Category Archives: fiction

Charles Dickens at 200

English: Detail from photographic portrait of ...

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If you’re into Charles Dickens there’s a hell of a lot going on in Portsmouth over the next week or so.

The City Museum in Portsmouth is hosting an exhibition, aptly-titled ‘A Tale of One City’, looking at Dickens and Dickensian Portsmouth, and exploring some themes that Dickens wrote about – poverty, money, crime, they’re all things that Charles Dickens wrote about in Victorian times and we are still faced with today. The exhibition also features part of the original manuscript of Nicholas Nickelby, the only Dickens novel which features the town of his birth, on loan from the British Library. The exhibition runs until November.

Tomorrow (Sunday 5th Feb) the Charles Dickens Birthplace is free entry all day. And on Tuesday 7 February, on the great man’s two hundredth birthday itself, the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth will be hosting special events throughout the day. There will be a range of activities and celebrations in Old Commercial Road, including street performers, musicians, food, craft activities and readings. At 10.45 the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth and Ian Dickens will speak outside the Museum, before laying a wreath. At 11.30am the Museum will open to the public. The birthplace itself is a small terraced house, so expect it to get very busy! For more information click here.

At 12 noon there will be a thanksgiving service at St Mary’s Church in Fratton, where Charles Dickens was baptised in 1812. Simon Callow and Sheila Hancock will both give readings, and there will be a performance of Songs from Oliver by the choir of St Johns RC Primary School. In the evening at the New Theatre Royal Simon Callow will be reading excerpts from his book ‘Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World’. Later in the year the Dickens Fellowship are planning to unveil a statue of the great man himself, appropriately outside Portsmouth Central Library Square.

I’ve always been a great fan of Dickens and his works. The funny thing is, I don’t actually enjoy reading the books that much – the manner in which they are written does not, I feel, lend itself well to reading from cover to cover. The books were initially serialised by chapters, in cheap popular magazines of the day. This is probably how they should be read – a bitesize chunk at a time. Or performed – I feel that it is a true testament to Dickens that his works translate so well onto screen and stage, when TV was invented almost a hundred years after he was born!

The themes, subjects and stories that Dickens wrote about are very much still relevant today. What would Dickens have to say about Bankers bonuses? or last summers riots? Or social media? That’s the funny thing about history – and social history in particular. Whilst on the surface life has changed immeasurably, actually, humankind hasn’t changed all that much.

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Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed

On reflection, although I enjoyed the first instalment of Birdsong, I did find that it was very heavy on moody silences, and wistful glances into the distance. Historically, it seemed accurate, and compared to other adaptations, it seemed pretty faithful to the book.

I felt that the battle scenes were very well handled. In all fairness, I think we are setting our stalls out too much to expect battle scenes to be 100% accurate – how can they be? no one actually dies in a war film. I personally feel that the best we can hope for is that battle scenes are thoughtful and respectful to history, and that was what was achieved here. I was very moved especially by the ‘big push’ on the Somme, in particular the scene where the Sergeant-Major is taking a roll call of endless absent names. The final tunnel scene really did justice to the story, and must have taken quite some work in terms of the set and props.

One aspect where I felt that the TV dramtisation really let itself down, was the manner in which the screenwriters, for whatever reason, ommitted any reference to the fact that the events of the book are actually seen through the eyes of a descendant, researching in the 1970′s. This gave the story added longitudinal meaning, that was perhaps absent on screen. Also, maybe I missed it, but there was no reference in either part as to where the title of the book originates from.

There were also a few aspects of the plot that I felt were light – little explanation of why Isabelle left Stephen, and why Stephen was in France in the first place. But then again, I guess translating such a monumental book into three hours of TV was always going to be a challenge. It’s always the same with TV adaptations – they’re never going to hit every note that the book does, but as long as they’re faithful and in keeping, then you have to give credit where credit is due.

What with the phenomenal success of War Horse, and the impending Great War Centenary in 2014, we are probably well into a period of renaissance of interest in the events of 1914-1918. It’s quite an exciting time to be a modern military historian.

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The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

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Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I often feel that in the twenty-first century we are in something of a literary wilderness. Whilst I am sure that there are some great books out there that I just haven’t found yet, I cannot help but feel that the burgeoning shelves of Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter wannabe’s will never been in the same league as Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare or Chaucer. Happily, Birdsong is one modern novel which follows the best traditions of British literature.

Stephen Wraysford arrives in Amiens in North France in 1910. After embarking on a clandestine love affair that causes scandal and upheaval, after heartbreak we follow him to the horrors of the western front. By starting the story in pre-war France, and establishing the readers rapport with Stephen Wraysford well before the Great War, Faulks has ensured that this is a book that is about more than just war. It also gives the story longitude, and broader meaning. Unlike a lot of modern novels, I can also imagine sitting in a classroom, analysing this text for an English exam. There are all kinds of interesting metaphors, contrasts, and other tricks that colour a story.

The plot of writing a novel in two eras is a brave choice. Switching from one time period to the other within is even more risky – like a badly-sewn shirt, the seams might show. But Birdsong works. By introducing snippets from Wraysford’s descendants, but without spoiling the story, Faulks reminds us poignantly of how long-gone events have a resonance to us today.

The problem I often find with military historical fiction – and this is from somebody who has tried and failed to write myself, numerous times – is that the balance between the history and the fiction is often out of sync. You either read a historian playing at fiction, or an author playing at history. Faulk’s illuminating preface tells us of how he would sit in the Imperial War Museum’s Library and read accounts from the Great War, and it obviously had a great effect on his writing.

Birdsong is a modern classic, I found it a pleasure to read. The best books take no effort to read, and this is one of them. A TV adaption, or even better a feature-length version, is well overdue.

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Book of the Week – Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Azincourt - Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is perhaps best known for his Sharpe series of Napoleonic, swashbuckling novels. And quite rightly too, in my opinion they are one of the best historical fiction series ever written. But Cornwell has far more strings to his bow, as this effort demonstrates. And the pun is intended.

Azincourt follows the exploits and adventures of Nicholas Hook, an English Archer taking part in the legendary Agincourt campaign in 1415. Azincourt takes the reader not only in the footsteps of Henry V and his Army during those fateful days, but also on a voyage of discovery in medieval England. As usual with Bernard Cornwell, a convincing and gripping storyline is supported admirably by evidence of deep and broad research. Fitting and appropriate use of contemporary language and imagery is the icing on this literary cake.

An easy trap to fall into would be to write yet another Sharpe novel and simply graft it into a different era, something that several authors have done in recent years. This will perhaps never have the readership of Sharpe, or Sean Bean playing Hook, but it is a worthy addition to any bookshelf all the same. Cornwell is clearly not a one trick pony.

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Books of the week – Maritime special

This weeks regular review looks at not one, but two of the latest releases from the National Maritime Museum.

Egyptian Sketches - Edward Lear

Egyptian Sketches - Edward Lear

Art has always had a romantic and insightful role to play in Maritime History. Edward Lear may be better known as a poet and writer of ‘the owl and the pussycat’, but Lear also travelled widely and often illustrated his own writings. Egyptian Sketches is a fascinating collection of watercolour sketches that transports the reader back to nineteenth century Egypt, seen through the eyes of a Victorian traveller. Whilst I could never claim to be an art expert, this collection of sketches illuminates much about Victorian society – keen interest in travel, an antiquary-like passion for ancient civilisation, as well as being set of very pleasant paintings in their own right. Well presented, and with a commentary from Jenny Gaschke, Curator of Fine Art at the National Maritiem Museum, this would be an ideal read for the enthusiast of maritime art.

The Bird of Dawning - John Masefield

The Bird of Dawning - John Masefield

One of my favourites units studying history at university was maritime history. Mornings spent listening to our wisened tutor talking of tea from India more than made up for the more mundance subjects we were inflicted with. So it is with a certain nostalgia that I read The Bird of Dawning, by John Masefield. A Poet Laureate, Masefield spent many of his early years on board ships, and this experience had a profound impact on the young Poet. Evocative of a time when clippers raced back from India to get the best prices for their cargo of tea, disaster strikes and the crew have to survive sharks, mutiny and the unforgiving power of the sea. Masefield’s nautical background ensures that you can almost smell the salt on the pages, and the tension of his narrative fittingly portrays the gravity of the story. The Bird of Dawning was originally published in 1933, and this fine reissue is introduced by Dr. Phillip Errington, an expert on Masefield and his work.

The Bird of Dawning is available now, and Egyptian Sketches is published on 15 October 2009. Both published by the National Maritime Museum.

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Sharpe – best historical fiction ever?

Richard Sharpe... ya Bastard!

Richard Sharpe... ya Bastard!

I’ve been doing some more thinking about Heroes. Richard Sharpe has to be one of mine, and he isn’t even real. A creation of Bernard Cornwell, Richard Sharpe joined the British Army as a Private, and served in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium. He’s a pretty incredible character. Rough and tough, he was a survivor who got by on his talents and skills in an era when birth and privilege counted for far more. He manages to do pretty bad things in every book, but heres the nub – he only does bad things to bad people. So its OK, they were asking for it. He’s not perfect, by any means. But he always ends up coming out on top- if only real life was that clear cut. He cared about his men and stood up for them, and stood up for what he thought was right. In fact, I reckon Sharpe isn’t a bad role model at all. Just as long as you dont go around bayoneting Frenchmen!

Not only all that, but the books are absolutely fantastic. As someone who has read all of them at least 3 times, I think they are perhaps the greatest series of Historical Novels ever written. The research and accuracy is completely impeccable. I’ve always thought that a writer of Historial Fiction is essentially doing the groundwork for two books at one – a history book and a novel. Cornwell does it so well. The great thing is too, you can see how his writing has matured over the years. You could read all of the Sharpe novels from first to last, and probably learn more about the Napoleonic British Army and Regency British Society than you would reading the same amount of History books.

Its a formula that has been copied so many times over the years. There are so many Sharpe imitations out there, some of them are so bad you could almost change the names and they would be the same characters and stories. How they get on the shelves bemuses me. But hey, I guess imitation is a form of flattery, and Cornwell himself was heavily influenced by the Hornblower series of books. I’ve often sat down and tried to write a novel, but without fail it always ends up being another Sharpe.

The TV series takes it to another level too. Sean Bean IS Sharpe, and Daragh O’Malley is Harper, you couldnt imagine any better casting. Maybe the TV programmes are very truncated, because they have to fit it all into 2 hours and make it slightly more simple, but in my opinion its done very sensitively to the original.

Sharpe got me interested in military history, and the Napoleonic War. I think it also encouraged me to study English and to write as much as I have. I have a feeling that the Sharpe books will be as popular in years to come as they have been since Cornwell penned Sharpe’s Eagle. And Long may it continue.

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Book of the week #3 – The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I’m often told that I dont read enough ficition, And particularly fiction that doesnt have tanks in it.

One of the best novels that I HAVE read in a very long time has to be this epic effort from Ken Follett. For the faint hearted it is not, it truly is a book to get lost in. Neither is it a book to be rushed by any means, 1,000 pages will take a long time to get through no matter how quickly you read. But if you are interested in medieval England, romance, treachery, deceit, determination, good, evil, the whole range of human behaviours and emotions encapsulated, then this book is for you. You really cannot help but feel like you’re being take inside the characters minds and lives.

As for the story, it isnt so much a story but a lifetime. And then another. Most other writers would have published the same book as several smaller novels, but the scale of the book reflects the stature of Prior Phillip’s Cathedral. To try and describe the plot here would be to detract from the book. Suffice to say that with some very clever and detailed crafting of some believable and illuminating characters, the story plays second fiddle to the people of Kingsbridge and their lives.

Follett’s historical research is pretty sound too, which isnt always the case with historical novels. Too ofen authors write historical fiction in a modern style, then merely garnish it with some token historical references as an afterthought. This isnt a modern story dressed up with some historical trinkets, its an honest and well-thought construction in Olde Englande. It would make a cracking – albeit probably 5 hour long – film.

The Pillars of the Earth – click here to buy!

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