Writing Portfolio


Fools and Mortals: on and off the stage with Shakespeare's brother

Bernard Cornwell’s got a new book out, and I’m not taking about the latest instalment in the Saxon saga (or, as it’s now being billed thanks to the TV series, the Last Kingdom saga). It’s a stand-alone adventure set in Elizabethan England, and the protagonist is a brother of one William Shakespeare.

He’s not a soldier or a government agent or anything like that. The world of historical fiction does have a Shakespeare brother who’s a government agent, though – John Shakespeare, an entirely fictional older brother of the Bard who’s working for Sir Francis Walsingham to make sure that Elizabeth I is safe from assorted Catholic plotters who’d rather have her Scottish cousin on the throne. He is the creation of Rory Clements, who has set out to do for Elizabeth I’s reign what C.J. Sansom’s excellent Shardlake novels have done for that of Henry VIII – provide a series of thrillers (Revenger, The Queen’s Man, etc) that explore the more dangerous side of Tudor England. They’re not bad but there are a lot of Tudor-era thrillers around these days, and if you try to compare any of them with the Shardlake books then there’s only going to be one winner.

Bernard Cornwell’s latest is not about threats against the crown. It’s set on the stage, or rather in and around the world of the theatre, and the Shakespeare brother who leads the action does at least have the merit of being a real person. Well, based on a real person at least. Richard Shakespeare is the narrator of Fools and Mortals which is set in London in 1595. Little is known of the real-life Richard Shakespeare, a younger brother of the Bard who is thought to have spent most of his life in Stratford-upon-Avon and who predeceased his famous brother by three years. This, in a way, makes him an ideal candidate for being a character in a Bernard Cornwell novel as the author has a more or less blank canvas to play with. At Cornwell’s hands, he’s a bit of a tearaway who, rather than be apprenticed to a brutal Stratford merchant, ran away to London to become a ‘player’ like his brother, who was less than pleased to see him show up in the big city. He’s shown some talent for acting but he is in a bit of a rut; although a boy no longer, he’s only considered for the female roles in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. What with having to resort to the occasional act of petty theft to supplement his meagre pay, he is growing ever more resentful of his big brother (who, as is the case of William Shakespeare as depicted in Upstart Crow, is on the cusp of fame here).

Despite being disapproved of by Puritans, going to the theatre is very popular in Elizabethan London (theatre-goers come from all walks of life and seem surprisingly willing to suspend their disbelief for the duration of a play, which can last for several hours although Cornwell reckons that they would have been edited for performances in order to get them down to the two-hour mark). As audiences get bored with repeat performances of plays they’ve seen before, the playing companies are always in need of new material. Play manuscripts are therefore jealously guarded by the company (not the playwright) that owns them; other than getting closed down by the Pursuivants (quasi-official ruffians on the look-out for the merest hint of sedition against the Queen, this being less than a decade after the defeat of the Spanish Armada), the worst thing that can happen to a theatre company is a manuscript going missing.

One such company is the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – named for their patron, Lord Hunsdon (who, being a son of Mary Boleyn, is a cousin of Elizabeth I as well as being the Lord Chamberlain). Will Shakespeare originally joined them as an actor but has since become a partner of the company; he may not be the most handsome chap (as his better-looking brother often tells the reader), but he’s definitely the brains of the operation. He’s recently written a new comedy which will be performed indoors at his lordship’s grand-daughter’s wedding which, it is thought, will be attended by none other than Good Queen Bess herself. Funnily, he uses this play – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – to mock his fellow-actors, having written parts for them that allude to some of their foibles; brother Richard finally gets a male part, but it’s that of Francis Flute – the ‘mechanical’ who is disappointed to learn that he’s been given a female part in the play-within-a-play.

His resentment towards brother Will is therefore higher than ever when the manuscript of his recently-completed tragedy about two star-crossed lovers in Italy gets stolen, thus driving the plot of Fools and Mortals. This happens at around the half-way point, the first half having set the scene with plenty of detail about Elizabethan society and the politics of the time, including how it relates to theatres (which have to be outside the City of London; as the Globe won’t be built until 1599, the theatre where the on-stage action takes place is the, ah, Theatre, located off Bishopsgate) as well as sufficient background concerning how Richard ended up in London and why he resents his brother. He’s even been tapped up by a rival acting company, offering him male roles provided he steals his brother’s manuscripts, but has turned them down. But the very fact that he was approached means that the finger of suspicion points towards Richard, who must prove his innocence by figuring out who’s actually nicked it and then getting it back. The former is fairly straightforward, the latter considerably less so.

This is a pretty interesting departure for Cornwell, probably the best living historical novelist at the moment but one more associated with military adventures (in various historical periods). Fools and Mortals is more of a slow-burner than your usual Bernard Cornwell novel, and when the action does come there’s not actually a lot of it; those expecting a Tudor-era version of Sharpe or Uhtred will be disappointed. I liked it, though. There was plenty of historical detail (Cornwell, as ever, is second to none in this regard) and Richard Shakespeare made for an interesting and multi-layered character. William Shakespeare himself remains somewhat elusive, even a bit dislikeable – there’s little on why he has acted the way he has done to cause his brother’s resentment, and his domestic life is merely hinted at (he seems to have a mistress or two in London, while Anne Hathaway is back in Warwickshire with the kids). Perhaps it’s better that way. At least Cornwell is depicting William Shakespeare as the writer of Shakespeare’s plays; on top of having produced an engaging historical novel, he is fully deserving of top marks for refusing to buy into that ‘Shakespeare was written by someone else’ conspiracy nonsense.


The story of the British bobsleigh gold

Looking into the history of the Winter Olympics, my attention was drawn to the events of the bobsleigh in 1964. There was plenty of booze. There was some highly impressive sportsmanship. And, of course, there was a British gold medal…

Back then, the Winter Olympics – the ninth holding of the winter games – were held at Innsbruck in Austria. 1091 athletes from 36 nations took part (compare that, if you will, with the statistics for the 2018 games which tell us that 2952 athletes from 92 countries are participating). From a British perspective, 1964 was the first time the BBC opted to televise the Winter Olympics (improvements in TV technology presumably combining with the fact that the nation’s sporting schedules had been decimated the year before in the Big Freeze of ’63). Prior to the games, there were concerns about an unseasonal lack of snow, which resulted in the Austrian Army being called on to carry snow from the higher ground to the ski slopes. Sadly, tragedy struck before the games had even started, with two athletes – an Australian skier and a British luger – being killed on practice runs before the opening ceremony. The latter was a Polish-born ex-RAF pilot called Kazimierz Kay-Skrzyppecki; according to Wikipedia, he was in his fifties at the time. 

Then as now, particular attention was paid by the Beeb to any event in which the British might stand a chance of winning a medal (something that hadn’t been done by Great Britain at the Winter Olympics since 1952). Just one such event stood out – the bobsleigh, especially the two-man event in which Tony Nash and Robin Dixon had finished third at the previous year’s World Championships.

Bobsleigh, which had not featured at the 1960 Winter Olympics for the first and only time, was dominated in the Sixties by European nations, most notably Italy and Germany (there were two Germanies then, but prior to 1968 they competed jointly in the Olympics as the ‘United Team of Germany’), although the Austrian and Swiss teams were also much-fancied, as were those of Canada and the USA. Going into the 1964 games, the Italians were the reigning World Champions in both the two-man and four-man events (women’s bobsleigh would not become a Winter Olympic sport until 2002).

Both of the British bobsleighers had got into the sport via the British Army, albeit in very different ways. Amersham-born Nash had taken it up while doing his National Service and had kept involved afterwards, receiving financial backing from his father – he worked for his family’s brewing company – as part of a deal whereby he wouldn’t take up motor racing which Nash senior reckoned to be far too dangerous. Dixon, meanwhile, was an Old Etonian Grenadier Guards officer who had got into bobsleigh in 1957 following a chat about winter sports with his cousin, John Bingham, while on an Army skiing holiday in St Moritz. He had a go, and was hooked (both cousins, by the way, were sons of peers who would go on to inherit their fathers’ titles; Dixon as the third Baron Glentoran, Bingham as the seventh Earl of Lucan; yes, that one). They were originally part of a four-man team, but things changed in 1961 when the team’s pilot, Henry Taylor, was injured in an accident at the British Grand Prix (he was also a Formula One driver, although following said crash he went into rallying instead). From then on, Nash took over the piloting duties despite his short-sightedness which required him to wear glasses or contact lenses while competing, and they started to compete together in the two-man event while also making up half of the British four-man team.

This was a changing time for bobsleigh. Thanks largely to the Italians, the bobsleighs themselves were becoming more technologically advanced and, although it was still an amateur sport, it was beginning to get more professionally organised. There was also a conscious effort on the part of the Italians to get some of the non-alpine countries more involved; then as now, friendships developed among competitors, and in particular Nash’s growing friendship with the Italian pilot, Eugenio Monti, paid dividends. “In 1963, the Italians had built a new run in Cervinia very similar to the Olympic run in Innsbruck, with three very big S-curves,” Dixon later recalled. “Tony and I were in St Moritz and they invited us over to open the run with them ... a very good start to the season.” 1963 saw the British pair come third in the World Championship at Igls; the Italians took first and second. 

At the Innsbruck Winter Olympics, Dixon and Nash – part of a British contingent that consisted of 27 men and nine women – shared a room at the Olympic Village. They spent the evening before the first day of the bobsleigh competition listening to records and drinking whisky; different times, the Sixties.

Day one saw the first two runs, after which the British pair found themselves in the lead; they had not done the fastest run – Monti and his partner Sergio Siorpaes had done that – but it was the total time over all of the runs that counted. The final two runs would be held the following day, and it looked as though everyone was going to be slightly slower as there was a fresh fall of snow over the course overnight (“we didn’t drink too much whisky that night, I can tell you,” Dixon later admitted). After their first run on the second day, disaster loomed as they discovered that a rear axle bolt had sheared off; they didn’t have a spare, and if they couldn’t find one they wouldn’t be able to do their fourth run. It looked like their Olympic effort would end there and then, but salvation appeared in the unlikely form of one of their competitors – Nash’s friend, Eugenio Monti of Italy, offered to take the bolt from his bobsleigh after he’d competed his run and give it to them.

“Eugenio was on the line about to do his run," Dixon later recalled, “but he came across and said: 'Don't worry. Send an Englishman down to meet me and you can have mine'." Monti's lending of a vital component to a serious competitor would go down in legend as one of the most selfless acts in Winter Olympic, indeed in sporting, history. However, it was not until many years later that it became known that Monti's bolt was not actually used on the British bobsleigh; after finishing his run he did indeed remove it from his own bobsleigh and send it up to the start for Dixon and Nash to use, but by the time it got there they had managed to find another one.

By this time, the snow that had fallen on the course was turning to slush and the British pair were unhappy with their final descent. Convinced that they'd blown their chances, the did what any self-respecting amateur sportsmen (and quite a few professional sportsmen for that matter) would do and went off to drown their sorrows. "We went to a hut near the finish and had a coffee and schnapps and thought, 'well played, but not well played'," recalled Dixon. "Then various people found us to say the world's press were looking for us. The race track had softened and nobody could overtake us." Over the four runs, they'd been 0.12 of a second faster than their nearest competitors, the Italian 'second' team of Sergio Zardini and Romano Bonagura. Monti and Siorpaes were third. The British pair duly switched from schapps to champagne.

That evening, there were a couple of final hurdles for them - getting interviewed by a characteristically overly-excited David Coleman, and getting into the medal presentation ceremony. As far as the latter was concerned, security was tight and they couldn't find a way in. Then they saw someone they knew - Lord Exeter, at the time the Vice-President of the International Olympic Committee (back in the 1928 summer games, he'd won gold for Great Britain in the men's 400-metre hurdles). "Don't worry, chaps," he assured them. "They can't start without us. You're getting the medals, and I'm giving them to you."

Having collected his bronze medal, Monti faced heavy criticism from the Italian press for his sportsmanship; his response was very much in keeping with his actions: "Nash didn't win because I gave him the bolt. He won because he had the fastest run." His generosity on this occasion was by no means a one-off. In the four-man event, he and his mechanics helped to fix a damaged axle on the Canadian bobsleigh; the Canadians went on to win gold in that event, with Monti and his team taking the bronze (the British four-man team, which included Nash and Dixon, came in twelfth). Monti's sportsmanship did not go unrecognised by the IOC, for in addition to his medals at the 1964 games he was also awarded the then newly-inaugurated Pierre de Coubertin Medal for those whose sportsmanship exemplifies the Olympic ideal. He was the first living person to be so honoured. 

Dixon and Nash, who like all British gold medal-winning Olympians were subsequently awarded MBEs as well, would go on to win the World Championship the following year at St Moritz. They also competed at the 1968 Winter Olympics, finishing fifth with Monti getting the gold (after four runs it was actually a dead heat between the Italians and the West Germans for first place; initially it was decided to give both teams the gold, as would later happen in 1998 and as has happened in 2018, but this was later changed, with the Italians being given first place on the grounds that they’d done the quickest single run). Eugenio Monti, who died in 2003, is now remembered not just as a true sportsman but as one of the most successful bobsleighers ever, with six Olympic medals (two of each colour) and nine World Championship wins to his name.

Sources: BBC, Wikipedia


That's no castle, it's a sham

Bath is surrounded by hills, and if you look up at the hills to the east from the Abbey you may be able to make out a castle on the horizon. It’s not really a castle – or rather, it’s a castle in name only.

The eighteenth century was the time when Bath had its second heyday (the first having been in Roman times) as the spa town of choice for the great and good. Much of the modern city was built then, including the architectural gems that are The Circus and the Royal Crescent. It was also a time for the building of follies – buildings intended solely for decoration, and often built to look like they were older than they actually were. The ‘castle’ above Bath is such a building.

It is a sham by name as well as by nature, for its name is the Sham Castle, and it was built in 1762 at the orders of Ralph Allen, a man who had much to do with the building of Georgian Bath for it was he who owned the quarries from which Bath Stone – the honey-coloured oolitic limestone which was the principal building-material for Bath and which gives the city, a World Heritage Site, its distinctive appearance – was taken. Ralph Allen was (also) the man who put up the money for the Royal Mineral Water Hospital (now the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases), and who had Prior Park built in the hills to the south-east; both of those buildings, as well as much else of Georgian Bath, were designed by John Wood the Elder, considered to be one of the finest architects of his day.

The Sham Castle is not one of John Wood’s creations – in fact, it was built several years after his death. Like quite a few of his moneyed contemporaries, Ralph Allen apparently wanted to improve the view from his house (his town-house in Bath in this particular case) and so commissioned this folly to be built on the horizon. Nowadays, it is on the Bath Skyline Walk, a six-mile walk around the hills and valleys to the east and south-east of Bath itself (maybe I should set myself the task of walking it when the weather gets better). On one of my many trips to Bath, I decided to go and take a closer look.

Yes it was January and so somewhat muddy, but up I went anyway, through a kissing-gate and along the path through a field, so steep that steps had been put there. Before the castle itself I came across a bunker of some sort, brick not concrete, in which were the remnants of a fire and a few empty beer-bottles. And, then, just beyond the bunker through the trees, I saw it.

It – the Sham Castle of Bath – consists of a screen wall with a central arch (pointed, not round) flanked by two three-storey round towers and, at either end, two two-storey square towers. That, really, is all there is to it – its purpose was to look like a castle on a hill for those who, like Ralph Allen, could be bothered to look up from the city centre.

One of the windows has an inscription noting that the Sham Castle was restored in 1921, at which point it became the property of the City of Bath (a borough since the time of Alfred the Great and a city without a cathedral for, historically important as Bath Abbey is, it has never been a cathedral although the local diocese is called Bath & Wells). 

For some reason I had thought that the Sham Castle might have an inner staircase enabling one to climb it, but on closer inspection I found that not to be the case; round the back, that part that was not intended to be seen, the two square towers look as though they once had entrances that have long been bricked up (probably when the restoration job of 1921 was done). It looks as though this may have been the case with the inner towers as well, although all that remains there is a small door at the bottom of one of them, and that was locked. 

I don’t doubt that, given a decent pair of climbing-shoes and sufficient ability, you could find enough finger-holds and toe-holds in the brickwork where the mortar has worn away to enable you to climb up the outside, and I equally don’t doubt that someone at some time has done just that; had I been fifteen or so years younger and a couple of stone lighter, I might have been tempted to have a go myself.

But I contented myself with squelching through the mud, walking under the central arch and checking out the view of Bath; somewhat obscured, for there was plenty of mist in the valley of the Avon that day, but I could just about make out the Abbey. Another folly visited, I then made my way down to the city.


Looking out over Oxford

To Oxford, the city of the dreaming spires – so-called because of the number of religious establishments in said city. Each college has its own chapel, you see, and there are some churches as well. Funnily enough, one of the churches is designated as the university’s church, even though the colleges have chapels – one of which, the one at Christ Church, doubles up as Oxford’s cathedral. That makes for a lot of spires.

It was to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, located on the High Street, that I went. There has been a church on that site since Anglo-Saxon times, and in the early days of Oxford University it became an important building, being used for lectures and as a meeting-place for the university authorities, as well as having an upstairs room used as the university’s first library. In the 1550s, it was the location for the trial of the Oxford Martyrs – bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley and archbishop Thomas Cranmer, leading figures in the Reformation under Henry VIII and Edward VI who found themselves on the wrong side when Henry’s daughter Mary became queen. Her attempts to turn the clock back and make England Catholic again have given her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. She had those three churchmen charged with heresy, and – this being the sixteenth century – they were found guilty. Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake on nearby Broad Street in October 1555, with Cranmer suffering the same fate five months later. The church was also used for the awarding of degrees, until these increasingly rowdy ceremonies met with disapproval by the church authorities in the seventeenth century (which, after the Civil War, resulted in Christopher Wren – who’d studied at Wadham College – being commissioned to build the Sheldonian Theatre; henceforth, graduation ceremonies took place there instead). Samuel Johnson is known to have attended services at St Mary’s while he was a student at Pembroke College. In the nineteenth century, the Oxford Movement – calling for the reinstatement of older Christian traditions in the C of E, eventually becoming Anglo-Catholicism or High Church Anglicanism – was kick-started at St Mary’s by the likes of John Henry Newman and John Keble (while the former ended up going all the way and converting to Roman Catholicism, the latter did not and would eventually have an Oxford college and a church in Mill Hill named after him; I should know, for that is the church I was baptised in).

But it was to the tower that I was drawn. It’s the oldest part of the church, dating back to the late thirteenth century (the main body of the church having been substantially rebuilt in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, while the porch dates back to the 1630s – the statue of the Virgin Mary above it was considered so scandalous that you can still see the bullet-holes from when Cromwell’s soldiers shot at it after they’d captured Oxford during the Civil War). I, of course, wanted to climb the tower for a view of Oxford’s dreaming spires. I like climbing towers. I’d previously looked out over Oxford from the tower of St Michael at the North Gate (the City Church, as opposed to the University Church) and from the Carfax Tower, and I reckoned it made sense to complete the hat-trick by going up St Mary’s too; if nothing else, it is reckoned to be the one with the best view over Oxford.

So I paid my £4 and made my way up the narrow spiral staircase. 

Through a window on the way up, I could see the chapel of Exeter College – a college best known by me and doubtless many others as the college where, in the final episode of Inspector Morse, the titular inspector suffers his fatal collapse after figuring out who the murderer was in his last mystery.

Once out in the open, I was confronted by the statue of a bishop which, funnily enough, I’d seen before – on the cover of an Inspector Morse novel (I forget which one). I’ve not been able to find out which bishop it represents; this being Oxford, it’s not like there’s a shortage of candidates.

Looking out to the north, I had the Radcliffe Camera – as in camera being the Latin for ‘room’, this being the reading-room of the Bodleian Library – before me; Exeter and Brasenose Colleges to the left, All Souls College to the right. 

Interesting one, All Souls. First of all, it has no students. That’s not actually true, of course – it has no undergraduate students, and those graduates and postgraduate students who do get to be at All Souls (they have to take a famously hard exam in order to do so) are Fellows of the college. Not students. It’s also home to one of the more bizarre of Oxford’s many academic traditions – a ceremony which consists of a torchlit parade, led by a man carrying a wooden duck on a pole, which takes place once a century (the last one was in 2001, so it looks like I’ve missed out on that).

Moving to the south side, the view takes in Oriel College (with its statue of Cecil Rhodes) and Christ Church, the college that doesn’t call itself a college and which is unique in being the only higher educational institution in this country that’s also a cathedral. 

That particular quirk goes back to its foundation. Or rather, its second re-foundation. Cardinal Wolsey had wanted to establish a college on the site of a priory which he had suppressed, but was prevented from doing so by his own fall from grace. This led to the suppression of Cardinal College while it was still being built; it was re-founded by Henry VIII as King Henry VIII’s College (that king not being short on modesty) although in 1546 it was re-founded again thanks to a re-organisation of the Church of England which led to the creation of the Diocese of Oxford; henceforth, the college chapel – built on the site of the priory church – would be the Cathedral Church of Christ, with the college attached to it going by the name of Christ Church (not ‘Christ Church College’, for the word ‘college’ does not appear in its title). Charles I stayed there during the Civil War (since he had been kicked out of London when the war started, Oxford became his capital until it fell to the Parliamentarians in 1646). Its clock tower, the Tom Tower, is another Wren creation.

Looking at the tower itself, I noticed that there was some old graffiti carved into the brickwork. 

Not exactly surprising, as there are quite a few old buildings where someone’s taken a knife to the stonework to carve their initials for posterity. ‘AR’ was here in 1676, and ‘WF’ in 1762. Who, I wondered, were these people? Had they come to the church intending to carve their initials in the tower, or just spotted the chance to do so once they’d climbed it and noted that there was no-one else around? Did they wonder if they’d be found out, maybe getting them into trouble with the vicar or the university authorities (assuming, of course, that they were students)? Who knows? I wondered, as I have done before, about the point at which graffiti stops being an act of vandalism and becomes historically significant, as witness, for example, the Parliamentarian soldier who carved his name onto the lead lining of the font in the church at Burford when he was being held prisoner there in 1649 (one for another time, that one).

Satisfied with the view, and by now in need of a cup of tea (for it was although the sun was out, it was a cold and windy day), I made my way back down.


Mushroom Bolognese

In the kitchen, and looking for something healthy, what with it being January and all. It just so happened that we noticed a recipe in the latest edition of the BBC’s Olive magazine for mushroom bolognese. Well, we like pasta and we like mushrooms, so why not give it a go?

I have form when it comes to bolognaise sauce. For a long time, spaghetti bolognese – ‘spag bol’ – was the only Italian dish I could cook (it took me a while to get carbonara right, often ending up with a sort of scrambled egg with pasta). I learned how to make spag bol in the Scouts, when the sauce only needed three ingredients; an onion, beef mince and the contents of a pasta sauce jar. And spaghetti, of course. When cooking in the comfort of an actual kitchen rather than a mess-tent, I usually used the sauce recipe in Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Collection (listed as Ragu bolognese, “really the all-purpose Italian pasta sauce: it can form the basis of Lasagne or Baked meat and macaroni pie (see the recipes on pages 332 and 334)”) although I sometimes skipped the chicken liver as it wasn’t always the easiest thing to get hold of.

Now I am well aware that any actual Italians would be appalled by spag bol, which is not something that you will find in Italy; in Bologna, where bolognese sauce comes from, they’d use tagliatelle, not spaghetti which is more of a southern Italian pasta. That said, Rick Stein recently came across an actual spaghetti bolognaise recipe during the course of his recent Rick Stein’s Long Weekends TV show (“hey Rick, where’re you going this weekend?”). This actual spaghetti bolognese is a dish “which the locals cook of a Friday fish day, made with tomatoes, tuna and dry pasta”. Not mince. But that’s something for another time.

Anyway – the mushroom one. First of all, there’s no spaghetti, for Olive magazine is being geographically correct by stating that this is a dish that goes with tagliatelle. It was an easy-to-follow recipe involving two types of mushroom – porcini (soaked in water, which also gets used) and chestnut mushrooms, along with plenty of veg – carrots and celery as well as onions. And we still have thyme and rosemary growing in the garden, adding a nice homely touch. The two adaptations we made were to skip the star anise, because that sounded a bit out-of-place, and add more water than the recipe suggested – it was looking dry even before we started on the final “cook for 30 minutes” stage, so I filled the empty tomato-tin with water and added that.

The result – delicious! Provided, of course, that you like mushrooms…