Life deals out its cards skew whiff. Some people struggle, burdened with debts personal and afflictions public. Others get given the full house. Witness: Michael Wood. Not only was he blessed with the sorts of looks that historians, historically, were denied – compare him to Eric Hobsbawn for example – but Wood was also gifted the ability to write with a clarity and enthusiasm that matched his on-screen persona. In Search of the Trojan War is a good example: a scholarly account of the archaeological history of the search for Troy good enough, in its grasp of the sources, to stand comparison with the best specialist work, but Wood also writes it in a way that makes the technicalities accessible to the layman. But then of course, good Hector, prince of Troy and all round decent bloke, also realised, as he coughed out his life’s blood on the plains of Ilium with that peacock psychopath Achilles strutting victory above him, that life doesn’t play fair. Take advanatage of that: read this book.
While it looks like a novel and reads like a novel, I can let prospective readers in on a secret: Fools and Mortals is not really a novel. It’s actually a paean, an encomium, a love lyric written by an old man who has fallen in love. Old men who fall in love are always fools, but sometimes that foolishness washes away the accreted knowledge of a lifetime to reveal a silver seam lying under all that conventional knowledge.
That is what has happened here. Bernard Cornwell, who is 75 now, ten years ago fell in love. He fell in love with the theatre, with that strange, uncertain magic that happens, sometimes, when people get up on a stage and tell a story to a group of strangers, uniting them all into a shared world. According to Cornwell’s afterword, he’s been acting with the Monomoy Theatre in Massachusetts for the last ten years and this book is the fruit of that extended love affair. While ostensibly about the travails of Richard Shakespeare, jobbing actor and younger brother of the slightly more famous William, it is really an encomium to the theatre and, in particular, to that group of actors, entrepeneurs, playwrights, theatre goers and nobility who, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries created modern theatre in London. While wrapped up in a story of theft and treachery, Fools and Mortals is really about the extraordinary set of circumstances and people that made this all possible, and it’s a celebration of a sort of miracle in plain sight: the creation of a play that works. Having a wife who works in theatre, as actress and voice teacher, I’ve got some second-hand insight into how remarkable the whole process is and how contingent. If not for a London audience large enough to support the theatre and thirsty for new plays, if not for Shakespeare, Burbage, Marlowe and Johnson and their ilk, there would not have been plays to sate that thirst, and if not for a nobility willing to sponsor and protect the theatres and theatre companies from the censors and puritans of the age, it would never have come together.
Fools and Mortals is a celebration of theatre, of this every day artistic and financial miracle, with a side order of story. The story is fun, but the play’s the thing.
South-east London is so unregarded that the tube doesn’t go there and the DLR tentatively puts a one-station extension over the river and into the area. But Woolwich Arsenal station allows the walker to connect to a series of dramatic views and unexpected finds, unparalleled elsewhere around London.
Admittedly, the initial stretch doesn’t seem that promising, but once you join the well-signed Green Chain Walk everything changes. Well, it does once you’ve done a bit more urban walking, but that takes you up on to the heights of Shooters Hill (the highest spot in south London at 433 feet/132m), with its glorious vistas of forest and city, and then the even more glorious Oxleas Wood and Meadow, saved from a road being driven through it in the 1990s by a vigorous local campaign.
From there, the Green Chain Walk is green all the way to Thamesmead, passing through the unexpected expanse of East Wickham, quiet Bostall Woods and the even more unexpected remains of medieval Lesnes Abbey, founded in 1178 by Richard de Luci in penance for his part in the murder of Thomas à Beckett.
Then it’s through Thamesmead estates enlivened by the surprising number of horses grazing the council sward and on to the Thames Path, heading west past the site of the sinking of SS Princess Alice in 1865, when the paddle steamer was struck by a collier and cut in half. Over 600 people died, drowned in water thick with the raw sewage pumped into the river just upstream. Cross over the river via the Woolwich Ferry or under it through the white-tiled Woolwich Foot Tunnel for the short walk to King George V DLR station.
Walk here: From Woolwich Arsenal DLR station take Woolwich New Road to the junction with the A205, then turn left, joining the Green Chain Walk. Continue following the Green Chain signs through to Plumstead Common, then follow the signs to Shrewsbury Park and Oxleas Wood. From Oxleas Wood, follow Green Chain signs to Bostall Woods, and then to Lesnes Abbey and finally Thamesmead Riverside. At the river, head west on the Thames Path to Woolwich, crossing the river via ferry or foot tunnel, and then follow signs to King George V DLR station.
Reading the dark tales in Dark Tales, I thought: Shirley Jackson is the Union version of Flannery O’Connor: haunted by an absence of God so complete that he has been forgotten. With O’Connor, in extremis there is always the glimpse, the offer of grace, though often ignored. Here, the carapace around the world has grown so hard that horrors come into the light and dwell among us without any concomitant hint of the truly supernatural. This is the world of time twisting into endless traps with no escape. These are, indeed, dark tales.
Surprisingly disappointing Warhammer 40k graphic novel, written by Dan Abnett. The basic premise, that an Imperial Guards officer is taken captive by the Orks when so covered in slime that his captor thinks him to be a little goblin creature and adopts him as a lucky mascot, is brilliantly gonzo and should have given licence for completely over the top gonzoid humour. But given the grimdark of the 40k universe, Abnett seems to hold back from going full lunatic – when this story really required the writer to shoot so far over the top as to disappear into orbit – and while there are elements of humour in it, the story remains too firmly rooted in the familiar 40k grimdark. Speaking of grimdark, my greatest disappointment with the graphic novel was the artwork: much of it was so dark and obscure that I couldn’t tell what was going on. I’m not sure if that was just a problem with the colour reproduction on my copy or if that was intentional: if the latter, take this on board, Black Library: grimdark can still be brightly coloured. Then the reader would be able to see all the horror!
From all the 5-star reviews, it seems that everyone else knows what’s going on. Personally, I read a Peter Grant book, thoroughly enjoy the ride, and emerge at the end of it with as little sense of what is actually going on as I had at the start of it. Not sure why. Maybe there are just too many names: possibly a handy character-card list would be in order, supplied free with every book as a book mark. Then I would know who all the various police officers and rivers are. As it is, Peter himself, the charming Nightingale, and Lesley, the turnfaced colleague, are all sufficiently strong characters to keep me reading. I don’t know where the series is heading, I’m not sure I particularly care, but the ride sure is loads of fun.
Writing on a day in February when the temperature looks set to reach 18 degrees Centigrade and the sky is a bowl of blue unflicked with a single blob of white, winter seems a long way away. In Jasper Fforde’s new book, Early Riser, winter is a brute: a season of such ferocity that humans have evolved the capacity to hibernate to escape its rigours. It’s a fascinating idea, but one that is also the key weakness of the book. Early Riser has all Fforde’s usual comic genius, spinning word play and world play out of this central conceit, but ultimately the book fails because it’s impossible to construct a world sufficiently similar to our own that Fforde can poke fun at contemporary foibles while still having almost everybody asleep for three months during the arctic winter in Wales. It just doesn’t work. The world, trembling on the brink of toppling into Snowball Earth, with humans that hibernate, would be something completely different, not the hybrid that Fforde creates here. That aside, the story is funny, tense and quite affecting. But where Fforde’s Thursday Next novels and Nursery Crime novels convincingly create worlds that are different yet closely related to our own, this one doesn’t.
Who would have thought that those typical Irish turns of phrase and the rhythms of Irish story telling had such deep roots? But it is clear, from reading these earliest Irish myths and stories, that these phrases and rhythms, now transplanted into English, have their origins in the Gaelic of the earliest stories of the Irish. Indeed, the very nature of Irish storytelling, with its recursiveness, rapid switches between laconic understatement and exuberant and detailed description, and a general disdain for logic when it gets in the way of telling a good story, all have their origins here. These are stories of frenzied heroes who can be turned back by the well-judged insult, of hospitality overwhelming any measure of ordinary good sense, and worlds bleeding into each other. Many of the stories make only minimal sense to a modern reader, but they carry him into a phantasmagorical world. Fascinating.
The All About History bookazine on the Anglo-Saxons is out now and most of it is written by me. It covers the whole of the Anglo-Saxon era, from the Romans leaving to the Normans arriving, with lavishly illustrated articles on the Heptarchy, King Alfred and the Conquest among much else. It’s available in larger newsagents and bookshops or you can order it here.