Court of Wolves by Robyn Young

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This is a bit like the Champions League of Tudor-era detective novels, not because it’s particularly top level (the storyline isn’t overly convincing, and Robyn Young’s books about the Crusades were much better generally) but because it features lots of big names from various different countries 🙂 .  Whilst it’s not one of the author’s best books, it’s much better than Sons of the Blood, to which it’s the sequel, and it’s worth reading for the cast list alone.

Our hero, Jack Wynter, finds himself in Florence, where he’s taken into the household of Lorenzo de Medici, gets to know the entire Medici family, meets up with Amerigo Vespucci, and rescues the future Ottoman Sultan Dzem.  Dzem – as we know from watching The Borgias 🙂 – would almost certainly have been in Rome, not Florence, but Robyn Young, unlike certain other authors, does clearly explain in an afterword where and why she’s taken slight liberties with history.  Meanwhile, Jack’s baddie half-brother, Harry Vaughan, is dispatched by Henry VII as an ambassador to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, but accidentally volunteers to join their Reconquista army, fighting alongside Edward Woodville, who did actually join the army deliberately, and considering killing Christopher Columbus but not going through with it.

I didn’t particularly enjoy Sons of the Blood, because there was way too much gratuitous violence and it included a ridiculously implausible Princes in the Tower escape plot, but this one was much better, and hopefully the third book in the trilogy will be too.

The basic idea is that Jack and Harry’s late father had a map which showed the way to what was to become known as the New World, and that he was involved in a secret society which wanted all religions to work together.  It’s not entirely clear what the two things have to do with each other, and a lot of other things aren’t entirely clear either, but presumably all the loose ends will be tied up in the third book.  This book’s quite disjointed, with Harry’s unintended adventures at the Siege of Loja, Jack’s romance with a girl in Florence, and frequent references to the Princes in the Tower not seeming to have very much to do either with the basic idea or each other, but it’s worth reading for the brilliant descriptions of both Renaissance-era Florence and Reconquista-era Andalusia, and for all the big names we meet along the way.

Incidentally, I could have lived without the Reconquista being made to sound so heroic – the destruction of the great Islamic and Jewish cultures of the Iberian peninsula was a tragedy – but, OK, we’re meant to be seeing it through the eyes of 15th century Christians.

This is definitely a distinct improvement on Sons of the Blood.  Even so, Robyn Young’s brilliant books on the Crusades, the Templars and Robert the Bruce, straight historical novels rather than having quite so much about Dan Brown about them, were much, much better; but, as I’ve said, it’s worth reading because it’s got some of the biggest names in early modern European history all in the same book.  And that rarely happens.  The Renaissance, the Reconquista and the Voyages of Discovery all tend to be taught separately at school, and books usually reflect that.  So this makes an interesting change.

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

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I was really looking forward to reading this, because it had excellent reviews, and there are very few books in English set in 17th century Spain.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the literary equivalent of something like Tracey Emin’s “unmade bed”, or one of those “modern art” paintings which look as if a toddler’s run riot with a paintbrush.  There were no speech marks anywhere in the book: any dialogue was just written as ramblings.  In fact, there was very little punctuation at all, and scant regard for grammar or syntax.  It was nearly all just written as ramblings.

Why do people write rave reviews about books like this, or the equivalent in painting or sculpture?  Do people actually enjoy reading a load of ramblings, or is it some Emperor’s New Clothes thing where no-one likes to be the one to go against the “cool” crowd?  Why is it cool to write something like this anyway?  Breaking all the rules does indeed seem very cool when you’re 12, and you’re wearing nail varnish to school and sneaking up the staffroom staircase, but I don’t see what’s praiseworthy about writing a book which is so difficult to read.  Apologies for being a fuddy-duddy, but give me some proper writing in proper English, please!

It was a great shame about the style of writing, because the subject matter was actually very interesting.  It’s extremely difficult to find books in English set in 17th century Spain, which was why I was so pleased to find this one.  I don’t know whether there’s a lingering Black Legend feeling which makes Anglophone writers avoid the subject, or whether, more likely, the courts of Charles II and Louis XIV just seem more appealing than the court of Philip IV.  The painter of the book title was Diego Velazquez, a courtier and court painter at the said court of Philip IV, but the book was far more about Philip than about Velazquez.

It assumed that you knew what was going on, which I rather liked.  Olivares wasn’t even mentioned by name: the book just referred to “the Count-Duke” and assumed that the reader would know who he was.  There was no background information about the Thirty Years’ War or the Eighty Years’ War: the reader was expected to know what was going on.  It could have been a fascinating insight into the decline of Habsburg Spain, the sad loss of so many royal children, the desperate trying for an heir, all the intermarriages, the revolts in Catalunya and Portugal, and indeed the visit of the future Charles I of England and Scotland during the “Spanish Match” negotiations.  It covered all of those subjects.

Unfortunately, it was almost unreadable because of the poor writing.  I don’t for one second think that the author couldn’t have written it in proper English had she wanted to.  She just, for whatever reason – wanting to seem arty, or avant garde, or just different – chose to dispense with grammar and punctuation.  All I can say is that I’m glad that I got a cheap copy of this book from Amazon, and didn’t pay full price!   I just do not understand why people write in this way.  What a disappointment.  Am I missing something?  I just don’t get it!

 

Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I was so excited to see a new series of this – I didn’t realise that one had been recorded pre-lockdown – in the TV schedules, and found it particularly interesting that much of the first episode was spent talking about the Spanish Civil War … largely with reference to Michael Portillo’s dad, who came to Britain as a Republican exile.  Scores of men from North West England fought in the International Brigades, and Spanish relief/aid committtees were set up all over the region; but no-one ever talks about it.  I remember once getting quite excited during a mid-1990s episode of Neighbours in which Karl Kennedy’s dad gave Billy and Toadie a lecture on the International Brigades!  It’s a subject that’s rarely discussed – except in connection with George Orwell, and we saw Michael visiting a Republican trench outside Huesca with Orwell’s son.

We also saw Michael visiting Salamanca, Avila and Madrid, all of which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, and Zaragoza, which I haven’t … yet.  And a border railway station in the Pyrenees, used as an escape route by Jews and Allied soldiers fleeing Occupied France during the war.  No-one spells Zaragoza the old English way, “Saragossa”, since Real Zaragoza had that good run in the mid-1980s.  And no-one spells Marseille with an s on the end since they got to the European Cup Final in 1991.  This is an interesting linguistic phenomenon.  It should be investigated.

Anyway.  Michael, resplendent in a yellow jacket, purple shirt and vermilion trousers – I wonder if he dresses like that when he’s not filming – started off in Salamanca, with a Bradshaw’s guidebook (everyone knows that George Bradshaw was from Salford, yes?) from 1936.  We did hear a bit about the general history of Salamanca, but this was a very personal episode and the focus was on Michael’s late dad and his time as a professor at the university there: we even saw the index cards which Franco’s government had kept on Luis Portillo Perez.  Oh, and sliced ham.  Then lovely Avila, famed for its association with St Teresa.

And then on to Madrid.  We saw quite a lot of the architecture of Salamanca and Avila, but Madrid’s too big to cover in one segment of one programme, although we did see some of its highlights.  And, again, we heard about Portillo snr.  Michael stood in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” and talked about how his parents would never have met had it not been for the bombing of Guernica.  To be fair, he did talk about the devastation it caused, as well, not just its role in his own family history!  The lady at the Museum Reina Sofia said that “Guernica” was the most important painting of the twentieth century.  There’s certainly a good case for saying that.

Then it was on to Zaragoza, capital of Aragon … and we got a mention of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Things got a bit more light-hearted here, with the requisite making-an-idiot-of-himself segment, this one involving Michael trying to join in with the Aragonese Jota dance.  But then we returned to the subject of the Civil War, with the visit to the trench at Huesca.

Finally, after a journey through some lovely countryside, Michael ended up at the Franco-Spanish border station of Canfranc, opened in 1928, at which time it was the second largest station in Europe.  It’s not used much now.  That’s rather sad.  I do love those grand old railway stations!

And I love Spain.  We’ll get back there.  One day!   I’m not sure when this was filmed, but who would have guessed that, by the time it was filmed, going to Spain and indeed travelling by train at all would have largely vanished off the menu?   Let’s just hope that this doesn’t go on for too much longer.  In the meantime, especially with so many repeats on TV due to the disruption to filming caused by the pandemic, it is wonderful to have a new series of this lovely programme!   Thoroughly enjoyed this first episode, and looking forward to the episodes to come!

The Plague (La Peste) – BBC 4 (Movistar +)

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Lots of love to everyone in Spain, where this series is set, at this difficult time; and I’m sure everyone’s thoughts are with Pep Guardiola following the sad loss of his mother to Covid-19, and also with Boris Johnson and everyone else suffering because of this horrible virus.  It’s a strange time to be watching a series about an outbreak of bubonic plague in Seville in 1597, but I’ve had it on my Sky Planner for 18 months and haven’t had chance to see it until now.

It’s really very interesting seeing how things developed.  Seville at that time had a monopoly on trade with the Americas.  Unwilling to risk losing that position to Cadiz or any other port, the merchants of the city delayed doing what they were required to do in the case of plague breaking out – closing the harbour, sealing the city off, and reporting the outbreak to the authorities in Madrid so that they could receive central funding to help deal with it.  So we can see that, although in this case they weren’t followed, there were procedures in place, because epidemics were so common then.  Quarantine stations haven’t actually been mentioned, but many ports had them until well into the 20th century.

And, as with Liverpool in the 19th century, Seville in the late 16th century had attracted huge numbers of impoverished people hoping to find passage to the New World.  Many of them were living in slums/shanty towns where the plague was quick to spread – with news in the last few days of cases in Covid-19 emerging in “slum” areas of Mumbai and in migrant camps on the Greek islands, that’s got a worrying resonance for our own times.

Getting back to the 16th century, this is a Spanish-made programme, broadcast by the BBC with English subtitles, but it’s rather Black Legend-ed itself: a big part of the storyline revolves around the Inquisition, and their treatment of one of the main characters, who’d fled the city after being caught publishing Protestant literature, but has returned to find the illegitimate son of his late friend.  There’s also a sub-plot involving a female artist trying to rescue prostitutes.  And there are a lot of murders.

This was the first of three major outbreaks of plague to hit Seville in under a century.  This one lasted on and off from 1596 to 1602, the second and worst from 1646 to 1652 – killing up to a quarter of the city’s population, as bad as the 14th century Black Death was in many countries -, and the third from 1676 to 1685.  Very, very frightening.

There’s quite a lot going on.  We’ve got our main man Mateo, who’s trying to rescue young Valerio, his friend’s son, but has again come to the attention of the Inquisition and has been told that they’ll go after him again unless he helps to solve the mysterious murders.  We’ve got the wealthy merchants of the Casa de Contratacion and the Consulado de Mercaderes, many of whom are more concerned about the economy than about the plague.  We’ve got our well-to-do lady painter, who’s trying to help the city’s prostitutes.  And we’ve got the people in the slums, taking huge risks such as trying to sell clothes stripped from the dead.  In particular, there’s a gang of children, including Valerio under the control of the criminal underworld.  And there’s a slave market.

On a lighter note, we’re also seeing people experiencing new delicacies from the Americas for the first time.  Don’t eat tomatoes: they could be poisonous!  But try this – it’s called chocolate 🙂 .

The sets are very impressive, and there are loads and loads of extras.  It’s pretty lavish … if that’s the right word, when so many of the scenes are of people either dying of the plague or being found murdered.  I really enjoyed Grand Hotel, but that’s going back a fair few years now and I don’t think we’ve had any Spanish period dramas since then.  Maybe we should get more!  And I believe that there’s a second series of this one, although I can’t find any reference anywhere to BBC 4 planning to show it.  If they do, I’ll definitely be watching it!

It’s a strange time for this, as I said.  Seville should be holding its famous Semana Santa processions this week, and enjoying the climax of the football season.  Instead, its people are, like most of the rest of us, in lockdown.  But it’s quite an appropriate time to be watching it, as well.  Let’s just hope that this horrible period in our history will soon be over, and that we can all try to get back to normal.  In the meantime, I’m enjoying, if that’s the right word, watching this at last.  It’s something different, and there’s a lot of very interesting stuff in it.   I’m following the subtitles, but I’m understanding some of the Spanish as well … I could do with a few minutes’ delay between the Spanish and the subtitles, to process it and see how much I got!  Love again to the beautiful city of Seville and to the rest of Spain, and, if anyone’s reading this, thanks for reading, and please stay safe x.

Spanish Lavender by Joan Fallon

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I was hoping that this was going to be about the International Brigades; but unfortunately it was just a rather silly story, poorly-written and littered with irritating errors (“expatriate” was repeatedly spelt “ex-patriot”!), about a girl running off to take photos of the Spanish Civil War and getting involved with two men and a baby.  However, it did raise the never-ending question, very relevant in a week in which there’ve been reports of Syrian children dying of cold and hunger in refugee camps, of whether or not the international community should intervene in civil wars.

I’m not sure that the Life on Marbs idea of British expatriates (or indeed “ex-patriots”) living in the Marbella/Estepona/San Pedro area was really a thing in the 1930s.  However, OK, there would have been some Britons living there – although someone should really tell the author that they would not have referred to themselves as “Brits”, a term which didn’t exist until the Second World War.  Amongst them is our heroine, Elizabeth Marshall, a young woman in her 20s from a well-to-do middle-class family, living with her parents and brother.  With civil war raging and the Nationalists about to take Malaga, it’s decided that all British citizens in the area should be evacuated to Gibraltar, and then to Britain.  The evacuation of non-Spanish nationals was certainly true enough.

The dialogue’s poor, the characters are wooden, and silly mistakes such as the spelling of  the Spanish housekeeper’s name as “Conception” rather than “Concepcion” are annoying, but the book does make some good points with its descriptions of the bombing of Malaga by the Nationalists, with German and Italian assistance, and the desperate attempts of civilians to try to escape from a city bordered by water and mountains.

When the Marshalls reach the coast, they wait for a ship … and Elizabeth decides to run away, to take photos of what’s going on.  It’s supposed to sound brave and heroic, but it’s not really very convincing.  However, she gets to Malaga, where she rescues a baby who’s been abandoned in the street.  This is presumably meant to be very poignant, but the storylines just don’t work very well.  She meets up with a Spanish aristocrat, Juan, and an Englishman, Alex … and Juan checks her into a posh hotel so that she can get milk for the baby (as you do).  Then the baby dies anyway.  I’m not sure what the point of that storyline was.  And Elizabeth and Juan become lovers.

They all decide that they need to get out of Malaga, and head for Almeria.  En route, they’re caught up in a brutal attack by Franco’s forces on civilian refugees.  It’s thought that up to 5,000 people were killed in the attack, and many other citizens of Malaga were raped and murdered when the Nationalists took the city.  German and Italian forces bombed the refugees from the air, and Nationalist ships attacked them from the sea.  They couldn’t get away: there was no means of escape.  This isn’t a very good book, but this is something that’s largely been forgotten, and the book’s coverage of it is pretty accurate.  Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor working with the Republicans, did indeed rescue as many of the injured as he could.  As far as the story goes, Juan, who’s been badly injured, is taken to Almeria by Bethune.  Elizabeth and Alex follow on foot.  When they reach the city, he’s nowhere to be found, and they’re left to assume that he’s died and been buried, alongside many others, in an unmarked grave. However, the reader learns that he’s still alive and has joined the Republican army, hoping that Elizabeth, who’d refused to leave without him, will go home to Britain and safety.

Then, just as it’s getting interesting, we suddenly jump forward to the 21st century!  We learn that – why does this always happen, in books?! – Elizabeth, having duly returned to her family, had found out that she was expecting Juan’s baby, and had accepted Alex’s offer of marriage.  It could have been quite good.  Elizabeth’s photos could have been published and she could have made a name for herself.  Juan could have turned up a few years later – and we learn that Alex went back to Spain, found out that Juan was alive, and never told Elizabeth.

But we don’t get any of that.  Instead, we get a rather boring story about how, after they’re all dead, Elizabeth and Juan’s granddaughter Kate finds out that Alex wasn’t her biological grandfather, goes to Spain, and, within about five minutes, has found Juan’s surviving relatives and been welcomed into the bosom of his family (who’d tried to cover up the fact that he existed, because they were Nationalists).  There are a lot of references to golf.  Kate meets two different men, but neither relationship is really developed properly.

None of the storylines are developed properly, really; and, as I’ve said, the characters are wooden and the dialogue poorly-written.  But this is the first time that I’ve ever come across a novel which covers this little-known massacre: Spanish Civil War novels in English are usually set in Catalunya, and usually refer to the massacre in Guernica, in the Basque country, and never mention Andalucia.

We’re told that Elizabeth is angry and distressed about why other countries are doing nothing to help, especially when there are British ships at Gibraltar.  (We know now that the Gibraltarian authorities secretly aided the Nationalists – not during the massacre, obviously, but in general.).  There was a lot of debate at the time, especially in Britain, France and the USA, about whether or not to intervene.  A Non-Intervention Committee was formed, and no-one was supposed to be getting involved, except as observers and to protect international shipping, but Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and to some extent Salazar’s Portugal all aided the Nationalists, whilst the Soviet Union and to some extent Poland and Mexico provided support to the Republicans.

There was huge international press coverage of the war, and of course the International Brigades – who are now seen as being quite romantic – were formed.  Opinion in Britain and elsewhere was deeply divided.  It was feared that involvement by foreign powers could spark a pan-European war.  And “boots on the ground” in other countries’ civil wars … well, think of Korea, of Vietnam, of Iraq.  It never ends well.  But can it ever be OK to stand by and do nothing when you know full well that civilians are suffering, horrifically.  We know what’s going on in Syria.  We know what’s going on in Yemen.  We know what’s going on in the sadly misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo.  There aren’t any answers, but the Spanish Civil War was the first time after the formation of the League of Nations that the subject came up.  The war killed about 500,000 people, similar to the estimated death toll in the Syrian Civil War.

There are no answers, but there are a lot of questions.  This book isn’t very good, but it does ask some of those questions, and make you think about them.