Book review: Castle Garac by Nicholas Monsarrat

Castle Garac by Nicholas Monsarrat

I found this slim novel in a second-hand bookshop (it’s long out of print) and picked it up because I have read Monsarrat’s superb novel of naval warfare during World War II, The Cruel Sea, and was curious to see what the rest of his work was like.

Well, it’s not nearly as good as The Cruel Sea – but then few books are. It’s interesting how some authors have one great book within them, but no more than that. In Monsarrat’s case, it was because in The Cruel Sea he took his wartime experiences and distilled them with his writing craft, making of them a book that endures. But absent such source material, in a book like Castle Garac, and we are left with authorical craft and pure storytelling, but storytelling of its time. It’s interesting how much the simple craft of telling a story is affected by its time and culture, from the rhythm and pace of the prose, through the choice of words, to the subject matter. As such, popular fiction from long ago (this was first published in 1955) is a rather good way of appreciating cultural changes, for good and ill. Far too many people simply go through books like this and pick out things that offend their modern sensibilities without thinking how the sensibilities of the past would be offended in turn.

The story itself is not whodunnit but rather a what-are-they-planning: mysterious rich couple enlist penniless writer for a scheme that’s clearly crooked but the payoff is in learning just how it is crooked. It’s a swift and easy read. If you should see the book, lying neglected in a second-hand book shop, pick it up and read it. You will make an old book very happy.

Book review: The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen

The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition”… to have been much, much more lenient on people acccused of witchcraft than the secular courts of northern Europe. But one of the things Henry Kamen does, in this seminal work, is show that if you were a woman accused by your neighbours of trafficking with the devil, you would have been much safer to have that accusation levelled at you in Spain than in Germany or England. This is not to say that the Spanish Inquisition was a kind institution but it was much more concerned with the law and the rules of evidence than witch courts elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, as the Inquisition had decided, on theological grounds, that the claims advanced for the powers of witches were spurious, it therefore found that people advancing those claims against their neighbours were, of necessity, either mistaken or slanderers. Almost everyone accused of witchcraft and brought before the Inquisition was found not guilty and released.

One of Kamen’s great achievements in this book, though, is to show how the interweaving of the paranoia of various levels of Spanish society at having their historical rights taken away interweaved with suspicion of the families of converted Jews and Moors to produce the conditions in which the Inquisition flourished as an agent of royal power. It was very much an instrument of the Spanish monarchy, but one whose focus was on the conversos rather than witches and devils.

It’s also clear from Kamen’s book that the larger part of the Inquisition’s sinister reputation is down to the propaganda wars between Protestant and Catholic Europe, with the Protestant kingdoms latching onto the Inquisition as a symbol of all that they detested about Catholic Europe (even while conducting worse witch hunts themselves).

A highlight of the book is the account of the visitation of Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias to a city where fifty plus people had been accused of witchcraft, with some already executed. Appalled by the lack of care shown for the laws of evidence, Alonso had all the reports and evidence brought before him, considered it all, freed all the surviving accused and put the chief prosecutor on trial himself. Not what one would expect from an Inquisitor!

For anyone interested in the Inquisition and Spain, this is a key book. Highly recommended.

Alone in the Cheviot Hills

‘In Northumberland alone, both heaven and earth are seen.’ So wrote the historian GM Trevelyan and, if hell is other people, then the reason for this quickly becomes clear. There’s no one else around. Northumberland’s 1,936 square miles are the most sparsely populated in England, and less than 2,000 people live within the 405 square miles of the Northumberland National Park. If that doesn’t give you sufficient air to breathe, the Cheviot Hills are the least visited part of the least visited national park in England. Is that space enough?

So, it’s empty, but is that it? Is there any there, there? Well, if adjectives like solitary, windswept and bleak fill you with anticipation rather than a desire for a Martini and decent reception for your mobile phone, you may just have found your earthly paradise. After all, in these crowded islands, a place where you can walk all day and not see another soul is precious.

Now, the normal practice in a travel article would be to write about the geology (worn-down volcanoes and built-up silt), archaeology (hunters, gatherers, hill forts) and history (the Romans came, looked around and went back behind the Wall) of the area, but while all of this is valuable it’s not the best way to convey an idea of the Cheviots. For this is a land of impressions, of cloud shapes cast upon hills of green and brown, and its essence lies in the waving flags of cotton grass, the brief blaze of heather and the fleeting glory of hay meadows. It’s a paradox of place that these smooth-backed hills leave fragmentary images in the memory: tangles of wool dangling from hollowed-out gorse bushes like tattered beards; flowers small and bright as stars speckling the grass.

But before we climb up to the high places, let’s look around. The hills are demarcated by heather and bracken, plantations and moors, but most of all by dry stone walls. These are so much a feature of the environment that it’s easy to overlook what an extraordinary exercise in hard labour and applied topology they represent. The illiterate labourers who made them would be worthy of a chair in mathematics at Cambridge University today, such was their ability to add irregular, multi-sided objects together and make a smooth-sided wall.

Of course, the other great shapers of the landscape are the self-powered mowers that bleat. Sheep speckle the hillsides and lonely walks (and every walk in the Cheviots is lonely) produce curious musings about the creatures. Venture up on to Housey Crags on the way to the distinctive round top of Hedgehope and the large amount of sheep droppings reveal that the beasts must have a desire for romantic vistas and breezy landscapes to match the most athletic of the Romantic poets. It can’t be the grass, there’s bugger all to be found on these exposed rocks.

Mind you, sheep aren’t the only ones to frequent the hill tops. Our Iron Age ancestors studded the area with their dwellings, but we still don’t know why they switched to building hill forts around 500BC, nor the reason for constructing them in such high and exposed positions – defence, prestige, both? – but one thing quickly becomes apparent when labouring to the top of Yeavering Bell or Brough Law: they must have had thighs like tree trunks.

That walk to the hill fort on Yeavering Bell in particular produces musings on the fate of Ozymandias (‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’), for the climb begins at the site of Ad Gefrin, the palace of King Edwin that Bede chronicled in his history. It’s now a field. And sheep graze where the chieftain of Yeavering Bell once sat, lord of all he surveyed. But then, maybe transience came as little surprise to that long-ago king. For even a high king’s orders must have sounded different when uttered in the heights. Try it yourself. Try speaking out loud when you’re alone on the hills. Your voice will sound different, like breath blown by the wind: quiet, fleeting, mortal.

Other, different, voices sound more at home here. The hay meadows of Barrowburn are heavy with the buzzing of bumblebees, while the whale backed ridge of The Cheviot – the singular hill from which the range takes its name – comes alive in summer with the song of the meadow pipit, singing as it labours upwards and then falls, trilling, away, or the skylark, diminishing to a black dot against the clouds, its voice filling the empty, windy wastes with bubbling, trilling, streams of music. But most of all, the high hills are the range of the ravens. If you’re lucky you might see a pair, riding the rolling air, or hear their extraordinary call, like two pieces of hollow wood being clapped together. The lower reaches are where their more voluble cousins, the rooks and the crows, abide, in gossiping, hurrying flocks, looking rather like the crowd at a Sisters of Mercy gig.

The world has changed a great deal since people first came to the Cheviots. Then the Wild Wood was an encroaching threat on the scattered pockets of humanity, now it’s reduced to a few preserved islands in the sea of humanity. The hills stand largely bare in a sombre, grave landscape of muted greens and browns. They don’t invite you. They don’t even notice you. But should the press of people become too great, the endless procession of anonymous faces too numbing, then come here, stand upon a cloud-flecked hill and hear the voice of the wind. You’ll be the only one listening.

A Walk in the Woods in London

Exploring Epping Forest

Epping Forest

It’s pushing it a bit to say Epping Forest is in London, but it certainly borders the city. And as for suburban woods, this is the big one: a forest rather than a wood. There are nearly 6,000 acres of woodland, interspersed with heaths and lakes and rides. The wood formed after the last Ice Age and is mainly oak, beech and hornbeam. Watch out for the massive branches of previously pollarded trees, left to grow since the passing of the Epping Forest Act in 1878. Hidden among the trees are two Iron Age earthworks, Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp, their banks and ditches still distinct two and a half millennia after they were first dug. The ditches in front of the banks were originally 10 feet deep, and the banks 10 feet high, making formidable defences. Local legend places Boudicca’s last stand against the Romans at Ambresbury Banks.

Aerial view of Holland Park

Holland Park

Although Holland Park is one of London’s grand formal parks, there is a surprisingly extensive wood in its northern half. Set off down one of the shaded paths and within a minute the sounds of urbanity are muffled and then all but disappear. It’s a surprise how far away the city can seem here. There’s also a lovely Japanese garden, as well as a café and excellent, age segregated play areas for children.

Highgate Wood

Highgate Wood/Queen’s Wood

Highgate and, on the other side of Muswell Hill Road, Queen’s woods are remnants of the ancient forest of Middlesex, which once covered most of north London and the now defunct county of Middlesex. The smaller Queen’s wood has the more diverse ecology associated with its predominant oak/hornbeam canopy – the rare wild service tree, a marker for the age of a woodland, is present throughout. Highgate Wood also has the wild service tree although less of them, so it’s no newly-planted forest, as well as a café, playground and playing fields. As a school boy, I fought imaginary battles among the trees with my friends.

Oxleas Wood

Shooters Hill Woodlands

Oxleas, Jack and Shepherdleas woods, remnants of the post-glaciation wildwood that once covered the country, cover Shooter’s Hill with a mixture of oak, sweet chestnut and hazel, plus the tell-tale maple-like leaves of the wild service tree. The rare palmate newt lives in ponds in the woods. Walk it in the early morning for a shiver sense of the deep past that still lingers in the shadows under the trees.

Book review: Royal Navy versus the Slave Traders by Bernard Edwards

Royal Navy versus the Slave Traders by Bernard Edwards

Slavery has been as endemic in human history as warfare. Whole societies have been built on slavery and, for most of history, the practice was taken completely for granted as simply part of the cultural fabric, as unfortunate but as inevitable as death and illness. There’s only been two places and times in the world where it has been outlawed: firstly, in Christian Europe in the early Middle Ages and then again in the fractured Europe of early modern era. Having outlawed slavery for Christians, the more enlightened men of the Englightenment reinstituted it on the basis of dubious sounding but scientifically dressed up theories of racial superiority (much of Voltaire’s wealth was earned from the slave trade and he defended the trade on the basis of his belief in a racial hierarchy where white people “are superior to Negroes, just like Negroes are superior to monkeys”).

Against the likes of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau were set a bunch of mostly British religious nut cases, or so they were depicted at the time, who insisted on putting principle before the passive acceptance of a lot of people getting quietly rich. The abolitionists, in the teeth of well-funded opposition, managed to drive the abolition of slavery through Parliament and, in the face of even more opposition, succeeded in enlisting the Royal Navy to police this abolition upon the oceans of the world.

This book tells the story of the squadrons of ships given the task of patrolling the seas where the slave traders ran. It was one of the most difficult stations for any ship: fever-ridden coasts where many a sailor met his end in sweat and agony, to be consigned to a grave in the ocean. So when you read about people agitating for restitution, it’s worth asking what of the men who gave their lives to stop the slave trade? Should not their relatives get restitution too, for they died that others might live free of the shadow of slavery.

Book review: Aelfred’s Britain by Max Adams

Aelfred’s Britain by Max Adams

While the blurb suggests that this is a history of Alfred and his times, it would be better to think of it as an archaeological interrogation of the historical evidence. Working from very different evidence bases, archaeology and history often come to quite different conclusions about what happened, with scholars in each discipline naturally tending to favour their own speciality. As such, Aelfred’s Britain is a helpful read for a historian, as it challenges many of the assumptions that historians have made about Alfred’s era based upon sources that King Alfred largely ensured told the story that he wanted told. Admittedly, historians have been aware for quite some time of this potential bias but an awareness of the bias does not help, on its own, to rectify it, without evidence from other sources.

Adams, and a generation of archaeologists, have been busily searching for this evidence, although it comes with its own set of inherent biases. In particular, archaeology is site specific: it tells you about what happened in a particular place. As we can’t dig everywhere, this inevitably skews our evidence to the sites that have been excavated, which in no wise constitute a random sample.

As such, Aelfred’s Britain is a valuable addition to the Alfredian literature, although by the book’s design it’s somewhat bitty: it took me a long time to finish as it’s a book that almost asks to be put aside for a while and then picked up again.

Catalan Child-Frighteners

What to do if little Johnny won’t go to sleep at bedtime? A glass of warm milk? A gentle lullaby? Or a blood-curdling horror story of child abduction and flesh-eating monsters? Catalan folklore is full of decidedly non-PC espantanens (‘child-frighteners’), designed to make kids behave and – as a side effect – turn them into gibbering emotional wrecks.

Goya’s depiction of El Coco.

El Coco is one of the best known. With shaggy black hair and fluorescent eyes, El Coco preys on children who don’t go to bed when they’re told. Only leaving his hidey-hole in the dead of night, he lingers in the shadowy corners of children’s bedrooms and taunts them with a scary grunting noise, before grabbing them and carrying them home to eat raw.

La Pesanta, as depicted by Eduardo Valdés-Hevia

El Coco takes children who don’t go to sleep but pity those who do: La Pesanta is waiting for them. In the form of a huge black dog with human hands, she jumps on to the chest of those who sleep on their backs; her great weight gives them terrible nightmares before suffocating them to death.

L’Home del Sac

Warning of ‘stranger danger’ is L’Home del Sac (the ‘bag man’), a sinister old man dressed in old brown rags with shaggy hair and a giant sack on his back. Wandering the streets of Barcelona, he lures over any children he sees out alone with sweets and toys and then tosses them in his sack. Back in his castle, he boils down the children’s juicy flesh to produce a fine oil, which he uses to grease the train tracks.

Caçamentides by Javier Prado

Continuing the gruesome roll call of Catalan monsters, there’s the Caçamentides (‘liar hunter’), a man as tall and wide as the towers of the cathedral and with fingers as sharp as claws, which he uses to snatch up children who tell lies. He knows who they are because when a lie comes out of a child’s mouth, it turns into an invisible bird that flies away after leaving a dark stain on their teeth. The birds fly to Caçamentides and tell him where the child is to be found. He barbecues his captives and eats them seven by seven.


Much feared by little girls is the Cardapeçois, a strange and bad-tempered old woman who’s obsessed with well-combed hair. She visits little girls with long, tangled locks and goes at them with thistle heads and, in especially bad cases, the sharp iron spikes used to card sheep wool. She combs until she’s pulled all the hair out, and the offender is left bleeding and bald.

Jan de Gel

Putting on the frighteners out in La Vall de Ribes de Freser is Jan de Gel, a boy made of ice, and so cold-hearted that children freeze just by looking at him. He throws the human popsicle on his back and carries it to his ice cave to make it into a hearty soup. Another winter sprite is La Tinyosa, who appears as a mass of foggy cloud, descending over any children lost in her territory of the Montserrat mountains and the plains of Vic, and carrying them away.

Book review: Rocks and Shoals by Chris Durbin

Rocks and Shoals by Chris Durbin

With Lieutenant Holbrooke’s promotion, the two lead characters, Carlisle and Holbrooke, have been separated, their adventures occupying alternating books: for Rocks and Shoals, the focus is Captain Carlisle, American captain of a ship of the Royal Navy, navigating the treacherous waters of the St Lawrence River as part of the expeditionary force of General Wolfe against the French in Canada. So the novel exchanges the broad expanses of the ocean for the narrow passages of inland waterways, and ships acting as floating gun batteries alongside infantry assaults: it’s a fascinating insight into an earlier version of combined arms warfare, with the engaging Captain Carlisle as our guide. As enjoyable as the earlier novels in the series.

Book review: Perilous Shore by Chris Durbin

Perilous Shore by Chris Durbin

If you’re read the previous five books in this series about Captain Carlisle and Lieutenant Holbrooke, officers in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War, then you’ll know what to expect in the sixth instalment: convincing naval action (the author was naval officer), just enough interpersonal intrigue to keep matters interesting without anything getting too out of hand, and a cast of characters that are, generally, thoroughly good eggs, although with sufficent personal quirks to render them individuals. It’s not challenging historical fiction but it is extremely good historical fiction: perhaps one step down from the top rate but story shape and read worthy.

Book review: The Reverie by Peter Fehervari

The Reverie by Peter Fehervari

You don’t normally read 40k for dense, allusive prose that carry echoes of some of the great prose stylists of the 20th century, but with Peter Fehervari’s 40k work this is exactly what you get. The Reverie is a fascinating take on the grim dark of the far future, one that repays lingering over the words as well as paying attention to the plot (in fact, I lingered so long over the words that I got a little lost in what was actually happening). It’s as close to a philosophical 40k novel as has been written, a novel-length investigation into the corruption that turns to canker all the best intentions of even the best characters within this universe. So if your preference in 40k skews towards creeping dread and the long, slow dissolution of the few citadels of hope in that universe rather than bolter porn, then this is the story for you.