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2009-03-19
Becoming Queen

This time we have another break from ancient history – and even from military things, although the author is a friend so in some ways it’s back to earlier entries – but with the film Young Victoria just out in the cinemas, I can only recommend people to read Kate Williams’ Becoming Queen which has just been released in paperback. I read the hardback when it came out last September and enjoyed it immensely. The book has a great pace, is written with sympathy for all the characters, understanding rather than simply condemning them, and brings the age to life.



It is really two stories in one – the first of Princess Charlotte, the Queen who never was, and then of Victoria herself. I must confess I knew next to nothing about it all, and was only dimly aware of Charlotte’s existence. Kate has one of the most natural and lively styles of anyone writing history or biography today and really knows her subject. It’s a terrific read, and a remarkable story set against the gaudy and self indulgent world of Regency High Society – and no one was more gaudy and self indulgent than George III’s sons who spent a lot of time with their mistresses, but struggled to produce a legitimate heir. Victoria gave her name to the age that was to come, which always seems so very different that we forget many people lived through both, and it is well worth reminding ourselves that it took a complicated chain of events for her to be crowned at all.



I saw the film Young Victoria earlier today. It looks very good, and is a diverting enough way to spend a couple of hours, but it is very much a series of loosely connected scenes, and does not go in to much depth. Emily Blunt is good, although maybe doesn't quite look eighteen at the start. Becoming Queen is well worth reading for anyone wanting to know the true story, whether you see the movie or not. It simply brings the age to vibrant life in a way the film does not manage. It is also well worth getting if you just like a good story, very well told. Hopefully the BBC will repeat the Time Watch episode Kate presented telling Victoria’s story and showing us many of the key places from her early life.



Strangely if you go to amazon uk and do a search in books for Becoming Queen then my book on Caesar comes up as the fifth or sixth choice. Still can’t figure that one out, but am happy to be in such good company.



As highly recommended is the same author’s first book, England’s Mistress: The infamous life of Emma Hamilton, which in many ways is an even more bizarre story, and takes the reader on a journey through England and Europe in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century – this time theatres and brothels as well as palaces and castles!



Link to Becoming Queen on Amazon.co.uk

Link to Kate Williams' website
 
2009-03-15
The Ides of March

It would seem a pity to let the Ides pass without some comment. At the moment I am working on a paired biography of Antony and Cleopatra, but have not yet managed to kill off Caesar. As yet, we have only reached the end of the campaigns in Gaul and Antony's return to Rome to seek the post of augur and then tribune. The next chapter will return the focus to Cleopatra and deal with her father's final years and her elevation to co-ruler. So this time Caesar will live beyond the Ides. Anyway, it is tremendous fun to be back in the first century BC, and a lot of things have surprised me, especially about Mark Antony.


On another note, Spring's book mentioned a couple of entries ago lived up to its expectations. So did Babit's & Howard's book, which I am more than three quarters through. It is interesting to read that the famous story of Cornwallis ordering his gunners to fire into the combat involving the Guards, the 1st Maryland Regt. and Washington's Dragoons is probably a myth. The RA may have fired at some approaching dragoons, and hit the Guards as a result. So accidenatl rather than deliberate blue on blue.


I resolved from the start not to comment on current events. In any case the news of the last week or so seems to have been especially depressing. Still, hearing of such grim events helps to put in proper perspective the nervousness of an author waiting for reviews to appear.

 
2009-03-12
Supersizers go Roman
Last week I was in Rome - and that's always a nice thing to be able to say. I flew out to take part in the BBC series Supersizers go ... in this case Roman. In each episode the presenters Giles Coren and Sue Perkins dress and eat the food of a particular period. We began in the morning, filming at a resturant overlooking Trajan's Forum. Later in the day they staged a banquet based on Trimalchio's feast from Petronius' Satyricon. As those who have read it will know, the whole thing is a satire and so this meant that a lot of the stuff is OTT. Fortunately for us they could not get edible dormice! Still, they had a pig which was stuffed with sausages (and the latter were rather nice), as well as pastry eggs containing whole quails and all sorts of other exotic stuff. (Was relieved that sows' udders weren't involved). Another of the guests was the actor Kenneth Cranham, who has been in loads of things - he was just right as Pompey in the HBO Rome series. He is really nice, and it was fascinating chatting while waiting for the taxi to take us out to the villa. Along with Poppy, a student studying History of Art in Rome and who was to be our slave girl for the feast (which is an unlikely career for a product of one of this country's finest schools!)we took a cab out to the location, talking of art, Italian food, and history, as well as all sorts of other things - Kipling's Barrack-room ballads came up. The two hosts were also loads of fun, although nearing the end of the series so probably wearying a bit of historical food. Not sure I'd like to eat Roman every day, but this was very nice. Good company and conversation, and of course Rome. The series should be on the BBC in September, and will be interesting to see how it turns out. Did not get much time off, so I suspect this taster will make me head back to Rome for a proper visit before too long. That's my exuse anyway.
 
2009-02-26
Rebellion in the Colonies!

This will be a bit of first, because I am recommending some books that are (a) not about ancient history and (b) not written by anyone I know. A couple of years I spent a few days at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and managed to get down to Yorktown, which is bound to set an Englishman thinking! Anyway, it revived an old interest in the War of Independence/American Revolution. This was only reinforced by how often American reviewers and interviewers drew the parallel between Caesar and George Washington. It occurred to people often enough at the time, although Washington was equally often compared to Fabius Maxmimus cunctator, who saved Rome by avoiding battle.


A lot of my reading has been on the military side of things. There is a lot of terrific stuff on the subject. At the moment I am a few chapters into Matthew Spring's With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on campaign in North America, 1775-1783 and am enjoying it immensely. It is well worth anyone who wants to understand ancient battles looking at the mechanics of other conflicts fought at close range and by formations of men. Yesterday a copy of Lawrence Babits & Joshua Howard's Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse arrived from amazon. I am really looking forward to reading this, as Babit's A Devil of a whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (1998) is extremely good and was one of the first things I bought when I started reading up on the period. Sadly, the problem with researching and writing is that you do not get too much time to read for pleasure, so goodness knows how long it will be before I actually get a chance to look at it.


http://www.amazon.com/Long-Obstinate-Bloody-Guilford-Courthouse/dp/0807832669/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1235678551&sr=1-1
http://www.amazon.com/Zeal-Bayonets-Only-1775-1783-Commanders/dp/0806139471/ref=pd_cp_b_1?pf_rd_p=413864201&pf_rd_s=center-41&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=0807832669&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=17KHRDV1DV10N6E18BVE
 
2009-02-21
Belisarius
The next entry is another plug for another Pen&Sword book, in this case Ian Hughes’ Belisarius: the last Roman general . Once again I know the author and so got to read this in draft form. Again it’s also one of those subjects which it is hard to believe has not been covered before. We have Procopius’ detailed narrative – and the scandalous version of his Secret History. So the material is all there, and it is a fascinating story of campaigns fought on the eastern frontier and in Africa and Italy during the sixth century AD. My own Fall of the West finishes with Justinian, but could not cover these years in anything but the most sketchy way. Here is a good narrative account which tries to reconstruct events as far as we can, so is well worth a look for people who want to know more.

Link to Belisarius on amazon.co.uk
 

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