The Mapmaker by Frank G Slaughter

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This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book set in Portugal, which was a bit problematic, as there isn’t a lot of English language historical fiction set in Portugal and I’ve read pretty much all of it!  However, I did find this.  It turned out that only part of it was set in Portugal, and, in this disastrous tennis season, I kept getting distracted into reading up on medieval Mallorcan mapmakers, but never mind.

This book’s an interesting mixture of the work of real life cartographers under the auspices of the Portuguese prince now known as Henry the Navigator, some quite detailed information about navigational techniques of the time; things probably believed to be true when the novel was written (in the 1950s) but now doubted, notably the existence of a school of navigation at Sagres; stories and theories about the Americas being discovered by the Venetians long before Columbus; legends which the characters believe but the reader isn’t meant to (all the Prester John stuff); and Boys’ Own adventure stuff.   That sounds rather strange, but I did really enjoy it!

Our hero is the Venetian cartographer and navigator Andrea Bianco, who was a real person and is best known for his 1436 atlas showing “the island of Antillia”, which some people believe to be mythical but others believe to be the coast of Florida – although, in this book, the native inhabitants refer to it as “Acuba”, so possibly the reader’s meant to think that it’s Cuba.  There are various theories about Venetian sailors having reached the Americas in the early 15th century, and we just don’t know whether or not they’re true.

In this book, Andrea’s working for Henry the Navigator, alongside various Mallorcan Jews or conversos who were amongst the leading cartographers of the time, and he holds the secret of measuring latitude.  He’d been captured by Turks and held as a slave, during which time he not only learnt how to measure latitude but travelled to China and Japan.  However, at the start of the book, he escapes during a storm and is fortuitously rescued by a wealthy Portuguese man and his beautiful daughter, Leonor.  It transpires that his dastardly half-brother was plotting against him and was the reason he was captured.  The said dastardly half-brother then makes it impossible for him to stay in Venice, so off he goes to Portugal, where he soon gets in with Henry, and joins a voyage to the coast of Africa.  We get some distressing scenes of slaves being bought from African slave traders and brought to Portugal, with the Church preaching that this is all to the good and it’ll save their souls: however, Andrea stands out against this, and any slaves assigned to him are immediately set free.  He also makes it clear that the Turks and Arabs are far more advanced in their knowledge of navigation than any Europeans are, and that the ancient Phoenicians were too.

Off they go on another voyage, to the Canary Islands, but things go wrong and they end up in the Sargasso Sea.   We do know that Portuguese ships at this time did reach the Sargasso Sea, but, here, our ship ends up in “Antillia”.   There are various adventures, in which our hero saves the life of the beautiful Leonor, who for some inexplicable reason has come along on the voyage, and eventually, thanks largely, of course, to Andrea, they make it back to Portugal.  At this point, the dastardly half-brother reappears and tries to kill him, but Andrea manages to escape – of course.  The dastardly one gets his come-uppance, and Andrea walks off into the sunset with the beautiful Leonor.

So it’s a bit daft in parts, but the information about navigational techniques is genuinely interesting.  The idea that the Portuguese reached the Americas before Columbus but Henry hushed it up to avoid distracting attention from his plans in Africa, which is how things are explained here, is highly unlikely; but could the Venetians have got there first?  Well, you never know!  And this is a Boys’ Own book for adults, rather than books by, say, G A Henty, which are clearly aimed at children, so it was something different!

 

Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Palace Theatre, Manchester

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Having seen the iconic 1971 film about a zillion times, not least because it was about the only video that my primary school possessed, I wasn’t sure how this was going to translate to the stage, but it really was very good.  Some new songs had been added in, but I think most people were waiting for the old favourites.   The Portobello Road scene was superb, and giving the MC fish in the Beautiful Briny Ballroom a Blackpool accent really was a very clever touch 🙂 .

They managed very well with the flying bed, but the animals’ football match was missed out, possibly because it would have been too difficult to show on stage.  This wasn’t a megabucks production like The Lion King, and a lot of it was done with puppets and or cast members coming on stage to spin motorbike wheels, hold things up etc – but it did work fine.   Great performances from all the cast, especially the children – they’re big parts for little ones.  Oh, but, before anyone asks, no, they did not include the infamous “What’s that got to do with my knob?” line.  Spoilsports!!

Unlike in the film, they did actually show the bombings, they spelt out the fact that the children’s parents had been killed in the Blitz, and we saw the eldest boy being very reluctant to go back to London.  I thought that that worked very well.  But no-one ever actually referred to the Nazis, just to “the enemy”; there was no mention of the professor joining the Home Guard; and, most bizarrely of all, we were suddenly informed at the end that the entire plot had been a product of the children’s imagination and that they were still waiting for Miss Price to collect them from the local evacuation co-ordinator.  I have no idea what that last bit was in aid of, so I shall just try to forget about it!  Other than that, it was very good.

This was my first visit to the theatre since February 2020.  I did book to go to the pantomime last year, but the Evil Tier restrictions meant that it got cancelled.  We were asked to show Covid passes at the door.  There’s been a lot of muttering about spot checks at football matches but I’ve never been checked yet, and I don’t know anyone who has, but everyone was asked at the theatre.  This is something that’s up to individual theatres.   It was a bit strange, but I was OK with it.  However, I wasn’t very impressed that only one in nine people (and, yes, I was sad enough to count) on the bus into town had a mask on, despite there being clear signs up saying “Please wear a face covering on board”.  Come on, folks, could we Do Our Bit, please?  It’s really not that much of a hassle to wear a mask on a local journey.  \lecture

Great to be back at the theatre, great to be seeing a brand new production, and great to hear some much-loved songs belted out on stage.  All in all, a very good night!

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

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   As the title suggests, this is a novel about Cecily Neville, Duchess of York.  There’ve been a number of novels in recent years about or featuring Cecily (contrary to what the blurb says about her being overlooked!), but this is a particularly readable one.  We follow Cecily from the early years of her marriage to Richard of York up to their son Edward becoming king – through their time in France, their time in Ireland (where some interesting points were made about Richard, as Henry VII would do later, playing on his Celtic connections to win support), and the tangled politics of the English court as we head into the Wars of the Roses – and the text is full of historical facts and detail without ever seeming too academic for a novel.

We also very much see her as a woman, coping with multiple pregnancies, miscarriage, the loss of children in infancy, and worries about her surviving children.  We see her ambition for Edward and her concern about finding husbands for her daughters, and, of course, her relationship with her husband and with her siblings and other family members.

And what I particularly liked was that the author clearly assumes that the reader knows all about what’s to come.  Jacquetta Woodville plays a big part in this book, with the impression being that she and Cecily were long-term frenemies, and that Cecily and possibly even Edward would have known Elizabeth Woodville as a child.  I’m not sure that that’s entirely accurate (!), although all the main historical events shown are accurately portrayed; but it was interesting to see Jacquetta woven into the story, and also several references to Eleanor Talbot, the woman to whom Richard would later claim that Edward was secretly engaged when he married Elizabeth.

We’re also told that Richard would have quite liked a big christening for Edward, but that Cecily, very nervous after their first son had tragically died shortly after birth a day earlier, was worried about tempting fate and just wanted it done quickly and quietly.  No reference is made to the absurd story that Edward’s real father was an archer called Blaybourn and that that was why the christening was so quiet, but the author clearly wants to make it obvious that she thinks that that story’s nonsense, and assumes that the reader will understand what she’s doing.

Oddly, though, given all that, there’s only one brief reference to the birth of Margaret Beaufort, none at all to her marriage to Edmund Tudor and the birth of their son, and, although we’re told about the birth of Isabel Neville, no mention was made of Anne.  There’s quite a bit of scandalmongering, though, about Edmund Beaufort senior being the real father of Edmund Tudor (which I don’t believe for a moment) and Edmund Beaufort junior being the real father of Henry VI’s son Edward (which, let’s face it, is quite likely).

Marquerite of Anjou is vilified.  I really do feel sorry for that woman!   I think, in forty years or so of reading historical fiction, I’ve read one novel which was positive about her.  What was she supposed to do, married to someone who, for medical reasons, wasn’t fit to be king?  But, OK, the book is written from Cecily’s viewpoint, and plenty of other people are vilified too!

The fifteenth century is a controversial period in English history, and people will have their own views on the events and personalities of the time, but this is a really, really good historical novel, and particularly impressive given that it’s the author’s first book.  My one big quibble is that it’s written in the present tense, which is OK for reviews 🙂 but a bit infantilising for books.  Other than that, highly recommended.

The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam

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(To mark Black History Month.)  This is written as a novel, but it’s the story of the author’s grandmother’s life in Ethiopia, a country which I always think of as being very interesting.  All that rich history and culture.  The Lost Ark stories (sorry, Indiana Jones, but the Lost Ark legend belongs to Ethiopia, not Egypt).  The fascinating figure of Haile Selassie, the African emperor, claiming descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who came to be seen as a messianic figure by a movement half the world away in Jamaica … and was friends with Sylvia Pankhurst.   And, sadly, the many difficulties of recent times – the Red Terror, the famine of the 1980s, the war with Eritrea, and now the tragedy of both war and famine in the Tigray area.

The family in the book are how I thought of Ethiopia, i.e. Amharic-speaking and Oriental Orthodox.  I was a bit wide of the mark there.  Ethiopia has five official languages, of which the most widely-spoken is actually Oromo;  the Pentecostal church has made significant inroads in recent years, and, because of the large ethnic Somali population, over a third of Ethiopians are Muslim.  That was generally how it went as I read the book and looked things up: I’d got a general idea, but not the detail, and I hadn’t got it quite right.  I knew about the Ethiopian Jews, but hadn’t realised just how significant a minority they were in this particular region.  Obviously I knew about the Mahdists, but in terms of Gordon of Khartoum and Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman, not so much about their invasion of Ethiopia.  Again, obviously I knew about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, but not much about life within Abyssinia/Ethiopia during that period.

I didn’t know that slavery wasn’t abolished in Ethiopia until the 1940s, despite earlier British and Italian pressure.  And I honestly hadn’t realised just how bad things were under the socialist junta of Mengistu & co: there are very distressing descriptions of some of the atrocities they committed.  So I’ve learnt a lot from reading this – about the history, and also about the culture, the traditions, and the lives of women.  It really is a very good book, and I would strongly recommend it.

Yetemegnu, the protagonist, was born in 1916 and died in 2012, and spent her life in and around the city of Gondar.  So she wasn’t born until after the Mahdists were defeated, and after Ethiopia had gained territory in the Scramble for Africa – no, that wasn’t just about European countries.  We follow her life through the Italian occupation, the Allied East Africa campaign, the ups and downs of Haile Selassie’s reign and the eventual end of the monarchy, and the horrors of the civil war and the Red Terror, through to the end of the 20th century.

It’s very much an Ethiopian book.  No mention of the Rastafarians and no mention of Sylvia Pankhurst!   But the author herself, brought up in Ethiopia by an Ethiopian father and a Canadian mother, says that she herself had to do a lot of research before writing it, partly because some things weren’t spoken about and partly because little had been written about culture, tradition and religious beliefs.  There’s a lot of fascinating material about all those aspects of the life of an Orthodox, Amharic woman.  Be aware that some of it, notably how her husband could get away with being violent to her, is quite upsetting.

But this isn’t the image of Ethiopia that might spring to mind to those of us who grew up in the 1980s.  There are references to the famine, but it doesn’t really impact on Yetemegnu and her family.  Her husband, although he eventually fell foul of Haile Selassie’s regime and was arrested, was a senior priest and later a judge.  Her children attend boarding schools, and some of them travel abroad – the author’s father to work as a doctor in Canada, some of his siblings to Warsaw Pact countries.   One major theme of the book is the family’s struggles to hold on to their land under communist nationalisation programmes, and we also see how, in the early years, they claim tribute from the local Muslim and Jewish communities.

It really is fascinating, and reading a book like this feels so much more positive than reading many of the books I’ve seen advertised for Black History Month, which seem to be largely focused on people accusing each other of racism.

There’s a lot of shouting and accusation and virtue-signalling going on at the moment about how schools should be teaching more black history, women’s history, LGBT history, etc etc.  My school had an excellent history department, but, in the first three years, we had two 40-minute history lessons a week, and, after that, some kids dropped history completely.  With the best will in the world, history teachers can only cover so much in such a small amount of time.  There are books and other resources out there.  A bit less moaning, and a bit more reading, would go a long way.

This is a great book!

The Larkins – ITV

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This seems to have been a mixed reaction to this, but I rather liked it.   It was like The Durrells: no-one was saying that it was particularly intellectually challenging, or even particularly realistic, but it was a welcome bit of comfortable, easy viewing.  Given that practically every programme these days begins with a warning that it contains scenes which some viewers may find distressing, and ends with a list of helplines for people who have been “affected by issues raised in tonight’s episode of X”, I for one am well up for that.   It’s going to be very hard to match up to the iconic David Jason/Pam Ferris/Catherine Zeta Jones series from, unbelievably, thirty years ago, and it *didn’t* manage that,  but it was all right.  The TV listings seem to be filled with series about murder, domestic abuse, children being abducted, and so on, and even soap operas are filled with doom and gloom.  This is a bit of light relief.  Bring it on!

I don’t know about nostalgia for the 1950s, but I would certainly love to get back to a time when aggressive, abusive people didn’t try to turn absolutely everything into a culture war.  I was already feeling a bit fed up earlier, after I’d had to complain to the moderators of a children’s book discussion group I was in after two individuals tried to turn it into class war.  One of them apparently thought it was OK to object to working with anyone who had a “plummy voice” and a name “like Piers”.  Since when was it OK to hate someone just because you don’t like their accent or, for heaven’s sake, their name?!

Then I idly Googled “The Larkins”, and up came a review written by some vile individual called Sean O’Grady, for the misnamed “Independent”, saying that it was “a Brexit television abomination” and that Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries wrote “opioid atavistic tosh”.  Excuse me?   What on earth does a fictional TV series about life in a village in the 1950s have to do with either Brexit or Nadine Dorries?   O’Grady is clearly one of these bittter types who can’t accept that they aren’t entitled to get their own way on anything and everything, but what on earth has that got to do with the Larkins?  And this was in what used to be a mainstream, middle-of-the-road newspaper, not some extremist political tract!

Then there’s the debate over the fact that the Larkins live in, to quote journalist Anita Singh, a “racially diverse utopia”.  It’s completely unrealistic for a rural part of Britain in the 1950s.  But, had it not included any ethnic minority characters, people would have been shrieking about a “lack of diversity” and demanding that it be taken off air.  When the BBC showed their adaptation of A Suitable Boy, which had a predominantly Indian cast, people complained about stereotyping.  I feel sorry for scriptwriters and producers.  Whatever they do, they can’t win.  But, again, why does a bit of light Sunday evening TV have to be turned into a culture war?  Seriously, folks, just try being nice.   It’s not a crime.  Stop having a go at people.  And please stop bringing your personal political views into something to which they have absolutely no relevance!

Heigh-ho!  OK, rant over.  To get back to The Larkins, not an awful lot actually happened.  Mariette wanted to go and work as an au pair in France.  Ma and Pop weren’t keen.  Pop advised Miss Pilchester on a house sale.  Some lad upset Primrose, and Mariette had a go at him.  There was a fuss over who should be the Master of Foxhounds.  Pop bought a car.

And Ma gave Montgomery, Primrose, Zinnia and Petunia a lecture about how they always should kind and polite and treat other people with respect.  I couldn’t agree more.

 

The Secrets of Ashmore Castle by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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  I wasn’t convinced about this at first, because, whilst, the Kirov trilogy, the Morland books and the War At Home books all very much revolved around national and international events, this one was almost entirely about the personal lives of both upstairs and downstairs characters.  I did get into it, though, and will definitely be looking out for the rest of the series.  There were a few references to Edward VII’s coronation and to the Boer War, and – was this a nod to Highclere Castle, with its Downton Abbey connections 🙂 ? – Howard Carter made an appearance, but it was mainly about people’s love lives and finances, which wasn’t entirely what I’d been hoping for.  There were a few middle class characters who got involved with free libraries (which seemed oddly mid-Victorian for 1902, but still) and look as if they may get involved with the suffragettes in future books, though, so fingers crossed for some more meaty historical stuff in future books.  And it was still very enjoyable, and I’m sure it’ll be popular.

There were a lot of characters, the story kept flitting between them, and it was very much a scene setter, start of a series book.  There’s obviously a lot more to come!  The rather Enid Blyton-esque title suggested that there’d be hidden passages behind portraits with strange eyes, leading to secret mines or treasure troves.   There weren’t!   But there were a few hints at mysteries to be resolved in later books.

The basic plot (without too many spoilers – this all happened at the beginning!)  was that the Earl of Stainton had broken his neck in a hunting accident, as you do; and his son and heir therefore had to be summoned home, to Buckinghamshire, from his archaeological expedition in Egypt.  At the same time, the younger son left the Army and also came home.  And there were three daughters, one married, two not yet “out”.  Incidentally, would a Victorian earl and countess really have named two of their daughters Linda and Rachel?  The youngest was Alice, which was a fairly typical aristocratic name at the time, but Lady Linda and Lady Rachel?!   Anyway, it turned out that the estate had been badly run for years, and that the late earl had spent what money there was on his fancy woman and membership of expensive London clubs, so the best bet for the new earl was to find a rich wife.  Off he went to the London Season, where he met a wonderful girl with no money, and her sweet, shy best friend, whom he didn’t fancy but who was rolling in it.  Typical, eh?

Oh, and his grandma was still alive.  And living on Bruton Street.  Obviously this was 24 years before a certain significant birth took place in that neck of the woods, but it was mentioned that the Strathmores were her neighbours 😉 .

It seemed at first that the upper class characters were all going to be either callous or naive and the servants were all going to be either stupid and obsequious or sly and devious, but the characterisation did very much improve as the book went on, and I do want to know what happens to them all.  Don’t be expecting Gone With The Wind, but this is a nice read on a dark autumn night.

 

 

The Ballet Family Again by Mabel Esther Allan

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What a snotty book is this?!   All right, you expect a bit of snobbery in GO books, but I do *not* expect metropolitan elitism, especially in a book written by someone from the Wirral!   According to the late Ms Allan, who was from “over the water” in Wallasey, all women over 40 who live in Lancashire (specifically Rochdale, but all urban and industrial areas in general) are fat and have “worn” faces.  Oh well, that explains where I keep going wrong, doesn’t it?  Apparently, if I moved to a posh house in an expensive part of London, employed a Swiss housekeeper, and changed my name to Delphine or Pelagia, or possibly Tarn (Tarn is a name?  And, BTW, Pelagia is the name of a fish factory in Grimsby), I might become slim and glamorous.  Oh, and better-educated, and capable of much more interesting conversation.  Although probably not, because the Ballet Family’s cousin Joan Bradshaw only escapes her fate because of her genetic connection to them on her mother’s side.  Was MEA for real?!   All this might have sounded quite funny if said in a comedy sketch by the late, great, Victoria Wood, but it was obviously meant entirely seriously.  How flaming rude!!

She did redeem herself a bit by showing Joan writing a ballet set in Manchester during the Forty Five (had she been reading Harrison Ainsworth?), and calling it “Farewell, Manchester” after the song.  The first time I ever came across that song was in the letters page of the Manchester Evening News, when I was about 13, and I was rather annoyed to find that there was a historical ballad about Manchester and no-one had ever told me about it!   I think she’d got a bit confused about the route which the Jacobites took through Lancashire, though, and it was also quite frustrating that she didn’t seem to realise that Russian surnames have separate masculine and feminine forms.  However, I have to admit that I had no idea that “Lochaber no more” was an 18th century Scottish song: I thought it was just a line by The Proclaimers 🙂 !

It might not have been a bad book if it hadn’t been for all the snobbery, but I really couldn’t get past it.  I shall be sticking to Lorna Hill for ballet books.  Her characters are always delighted to get back up north!  Meanwhile, I shall go and try to lose some weight and ameliorate the worn appearance of my face by chasing the whippets and clearing the coal out of the bath …

Had it not been for the metropolitan elitism – honestly, it’s bad enough that it’s been causing divisions in the country for years, without coming across it in a GO book written nearly half a century ago! – this might have been quite a decent read.   It was about, as the title suggests, a family who involved in ballet.  It was nice to see a ballerina who’s in her 40s, married with children and still the star of the show, rather than everyone over 20 being shoved into a corner, and it was also good to see children who chose not to be involved in their parents’ professions being allowed to go their own ways.  There were some realistic storylines about teenage friendships and romances, and a bit of gentle mocking of GO tropes which was genuinely quite funny – girl falls in river but tells the admirer who rushes to save her that she’s quite capable of getting herself out, girl has accident and undergoes a personality transplant but it only lasts five minutes.

But all the snooty stuff about Joan, the cousin from Rochdale, just did my head in.  Andy Burnham was joking the other week about massing the troops at Knutsford Services.  If he ever does, LOL, he might want to hand out copies of this book to remind people what they’re marching about!!

 

 

 

 

Conquest: Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr

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  Why isn’t the fascinating Welsh Princess Nest, daughter of the last King of Deheubarth, (probably) a lover of Henry I and ancestress of the Irish Fitzgerald dynasty, better known?   There seems to have been some interest in her in Victorian times, when she was known as “the Welsh Helen” due to her abduction by a rival lord (which doesn’t actually come into this book, although it’s the first of a trilogy so presumably it’s covered in one of the later books), but she’s rarely mentioned now.

It’s a great shame.  She had a fascinating life, at a fascinating time in history.  In this book, we see Nest captured as a young girl as her father’s kingdom’s taken over by the Normans, caught up in the political entanglements as William Rufus, Robert Curthose and the future Henry I vie for the English throne, become the mistress of Henry I and bear one of his illegitimate children (which probably happened, although it’s not 100% certain), and then be married off to Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, a Norman knight who was made constable of Pembroke Castle.

It’s an overlooked period of history generally.  Everyone knows about the Battle of Hastings, but the decades which followed tend to be neglected.   Having said which, we “did” do the Normans in the first year of secondary school, but most of it was about motte and bailey castles and the daily lives of medieval monks, which, let’s say, are not the most fascinating aspects of medieval history for a class of 11-year-old girls.  Family feuds and court gossip would have been far more interesting!

This is a really enjoyable book, and, unlike certain other authors, Tracey Warr explains where she’s changed the facts slightly for the sake of the story, or where she’s filled in things which aren’t known for definite.

We see Nest, after her father’s killed and she becomes a hostage, enter the household of one of the influential Montgomery family.   That doesn’t seem to be a matter of record, and most sources suggest that Nest was taken immediately to the court of William Rufus; but certainly Nest’s time at the court of Henry I, which the book does show, is a matter of fact.  The book suggests that Henry only married Nest to Gerald to give her the position of a married woman before making her his mistress, which probably isn’t quite what happened, but it does seem likely that she was Henry’s mistress, and certainly she did marry Gerald.  And it’s all portrayed in a very readable way – Nest, Gerald, Henry and Queen Matilda are very well-characterised.

I’m definitely going to try to get hold of the second and third books, and I gather that, as with Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell, and, indeed, as with Helen and Paris, there’s a lot of debate about whether Nest was abducted or whether she ran off with Owen ap Cadogan of her own accord … sadly, it sounds to me as if she was forced, but there seems to have been a lot of debate about it at one time.  And now there isn’t: Nest has been largely forgotten.

Anyway, this is a very good book about an intriguing woman who really does deserve to be better known than she is … and it’s fairly cheap on Kindle.  Recommended!

The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey by Marcia Fine (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  This month’s Facebook reading challenge was to read a book about refugees.  There are many excellent novels about refugees.  Sadly, this is not one of them.  The fact that it got the most important date in Sephardi history wrong on the very first page was not a great start, and set the tone for the rest of the book.  Furthermore, the error was with the Hebrew date, but the characters were annoyed about being forced to use the Gregorian calendar – and, given that this was in a chapter set in 1492 and the Gregorian calendar didn’t exist until 1582, I was rather annoyed too.  But that was pretty mild compared to what happened later on, when the author seemed to get the early 16th, late 16th and mid 17th centuries all ingloriously tangled up together.

I was left with the impression that the author had heard various different stories about Sephardi history and just bunged them all in together.  It was as if, say, someone had written a book about civil wars in England and claimed that Oliver Cromwell had murdered the Princes in the Tower and then recognised Henry FitzEmpress as the heir.   What a mess!   And then people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter will read this and take it as being historically accurate, which really does irritate me.

It’s a dual timeline book.  These are very popular now.  I have no idea why.  The modern timeline involved someone who lost her job because she had a bad leg after being bitten by a horrible dog (I do sympathise over anything involving horrible dogs), went off on a three month research trip with a researcher she’d only just met, and married him.  As you do.  I wasn’t really interested in that, more in the storyline about the refugees.  However, it turned out that the refugees were actually the invention of the said researcher, who was writing a novel, which confused the issue even more.

Our two refugees, teenage aunt and illegitimate baby niece, were living in Granada, which seemed unlikely as it had only just been reconquered, and were forced to leave due to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, which was unconvincing as they were actually conversos.  And why hadn’t the niece’s mother married the father?   There seemed no reason.  However, off they went to Portugal, with their parents/grandparents.  This bit was actually quite well-written, and reasonably historically accurate, with some rather good descriptions of the forced conversions which followed when the Portuguese authorities changed their policies, and the seizure and deportation to Sao Tome of children of Jewish families.

But then it just got silly.  The parents/grandparents having died (one murder, one suicide), our two girls took ship for Brazil, where they found work on a plantation.  No, no, no!   Yes, there was significant Sephardi migration to plantations in Brazil, but not until the 1630s, when part of Brazil came under Dutch rule.  Not at the beginning of the 16th century!   Yes, a very tiny number of Sephardi refugees left for Brazil at that time, but hardly any.  If you were escaping from the Portuguese authorities, you’d hardly go to a Portuguese settlement, would you?  And there wouldn’t even have been any plantations that early.

Then the auntie eloped with a slave.  Well, that’s very likely to have happened, isn’t it?!  And, again, it was too early for slavery on plantations …. especially as it was too early for plantations, full stop.  And the niece was shipped over to Amsterdam as a mail order bride.  Where she lived happily ever after in one of Europe’s most tolerant cities – and found her long-lost mother, who’d become a nun in Castile but was transferred to Amsterdam.

Oh dear.  People moved from (what’s now) the Netherlands to Brazil, not the other way round.  And not until over 100 years later.  And Amsterdam becoming a centre where religious minorities could live in peace didn’t happen until much later on in the 16th century, after the United Provinces had declared independence from the Habsburgs.

The whole thing was just a mess.   It was like when little kids think that anyone over 30 must have lived through the Second World War, because they’ve got a concept of “the olden days” but not that “the olden days” weren’t just one amorphous mass.

Amazon informs the purchaser that “the author has carefully researched the historical events”.  I beg to differ!

The Mortymer Trilogy by Alexander Cordell

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Do people get a bit parochial about the protest movements of the early to mid 19th century?  *We* talk about Peterloo, the Great Chartist Meeting on Kersal Moor and, later, the suffragettes.  People in the East Midlands might talk about the Luddites, people in Dorset about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and so on.  Maybe we should all be paying more attention to South Wales – the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Newport Rising of 1839, the Rebecca Riots of 1839-43, and a succession of sometimes violent strikes thereafter: the last of these three books takes us right up to the early 1870s.  Even going into the 20th century, there was the Taff Vale legal case, and, later, the Tonypandy Riots and the Llanelli Riots.

They’re not exactly the most cheerful of books, because most of the characters seem to end up being killed in mining accidents, dying of cholera or being transported as convicts – although the author does try to lighten things up a little by providing extremely long descriptions of drunken nights in the pub or trying to move house by barge whilst accompanied by an incontinent donkey.   However, there’s plenty of interest in them (although I wouldn’t really include the pubs and the donkey in that).

The three books are Rape of the Fair Country, Hosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth, and we see the Mortymer and Evan families at various times working in coal mines, ironworks, as barge workers, on a farm (in order to cover the Rebecca Riots, which were mainly protesting against rural toll roads) and, finally, on the railways.

The author, despite being English himself, is rabidly anti-English, which I must say I could have done without.  He keeps making the point that a lot of the coal mine/ironworks owners were actually Welsh, and also that miners in England were treated just as badly as those in Wales, and also that some of the miners in Wales had actually come from England, but then going back to slagging off “the English” again and again.  A lot of this involves complaining about the Marquess of Bute – who was actually Scottish!   There are also a lot of anti-Irish comments, accusing Irish immigrants of accepting low wages and therefore undercutting the Welsh workforce, although those are more from the characters than the narrative. So don’t read these if you’re easily offended!   He keeps having a go at the Church of England as well.  I’m no fan of religious organisations and I would definitely have been backing disestablishment, but I’m not sure how the Church of England was to blame for miners being underpaid.  And what exactly did he think the mines in Wigan or Barnsley or Newcastle were like – a bed of roses?!

Anyway, to get back to the point, we do see a lot of English, and in particular Irish, people living in South Wales at the time, and also some Spanish people.  We see Nonconformists – including a lot of references to religious Revivalism – , Anglicans, Catholics and, perhaps surprisingly, Jews.  It’s certainly quite a mixed population – and, as so often happens, that perhaps weakened the workers’ movements, with people not always working together.  We also see splits within the families over unionism and strikes, as in How Green Was My Valley.

There’s some romance, and there are some nice descriptions of the countryside, but the mood of the books is generally angry and everyone constantly seems to be arguing, especially in the final book.  Don’t read them if you’re looking for something light and comfortable, but they’re well worth reading if you don’t mind something hard-hitting.