Hild – Nicola Griffith

Hild is, or became, St Hilda of Whitby. She starts the book as a tiny, recently orphaned child in a scary world. I enjoyed this a lot, although I wish I had paid more attention to the map at the front. I spent a lot of time frustrated that my 7th century British geography wasn’t any better. This may be partly because my north-east geography is pretty vague anyway. You’ve got your Newcastle, then Durham, and the other bits, right? I also struggled with exactly which group of people were which, and how they related to each other, personally and geographically (see above). Who were the Yffings?

I decided not to look too much of it up until after I finished, and some of what I’ve found has been quite interesting.

What none of the above changes is that the land and way of life for Hild and Edwin and Cian and all the others is immediate and alive in this book, even if the who’s doing what to who doesn’t always make perfect sense (or, more accurately, if you’re not paying attention properly). Hild climbing a tree to watch the flight of the birds. Cian desperate to show off his fighting prowess. Edwin nervously watching his gesiths for signs of disloyalty. And everyone trying to make sure they make it through to next summer, and preferably better off than last time. It’s a stunning piece of work.

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.

Kings of Albion – Julian Rathbone

I’ve misread my reading diary – irony? – and I skipped a couple of books. It doesn’t help that my reading diary is also my doodle diary, and features scribbled sketches of whatever is passing through my mind when I pick up my pencil at the end of the day, with notes on books consigned to mere marginalia.

This is the sequel to The Last English King which I bought at the same charity booksale. In for a pound, in for two quid, I say. It’s better odds than penny-pound.

The Kings of the title are the protagonists of the Wars of the Roses, a period of English history of which I was completely ignorant. I’m not much enlightened now, to be honest, though. The story this time is told from the point of view of a few eastern visitors to Albion’s fair shores during the fifteenth century. They’re not from Norfolk, no. There’s a merchant type who was trading coffee in the east of India, but not making any money, a monk who turns out to be a randy female buddhist/Kali-worshipper/thuggee, and the younger brother of a prince of an Indian kingdom whose older brother they all go to rescue from Manchester. The book takes forever to set this group up, for reasons I don’t really understand, except it was probably quite good fun to write.

They reach England in the form of Calais (this is back when the King of England also had substantial holdings in northern and western France) and are promptly shocked by the squalor, cold, brutality, and general lack of quality of life in western europe when compared to the life of an eastern prince. They attend some banquet held by Lord Somerset (I think) and it’s wall-to-wall drinking, horseplay and pissing in the straw on the floor of the hall. Or Friday night, as we call it round here.

Anyway, it seems that some of Merrie Olde England has infiltrated the ruffian pyschopath aristos that William brought over in the conquest, so hurrah for that. And then… and then something happens. They go to London, and they get split up, and their tales are told separately. And a few people want to be King, I’m pretty sure of that. And London wants one of them, and someone else wants a different one. It’s not really clear. It may be because it’s a while since I read it, but I suspect it’s all a bit too complicated to be summed up in the knockabout way Rathbone wants to.

The fight scenes are good – with fully plate armoured warriors going at each other in the rainy English countryside, splattering gore and mud around in equal measures. There’s a nice bit where a couple of the observers are doing a football commentary on one of the battles, it’s really very droll.

But there are two main problems I have with it. One of them is the lack of clarity of what’s going on, who’s on what side, etc. He did this really well in English King so I was a bit disappointed here. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know the story beforehand. And the second problem is the characters telling the story. They’re supposed to be different, but they sound exactly the same. Admittedly, the monk/randy thuggee(-ess) does shag most of the principal men in the book, and clearly takes great pleasure in it, but that’s about it.

And, incidentally, there’s another longish discourse on Buddhism (I think this is the monk educating the merchant) which repeats a lot of the same stuff as is in Mishima’s Temple of Dawn. Although, I did read this one first, and it’s a bit more light-hearted. I wonder if Rathbone was reading the same textbooks as Mishima (probably not, although he may have been reading Mishima himself…)

In conclusion – some good fight scenes, some pretty good sex scenes, but overall, disappointingly written, and I didn’t learn much.

See also:

The Last English King – obviously

London by Edward Rutherford. I’m pretty sure there’s a small bit in it about the Wars of the Roses, and it’s probably easier to follow. Although it won’t deal with much outside of the city walls.

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