Adventures with Words: Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson loves words. He loves all sorts of words: long ones, short ones and difficult ones (he wrote a whole book about these, called Troublesome Words, which makes ideal toilet reading as it’s full of short but interesting entries). As such, he’s a good man to write a book about someone who loved words even more: William Shakespeare. So the book is very good about Shakespeare’s language: a genius at phrase making so great that many have entered the language as figures of speech.

As a life of Shakespeare, Bryson however takes a minimalist approach when compared to Shakespeare’s language, emphasising again and again how little we know for sure about him. Mind you, it’s not just us. Apparently, Shakespeare himself was a little wobbly about how exactly his surname should be spelled (and in his surviving signatures, it’s never the way we write it now). So the book comes as a good antidote to the various studies that claim to have uncovered the secret of Shakespeare. According to Bryson, there are no secret keys to unlock the mystery surrounding the world’s playwright: Shakespeare himself either covered up his tracks or the simple loss of knowledge by the passage of time covered his tracks for him.

It’s a fairly basic book on Shakespeare, and a good place to start for those interested in finding out something about what we know, but I would recommend James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare as a better book on the Bard.

Adventures with Words: The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

There’s lots of books and courses out there purporting to teach aspiring authors the craft of writing. And it’s true, they will. They’ll teach you to craft characters, write dialogue, embed themes, all the stuff that occupies most of we writers when we are at work. But in those how-to-write books, you won’t find any mention of Dean Koontz. Which is sort of strange, seeing as how he’s sold millions upon millions of books. Or if they do mention Koontz, it’s as an example of what not to do: don’t editorialise, don’t insert your own voice into the narration, don’t… well, don’t be Dean.

But the problem with all these books about writing is that they are missing out on the one thing that Koontz does exceptionally well and it’s the one thing that is really difficult, if not impossible, to teach: he has great ideas. Great ideas that immediately make you want to find out what happens next. The Good Guy is a good example. Ordinary guy, sitting in a bar, strikes up a conversation with a stranger only to find the stranger thinks he’s someone else. That someone else is a killer, and the stranger is hiring him to kill someone.

What would you do if a stranger hired you to kill someone? That’s the brilliant jumping off point for everything else, and it’s these sort of key ideas that Koontz, and many best-selling authors, are so good at, even if they won’t win any prizes for literary craft. But with a good enough idea, you don’t need to be an Evelyn Waugh when it comes to writing prose: the idea will piggyback the story to its conclusion.

So, writers, by all means learn your craft but also, spend time cultivating the instinct for the killer idea, and the patience to sift through the other ideas until you find the one that works. It’s the Dean Koontz method and he’s sold a lot more books than you (or I) have.

Adventures with Words: A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

It’s not. 336 pages does not a brief book make. And they are 336 dense pages. But then, not only is it a brief history but it also attempts to be a new global history too. That’s a lot to pack into a book about one of the oldest and most widespread institutions in human history. And, you know, what: Jeremy Black succeeds much better than you might expect.

While today we might think slavery self-evidently evil and beyond the pale, almost all civilisations and places have regarded it as perfectly normal. What Black does very well in this book is show the ubiquity of slavery, demonstrate how in all its forms it required the help of local elites to facilitate the trade and how the British came to play a particularly schizophrenic role in its culmination, opening up the Atlantic slave trade while also then outlawing and finally policing, via the dominance of the Royal Navy, the slave trade to an ending.

To fit all this in, Black eschews emotionalism: it’s a fairly dry account, strong on economics and politics, weak on human interest. This is not a book seeking to outrage but to understand. If you want to learn, I recommend it. If you want to burnish your moral certainties, read something else.

Adventures with Words: Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Another entry in the they’d-never-publish-this-today stakes, Black Mischief is ostensibly about the fag-end of colonialism when exhausted British charges d’affaires and regional officers oversaw the dismantling of the Empire. However, the fictional African state of Azania (loosely modelled on Ethiopia) is independent, its new ruler, the Emperor Seth, an enthusiast for all things modern.

The first chapter is an absolute masterpiece of mordant wit, describing the panic and collapse in a capital and a regime when its functionaries see the rebel soldiers approaching to take the capital. Waugh is quite brilliant in the way he captures the fear and uncertainty, and the reactions of the men and women trying to buy their way to keeping their skins. Then, it turns out, the approaching army is made of victorious loyalist troops, the rebellion has been defeated, and Emperor Seth can get on with his plans to turn Azania into a modern, progressive nation. It does not work out as he wished, despite his employment of Basil Seal, the feckless English emigre.

It’s all too marvellous to convey anything but a tiny hint of the book’s glitter: so long as you’re willing to put aside modern prejudices – which are just as prejudicial as those on display in the book, only more contemporary – then you will thank me for recommending Black Mischief to you.

Adventures with Words: Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser

Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser

Well, put this on the list of books that wouldn’t get published today. Not because it’s bad – it’s one of the best of the Flashman novels – but because it doesn’t contain the ritual and required denunciation of slavery as the most evil institution in human history. The trouble is, slavery is also among the most ubiquitous and enduring of human institutions. It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that a small group of campaigners – loonies the lot of them – got it into their minds that the enslaving of peoples was intolerable and set out to have it stopped. The greater surprise is that they succeeded.

In this story, our hero is unwittingly caught up in the slave trade and shipped off under the command of one of Fraser’s most memorable ‘villains’, the embittered classicist John Charity Spring, captain of a slave ship taking part in the Triangle Trade across the Atlantic. Flashman, with his usual policy of following the Yellow Rule, “I’ll never do harm to anyone if there’s a chance he may harm me in return,” is nevertheless somewhat taken aback at the workings of the slave trade but takes care to cross to the other side of the road. Arriving in America, further misadventures ensue, including a meeting with a young Abraham Lincoln (who is one of the few people to perceive the cad and the coward hiding behind Flashie’s bluff exterior), running a slave estate and the usual encounters with a wide variety of women.

Fraser’s great skill is presenting the worlds of the 19th century through the eyes and opinions of the people who actually lived then, rather than filtering it through modern sensibilities. A curious side effect of doing this is that reading Flashman always leaves me wondering what unconscious hyprocrisies of our own time our descendants will look back on and ask, “How could they have allowed this?”

Adventures with Words: Jesus by Richard Bauckham

Jesus by Richard Bauckham

The Oxford Very Short Introduction series really hits it out of the park with Richard Bauckham’s slim book on Jesus. Whatever your religious affiliation, an obscure carpenter from Nazareth has, against all the norms of history, gone on to become the most influential person to have ever lived. Richard Bauckham is probably the most important scholar working today on the historical life of Jesus (his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses was a truly paradigm shifting book on the whole quest for the historical Jesus) and in this short book Bauckham synthesises all that down to a hundred pages. If you’re interested in the question of who Jesus was, did he really exist and did he do what people said he did, this is an excellent introduction: rigorous, scholarly and beautifully written. A book almost worthy of its subject.

Adventures with Words: American Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams

American Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams

The Oxford Very Short Introduction series maintains its usual high standard in this book by Heather Williams. Williams takes the reader through the history of slavery in America, illuminating the areas she has the time to touch upon. What’s just as important in a study this short is the decision what to leave out and, so far as I could see, Williams’ judgement is excellent. While a true study of the subject would obviously take a lifetime of scholarship, the Very Short Introduction series allows scholars who have spent a lifetime studying a subject to distill it all down to a hundred page book. Given that, it would be churlish not to take advantage of their generosity: having not read any of the Very Short Introduction books for many years, I now resolve to work my way through what has become a very enticing list of subjects. Next stop: Richard Bauckham’s very short introduction to Jesus.

Adventures with Words: The Talhoffer Society by Michael Edelson

The Talhoffer Society by Michael Edelson

From the cover and the blurb you might think that this book is a thriller, a story of modern-day sword fighting in a clandestine, to-the-death competition. But while it is that, it is actually a confessional, an unsuspected glimpse into the deepest hopes and desires of the author. Apart from writing, Michael Edelson is also well known as a practitioner of HEMA, the quest to rediscover historical European martial arts from ancient manuscripts. And when I say martial arts, this mainly relates to sword fighting although as the HEMA movement has grown the martial arts being resurrected have expanded to include skills like wrestling and the quarter staff. But the core of HEMA remains sword fighting – proper sword fighting, not the technical discipline of sports fencing which, with the adoption of electronic scoring, has moved further and further away from its roots in two men trying to kill each other.

So, what are the deepest hopes and desires of a leading HEMA practitioner? It turns out, rather like those of most of the rest of us. The protagonist of The Talhoffer Society runs a HEMA club in America; he makes a living but it’s a struggle, a struggle made worse by continuing feelings of futility over what he has dedicated his life to. After all, what does it matter how people fought with swords four centuries ago? But then he receives a message inviting him to take part in a clandestine sword fighting tournament, a tournament in which the swords will be sharp and the fighting real. The intention is not to kill the opponent but, with sharps, the possibility exists. What’s more, he will be paid extremely handsomely for his participation.

Our hero decides to take part, at first as a plant for the FBI, later for the sake of the competition itself. For not only does he find the competition intoxicating, but he falls in love with another competitor and he realises that the competition itself is highly valued by the rich and powerful men who are sponsoring it. In particular, the Japanese, for whom sword fighting and sword making are still living traditions, sponsor the competition as an expression of the deep soul of the Japanese people.

In the end, our hero fights in the competition, gets the girl, learns the meaning of fighting with swords when his life is on the line and becomes part of a larger organisation committed to returning the skills of historical European sword fighting to their place at the heart of Western civilisation.

As a confession of the deepest hopes and wishes of the writer, it’s pretty comprehensive! The wish-fulfilment fantasy of a HEMA practitioner, all wrapped up in some excellent fights. Edelson, unlike the vast majority of writers, knows what he’s talking about when writing about sword fights.

Read The Talhoffer Society for its unexpected glimpse into a man’s soul, the most accurate sword fights in print and a good story of HEMA wishes coming true.

Adventures with Words: Brazen Chariots by Major Robert Crisp

Brazen Chariots by Robert Crisp

Some men are bigger than their books. Brazen Chariots is an undoubted classic of tank warfare in the desert during the Second World War but, for Bob Crisp, it was a memoir of just a couple of years in a life of extraordinary adventure.

First, the book: it conveys the heat, the dust, the confusion and, tellingly, the exhiliration that some men feel during combat. Crisp was one such man: extreme situations plugged him into the mains current of life and he revelled in them as much as it’s possible to revel in a battle where death and injury is a constant companion. Brazen Chariots is a brilliant account of fighting in tanks in the desert. But it is only a small part of Crisp’s story.

Not a family man, Crisp nevertheless fathered two sons, who learned of their father’s exploits during the Second World War by reading about them in a comic: Crisp’s adventures were featured as true-life story of heroism. By that time, Crisp had left their mother. There were many, many women in Crisp’s life. His portrait gives a picture of the man.

Robert Crisp

It’s the sort of half smile to break many a girl’s heart. But generally Crisp left his women happy. Towards the end of his life, when he lived in Greece, one of Crisp’s sons flew out to meet his father again. Walking into a taverna, he found his father surrounded by ten adoring women, ranging from 20 to 50. Crisp was living in Greece because, aged 60, he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Faced with death (again) Crisp decided to walk around Crete with a donkey. Rather than dying, he thrived, attracting legions of besotted women.

This was par for his wayward course. Crisp was also a cricketer, good enough to play for South Africa in test matches and the only man to have taken four wickets in four balls twice. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, the second time having to carry his climbing partner, who had broken his leg on the ascent, back down the mountain.

A South African, Crisp was also one of the founders of Drum newspaper, a radical paper for the black townships of his country. As was the pattern of his life, Crisp later fell out with his partners and went off to try something new: running a mink farm, writing for newspapers, gambling.

Nothing else ever really had the intensity of warfare: Crisp had six tanks shot or burned out under him during the war; he was mentioned in dispatches four times, awarded the Military Cross and would have received the Victoria Cross if General Montgomery had not personally stopped the award on account of Crisp’s lack of respect for senior officers and ill-discipline.

Some men are bigger than their books. Crisp towered over his.

Adventures with Words: The Men Who Made the SAS by Gavin Mortimer

The Men Who Made the SAS by Gavin Mortimer

The title is an excellent example of a publisher shoehorning a mention of a ‘sexier’ subject into the title to pick up readers. The book is actually about the subtitle: The History of the Long Range Desert Group. The LRDG was set up to do exactly what it said: scout and reconnoitre at long range in the desert. The SAS was a separate organisation and while there was a degree of overlap between the two, and some rivalry, they remained two separate organisations throughout World War II.

The Long Range Desert Group really doesn’t need the spurious association: their exploits were just as extraordinary as those of the SAS. Driving deep, deep into the desert, navigating by a combination of speed/distance and compass bearings (the maps were blank for the areas they were going into) they went far far behind enemy lines, lying low there sometimes for weeks at a time, observing, recording, reporting and sometimes attacking. It was this experience of operating independently behind enemy lines for long periods of time that laid the foundations for the Chindits and later special forces operations.

The story of how Major Ralph Bagnold, an inter-war scientist, explored the desert and then used his expertise in desert exploration to set up and train the LRDG is fascinating, as are the many extraordinary characters who became members of the LRDG. Right from the off, the LRDG prioritised men who could think for themselves, setting it outside the usual terms of military reference, and the men who found a home within the organisation more than repaid Bagnold’s faith in them.

It’s also interesting for how, the Desert War won, the LRDG attempted to find a new role for itself in the war for Europe – with relatively little success. The techniques that worked in the desert were not nearly so successful in Europe, leading to the Group’s eventual disbandment. But the template laid down by the LRDG would inform the operations and training of all the later Special Forces units. The book is a fitting tribute to these intrepid men.