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A. Warmington (Hampton, UK)

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Uncrowned Kings of England
Uncrowned Kings of England
by Mr Derek Wilson
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A much maligned family, 7 Jan. 2013
Derek Wilson does a good, if sometimes uneven, job of bringing to life the curious intertwined history of the Dudleys, who rose from just about nowhere to become one of the most prominent families in Tudor England. Three of its members perished on the block, yet the family bounced back from utter disgrace to twice being on the verge of siring the dynasty that might have replaced the Tudors.

Edmund Dudley was a minor gentleman who rose to be a minister to Henry VII. Reviled for his role in the king's ruthless fiscal exactions and, like Richard Empson, lacking the aristocratic connections that might have saved him, he became a disposable sop to public opinion for the new monarch and was executed on trumped-up charges of treason in 1510. Anyone who wonders how the 'virtuous prince' Henry VIII turned into an old monster should consider the possibility that he did it in the easiest possible way, by starting out as a young monster.

In Tudor England, however, serving the king was the only game in town. And so, Edmund's son John served the man who had his father judicially murdered. He rose through the ranks through his miltary and organisational ability until, as Duke of Northumberland, he became the virtual ruler of England for the last four years of Edward VI's reign, years that saw the Protestant Reformation established. Far from being the 'bad duke' of black legend, he was a man of outstanding natural ability and, Wilson argues convincingly, his actions were those of a devoted servant of the crown rather than a cold-hearted schemer.

Of course, he became bitterly unpopular in the process and he ultimately met the same end as his father by trying to enforce Edward's wish to see his young cousin, Jane Grey, succeed him rather than his sister Mary. Just like his father, he paid the price for loyally implementing the policy of a king who could not himself be safely criticised, even after death. The same fate awaited his young son Guildford, who had been married to Jane before the possibility of her succeeding ever came up in a dynastic alliance, and poor Jane herself.

Most prominent of all was John's fourth son, Robert Earl of Leicester, favourite and almost certainly lover of Elizabeth I. He flourished for 30 years, lived a fabulously opulent life and even died in his bed, yet he too suffered in many ways from the capricious tyrant who wanted him by her side every hour of every day. Wilson acquits him of the murder of his first wife, which both freed him to marry Elizabeth and also made it impossible. Bizarrely, there was even the possiblity of him being married off to Mary Queen of Scots and siring an Anglo-Scottish dynasty. With his father's example in mind, he wisely did everything he could to wriggle out of it.

Some judicious pruning might have been in order, as this sometimes lurches between family biography and full-scale history, but it is a thoroughly illuminating insight into the pitfalls of serving the Tudors. "The Tudors were all monsters. The had do be," Wilson justifiably notes. It might also be read in parallel with 'House of Treason', covering the Howard Dukes of Norfolk in much the same years, another family of higher origin and much less ability which also suffered grievously from these deeply unlovely monarchs.

Wired for Sound: Now That's What I Call an Eighties Music Childhood
Wired for Sound: Now That's What I Call an Eighties Music Childhood
by Tom Bromley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Do you really want to hurt Bruno Brookes?, 13 Aug. 2012
Nostalgia-driven jog-trots through childhood are ten a penny since Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch first hit paydirt nearly 20 years ago. This book by Tom Bromley is an enjoyable addition to the genre. Bromley is absolutely a child of the '80s, just about becoming aware of music as the decade began and beginning to detach himself gently as the decade ended, and his knowledge of and affection for an often much maligned era in popular culture is infectious.

Bromley's tastes are thoroughly mainstream. He actually liked Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Wham! and everyone else it was deeply uncool to like at the time, only tuning in to the Smiths very late in the day when late adolescence struck. He even remembers the engagingly pointless Tiffany v Debbie Gibson rivalry that any sane man would have blotted out of his mind as the scene spiralled into decline in the later years, despite the brief glory of the Stone Roses. He is also spot on in his analysis of how developments in technology drove and were driven by the music. This is all organised thematically by some key tracks of the time, albeit only loosely.

If I must be critical, I would say that Bromley can't quite decide whether it wants to be an in-depth look at his own past through the medium of the music (including toe-curling dips into teenage diaries and his own lamentable attempt to become a pop star himself) or a critical analysis of the music itself. Thus it does tend to fall in between two stools.

(A minor factual quibble, too. At the start of the second part, Bromley slates Bob Geldof for getting the University of York's Central Hall, the only decent venue in his home town, closed down as a music venue after swearily telling the audience to come down and dance in a venue that was structurally unsound for it. Not quite right: I was at the event in question and whilst there were certainly ructions, gigs went on. Next up was Ian Dury, who was physically incapable of dancing because of his polio and who sagely advised us to 'Wiggle your arse, like I have to'. The Boomtown Rats even played the venue again; this time, His Bobness simply told us 'I can't stand it, stand up'. We did. The Hall is still there.)

Overall, though, there is much to like and I'll even forgive the failure to even mention any of the five best tracks of the '80s ('Party Fears Two' - the Associates, 'Enola Gay' - OMD, 'Running Up That Hill' - Kate Bush, 'Story of the Blues' - Wah!, 'Mad World' - Tears for Fears: no correspondence will be entered into) and even going back to see Drone Drone many years on as a married man with young children. Bruno Brookes, in case you were wondering, once read out a letter from Bromley but failed to send him the promised Radio One pen in the post, so nobody believed it had ever happened. How does the man sleep?

There was dross, there was self-indulgence, there were some self-satisfied wannabes in the parts of the land that floated happily on the mirage of Thatcherism. But it was a great time. If you weren't there, you could find worse places to find out.

Going to the Wars: Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-51
Going to the Wars: Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-51
by Charles Carlton
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Marred by carelessness with facts, 13 July 2012
This book came out just as I was finishing my D.Phil. thesis covering one specific county's experience of the English Civil War peiod. It is at once thoroughly illuminating and downright frustrating.

No-one has previously attempted to cover the wars in the way Charles Carlton does, bringing together the experiences of individuals from the soldiers who were ordered to kill each other to the hapless civilians they plundered or worse. It deserves full marks for bringing home the sheer horror of the events, that led directly or indirectly to the death and permanent ruin of a far higher proportion of the population of every part of Britain than any conflict before or since. This is no mean feat, given that 17th century Englishmen were not particular likely to record their experiences, much less their feelings, in a way that the modern mind can easily relate to.

There is a huge 'but' though and it is to do with unforgivably sloppy writing, editing and fact checking. On one single page, for example, Carlton refers to 'Strafford', then 'the earl of Strafford', then 'Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford'. All the same man and quite clearly the wrong way around.

To pick just on the localities I know best, Carlton at least twice correctly names Edward Massey as the governor of Gloucester during the siege, then on another occasion names him as Colonel Sir George Massey, who never existed; he has the county levies being smashed by the Royalists in Gloucester, not Cirencester (despite later repeating three times in the same chapter that the majority of those who were captured by the Royalists at Cirencester signed up to serve them); worse still, he even once puts the siege of Gloucester, by many people's reckoning the turning point of the war, in 1644 instead of 1643.

In another place, he has Alderman Thomas Heyle of York committing suicide in dismay at the king's execution. Hoyle, to spell his name correctly, actually hanged himself a year later to the day. The link is far from certain and Hoyle played no part in the king's trial and execution, though Royalist hacks made it anyway.

Trivial details? Maybe, but if his inaccuracy in the details about one county are reproduced throughout the course of the book as often, its value is seriously diminished. There are also some spelling mistakes (Liecester for Leicester, pus for plus) and punctuation errors that a schoolboy could spot. Plenty of footnotes, but some are quite clearly wrong too. Hopefully a later edition will have cleared some of this up.

The Slap
The Slap
by Christos Tsiolkas
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars All those reviews can't be wrong - can they?, 3 Dec. 2011
This review is from: The Slap (Paperback)
Er, yes they can actually. The Slap is not the worst novel I have ever read but it is definitely the most over-rated. Much though I hate to come over like those awful 'You clearly didn't read the book I read' reviewers, I can't begin to imagine how it garnered all the plaudits that took it the Booker Prize long list and many others besides.

The idea is superficially interesting: telling the story of a single incident from the changing perspective of multiple characters, in this case how a man slaps a child at a suburban barbecue and how this affects the relationships of the extended family and its friends involved. This is not an entirely novel idea - Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown did it 50 years ago, and made serious, compelling points about Raj-era India in a way that this book really doesn't about modern Australia - but it is potentially interesting. That kept me reading to the end, hence the second star.

Unfortunately, The Slap as a piece of literature falls flat on its back here for two reasons. First, the central incident is not that interesting and does not have the multiple level of ramifications to make it worth analysing in this way. It is agreed by all involved from the start that (a) the kid was an obnoxious little brat who deserved it and (b) the man still shouldn't have done it. The issues are carelessly swept aside in semi-political speeches by characters who otherwise can't string a sentence together, before we get back to the clunky prose, full of name drops of bands and places.

Which leads me on to the second and more serious flaw. Christos Tsolkias couldn't create an interesting character to save his life. Although parts of the story are told from eight different perspectives, all eight are the same. And I really do mean EXACTLY the same. They are all superficial people with anger problems, they are all struggling with smoking and fidelity, they all copulate vigorously but rather joylessly (in the case of a man in his 70s, this means gratuitously inserted memories of ancient visits to hookers) and they all use the F and C words with wild abandon. You simply do not care about any of them or their stupid problems.

I am British and am not unduly fond of Australia for the usual reasons: the brashness, the boorish triumphalism over sport, the covert racism under the matey equality, etc. etc. But I find his portrayal of people in 21st century Melbourne utterly implausible and I can easily imagine many Australians finding it highly offensive.

Charlotte Gray
Charlotte Gray
by Sebastian Faulks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.79

3.0 out of 5 stars Not a patch on Birdsong, 19 Oct. 2011
This review is from: Charlotte Gray (Paperback)
Through this esteemed website, I learn that some people think that Charlotte Gray is better than the second part of Sebastian Faulks's trilogy Birdsong. Well, it's a free country, people can think what they like, there are no objective measures to measure quality in fiction and ... oh, hang it ... WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?

Birdsong is one of the most moving and harrowing pieces of fiction ever written on war. Charlotte Gray is a superior thriller written by an author who clearly lost interest as he went along. The characters are poorly drawn and implausible, the plot pacy but meandering here and there and it all ends in a bit of, well, nothing really.

Faulks has not completely lost his touch, nor does he shy away from the horror of it all. The description of two young Jewish boys' train ride all the way to what sounds like Auschwitz, though they would never have known its name, is intensely moving. The trouble is the central character is a completely uninteresting cipher and her romance doesn't arouse any interest at all. Faulks can do much better than this. And he knows it.

The First Ever English Olimpick Games
The First Ever English Olimpick Games
by Celia Haddon
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strange and true insight into a corner of history, 27 July 2011
When and where did the modern Olympics start? Most will say, if they are relatively clued up, Athens in 1896. Some point to Much Wenlock in Shropshire and the immediate precursor to what Pierre de Coubertin started later.

But the true answer is 1612 in Gloucestershire, when a London attorney called Robert Dover, who had moved to the country - some things never change - managed to whip up enough interest among his local gentry friends in an annual series of competitions in various rustic sports of the time, notably running, archery, singlesticks, wrestling and hare coursing. They survived into the 19th century in much debased forms, possibly inspiring Much Wenlock, and have been revived in modern times. This short book is the first modern summary of it all.

Celia Haddon's work is not without its flaws. As a Tory journalist from the Daily Telegraph, she sometimes rather predictably gives the event an Olde Worlde golden glow that is debatable at best - and she has cribbed from my book without acknowledging it, but so it goes. The games are mostly known of through a collection of poems by local gentleman that Haddon seems to enjoy, but bar those from known writers, most of these are atrocious and show a nasty, sneering contempt for the poor participants, whose role in this was to be turned into soldiers.

The book is also pricy for how short it is. Nonetheless, it is well worth reading if you can find it.

The Rich & How They Got That Way: How the Wealthiest People of All Times - from Genghis Khan to Bill Gates - Made their Fortunes
The Rich & How They Got That Way: How the Wealthiest People of All Times - from Genghis Khan to Bill Gates - Made their Fortunes
by Cynthia Crossen
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Is anyone rich remotely interesting?, 6 Jun. 2011
In this book, Cynthia Crossen takes us on a quick jog with many diversions through the careers of some of the most stupendously wealthy people who have ever lived. It begins with the likes of Genghis Khan and ends, predictably enough, with Bill Gates.

Crossen is an FT journalist and the result of this is that the book has all the pros and cons you would expect from a series of long articles written by a journalist. The pros: it zips along, is neatly packaged and she has a nice turn of phrase from time to time. The cons: there is very little real insight and the padding is blatant. I would bet my mortgage that Crossen turned out a very good feature article comparing Gates to some earlier rich people and someone said 'hey you should make a book out of this'. It would have been better as the feature.

The main trouble with the book is two-fold. First, there is Crossen's constant lurching between the lives of the people profiled to some general observations, which may or may not have anything to do with them and which often gets rather aggravating. Second, well, it does seem that the very, very rich are generally profoundly uninteresting people and the padding is often necessary to make anything much out of their stories.

Of old, it was literally impossible to make a serious fortune except through the brutal wielding of power. Those who had one (Genghis Khan, etc.) achieved it and held on to it by the exercise of overwhelming force, knowing that they could equally well lose it the same way. Only with the Industrial Revolution did accumulating riches in any other way become merely very difficult. Richard Arkwright, designer of the most succesful industrial spinning machine and factory owner, is perhaps the first of the subjects on whom much real light is shed.

Then again, Arkwright comes across as a sour, nasty little man who knew all about barging his way to wealth and not a lot about enjoying it. Perhaps that's just the way it is. Even now, Bill Gates clearly loves the power far more than the money; he hardly ever stops working long enough to enjoy his ludicrous techno-mansion and only got into philanthropy because of the perception that it was the done thing among his peers. Hardly any of those featured in this book seriously enjoyed their wealth, but none would stop accumulating it simply because they had way more than they knew what to do with.

It is not Cynthia Crossen's fault that her subjects (all men bar one) and how they achieved what they did are really not worth a book like this. Except, of course, that she did choose to write one. Alexander Pope, who she quotes early on, said it best 200 years ago: "God shows how little He cares for riches by whom He bestows them on". Amen.

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens
Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens
by James Davidson
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ancient Athens brought brilliantly back to life, 13 May 2011
I thought I knew most of what was worth knowing about Classical Greece. Wrong. In this lucid, intelligent and briliant - if sometimes quite hard to read - book, James Davidson comes up with far, far more. From their passion for eating fish and the reasons behind it to the role of the female hetaerae, he comes up with new insights all the time, debunking many of the misperceptions overlaid on an ancient era with so much resonance in the modern world, particularly those by Michel Foucault and Kenneth Dover.

It probably takes a gay man like Davidson to debunk the exaggerated focus that has been placed on homosexuality in the Greek world. Whilst this was possibly the first known human society to encourage such relationships, you come away aware that it was always a minority pursuit, largely among an aristocratic elite. Female prositution in all its forms, from a knee-trembler with a slave girl by the city wall to ruining yourself to win over a top hetaera, was still the norm.

What also made me sit up and re-examine my views was Davidson's brilliant insight into Athenian democracy. This was not the result of class struggle but the systematic weakening of ties to kin and the land in favour of the polis. And, among adult male citizens, it was truly democratic - in some ways rather totalitarian - in ways that went way beyond participation in debate: the relatively rich were corraled into funding state activity and even the suspicion that they might be hiding their wealth away or flaunting it too much could lead to rapid ruin.

Not easy going for someone with no previous knowledge of the period, but a quite superb book that I will come back to again and again. Highly recommended.

Uncle Jack
Uncle Jack
by Tony Williams
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A house built on straw, 13 May 2011
This review is from: Uncle Jack (Hardcover)
Tony Williams is a competent enough writer, but the idea that he has come up with a likely candidate for Jack the Ripper in his distant relative, the eminent Victorian medic Sir John Williams, is a heap of speculation built on very little. Nor is his 'I didn't want to believe it, but...' tone remotely credible; it is quite clear from the outset that Williams wants to convict his famous forebear.

The evidence is scanty to the point of non-existent. Williams lived in London in 1888, he had links to the London Hospital in the Whitechapel area, he may have run informal clinics in Whitechapel, he apparently - though even this is disputed - performed an abortion on one of the Ripper's victims in 1885, he was a strange and rather arrogant man in an unhappy marriage and he is rumoured to have had another woman. Called Mary. Like the Ripper's last victim. And several hundred thousand others in Britain at the time.

Oh, and he left among other things a surgeon's knife to the passion of his later life, the National Library of Wales, which may or may not have human blood on it. Anyone would think he was a surgeon or something. Ah, hang on a minute...

And really that's about it. There is nothing to say that Williams was ever a suspect, no identification evidence, no shred of a motive - though garnering specimens for medical research is hinted at - just nothing. Even the wildly improbable candidature of James Maybrick has the much-debated diary to back it up. That this kind of thesis still gets aired has more to do with our love of conspiracy theories and the wish for 'significant' crimes to have a 'significant' perpetrator, rather than the poor, local, sex-crazed nutcase that Jack the Ripper almost certainly was.

This isn't the worst book ever written on Jack the Ripper, but it's definitely at the Hartlepool United end of the league. If you really want a proper analysis rather than the twisting of selected facts to fit a predetermined conclusion, read Paul Begg or Philip Sugden.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 14, 2012 1:48 PM BST

How Not to Grow Up: A Coming of Age Memoir. Sort of.
How Not to Grow Up: A Coming of Age Memoir. Sort of.
by Richard Herring
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Existential crisis, with plenty of knob gags, 26 April 2011
First, the disclaimer. I knew Richard Herring quite well once. We were in the Oxford Revue Workshop together, where his comedy career began and mine more or less ended. Being surrounded by obvious incipient comedy genius in the form of him, Stewart Lee, Armando Iannucci, Al Murray et al. was enough to convince me to stick to the day job. We weren't close friends or anything but he was a nice enough bloke who I would happily heckle in a pleasant sort of way if I saw him on stage again.

This book is a curious read. Whilst very funny in places, it is not the usual jog-trot through growing up in the '70s and '80s. Much of it is quite dark, in as much as when he stops doing knob gags for long enough, Herring is clearly going through a bit of a tunnel as he contemplates reaching the age of 40 with little financial security and a comedy career that has probably peaked, if not stalled. Much of this is palpably contrived for the purposes of creating his next Edinburgh show, but it is genuine enough.

Some of the negatives from previous reviews are fair. It is definitely far too long - half a chapter on a meeting with the bank manager, FFS! - and it is not always easy to feel sorry for someone living the life many men would dream of: getting up whenever you like, no commitments, easy access to attractive women half your age ('Comedy groupies' was a bit of an oxymoron in Oxford in the late 1980s. In fact the total impossiblity of there being such a thing was a running gag at the Workshop. Funny how things turn out). Herring is intelligent and self-aware enough to know this and to know that he is coming over as a bit of a berk at times, so I assume he left this in on purpose.

However, I still enjoyed the book for many reasons, not least the most eloquent defence of immaturity that I have ever read. When we 'mature', when we lose the ability to laugh at farts - or worse still, stop ourselves from doing so - we are really losing something. And you don't have to be a 39-year-old with no serious worries and no worse hang-ups than never having had a threesome to know that. Though it probably helps to be a younger child...

Finally, if you don't want to know the result, look away now: by the end, he has got over the milestone without anything very much happening, he's had his threesome (with two attractive women) and even may have found a genuine soulmate. Isn't there some kind of a law against being this jammy? Cheers, Rich.

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