Adventures with Words: Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson loves words. He loves all sorts of words: long ones, short ones and difficult ones (he wrote a whole book about these, called Troublesome Words, which makes ideal toilet reading as it’s full of short but interesting entries). As such, he’s a good man to write a book about someone who loved words even more: William Shakespeare. So the book is very good about Shakespeare’s language: a genius at phrase making so great that many have entered the language as figures of speech.

As a life of Shakespeare, Bryson however takes a minimalist approach when compared to Shakespeare’s language, emphasising again and again how little we know for sure about him. Mind you, it’s not just us. Apparently, Shakespeare himself was a little wobbly about how exactly his surname should be spelled (and in his surviving signatures, it’s never the way we write it now). So the book comes as a good antidote to the various studies that claim to have uncovered the secret of Shakespeare. According to Bryson, there are no secret keys to unlock the mystery surrounding the world’s playwright: Shakespeare himself either covered up his tracks or the simple loss of knowledge by the passage of time covered his tracks for him.

It’s a fairly basic book on Shakespeare, and a good place to start for those interested in finding out something about what we know, but I would recommend James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare as a better book on the Bard.

Adventures with Words: The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

There’s lots of books and courses out there purporting to teach aspiring authors the craft of writing. And it’s true, they will. They’ll teach you to craft characters, write dialogue, embed themes, all the stuff that occupies most of we writers when we are at work. But in those how-to-write books, you won’t find any mention of Dean Koontz. Which is sort of strange, seeing as how he’s sold millions upon millions of books. Or if they do mention Koontz, it’s as an example of what not to do: don’t editorialise, don’t insert your own voice into the narration, don’t… well, don’t be Dean.

But the problem with all these books about writing is that they are missing out on the one thing that Koontz does exceptionally well and it’s the one thing that is really difficult, if not impossible, to teach: he has great ideas. Great ideas that immediately make you want to find out what happens next. The Good Guy is a good example. Ordinary guy, sitting in a bar, strikes up a conversation with a stranger only to find the stranger thinks he’s someone else. That someone else is a killer, and the stranger is hiring him to kill someone.

What would you do if a stranger hired you to kill someone? That’s the brilliant jumping off point for everything else, and it’s these sort of key ideas that Koontz, and many best-selling authors, are so good at, even if they won’t win any prizes for literary craft. But with a good enough idea, you don’t need to be an Evelyn Waugh when it comes to writing prose: the idea will piggyback the story to its conclusion.

So, writers, by all means learn your craft but also, spend time cultivating the instinct for the killer idea, and the patience to sift through the other ideas until you find the one that works. It’s the Dean Koontz method and he’s sold a lot more books than you (or I) have.

Adventures with Words: A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

It’s not. 336 pages does not a brief book make. And they are 336 dense pages. But then, not only is it a brief history but it also attempts to be a new global history too. That’s a lot to pack into a book about one of the oldest and most widespread institutions in human history. And, you know, what: Jeremy Black succeeds much better than you might expect.

While today we might think slavery self-evidently evil and beyond the pale, almost all civilisations and places have regarded it as perfectly normal. What Black does very well in this book is show the ubiquity of slavery, demonstrate how in all its forms it required the help of local elites to facilitate the trade and how the British came to play a particularly schizophrenic role in its culmination, opening up the Atlantic slave trade while also then outlawing and finally policing, via the dominance of the Royal Navy, the slave trade to an ending.

To fit all this in, Black eschews emotionalism: it’s a fairly dry account, strong on economics and politics, weak on human interest. This is not a book seeking to outrage but to understand. If you want to learn, I recommend it. If you want to burnish your moral certainties, read something else.

Adventures with Words: Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Another entry in the they’d-never-publish-this-today stakes, Black Mischief is ostensibly about the fag-end of colonialism when exhausted British charges d’affaires and regional officers oversaw the dismantling of the Empire. However, the fictional African state of Azania (loosely modelled on Ethiopia) is independent, its new ruler, the Emperor Seth, an enthusiast for all things modern.

The first chapter is an absolute masterpiece of mordant wit, describing the panic and collapse in a capital and a regime when its functionaries see the rebel soldiers approaching to take the capital. Waugh is quite brilliant in the way he captures the fear and uncertainty, and the reactions of the men and women trying to buy their way to keeping their skins. Then, it turns out, the approaching army is made of victorious loyalist troops, the rebellion has been defeated, and Emperor Seth can get on with his plans to turn Azania into a modern, progressive nation. It does not work out as he wished, despite his employment of Basil Seal, the feckless English emigre.

It’s all too marvellous to convey anything but a tiny hint of the book’s glitter: so long as you’re willing to put aside modern prejudices – which are just as prejudicial as those on display in the book, only more contemporary – then you will thank me for recommending Black Mischief to you.

Adventures with Words: Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser

Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser

Well, put this on the list of books that wouldn’t get published today. Not because it’s bad – it’s one of the best of the Flashman novels – but because it doesn’t contain the ritual and required denunciation of slavery as the most evil institution in human history. The trouble is, slavery is also among the most ubiquitous and enduring of human institutions. It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that a small group of campaigners – loonies the lot of them – got it into their minds that the enslaving of peoples was intolerable and set out to have it stopped. The greater surprise is that they succeeded.

In this story, our hero is unwittingly caught up in the slave trade and shipped off under the command of one of Fraser’s most memorable ‘villains’, the embittered classicist John Charity Spring, captain of a slave ship taking part in the Triangle Trade across the Atlantic. Flashman, with his usual policy of following the Yellow Rule, “I’ll never do harm to anyone if there’s a chance he may harm me in return,” is nevertheless somewhat taken aback at the workings of the slave trade but takes care to cross to the other side of the road. Arriving in America, further misadventures ensue, including a meeting with a young Abraham Lincoln (who is one of the few people to perceive the cad and the coward hiding behind Flashie’s bluff exterior), running a slave estate and the usual encounters with a wide variety of women.

Fraser’s great skill is presenting the worlds of the 19th century through the eyes and opinions of the people who actually lived then, rather than filtering it through modern sensibilities. A curious side effect of doing this is that reading Flashman always leaves me wondering what unconscious hyprocrisies of our own time our descendants will look back on and ask, “How could they have allowed this?”

Rebuilding Wessex 2: The Army

Alfred the Great turned his army into a mobile, horse-mounted reserve.

Alfred believed the Vikings had been allowed to ravage his kingdom because his people had given up their commitment to truth and learning. Having set about rebuilding education in Wessex, and having learned to read and write Latin himself, Alfred moved on to the second stage of his plan to protect the kingdom against further Viking incursions.

The Viking’s key strategic advantages were mobility and surprise. When faced with an organised defensive force, a Viking raiding party preferred discretion over valour. Despite their reputation for berserk fury, most Vikings were in it for the money. Given the choice, they would seek refuge behind fortifications or take to their boats than risk everything in a full-scale battle. But the time taken to assemble the fyrd, the free men of a district, meant that any half competent Viking commander could raid and depart before anything could be done to stop him. Even the Great Army that Alfred had defeated, which was set upon conquest rather than raiding, used the same tactics, picking the time and place to strike, often waiting for when its enemies were occupied with harvest or festivals.

Alfred dug deep into the problem he faced, working down to first principles. He saw that, to counter the mobility of a Viking army, he required forces that could be assembled quickly and moved fast: he needed a mounted, standing army. This was a radical change from Anglo-Saxon practice. What’s more, it would be far more costly to the magnates required to provide the mounted troops. But by 893, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes in passing the results of the changes the king had inaugurated, Alfred had persuaded, cajoled, suborned and wheedled his nobility into line. Half the kingdom’s warriors were kept on duty, with the other half held in reserve.

We know this force was mounted because, in its description of the actions and campaigns of the 890s, the Chronicle repeatedly refers to Alfred’s forces riding after the Viking army. The horses were not the great war beasts of the high medieval period but smaller animals, not that much larger than ponies, but ideal for transporting the relatively lightly armoured warrior of the time.

By retaining half the warriors in reserve, that is, still living in their landholdings, Alfred also ensured the maintenance of the king’s peace. For these warriors fulfilled the function of a police force as well as an army, deterring bands of brigands from raiding the small farming communities and religious establishments that dotted the land. Having men in place on the ground also meant that those on service were less likely to go running back to their homes to look after hearth and family. But this mobile strike force was only half the solution. Alfred still needed to find a way to protect the ordinary folk of his kingdom, the ones whom the Vikings would seize and sell at the slave markets of Dublin.

Rebuilding Wessex 1: Education

The Alfred Jewel, front and back.

The Vikings would be back. While Alfred had defeated Guthrum in 878 he knew that the Vikings would return. But next time, he would make sure that Wessex was ready for them.

Alfred tackled the matter with the systematic intelligence that was characteristic of him. First came the question of ‘why’? Why had God allowed pagan men to ravage the Christian kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons? For Alfred did not believe in a universe of chance. Things happened for a reason, and he applied to recent events the same self-analysis that the Jews applied to their own history in the Bible. Alfred saw the English as a new Chosen people, set apart by God for his purposes. But while the Jews came to understand their own history in terms of their falling away from the ancestral covenant they had made with God, Alfred came to a different conclusion with respect to his own people. It wasn’t so much that they had failed morally (although the temptation to vice was ever present and often consummated), but rather that they had failed by abandoning their previous commitment to learning and education. Whereas in the seventh and eighth centuries, Anglo-Saxon scholars such as Bede and Alcuin had been among the most learned men in the world, by Alfred’s reign learning had fallen off so precipitously that the scribes for Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of the whole country, were unable to produce texts in intelligible Latin. It was this failure to nurture their patrimony of learning, Alfred believed, that had caused God to remove his protection from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

So, having established the cause, Alfred set out to remedy it, and he started with himself. He had only learned to read and write English when he was 12. This was better than for many other people but it was still a source of embarrassment to Alfred. What was more, he could not read or write Latin, the language of scholarship. So, somewhere in his mid-30s, Alfred started to learn Latin. But Alfred wanted not just to be able to read Latin. His aim was to achieve a high-enough standard in the language that he would be able to translate key Latin books into English. For Alfred had decided to embark upon a programme of education for his people and himself. To do that he recruited to his court the most able clerics he could find, from Britain and abroad, men such as Asser, a Welshman, Plegemund, a Mercian, John from Saxony and Grimbald from France. Alfred’s court was becoming an international institution.

Recognising that most of his people had neither the time nor the opportunity to learn Latin, Alfred and his court scholars set about translating the books ‘most necessary for all men to know’ into English. These included the Dialogues and Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and the first fifty Psalms. These works are full of spiritual, moral and practical wisdom, from the Consolation’s advice on how to deal with turns of fortune that leave you destitute – something Alfred himself was all too familiar with – to sound precepts for how a bishop should do his job in Pastoral Care.

Alfred sent a copy of Pastoral Care to every bishopric in the country and, being Alfred, was shrewd enough to guess that Gregory’s pastoral advice might best be gold-plated with an earthly gift, so included with each book a beautiful and valuable text pointer. One of those pointers, the Alfred Jewel, pictured above, has survived to today and is on display at the Ashmolean Museum.

To ensure that the knowledge in these books reached beyond the episcopacy, Alfred established a court school to teach not only his own children but also the children of the nobility and even many among the common born. To recover from the ravages of the Vikings, Alfred fostered a thorough going cultural renewal. That Alfred, while burdened with all the duties of a king, should still find time in his day to translate Latin texts into English for the good of his people marks him out as truly exceptional among monarchs. There have been many great warrior kings. There have even been a few scholar kings. But Alfred is pretty well unique in being both.

Adventures with Words: Jesus by Richard Bauckham

Jesus by Richard Bauckham

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 Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Wessex

The last kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons became the first kingdom of England

Of the three major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, Wessex was the last to achieve prominence. Nevertheless, it was the kings of Wessex who eventually became the kings of a unified England. However, there was little to suggest their eventual status in the founding of Wessex.

As with the other kingdoms, the king lists go back to a founder, Cerdic, from whom the ruling dynasty drew its legitimacy, but there is little to prove that the kings who came after Cerdic, the Cerdicings, were actually related to their supposed forebear. According to the account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cerdic landed on the Hampshire coast with five boatloads of men in AD 495, establishing a kingdom on the south coast and gradually expanding inland and to the west. However, Cerdic is a Celtic name, not a Germanic one, so some scholars have speculated that the early rulers of Wessex were of Anglo/British stock.

Wessex expanded westward, at the expense of the Britonnic kingdoms, while its northern expansion was checked by the increasing power of the Mercians: the River Thames marked the effective boundary between the two kingdoms. During the eighth century, when Mercian supremacy was at its height, Wessex retained its independence to a greater degree than most other kingdoms, while its kings continued to push westwards, subjugating the Britonnic kingdom of Dumnonia (Devon) by early in the ninth century.

In 851, a Viking army landed in Wessex but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Aclea. So when the Vikings returned in 865, the Great Heathen Army avoided the kingdom of the West Saxons. It was only when the other three major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been subdued that the Great Army turned its attention to Wessex, the last kingdom.

Sitting uncomfortably on the throne of Wessex was a young man named Æthelred, who proved far more ready than his infamous descendant, with his younger brother, Alfred, as his chief commander. At the Battle of Ashdown in 871, Æthelred and Alfred inflicted the first significant defeat on the Great Army and the Northmen withdrew.

But Æthelred did not long survive the victory, which left his young brother, Alfred, the last king of the Anglo-Saxons. There were no other viable claimants. Remove Alfred, and the last kingdom would fall. Which was precisely what the Danes attempted, launching a mid-winter raid into Wessex that caught Alfred completely by surprise.

Fleeing into the marshes of the Somerset Levels with a handful of men, Alfred left the Vikings in control of the last kingdom. But Alfred returned. He defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington in one of the most crucial battles in English history. With some breathing space, Alfred set about remaking his kingdom. His first aim was to make it secure against future Viking raids and then to reconquer the country. Alfred achieved his first aim but he had to leave the reconquest to his children.

Under the remarkable leadership of Alfred’s son and daughter, Edward and Æthelflæd, who became the effective ruler of Mercia, the Danelaw was reconquered and it was Æthelstan, Alfred’s grandson, who united England under his leadership. The king of the West Saxons was now the king of England. It was an extraordinary achievement by an extraordinary family.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Northumbria

The realm of heroes and saints

The clue is in the name. Northumbria was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom north of the Humber. At its peak it was the largest and most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Through being home to Bede for all his long life, it is the best recorded kingdom up to the eighth century.

Northumbria demonstrates how smaller kingdoms consolidated into larger polities, for it came about through the forced union of Bernicia, with its royal stronghold at Bamburgh, and Deira, centred on the old Roman city of York.

According to the surviving king lists, Bernicia was founded in 547 by Ida – hence the kings of Bernicia were called the Idings – when he captured Bamburgh. For half a century, the Idings fought desperately to retain their precarious hold on the coast, until an alliance of Brittonic kings drove them from Bamburgh on to Lindisfarne. On the point of extinction, the Idings were saved when one of the besieging kings took the opportunity to assassinate his rival. The siege dissolved into recrimination, the Idings escaped and re-established themselves on Bamburgh and, soon, the neighbouring Brittonic kingdoms would rue this lost opportunity.

Around 593, Æthelfrith took the throne and he proved to be one of the most successful warrior kings of the time, dealing a number of devastating defeats to the Britons and forcibly amalgamating the kingdom of Deira to Bernicia to create Northumbria. Under his leadership, Northumbria became the most powerful kingdom in Britain and, though Æthelfrith was killed in battle in 616, Edwin, the man who succeeded Æthelfrith, consolidated the kingdom’s power and expanded its territory.

Edwin also became the first northern Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity, but before he could cement the new religion’s place in his kingdom, Edwin too was killed in battle. After a chaotic interregnum, Æthelfrith’s son, Oswald, returned from exile to claim the throne. A devout Christian, Oswald brought monks from Iona to preach the new religion. The monks founded the monastery on Lindisfarne.

Northumbrian power continued to expand under Oswald’s brother and successor, Oswiu, and also during the reign of Oswiu’s son, Ecgfrith. But, in 685, the Northumbrians suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Picts. Ecgfrith was killed and much of the Northumbrian army destroyed. The battle stopped further northward expansion by the Northumbrians: the eventual birth of Scotland can be traced back to this Pictish victory.

While Northumbria declined militarily after the Battle of Nechtansmere, the eighth century saw a cultural flowering that produced, among many wonders, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Viking invasion of the ninth century divided Northumbria again, with a Viking kingdom established at York but an English earldom retaining Bamburgh and Bernicia, cut off from the rest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until the unification of the country by Æthelstan the Glorious in the tenth century.