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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Part of my day job is writing stories where Space Marines blast aliens – and Chaos corrupted humans – into blood and viscera smeared pieces. Writing battles and fights is something I do, whether it is Anglo-Saxon England or the grim dark of the far future.
So it’s quite something for me to say that I found The Hunter just too violent. It’s not that it’s bad – far fromt it, Tom Wood writes a taut, thrilling story – it’s simply that the body count is so astronomically high that having finished the first in the Victor the Assassin series I have absolutely no wish to read any more of his adventures. Which is a shame, as Victor looks like he could be an interesting protagonist – not many assassins for hire have an annual confession stop, where they go to a priest to confess their sins – but I’m afraid it’s just too violent for me. I mean, the first chapter saw Victor killing eight people, one a woman, sent to kill him, and the body count simply escalated thereafter. I like to think the death of people means something, even if they are themselves killers, and the sheer number of people Victor kills makes this impossible. So, not for me. But if you like ultra-violent, high-pace thrillers, then it could be for you.
History is difficult without sources. For the two centuries between the Romans leaving in 410 and the mission of St Augustine, who arrived in Kent in 597, we have the barest handful of contemporary documents. It might not matter, if not for the fact that these centuries were the foundation of everything that happened afterwards in Britain: the Romano-Celtic Britannia that slipped out of history at the start of the 5th century reappeared in the 7th century as a country divided, with Anglo-Saxon kingdoms controlling what would become England, Welsh-speaking princedoms in Wales, and Scotland split between Pictish and Irish kingdoms.
Later historians, starting with Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and going on to medieval writers, told the history of these missing centuries, recounting how the pagan Anglo-Saxons had arrived in Britain and displaced the native Britons. But these were histories written centuries after the events they described, and over the last half century historians and archaeologists have grown increasingly sceptical about the value of these accounts. In particular, the findings of archaeologists have served to cast doubt on the one-off departure of the Romans and the ethnic cleansing narrative of the Anglo-Saxon conquest.
However, on its own, archaeology provides snapshots: it struggles to construct a narrative. Abandoning the ancient sources has left us in an ahistorical darkness, with almost no named actors. In The Long War for Britannia, Edwin Pace has stepped bravely into the dark, mounting a thoroughgoing examination and defence of the ancient sources.
His argument is based in large part upon systematising the differences between the various accounts of the time. Pace argues that many of the discrepancies that have caused historians to discredit writers such as the 9th-century Nennius were caused by mistakes the medieval authors made in trying to fit dates originally calculated by the Roman consular calendar and insular regnal dating into the Anno Domini system adopted by the Venerable Bede. Pace also argues that the key contemporary writer, Gildas, who wrote his On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain around AD 530 by Pace’s reckoning, can be understood by placing his work into the theological framework of the monk. Working off these arguments, Pace concludes that there really was a King Arthur and that he can be identified as the Proud Tyrant of Gildas’ polemic – an unusual but fascinating conclusion.
Pace goes on to identify other people from legend as real historical characters, most notably arguing the Uther Pendragon was actually the 7th-century Mercian King Penda, the last great pagan Anglo-Saxon king. With his mastery of the written and archaeological sources, Edwin Pace has mounted a thoroughgoing and compelling argument for elements from the ancient authors as being worthy of the attention of serious historians. Many historians and archaeologists will disagree with Pace’s conclusions but, together with Miles Russell’s recent book Arthur and the Kings of Britain, there is now a serious, if not necessarily convincing, argument for looking at the ancient chroniclers afresh. Highly recommended for anyone with a deep interest in the roots of England.
C.S. Forester is better known for his Horatio Hornblower novels but this World War II novella is well worth a read. Sticking to the events around the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck, Forester tells a gripping story, interpolating invented dialogue – we obviously have no record of what was actually said on the command deck of the Bismarck – with a masterful narrative account of the events.
The main flaw is one that Forester could not have remedied when writing the book: we now know that British intelligence had cracked the German Enigma code but when Forester wrote his book this was still top secret. I would like to read an account of the hunt for the Bismarck that includes this so we can learn how much difference this knowledge made.
With the explosion in children and young adults’ fiction over the last twenty-five years set off by JK Rowling’s Harry Potter book you’d think there would have been many great books among the bomb. But, as with all publishing explosions, most of it is mediocre and the best is just good, rather than being great. Holes might just be an exception: it really might be great. We’ll only know for sure in fifty years time, but even now, nearly twenty five years after it was first published, the story holds up really well. It’s helped in this by having narratives set in different time periods, so it’s less tied to the present than most children’s books, but most of all it’s the way that Sachar brilliantly structures his story that makes it stand out. He weaves the apparently disparate storylines into each other and then, at the climax, brings them all together in what is something of a masterpiece of resolution.
It also avoids the if-you-want-it-hard-enough-you’ll-get-it cliche that bedevils modern children’s fiction and films: the book has lessons and wisdom to impart, but they are lessons and knowledge hard won – like digging holes in the hot sun.
James Hilton, author of Goodbye, Mr Chips and Lost Horizon, was a best-selling author of his day (the 1930s to the 1950s) but, like so many popular writers, his writing is ignored by the literary establishment, dismissed as the sentimental harking back to a lost pre-lapsarian or at least pre-Great-War England. It’s not true. What his work is, rather, is an examination, through carefully crafted stories, of the trauma of the Great War and the presentiment of the greater war coming soon. Not all writers working in the interregnum between the wars sensed that there would be another conflict; most wrote on oblivious to the gathering storm. Whether Hilton was consciously aware of this, or simply sensed it, I do not know, but the foreboding of the future is there even while the characters in this story deal with the long aftermath of the First World War.
The story moves between points of view, starting in the first person with a graduate student meeting Charles Rainier, an eminent figure in politics and business, but then switches to the third person as we learn that Rainier served in the Great War, was injured and lost his memory, waking up two years later in Liverpool having completely forgotten what happened in those lost years. Rainier returns to his family and, while curiously detached, he helps save the family business, saving many livelihoods, and enters politics, all from a basic sense of doing his best but with an underlying void and loss.
The story is essentially about Rainier’s rediscovery of what happened to him during his lost years and the twist at the end is beautifully engineered. It’s a subtle, moving story about loss and recovery, written before anyone had come up with the term post-traumatic stress disorder by a writer from a generation that had more right to be stressed than any other in history.