A Gambling Man – Charles II and the restoration

By Jenny Uglow! As heard on Radio 4!

Well, as far as biographies of Charles II go, this is the longest and best one I’ve ever read. The gambling theme does seem to be somewhat awkwardly shoehorned in in some places – surely all leaders have to take calculated risks from time to time. Fair enough, he liked to play games, and maybe he took more risks than necessary, but I thought it was overdone.

I read this because I was curious about the truth about the restoration after reading The Baroque Cycle and Fingerpost. I’m not sure I learnt huge amounts about it. This book concentrates on the first decade of Charles’ reign after the interregnum, 1660-1670. Uglow argues that after this he became somewhat less interesting or something. It goes on about intrigues between Buckingham and Clarendon and suchlike; his mistresses take up space too, and there is quite a bit about trying to get money out of parliament for wars. In pretty much all things, it turns out he was good at brokering compromises, charming and full of energy. Well done Chuck. There doesn’t seem to be a very strong story there though. Which is perhaps why the gambling thing got thrown in.

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The Last English King – Julian Rathbone

Here’s the thing – I bought this in a charidee book sale at work, and I didn’t really know what to expect but you can’t go far wrong when it’s a pound a go for the kiddies, or cancer, or whatever. And lo and behold, it’s another novel based on the life of a real person, just like The Pornographer of Vienna. One of the big differences here is that I have actually heard of Harold II, the eponym. And not only that, but I would probably have been interested in his story if I hadn’t heard of him, because it’s part of the history of my country – quite an important part. He’s not just some dude who liked to paint hookers in the nuddie.

And further than that, the last time I read anything about him I was probably 9, which is when we did the Normans in school. More or less. So some bits may have been missed out – i.e. the sex and violence, i.e. the interesting bits. All I knew was that he became King because he was supposed to, and he had to fight two invading armies in a week, and he only lost to the second lot because he got shot in the eye. Everyone knows this, everyone is wrong.

The novel actually takes up a long time filling in backstory – all about Edward the Confessor (now I know what he confessed to, I’m not surprised they didn’t mention it at Catholic primary school) and the various shady dealings to engineer the succession, which was a good deal more complicated back then, with about 90 people having a reasonable claim to the throne, and the winner being whoever was close enough to the King when he died to be able to pretend he’d said “I want this dude to be King”.

And William and his army weren’t exactly the noble race of Viking-descended heroes I was led to believe either – at least, according to Rathbone, but he seems to have done his research. Perhaps their nobility was played up in my school because they brought a brand of high-pope christianity with them, which eventually crushed the pagan brand of religion that had been keeping the people of England amused until that point. Or maybe it’s because they eventually founded the aristocracy, who invented schools and learning shit. History – it’s written by the winners. For at least 1,000 years. Anyway, they are depicted in this book as a right shower of gits, I knew there was a reason I didn’t like toffs.

So, there’s all this richness of information, explained in a way that’s easy to understand and quite entertaining, but… I found the style of the novel irritating. The main character, Walt, was Harold’s sworn bodyguard – a housecarl – and had failed to give up his life to save his master, and so was wandering around Europe, telling his story to some other dude, who just happened to be there and interested (seriously). They also meet someone who was in the Norman camp, and was also ashamed of his part in the whole thing, and he told his story. And there’s some interaction between the group (including some rich ginger woman, for some reason) but it all screams “device”. And a fairly creaky one, at that. It’s a pretty old trick – Chaucer did it, for one – but I think you need to have better characters to make it worthwhile. The guys the story is actually about – Harold, William, The Confessor, various relatives – are all clear and well drawn, but the little group of made-up dudes, not so much. Oh, and some of the jokes are weak. What’s the point of having a Bob Dylan impressionist in a book about the Norman Conquest? So we can all have a giggle? It’s not funny.

Anyway, in spite of that (and the fact that it takes quite a while to get going, what with Walt being in a fever and just plodding around northern Europe aimlessly) I found it entertaining and fun, which is much more than can be said for the Egon Schiele one.

See also:

The Pornographer of Vienna – about someone I don’t care about, and not particularly well written.

The Damned Utd – about Ole Big ‘Ead

Pornographer of Vienna – Lewis Crofts

I have been keeping a note of which books I’ve read since I’ve been offline – or mostly offline – but only titles, so I’m not writing from much more than my fading memory. Which gives a different tint to things, I guess, because it’s coloured a little by what I’ve read since. This is the first of several novelisations of actual historical characters – not chosen as a theme at all, surprisingly.

The subject of the book is an achingly talented painter, son of a syphilitic railwayman in Austria at the start of the 20th century. His name is Egon Schiele. No, I’d never heard of him either. The cover promises a “reek of wet paint and sex” and “opium pipes and absinthe chasers”. Well, there are some, I suppose, although it’s extremely disingenuous to suggest that the book is crammed full of them. Worse, the writing doesn’t “reek” of anything, it’s quite flat and humdrum.

I can’t decide if Schiele actually had an interesting enough life to justify a book. He appears to have had (a) a lot of talent and (b) an obsessive desire to paint girls in the nude (girls often here being children, and he seems to have been unaware why anyone would have a problem with this). But he also had a complete lack of common sense (see above) or any commercial imperative, leading to him being apparently chased out of town by outraged parents and/or loan sharks. But he often gave up on a good thing and died of flu, quite young, but not so young he couldn’t have done something real.

Was he a misunderstood genius? A unique but flawed talent whose destiny was to fall short of the greatness he might have achieved? Maybe he was, but I can’t bring myself to get too excited about it.

I think the problem I really have is that I can’t get over how clearly made up the conversations are. I can’t see any way that the author could know what he would have said in any given situation. I will accept that he may have been in a place where he could have had any or all of the conversations in the book but they all feel fake. Having read similar books since, I still think there is something missing from this one. I get the impression that there may be something to be said either about Herr Schiele, or by Mr. Crofts, but this book ain’t it.

See also:

Last King of Albion – about Harold II and the Norman invasion.

The Damned Utd – about Brain Clough and his time at Dirty Leeds