasant enough read, I was disappointed.

Fools and Mortals is the story of Richard Shakespeare, William's younger brother. There was a real Richard Shakespeare, but given how little is known of William's early life it seems that Richard’s is likely to be even more conjectural. Although Cornwell provides a long and fascinating historical note, he doesn't say anything about the real Richard. The fictional Richard runs away from Stratford, where he has beaten and robbed the man he was apprenticed to, and throws himself on the mercy of William in London. William, in this account, is not a particularly nice person and seems to harbour a peculiar antipathy to his younger sibling. Perhaps there was some clue I missed, but I have no idea of why. Neither character seems that well-developed because this is, in the end, not a book about people but a book about theatre.

Bernard Cornwell is an enthusiastic member of an amateur theatre group and his love for theatre in general and Shakespeare's works in particular shines through this book. There is an awful lot of detail of what it would have been like performing in the Theatre (where Shakespeare's troupe performed before moving to the Globe), the Curtain, the Swan, or any of the other playhouses that were growing up on the outskirts of London. The political background is also well described.

There is a plot, centring on a stolen script, but that is really a vehicle to carry a story which is far more interested in the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The account of how Dream was written, and what the first performance (at the Lord Chancellor's mansion, rather than in a theatre) would have been like, is fascinating stuff, but it highlights the weakness, as well as the strength, of the book. In order for us to follow what the actors are trying to achieve and what is going on on stage, Cornwell provides a potted summary of the plot. As Cornwell himself admits (and as all the players in the tale know) the story of Dream makes no sense at all. When condensed to a plot summary it is even more ludicrous. So why bother with the plot at all? Clearly Cornwell is concerned that he needs to carry with him readers who have never met Titania or Oberon and never seen Bottom with his ass’s head. But if you are so totally ignorant of the play, why would you be interested in reading a book which is, essentially, about Shakespeare's life? And if you read it anyway, can you honestly have any idea of what is going on based on this sort of super-condensed Cliffs notes? It just doesn't make sense.

By Charles Buchel (

Once you start asking yourself who the book is supposed to appeal to, a lot of other issues arise. For example, Cornwell clearly explains that Elizabethan audiences were rowdy and boisterous and the plays were seen in a completely different atmosphere to that in which they are watched nowadays. But is there anybody interested enough to read this book who didn't already know that?

Cornwell's focus is very tightly maintained on the theatre. There is a lot about costume, the layout of the buildings, and the mechanics of a production. But this hardly extends beyond the stage. For example, we are frequently told that there is an orchestra and what instruments are in it, because this might well interest an actor and obviously interests Cornwell. But we aren't told anything about how the instruments are played. By contrast, when a character uses an old wheel lock pistol Cornwell, the writer of military history, gives an enormous amount of detail about how exactly it fires. The arbitrary concentration on those aspects of Elizabethan life that appeal and the disregard of everything else left me feeling that the story lacked the texture that I have come to expect from the Cornwell I met describing Sharpe’s life in the Napoleonic wars.

Perhaps I would be less critical if I hadn't just come from Carol McGrath's tale, set slightly earlier in the 16th century. What so impressed me about that book, which also uses quite a thin storyline to carry a lot of period detail, was just how much I found myself inhabiting the period. In McGrath's book I am with Elizabeth Cromwell as she lives her day-to-day life, while in Cornwell's I am detached, watching Richard Shakespeare moving across an imaginatively realised, but never fully three-dimensional, Elizabethan background.

This is not to say that this is a bad book – just a rather disappointing one. Anyone looking for an easy introduction to the world of Shakespeare's theatres will probably enjoy it and anybody who knows that world already will find fascinating insights. For example, I knew that Shakespeare's troupe was called ‘The Lord Chamberlain's Men’, but I never understood that this was because they were the Lord Chamberlain's men. Perhaps I'm almost alone in my ignorance, but the role of the aristocracy in offering patronage and political protection to theatre groups was something I never understood before.

If you're not looking for a primer on Elizabethan theatre, this is a story with some evil villains, a cunning plan, occasional violence, a love interest and a happy ending. What's not to like? One of the messages of the book is that not everything that Shakespeare wrote was great art and that sometimes writers pad out their oeuvre with lesser works. We shouldn't hold it against Bernard Cornwell that he has written better stuff elsewhere.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Grumpy old writer

I was talking to somebody the other day who was telling me that they thought that the Internet had radically changed the way that books are sold. That's hardly a new thought, but the changes that the Internet has wrought on publishing are much greater than that. The Internet has dramatically changed the way that books are written.

Just lately I've been reading a bit more fiction than usual – some of it traditionally published and some of it from independent or small presses which publish only as e-books. What has struck me is the way that books seem to have changed from when I was younger.

Books have changed since the days when this was a furniture norm

Note that I'm talking about changes in books generally. I'm not picking on any particular author and these changes will have affected my work as well as those of people I know. My whole point is that the technology has changed the way that books are written, rather than that individual authors are writing better or worse books than they used to.

As is traditional when grumpy old people write about how things are changing, I don't think that many of the changes mark an improvement. Books I pick up nowadays are riddled with proofing errors, repetition, mixed metaphors and just passages of really rather awful prose. There's lots of really good stuff too and many more writers out there producing more books than ever before and that is a good thing. But there is an astonishing amount of rubbish and that is not.

Why is quality on the slide?

You know that old saying: you can have a quick, you can have it cheap, or you can have a good, but not all three? Well the way that books are sold nowadays means that, with rare exceptions, they have to be written quickly and sold cheaply. Inevitably, they aren't as well written as they might be.

If you look at fiction bestseller lists, you will see that they are dominated by books by well-known authors who write to a formula that has worked for them in the past – often as part of a series. With so many books around, people naturally turn to novels by authors they have read before. This is even more the case further down the charts. If you are waiting with bated breath (and I hope you are) for Endeavour to publish the fourth of my books about James Burke (provisionally titled Burke in the Peninsula) then you’ve probably already read at least one of the others. The best way to sell an existing book (unless you are famous or have an unrealistically generous marketing budget) is to produce a new one. Interest in a new novel should always raise sales of existing books by the same writer.

The demand for new books means that all writers find themselves under pressure to produce at speed. I produce, more or less, one book a year. (There's a bit of a hiatus at the moment because I've just changed publisher.) This is partly because I'm fundamentally lazy, but also because historical novels genuinely do take longer to write – there are so many details that you have to check if they are not be riddled with errors. A book a year, though, is now regarded as quite pathetic. Fortunately, I don't care that I don't make any money from writing (although if you all proved me wrong by buying my books, I would be quite grateful). If I did intend to generate even the minimum wage from my writing, I would really need to write a lot more quickly.

The economic imperative to put words down on paper ever faster is translating into a new approach to writing which is spawning its own self-help books and online support groups. The idea here is to simply pour words on paper ever so quickly. Don't worry about editing – just get the words down. Tidying up can come later.

There is a lot to be said for this approach. It certainly doesn't allow for precious nonsense about writers block. In fact, it puts writing on a par with any other artisanal craft. After all, if you throw pots for a living, you are expected to produce a fair number of pots. You can't – unless you are the very top of your game – say that you are only going to produce one pot this week, but it will be very, very good.

This approach can lead to great storytelling. When we are telling a story to our friends they want us to get on with the tale. There is nothing worse than the storyteller who keeps stopping and going back and changing some detail here or there. "It happened in Birmingham – no, Leeds. It was on a Tuesday – no a Wednesday." People just want the story and writing very fast can produce very good stories which can be improved by the paciness of the prose which is, in part, a product of the writing process.

What is lost, of course, is the quality of the actual writing itself. In theory, this might not even be a problem for the author. That, some will say, is what editors are for. Editors should notice the repetitions, infelicitous word choices, mixed metaphors, and all the rest of it. But, if you recall, we don't just want a quick, but we want it cheap.

Proper editing costs money and there just isn't enough of that around. Many self-published authors who do pay editors not only don't make any money out of their efforts but actually end up out of pocket. Of course, you can buy the services of a very cheap editor, but then it's unlikely they will be very good.

You'd think that editing issues would not be a problem for major publishing houses, but it seems that they are. I am generally avoiding pointing the finger at particular books but E L James has sold so many copies of 50 Shades… that I think she can cope with some criticism of her prose. This is from early in the book.

Fifty Shades of Grey

I walk over to the bank of elevators and past the two security men who are both far more smartly dressed than I am in their well-cut black suits.
The elevator whisks me at terminal velocity to the twentieth floor. The doors slide open, and I'm in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I'm confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman, this time dressed impeccably in black and white, who rises to greet me
"Miss Steele, could you wait here, please?" She points to a seating area of white leather chairs.

Leaving aside the fact that "terminal velocity" is not a synonym for "really quite fast" (and the speed is implicit in "whisks" anyway), note the overuse of "black", "white", and "sandstone". I’ve just quoted two and a half paragraphs. If I had quoted more, the same words would have come up over and over again (along with "glass" and "steel”). Ms James may have lively imagination when it comes to sexual behaviour, but her notion of what constitutes an exciting modern office building is depressingly limited. Does it matter? Arguably, it doesn't – and her sales figures would tend to support this. People are reading the book for its kinky sex not its architectural descriptions. A decent editor should have tidied this up. But in the end, it seems likely that Vintage Books (an imprint of Random House, no less) took the view that the book would sell for the smutty bits whether or not it was well written and economised on editorial input.

My limited contact with the publishing world suggests that more editorial work is now being contracted out to freelancers, who are unlikely to build up the relationships with writers that characterised great editor/author collaborations in the past. It's certainly cheaper, though.

Proofing has gone the way of editing. There will always be proofing errors that slip through, of course, but serious novels published by serious publishers seem increasingly to have spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. It's not fair to blame the authors. Everybody makes mistakes. That's why books used to go through several rounds of corrections with editors and proof-readers casting their eyes over the work independently to minimise errors. But every extra pair of eyes costs, and keeping the cost down is, for most publishers with most books, what it's all about.

An author writing for peanuts

The bottom line is that books are now absurdly cheap. Most writers want to write – nay, they have a pathological need to write. You can squeeze the amount you pay your writers until only the old and the rich can afford to write any more. But still there is pressure to get those prices down lower. The last book I bought on Amazon cost me 99p. If it has spelling mistakes and mistypes and the odd sentence that really shouldn't have got through, what did I expect?

There will always be books because there will always be stories. The need to tell stories is hardwired into the human brain. But if those stories are to be told with subtlety and wit and a nice way with words, we're going to have to accept that we will have to start paying for them. Sadly I see no evidence that this is going to happen any time soon.