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Sheenagh Pugh "Sheenagh Pugh" (Shetland)
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White Hart, Red Lion: The England of Shakespeare's Histories
White Hart, Red Lion: The England of Shakespeare's Histories
by Nick Asbury
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Journeys in time and place, 31 July 2013
The title comes from the fact that Richard II, an ineffectual soul for the most part, gave us many of our modern pub names - he made it law that inns should have a sign, and since they tended to be places where the adherents of this or that local lord, aka bandit, foregathered, they soon adopted those lords' badges.

Nick Asbury is an actor who spent years playing in the RSC Histories cycle (Richard II to Richard III). This book travels the territory of the History plays, ie that of the "cousin wars", and aims to show both how the plays derive from their landscape, and how they relate to events in Shakespeare's time and parallel events in ours.

Now I've always liked this approach; it makes sense. When a dramatist uses "history", he is nearly always trying to make some point about his own times, often one he dare not make directly. We know that Euripides used events in The Trojan Women to criticise obliquely the conduct of his Athenian townsmen, only a year earlier, in enslaving fellow-Greeks on Melos. We can easily see that Brenton's The Romans in Britain are the Britons in Ireland. But for some reason Shakespearean studies, at least in school, often ignore this aspect, as if he were Georgette Heyer dealing in archaic escapism. So we fail to notice that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his protagonists were still mighty in the land, indeed paying his salary, and that the seesawing fortunes of Catholicism and Protestantism in his day mirrored those of York and Lancaster in the plays, with those who wished to survive having to be quite flexible about which side they were on. Shakespeare's parents had been brought up Catholic (Henry VIII was essentially as Catholic as the Pope; he just thought he ought to be the Pope) and had lived through the ardently Protestant reign of Edward VII and the more literally ardent Catholic one of Mary, before discovering that they were Protestants again under the initially more tolerant rule of Elizabeth, much as the Stanleys, for example, very sensibly decided their allegiance to York or Lancaster on the basis of who was ahead at the time.

Many of Asbury's historical parallels - eg that of the Talbot/Countess d'Auvergne episode in Henry VI with the detention of Mary Queen of Scots by that Talbot's direct descendant - are both useful and interesting. I'm less convinced when he talks about "magic" in landscape and history. He actually tries really hard not to romanticise events, and is often commendably hard-headed and humorous. But now and then the familiar dichotomy of "Catholic-cavalier-traditional-hedonism-magic" versus "Protestant-roundhead-iconoclast-sobersides-rationality" sneaks in. I'm never sure about interpretations that depend on Shakespeare being a closet Catholic, and to be fair, I don't think Asbury is either, because his last word on the subject suggests that Shakespeare's vision is "that the Cathedral of Nature didn't need to be Catholic or Protestant to show the hand of his God". But along the way there are a fair few suggestions of mainly Catholic sympathies, including the figure of Falstaff, who strikes me as more of a pagan icon than anything else - I find Asbury's identification of him with traditional Green Man figures way more convincing.

To illustrate what I mean: he discusses the scene in Henry VI where Joan of Arc's English captors refuse her plea for postponement of execution on grounds of pregnancy. He sees it in terms of virgin-vs-whore and links it to Elizabeth's fabled virginity. Well, maybe. Shaw, of course, saw it as vulgar xenophobic abuse and he could well be right too. But here's another possibility: that this time, Shakespeare is using a Catholic martyr to represent a Calvinist one. In 1656, in the reign of Mary, three Calvinist women were burned as heretics in Guernsey. One, Perotine Massey, gave birth at the stake; the baby was alive and an onlooker snatched it from the flames. But the Bailiff, supervising proceedings, ordered it flung back into the fire.

In 1653 John Foxe recorded this in his famous Booke of Martyrs. Foxe's Martyrs went through umpteen editions and Shakespeare must have known it. He may also have known the published objection of Fr Thomas Harding that the baby's death was Perotine's fault, because had she pleaded pregnancy the execution would have been postponed as law demanded. Given what actually happened, this is a crass assertion; it seems plain that nobody would much have cared. In Shakespeare's scene Joan's claim is probably false, a desperate attempt to postpone the fire. But the law is clear: any woman who made such a claim had a right to be examined by a panel of matrons and it didn't matter whether the child was legitimate or who its father might be. The English, when they declare "we'll have no bastards live", fly in the face of justice. I think it's at least possible that the whole scene, which has no historical basis, is a riposte to Harding: what would have happened if Perotine had pleaded pregnancy?

"Then, Joan, discover thine infirmity
That warranteth by law to be thy privilege."

"Strumpet, thy words condemn thy brat and thee."

I think this actually goes to support Asbury's final claim, that Shakespeare is able in his thinking to rise above sectarianism, and I agree with that claim; I'm just not sure how he arrives at it from the chain of reasoning in the book as a whole.

There are some fascinating actorly insights in this book: who'd have guessed that when Eleanor of Gloucester is shown performing "witchcraft" in Henry VI, folk in a 21st-century audience cross themselves? Or that whenever a company plays Richard III, they are inundated with mail from misguided folk who think drama is meant to be faithful to historical fact? Asbury is also excellent at bringing landscape alive, both the nightmare battlefield of Towton, which hasn't changed much, and those iconic places now buried under shopping centres and banks. Indeed this updating of landscape and awareness of its history allows him to make powerful links with our own day. He's also good at highlighting the kind of detail that brings people alive: the way Edward of Norwich (young Aumerle of Richard II) had, by the time of Agincourt, become not the hero Duke of York who dies splendidly in Henry V, but a grossly obese man who fell off his "no doubt relieved horse" with heart failure and was boiled down in a vat so that his bones, rather than a huge weight of flesh, could be taken back home.

I'd quibble with the statement that Richard III was "lurking about the Tower when Henry VI was killed" - he was lodged there, as was every other Yorkist of note on the night in question, including Edward IV. And there are some typographical errors an editor could correct if there's a second edition. There deserves to be, because this is one of those books from a small publisher that should entertain a wide audience.


Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History
Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History
by Eduardo Galeano
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Uneven but often brilliant, 25 Jun. 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
You'll have seen books that look like this before: a calendar with a story from history for each day. But this is by a distinguished author and has more literary aspirations than most, also more of a through-line of thought. Different entries play off each other; chains of entries concern football, women, politicians. There is in fact a strong political thread running through it and it is unashamedly socialist, which is fine by me. Less fine is a vein of the sort of New Age philosophy that thinks anything allegedly said by an ancient Mayan must be a pearl of wisdom. Actually Mother-Earth-worshipping peasant sages are just as capable of writing sentimental guff as anyone else.

There are a few "historical" anecdotes I suspect of being online urban myths, among them the alleged etiquette book that advised Victorians not to put books by male and female authors next to each other on bookshelves. The book he cites, Lady Gough's Book of Etiquette, pub. 1863, doesn't appear in the British Library's catalogue for that year or any other, which suggests it doesn't exist.

But there are many more entries, especially those from his own part of the world, that do chronicle events fascinating in themselves, like 17 February, telling how the soldiers who broke a 1922 strike in Paraguay by shooting 1500 peasants went to a local brothel afterwards, only to find themselves evicted by angry ladies with brooms who addressed them as "murderers" and shut the door in their faces. (And that one is true, on the excellent evidence of police records uncovered by the historian Osvaldo Bayer.)

Best of all are those in which he uses his own skill as a writer to enhance the message of the facts. A brilliant example, I think, is "Legal Immigrants", in which, on 8 November 2008, mummies from a Mexican museum were sent on a tour of the USA: "Though these mummies were Mexican, no one asked for their passports [...] they continued unimpeded to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Chicago, where they paraded under flowering arches to cheering crowds". Like many of these little vignettes, this almost begs to be a poem. Another total success is 22 May, "Tintin Among the Savages" (the titles are very much part of the story), in which he dissects, with deadpan viciousness, the racism, cruelty and sheer nastiness of Hergé's creation: "[In the Congo] he shot fifteen antelope, skinned a monkey for a disguise, blew up a rhinoceros with a stick of dynamite [...] Tintin said elephants spoke much better French than black people. For a souvenir he killed one and pulled out its ivory tusks. The trip was a lot of fun." For forensic entries like this, and there are many, one can forgive those that are less subtle, and even the intermittent hippy drivel.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 25, 2013 11:15 PM BST


Alexander the Great The    Anabasis and the       Indica (Oxford World's Classics)
Alexander the Great The Anabasis and the Indica (Oxford World's Classics)
by Arrian
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thanks for that map!, 30 May 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a new translation of Arrian's Anabasis and Indica, his works on the life of Alexander. Arrian was a thorough and generally balanced historian, careful with his sources and not allowing his admitted admiration for the man to blind him to his faults. He also has a very lively and readable style. The translation itself reads excellently, as might be expected from an experienced translator in tandem with an emeritus professor of classics,and the appendices and notes are helpful, though for the life of me I could not work out how "the numbers in the left-hand column refer to the chapter and section numbers in the margin of the text". I sometimes couldn't match them at all, but it was easy enough to find the quotes themselves in the text.

But the most helpful feature of the lot comes among the maps: there is one which not only traces Alexander's journeyings but gives the modern names of the countries and towns concerned. This is something I have wanted for years, as a reader better informed on history than geography, and it's one seldom found. I have spent ages hunting through atlases and trying to compare maps to figure out exactly where places like the Sogdian Rock might be, and this feature gave me a far better idea of where we were. A simple idea, but brilliant.


The Mass Observers: A History, 1937-1949
The Mass Observers: A History, 1937-1949
by James Hinton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £29.63

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly but heavy, 22 May 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is the history of Mass-Observation, the organisation which, between 1937 and 1949, set out to document the attitudes, opinions, and every-day lives of the British people through a combination of anthropological fieldwork, opinion surveys, and written testimony solicited from hundreds of volunteers. It began as an independent social research organisation and ended in market research. One of its more famous activities was the diary-keeping it encouraged, and those who have read Simon Garfield's "Our Hidden Lives" and its two sequels, which chronicle the war and postwar years via several of these engrossing diaries, may need a word of warning. Despite the title, "The Mass Observers" is not about these individual diarists, but rather about the researchers who set up the whole Mass Observation project - Charles Madge, Tom Harrisson and the fieldworkers who joined in their attempt to document what real people really thought about things.

There are some fascinating aspects to this story, for instance the work of Harrisson's team in Bolton on why people might not vote at elections, and ways in which they might be persuaded to. But it can be hard going for the general reader, since it is very much a scholarly history which makes little concession to the popular element - there is little, for instance, about personality. The tetchy, unreasonable Harrisson does come through as a personality, but Madge, who can't have been a bore since he was friends with some extremely interesting people, like the poets Kathleen Raine and David Gascoyne, hardly comes alive off the page at all. And the actual diarists remain in shadow throughout. This is not the author's fault, since he was aiming to write scholarly rather than popular history, but it does restrict the book's readership, which seems a shame, because I think that without compromising the scholarship, it could have been made a more human and generally readable story. Neither Madge nor Harrisson had much time for academics, and would, I think, have wanted the story of their organisation to be read by the kind of people they were so interested in chronicling. It is thorough, well researched and clearly necessary, but it isn't engrossing for the general reader.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 24, 2013 7:04 AM BST


I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: Volume 15
I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: Volume 15
by BBC
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £13.25

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It still ain't broke, 19 May 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Yes, there's no Humph now, and that's a sad loss. But in Jack Dee, the BBC has found one of the few people who could utter the same lines and still be funny. With Humph, the humour came from hearing this sweet, white-haired old gent say the most outrageous things with an air of complete innocence, so that you didn't know for a moment if you'd misheard. Dee can't do that, but he uses his own world-weary, deadpan delivery just as well. Barry Cryer has taken over the role of Ancient Dodderer (Dee: "it's like social night at a Saga home"). Apart from all the old faithfuls - Hamish and Dougal, Jeremy Hardy's unique singing voice, Uxbridge English (Graeme: "Saveloy, a hotel for sausages") there's Rob Brydon doing some genuine and funny improvisation when Dee gets the pronunciation of Tawe wrong in Swansea. Nothing's broken, and luckily they haven't fixed it.


Be Gorgeous (How To)
Be Gorgeous (How To)
by Fiona Foden
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Pink schlock, 27 Feb. 2013
This review is from: Be Gorgeous (How To) (Paperback)
If the title and the cover don't put you off for good, the content surely will. Basically, "how to waste your time worrying about how you look and whether you please the opposite sex". Insulting drivel (and worse because the corresponding "boys' book" is "how to be clever". I get why people are giving this rubbish sarky 5-star reviews, but many will only look at the stars and not read the reviews that make it clear they're being sarky. So I give it 1, and if I could give less, I would. For once, you can judge the book by its cover.


I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: The Specials
I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: The Specials
by BBC
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £35.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It is indeed a wonderland, 5 Jan. 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Well, they're hilarious, what else would you expect? Though I'd say the Dickens Christmas one is my least favourite, because funny as it is, it's the furthest from the normal format, and that's so good as to be hard to beat. "Humph in Wonderland" is lovely, a great tribute to their finest asset, and wonderful to hear him playing the trumpet at the end. I'd have liked more of a nod in the direction of other late lamented geniuses, like Willie Rushton, but was very grateful to hear Linda Smith. Otherwise - the usual corn, as high as an elephant's eye and all the better for it. Barry Cryer turning up as the Ghost of Christmas Pissed particularly stuck in my mind...


Creative Makers: Simple Crochet
Creative Makers: Simple Crochet
by Sara Sinaguglia
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but could be better, 4 Jan. 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
My daughter and I, both total beginners, have both tried this book out. So far my daughter's got really into it and has made several small items. I've figured out how to do 2 basic stitches.

So far, so good... but the diagrams and instructions are sometimes not as clear as the author thinks. It's not easy to tell others how to do something that you're good at, and that seems obvious and simple to you - as anyone who ever had a maths teacher can testify. In her book "Simple Knitting" a few years ago, Erika Knight did this very well; this author is less adept. The diagrams need to be bigger and there could be more of them, illustrating more stages. I figured out the chain stitch OK, but could not fathom what she meant in the instructions for the slip stitch until Daughter demonstrated - and she herself had to go online to get further instructions for things that were unclear to her.

On the plus side, there are patterns for several small items that are easy to make and which give an incentive to learn. At least, the mats and quilt squares do. But many of the items are infuriatingly twee, useless and a bit too Country Lady for my liking - who on earth wants an "apple cosy", in this world or the next? I suppose they provide practice, but I'd have more incentive to carry on if I thought I was making something more useful and less pretentious. Maybe this is the nature of crochet, I haven't yet got far enough to be sure!
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 8, 2013 12:50 PM BST


Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen
by G. Willow Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strange goings-on where worlds collide, 24 Dec. 2012
This review is from: Alif the Unseen (Hardcover)
I think this might be the first novel to take a computer geek for a hero and make a real success of it. The problem has been that sitting in front of a screen typing has never, hitherto, had much dramatic or narrative potential. But if you set your scene in the months leading up to the Arab Spring, in an unidentified, heavily censored society where using the internet is a way of evading and thwarting the state security system, and if you further exploit the parallels between the virtual, the fictional and the magical worlds, things can quickly become far more interesting.

Alif (his screen handle; he chooses not to use his real name) spends his young life online helping others avoid state censorship; doesn't matter what of, or what state, though he does have to devote a lot of resources to outwitting the security forces of the one he lives in. Disappointed in love, he devises a program designed to make himself invisible online to his ex. But it does far more than he ever intended and he finds himself on the run from the state's own leading computer expert. In the process he discovers that the online world is not the only one where people can be unknown and unseen by others, where nobody goes by their right name and the barriers between the real and the fictional are permeable to say the least.

Me, I'm a sucker for any book that offers djinns, afreets, ancient books of cryptic fairytales, solid walls that reveal hidden entrances to alleys that exist in another dimension, and cats that aren't quite what they seem. But even if you aren't usually a devotee of novels with a fantasy element, this one might be the exception, because it is also sharply modern and political. Most of all, it is about how little any of us know about the richness of each other's inner worlds, as Alif finds when his friend Dina, who has worn the veil since girlhood, throws it over his head to shelter him:

He could not have guessed the world she had created for herself. Sewn into the underside of her long outer cloak were patches of bright silk, patterned, beaded, spangled with points of light

The author is an American living in Cairo, who has previously written journalism for opposition papers and blogs, and graphic novels. If this is what happens when a history graduate specialising in Arabic literature meets new media, I'm all for it. When two worlds collide, whether east and west or ancient and modern, something new and interesting is always liable to happen on the faultline.


Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects
Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects
by Dr Neil MacGregor
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A world brought brilliantly alive, 24 Nov. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This book is both the most information, and the most fun, I have had all year. I missed the BBC radio series on which it was based, so it was all new to me. Basically, it takes 20 objects that were current in Shakespeare's time and place, from a fork dropped in the theatre, through plague proclamations, Henry V's armour and a model ship, to the hapless designs for a union flag commissioned by King James, and uses these objects to illuminate the plays. All the way through, I was muttering "why did I never think of that before?" Reading or seeing the plays in isolation from their context, one can easily forget that, for instance, Shakespeare was 16 when Francis Drake circumnavigated the world and that this had generated a fashion for maps and globes that makes the name of his most famous theatre seem a lot more topical and relevant than we might have thought.

The book is full of fascinating and useful information (eg the price of admission to the theatre, one penny, which was the same as the price of admission to see Henry V's armour in Westminster Abbey). And the fact that theatre performances and afternoon church services both began at 2pm, which explains a lot of church hostility to the theatre. It is also, having been co-produced by BBC Radio and the British Museum as well as the publisher, Allen Lane, full of fascinating and beautifully produced illustrations of the objects in question. Strangely enough, I didn't find the human eye in a reliquary anywhere near as moving as Henry's battered, shabby shield or the fancy fork engraved with its careless owner's initials, A.N.

Paradoxically, the firmness with which the book locates Shakespeare in his own time and place merely emphasises his universal, timeless relevance, with which the last chapter is rather movingly concerned. This book is beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated (the 20 objects are only the start of it) but above all, the text is intelligent, thoughtful and penetrating, giving a genuinely novel and informative angle on the plays. Let's never forget that it came about as a result of a radio series by one of the very few broadcasters that would have undertaken such a project. The BBC is as much of a cultural asset to our time as Shakespeare was to his; we'd surely miss this kind of enterprise if we didn't have Auntie.


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