Eleanor the secret Queen; the woman who put Richard III on the throne – John Ashdown-Hill

A biography of Eleanor Talbot, the woman whose alleged marriage to Edward IV meant his children by Elizabeth Woodville were illegitimate and allowed Richard III to depose his nephews.

This book tells what little is known, or can be inferred about Eleanor Talbot.

Talbot was the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury by his second wife.  Her first husband was Sir Thomas Butler, son of Lord Sudebury.  her second husband may, or may not have been the man who became Edward IV.

As is often the case with medieval woman, Eleanor is a shadowy figure and doesn’t come across as particularly interesting so it’s hard to imagine what Edward might have seen in her other than a challenge.  Her younger sister comes across as much better company!

What was interesting was understanding more about how solemnly medieval England viewed pre-contract marriages and understanding more of life in Plantagenet Britain.

Ultimately though I found the book frustrating.  I want to understand, as far as I can, just how it came about that Richard III came to his throne.  I want to understand the Court’s response to the allegations of  Edward and Eleanor’s pre-contract.  This book just doesn’t do it.  It takes too many leaps of faith and presents them as fact to cast any real illumination onto the subject.

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Operation Garbo; the personal story of the most successful spy of WWII – Juan Pujol Garcia and Nigel West

This is one of those autobiographies you just couldn’t make up; no one would accept the story as it’s just so incredible.

Juan Pujol Garcia was a British double agent in WWII who managed to persuade the German Secret Service that his entirely fictitious British spy ring existed and then persuaded them to accept the fictitious information he fed them from the fictitious spy ring!

Juan Pujol Garcia was, to cut a long story short, a chicken farmer who spent the Spanish Civil War avoiding fighting for either side. At the outbreak of WWII he wanted to help defeat the Nazis, again without fighting.  He offered his services as a spy to the British, who declined.  He offered his services to the Germans who accepted and encouraged him to travel to Britain.  He claimed to have travelled but in reality was in Lisbon making up reports from hat he thought might be interesting and from consulting library books about Britain.  Britain eventually recruited him after learning about his reports from decoded Enigma messages between Madrid and Berlin.

Once recruited by MI6 his “spy ring” expanded and through it Allied High Command were able to send useful misinformation to Nazi Germany, in particular the misdirects about D-Day.

The parts of the book written by Pujol Garcia are memoir and Nigel West contributes an historian’s perspective of the same points.

I loved finding out more about Garbo and his amazing, fictitious spy ring.  It was good to get more detail about some of the things I’ve read in other books such as MacIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat.

The problem is, mainly, that this is in part an autobiography.  I got a strong sense that Pujol Garcia is telling a very sanitized version of his story and he’s very assertive about telling his reader how apolitical he was and how desperate to help Britain defeat the Nazis.  I suspect the reality was a bit more complicated.  I’m not suggesting that Garbo was not really important to the war effort, he was, but in real life people don’t just wear a white hat or a black hat, they are a combination of both.

I would definitely recommend reading this book though.

A great and terrible King; Edward I and the forging of Britain – Marc Morris

A biography of King Edward I of England, a King I know a bit about having read the biography of his first Queen, Eleanor of Castile, last year.

It is interesting to read more than one account of the same events from different perspectives and by different authors so it was useful to have what I learned from the book about Eleanor in the back of my mind whilst reading this book.

I hadn’t realised before reading this and the book about Eleanor just what an impact Edward I had on the development of the UK.  It could have become a very different nation had different decisions been made during Edward’s reign.  A policy of inclusion, rather than a policy of seeking submission, in Wales, Ireland and Scotland would have seen the 4 nations develop along very different lines.

Also, the expensive war waged by Edward to regain his Duchy of Gascony had a significant impact on the development of England as a nation-state.  Edward used every possible means to raise the money for his war and left England, Wales and Ireland in poverty to do so.

On the plus side Edward tried to make England a more law-abiding country with fewer injustices and fewer less corruption than during his father’s reign.

Edward comes across as an interesting character, full of energy and very active up until the end of his life.  He certainly doesn’t come across as a modern man although a lot of what we would see as his bad qualities now were what was expected of Kings in the 13th century.

As always with a biography of a medieval character, chunks of the book seemed quite superficial and there are a lot of inferences made about where the King might have been and why.  I understand the practicalities and lack of evidence but it does make it difficult to piece together a cohesive picture of what a person was like and I find it a bit frustrating.

On the plus side I am building up a better understand of the Plantagenet dynasty and the Kings and Queens of England.

Jack and the Beanstalk – York Theatre Royal

Yes, it’s that time of year again; the Old Jokes Home outing to the pantomime. Hurrah!

I was really looking forward to this, especially since I had 2 exams to sit during the afternoon and was in need of some light relief.

It’s fair to say that with York Theatre Royal pantomime it doesn’t really matter what the title is; it is, essentially, the same panto with the same cast playing more or less the same parts they’ve played for the last millennium just with new music and different costumes.  This pantomime has a cult following; some people have been going to see Berwick Kaler as the Dame for 39 years so the Old Jokes Home at only 9 years are merely babbies and bairns.

Firstly, it was great to see Martin Barrass back in action after missing last year’s panto following a serious motorbike accident.

Secondly, it’s great to see Berwick Kaler looking hale and hearty after his heart bypass surgery.  It wouldn’t be the same without him.

The problem with this year’s panto though is that it was clearly suffering from lack of time to prepare it properly.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it very much.  The slapstick was silly, David Leonard’s evil Dr McCarb was a wonderful baddy and there were the usual pauses whilst cast members got their giggles under control.  It just felt as though there hadn’t been time to do a proper script – I assume there is one so people have a point of reference to riff from – and the time had to be filled up with a lot of singing and dancing.  I did like “Stand by your Mam” though.

York Theatre Royal pantomime is, without doubt, a must-see event, and will continue to be.  But I really hope Berwick Kaler has a more tranquil year in 2018 and more time to write another stonkingly good panto.

 

Bob Harris: Still whispering after all these years – Bob Harris

A fairly candid autobiography of Bob Harris the DJ and television broadcaster.  This book tells Bob’s story from his early life, his adult personal life and his life in and around music from the 1970s up to the present day.

I’m not really old enough to “get” Bob Harris.  By the time I was old enough to watch Old Grey Whistle Test it was Janice Long presenting and the programme was past its best.  I enjoyed listening to Bob’s Saturday late night programme when it was on Radio 2.  I didn’t like all the music but I did like how eclectic it was and how knowledgeable Bob was.  I think my response to the book reflects this; don’t really get the cultural references and some of it is interesting and thought-provoking.

I did enjoy learning more about the Old Grey Whistle Test.  I loved learning that the phrase emanated from the Brill Building and the way the song writers knew if they had written a hit or not.  It was also interesting to find out how the programme was made and just how involved everyone was in the planning and execution of each one.

I liked finding out more about the music business from a non-musician’s perspective.  It adds to what I’ve learned from the autobiographies of musicians like Springsteen, Keith Richards and John Lydon.

Harris himself doesn’t come out of the book particularly well.  I think he sums it up quite well when he says he was a married man living the life of a single man.  He comes across as quite selfish and self-centred in his private life.

The book seems to run out of steam towards the end – perhaps Harris had a deadline to meet – and I think the quality of the book deteriorates.  The later chapters are a bit of a “famous people I know” fest and the writing becomes trashy-novelesque, with all friendships being “deep and meaningful” relationships; what happened to just being good friends with someone and simply enjoying their company?

Another of those 2/3s good forget the last 1/3 books.

Twelfth Night – RSC

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this for ages – I bought the tickets  in the summer – and I really liked the idea of seeing Twelfth Night on twelfth night.  I enjoy the play, or most of it and I was intrigued at the idea of Vyvyan Basterd playing Malvolio, having not, at that stage, seen Ade Edmondson playing it straight in Bancroft.

The set and setting was what I’ve come to expect from a Christopher Luscombe directed play at RSC; lush Victorian/Edwardian country house.  It looked lovely but was a bit faffy when scenery needed changing and there was a pause every time Orsino’s decadent Turkish setting needed to slide backwards to make room for Olivia’s conservatory or drawing-room to swing forwards.  Good idea but didn’t quite work.

The cast were good, if not outstanding.  I never quite believed Kara Tointon’s Olivia was smitten by Cesario/Viola but it didn’t distract from the story. Antonio’s love for Sebastian was more believable.  Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi were good as Viola and Sebastian.

I liked the fact that Sir Toby was portrayed with an edge of malice to both his duping of Sir Andrew and the revenge he exacts on Malvolio for trying to curb his excesses.  It made more sense of his and Maria’s treatment of Malvolio and the way they run off together.

I was disappointed by Vivien Parry as Maria.  I found her difficult to hear even when she was towards the front of the stage.  She was much better in A Christmas Carol.

Michael Cochrane acted Sir Andrew Aguecheek well but, without being too rude, he looked too old for the part.  A Sir Andrew of that age would have been duped out of his fortune well before Sir Toby got his hands on him.

So, I guess the question raised by my comment at the beginning of this article is how well did Adrian Edmondson do?  My answer would have to be pretty well!  He was stately and on his dignity at the beginning, believable when he is reading the letter purporting to come from Olivia and revengeful when he finds out about the trick that has been played on him.  He didn’t light up the stage in the same way John Lithgow did when he played the role (my favourite Malvolio to date); I think this was mainly down to the scene where he approaches Olivia cross-gartered and smiling, which wasn’t quite grotesque enough.  I would be interested to see him in other roles.

Who’d have thought in the early 1980s that Vyvyan and Theophilus P Wildebeeste would turn into serious actors!

Overall this was a fun, enjoyable evening at the theatre and I’d recommend you see it if you get the chance – there’s a live screening on 14/02, which broadens your choices.

Click to find out more about the live screening

Click to find out more about RSC

 

The cyclist who went out in the cold – Tim Moore

Happy New Year and I hope you all have a happy, healthy and successful 2018.

I’ve done a reasonable amount of reading over the holiday period but the book I’m reviewing today came about in rather odd circumstances.  I love Tim Moore’s travelogues and have had this one on my radar for sometime but not got round to reading it.  I have been reading a couple of rather heavy (both literally and figuratively) chewy books, both about Nazi Germany. I’ve also been catching up with the latest series of Peaky Blinders in quite big chunks.  The end result of this was a nightmare about armed gunmen bursting into the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and gunning everyone down!  I can vividly remember throwing myself under my seat in the dream and waking myself up before finding out whether my partner was safe or not!  A horrible dream that lingered with me all day…whilst going to Stratford to the theatre! The end result is that we went to Waterstones in Stratford to buy some happy books and “The cyclist who went out in the cold” was one of them.

Moore’s latest cycling adventure is to cycle the length of the Iron Curtain on a new(ish) cycle route, the Euro Velo 13.  This being Moore, he does it on a MIFA 900, the GDR equivalent of a Raleigh Twenty

I can’t imagine riding 10 miles on this sort of bike but to do 10400km on one strikes me as being utterly bonkers, even by Tim Moore standards.

The Iron Curtain Trail starts in Norway, continues into Finland, into Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad, Poland, Germany (zigzagging across what used to be the border between East and West), Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and finishing at the Black Sea back in Bulgaria.  There is a mix of terrain, complete contrasts in weather and the usual Tim Moore mix of people he meets along the way.

The book varies between laugh out loud moments of sheer silliness, poignant moments and interesting diversions into bits of history related to the places Moore visits.

It was great to recognise descriptions of places I have also visited in the book although I do think that the author is a bit uncharitable about some of the places. Perhaps you see things differently coming to them cold and wet on a bicycle from how you see them coming in warm and dry on a coach.  Especially in the northern countries when it is still winter conditions.

My other slight niggle is that the later countries didn’t get quite the same level of detail as the countries up to and including Germany.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was exactly what I needed after my nightmare and, because I was enjoying it so much I read it in 2 afternoons.  This is a truly epic and interesting journey.  Tim Moore, I take my cycle helmet off to you!

Imperium Parts I & II – based on the books by Robert Harris and adapted by Mike Poulton for RSC

A long title for today’s post and a very long day driving down to Stratford, watching two plays in a day and driving back again!

I haven’t read any of the three books these plays are based on although I have read some of Robert Harris’ books and have one sitting in my pile of books to read. I also don’t know that much about ancient Rome, other than what I’ve learned from seeing Shakespeare’s Roman plays, so this felt like an adventure into the unknown.

Rather than being two definite plays these are more like two lots of three “playlets” each covering a chapter in the life of Cicero.

The first play starts with Cicero coming to power as Consul, unusual in that he is a self-made man, and trying to reinstil the old values of the Republic into the populace. Julius Caesar, Catiline and Crassus are plotting against him.

The second segment of play I covers Catiline’s uprising and Cicero’s handling of the crisis, ending with Cicero passing death sentence on some of the conspirators but sparing Caesar.

The final segment is entitled Clodius. Clodius is a friend of Cicero who commits an act of sacrilege against the Vestal Virgins. Knowing him to be guilty Cicero refuses to defend him. He manages to get acquitted and swears revenge on Cicero.  Cicero is then inveigled into defending Hybrida and ends up being accused himself.  Cicero is forced to seek Caesar’s protection.

Play II covers the more familiar territory of Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian as seen in Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, but seen from the perspective of Cicero whose star is fading but who is still a pawn in the power politics of the era.

I enjoyed the plays and learning something more about ancient Rome; I shall need to look out a book on the Roman Empire, if anyone can recommend one.

I thought Richard McCabe did an amazing job of portraying Cicero from new Consul to old relic on the sidelines.  He must have been exhausted by the end of the day having been in pretty well every scene of the two plays.

Peter De Jersey did a good job a Caesar, seemingly rational with bits of megalomania peeping out in the early stages.

Joe Dixon was a bit bonkers in play I as Catiline – some definite scenery chewing going on! – but made an interesting Mark Antony in play II.

I thought the women actors were woefully under used.  All the female parts were very small and either harpies or floozies.  I know ancient Rome was a male dominated society but there are enough examples of women wielding high levels of influence and power in this period to have given an actor of the stature of Siobhan Redmond something more to do!

I loved the stage set for the plays.  It was simple, dramatic and flexible.  It was also slightly disconcerting to have no actual stage and to have to remember to keep your feet tucked in so you didn’t trip up an actor as they walked past.

One thing I wasn’t sure about was the globe hung above the stage. I guess the colour changes represented the changing influences of the planets but it wasn’t obvious and sometimes the patterns playing on its surface were a distraction.  The small boy sitting next to me during the second play was clearly confused by it and kept asking his Dad what it was for.  Dad didn’t have an answer.

I also thought the costume department did a great job.  Sitting so close to the front we got a close up of the level of detail that went into each costume and into making each character look different.

And, as an extra bonus, the lovely staff of the RSC had spotted that it was the 100th performance we had attended and stood us a drink.  Thank you.

Overall, I’m pleased we went to see these two plays.  It will be a long time before we see two plays in one day again – it will take a while for my bum to recover! I learned something about ancient Rome.  And these plays won’t head onto my “must see if they ever do them again” list.

Click here to find out what else is on at RSC

Click here to find out more about Robert Harris and his books

 

Alan Turing; unlocking the enigma – David Boyle

A sort of biography of Alan Turing this is one of my less successful 99p from Amazon downloads.

In principle it is an interesting read.  It gave me more information about Turing’s early life and post-war work than I’ve read before; most of what I have read has been about Bletchley and has skimmed over other parts of his life. It also tells the story of Lord Sharkey’s proposed private members bill to give a statutory pardon to Turing.

I enjoyed finding out about Turing’s upbringing; his remaining in England whilst his parents returned to India and his mixed response to school.

It was also interesting to understand how the media shapes our perceptions of people.  Turing is often portrayed as an oddball loner only interested in his mathematical problems.  Yet this book suggests he was interested in philosophy and, whilst at Cambridge, seems to have been a reasonably sociable person.

The post-war era, as covered, seems to have been a frustrating and depressing time for Turing.  It seems there was a line drawn between theory and engineering and the ideas Turing was developing about computing and intelligent machines were stuck inside the “theory” bubble.

The book concludes that Turing’s death was suicide.  That he understood the Allies, particularly the USA, understood how much he knew from his code breaking days and, following the defections of Burgess and Maclean, they saw his open homosexuality as a threat to Western security.  He saw himself doomed to a lifetime of being observed and investigated.

What there is of the book is interesting, although I would call it a long essay rather than a book.  It skims over huge swathes of Turing’s life and I was looking for a proper biography.  It seems I will have to go on looking.

Click here to find out more about Bletchley Park, one of my favourite museums

Jingle Blues – The Chicago Blues Brothers at Alhambra Theatre Bradford

The perfect ways to relax and have fun after a somewhat busy and stressful end to the week.

I probably wouldn’t have come to see this of my own volition but a friend chose it as the way she wanted to celebrate her birthday.  I’m so glad she did.

You don’t have to be a Blues Brother aficionado to enjoy it although many in the audience were and it helped to make sense of the backdrop, the references and the dancing.

All of the songs you would expect were included and some Christmas songs thrown in as well.

In the first half the audience were polite and remained seated.  In the second half the band encouraged everyone to stand and dance.  I would have liked them to do so in the first half as well.  I find it nigh on impossible to sit still when I’m enjoying the music and would have appreciated some encouragement to stand and dance.

It’s a huge testament to the skill of the band that one of my friends, who is notoriously reticent about being seen dancing, voluntarily started grooving on at least 2 occasions! 🙂

At the end of the evening my feet hurt from trying to dance in one spot and my throat was dry from singing.

What would improve the show?  A couple of things for me.

Firstly, one of the pictures on the slide deck was a back view of a Santa with his arms around two girls wearing thongs, heels and skimpy tops.  Really?  Have we, as a society, not moved on from such pictures that objectify women?  Particularly when your audience is mostly women.  It was a jarring note in what was otherwise a good backdrop for the music.

Secondly, please finish the fringing on the dresses worn by Marcia and Laura in the second half.  The super, swingy fringing looked fabulous from the front and the back of the dresses looked cheap as though they weren’t finished off.

Apart from these minor nit-picks I had a really enjoyable evening and I’d certainly go and see the Chicago Blues Brothers again.

Click here to find out more about The Chicago Blues Brothers

Click here to find out What’s On at Alhambra Theatre Bradford