The first review of Edwin: High King of Britain, from the indefatigable Publishers’ Weekly, is in, and it’s a goodie:
In the first installment of the Northumbrian Thrones, a new historical fiction series, Albert launches readers into the tumultuous world of 7th century Northumbria…Albert’s focus on the religious element does not detract from the political and dramatic aspects of the history he is portraying. Rather, it lends an extra dimension of psychological turmoil, because characters must deal with the problem of not only individual identity but also the beginnings of a national identity related to religion. Albert’s offering is a highly entertaining and refreshing work of historical fiction thanks to his emphasis on the precarious intersection of religion and identity.
My favourite bird, the Shoebill. One glance from its gimlet, you-looking-at-me-punk eyes is invariably enough to cheer me up. How good it is to know that there are creatures on this planet who really, really, really don’t care a spit for us capering, self important human beings.
A neutral observer in the sixteenth century would have concluded that it was only a matter of time before the armies of Islam conquered all of Europe. Since the Arabs had burst from their desert fastnesses in the seventh century they had carried all before them. The first surge had seen all the previously Christian lands of north Africa and much of the middle East become Muslim, while the Persian Sasanian empire had also fallen. By 750 Islam ruled all the countries in a broad band from Spain in the west to what is now Pakistan in the east. Only the Byzantine Empire, the Christian successor to Rome founded by Constantine, prevented the advance of Muslim armies into Europe.
Centuries of consolidation and gradual expansion followed, as the strength of the Byzantines was gradually whittled away until, a millennium after its foundation, Constantinople fell in 1453 to the forces of the expanding Ottoman empire and its great sultan, Mehmet II, who was aptly nicknamed ‘the Conqueror’. Internal struggles temporarily halted the Ottoman onslaught, but with the accession of Suleiman I (1520-66) the attack on Europe resumed. Hungary was conquered and Vienna besieged in 1529. If freak rain storms had not caused Suleiman to abandon his artillery it’s almost certain that Vienna would have been taken, leaving the advance into Germany clear.
So by the 16th century the Christian world had been reduced to a remnant of its former extent and Europeans gloomily forsaw a time when Islam would have conquered all. Even the Crusades, which we so often see as some sort of imperialist adventure, were more like a desperate attempt to turn an inexorable tide. Sebastian Brant, in one of the most widely read books of the era, The Ship of Fools, summed up the mood:
Our faith was strong in th’ Orient,
It ruled in all of Asia,
In Moorish lands and Africa.
But now for us these lands are gone
‘Twould even grieve the hardest stone….
Four sisters of our Church you find,
They’re of the patriarchic kind:
But they’ve been forfeited and sacked
And soon the head will be attacked.
In this light, it’s no wonder that the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Christian fleet commanded by the 24-year-old Don Juan of Austria defeated the hitherto invincible Ottoman navy in one of the great naval encounters in history, caused rejoicing all over Europe. Poets, painters and writers celebrated the victory, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I decreed services of thanksgiving for the triumph of the Catholic Holy League and Pope Gregory XIII declared 7 October, the anniversary of the battle, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. For once, Europe was united. Miguel de Cervantes, who fought in the battle, losing the use of his left hand, called it ‘The most noble and memorable event that past centuries have seen or future generations can ever hope to witness.’
The Museu Marítim in Barcelona has a full-scale replica of Don Juan’s flagship, La Real, on whose forecastle ‘the last knight of Europe’ danced a joyful galliard in the face of an enemy fleet that stretched to the horizon.
Thanks very much for sending this story to […]. Unfortunately, it’s not quite right for us. I really liked the setting and the sense of detail, and I felt an intriguing acuteness in Cavel’s tone and situation, but the exposition on the background felt slow of pace to me after the first couple paragraphs, and I didn’t feel as much of an acuteness or urgency develop in Cavel’s situation as I needed for the story to continue to hold my interest.
We appreciate your interest in our magazine. Please feel free to submit other work in the future.
With thanks to Ronnie Haydon for pointing this out to me. The just as great Roald Dahl on the effects of TV.
The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink —
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.
The great Theodore Dalrymple on the evil screen in the corner. I spent many years repairing televisions, and this is one of the reasons why, when broadcasts went digital, we did not follow. There were too many houses I visited were the TV was the first thing switched on in the morning and the last thing switched off at night – and in some households, it was never turned off, but remained, on mute, a flickering presence through the night. Our TV, analogue and out of date, allows us to watch DVDs, but we are not drawn into the passivity of channel hopping and slack-jawed staring at a screen. If further evidence is required, here is the good doctor on the people who make TV programmes.
To my shame, and against my principles, I have occasionally agreed to appear on television, though even less frequently than I have been asked. I have found those who work for TV broadcasting companies to be the most disagreeable people that I have ever encountered. I far preferred the criminals whom I encountered in my work as a prison doctor, who were more honest and upright than TV people.
In my experience, TV people are as lying, insincere, obsequious, unscrupulous, fickle, exploitative, shallow, cynical, untrustworthy, treacherous, dishonest, mercenary, low, and untruthful a group of people as is to be found on the face of this Earth. They make the average Western politician seem like a moral giant. By comparison with them, Mr. Madoff was a model of probity and Iago was Othello’s best friend. I am prepared to admit that there may be—even are—exceptions, as there are exceptions good or bad in every human group, but there is something about the evil little screen that would sully a saint and sanctify a monster.
This just gets better and better! After the wonderful message from Bernard Cornwell on Friday, my editor received an email from Justin Hill, author of Shieldwall (only the best novel about Anglo-Saxon England out there) this morning. He’s read Edwin: High King of Britain as well and he likes it too!
So, here’s what Justin (we’re on first name terms now, you see!) has to say about Edwin:
‘At the dawn of England seven kingdoms struggle for supremacy: but there is more than honour and power at stake; paganism, Christianity and the future shape of the English nation will be decided. A fast-paced and gripping tale of the great Northumbrian King Edwin, reclaiming one of our great national figures from the shadows of history.’
I am, I must admit, feeling slightly overwhelmed at the moment, but in a good way! By the way, if you’ve never read Shieldwall, I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s my review of it.
It’s rare for an emperor to earn the title ‘the great’. It’s even rarer for that same emperor to also be called a saint. So with Constantine I we’re dealing with no ordinary man. Now, while Constantine’s right to be called a saint is disputable – saints not being generally known for executing both son and wife – what is not open to question is that he was the greatest emperor of the late Roman Empire.