Book Review: The Late Lord by Jacqueline Reiter.

Author: Jacqueline Reiter
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 269
ISBN: 9781473856950
Published: 11th January 2017
Format: Hardback

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Late-Lord-Hardback/p/12682

a confident, elegantly written biography, rooted in iron clad fact… a much needed spotlight of unbiased scholarship to a fascinating and tragic life.Continue reading

Book Review: Arthur and the Kings of Britain By Miles Russell

ISBN: 9781445662749
Format: Hardback.
Length 336 Pages including full colour image section..
Published: 15 March 2017, Amberly.
https://www.amberley-books.com/arthur-and-the-kings-of-britain.html

Arthur and the Kings of Britain is principally about breaking a code. In the 12th Century a scholar named Geoffrey of Monmouth penned a book called Historia Regnum Brittaniae, the History of the Kings of Britain heretofore referred to as HRB. A mammoth compilation of names and events purporting to chronicle the rulers of the land all the way back to their Trojan roots.

Today they the HRB is sneered at by many writers and scholars who argue that it is just an impressive work of medieval propaganda designed to please Geoffrey’s Norman overlords. But perhaps it is merely that these learned folk have not broken the code. Hidden within the foreshadowing, bias and propaganda there are elements of ancient histories dating back to the 1st Century BC.

Miles Russell sets out to find out once and for all if the HRB, and other similar histories are indeed the load of hokum they are cracked up to be. He does not defend the HRB as a work of history. Instead he argues that it is full of hints and allusions that can help flesh out this obscure time in British history. In so doing might be the first expert to attempt to present a formulaic method of using what many consider as unreliable primary sources.

The first two chapters read like a masterclass in historical detective work. Using a sort of reverse filtration system, Russell shows the reader that by viewing the HRB in the spotlight of preceding chronicles and histories the truth behind the legend begins to gleam. By using earlier books like infra red lenses or the keys to a cypher, we can see what accords, and the unreliable padding gets stripped back to reveal something approaching plausible.

This is the methodology of the book, starting with Caesar and Nennius to name two, the HRB undergoes a rigorous reevaluation, convincingly showing that there is more to the work than meets the eye. It’s not therefore light reading, it is just as much historiography as it is history, and some of the theories put forward are supported by paper thin evidence. Yet it is thought provoking in even it’s most daring assertions.

An investigation of the list of Kings is essentially the aim, using the method of comparing previous chronicles, retellings and histories to find similarities and then compositing that with archeological evidence, especially names inscribed on coins. This allowes the author to surmise that Geoffrey of Monmouth, while skewing and garbling almost everything he touched, probably didn’t just get his information out of thin air.

In that sense it is a revealing glimpse into the medieval mindset as it is fascinating to read about the historical possibilities of HRB’s King list. Geoffrey of Monmouth for instance might well have appropriated the 1066 story, and projected it backwards onto a less significant but similar event. Something calculated to appeal to his Norman masters, and make sense to a 12th century mind. More queer, (apart from the whole Trojan thing) is the confident assertion of medieval writers that Rome did not conquer Britain.

The Romans had a simplified view of nations. The Britons therefore seem quite clear cut. Indeed it’s enlightening to read the possible relationship between the still independent Britons and the Romans between the great invasion of AD 43, not least how the empire changed the fabric of “British” life. Yet when the Saxons come things get complicated and it’s not because the Romans are now considered the good guys, (unless your a Pict), because although the Britons lived in what is now England, lowland Scotland & Wales, it was the invading Saxons who took the name English, and branded their indigenous Romano-British arch enemies “foreigners” or Welsh.

Medieval muddling, back projecting and massaging of facts into neat narratives are things not calculated to inspire much confidence, and to use any of the sources this book investigates without the aid of others, to break the code, would be a great mistake. Russell’s achievement here is to have convincingly argued that no source should be ignored because it appears flawed. Indeed much about the the HRB retold here makes plausible and well reasoned sense.

Now in such a work, it’s very hard to present an invincible narrative. I suspect critics of Geoffrey will have been quick to condemn assertions, and scoff, perhaps heartily at some of the interpretations. I myself always raise an eyebrow when I read about the Njnth Legion being wiped out by Boudicca, such as is briefly mentioned here, but no matter which parts one might disagree with, debates about how to read ancient documents are never ending, and Arthur and the Kings of Britain offers a new argument.

Interesting theories are posed. Saxon kings might have been in fact appropriated British warlords. To demonstrate what the author is asking us to consider, take the case of Aelle. Russell suggests that this King might actually be a reflection of a long lost part of the story of Ambrosius, which was adopted by the Saxons & changed for political ends. In this way the Author searches the ancient writings for coincidence & similarity, he finds surprising similarity in many stories leading him to postulate wether indeed they are one and the same.

And so to Arthur, who headlines the book but as is usually the case forms only a part of it. It seems uncharitable to refer to such a title as a lure, but we should remember that academics use Arthur as shorthand for the final decades of the Romano British kingdom. What of this mystery man? Well by know, having read how the writers of the various histories composited so much into well hammered narratives, it should come as no surprise that Russell Arrives at the decision that Arthur was a man of many parts but little reality, in so far as being an actual man. Rather he decides the man known as Arthur was in fact many men, representing almost a codified history in miniature of some of Britain’s greatest heroes

In his conclusion Russell highlights three facts, derived from this close study of these hitherto derided histories. First that they contain elements of demonstrable fact, second that Arthur cannot have existed, and third, the HRB contains aspects that are historically verifiable, all summing up to say that these should be regarded as respectable source material. And while some may not agree with everything here, this is a undeniably true assertion. With so little out there about the early history of Britain, can we afford to just throw away accounts that don’t fit modern academic standards?

In the end, though we might scoff at new movies and books that fantasies and twist history into different shapes, one does have to at some point shrug and point out, people have been hiding away ancient history in legends for a very long time, and this book proves it.

Josh.

Book Review: Warriors and Kings by Martin Wall.

ISBN: 9781445658438

Format: Hardback.
Length: 304 pages.
First Published: Amberley, 15 Feb 2017 .

https://www.amberley-books.com/warriors-and-kings.html

Anyone who is planning on going to see the new King Arthur movie is going to need to stock up on some serious pseudo Historical sunblock. Or treat the burns with some realistic reading post exposure to the washed out and grey epic’s highly stylised version of the King Arthur Legend. So when you leave the cinema, groping for some kind of reference, I have a few suggestions. The first is this history of Celtic Britain. Continue reading

Book Review: Breaker Morant The Final Roundup by Joe West & Roger Roper.

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ISBN: 9781445659657

Format: Hardback.
Length: 400 Pages.
Published: Amberley 15 Dec 2016.
https://www.amberley-books.com/breaker-morant.html

The execution of Harry “Breaker” Morant and two other officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers is one of those controversy riddled debates that rumbles onwards wether or not the subject is in the public eye. Honestly I am unable to comment as to wether the evidence presented in this latest contribution alters the scale one way or the other. For this reviewer is one of those mentioned in the introduction; a newcomer to the subject, therefore in reading this I was at least blessed with an open mind. Continue reading

Book Review: Operation Big Colin Brown.

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Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 April 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 144565184X

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Operation-Big-Race-Hitlers-Bomb/dp/144565184X

Science, bombs & intrigue? Sounds like a party to me. Written with the feel of an intellectual thriller Colin Brown tells the story of the race to stop Hitler’s A bomb during WW2.
It starts at the very beginning, with the Discovery of nuclear fission, here even those to whom Physics is a foreign language will recognise some of the names, if only from knowledge accrued from the Big Bang Theory. The military applications of splitting the atom became apparent very soon after the discovery of sub atomic power as a series of scientists started adding up the theoretical power of the discovery, with ever growing results. The idea of a super bomb became a reality for both sides almost from the get go, even before the true capabilities of such a weapon were properly understood. The science that preceded the declaration of war was then focused on by the European intelligence communities, who then began a race to gather supplies of heavy water. As they rushed to secure the birthing fluid of the atom bomb, the conventional shooting war broke out, and due to the circumstances of the fall of France etc, Brown is able to weave into his main narrative sub stories worthy of their own books. The image of the Earl of Suffolk, bearded and tattooed handing out champaign on his commandeered ship, hobbling around with his secretaries, determined to get France’s store of heavy water to British soil, and his stash of diamonds will stay with me for a long time.
Some of the story will be familiar, such as when it comes to the race to slow down or stop the enemy. After securing heavy water and all that could be salvaged in terms of mind power, for scientists were as valuable as technology, the two sides then did their best to discover and destroy what the other was doing. For the allies this culminated most dramatically with the destruction of the German Heavy Water plant at Telemark in Norway. The famous SOE operation will be familiar to many, but the importance undiminished for the retelling.
Most critical to this book is the kidnapping of German scientists and throwing them into a country house that served as a giant listening device, which the British used to learn their secrets. We see the listeners like flies on a wall recording every word the Germans said, and then passed them on to the operators of the Manhattan project. The information they unwittingly gave would prove vital to beating the Germans to the bomb.

Because everyone knows about Hiroshima and it’s legacy, it’s good to know that we can track back to the nuts and bolts of the Atomic race, something to plug the gaps as it where. And this book offers an interesting and not often observed part of that race. This book is also an exciting and engaging read that will not fail to appeal to people in search of real life cloak and dagger. The element of real science allows readers to peek a little into the practical world of 20th century physics. Given the ingredients it would have been easy for the author to trip and stumble, presenting stories that are ready made, much like cooking ready meals can all too often end up just a sad mess on a plate, but Brown has handled it well.
A steady pace is maintained, and an intellectual, gripping tone reminiscent of the thriller genre risked from the pages. From what I can detect this is not a controversial book, it is instead trading to tell a story, wether died in the wool enthusiasts and experts will be pleased with the depth of the text I cannot say, but from my point of view it was a very satisfying read.

Josh.

Book Review: Escapades in Bizzarcheology by Adrian Burrows.

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Length: 168 pages
Publisher: Williams & Whiting
ISBN: 9781911266280

http://williamsandwhiting.com/books/escapades-in-bizarrchaeology-by-adrian-burrows/

Hemingway, (or was it Chandler?) used to wrestle with his opening sentence and would not continue until he got it perfect. Given their respective brevity I can therefore imagine that Adrian Burrows must have toiled long and hard with his opener. Man that’s an introduction! It’s long and perfectly describes what I tend to do when I wander thoughtfully through a bookshop. My eyes scan, scorching each shelf with a critical glare, my head turns methodically, often with a birdlike twitch as I go. If he hasn’t captured my personal bibliophilic quirks, then he has certainly got what I do when I open a book. The item in question has a sort of fantasy, steam punk, adventure feel to the cover, it’s small and is littered with accompanying images.

The question remains however, does this book live up to the grand promises the introduction… not least the vow of the Bizzarchaeologist! As a fellow adventurer/escapadist in the past, and someone with a similarly glued together title, Adventures in Historyland, (FYI we both independently thought words like Adventures and Escapades was a really cool words to begin a title,) I began with high hopes.

Now, in the beginning Burrows lays out some pretty high falluting vows, essentially boiling down to the fact that he tries to make history fun. Well Historyland has some rules about this: Most importantly, all fun history must also be good, (IE accurate) and actually be funny (IE with believable similes and parallels, preferably not relating to modern day equivalents) otherwise it is nauseating. Secondly all history that wishes to be regarded as fun, must include at least a few if not all of the following, Ninjas (and or samurai) Pirates, Knights, cowboys and Gladiators or some kind of hybrid Transformer made up of them all.

The book takes a light hearted tour of a magical warehouse, endowed with the properties of time travel. It’s witty, sharp and in some places a little goofy. As one would expect from a book about random and bizarre history, it begins with Ninjas. But there is a doorstep that is dangerously placed to trip the author up. Can he deliver the real ninja experience, which he writes is elusive, in such a small chapter? Probably not. Yet does it bust some myths? For some people, most probably! The most impressive one being that Ninjas would only wear black when they needed to. I’ll tell you what else is surprising, the interruption between this chapter and the next as Burrows’ alter ego Max Virtus butts in to tell us about how Ancient Egyptian’s and his mother would embalm a corpse. That was a weird sentence to write.

Leaving the Ninja dojo, we are taken to the Ludas, no it’s not a version of the game Ludo, the Roman gladiator school. This section is vaguely familiar to me, for a really top secret reason (Spoiler alert! It’s because it’s based on a guest blog the captain wrote for Historyland). And yet again Burrows begins by telling us this is a world full of misnomers that he will answer in a really short time. Mind the step Captain? But yet again we are saved from the fake, the glib and the trite by the author’s affecting charm and humour, and his choice of facts to highlight. Even though he did wander into a dark and dangerous place called parallel-land by likening Gladiators to big brother contestants! Grr.

We then move on with another sudden departure explaining the British system of electing Prime Ministers and follow through with the author’s top 3 worst Roman Emperor’s. (One wonder’s if there is something subliminal about this sequence). This ends up in a brief examination of how Rome got to the top, and attributing Rome’s successful conquest to their road network. Now this is big statement! And I partially agree, but I’d say that Conquest was dependent on firstly the will of the emperor or senate (depending if you’re in the republic or not), then the ability of the army and then the roads, in my opinion allowed the empire to endure, rather than conquer.

Amid the avalanche of puns you will find some delightful quirky objects to admire, this is especially true of the section called the Zoo, which deals with crazy animal facts. How Ancient Egypt’s love of cats brought the country under Persian control. Really happened. How Emus won a war against the Australian army. Yep that too! And the old favourite, beloved of the Internet. Excuse me while I adopt my Pigs in Space epic voice “Pigs vs war Elephants!”

The Last of the big sections is weapons, which highlights such things as a top 4 most awesome swords gallery. Top 4 most awesome guns gallery, and… you get the idea. Some fun and very true remarks follow about how not to fight a duel, and in fact if I was to go on about all the random, cool and downright loony stuff in this book, some of which I feel in no way qualified to comment on, I’d end up writing one myself. Let’s leave it then with the Pirates before we sum up. Pirates are one of the big elements of fun history… though the weird thing is that even though in reality they were a bunch of dirtbags, we kinda like them. Here we get the facts about setting your beard on fire, (which I must sadly inform readers, Blackbeard only appeared to do). And the more conventional myth busts about pirates not burying treasure and jolly Rogers being extensions of buccaneer personality, rather than the national pirate flag. After a thoughtful retrospective about things always looking greener next door which really puts the whole “2016 worst year ever” fad into the shameful corner it deserves, (applause to the author), we get more pirate stuff. Making fun of Johnny Depp, then saying pirates wore earrings to improve eyesight (I’d heard it was to prevent drowning, but maybe accessorising like this served a duel purpose?), and a bunch of stuff about peg legs and eye patches etc.

So what’s the verdict? Well although there weren’t any sections on cowboys or knights. Some criteria was met, after all we did get pirates, ninjas and Gladiators and though some of those parallels were worth a cringe, and I would like a recount on a few assertions, this is a fun book. We can all overdo the serious aspect of history. Everyone wants their subject to be the one that matters most, all too often we forget how fun it can be just to forget the significance and enjoy the madness, or the story for what it is. And for this I salute the author, and the mysterious and fearless captain Virtus… who is nonetheless scared of Emus.

Josh.