Book review: A History of London by Stephen Inwood

A History of London
A History of London

Now this is an interesting addition to reading categories: book as offensive weapon. Honestly, I’m not joking – I weighed my edition (and I have the paperback!) and it came in at over 3 lbs (or 1.4kg for the metrically minded) – so chucking this at an assailant, a critic or a Brummie would certainly cause severe bruising, probably concussion and, hitting the right spot, possibly even death. Even reading it was a workout for the wrists: mine are now like the steel hawsers that they used to use on the London Docks, before containerisation killed them (a death upon which Inwood performs an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, inquest).

Yes, this is is history written big, in a big, big book, of a big, big, big city. It’s were I was born, making me a Londoner in a way that few of the other people I meet here are (almost everyone seems to have come here from somewhere else) so it’s interesting to find out that London has always drawn people in, although for most of the city’s history they were from other parts of Britain. And if not for these historical infusions, London would have withered away, for the city consumed its citizens, killing far more than it gave birth to, so if it was not for the hopeful and the desperate running or fleeing to the city, it would have died to. Although the great Victorian sanitary engineers – Joseph Bazalgette and Co did more for the city than anyone else in its history – stemmed and then reversed the tide of death, yet it still seems a city that consumes itself, eyes directed inwards, darkly. London is a dark city, London is a light city; more stories end here than begin, shuffling without notice into forgetfulness as the city, in its ceaseless churn, buries itself and starts again. No museum piece – no Venice of aspic beauty – it’s ugly and destructive but, undeniably, also alive.

In the battle of big London books, A History of London is longer, heavier and bigger than Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the city and Inwood is certainly the better, more careful historian, but Ackroyd is the better writer. Read Inwood for depth and breadth, read Ackroyd for fizz and zap.

Book review: Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi

Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi
Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi

For the first thousand years after the armies of Islam burst, like a tsunami, upon the unsuspecting empires of late antiquity, destroying the Sassanids and crippling Byzantium, it must have seemed inevitable that the heirs to the Desert Prophet would eventually win, and the crescent flag fly from the cities of Europe, as they flew over the towns that had created and cradled Christianity: places like Corinth, Hippo, Antioch and Jerusalem itself. They all fell under Muslim rule. A grim foreboding seized Christendom, a sense of the inevitable failure of the struggle, a sense made more implacable by the loss of the Crusader Kingdoms and the dribbling away of the crusading impulse under the weight of its contradictions and the rivalries of the kingdoms of Europe.

It was like trying to fight the rising tide. Waves flowed up the beach, and back again, sometimes seeming to recede, but always returning and gradually washing higher, sweeping away, like sand castles, defences that had once seemed firm.

Looking back, with the historical ignorance that now informs most Western debate about Islam, we seem to have forgotten how desperate the struggle was and how doomed it must have seemed. And each time one Islamic dynasty failed, it was replaced by another, more dynamic and more expansionist than the last. So as the Abbasids declined, they were replaced by the Mamluks, and then, finally but no one knew that, the Ottomans. Under the Sublime Porte, Rome – in its eastern Byzantine form – finally fell and the Ottomans advanced into south eastern Europe, conquering Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, turning the Black Sea into an Ottoman lake and twice beseiging Vienna.

The flow was all one way: Muslim advance, Christian retreat. The only exception was the centuries long Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain, once the brightest, most brilliant civilisation of the Islamic world.

The key to this centuries long strategic difference was Christian disunity compared to Muslim unity. The Islamic world saw a succession of strong, centrally organised empires, exercising a long-term unity of purpose directed towards military expansion. The Christian world featured innumerable competing, squabbling, fighting kingdoms, mainly concerned with protecting themselves against the ambitions of their immediate neighbours than the doings of the Sultan. What’s more, as kingdoms coalesced in the late Middle Ages to become the ancestors of modern nations, the Sublime Porte became a most useful ally in the diplomatic/military dance against Holy Roman Emperor/France/Venice/Papal States (delete adversary as applicable). Then, when Europe fractured in the great break up of the Reformation, the skilled diplomatic service of the Ottomans found it had even more fissures to exploit.

For the Venetians, consummate players of the game and thus not trusted by anyone, matters came to a head in the second half of the 16th century as their trading interests and colonies in the eastern Mediterranean were gobbled up by the Ottomans. With Cyprus beseiged, they decided to act, and with the pope, Pius V, an enthusiastic advocate, set about forming an alliance to act against the dominant Ottoman navy – which had not lost a battle for centuries. The problem was, the Spanish, the other main members of the Holy League, were perpetually beset by money worries and the last thing King Philip II wanted to risk was his very expensive ships. The Mediterranean, with its calm waters and long calms, was ideally suited to galleys – but feeding, supplying and paying the men needed to man a galley was wildly expensive. So Philip, for form, joined the Holy League but left his commanders in no doubt that he wanted to avoid battle if at all possible.

But as fortune, and family, would have it, Philip had trusted the command of the Holy League to his half brother, Don Juan of Austria, telling him to avoid women as well as battle. Don Juan had no intention of doing either and, after many months, brought the bickering, quarrelling fleets of the Holy League to face the Ottoman navy at Lepanto.

Capponi points out how battle became inevitable in part because both sides were convinced that they were the stronger. In the end, the Holy League won, and Capponi gives a detailed and convincing account of the battle, a confusion of gunsmoke, burning ships and drowning men.

For the first time in centuries the Ottoman advance was halted. It might have seemed like just another sandcastle, standing before a retreating wave only to be overwhelmed when the sea rose again, but it turned out to be the start of the turning of the tide. Capponi is a master of the historical sources, particularly on the Christian side, and this is a fine account of one of the most definitive battles in history. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, fought at Lepanto, dragging himself from his fever bed to do so and losing the use of his left hand as a result of the wounds he suffered during the battle. Yet even so, he could say:

What I cannot help taking amiss is that he charges me with being old and one-handed, as if it had been in my power to keep time from passing over me, or as if the loss of my hand had been brought about in some tavern, and not on the grandest occasion the past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see.

 My only real criticism of the book is that the publishers skimped on the proofreading: there are far too many typos and infelicities of translation. Otherwise, excellent.

Book review: The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas Higham & Martin Ryan

The Anglo-Saxon World
The Anglo-Saxon World

Skimming the other reviews for The Anglo-Saxon World, I see I’m just adding to the consensus but, you know, sometimes a consensus exists because something is true: this really is the best one-volume introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world around. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.

Nick Higham’s writing style has improved immensely since he wrote The Kingdom of Northumbria A.D. 3501100 (my go-to guide when working on Edwin High King of Britain and now Oswald: Return of the King), and he now combines engaging prose with his immense knowledge of the subject. Really, no criticisms; if you want to learn about the history and culture of the Early Medieval Period in Britain, read this book.

England’s Last Wilderness

This article first appeared in TNT magazine.

Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.

Puffins on the Farne Islands
Puffins on the Farne Islands

Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.

There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.

Digging for understanding
Digging for understanding

“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).

Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell

But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.

Watched bird bites back
Watched bird bites back

A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (www.farne-islands.com, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.

But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.

Recommendations

Eat

Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (www.neptunefishandchips.co.uk, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (www.copperkettletearooms.com, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.

Drink

Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (http://castleinnbamburgh.co.uk/, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (www.victoriahotel.net, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.

Stay

Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (www.northumbrianwigwams.com, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (www.stcuthbertshouse.com, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.

Our Lady of Montserrat

Our Lady of Montserrat
Our Lady of Montserrat

On 25 March 1522 a young soldier hung up his sword in front of a small statue. He crossed himself and looked at the dark features of a crowned woman and the child seated upon her knee, hand raised in benediction. Then he turned and limped away, his leg still weak from the cannonball that had wrecked it. He would wage war no more. The man was Ignatius of Loyola and he would go on to found the Jesuits. The statue was the Black Virgin of Montserrat, and she would go on to greet pilgrims by the million.

Black Madonnas – that is pictures or statues of Mary that depict her with dark skin – are widespread through the Catholic world and often come with a reputation for working miracles. Theories as to why Mary should be represented thus vary from the spurious (they’re really depictions of Isis and Horus) to the practical (centuries of candle smoke have stained them) but whatever the reason they always seem to evoke popular devotion. La Moreneta, or ‘Little Dark One’ as the Virgin of Montserrat is usually called, is no exception. Pious enthusiasm dates the statue to St Luke in the first century, po-faced scepticism to the 12th. Whichever is true – and there is also evidence for the statue having been hidden from the Moors and then rediscovered in the ninth century – what is certain is how quickly the statue became a major centre of pilgrimage from the 12th century onwards. This was no doubt helped by the identification of the mountain as the site of the Holy Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parsifal. But what really swung it was the miracles. And it certainly didn’t hurt that King Alfonse X ascribed miracles to Our Lady of Montserrat in his canticles, songs composed in honour of the Blessed Virgin that are still sung. For when all is said and done, one can gauge the popularity of shrines by their results: those that produce get the pilgrims, those that don’t fade into obscurity. By these standards the Little Dark One must still be doing the business: even today more than two million people visit each year.

(This article first appeared in the Time Out Barcelona guide.)

St George of Barcelona

I first wrote this for the Time Out Barcelona Guide.

St George by Raphael
St George by Raphael

What do William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and St George have in common? They all died on 23 April, with the master dramaturge and literary don arranging well-nigh simultaneous exits in 1616. Of course, we’re slightly less certain about the exact date of St George’s death – the more sceptical among historians doubting the fact of his birth let alone the time of his passing – but that has not stopped the enterprising Catalans from amalgamating the feast of their patron saint with the celebrations of the two literary lions. La Diada de Sant Jordi (St George’s day) had been associated since medieval times with lovers, the paramours giving gifts of roses, but in the 1920s the writer Vicent Clavel Andrés proposed marking the birth of Cervantes as a book day. A little tweaking saw the date changed to the more universal 23 April in 1930 and since then the Dia del Libre has gone from strength to strength, with Unesco declaring, in 1995, that 23 April should be World Book and Copyright Day.

Icon of St George
Icon of St George

Thus this most adaptable and travelled of saints makes his way into the 21st century world of supra-national organisations and officially endorsed culture. George has come a long way from the little town in Cappadocia where he was, possibly, born. Of course, there is no historical source for where he came from, nor for the idea that he was a Roman soldier, and not even that he was martyred. But then, there aren’t that many historical sources at all for obscure 3rd century soldiers. What we do have, however, are traces of a man whose mark in history has been all but obscured by the accumulation of later legends. His cult spread rapidly through the eastern Roman empire and by 494 he was cautiously canonised by Pope Gelasius I as one of those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God’.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the religious mind dislikes a blank canvas, so the story of St George soon began to be filled in. The oldest traditions state that he was a soldier who refused to abjure his religion despite the orders of the Emperor Diocletian, who launched the last great persecution of Christians in 303, and was beheaded on 23 April. George’s sufferings soon underwent inflation, taking in poison drinks, being cut into pieces, molten lead and being sawn into two. If some of these sufferings sound a trifle, well, terminal, don’t worry since George was restored to life three times before finally expiring. Pope Gelasius, while accepting George’s sanctity, was somewhat more skeptical about his invulnerability and forbade the promulgation of these lurid legends.

The cult of St George really took off with the Crusades. Those knights that survived brought the Cappadocian home with them, and in the 13th century the best seller of the age, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, featured a new twist to the tale: dragon killing. George became the emblem of the courtly, chivalric culture of medieval Europe, the ideal to be attempted by the rowdy, licentious but essentially pious nobility and a hero to the peasantry who took every advantage of clerically sanctioned days off. Since St George offered protection to those travelling by sea (as well as soldiers, farmers, horsemen, lepers and shepherds among others – he was a busy saint) port cities like Barcelona, Venice and Genoa adopted him as patron. The saint, who didn’t get where he got without results, reciprocated. According to Jaume I George helped the Catalans conquer the city of Mallorca, and the soldier saint played his part in a number of the battles of the long Reconquista, including the 1237 victory at Puig that opened the way for the recapture of the province of Valencia.

Despite a dip in popularity during the Enlightenment and the determined assaults of some recent scholars, St George’s recent move into the literary realm suggests that the old warhorse still has some legs in him. This is one old soldier who positively relishes new tricks.

Book review: The King in the North by Max Adams

The King in the North
The King in the North

Not surprisingly, Max Adams’ book finds an appreciative reader in me: it’s all about Northumbria! Although ostensibly a biography of Oswald, in fact it tells the story of the great age of the kingdom, starting with its emergence into history under the ‘Twister’ Aethelfrith, through my favourite, Edwin, to Oswald, Oswiu and Ecgfrith, with an afterword about the golden cultural age of the eighth century. Adams is never less than fascinating, he brings to light all sorts of nuggets of information and parallels – I particularly liked the comparison between Oswald and Thomas Cochrane, the premier frigate commander of the Napoleonic Wars and a man of such daring his exploits would appear ridiculous in a film – and his book brims with a life-long love of the subject. In fact, the only other book on Northumbria I’d recommend as highly is my own, and Adams beats me into a cocked hat with the absolutely superb double page map on the inside front cover, which shows Northumbria and the other kingdoms of northern Britain in the style of the map in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, all hand-drawn hills and sketched forests. Superb, and on its own responsible for an extra, fifth star! Well done, Mr Cartographer.

England’s Wet Wildernesses

In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall, from his lair in the fens. In the most characteristic tale of England’s past – though set in Denmark it is England’s story – the monster comes from the marsh. The poem itself was likely composed in the kingdom of East Anglia, whose greatest king, Rædwald, was probably interred in the ship mound of Sutton Hoo, and the East Angles knew well the dangers and glamours of marsh and sea.

Wicken Fen

Think on the map of Britain. There’s probably no outline better known to us today, but it’s a modern creation. Britain, and more specifically England, used to cut a very different profile. The distinction between land and water was not nearly so clear, with vast areas occupying a liminal position between the two, sometimes dry, sometimes wet, according to tide and flood. Great bites into England’s body were made twice a day by the tide, seeping in to the salt marshes and bogs that covered the Fens, pushing the River Thames to half a kilometre wide in the London area, running upstream through Romney Marsh to Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. Names bear witness to this past, with areas, often far inland, being called islands and only habitual use deadening us to the strangeness of the title: the Isle of Thanet at Kent’s south-eastern edge, the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire.

Wicken Fen

Perhaps nowhere is the strangeness of this historic landscape more marked than on the Isle of Thanet. Now firmly part of the mainland, the Wantsum Channel, a tidal watercourse fed by the River Stour, separated the isle from Kent. As the most easterly part of Kent, and with the security of the Wantsum Channel, the Isle of Thanet was the perfect stepping stone for invaders, and they employed it, again and again and again. First, the Romans – Julius Caesar used it as a base in his abortive invasions of 55 and 54 BC – then the Anglo-Saxons, with the legendary Hengist and Horsa being given the isle and liking it so much they decided they wanted the rest of the country too – and, finally, the Vikings: the Wantsum Channel provided safe harbour from fierce Channel storms, and the Northmen first experimented with overwintering in a secure base on the isle before using the tactic to conquer most of England. But the Wantsum Channel, once two miles wide, slowly silted up, although Thanet is still clearly shown as an island in maps into the 15th century. But the slow deposition of silt and the indefatigable drainage work of Augustinian monks sealed the island’s fate, and the last ferry sailed across the narrow strait in 1755. The Isle of Thanet was an island in name only and the Wantsum Channel a drainage ditch: an ignoble end for a piece of history.

The Isle of Thanet’s fate encapsulates much of the difficulties faced by England’s wetland wildernesses. They’re mainly on the east, and when boats were more reliable forms of transport than roads, they became highways for traders and raiders. New ideas and technologies spread easily from the Low Countries to the Low Counties, with Dutch engineers imported in the 17th and 18th centuries to lead the push to drain the flatlands. They were still too wild and too dangerous to be allowed to continue, wet worlds where Parliament’s writ held no sway.

Charles Kingsley saw their end:

A certain sadness is pardonable to one who watches the destruction of a grand natural phenomenon, even though its destruction bring blessings to the human race. Reason and conscience tell us, that it is right and good that the Great Fen should have become, instead of a waste and howling wilderness, a garden of the Lord, where

‘All the land in flowery squares,
Beneath a broad and equal-blowing wind,
Smells of the coming summer.’

And yet the fancy may linger, without blame, over the shining meres, the golden reed-beds, the countless water-fowl, the strange and gaudy insects, the wild nature, the mystery, the majesty–for mystery and majesty there were–which haunted the deep fens for many a hundred years.

Book review: The Sea Kingdoms by Alistair Moffat

The Sea Kingdoms

This is the third book by Alistair Moffat that I’ve read and, as you’d guess given the fact that I’ve kept reading him, I’ve enjoyed them all. The Sea Kingdoms is an attempt at a history of Celtic Britain and Ireland but, by the nature of the subject and the sources, it’s more a series of impressions and snapshots: places, events, people, all serving to illuminate some aspect of the other history of these islands, the history that has never been written but has been sung, recited, felt.

It’s as much a geography as a history, or a story of how the two interweave in the language and culture of a people acutely aware of the beauty and awe of their land. But, being united by the sea, the sea has also washed much away, leaving traces in the sand but only impressions where there was once much more. It’s unlikely that even the best efforts of archaeologists will retrieve too much else, and the history of the Celts, like the people, is bathed in the westering sun setting in the circle sea.