‘A Line in the World’ (Pushkin Press) by Dorthe Nors – Book Review (NetGalley)

When I was small my grandma used to tell me ‘we are Danes.’

I was brought up on the opposite side of that wild expanse, the west side of the North Sea in eastern England. A thousand years ago much of the language, even culture in my part of the world was Danish, Viking, and it was called the Danelaw.

And there are still archaic words of old Norse in use today in our rapidly disappearing dialect. So maybe we are, in some ways, still Danes.

Perhaps that’s why, when I began to read this ARC, I immediately felt at home. Although Jutland’s west coast from Skagen to the German border is north and west facing, opposite to our own, the author’s loose, short sentenced yet lucid impressionistic streams of consciousness took me not only across the divide of the North Sea, but also into the past, my own childhood often spent at the windswept seaside and walking wrapped up in barren marshland where the sky towers above you.

In the flat lands of eastern England there is indeed a psychology at play, much like the writer explains; the quietude does not disguise or distract you from the demons inside like a city does. Here you are more with yourself, and it can be difficult, even depressing, particularly in the winter.

She says ‘Our brown calves are wet with cuckoo spit’, fairly typical of her language which is immediate and sensory, creating a timelessness where past and present merge together, much like the schism of land and sea. She says, throughout the book, that we are defined by schism and I think I know what she means. A country is defined by its border; our selves from one another. A home has its boundary, which is both porous and selective.

In this book the elements are like beings, sometimes friends, but always needing to be respected; the waves like mythological Valkyries: the Norse gods, like Odin, remain in the collective memory of Scandinavians – and isn’t Odin rather ‘Christ-like’, hanging from that ash tree, the Yggdrasil, even if he put himself up there? Yes, our ‘civilisation is a snapshot’; we try to understand, perhaps make a mark and then we are gone.

Like my own coastline, Jutland is bedecked with massive wind turbine farms, which to my eye, have become a blot on the seascape as well as the land. Clean energy is to be encouraged, naturally, but these structures which she describes as white trees with circular branches, only have a limited lifespan. Once defunct they will cause a massive landfill problem – and the wind doesn’t always blow either.

But I particularly like the way she talks of the past in the present tense in many places, so fitting for this every changing, yet eternal landscape, which has had so many shipwrecks (the Iron Coast) and natural disasters through storms.

I loved her tour of the churches too with the artist, the maker of sketches for this book. My own part of the world is noted for its churches too, but in a different way. And I was not aware that the Reformation in Denmark was slower to whitewash church frescoes than in England and Holland, all very fascinating.

I like the way she describes paths in the landscape as being like memories, connections in the brain, synapses perhaps, testimony to human interaction with the environment and shaping it organically.

Her descriptions of the Wadden Sea, the island life, the bird life, are all beautiful too. I very much relate to the area here being a haven for wading birds, pretty much like my own part of the world.

But ultimately it is Skagen, the very northern tip of Denmark where North Sea meets Baltic, the spiritual pinnacle of the Danish and Scandinavian experience. The schism of seas, between land and sea, our selves from one another: life and death.

Like many, I have only visited Copenhagen when in Denmark, but this great city is in no way representative of Denmark any more than London is of England.

One day, perhaps sooner than I envisage, I wish to visit Denmark again, Jutland in particular, and take that trip from Skagen to Esbjerg and beyond towards the Frisian islands. I think I owe it to myself. Thank you Dorthe Nors for enlightening me – I have never felt more like a Dane.


Copyright Francis 2022

‘The Orwell Tour’ Oliver Lewis – Book Review (NetGalley)

Part travelogue, part biography, this book (Pub DateĀ 6 Apr 2023) flits seemlessly through timelines and cultures in a profound, insightful manner, almost Dalrymplesque in its style in places, albeit minus the architectural sensibilities; it is a rainbow patchwork held together convincingly by the towering, restless mind that is George Orwell.

And I very much appreciate the hard work that has gone into producing this book, clearly a work of patience driven by fascination.

Like many, I was already familiar with Orwell’s two most famous works from school. I was not well acquainted with his biography, nor that of his native restlessness and originality, as diverse as his many dwelling places during his life.

What emerges from these pages is an enjoyable exploration, a voyage, if you will, around this literary giant. To many Orwell remains an enigma, following the opposite course of a lot of people during their lives. For example, I began with strong leftward leanings which have morphed slowly to the centre in later life; the course of Orwell’s life was somewhat opposite to that, as the author explains well, perhaps understandable considering his upper middle class origins during the latter years of the Indian Raj.

Orwell’s experiences in Spain during 1936-7, do indeed seem seminal too, correcting his own left leaning path, to the point that by the end of his life he seemed to be once again embracing a patriotism which, to be fair, he never abandoned at all. Maybe this is why he is often acclaimed and disliked by both right and left.

The author’s descriptive passages relating to India, Eton, Spain, London and Wigan in particular, are to me most enjoyable and profound, stating that England’s long term problem with itself is still as much about social hierarchy as it is poverty. And that pigeon racing in Lancashire is still popular today, hanging like those slowly decaying symbols of a once powerful cotton industry.

What does come across well is Orwell’s refutation of pigeon holes. I think he understood the futility of hanging tags around people; why shouldn’t socialists be patriotic? And why shouldn’t conservatives embrace redistribution of wealth? England? Whose England? indeed.

As Malcolm Muggeridge was to point out at Orwell’s death, to many he was an enigma, both an arch conservative in relation to England and its customs and traditions, as well as someone willing to embrace a revolution in thought, even if he was to see the error in the latter, particularly during the emergence of the Cold War.

I would point out one other error though from the text – Henry VI of England was not the first Yorkist king of England; that particular honour falls to Edward IV, brother of the future Richard III.

That said, this was a most enjoyable and enlightening read and one which I would wholeheartedly recommend to any open minded and curious person wishing to know more about one of the most important authors of the 20th century.


Copyright Francis 2022

‘A Great and Terrible King’ (Windmill Books) A Great Story of a Controversial King – Book Review

This is the most comprehensive and fluent account I have ever read of Edward I, king of England.

But firstly, the cover. We are drawn to covers, of course, although sometimes we don’t like to admit it, that it might just be a tiny bit shallow to judge a book by its cover. Yet this cover says it all, really, a ruler who lived by the sword, who was both just and ruthless, as every successful monarch of the high middle ages had to be, like a roaring lion in human form.

Morris conveys convincingly the notion that we have to judge the man by his times and not our own; Edward was a crusader and a conqueror, subjugator of Wales and ‘Hammer of the Scots’.

The appalling treatment of William Wallace in 1305, accused of treason, and then hung, drawn and quartered whilst Edward was at play elsewhere, does not seem at all righteous to modern minds. After all Wallace was probably one of the very few Scottish nobles who did not swear allegiance to the English king: he was a Scottish patriot after all, but that would be lost on the empire building approach of Edward and the expediency of his reign.

So today Edward I may not be too popular in either Scotland or indeed Wales. But he failed to fully conquer Scotland, even though he was successful in planting his ‘own man’ (John Balliol) on the Scottish throne for a time.

And then there is the Statute of Jewry of 1275 where Edward acceded to the Church’s demands to try and limit the effects of usury. Morris deals with this in a most balanced way, I feel, trying to help us understand the reasons for this and what seems to us now the eventual cruel banishment of Jews from the kingdom of England in 1290. Naturally, today such action is not viewed in the same light; we live in a very different, more secular world.

Most especially this book conveys the sheer intensity of the personality of this monarch, his energy and drive, a man whose body was exhumed in 1774, confirming his oft used moniker of the time, Longshanks – that is, he had long legs.

The subtitle of Morris’ book is ‘And the forging of Britain’. Ultimately, the king was only partially successful in this and many of his achievements were undone by his son, Edward II, who lost at Bannockburn in 1314, which in turn led to the groundbreaking Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, where noble Scots claimed their long term independence from England.

All in all, a fabulous read, albeit keeping us at a safe distance from those terrible, tumultuous times.


Copyright Francis 2021

Indisputable? ‘The Shakespeare Guide to Italy’ Book Review

To say the Shakespeare authorship question is controversial would be an understatement. It certainly divides opinion, the arguments often being quite heated from either side.

And it isn’t new; the controversy has been going on longer than most people realise. By the early nineteenth century the doubts about the ‘man from Stratford’ were beginning to become more vocal.

One such doubter was a remarkable woman from Ohio called Delia Bacon, who proposed her namesake Francis Bacon, was the actual author of Shakespeare’s works.

Another example is Mark Twain, the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, who put his doubts into print with his book ‘Is Shakespeare Dead?’. Since then the theories have continued to grow apace.

Groundbreaking

Perhaps the most groundbreaking book of the last century was written by a certain J Thomas Looney (Shakespeare Identified), who claimed that the 17th Earl of Oxford, one Edward de Vere, was the true genius of English literature. Needless to say there are now numerous books about the issue and many alternative candidates, including Christopher Marlowe and Roger Manners, the 5th Earl of Rutland.

However, what has been lacking is documentary proof of someone other than ‘the man from Stratford’ being the actual author of the works of Shakespeare. The great problem stems from the fact that there is a gaping whole, a paucity of information, in the known biography of the man called William Shakespeare. We know when he was born, when he got married and when he died; added to that are pieces of records of litigious information in regard to someone who seems far more like a businessman than England’s greatest ever playwright and poet. And in his will there is no mention of a library, let alone any books, surely prerequisites for such a literary giant as this.

Materialist rather than poet

The character emerging from the available information, including six rather poor signatures, is of someone who is quite materialistically minded, not at all prone to writing the best blank verse you’ve ever seen.

That said, it is still possible that there is a huge chunk of his biography waiting to be found and that he did indeed write the works attributed to him – genius is still after all, genius, as they say. But genius still needs an education, something which, other than a possible grammar school education up until around the age of fourteen, is also glaringly absent.

I have been interested by this subject, though not entirely persuaded by any candidate, for many years now. For me, just about the best book I have come across in regard to this controversy is The Shakespeare Guide to Italy (HarpPeren; Illustrated edition) by Richard Paul Roe, now sadly deceased. He is well qualified for this undertaking, having a degree in English literature and European history from Berkeley.

Ten plays set in Italy

It has long been speculated as to why at least ten out of the thirty six of the Bard’s plays are set in Italy. Surely the most obvious answer to this fact is that author of the plays visited Italy extensively at some stage in his life, or at the very least knew people who had, or he had access to much information about that country.

What Roe does is set about researching patiently and wholly systematically over some period of time, visiting all the places mentioned in the works; Venice, Padua, Verona, Mantua, Milan, Florence, Messina, Palermo, the latter two locations being in Sicily. Many of the pictures within the book are the authors and you get some idea as to his intelligence, sheer persistence and depth of character.

He produces a logically argued and beautifully illustrated book, which while highly detailed, is also easy to read. What I particularly like is that he does not force upon the reader a favourite candidate for authorship; he presents facts, information, from which the discerning reader can make up their own mind.

Intimate knowledge

Hitherto it has been assumed by most that much of the information that the author of Shakespeare put into his plays about certain locals was either imagined, or learned anecdotally. However, if you know a place more intimately, there are certain facts you can drop in which draws a more convincing picture.

An example of this is from Romeo and Juliet, where Benvolio is describing the scene of a grove of sycamore trees through the western wall of the city of Verona. Roe visited this area and found that to this day sycamores still grow there.

Now, it might be said that such scenes exist from many an Italian city and have done for centuries, and that Shakespeare just ‘got lucky’ in putting in this detail, but it does seem these trees have been a feature here way back into past. And it does create a picture of intimacy, as if the author is seeing things from his own mind’s eye, or recollection, and not merely making it up.

Sailing to Milan?

There are many other examples of course, including the volcanic island of Vulcano off the north coast of Sicily which bears a remarkable similarity to Prospero’s island described in what is regarded as Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona there is the unequivocable statement of being able to sail from Verona to distant Milan, an oft quoted ‘error’ on behalf of the Bard, of whom it has been said was clearly ignorant of northern Italy and its geography. However, thanks to the work and insight of Roe, it turns out that it was indeed possible to sail, by boat or barge perhaps, between those two beautiful cities in the late sixteenth centuries by means of canals and the navigable rivers of the Adige, Po and Adda.

In fact, until the late 1950s, Milan was still considered one of Italy’s prime maritime ports. After all, it must be realised that northern Italy is, at least below the Alps and before the Appenines rise to form the backbone of the peninsula, a vast plain, perfectly suited for navigation as well as growing the rice for risotto.

So what I came away with from reading this book is of having visited Italy myself, albeit in my mind, yet deeply – and yes – intimately. Whoever the author of Shakespeare was, he (or she?) must surely having experienced it at first hand, just like the author of this book.


Copyright Francis 2020