Writing Portfolio

28.2.13

Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow



For around twenty years, I have listed Bernard Cornwell as one of my favourite authors. The other month I finished reading Death of Kings, the latest instalment in his ‘Saxon’ series which is worth a read if you like novels that you can come away from with the feeling that you’ve actually learned something interesting as a result of having read them.

Bernard Cornwell’s novels usually centre around an honest man of action who has little time for political scheming, and in this series the hero/narrator is Uhtred, a Saxon who was brought up as a Viking but who fights (somewhat reluctantly) for Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and the one man standing between the Vikings and their goal of dominating all of Britain. This has formed the basis of the series so far, but in this sixth novel the focus changes as Alfred is dying, various would-be successors are getting ready to make their bids for power and the fragile truce between Wessex and the Vikings is about to fall apart.

Alfred the Great has somewhat fallen out of favour with whoever decides what should be part of the history curriculum in schools (in which there’s a big gap between the Romans and 1066), even though his story is integral to the formation of what would come to be England. But Cornwell’s Alfred is no warrior king. His take on Alfred as a sickly scholar who is very much the ‘brains behind the operation’ is an good one, and having the narrator as a pagan – in contrast to the pious Alfred – allows the author to explore more fully the struggle between Christianity and paganism that he started on in the Warlord trilogy – a reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends which I still think is Cornwell’s best work. I think there’s a touch of the pagan in Cornwell, as the Christians of his stories are portrayed in a rather negative light. Although it clearly inspires some of the characters to do great things, organised religion is portrayed here as a force for intolerance, pomposity and repression (over the course of Death of Kings, Uhtred manages to infuriate and poke fun at several clergymen to good comic effect). In a sense, therefore, there’s something very modern about these books even though they’re set in the Dark Ages.

One of Cornwell’s more shorter works is the blurb that features on the cover of every edition of every Simon Scarrow novel, in which he is quoted as saying ‘I really don’t need this kind of competition’. Simon Scarrow has been around for over a decade now, during the course of which he has produced the ‘Eagle’ series of novels about Macro and Cato, a pair of Roman soldiers who, although initially mismatched (bluff veteran and younger, more thoughtful man who is mentored in the ways of soldiering by said veteran) become firm and trusted friends. Their adventures have taken them to various parts of the Roman Empire of the mid-first century AD and supporting characters have included Vespasian, Boadicea, St Peter (I kid you not) and Narcissus, the imperial secretary to the Emperor Claudius who serves as a scheming proto-spymaster who gets our heroes to do his dirty work despite the fact that they’d much rather be doing some good, honest soldiering (shades of Bernard Cornwell here).

No novel set in the past can truly escape the time at which it is written, and this applies to novels about the Romans as much as it does to those about the Saxons. In the former, an all-conquering empire has invaded places like Britannia and Judea but is struggling to govern these unruly provinces, with the locals engaging in guerrilla-type resistance that the highly-disciplined Roman army is unable to deal with as effectively as it can deal with its enemies in a proper battle. As such, some people are coming to the conclusion that it would be better to withdraw from such places. The plot of one of the earlier books, When the Eagle Hunts, centres around the kidnapping of a general’s family by a group of religious fanatics (Druids in this case, but the modern parallel is obvious).

The eleventh and latest in this series, Praetorian, takes us to the heart of Rome itself as our heroes go undercover as ordinary soldiers to join the Praetorian Guard in order to root out a conspiracy against the Emperor. As a result, this is a little different from the other books as Macro and Cato become immersed in espionage and politics. There’s less fighting than usual and more sneaking around and talking in whispers, and when there is fighting it’s in the form of street brawls rather than pitched battles. There are a few points where one gets the impression of this being a thriller that just happens to be set in Ancient Rome – the novel begins with a well-planned heist, and at one stage a couple of characters need to be taken out of the city quickly and someone says he’s got a horse-and-cart in a lock-up down the road that can be used. There are also a few light-hearted moments, such as when Narcissus wonders why there isn’t a (Latin) word for that feeling of superiority you get when you hear of someone else’s misfortune.

The Emperor at the heart of the action is Claudius. Rather like Alfred the Great, we have become accustomed to a certain idea of what he was like as a person. Thanks largely to Robert Graves (author of I Claudius) and Derek Jacobi (who played Claudius in the TV adaptation of Graves’s novel), we think of him as a man who, thanks to a stutter and a pronounced limp, is written off by everyone as a fool, but beneath the bumbling exterior he is in fact very intelligent and he eventually becomes a surprisingly effective emperor. There’s some of that in Scarrow’s interpretation, although his Claudius is more reflective of the Claudius of Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars – over-reliant on advisers, manipulated by those around him and something of a dirty old man. Waiting to take over is his adopted son, Nero, shown here as a thoughtful youngster rather than the murderous tyrant he would become.

Macro and Cato will return, we are assured, and when they do they’ll be back with the legions in Britannia so it looks as though Scarrow wants to return to the successful formula of his earlier books. In the meantime, his latest novel, due out in paperback later this year, is about an English knight at the siege of Malta. I can’t wait.

15.2.13

The symbol of East Finchley



It seems that this is a year for anniversaries. Our local volunteer-run newspaper is celebrating twenty years of reporting on East Finchley, and the London Underground is now 150 years old. You don’t have to look very far to spot the link between the two.

For over seventy years, the iconic archer statue has overlooked the Tube station and the suburb, becoming the symbol of East Finchley. ‘Archie’ has inspired the names of our local paper and the new free school, features on the benches on the High Road and even represented the London Borough of Barnet on one of a series of 2012 Olympics commemorative pin-badges.

“Brilliantly sited, fantastically realised, impishly styled and enduringly relevant, the archer sums up pretty much everything worth celebrating about the Underground,” says blogger Ian Jones, whose study of the Tube’s “finest features, sensations and oddities” has become an online hit.

There has been a station at East Finchley since 1867, when a railway linking Finsbury Park and Edgware opened. This later had branch lines to High Barnet and Alexandra Palace added and came under the control of London Transport in the 1930s, when the plan was to electrify the railway and make it a part of the Northern Line. This was just a part of the Northern Heights plan, under which the line would also be extended north from Edgware, from which trains would be able to run trains south via both Highgate and Golders Green. Highgate station was to become a multi-level station with the original (and still visible) ground-level platforms being used as well as new underground ones. To facilitate this, East Finchley needed to have four platforms as trains would be running south at both ground level and in the tunnel which was being extended north from Archway, the Northern Line’s original terminus (which was originally called Highgate but had its name changed in 1939 to avoid confusion with Highgate station).

The plan was certainly ambitious, and it took a combination of the Second World War and post-war Green Belt legislation to ensure that it was only partly realised. The line north of Edgware never happened, although you can still see the remains of what was going to be Brockley Hill station by the A41. Of the line between Finchley Central and Edgware, just the spur out to Mill Hill East was retained, and that was only as a matter of wartime expediency due to that station’s close proximity to Mill Hill barracks.

One part of the plan that did come to pass before the war put a stop to things was the rebuilding of East Finchley station with its four platforms, two of which are largely redundant now as the multi-level Highgate station (see above) didn’t become reality. The architect was Charles Holden (1875-1960), the man responsible for many of the Tube’s strikingly art deco stations that were built during the inter-war period.

He wanted several of the new or rebuilt stations on the Northern Line to have statues, and the sculptor Eric Aumonier (1899-1974) was commissioned in June 1939 to produce the East Finchley archer which, due to the war, was the only one to be completed. The decision to have him in a kneeling position, looking like he has just fired an arrow down the line to the entrance of what was then the longest railway tunnel in the world and still is the longest on the Tube (17.3 miles via the Bank branch), was deliberate. As a London Transport staff publication noted at the time: “It is more than a decorative device – it is powerful symbolism.”

As well as pointing out that Tube travel is fast and direct, the statue commemorates the fact that what is now East Finchley used to be a part of the ancient Forest of Middlesex and was the Bishop of London’s hunting ground in the Middle Ages. Further evidence of this can be seen locally in various street and pub names (Bishop’s Avenue, the Bald Faced Stag), and on the old Finchley Borough Council coat of arms which is visible on the fa├žade of East Finchley Library.

Unveiled on 22nd July 1940, Archie is almost twice natural size and was made from six hundredweight (672 lbs, or just over 300 kg) of beech timber round a steel armature (whatever that is), covered by sheet lead. The bow was made by bending English ash with steam and coating it with copper and gilt. It’s reckoned that the sculpture was constructed in three sections which were assembled on-site.

As for his arrow, it is said that this was located at the other end of the tunnel (Morden) but it was stolen. However, as Morden station – another Holden design – predated the rebuilding of East Finchley station by over a decade, I suspect that this is an urban myth.

(NB: This piece is a significantly extended version of an article I wrote for The Archer which appears in the February 2013 edition.)

8.2.13

Rewriting history?

Poor old Tony Robinson. For almost two decades, he’s fronted a TV show which has seen him and a handful of archaeologists unearthing various old coins and bits of pottery in trenches dug in a variety of fields throughout the United Kingdom. Then, as soon as said show gets cancelled, a woman with a fixation about Richard III has a premonition about a car park in Leicester and is able to get sufficient funding from some equally-fixated friends to arrange for the University of Leicester to conduct an archaeological dig in said car park. On the first day of the dig, they find human bones which turn out to be the bones of the man they’re looking for. That never happened on Time Team.


Last Monday, the bones were officially confirmed to be the earthly remains of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, the last King of England to be killed in battle and, it’s safe to say, one of this country’s most controversial rulers. For all of the talk about history being about more than the study of famous dead men, there’s nothing like the discovery of the bones of a famous dead man to get people to pay attention. And in the evening, we had a lengthy documentary on Channel Four called Richard III: The King in the Car Park which told the full story behind the dig and the identification process.


The emphasis varied between the serious stuff outlined above, clips of Laurence Olivier with a false nose and a cushion stuffed up the back of his doublet reciting lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III, and the woman who’d had the premonition. In fact, her fixation with Richard III turned out to be a full-blown obsession with clearing his name (such people, it seems, are called ‘Ricardians’).


Although mildly interesting, this did detract from the more serious business of identifying the remains; carbon-dating put them in the right time period, analysis of the skull proved that this was someone who’d met with a violent end and a modern-day descendant who could provide a DNA match was found. Such is modern technology that the experts were even able to identify which wounds had been inflicted posthumously as ‘humiliation wounds’, which goes to show while battlefield technology has undoubtedly changed over the past 500 years, some attitudes have not.


This was presented by a comedian/actor I’d never heard of who tried to liven things up with the occasional attempt at a Shakespearean quote – not a smart move when the viewers have just seen a clip of Olivier doing it properly – and a few choice quotes of his own (‘if that isn’t Richard III, that is one unlucky monk!’). I cannot help thinking that Tony Robinson would’ve done a better job – if only because he’s had plenty of experience of explaining archaeology to the viewers and he has form on this particular time period, having made a pretty good fist of questioning the legitimacy of Edward IV for a Channel Four documentary back in 2004. Maybe the people at Channel Four didn’t think that filming an archaeological dig in a city-centre car park which was happening thanks to an enthusiastic and eccentric amateur was sufficient reason to wheel him out. I guess they didn’t anticipate that they’d find the actual bones – which just goes to show that you never can tell.


Does this, as has been claimed, change or rewrite history? Not really. It ties up a couple of loose ends – we now know what happened to Richard’s body after the battle, and we know that the Tudor-era propaganda about his physical appearance had some (but not much) basis in fact. It will no doubt re-ignite the historical debate about Richard (probably along the ‘good king or bad king’ lines which mark out the debate on, say, King John), but it doesn’t change what happened.


For example, it does not change the fact that Richard III is still the most likely suspect in the mystery over the disappearance of his two nephews (the Princes in the Tower) in 1483; of the various people who have been suggested as being behind their murder, he definitely had the motive, the means and the opportunity to have them killed.


It doesn’t change the fact that after a reign of just two years, Richard lost his kingdom to a man who would go on to found his own dynasty, and who is (via a daughter who was married off to Scottish royalty) the ancestor of today’s Royal Family. The notion of history being written by the winners is certainly true of the posthumous treatment of Richard (Shakespeare’s play was based on a book by Thomas More), although what the Ricardians do not appear to have realised is that, without Shakespeare, few people would’ve heard of Richard III.


Trying to counter the Shakespearean image of Richard III with a whitewash won’t help. Medieval history wasn’t my particular area of expertise but what I can say is that no historical figure can really be seen in such black-or-white terms – eulogise or demonise if you like, but if you do you’ll never get to see the full person. There are only ever varying shades of grey.