Book Review: Beyond the Northlands by Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough.

In reading this book I have learnt a super car game for long journeys, (spot the Viking place/name). And that Tolkein was hopping mad with Hitler for appropriating history.

Professor Tolkein wrote that ‘I have in this War a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolph Hitler… ruining, perverting, misapplying, & making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit… which I have ever loved, & tried to present in its true light.’ Beyond the Northlands shaped up well.

The author, Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough is light and engaging. And good at rhyming as well! Her choice of subject matter matches the tone. Who indeed doesn’t like to read the marginal scribbles of scribes who have been working too long? 

It strives to understand what Tolkien called ‘that noble northern spirit.’ Creating a readable and understandable work of history that is at the same time uncompromising in its depth.

To do this the author has gone to the sagas and searched them for clues and messages that rebuild the world of the ‘Vikings.’

Understanding the old Norse (and Norwegian rather than other Scandinavian/Viking Countries is the focus here), sagas and voyages within their historical and cultural context is difficult.

With the great enthusiasm across the world for all things Viking and fantastic, this book is an extremely helpful guide to a very complicated and bewildering subject, that is at the same time deeply engrossing and mysterious.

Wonderfully illustrated and authentic to place and time, the author has written perhaps one of the ultimate works for those wishing a deeper insight, as well as those new to the study of medieval Scandinavia.

Josh.

Historyland’s Top Five History Books from 2018.

So many books, So little time. I can’t be more original than that. 2018 was a year of reviews. The generosity of publishers and authors allowed me to keep content running to the website while I focused on other projects. Words fail to express my gratitude, both to them and to every visitor. Here are my favourites.

Pursuit of Empire. By Davinder Toor. 

An invaluable and important cultural document, ablaze with colour and history. The rare, the well known, the strange and the familiar all easily combine in one of the most lavish and wonderful catalogues of Indian art ever put into binding. Lovers of art and history will love, indeed they will reverence this book.

The King and the Catholics. By Antonia Fraser.

The book is as compulsive, detailed and human as the most stunning political exposés. Not only that but it offers a surprisingly inspiring and positive story to what increasingly seems to be a jaded and angry world. It will keep you gripped to the final dramatic finish.

The Sultans. By Jem Duducu.

If you like your history epic but with a light touch, Sultans is the book for you.

Legion vs Phalanx. By Myke Cole.

Myke Cole has written an accessible, entertaining and detailed narrative of the development of infantry warfare in the ancient world. If as is suggested st the end, a military system is a representation of the society it comes from, then there is a lesson there.

Napoleon: Spirit of the Age. By Michael Broers.

Without an axe to grind nor a trumpet to play, Broers has written a truly even-handed and nuanced second volume. Perhaps it is still a little merciless to a newcomer but it is as gripping and thoughtful as it is interesting.

Happy Reading in 2019, Josh.

Book Review. Peckuwe 1780 by John F. Winkler.

‘the conflicts of the “old frontier” have not been in such good hands for a long time.’

  • Author: John F. Winkler
  • Illustrator: Peter Dennis
  • Short code: CAM 327
  • Publication Date: 18 Oct 2018
  • Number of Pages: 96

https://ospreypublishing.com/peckuwe-1780

The Shadow War.

Along the western frontier of the 13 colonies a shadow war was being fought. While Washington fought the famous battles that won Independence for the United States, men like Daniel Boone were fighting in the wilderness in a much less clear cut war.

Faced by a wide array of Indian tribes, men like Boone and Clark were engaged in a fight on which depended the future of the western border of the new nation.

In dozens of unknown or forgotten ambushes, massacres and battles the border of the frontier that was to be won after independence was secured. Though the British gave what aid the could to these far flung wilderness campaigns, it was predominantly an Indian affair.

Since the beginning of the war the nasty business of bush warfare had been flaring up in the hotbed of the Ohio Valley. Settled by the British colonies after the defeat of the French it was still vulnerable to the Indian tribes who lived to the north and west of it.

Chalawgatha

By 1779, the Indians who were allied with the British, and those who fought the settlers, were raiding with impunity through modern Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois. Not to mention the devastating raids along the New York frontier. 

The State government of Virginia feared the depopulation of the Ohio and the onslaught of the hostile tribes. Money and munitions were fed westward into the hands of the legendary frontiersmen to combat them.

Colonel George Rogers Clark decided to lead a strong force of militia, regulars and woodsmen mostly from Kentucky and Illinois through the untamed wilderness to the Indian town of Chalawgatha and destroy it. 

Chalawgatha was an infamous base from which some of the most destructive raids of the war in the west had been carried out.

The various Indian leaders were outnumbered and poorly equipped, yet they were masters of wilderness warfare. Clark built a road from the Ohio to Chalawgatha in order to supply his men. Abandoning their town the Indians moved to a spot ten miles north of the town called Peckuwe on the Mad River.

Legends of the Old Frontier.

This was not a turning point in the American Revolution but it was a point of movement for the westward expansion that followed. I suspect that the conflicts of the “old frontier” have not been in such good hands for a long time.

It also played a crucial role in forming the legends of men like Clark, Boone and Girty. As usual John F. Winkler brings methodical research, scholarly and entertaining detail and remarkable clarity to his work.

Illustrated with many fascinating photographs, detailed maps and double page Campaign series illustrations by Peter Dennis, (who has included many portraits into these paintings), this is a solid Osprey Campaign title. 

Book Review: Japan Story by Christopher Harding.

‘unhurried … never boring, always lucid, with some of the most fluid prose imaginable and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation’

It’s difficult to write an original review about a book for which a review has already been written that I completely agree with. But that is how I feel as I set out to type this.

A New Take on a Familiar Story.

As Neil McGregor points out on the back of one of the loveliest dust jacket’s of 2018, there isn’t anything hugely different about this book but at the same time it’s unlike most of the history’s of Japan I’ve encountered before

Japan Story takes you on a familiar journey, but subtly guides you through it with a nonconformist perspective. The journalists who mocked the Meiji elite’s attempt to be more western than the west at the expense of Japan’s unique refinements.

The people who realised that they had not had a revolution but a restoration, agitators and terrorists desperate to find a way to make their voices heard.

The proponents of female suffrage who were at odds with the traditionally promulgated Meiji view that women stood as the ideal of home and society, and tellingly were therefore allegorised as a personification of Japan’s traditional values. 

If there had been a revolution the wheel of change had turned as truly a Samurai revolution. An eastern version of the Restoration of 1660, and indeed that is exactly what it was, a restoration. Here Samurai is to be taken literally, it had been a revolution for the already entitled.

There is a common perception that Japan embraced modernity with a wholehearted vigour. That the people followed where the modernisers led without qualm or objection. 

Japan Story blurs the edges of this neat perception of Japanese History, and shows us a more messy, conflicted and human background to it all.

Stories are how we Survive.

‘A modest Asian country rises rapidly and purposefully to a parity is sorts with the advanced seafaring empires of the west, briefly it descends into corruption and cruelty & is deservedly crushed; but then it soars again’ 

That is the nutshell story of Japan, a history that the author challenges. To give an example I will briefly focus on the part that I am most familiar with.

For about nine decades Japan could confidently assume that the eyes of the world are upon her. As a result the county put on the greatest mime show in history, which opened to rave reviews. But with that, the author observes, came a potent self consciousness quite opposed to the traditional view of self confidence.

Meiji reformers could not bear to draw condescending looks from the foreigners they had one made fun of, or in several cases literally tried to murder and burn out of house and home.

I’m more used to reading of Itō Hirobumi when he was a Chōsū rebel during the Bakumatsu. But in 1887 the one time arsonist threw Japan’s first masquerade ball in the lavish Deer Cry Hall (Rokumeikan).

It was a scandalous affair but the government and the upper classes wanted to look their best.

‘The tut-tutting of visitors … mattered. There were anxious calls for curbs on bathing naked in public or urinating in the street’.

Alright, that last one seems fairly sensible, but you get the idea.

These calls came not from outraged foreigners, but from the leaders of Japan. Put in this light, Harding reveals that for the average subjects of the restored emperor, everything was quickly turning transparent.

Japanese culture was simplified and sold to a very receptive international clientele, eager to prove the superiority of the western system.

As a case in point, he points out that the nationally accepted story of japan from the Meiji Era to the present is in itself inherently fabricated. Within that he points to the obvious and most recognisable legacy of Japanese history, the Samurai. 

In so doing he points out that even Samurai culture was packaged up and put on show, proudly advertised as a Japanese equivalent of Europe’s chivalric tradition.

To the disappointment of many a documentary filmmaker and pop culture fan, Nitobe Inazō’s bestselling Bushidō: The Soul of Japan (1900) was ‘published in English, for foreign consumption’, but then again, stories are how we survive.

The other side of the coin.

Through this book we can see that, rather than Japan being doily and resigned to its march to the future there was something of a clash of ideas.

While the great and good espoused western fashions and pastimes, traditionalists spoke of the waltz much as Europeans did 80 years before.

A Japanese journalist is even quoted as bemoaning, in excruciating detail, the the wanton effect dancing had on ladies: ‘when a woman reaches such a state, were is the innate modesty of the virtuous maiden’.

Worship and reverence for the emperor was real, but so was the practical side of devotion to a figure the average Japanese person found as almost too legendary to actually be real.

Even then we find that attendance was poor for Meiji era Imperial processions. Allot of work went into encouraging turnouts as a patriotic duty and the short term answer was to ensure children were brought to watch Royal events. Coming from a country that still has a constitutional monarchy, it sounds rather familiar. 

Because most of my reading and research has focused on 19th century Japan, it would be of no use to speak deeply of how the author treats the tumultuous events of the 20th century. However the same sense of moment and originality carries through the entire book. 

It would be difficult to be certain if the author’s confident opinions will be shared by everyone, such a thing would surely be impossible. However I was unable to take great exception to anything.

I got the impression that instead of opinions, any resolution based thereon was pitched in terms of thoughts and ideas. The reader is free to ponder and accept or reject as they please.

Japan Story also succeeds in begin generally entertaining and is scattered with all sorts of fascinating titbits, a good example being Japan’s overlooked role in WW1.

‘The imperial Japanese navy escorted hundreds of allied ships in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, while injured soldiers on the western front occasionally found themselves being tended to by nurses from the Japanese Red Cross’.


Moved along with an unhurried pace, never boring, always lucid and with some of the most fluid prose and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation.

Josh.

Book Review: The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.

­

 

Since the uncorrected proof arrived at Historyland HQ the news has been full of headlines that echo the themes of The New Silk Roads. You’d think it was mad coincidence, but actually it’s more like inevitability. Type “New Silk Road’ into Google and the Belt and Road initiative is the first prompt to appear on the list. News from the east is devoured as heartily as the breakfast it is read over, and curiosity about what is happening there is fast becoming a part of everyone’s daily lives, which means the Silk Road’s are alive and well.

Go here to enter a giveaway.

Continue reading “Book Review: The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.”

Book Review: Major Tom’s War by Vee Walker.

Hardback, 448 pages, 234 x 156 mm
20 b&w photographs and 1 map
Publication Date: 21 September 2018
ISBN: 9781911271147
https://www.kashihouse.com/books/major-toms-war1

Kashi House publishes excellent books, I’ve not seen one yet that hasn’t been up to a very high standard, and what I believe to be their first fictional offering maintains this tradition. Major Tom’s War is a well crafted drama about a British officer serving with the Indian cavalry, a nurse on the home front and a French civilian during the First World War. It is a book about loss, love and life lived at a time when such things were both at their most immediate and their most cheap.

Sometimes understanding comes inaudibly. Removed by culture, time and place it is a challenge to move past sympathy and respect for the soldiers of the Indian army to some kind of understanding of what it must have been like. The difference between India and Flanders is difficult to quantify, but they must have missed the sun, the warmth, the colour and the vibrancy of their homeland as they pulled their feet out of the sucking mud of the trenches, ducking the bullets of the German enemy. Feeling to frozen rain on their faces, and pulling their clothes tighter around them in a vain struggle to defeat the damp and cold, countless miles from a loved one’s face. Death for the cause represented by many patriotic biscuit tins bearing the enigmatic face of the King-Emperor must have seemed all the more terrible to contemplate.

Author, Vee Walker, an experienced museum’s and heritage consultant from the UK, has managed to put her finger on the heart of their struggle, through the story of, ‘Major Tom’. Although the entire book is not about the Indian army, a great deal of it is set against the life of an officer serving in a regiment of ‘Empire’ troops.

In a pivotal passage we find Tom, who from the beginning is grieving for a lost love, whose demise has haunted him all the more for the part he played in it, and embracing the war in hopes of the blessed relief of a meaningful death, commanding a detail of Indian Cavalry ordered to bury the neglected corpses of some French Infantry.

Beside him is the superb study of Rissaldar Harnam Singh, expertly painted as one of the many vertebrae that form the backbone of the army. The bodies have been left to the elements for some time and burying them is a trial for everyone. As another collection of flesh and bones is consigned to the ground, Harnam Singh, turbaned, bearded and proud looks at his Sahib Officer, Tom Westmacott. A thin, bookish and bespectacled officer, who strays from human contact but who talks lovingly in Hindi to his horses.

Quietly horrified by the sight of the graves, Singh asks, Tom to promise him one thing. A clean flame so that he might live again, and never to throw him as a decaying corpse into a filthy hole. It is a request eminently suited, not only to the human condition of two men from two very different cultural and religious backgrounds, and not just a powerful moment for these two characters, but it speaks of the understanding that exists between military men in times of war, and of a subordinate to an officer. Embodying the relationship between men in uniform, of those, like the Centurion in the New Testament, who has men under his authority that do what he says without argument and in return it is the responsibility of those officers to act in their best interests.

A clean flame. How many fresh-faced boys, whose beards had yet to thicken, let alone the stoic veterans, from Punjab, Maharashtra, Carnatica and countless others contemplated the horror of being tipped into the cold, brown darkness, never to feel the warmth of rebirth given by that clean flame. And how many could count on a sympathetic officer to see that it would be done.

At the point in the book when this happens, neither Tom or Harnam have engaged the enemy, but death and injury has nonetheless become part of their lives and Harnam’s request comes with the suggestion of the inevitable, not the possible.

Vee Walker has crafted a narrative that begins with Broken lives, drawn together by the war, over from over great distances and much of the story is focused on how these lives are rebuilt or endured, investigating themes such as redemption, purpose and healing, populated by real people. The two central characters are extremely well fleshed out, and they slowly grow to be ones you can care about, though neither are perfect. Both are unfair to each other at first.
One is unreasonable in their expectations of the other, while said other is overly judgmental and suspicious, maybe afraid. This detached interplay, at first undertaken through letters, allows the reader to form an opinion about the characters and brings them into sharper focus. Even the character, who seems to be cast as the villain, whose principle purpose in being part of this story is to thwart and annoy, Tom, is now and then more than just a cypher of evil.

I found the writing style to be compulsive and intriguing in the way each sentence, almost, queues up the next so the reader gets easily hooked in the story, drawing you along. Three plot-lines slowly converge on each other, and I was kept guessing throughout as to where they would all meet.

However foreknowledge of some of the inspiration behind the book does rob the reader of a certain suspense. In totality the author wishes the reader to become interested in the why rather than the how, divulging certain information from the start but revealing the whole picture piece by piece.
I won’t give away anything here, but I will say that a good alternate title for the book would have been ‘what happened to Mary?’

As a plot, Major Tom’s War is personal for the author, and this is instantly apparent, but those not wishing spoilers would do well to avoid the interesting selection of photographs at the end, and perhaps not pay too much attention to the jacket blurb. This is not to say the book lacks tension, this is brought to us in spectacular fashion through the character of Gaston Derome, Mayor of Bavay, who, just as the characters from Tom’s Regiment draw attention to the commonwealth effort, can look at the war from the perspective of an occupied French town.

I know I said the book is about love and war etc, but in fact, Major Tom’s War is about something much simpler. It is a book about people, plain, ordinary people who find themselves allowed the role of heroes. This story isn’t about heroism exactly, I wouldn’t call any of the main characters except perhaps Gaston and Harnam Singh classically heroic, nor is the surprisingly complex “villain” truly beyond empathy, (though his is a right piece of work). As such it is an excellent novel of war, and indeed of life.

Josh.

Book Review: Legion Versus Phalanx by Myke Cole.

Nerd isn’t the name one would generally associate with Myke Cole & from the picture on the back flap of Legion versus Phalanx, as a stranger you’d certainly think twice about calling any name he didn’t OK to his face. However, Cole is a self-confessed nerd and he has roared. In fact he has roared many times, but this is his first history book and for those of us who have encountered him on Twitter, his bark is worse than his bite, (unless you are a Spartan fanboy of course). Continue reading “Book Review: Legion Versus Phalanx by Myke Cole.”