Writing Portfolio


A visit to a ruined manor house in the Cotswolds

In the Cotswolds, the ruins of a medieval manor house can be found by the banks of the Windrush, a tributary of the Thames. Minster Lovell Hall is located behind St Kenhelm’s church in the Oxfordshire village of Minster Lovell (located between Burford and Witney) and it’s a pleasant place to visit and wander among the ruins if the weather’s nice. The place was built in or around 1440 and was used as a manor house until the mid-eighteenth century, after which is was partly dismantled and abandoned. The ruins are listed and administered by English Heritage, but there’s no charge to visit.

The original owners, after whom the hall and the village are named, were the Lovell family. The most interesting member of this noble family is the last of them, Francis Lovell, the ninth Baron Lovell who lived at the time of the Wars of the Roses. He was a friend of Richard, Duke of Gloucester – to whom he was also linked by marriage, their respective wives being cousins. Richard had him knighted in 1481, and when he seized power and became King Richard III two years later he upgraded the Lovell peerage; it was as the first Viscount Lovell that Francis held the Sword of State at his friend’s coronation. Lovell’s closeness to the King resulted in him being mentioned in a famous piece of doggerel which was posted on the door of St Paul’s Cathedral by a Lancastrian supporter in 1484:

“The Catte, the Ratte and Lovell our dogge rulyth all Englande under a hogge.”

To explain: the ‘hogge’ refers to Richard himself, his personal badge being a white boar. Lovell is of course ‘Lovell our dogge’, his coat-of-arms having included a silver wolf. The ‘catte’ and the ‘ratte’ were two of Richard III’s other principal supporters, Sir William Catesby and Sir Robert Ratcliffe.

Naturally, the fates of the King’s main followers were intertwined with his own. Richard III, as is well known, was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire on 22nd August 1485 – the last King of England to die in battle; what happened to his body afterwards would remain a mystery until 2012, when his remains were found underneath a Leicester car park. Ratcliffe died on the battlefield with his king, while Catesby survived, only to be captured and subsequent executed by the victorious Lancastrians (a notable descendant of his was Robert Catesby, one of the leaders of the Gunpowder Plot).

Lovell also fought at Bosworth, following which he was able to evade capture. He went on to become a leading figure in the Yorkist revolts that plagued the early part of Henry VII’s reign. He’s reckoned to have been behind an attempt to have Henry murdered at York in 1486, and a year later he played a leading role in the attempt to put the pretender Lambert Simnel on the throne – an attempt that came to an end at the battle of Stoke Field in June of that year. Lovell survived that battle too, but after that he disappears from the pages of history.

Some said that he lived in hiding for many years afterwards – and it is at this point that the history of Minster Lovell Hall crosses into legend. In 1708, the skeleton of a man was found in a secret chamber at Minster Lovell Hall, and it was assumed that that was the skeleton of Francis himself – who, so the story goes, hid out at his ancestral home with only one faithful servant who knew that he was there; the plan was that Lovell would be kept under lock and key with the servant bringing him food. Unfortunately for him, the servant died without letting slip about his master and so Lovell, locked in and with no-one left to bring him food, starved to death. It’s an interesting tale but it does seem unlikely, as Francis Lovell’s estates were forfeit after Bosworth, with the hall being given to Henry VII’s uncle, Jasper Tudor. Hardly somewhere for a Yorkist fugitive to go into hiding.

I was also interested in the place because the hall also has a literary association, playing a key role in John Buchan’s historical adventure The Blanket of the Dark which is set in the Cotswolds during the reign of Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII. This story, not one of Buchan’s better-known works but still highly readable if you like historical fiction and can get hold of a second-hand copy (I got an old Penguin one, original retail price 2s 6d), concerns a young Oxford scholar by the name of Peter Pentecost who is told that he is in fact the son of the Duke of Buckingham (Edward Stafford, who in real life was executed for treason in 1521). Buchan was always a master of describing the countryside in which his stories were set, and with The Blanket of the Dark he showed that he was as at home in rural Oxfordshire (for many years he lived in Elsfield, about three miles north of Oxford; his ashes are buried in the churchyard there) as he was in his native Scottish Lowlands. The ordinary people who appear in the novel – beggars, small farmers, foresters and suchlike – are treated with a high degree of empathy and, as is the case with Katrine in Witch Wood, there’s an intriguing but ultimately elusive love interest (as they usually are in Buchan’s novels).

Like many a fictional character before and since, Peter Pentecost gets caught up in events that he cannot hope to control; at the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace, he becomes the subject of an ill-fated plot to put him on the throne which climaxes when king and pretender meet face-to-face at an abandoned Minster Lovell Hall after the latter has rescued the former from an over-flowing Windrush. Henry is portrayed in less-than-flattering fashion, with Buchan adding some compelling descriptions of him: “the face was vast and red as a new ham, a sheer mountain of a face … this vast being had the greatness of some elemental force … power of Mammon, power of Antichrist, power of the Devil, maybe, but something born to work mightily in the world”. The Blanket of the Dark is a really good, perhaps even great, work of historical fiction that, although Henry VIII does make an appearance, focuses more on the ordinary people of rural England (the Cotswolds, specifically) than on high intrigue; this is at heart a story of what Buchan succinctly called “a world of which there has never been a chronicle, the heaths and forests of old England”, and it’s the better for it.


Home-made pork scratchings

We had some pork rind in the freezer recently, and wondered if we could use it to make pork scratchings.

These are traditionally a pub snack (most pubs sell them by the packet along with crisps and peanuts), thought to have originated in the West Midlands. They probably date back to times when many families kept their own pigs as a source of food, and as they didn’t want to waste any part of the animal they would fry and eat the offcuts of fat and skin. I’ve always found that you never know what you’re going to get in a bag of Mr Porky’s – they’ll either be too soft or hard enough to break your teeth, with not much in between.

Can one do home-made ones? Yes, one can. There are various recipes online, and they don’t have to involve deep-frying. Thanks to the Internet, we found a Jamie Oliver one that couldn’t be more simple – all I needed to do was score the fat, rub ground-up fennel seeds and salt into it, cut it up into chunks and place on a roasting-tray in the oven.

After about an hour, we had our own home-made pork scratchings! More consistent than the pub ones. Alas, they were so tasty that they did not last long…


Life of Brian: the Aberystwyth sub-plot

With Good Friday coming up, our thoughts turned to movies – how about a suitably Biblical film? We were thinking of going to see Mary Magdalene, but it would appear that that’s not showing anywhere near us (apart from a midday screening with subtitles down at the Phoenix), so perhaps not. I then thought that it would be fun to dig out a DVD from our collection – Life of Brian or, to give it its full title, Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

We’ve seen it loads of times, of course. The 1979 Monty Python film is a classic and I can quote quite a few of the lines should I so desire (“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”, “I’m Brian and so’s my wife”, etc, etc). I can tell you a few random facts about it, too: George Harrison put up the money for it (thus leading to the formation of Hand Made Films, through which the ex-Beatle also funded movies like Mona Lisa and Withnail & I);Spike Milligan made a cameo appearance after the Python team found out that he happened to be on holiday down the road from where they were filming; and Michael Palin later revisited the scene of his ‘crucifixion’ in Tunisia when doing his 2002 travelogue Sahara (or to give it its full title, Sahara with Michael Palin).

Life of Brian is about one Brian of Nazareth, an ordinary guy living in first-century Roman-occupied Judea who was born in the stable next to the one in which Jesus was born and who gets mistaken for the Son of God. Due to its content the film was highly controversial at the time – to many, it was seen to be blasphemous although that may well be based on the mistaken assumption that Brian was meant to be a send-up of Jesus. They are actually shown to be two different characters in the film (when Jesus is shown – as a minor character, like Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – he is played with respect in the Sermon on the Mount scene, with the humour coming from the people in the crowd who mis-hear what he says). This in turn leads one to assume that some of those who protested against the film, by way of picketing outside cinemas that were showing it, had not actually seen it. Michael Palin, by the way, was highly amused by the fact that the protesters included banner-carrying nuns, which makes one think of that episode of Father Ted where Ted and Dougal stage a half-hearted protest outside their local cinema when it shows a blasphemous film that’s been banned everywhere else, which only serves to let everyone know about the film and draw in the crowds. Certainly in the real-life case of Life of Brian, the protests did serve to give the film more publicity than it might otherwise have had.

Terry Jones, who directed Life of Brian, has always denied that it was blasphemous. He said that it was doubtless heretical, because it poked fun at religious dogma and the interpretation of religious belief, but not blasphemous as it didn’t attack religious belief itself.

Be that as it may, it’s reckoned that over 30 local authorities in the UK either banned it outright or insisted that the film carry an X-certificate, which amounted to the same thing (prior to 1982 in this country, an 18-certificate was called an X-certificate; Life of Brian had been given an AA-certificate, meaning that it could be seen by anyone who was 14 or over, and the distributors said it couldn’t be shown unless it had the original certification that had been given to it by the British Board of Film Censors). It’s been claimed that some of the councils which banned it didn’t actually have any cinemas within their boundaries, so as with those protesters who hadn’t seen the film there may well have been some righteous (or perhaps self-righteous) jumping-on-the-bandwagon going on. A few counties – most notably the Republic of Ireland and Norway – also banned it. Some of the bans lasted for decades, and it is arguable that the film got as much free publicity from the bans as it did from the protests.

One British local authority that banned Life of Brian was Torbay. It wasn’t until 2008 that the council permitted the film to be shown in the borough (which covers the Devon coastal towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham), and even then it was only because the film won an online vote at the English Riviera International Comedy Film Festival. A similar story followed in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth. Like many a British local authority, Aberystwyth Town Council works on the ‘Buggins’s turn’ principal when it comes to the question of who gets to be the mayor, meaning that it’s done by rotation – if a councillor on the ruling party (or ruling coalition) is there for long enough, chances are that he or she will at some point get to serve as mayor for a year, after which it’s someone else’s turn.

In Aberystwyth in 2008, it was the turn of Cllr Sue Jones-Davies. Before going into local politics, she had been an actress – and, among other things, she’d been in Life of Brian as Judith Iscariot (a member of the People’s Front of Judea – not the Judean People’s Front – who becomes Brian’s love interest). On becoming the mayor, she found out that Life of Brian was apparently still banned in the town. Naturally, she decided to overturn the ban by showing a charity screening. As it happened, she had remained friends with Terry Jones and so invited him along; his response was to ask if he could bring Michael Palin along too, which was of course agreed to! The screening happened in March 2009 and a fun time was had by all (how could an event attended by Terry Jones and Michael Palin not be fun?), and as well as raising money for good causes it also had the benefit of generating some publicity for Aberystwyth.

Funnily enough, though, there’s a little twist. As Aberystwyth was getting ready for the screening and the visit of two ex-Pythons, someone at the university did a bit of research and found that Aberystwyth Town Council had never actually banned Life of Brian. Council records show that they discussed banning it, but in the end they didn’t enforce a ban. Life of Brian was in fact shown in an Aberystwyth cinema in 1981. Still, the story of an actress-turned-mayor overturning the decades-old ban of a film she was in is a good one – perhaps too good to let the facts get in the way. Actually, it brings to mind a quote from a different film entirely – “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.


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 his brother is therefore higher than ever when the manuscript of Will’s 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, with emphasis on 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