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A Great and Terrible King - Edward I and the Forging of Britain
A Great and Terrible King - Edward I and the Forging of Britain
by Marc Morris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.65

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars King Arthur II - Edward I Re-Examined, 20 May 2015
Edward I does not enjoy a good reputation in the minds of many historians and most of those who enjoyed the movie, “Braveheart”. It would appear that, unlike many other English kings, he doesn’t enjoy the benefit of a contextual view of his life and times. This might be encouraged by the patriotic and hugely selective view that has made William Wallace become a virtual saint in Scotland. Without putting too blunt an end on the matter, Edward was a winner in imperialistic times and those he beat were his next door neighbours, the Scots, the Welsh and the French. His victory meant oppression and subjection of his neighbours delivered in a way that befitted a conquering king of his time. That does not rest well with the sympathies of a modern English culture that champions temperance, freedom and peaceful negotiation. However, for his time, Edward was considered a great king by his English subjects and yet it was a reputation hard-earned.
Marc Morris’s biography of Edward I was the first written in a long time. He explains in his introduction that he was aware that few mainstream English historians held Edward in high regard from a moral point of view. Edward’s reputation as a tyrant and invader come from actions that are no worse than two of England’s most lionized medieval monarchs, Richard I, who Edward sought emulate on his own crusades, and Henry V, who hero-worshipped Edward’s iron-fist example. Both Richard and Henry have their detractors. Richard goes through rapid periods of reappraisal, from the epitome of courage in the name of the Christian faith that won him the title “The Lionheart” to a treasury-squandering, neglectful King who spent hardly any time in his home country and didn’t even speak its language and then back to a more balanced view. Henry, whose main achievement in his short-reign, was to take half of France, has enjoyed centuries of high praise. However, Ian Mortimer’s excellently researched and reasoned argument in “1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory” casts the king as a merciless, religious zealot even for his own time. It would appear that Edward I has simply been neglected, left to be relegated to the role of arch-nemesis to Scotland’s 1990s tourist attraction, and England is quite content to leave him there whilst mainstream historians fend off Richard III supporters.

Nevertheless, Morris’s book not only aims to re-set the balance of Edward’s moral position in context, but also argues the huge relevance of his rule. This is shown in his subtitle, “The Forging of Britain”. The fact that there have been seven reigning Edwards in England since Edward I and he became an exemplar of a strong rule to many medieval monarchs to follow must count something towards the English ideals. Edward’s name is a significant point addressed by Morris. He was actually the fourth King Edward of England, but the first since the Norman Conquest of 1066. The time between Edward I’s reign and that of Edward the Confessor was so long that it made sense to those who simply wished to distinguish between Edward II, Edward I’s son, and his father. However, the name is still significant. It was idiosyncratic for its time, being Anglo-Saxon in origin, unlike the anglicized French/Norman names of William, Henry, Richard and John that preceded him. Morris explains that this is due to Edward’s father, Henry III’s veneration of Edward the Confessor.
As we all know, Edward would not come to emulate his peaceful namesake. He was also a very different man from his father and the two even briefly opposed one another before Edward supported his father and earned a fearsome reputation in his merciless final battle against the rebellious Simon de Montefort. If there was any forging going on, much of it was of Edward’s own doing. Morris demonstrates, with one symbolic act taken by Edward in his second and decisive quashing of the Welsh rebellion, the King wished to imply a lineal connection with the great Arthur. Whilst addressing the interment and transportation of the fictitious grave of King Arthur under Edward’s orders, Morris takes his own decisive action. He compels all serious historians to admit what many have remained ambiguous about in their discussions of pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain that there never was a King Arthur. It’s a bold step, but given the sheer lack of reliable contemporary evidence there is of Arthur – even his actual historical placement is a matter of contention – I think Morris has a valid point and, at the very least, the burden of proof needs to be shifted in mainstream history.

Morris’s discussions on Arthur do not take up a lot of room, but provide an interesting insight into Anglo/Welsh ideologies from Edward’s rule onwards. In the first instance, Edward supplants a Christ-like figure from Celtic mythology. Arthur is described as the “once and future king” by many. The prophesy being that he will return from Avalon to save Britain in direst hour. By transferring the bones to England’s seat of power was an act of absorbing the spirit of Arthur into Edward’s persona. Secondly, the main campaigns that defined Edward’s reign saw a brief period where England’s king ruled all of Britain. This “unification” is comparable to one of the distinguishing features of King Arthur’s legend. It is telling that the Arthurian legends became a part of Britain’s national identity and were celebrated as much in England as they were in Wales after Edward’s symbolic action.
Context is a vital tool for the modern historian. It is easy to lose sight of the medieval world by looking at it through modern eyes and assuming a universal set of moral standards. It is easy to look back on England’s continued attacks on the French as a greedy lust of conquest and power during the middle ages. However, one mustn’t forget the strong attachment the Norman kings had to their homeland. Morris’s book reminds us of the odd dual roles a king like Edward had to play in international politics. As far as his own country was concerned, he was the absolute monarch and equal to any other king in the world. However, when it came to governing his troubled homeland in Normandy he was a duke under the King of France. Furthermore, as a Christian king, he was subjugated to the Catholic Church in Rome. All of this had a huge bearing on the way Edward operated. Edward’s reclamation of Normandy seems to be far more about defending England than it was to re-secure the homeland of his forefathers or as part of the aggressive expansionist policy that we associate with his reign. It is important to note that English shores were attacked by the French after they had taken Normandy and such unprovoked actions were a clear indication of what France intended to do after driving the English out of their own country.

The Crusades, which seem like such a total waste of scarce English resources and by far the least successful aspects of Edward’s time on the throne, were a product of their time. The Catholic Church demanded the Holy Land be won back to Christendom and this was a real pressure to any sovereign in Western Europe. To the medieval thinker, fighting in the Crusades was perhaps one of the most important things God’s appointed monarch could do for his country and mankind. On a spiritual level, the threat of actual damnation and the events of Judgement Day were a strong reality. On a political level, no European country wanted to be on the wrong side of the Church. Edward I died some 62 years before the birth of Jan Hus, which gives us an indication of how much he and his subjects would be influenced by the idea of the Pope’s absolute power over their souls.
However, although Morris’s conclusion is that Edward was one of the better medieval monarchs in history and a “great” king by the standards of his people and many generations afterwards, he does not mitigate the other sides of his personality. He was an unruly youth and before he became king had switched political persuasions between the various nobles several times. His good reputation was not built upon a spotless record when he came to power. During his reign he worked hard to remove his “Leopard” title, which implied a sneaky and even treacherous reputation, and came from him leaving ahead of his troops early in his career. In an act that his own father compared to the rebellion of Henry II’s sons, Edward once sided with Simon de Montford.

Nevertheless, Edward did not stay on de Montfort’s side for long and we can see the first signs of the merciless domination that would earn him his fearsome reputation in his final battle with the usurper. It is a battle where Edward instructed his troops to disregard all codes of chivalry and results in a wholesale slaughter, concluding with the savage and humiliating mutilation of Montfort’s corpse. It is often argued throughout the book that all natives of England’s neighbouring countries were regarded by the English to be different grades of barbarian. Edward regarded the Scottish crown to be subordinate to the English one despite this not officially being the case and the Scottish people to have not come on much since the days of Emperor Hadrian’s occupation of Britain. The Welsh were considered beneath them, only being granted a principality status and then even losing that following Edward’s second crushing of their rebellion. The Irish, who Edward never visited, are viewed as even lower with their people less subjected than being corralled away from the occupying English. However, the example he showed in the ultimate putting down of Montford’s men foreshadows his attitude settling matters.
“The Hammer of the Scots” earned his title following Edward I’s political manoeuvrings when Scotland’s line of ascension was threatened by several rival claimants. Originally brought in to play an arbitrational role, Edward took full advantage of the desperate situation and sought to install his own puppet ruler. Matters are not so completely clear-cut that we can cast Edwards as a straightforward villainous expansionist, as this sort of politicking was rife throughout the world at the time, however, it would result in a relentless dispute with the Scots that would long outlast Edward’s lifetime. He may have inflicted massive defeats upon Scotland, but he would never get the same type of result he got with the Welsh and the legacy he left his woefully inept son would see one of Scotland’s greatest victories against the English.

I read the book at a time when Scotland was voting on whether or not it wished to be independent of Westminster. A tight result showed that it did wish to continue to be part of the existing union. I wrote this review some time later just prior to the 2015 General Election, where an overwhelming dominance in Scotland by the Scottish National Party showed that the fight was far from over. We live in age where travel and the internet has presented us with a far larger world than what Edward I knew existed and yet we often get the impression that we all have been brought closer together. However, many recent incidents show just how tribal and divisive human beings continue to be in their inter-dependent activity. Edward I's attempted absorption into the icon of King Arthur was rather apt. Arthur famously united Britain, which was the driving policy behind alot of Edward's ambitions. Today we can see the reality of this over-simplified view of society.
Morris’s work never feels like a fawning apologist argument for Edward. Just as he goes to pains in explaining why Edward was and should be considered a great king of his day, he does not spare us the atrocities committed on Edward’s orders. One of these was his persecution of Jewish people, leading to a virtual genocide. The clear objective for what Morris tells us was the single largest mass execution of Jews in Britain was completely money orientated.

“A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain” is the best historical book I have read since Ian Mortimer’s “1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory”. It sets a balance dictated by facts and reason, and ranks as one of the clearest examples of understanding contextual history.

The Countess - Julie Delpy [DVD] [2009]
The Countess - Julie Delpy [DVD] [2009]
Dvd ~ Julie Delpy
Offered by czech.out
Price: £5.98

4.0 out of 5 stars The Countess and the Patriarchy, 16 Jan. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Plot and Background:
This is the story of the medieval Hungarian Countess, Erzsebet Bathory (Julie Delpy), who still holds the Guinness World Record for being history’s most prolific serial killer. She and four of her servants were tried and found guilty of torturing and murdering hundreds of young girls. Despite the overwhelming evidence that would imply that Erzsebet Bathory was more than likely guilty of having an extraordinary number of people killed, even given her time and aristocratic position, she was born into a time of male-dominated political manipulation. The film explores the corruption of power both within the countess and those would seek to gain from her demise.


“The Countess” has been cited as Julie Delpy’s third outing as director, but many don’t count her work on short films. The actress, writer, producer and sometimes singer-songwriter has amassed considerable experience. She must be one of our most under-rated auteurs and “The Countess” bears all her signature hallmarks. In contrast to Juraj Jakubisko’s somewhat lavish-looking “Bathory” the previous year, this is a more understated drama. Delpy, who also plays the film’s lead, wrote the screenplay and produced the film’s music, said she wanted to explore the psychology of the character more than present a Gothic tale.
The injustice many noble landowning widows faced during the medieval era is clearly a welcome target for Delpy’s unashamed feminist agenda. It is the perfect device to show oppressive patriarchy in full swing and she handles it very well. As the historian Tony Thorne pointed out in his “Countess Dracula”, Erzsebet Bathory was not the first or last noble widow to lose her land to her prosecutor.

This isn’t to say that Delpy seeks to present Erzsebet Bathory as some hapless victim throughout the movie. She might be at the mercy of men, but she is far from weak. Whereas “Bathory” gave us a woman lost in her own world where she naively ended up being conspired against, “The Countess” turns the lead character into something of a feminist symbol. It is her defiance of the masculine order of things, clearly stated at one of her dinners where she shows no fear in confronting the church on such matters, which leads to her downfall in an unfair world. Delpy walks a precarious line here, as she chooses not to exonerate Erzsebet from blame. Instead her complex character’s battle against male oppression is contrasted with the countess’s own corruption by power.
Both movies felt compelled to represent the bathing in blood myth I guess to satisfy the myth that has become synonymous with the countess despite it being highly unlikely to have any basis in reality. “Bathory” opted for a convoluted explanation for the bloody bathing whereas “The Countess” just went with it, repeating the tale about Erzsebet Bathory striking a servant, drawing blood and believing the blood that splashed on her skin restored her youth. Delpy uses the plot device of Erzsebet’s lost young love as inspiration for the sadistic madness that will follow.
“The Countess” succeeds as a drama over being a spectacle. However, Delpy does not resist many of the trappings everyone has come to expect of the “Blood Countess” iconography.

This includes the need to sexualize Erzsebet. Whether or not she was a woman of passion is a matter of debate. Notes from her trial, which she never attended, seem to indicate that she was a sadistic murderer who derived sensual pleasure from the tortures she inflicted. However, some have argued that the truth of the matter is that she was just another brutal aristocrat, acting as other noble people did in her time and much of the descriptions were purposely exaggerated by unreliable or tortured witnesses. Her letters and other contemporary material on Bathory prior to her child reveal an unpassionate woman. She might have been very beautiful, but she seems cold in her nature rather than the nymphomaniac sensualist that the influential surrealist Valentine Penrose presented in her historical book, “The Bloody Countess”.
Delpy retains this passion – sex being a regular tool in a lot her work - and portrays Erzsebet as a loving woman who is corrupted by her own demons of loss. The sex-scenes are relatively tame, hence the 15 certificate in the UK, and somewhat reserved when compared to Delpy’s other works. Given the adult source material, Delpy had little obvious reason to pull back from visual representations of the accused acts of gross sadism and nymphomania that is attributed to Erzsebet. However, this might be due to the director resisting such sensationalist temptation in an effort to pursue the drama.

The understated style of the film, which takes in castles and battle scenes, resembles a big budget BBC TV drama. This might be due, in part to the focus on drama, and also the dark colour pallet chosen. Production took place in Germany and France, and the landscapes are presented on overcast days. Other scenes generally take place in darkened castle rooms. Such gloominess and tight framing is in obvious contrast to the bright red and vibrant panoramic shots of “Bathory”. This might, in part, be down to cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s involvement. Ruhe is known for pop promos, but his bleak visions are best represented in 2007’s black and white biopic on Ian Curtis, “Control”. A background in pop music promos and a distinctive kitchen sink drama type vision was a near perfect way to provide insight into the very troubled mind of Joy Division’s lead singer. Such bleakness would, again, be used to good effect after “The Countess” in the Michael Caine starring vigilante drama, “Harry Brown”, although this time in colour. In certain scenes this style does work in “The Countess”, particularly some of the interior shots and when we are looking at brief moments of introspection. However, the outside scenes, particularly on battlefields, are less effective.
The cast are pretty unremarkable and Delpy commands attention like a latter day Lawrence Olivier or Orson Welles. German actor, Daniel Brühl, who plays István Thurzó, the film’s love interest following the death of Erszebet’s first husband, Franz Nádasdy (Charly Hübner), is little more than a device. He is shown to be an object of the predatory Erzsebet’s infatuation and a pawn to his father, György, and little more. Not having such vivid characters or supporting cast performances can make scenes not including Erzsebet, which concern the political intrigue drag a bit. It should be mentioned that “Bathory” has a distinct advantage over “The Countess”, in this respect, with a more colourful cast of well-acted characters. However, William Hurt does save the day and is an appropriately chosen adversary as Erzsebet’s Machiavellian cousin, György Thurzó. If any writer wants us to feel any sympathy for Erszebet, then we need to see Thurzó as a more sinful character. Once again, Delpy opts for a less overt and far more believable show of his evil than what is shown in “Bathory” by having him as a manipulator of her nature and the advantages his gender provides him during his time.

The film is an entertaining melodrama, appearing to show a lot of restraint given its material. Delpy is an extraordinarily talented artist and deserves far more recognition in the film world. There is no denying the fact that Hollywood and just about everywhere in film world is heavily dominated by male directors, and her lack of exposure in the mainstream and art worlds seems to cry out the feminist message she is trying to convey in many of her works. She is a fine artistic auteur, making the same mistakes that other greats have done, but also displaying ability in all areas she controls. However, rather than giving us a powerful and starkly different piece we are led down a familiar path. This is something of disappointment given Delpy’s extraordinary talent and the fascinating material. It almost feels as if there is something of Faustian pact going on with Delpy choosing to use the Bathory mythology as a vehicle to convey her own favourite arguments rather than making a concerted effort to provide a more historically accurate portrayal of Erzsebet and her life.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Price: £4.80

3.0 out of 5 stars The Todd you Rarely See, 16 Jan. 2015
The penny dreadful, “Sweeney Todd”, original name “The String of Pearls: A Romance”, is one of those stories that everything thinks they know and very often mistaken. My edition of the complete collected parts was sold off the back of Tim Burton’s feature film adaptation of the musical, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and bears a cover design taken directly from the promotional pictures of the 2007 film. If readers were expecting a blood-soaked story, starring a vengeful anti-hero then they will be somewhat disappointed. The original story never once describes a throat being cut, although it is implied and threatened a lot. Even Todd’s murderous mechanical chair is only twice described in action. This is a text that is representative of its time and I urge interested readers to view it within that context.
The book contains the complete collected serial as well as an introduction written by Sweeney Todd expert, Robert L. Mack, and also annotated endnotes written in prose-form by the same writer. The authorship of the original story is still in question, but the strongest candidates for full or co-authorship are James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. Rymer and Prest are also both the strongest candidates for the other famous example of the penny dreadful form, “Varney the Vampire”, which finished its syndication around the same time as Sweeney Todd would be concluded.

For those who are not familiar with the term, a penny dreadful was a form of serialized British fiction that was popular in 19th century. Later comparisons might be found with the pulp fiction novels of the US and the Italian Giallo fiction or even the very short radio serials of the 20th century. The title comes from the fact that the parts of the story were sold at a penny and their content was usually sensationalist prose. “The String of Pearls: A Romance” was serialized from 1946 to 1947 at the height of the demand for penny dreadfuls and was published in Edward Lloyd’s “The People's Periodical and Family Library” magazine. Lloyd was in the thick of the penny dreadful craze and was notorious for his publication of Charles Dickens plagiarisms. I am grateful to the excellent annotations and introduction by Robert L. Mack who puts forward the idea that Lloyd may have had a lot of input into the actual text and this can be seen by its Dickensian elements.
A large portion of the story focuses on the plights of the poor who struggle to live in London. Both Todd and his accomplice, the meat-pie vendor, Mrs Lovatt, take advantage of the penniless and destitute, imprisoning them in their service as slaves. Lovatt’s servants are condemned to live a life in her basement, making meat pies. Their only payment is eating pies and their only way out of her shop is death. Tobias Ragg, the long-suffering assistant of Sweeney Todd, experiences both the tyranny of an employer who holds him with various terrible threats and also life inside a corrupt Georgian mental institution.

Whilst reading the story I was drawn to reflect on various different ideas. The structure of the entire story read as a novel is odd to say the least. The story meanders off in various different directions, resulting in nothing that has an overall bearing on the whole story. Therefore, as a novel, which is what this edition is marketed as such, the book fails. Snobbery to one side, there is certainly truth in the assumption that the shilling serialized novels started by Charles Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers” in 1836 had a higher level of literary merit to Lloyd’s penny dreadfuls. The more expensive serials that proceeded and succeeded “The String of Pearls” in the 19th century tend to come together as thought out stories that work as a cohesive whole. It is little surprising that the work does not stand firmly alongside other famous examples of Gothic literature and it would be wrong to have it included in a “classic horror” collection.
Nevertheless, the legend of Sweeney Todd has survived for almost two hundred years and we cannot base the entirety of this longevity on Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical any more than we can base the lasting allure of Gaston Laroux’s Gothic 1910 novel, “The Phantom of the Opera”, on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical. In fact, Todd’s pernicious grip on our imagination is arguably stronger in some ways compared to his other Gothic counterparts. Besides latter day desperate attempts to find links between Vlad Dracula of Walachia and Bram Stoker’s supernatural fiend, there is no cultural belief that “Dracula” was based on a true story. The same goes for the most famous creations of Laroux, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson and the like. However, the spectre of Sweeney Todd permeates our consciousness perhaps even more so than Sherlock Holmes, who is occasionally mistaken for a real 19th century personality.

It is too easy to look back and tut-tut at the crudeness of such a story’s structure, but such wandering off is still part and parcel of popular drama series, especially when writers are attempting to flesh out various cast members. Even epic sagas, like “A Song of Ice and Fire” that seem to be showing just about everyone through the serialized mammoth novels and the massively popular and critically acclaimed television show, “Game of Thrones” how to work a long-running story in a dense, complex and yet never boring way, has incurred some criticism for making the odd sub-plot divergence that amounts to little. When we made it the rather disappointing conclusion of the popular serial killer series, “Dexter”, did all the minor relationship dramas involving various members of the supporting cast in different seasons really feel they were a part of how the whole story concluded?
So, I would argue that “The String of Pearls” should not be viewed as a novel. It lives as a series of instalments and should not be read in one or a small number of sittings but over a lengthier period of time, as it was intended. This will probably help bring out the genuine flavour the material. The reader should embrace the twisting diversions of adventure as part of its charm rather than as an annoying distraction or a cynical attempt to pad the whole serial out. The narrative foreshadows the sort of excited conversational style that became a hallmark of serial radio and television shows. Our narrator is constantly leading us and often casting judgement over certain characters, bemoaning the wretched, championing the brave and condemning the evil. It provides a 1840s perspective on the London in the previous century and with the benefit of hindsight we can see what direction popular opinion was headed. Georgian London is seen as an oppressive rat’s nest of tyrants that crush the penniless young and thinly veil the criminal masses that squabble over property. Bullying seems to be a part of nearly every institution; the workplace, the medical institutions and the home.

The characters are two-dimensional and fairly standard 19th century archetypes. Having said that, most the story’s heroism is delivered by a female lead part, Johanna Oakley, which is noteworthy. Oakley drives the story when she initially suspects that Sweeney Todd has something to do with the disappearance of Lieutenant Thornhill, who discover in the first episode has been disposed of by Todd. Thornhill had been charged with delivering a string of pearls to Oakley when it was thought that her beloved, Mark Ingestrie, has been lost at sea. Oakley is shown to be brave, tenacious, loyal and intelligent in her endeavours throughout the story. The story’s main antagonist is the distilled evil that audiences enjoyed long before writers took a more sympathetic turn with his character. It is a shame not to read him in the way that originally caught everyone’s attention. He portrayed as an exceptionally tall and spindly character with huge hands, and a massive mop of hair. His laugh is blood-curdling and he is incredibly strong. He is amoral to the very core, savagely cunning, driven by avarice and self-centred in the extreme.
This edition of the story is presented in a complete format. There were many later editions, following the original penny dreadful including several re-writes, which Robert L. Mack tells us are inferior works. The introduction, chronology and endnotes are all very detailed and entertaining. Mack provides less of a literary insight into the story and more an historical and cultural review.

“The String of Pearls” was, by no means, a totally original piece. Urban legends about dodgy meat pies were present in Dickens’s work and other serials prior to this one. Looking at the timeframe of when it was written makes for eerie thinking. The following century life somewhat imitated art when the Hanover serial killer, Fritz Haarman, would claim that part of the way he disposed of his victims was by selling their meat on the black market, much of which made its way into pies! “The String of Pearls” was written not 20 years after the mass killings of the Edinburgh murderers, Burke and Hare, and just under 40 years later Jack the Ripper would terrorize London. The story sits in the middle of a century that would spawn the nightmares of the succeeding century and beyond.

Circus Mania
Circus Mania
by Douglas McPherson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Turn Your Back on the Sawdust Ring, 21 July 2014
This review is from: Circus Mania (Paperback)
Circus Mania” is a much needed dispassionately written book on the British circus scene. In order for this institution to survive, thrive and regain mainstream respectability in the media it needs journalistic appraisal, insight and critique. The author, theatrical journalist Douglas McPherson, explains in his introduction that he had only a “fragmentary” memory of his time watching the circus as a child. After that he had no connection with the circus whatsoever, admitting to the common middle-class prejudice of believing that circuses were bygone vestiges of animal abuse. Therefore, when “The Stage” newspaper asked him to review The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus’s 100th anniversary show, he came to the current British circus scene with fresh eyes. It was here where he met and interviewed the lovely Eva Garcia who would fall to her death at the very beginning of her cloud swing act just one day after his review was published. His experience at the show and meeting those who worked there inspired him to further investigate the British circus scene. McPherson had noticed that beside the behemoth institution that is Cirque du Soleil, it was rare for the performing arts world to take any notice of this very British showbusiness institution outside of the negative publicity targeted at animal circuses by their protesters.

McPherson’s book combines historical research on circus with interviews with circus owners and artists as well as his own reviews of their shows. Each chapter centres on one particular show or institution, covering the aforementioned Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus, The Great British Circus, Circus Mondeo, Circ Panic, The Circus of Horrors, The Circus Space circus school, Zippos Circus and the TV show “The Big Top”, Circus Hilarious, The Chinese State Circus, Cirque du Soleil, Cirque de Glace, the recollections of George Pinder Snr and Gerry Cottle’s Wookie Hole circus school. The narrative running through the book links the chapters smoothly, taking the reader on a journey through McPherson’s own education in circus history and culture. His own life comes into play, but only with regards to the way he and his wife reacted to the various shows. The writing never strays from its focus, and McPherson compares and contrasts styles of circus he has seen whilst reflecting on circus history.

Unlike the author, I certainly don’t come to this sort of material with fresh eyes. My earliest recollections are living in a wagon with the smells of diesel, sawdust, candy floss and animals taking turns in my infantile nostrils. My mother comes from an unbroken three centuries old circus family. My family were performing circus acts a century before the modern circus ring was created. My father ran away to join the circus, and my parents set up their own circus for six years. So, as you can imagine, I know most of the people McPherson interviews and reviews. It is always interesting to hear from an outsider’s perspective and to find out new things about people you have known all your life. I also discovered new pieces of information on circus history, particularly its early days in Britain.

McPherson’s reviewing style is very fair in most respects. Grasping how wildly different circus has become, everything is kept in context, accounting for budgets and target audience. He is not afraid to call the world’s largest and most successful Cirque du Soleil on its pretentiousness and the pretentiousness of many other “new circus” or “cirque” outfits, such as the immersive NoFit State Circus. Yet he shows a complete understanding of its artistic bent praises its strong points and how these points shown to be truly innovative in the circus/ice skating hybrid that is Cirque de Glace. His interviewees are candid in their criticism of the old and the new in the circus world.

The book has its errors. . For example, the real name for the Paulo family is Butcher and not Thompson. Given the tangled web of circus families and apocryphal tales, I am very surprised he got away with so few. He was lucky that one of his interviewees was George Pinder, a member of the circus world who is passionate about his own circus family history and I was delighted to see an entire chapter dedicated to him.

I am curious about his distinction between circus palari and theatrical/gay polari. Palari is the slang of circus people with related equivalents in the showman (fairground) and gypsy cultures. It was always my understanding that the slang was brought into the theatres by circus people and then adopted by the then illegal gay community as a code language. Although noticing similarities between the two, McPherson contends they are two separate slang languages.

I also found that although, on the whole, I agreed with the author’s opinion on circus, he didn’t completely shake off animal rights influence. He didn’t like the way horses bow in circus acts, which is actually a very commonplace behaviour that runs across horse training outside of circus. In the same chapter he criticized the elephant pyramid, arguing that such a trick need not be performed, as the presence of the elephants was enough. Neither trick is a cruel behaviour. Elephants have been recently pictured in the wild standing on their hind legs to access high branches and the positioning is very similar to mating. If it is an exploitation argument then we are really into a deep philosophical question outside of animal welfare and in the murky realm of animal rights. If a trick isn’t proven to be harmful to an animal under scientific conditions then why should it be pulled? This is a debate for another day, but I am interested to see it being present in McPherson’s opinion when he shows a lot of self-awareness regarding the middle class seduction by animal rights ideals.

Sadly Gifford’s Circus is missing from the book. They would have fitted perfectly into the mix, representing perhaps the newest face of circus, something referred to as “Heritage Circus”. I would have loved to have heard the author’s view on this particular brand of circus, which turns its eye back to traditional circus with a theatrical eye and fresh imaginative perspective. Maybe, if this book receives the response it deserves, the author will consider writing a further review on their circus and their respective clientèle.

The author and his publisher clearly couldn’t resist going with the traditional circus archetype in its design and it is wonderfully creative. When it comes to books, I am an anti-minimalist and circus rarely fits into a modernist art mode. Circus is always big, glitzy, loud and varied. This is reflected well in Nick Pearson’s design work and Douglas McPherson’s vision for the overall presentation. True to his personal persuasions, there is nothing stuffy about the way the book is put together. The fonts to the chapters and front cover are of the typical clichéd circus poster style. The front cover displays an image from the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus with a curious very small insert of “Doc” (John) Haze at the bottom and the back has an image from the Circus of Horrors. This is a very clear intended juxtaposition of the different styles of British circus. The beginning of the book is set out like a traditional circus programme with the contents page titled as “The Programme”. McPherson is cast as “Your Ringmaster” and the index of names at the back are headed “The Cast”. Each chapter has a small introduction line to explain the subject matter and presented as a sales blurb. It made it all feel very episodic and kept my interest even when I was tired or not reading in the best of conditions.

The world of circus needs books like “Circus Mania”. I would say it is the most important insight into British circus since Nell Stroud’s “Josser”. Nell, who is now co-owner of Gifford’s Circus, touched upon the problems with modern circus journalism, which was often either shamelessly partisan or written from the views of those with a personal agenda against traditional circus. However, Nell’s beautiful book only provided a view from an outsider living on British shows. McPherson’s work, written over a decade later, compliments this with the other side. He is the much needed objective, academic reviewer that can bring the world of circus outside of “Cirque” and “New Circus” to a wider audience again.

Stephen Fry Does the 'Knowledge' (BBC Audiobooks)
Stephen Fry Does the 'Knowledge' (BBC Audiobooks)
by Stephen Fry
Edition: Audio CD

3.0 out of 5 stars LIght Knowledge through the BBC Archives, 10 Jun. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Stephen Fry has established himself as the man who made brains cool. The success of the celebrity comedy quiz show "Q.I.", which Fry hosts, has shown that we are as keen as ever to gain knowledge. Therefore, he was the obvious choice to narrate BBC Radio's "The Knowledge", where he explores the nature of knowledge and our fascination with its acquisition. Using the fact that a taxi driver once won Mastermind and the extraordinary amount of knowledge people in that profession often possess, Fry takes us through a veritable archive of BBC programmes and interviews with individuals, focusing on our love of knowledge.
Fry addresses the issue of defining knowledge and our changing values of it. After the nation was shocked at the success of a London cab-driver, Fred Houesgo, winning "Mastermind" back in 1980, many have pondered whether cabbies generally have a large capacity for retaining knowledge. Housego had left school aged 16 with one "O" level, but self-educated himself during his time working as a postman and driving his taxi. He read vociferously and indiscriminately, building up the perfect resources for expertise in general knowledge. Cab drivers typically engage in conversation with a huge variety of people all day and all week long, memorizing complex routes and traffic information as well. It's not difficult to see why one would ponder the possible correlation. Therefore, the entire programme takes it from this perspective. Housego, who is now conveniently a BBC radio personality, is interviewed for the programme. There is another rather twee connection to taxi driving, Fry owns a London cab!

The problem with "The Knowledge" is that it isn't so much as an investigation into knowledge and what it means, but more an articulate negotiation around BBC archive material. Aside from some interviews there is nothing particularly fresh. We don't go much into the history of knowledge; only as far the BBC archives takes us. This is rather limiting and really just leaves Fry to try to draw his answers from the way entertainment uses knowledge, which isn't really what the programme is all about. Fry is entertaining enough, as always is, but for a topic that demands a bit of depth it all comes off as rather whimsical and unenlightening.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a trip down memory lane of broadcasting history and the topic of knowledge, then this is a fun programme. It is well-produced and Fry is always a joy to listen to. However, if you are looking for a serious discussion on the way we value knowledge then you may be a little disappointed.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Edition: Audio CD

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bring me Cordelia!, 18 Mar. 2012
Positive thinking has become so integrated into the value system of our modern culture, it might seem somewhat odd to find an argument against it. And yet that is exactly what Barbara Ehrenreich does. The release of this book, which was published as "Smile or Die" in the UK has corresponded with the publication of more bold books, willing to challenge the power of positive thinking. A little while back I read Steve Salerno's unrelenting attack on the self-help movement, "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless" and since then we have had "The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self Help Book" by Neel Burton. Even the great psychologist Richard Wiseman has taken positive thinking to task and looked at the real science behind self-help in "59 Seconds", which came out the same year as "Bright-Sided". This book was not an overt criticism of the self-help movement but rather a genuine attempt to use case studies, raw data and proven psychological methods to help people improve their lives. However, in keeping to the science Wiseman highlighted just how much of the self-help movement was bogus and even damaging. His first chapter, "Happiness", began with a total debunking of positive thinking and revealed that far from being innocuous at worse, these techniques endorsed by the vast majority of the self-help movement could actually be harmful.

However, out of all these books Ehrenreich's "Bright-Sided" seems to be the most comprehensive and distilled in its deconstruction of the whole philosophy of positive thinking. She begins with her first clash with the cult of positive thinking after being diagnosed with breast cancer in around 2001. Ehrereich's award winning "Welcome to Cancerland" article, which was published not long after she started receiving treatment, demonstrated the writer's annoyance with the whole positive industry surrounding victims of cancer. The article inspired several people to question the so-called empowering methods being employed at all levels of cancer care and support. It even inspired the 2011 documentary "Pink Ribbon Inc.", which further explored the exploitative industry of those who were supposedly trying to help victims of the disease.
In "Bright-Sided" she has far more space to go through her own personal experiences on forums and support groups, which led her down the path of investigating the whole nature of positive thinking. Ehrenreich noticed that not only were pseudoscientific products and ideas being hawked to help strengthen a patient's immune systems against cancer on the back of positive thinking, but also that positive thinking was putting extra pressure on some victims of the disease. Worse still, terminal cancer patients were being made to feel they had somehow failed. Ehernreich noted the perverse extremes the philosophy of cancer support gurus who told "survivors" to be thankful for their cancer. Working through restriction and seeing opportunities through bad situations is all well and good, but that is a world apart from thinking that being affected by a disease like cancer is somehow a blessing!

America, as the author, notes in her prologue, is a country known for its positive attitude. The sign-off "Have a nice day!" and perpetual ivory white smiles are the trademark of the nation. Whereas Britain had the stereotyped stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, their cousins over the Atlantic did much more than stare down their problems with calm and a dry sense of humour, they "embraced it" with open arms.

Looking outside "Cancerland" Ehrenreich's attention was drawn to the way positive thinking had become a part of the very society lived in and had gone on to infect the rest of the world. I was particularly interested in the way traced this national philosophy back to the USA's Christian roots. Positive thinking has a distinctively puritanical hard work ethic at its core, which the author linked back to Calvinism. She then traces how it evolved through the emergence of American religion such as Christian Science and the 19th century mystical idea that people could be healed through thinking in a certain way.

Ever the anti-capitalist, it would have been out of character for the author not to have picked up on the way materialism became part of the whole positive thinking fad as it took hold of America's value system. Suddenly doctrines in Christianity that saw the virtue in poverty and humility were replaced by the idea that God wants Man to prosper. To be a successful and wealthy businessman went hand-in-hand with being a good Christian. Positive thinking, Ehrenreich argues fuelled the mega-churches and the rise of evangelism. The obvious attraction of enthusiastic and happy people - genuine and otherwise - meant that such institutions would be successful.

Of course, American Christianity, as powerful and hugely influential as it is, does not have a monopoly on positive thinking as a method or ethic. The book makes a strong point that the allure of the attitude easily permeated the New Age movement from its earliest beginnings. Deepak Chopra and others fully endorse the mind over matter ideas that first became popular in 19th century America. This has allowed the gateway to open for all sorts of spiritual marriages with the acquisition of wealth. Concepts like cosmic ordering and the law of attraction, championed by the bestselling pseudoscientific book "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne, straddles New Age spiritualism and secularism with ease.

It is with the idea that positive thinking is just a given to be good for you, Ehrenreich makes the case that its misuse is responsible for the fall of businesses and a strong component in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and global recession of the late 2000s. She has a good argument that compliments the cognitive dissonance/self-justification theory illustrated in Carol Tavris's "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)". Looking at it both we see an interesting picture of self-justification and refusal to accept personal error or responsibility fueled by a culture of "yes men". The "yes men" element, of course, comes from Ehrenreich. Many large corporations have adopted a policy of firing advisers who were not positive enough. This type of delusion led employees of banks and businesses to refuse to listen to those who erred on the side of caution or presented a picture that was anything less than positive for the future.

What seems to key in Ehrenreich's critique is the way that overzealous positivity prohibits the voices of reason. To not be positive has become a sin. And yet this has not always been so. There are plenty of fables that praise the person who is willing to stand against madness, delusion and flattery to deliver the hard truth. My favourite is Cordelia from Shakespeare's "King Lear". The youngest of the abdicating old king's daughters refuses to follow the flattery of her sisters, Goneril and Regan. They have competed for their father's affection in public in order to be given the biggest portion of the kingdom as possible. They play to his vanity. Cordelia, Lear's actual favourite, will not do anything but tell her father the truth. Lear ends up banishing her and suffers the consequences when his elder daughters reveal the true, cruel and ruthless natures. Cordelia, it is argued by many is also replaced The Fool, Lear's court jester, who continues to remind the king of his follies and his errors of judgment. The truth is that every great leader needs their Cordelia. They need the person who has the strength and cares enough to tell the truth.

The audiobook production is straightforward and slick. There are no whistles and bells, as befits the tone of the book. My only criticism is that Barbara Ehrenreich might not be to everyone's taste. I get her dry humour and delivery, but a fellow listener commented that it sounded a little robotic. This is a problem with a lot of members of the sceptical movement. They might be witty and articulate, but that cold logic they bring to their subjects can permeate into their delivery, making them less appealing to the middle ground. It is a small observation and I reiterate that it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the work.

"Bright-Sided" is a sobering and bold piece of non-fiction. I believe it opened the floodgates for more works that have dared to challenge impractical, exploitative and delusional concepts at the very core of modern society. This is coming from someone who counts life-coaches and self-help counselors among his friends. I even wrote a forward for a delightful collection of motivating essays written by a dear friend who is an incredible positive thinker. I don't think that we should be deeply cynical about those who motivate us or tell us to think positively and neither does Ehrenreich. We may have some interesting arguments for applied pessimism in recent non-fiction books and perhaps nihilism will make a return to the fore in the wake the damage over-the-top optimism and unrealistic idealism has done to the financial factor. However, Ehrenreich is not putting the case for an opposite approach to positive thinking. Her final chapter, her postscript in fact, is perhaps the best piece in the entire book. Unlike Salerno's "SHAM", Ehrenreich acknowledges that the reader needs some sort of alternative solution to unrealistic and unchecked positive thinking. She looks at the way pessimism can be applied practically without destroying ambition and how science enables us to best understand the way the world works. She argues for a sense of proportion, balance and realism.

The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe
The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe
by Christopher Stevens
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pure Comfort Reading!, 19 Jan. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
My first memories of the work of Alan Simpson and Ray Galton came in the form of a video rental my dad brought home to please my mum. I hadn't a clue who Tony Hancock was and couldn't understand the excitement. My mum and her cousins on the circus were huge fans of the Tony Hancock records and radio shows. They knew many of the scripts off by heart and would often fall into scenes at the drop of a hat. The only connection I made with the video was when Sid James popped up in "The Missing Page". Terrestrial TV in the 1980s ensured that its children grew up on the entire "Carry On" collection. However, even then, I noticed that there was something about Hancock that seemed better than the very broad and brash strokes of the seaside postcard humour that these later films exhibited. Later I was introduced to "Steptoe and Son" on TV and couldn't help but be drawn to its on-going comedy drama. Again, it seemed remarkable how it could pick such a depressing setting and even creepiness and yet make it so funny. Fast forward a few years and we had just moved into our cottage on the farm. It was the night of the terrible and under-anticipated hurricane. Mum had bought the first set of BBC released audio recordings of "Hancock's Half Hour" and we had a battery powered tape recorder to listen to them on. Since then the Hancock radio work especially has been a source of comfort to me. It has accompanied me on long car journeys, recovering in hospital (appropriately listening to "The Hospital Visit" episode for the first time) and it has got me through some tough emotional times too.

Therefore it was of little surprise that "The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe" was a real joy to read. It's not an in depth analysis of the subject matter or even a "warts `n all" biography. It's an affectionate yet honest tribute to Britain's best loved comedy writing duo. By the time I could enjoy real comedy Alan Simpson and Ray Galton had long since ended their fruitful business relationship. They have remained lifelong friends, but their golden, silver and bronze eras had long since passed. They got out when they were on top, leaving a prolific and highly influential legacy few could come close to equalling. In this book, author Christopher Stevens, an expert on Galton and Simpson's era of comedy, presents a collection of excerpts from the duo's archives, including work that no longer exists in its broadcast form. Galton and Simpson made their names in a profession that was virtually destined for unsung heroism. It was rare for producers or for comic actors to want the general public to know that there was a creative genius behind artistes like Frankie Howard and Tony Hancock. The writing duo seemed to fit in well with this anonymity, as to this day Stevens found them to be incredibly modest and self-depreciating about their massive contribution to entertainment.
On that note I think there is a lot to be said about Stevens' understated approach to writing. The book could easily have been a throwaway piece of nostalgia - the low pictures/high text ratio equivalent of a coffee table book. However, the subject matter and the material contained is so engrossing and downright entertaining only fool would want to part with it. This is enhanced by Stevens' knowledge. He puts his case that without Galton and Simpson situation comedy would look nothing like it does today. He further argues that many of today's sit-com icons are clear extensions of Hancock or Steptoe. The evidence he produces is pretty compelling, and it carefully shows the way the writing duo's style evolved, providing the writers that would follow them with a rich pool of ideas.

Stevens' decision to just give surface details in his biographical sketches of the various people mentioned in the book was a prudent decision. It's not a short volume and it is clear the author doesn't want too much distraction from the actual comedy itself. This is not to say this book should be taken as an academic study of the anatomy of situation comedy or even Galton and Simpson's work; this is clearly not its intention. However, where needed, Stevens is willing to talk candidly about certain aspects of people's lives. Hancock's breakdown during his time working on the radio series, which led to him fleeing to Europe without warning and for Harry Secombe to takeover is not brushed over. Likewise, Stevens disagrees with the commonly held belief that Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell really had a bad relationship off screen.

The book takes a slightly unusual if simplistic format. Stevens has interviewed Galton and Simpson a lot, and briefly describes his experiences with them. He has also interviewed a few other people connected to their work. However, for the most part he lets the voices do the work. We find out about the two writers' backgrounds and how they both ended up recovering in hospital together for a year, which ended up forging an almost telepathic writing collaboration. Inspired by American comedy, which they felt was decades ahead of the British, the duo had an uncannily similar idea about how What emerged were two people who prided themselves as being craftsman rather than artists, but were nonetheless passionate about their work. Here and there their strong political and (non)religious views popped up, but it never took over the pieces in the way so many other comedy franchises of today have done. Stevens also shows how many of their own experiences and people from their own lives have ended up in the material, which seems to make it all the more heartfelt. The book's selection criteria for what excerpts to use is quite novel. It follows a chronological path, but Stevens is mindful not to just include the famous scripts. Knowing that his core reader will be the firm fan or collector, he has given precedence to scripts of work that has been erased forever by the BBC or never materialized. This means we get the wonderful pairing of Frankie Howard with Tony Hancock - which we will never hear again - and the time when Harry Secombe filled in for Hancock for three episodes, resulting in their eventual meeting. However, even if you are a casual fan of their work I am confident this not put you off. The writing is light yet informative and the material showcased is true comedy genius. It's a wonderful book to just relax into and to recall a golden age of British situation comedy.

Bad History: How We Got the Past Wrong
Bad History: How We Got the Past Wrong
by Emma Marriott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beginner's Guide to Critical Thinking in History, 20 Oct. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It's quite disappointing to see how much flack this excellent little book has received. I was under no illusion that the book I was about to read was going to be a light read. The book's title does imply that it is to be considered to be in the same category as Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" and Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy". Despite both of these books being written for a lay audience they were not shot in details or text. Emma Marriot's slim collection of short essays might be with Goldacre and Plait in sentiment, but the work isn't intended to educate the reader in good historical research. However, it does provide examples of what good research achieves and how good historians view the past. Unfortunately I think many history buffs were looking forward to a heavily cited and in depth analysis of historical myths and a debunking of pseudohistory; not a book strictly for academics, but nevertheless one with a scholarly appeal. Recent years have seen some good academics, like Richard J Evans take on the postmodern anti-historical wave and others like David Aronovitch, Kathryn S. Olmsted and even sceptical scientist Michael Shermer produce sterling investigations that both debunk and seek to understand the nature of conspiracy theory.

Although such books are sorely needed in history writing - I think way too many academics underestimate the impact of conspiracy theories and pseudohistory - a book like this is arguably more needed. As Damien Thompson pointed out in "Counterknowledge", more pseudohistorical books are finding their way over from the "New Age and Spiritual" section and into the "General History" section. Through a mixture of propaganda of the time, influential biased historians of later times, folklore and movies the general public have grown up often believing very distorted views of incidents in history. This isn't helped with postmodernism arguing that virtually all accounts of the past are equally as valid as they are all just opinions. However, history is a serious study. We only ever have the past as a reference and this is what so much is based on from building businesses to deciding legal cases to planning strategies. Good historians understand the difference between a wild theory or biased idea about a past event and a view that is shaped by the most compelling empirical evidence. And yet, as this book demonstrates, the majority of us have a woeful understanding of the past.

Most people believe that a typical Roman gladiator fight will end with one of the participants dead. Abraham Lincoln is celebrated as the man who fought the American Civil War to win freedom for slaves in the south. Even academics have been known to venerate Galileo as the champion of science against the oppressive Catholic Church. And try to tell your average patriotic Irish man that their patron saint wasn't really Irish and didn't encounter a single snake in Ireland. Go into your local Works or even W.H. Smith and you will see no end of mass market "fact" books. Airports and service stations have no end of pulp non-fiction on sale. These books of myths, half-truths and gross generalizations ultimately make their way into the mind of the undemanding reader and are often found as last minute "educational" books for teenagers. They are then referenced in popular journalism and repeated through the generations. History has not been a compulsory subject in schools since the 1980s and yet the thirst for information on the past and its stories could not be greater, and can be seen by the existence of mainstream channels, expensive documentaries, mainstream magazines and big budget Hollywood blockbusters. People define their cultures, their national heritage, their politics and even their beliefs on what they think happened in the past. These undeniable facts alone should scream the importance of having more light and accessible reference books that points the casual reader in the direction of good history.

One of the criticisms targeted at "Bad History" is that the chapter titles are somehow misleading. For example, when the chapter proclaims the myth that "Gladiators Fought to the Death", the chapter doesn't provide the complete opposite to this statement. I don't see the problem with at all. The chapter does assert that the very limited evidence we have of gladiatorial combats shows that this entertainment spectacle, born out of a human sacrifice ritual held at an aristocratic funeral, rarely resulted in deaths. The reasons for this are quite commonsensical. Why would businessmen invest so much money and time in the training of individuals only to risk losing them in their first fight? The fictional media and documentaries on these combatants present an overwhelming picture of every single fight being a fight to the death. Of course, some gladiators did die, as is the risk of anyone who enters into a full contact sport, and this rate of mortality would have been relative to the nature of the fights and the life expectancy of the times. The author explains that there were also other events featuring non-gladiators - Christians and criminals for example - where the outcome was most certainly death. I don't see how this is not providing a rebuttal of the original assertion.

I admit we are only a little shakier ground with the chapter that purports to debunk the popular belief that Mary Tudor was a "Ruthless Persecutor of Protestants". In this case, I concede to Marriot's critics. Here Emma Marriot does not attempt to prove that Mary wasn't a ruthless persecutor of Protestants - she just argues that the five year reigning queen wasn't any worse than her father, Henry VIII, or her sister, Elizabeth I. We get a more rounded picture of Mary Tudor, a ruler who was unlucky in her campaigns and had her better qualities "forgotten" by the Protestant propaganda that followed her death.

However, as far as I am concerned we need more historians that try to present a more human figure of the popular "saints" and "demons" of our past. We are presented with the less ruthless and even admirable side of "The Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismark. Ian Mortimer's excellent recent book on "Henry V" has caused a dramatic shift in opinion on the royal icon immortalized by his own propaganda machine and finally by the plays of William Shakespeare. This book, which presents the greatest amount of primary source research on the individual to date, puts over a compelling argument that Henry V was not the free-and-easy prince turned responsible and righteous warrior king that England remembers. Evidence reveals him to be a great organizer and brave warrior, but also a warmongering and humourless religious fanatic. Emma Marriott presents a condensed summary of Mortimer's work in one of her chapters. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that "1415: Henry V's Year of Glory" is not necessarily a book that your average casual history fan will read or even know about.

Marriott's chapter on Cecil Rhodes, where the argument is put over whether or not he was a good or bad man reveals the crux of a point Marriott is trying to put over. Life and history are not that simple. Given that the chapters are light and written in a highly accessible way, the author does a fantastic job of presenting the grey areas and complexity of history. From the outset she explains in almost scientific terms how there are no absolutes in good history. We only see the facts as temporary conclusions reached by the consensus of informed opinion. This opinion is supported by the most convincing empirical evidence available. Often what we find is that myths are created to fall in line with a certain narrative of the time or even a narrative of today that simplified matters towards what people wanted to believe. Even the scientific community are susceptible to this and the facts about Galileo's relationship with the Catholic Church are far from the clear-cut battle of science versus religion that many of us sceptics like to think it was. It turns out that his endorsement and elaboration on Copernican theory was challenged by his rival scientists first before the pope, a good friend of Galileo, was brought into the fray. Far from being thrown into a prison, he lived a life of luxury, albeit under a very loose house arrest, and remained a staunch Catholic throughout his life.

However, if you are concerned that this might be a bit wishy-washy, fear not. There are plenty of historic myths that are shown to be complete nonsense. From the fascist propaganda that Mussolini made the trains run on time - a persistent myth that thrives thanks to a very twisted form of mainstream nostalgia - to the conspiracy theory that Pearl Harbour was a plot engineered by President Roosevelt. A lot of these facts might not be news to historians, but evidence shows that a large amount of the general public still believes them.

This includes the romanticized idea of the Bolsheviks storming the winter palace with Lenin at the head in 1917. This interesting little chapter shows just how easily fictionalized drama, in the form of film footage, was just as easily mistaken for reality in the past as it is today. See Charlie Brooker's "How TV Ruined your Life" for modern day version of this folly, particularly the final episode entitled "Knowledge". Marriott explains how a romantic dramatization of the storming of the Winter Palace ended up being reproduced on documentaries as actual footage of the event!

The book is annotated with footnotes, but Marriott quotes her reference material throughout. There is also a helpful bibliography and a fairly extensive index. The format of the book's short chapters is executed in a fun way, containing several illustrations - these include technical maps by David Woodroffe and cartoons by Andrew Pinder. Again, the historian critics have their gripe with this, but this is just the nature of the book and if it makes it more accessible to a lay audience then that's a good thing.

In conclusion "Bad History" is a much-needed book. It represents a moth of hope to battle against the Pandora's Box of junk history and pop non-fiction that makes its way to casual history readers through well-meaning presents or as a last minute travel purchase. When I was 10 years old I received a great birthday present in the form of "The Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies". Since reading that children's book numerous times I have discovered that some of these facts are untrue and that is the joy of the corrective nature of critical thinking. However, that book planted a seed in me to question accepted "truths" and ideas. For the most part the book revealed old wives tales, pseudoscience, pseudohistory and bad geography. I am grateful to that book because it helped me accept many years later that a lot the other fun educational books of facts well-meaning relatives gave me over the years contained a lot of nonsense. When I eventually got into scepticism properly - which was around 13 years or so later - I found it quite easy to dismiss sacred cows and become aware of my own biases. New information that challenged old ideas did not meet with a lot of resistance from me and I quickly understood how to filter out information that lacked substance. My point here is that "The Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies" helped me to pursue learning by showing me that it is important to question. A scholarly book wouldn't have had that sort of impact. I hope that "Bad History" will be the fish bait needed for those who will go on to study good history and be more readily aware of the myth-making process both in the past and of today.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 4, 2013 6:47 AM GMT

Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir
Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir
by Margaux Fragoso
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The line between candour and sensationalism, 9 July 2011
This review is from: Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have mixed feelings about the proliferation of tragic biographies. This newish subgenre is a bit like the reverse of a true crime biography. Like Steve Salerno's definition of self-help styles, empowerment and victimization, the true crime biography caters to a perverse idea about empowerment whilst the tragic biography focuses on the victim. In one breath I have the utmost respect for an individual who can turn legitimately terrible things in their lives into something positive. However, there is something distasteful at the idea of a whole genre dedicated telling stories about abused childhoods. This is coming from a fan of psychology and criminal history. Although I admit to getting a degree entertainment from reading this stuff, even a grim fascination that draws many of us to fictional horror stories, there just seems to be something depressingly pornographic in the idea that a whole section an airport bookshop is dedicated to books that have titles like "Ugly" and "Cut".

"Tiger, Tiger" doesn't deserve to belong in this category despite what some critics have said. It transcends the genre in many ways and it does have genuine educational value. I am not going to patronize its talented author by saying how brave she was to write this book. Somehow courage really isn't the issue here, although I would argue that strength is. "Tiger, Tiger" is the story of a lifelong relationship between a paedophile and his victim, a little girl, Margaux Fragoso.

Margaux met her abuser when she was just seven years old and he was 51. It was a chance meeting that initially begun, in very unlikely fashion, with the child approaching her would-be abuser, Peter. Peter befriends Margaux's mother, a woman with severe mental health problems, and invites them over to his house on a regular basis. Peter has his own children and a wife, but their estrangement from him has already begun when the Fragasos arrive. The story takes us through Peter's grooming of Margaux and the various stages of their bizarre relationship. Meanwhile, Margeaux's family life is far from perfect. Her perfectionist and martyring father obsesses with outward appearances and becomes increasingly frustrated with his wife and daughter. They move neighbourhoods, but her mother's fragile mental condition deteriorates and Margeaux becomes a troublesome child to her father. Despite breaks in their relationship Margeaux and Peter's lives are destined to remain firmly entangled until his eventual death.

"Tiger, Tiger" is unsettling in many ways, not least than with the genuine affection Margaux regards her abuser and paints him as a three dimensional individual. Just as we find it virtually impossible to comprehend that so many individuals could have been complicit in the atrocities and the philosophy of the Nazis, the idea that a child abuser can be anything more than a shadowy beast somehow feels wrong. This is why gimmicky and inefficient ideas like "Stranger Danger" are very saleable. We want to think of paedophiles as people we don't know despite the evidence showing that the overwhelming majority are known to the victim and good friends with the victim's family (the majority, of course, are a parent or uncle of the victim). We also want to think of these offenders as being capable of murder and not having a conscience. Again, this is far from the truth.
Margeaux even begins her book with a discussion with a friend who tells her that paedophiles are often among the most polite and sensitive members of prison communities, despite being the most hated inmates. It's this candour that most impresses me with her writing. You have a feel that this is really how it all happens. As a self protection coach who specializes in teaching children, I feel a heavy responsibility to have an understanding how predators operate. Recognizing that these individuals are human beings better prepares us in handling them in a mature fashion as a society.

In fact, this immature sense of collective denial is perhaps a main contributing factor to why people like Peter are able to continue to abuse. "Tiger, Tiger" describes how so many people were complicit in the abuse through their refusal to act upon their suspicions. Peter abused his victim in his own home, a place occupied by his own family and under the nose of Margeaux's own mother. He abused his victim despite the suspicions of Margeaux's father, who ended up even showing a begrudging admiration for him. He abused his victim in a community that did little more than gossip about the inappropriate nature of their public relationship. The message is clear not wishing to believe that a paedophile can be an otherwise good natured individual doesn't help victims.

The work has been accused of sensationalizing its subject matter in order to sell copies, making it one of the most controversial books published in 2011. However, although I would agree that some of the explicit descriptions of sexual activity are unnecessary, far worse is in print. "Today I am Alice" by Alice Jamieson, for example, not only describes terrifyingly disturbing accounts of child abuse, but the psychological assumptions of the story are not backed up by mainstream science. However, it garnered little controversy despite making very controversial claims, such as referencing Satanic Ritual Abuse. There has yet to be a single proven case of SRA and many innocent adults had their entire lives ruined by unfounded accusations that were backed up by misguided Freudian ideas about repression. Somehow the fact that Jamieson paints her father as a one dimensional multiple satanic child abuser and her own condition being the highly contested yet highly intriguing multiple personality disorder makes her more disturbing descriptions of childhood rape somehow more palatable to readers.

Margeaux clearly feels a need to justify the way she wrote the book and the prologue and epilogue do seem jarringly at odds with the nature of the story. However, this is possibly intentional. Margeaux, a gifted debut author, spins her story with a good amount of artistic licence. She says she was an avid diary writer, but the book consists of many full-blown discussions between the book's main protagonists. I am not against this anymore than I was with Gerald Durrel and other authors who recorded their memoirs in similar non-fiction novel style.

"Tiger, Tiger" is a very uncomfortable read, but discomfort is not always a bad thing. We need honesty and understanding if we are to better combat the evils of our society. As a children's self protection coach I would like to advise this book to any parent. However, I would only do so with a word of caution.

The Eagle of the Ninth (BBC Radio)
The Eagle of the Ninth (BBC Radio)
by Rosemary Sutcliff
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £12.26

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dusted off in time for the movie!, 1 Jun. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Eagle of the Ninth (audio play)


The audio play tells a tale of a noble and very brave centurion, Marcus Aquila (Tom Smith) who is almost crippled when he attacks an enemy chariot in battle. As he recovers he saves the life of a gladiator, Esca (Tony Kearney), and buys him as his slave. Having formed a bond with the man he then releases him from slavery, but asks him if he would like to accompany him on a perilous journey. Impressed by his former master's kindness and a desire to see the homeland he was originally taken from, Esca agrees to accompany Marcus.

Marcus's mission is to find the Eagle of the Ninth Legion. This standard is thought to be in the possession of a Caledonian tribe in the north of Britain, a tribe that destroyed the Ninth Legion in 117 AD, not long after the erection of Hadrian's Wall. This legion's demise brings possible disgrace on the Roman Empire and the thought of a British tribe using it as inspiration for others, is enough encouragement for Marcus's superiors to let him go on the mission. However, Marcus has other reasons for going on the quest. He wishes to discover the truth about the last stand of the legions of First Cohort Commander - his father...


With 2011's release of a somewhat amped up and bloodthirsty major motion picture rendition of the much loved children's classic "The Eagle of the Ninth" by Rosemary Sutcliff (filmed under the alternative publication title, "The Eagle") it is little surprising that earlier dramatizations would suddenly get the re-release treatment. This radio play was last aired in 1996. It was a good decade for Radio 4's radio plays and one that saw such ambitious projects as the full dramatization of the complete works Sherlock Holmes - the first and only time this has ever been done in any medium. "The Eagle of the Ninth" is a well produced drama, but - with all due respect to the able cast - it contains no obvious stars. The book has remained popular since its publication in 1954, so it was hardly a controversial decision to dramatize it in the first place, but there is no record to indicate it was a popular adaption. It would probably have been gathering dust in the archives if it wasn't for the release of "The Eagle" film. The fact that there wasn't a dramatization of any of the book's sequels would seem confirm this statement.

The play is well produced with good sound effects and a capable cast of BBC character actors. The musical soundtrack is comprised of contemporaneous Roman instruments and there is a feel of authenticity to the work. Unfortunately the action that drove the book and the new movie are conspicuously lacking. "The Eagle of the Ninth" is a story about relationships and contains a cast of interesting characters, but its appeal comes from the physical action described - both through flashback sequences and in the main story. This is not easy to convey in radio dramas and I have heard a wide variety of successes and failures in this department. Director Sêan Damer works well with the "talkie" scenes, but he might have done well to have taken a leaf out of Jane Morgan and Penny Leicester's 1981 very good adaption of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Exposition is a difficult and dangerous technique to use, but it is pretty essential for radio plays, especially those that contain a lot of action. "The Lord of the Rings" slips up a little from time to time, but mainly carries it off. "The Eagle of the Ninth" could have done the same, as can be seen during Esca's brief gladiatorial bout and with the discovery the Eagle. Instead they err on the side of caution and the result is a rather uneventful action adventure story.

That being said, the script is managed fairly well and the scenes that deal with storytelling are entertaining enough. For those seeking more depth to the film adaptation I would point them to Sutcliff's book. However, more patient fans won't be disappointed by the fact that the BBC team remained loyal to the original text and might enjoy experiencing the tale through another medium.
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