Heroes of European History by AR Hope Moncrieff

An early 20th century history of Europe written for children. Yes, another auction lot book!

This is a very military heroes, written from a British Empire perspective book that was quite interesting in its choices but horribly xenophobic in the way it described some of the heroes in dismissive tones.

Sometimes the heroes are groups of men; the Spartan 300, the Knights Templar. At others individuals: Duke of Wellington, El Cid, and the Black Prince.

Being a period book the language and vocabulary made me laugh at times, particularly with word meanings having evolved.

Possibly this book would have appealed to small boys brought up in the British Empire. I found it turgid and full of “little Englander” mentality! A horrible history, not in a good way.

Christopher Strong – Gilbert Frankau

A book originally published in 1932 by a then popular author who has gone out of fashion, probably because of his right wing views and talent for upsetting people!

The book is another of the auction lot books and was billed as a romance, which isn’t my usual thing but I thought I’d give it a go.

The story is, in essence, respectable married man meets younger woman and they fall in love though trying to resist temptation. Eventually, they give in to temptation but it doesn’t end happily.

What I liked about this book was the way the female characters were written. They were written as people with minds, attitudes and opinions of their own. They displayed courage of different sorts and they didn’t just sit around waiting for things to happen to them. They generally had more depth than the male characters in the story.

The main character, Christopher, was well drawn too. You see him evolve from smug, middle-aged success to a man less certain of his place in the world and more willing to see other points of view.

That said, there was definitely an element of “just get on with it” about the book. It could probably have done with a good editor and some judicious pruning.

I’m glad I read it but I won’t be rushing out to find any more of Gilbert Frankau’s books.

N.B. The book was turned into a film in 1933, giving Katherine Hepburn her first starring role. The picture at the top is from the film.

 

Measure for Measure – Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I’m not quite sure why we decided to book tickets for this production as we went thinking we didn’t like the play and, despite the excellent reviews, no expectations of an enjoyable evening.

Still, money was spent on tickets so along we went…and I’m so glad we did.

The last time we saw this play was 2003, in the middle of the Complete Works festival/programme sandwiched between some more frivolous and fun productions. It was in the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which was a more traditional stage and so you watched the play rather than being engaged with it.

This production was set in 1900s Vienna and brought it within a period of moral ambiguity we have some resonance with. And this is a morally ambiguous play. There are no clear goodies or baddies here.

Lucy Phelps, Sandy Grierson and Antony Byrne were excellent as Isabella, Angelo and Duke of Vienna. You could understand why Angelo and the Duke would fall in love with Isabella and empathise with her anguish trying to do the right thing for her and her doomed brother.

The set worked to emphasise the ambiguity too, with mirrors along the back of the stage that sometimes reflected back and at others could be seen through.

The humour was provided by Lucio, who said what he thought people wanted to hear, Elbow the constable with his malapropisms and the bawdy house scenes. I don’t know the play well enough but I suspect some of their sub-plot stories had been trimmed from the play to arrive at the compact production we saw.

My one niggle with the production was some of the diction. When actors were turned away from me I struggled to hear the lower pitched voices. This may be because I’m more used to the smaller Swan Theatre and it’s acoustics. It may be, in part, due to problems with my left ear but…

Overall, I loved this version of the play. I’d go and see it again if I get the chance. And I recommend anyone who wants a play that makes them think and provokes discussion go see it.

 

The Templars: the rise and fall of God’s holy warriors – Dan Jones

A really readable book on the often confusing history of the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Jerusalem, otherwise known to most of us as the Knights Templar.

My “knowledge” of the Knights Templar mainly comes from literature and films; some of it romanticised, sometimes they are cast as villains, often rescuers and most of it baring little resemblance to any known history. There is something compelling about an organisation that had such a huge impact on so many aspects of life and yet which disappeared almost completely in a short space of time.

This book sets out to give as full a history as possible and to try to avoid extremes of bias. I learned a lot from it.

The book mainly concentrates on the Middle East where the order was founded and where it was most relied upon.

The Templars were founded to guard vulnerable pilgrims as they landed in the Outremer ports and travelled to and between holy sites. At the beginning they were indeed a poor order – depending on charity for their subsistence and for the equipment needed to fulfil their appointed task. It is fascinating to learn more about how they grew from these humble beginnings into the mighty powerhouse of world bankers and standing army.

In the main the Templars seem to have been well trained and brave although badly led. I do not understand the mentality of soldiers who essentially commit suicide by following orders that are plainly stupid and likely to lead to their deaths!

It was interesting to learn about the Outremer states and their relationships with their neighbours, both Latin and Islamic. I guess from this distance it is easy to see that these states were always going to fail as there was just not enough common purpose between the European states that were propping them up nor enough of a common threat for them to consistently work together.

I would have liked to know more about the order in Europe and it’s relationships with its host nations. I think knowing more would give me a clearer understand of the suspicion and distrust that surrounded them and enabled King Philip IV of France to close the order down with little resistance from his subjects.

Overall though I have learned a lot from this book and enjoyed myself doing it.

Twelfth Night – Lunchbox Theatrical Productions – Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre York

One of my favourite Shakespeare plays delivered in a period-type setting with plenty of audience involvement.

This was, again, a great theatre experience. I love this type of production where the cast get in and amongst the audience and we become complicit in the action.

The 1920s setting worked well and it’s always interesting to see how the musical director will interpret the songs in the play. Wreh-asha Walton has a great voice and made a believable lounge singer.

Clare Corbett, playing Feste was excellent and Cassie Vallance very funny as Fabian, Olivia’s hapless, slightly dippy servant. In fact I thought the cast was good overall.

There was plenty of humour for everyone: slapstick, wordplay, jokes, take your pick. And the more sombre parts of the play didn’t drag down the overall atmosphere: the taunting of Malvolio was cruel and made its point but had been cut down so it didn’t become seat-squirmingly uncomfortable. And Sir Andrew came across as a generally cheerful buffoon who would bounce back from being gulled by Sir Toby.

If you haven’t been to the Rose Theatre and you’re near either York or Blenheim give it a go. And I’d definitely recommend this production.

Grease: the musical – Grand Theatre Leeds

A friend booked tickets for a gang of us to go see so long ago I’d almost forgotten we were going! Four of the five of us were old enough to remember going to see the film at the cinema 3 or 4 times – possibly more! – so, this was a bit of a nostalgia-fest.

It’s sometimes scary how many words you still remember to songs you haven’t heard for years. And how differently you see things as you grow older.

From a production point of view the cast were good: they could all sing and dance and were generally more credible than John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as school-age teenagers!

The set was good. It was fairly minimal and moveable to allow the creation of different locations.

It was colourful, well-paced and I enjoyed singing along to most of the songs.

Overall, I had a really good evening.

But…

…from the perspective of a 53 year old woman the narrative in my head was saying “Sandy, why are you wasting your time on this loser? In 5-years’ time you’ll have outgrown him and he’ll bore you.” “Both of you, if you have to change yourself for the other to admit they love you they aren’t worth it!” Oh, the cynicism of age and experience.

I’m now in a weird place where the 2 films that dominated my early teens have swapped places. I’ve outgrown the teen love-story that is Grease and grown into the more adult themed Saturday Night Fever.

I still love the music from both. They both still evoke a sense of nostalgia. And I’d go and see either or both again.

Red Notice – Bill Browder

An interesting book recommendation from one of my younger friends who has discovered a passion for finding out more about Russia. I’m not sure I would choose to start discovering Russia from this book but everyone has to start somewhere and I guess I just prefer to start further back in history and work forwards.

The author of this book is the grandson of Earl Browder, leader of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and 40s. As a form of rebellion against his left-leaning family he decides to go all out to become a capitalist working in the City.

After a few false starts Browder finds himself working in London and curious about the opportunities opening up in post-Soviet Russia.

He sets up a hedge fund investing in Russia and initially does very well. Then, as the oligarchs gain more power, not well. This draws him into uncovering and then exposing some of the worst corruption rife within big-business. Whilst these exposes help Putin bring the oligarchs into line this strategy works then…

The remainder of the book is about how Browder and his team end up in a fight for their lives – a fight that Sergei Magnitsky lost – and a fight to make sure Magnitsky didn’t die in vain.

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to enjoy this book; hedge funds and The City don’t much interest me and although I was vaguely aware of the Magnitsky Act in USA American politics doesn’t much interest me either. However, as I got into the book I became more and more interested.

There was a sense of horror at the naivety of Browder and his blasé assumption that he was going to be fine in Russia despite stirring up hornets nests. I’m still not that interested in hedge funds but I now know more about them and how these sorts of deals are put together. I also feel I know more about modern Russia.

If you’re at all interested in the way the modern, global economy works you should probably read this book. There will definitely be something to catch your interest and something to be appalled about in it for you.

Winsome Winnie – Emily Spratling

Another of the treasures from my £5 auction lot of books from the early part of 20th century. This one has a gorgeous cover and although it doesn’t have a Sunday School prize book plate in it, it was clearly written to be such a book. This copy isn’t dated and I can’t find a biography of the author so I’m guessing, based in the binding and picture plates, when I say this was published pre-WW1.

The book is set in Australia, which is very different from most of the Sunday School prize books, and centres on orphan Winnie Fordyce.

Also different from most stories about orphans is that this one is brought up in a loving household by guardians who care. There is no rebellion or need to defend herself with this orphan, who seems to a nice but dull child!

The rebellion and redemption in this story comes from her friend, Norman. Norman is the son of the local Minister. He rebels against his father’s teaching and gets into bad ways. As a young adult he falls in love with Winnie and she with him although she rejects his proposal saying she cannot marry him if he doesn’t live a good life.

Eventually, of course, Norman rediscovers God’s love, becomes a Minister and they all live happily ever after.

This book was an easy hour’s read on a slightly boring Sunday afternoon, which I guess is what it was originally designed for…only for someone much younger than me.

I liked the message that sometimes you love someone but don’t love how they are living their life. Also, that much as you love someone sometimes they have to reform their own life: you can’t fix someone but you can support them to fix themselves. In that respect it is quite a modern message. It’s the prose and the premise that everyone should believe in God that makes it old-fashioned.

It would be interesting to turn the plot into a 21st century tale…