Category Archives: History

Book Recommendation time!

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I simply have to get this out there now considering we have only got four copies of the book; Charlie Byrnes bookshop have “A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmuid McCulloch in hardback for €15. The fact that I am giving away my paperback copy is completely unrelated I might add, but this is a great chance to get the best one-volume history of Christianity for less than half-price, and an opportunity to enjoy the work of one of the best contemporary historians at the very peak of his powers. Give the shop a call or e-mail and we will sort you out!

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The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund De Waal

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Every chapter enthrals with Edmund de Waal’s account of his family history via the legacy of the netsuke collection, the tiny Japanese ivory carvings and, wrapped around these precious objects, the lives of Family Ephrussi, wealthy Jewish bankers who had amassed untold riches as grain merchants in Odessa in the nineteenth century before establishing themselves in Vienna. De Waal, a renowned ceramicist and authority on Japanese art, takes the reader on a journey through art and history in an effort to discover the link between his ancestors and these beautiful, tactile objects.

 This is more than just a memoir or family history, it is a commentary upon the meaning of art in everyday life, and how profound a connection can exist between the physical and the aesthetic or emotional. The netsuke are but a small part of the art collected by the Ephrussi, their value is small in comparison to the Impressionist paintings purchased by Charles Ephrussi in late nineteenth century Paris, but they provide a thread that meanders through generations of wealth, power, refinement, and horrific, rapid destruction on a heartbreaking scale.

De Waal’s tale is a long and complex one. It dances between Odessa, Vienna, and Paris as the Ephrussi join the Rothschilds amongst the financial elite of Europe. Charles D’Ephrussi, freed from responsibilities in the family empire, begins to establish himself at the pinnacle of the Paris art world, and is at the heart of the Japonisme movement – the interest in Japanese art that swept across Europe in the 1870s. He was a patron of Manet and Renoir, friends with Proust, and owner of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts magazine. It was he that purchased the netsuke and appreciated the joy that comes from touching such craftsmanship. On a whim, they are gifted to a newly-married cousin in Vienna, and their role changes from the public salon of Charles, to the private dressing room of Baroness Emmy Von Koromla in 1899.

Neither Vienna nor Paris proves to be a pleasant home for Jewish families in the period leading up to or after the Great War. Anti-Semitism is engrained in European society, and the disastrous Habsburg war effort hits the Ephrussi family finances hard. The Anschluss with Germany has an even more profound effect. It is difficult for both the reader and the author to discover the fate of his family and the beloved netsuke during these dark years. Perhaps De Waal’s greatest ability is his capacity to plumb the depths of his own horror and anger, yet remain focused on the journey he has undertaken. The netsuke survive the carnage, and remain in the family, but there is so much more to tell.

The Hare With Amber Eyes deserves to be introduced and recommended instead of being summarized. Firstly, it is very difficult to do so, and secondly, it is unfair to future readers to signpost them on the way ahead. I found it very moving and well-crafted, but overwhelming at times. It is an unusual book; extremely honest and open, with a tremendous knowledge and appreciation of art and life, but sometimes it is hard to view these events with equanimity, or with anything more than sadness. This is definitely one not to miss for lovers of art and history, but it is much more than a nostalgic memoir of temps perdu, it is a story of survival and rebirth.

(Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop)

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, by Dominic Lieven

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“War,” Thomas Hardy once wrote, “makes rattling good history.” If you would like an example of exactly what Hardy meant, I commend Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven.

Never in history, perhaps, did a man of such extraordinary military genius suffer so extraordinary a military disaster. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, the master of continental Europe, led nearly half a million men into the depths of Russia to enforce his will upon Czar Alexander I. With greatly inferior forces, Russia could not afford to confront Napoleon head on. Instead, the Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, of necessity adopted Fabian tactics, harassing the invaders but avoiding pitched battle when possible.

The one really big battle, Borodino, was more or less a draw, after Napoleon gave up personal command for reasons never satisfactorily explained. On Sept. 14 Moscow fell to Napoleon, and he sent peace overtures to Alexander, thinking the czar had no option but to negotiate.

The Russians stalled and hinted but never gave a firm answer, seeking to keep Napoleon in Moscow as long as possible. On Oct. 19, with the czar still dawdling, French food supplies dwindling rapidly, and the Russian winter closing in, Napoleon had no choice but to begin withdrawal. The weather, disease and constant Russian harassment then destroyed his Grande Armee. He started the invasion with 450,000 men; 6,000 returned home.

The myth of 1812 was, he maintains, largely of Tolstoy’s creation in War and Peace — the idea being that it was essentially Bonaparte’s vaunting ambition and Generals Janvier and Fevrier which did for the French. On the contrary, says Lieven: ‘One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that its leaders out-thought him’. Bonaparte failed to understand Russian society, whereas Alexander knew perfectly the strengths and weaknesses of his enemy. The Tsar and his war minister, Field-Marshal Barclay de Tolly, fully expecting that Bonaparte would at some stage march on Moscow, planned all along what Lieven calls a ‘people’s war’, which is perhaps more evocative than ‘guerrilla war’, but which was conducted nevertheless on the lines of that against Bonaparte’s armies in Spain. Indeed, Alexander seems to have drawn comfort, perhaps inspiration, from the Peninsular campaign, and Wellington’s bold strategic retreats, in his own plans for ‘deep retreat’ in Russia. Lieven is always generous to Wellington: of the duke’s great victory at Salamanca, he writes that not only did it ensure that even more French troops would be tied down in Spain in 1812 and beyond, but that it ‘boosted the morale of all Napoleon’s enemies’.

What he is keen to demonstrate is that because the campaigns of 1813-14 are generally buried, so to speak, beneath the snows of 1812, the real quality of the Russian army remains unseen. For here was an army that followed up its success by fighting through Prussia all the way to Paris, a considerable feat of logistics, command and control as well as of arms — and without the depredations of the Red Army the following century. Indeed, when they marched home again, Alexander’s troops were feted in many a German town.

Then why — besides the Tolstoy factor — has the extent of the Russian contribution been concealed until now? The author suggests that the Prussians ‘elbowed Russia aside’ when it came to interpreting the campaign of 1813, just as ‘the British grabbed Waterloo for themselves’; and that Soviet-era history has been keener to emphasise the ‘people’s war’ side of 1812 than Tsarist military prowess in 1813-14.

This leads to the central message of Lieven’s work. For him, the Russian army of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was clearly a force of great strength and versatility that was more than capable of meeting the challenges posed by the French Revolution and Napoleon without having to engage in fundamental change. And, as with the Russian army, so with the whole of the Russian state. Far from being some ramshackle eastern despotism, this was in many ways a vibrant and forward-looking organism that possessed extraordinary resources and even offered a number of the advantages that are normally associated only with the French Revolution: a regime that could place such a figure as Mikhail Speransky at the head of its affairs was hardly one in which careers could not be said to be open to talent. In writing about the Russia of Alexander I, Dominic Lieven has also made a major contribution to wider debates on the Napoleonic epoch, and for this, as for so much else, he is to be congratulated.

This is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Russian campaign; it re-evaluates the balance of responsibility for the course of events, and presents a new interpretation of the strategy used by the Russian command. A very enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, by David Abulafia

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The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, by David Abulafia

Mediterranean means “between the lands”. The Romans called it Mare Nostrum – our sea; the Turks called it the White Sea; the Jews the Great Sea, the Germans the Middle Sea and the ancient Egyptians the Great Green. Since then it has been known as the Corrupting Sea, the Inner Sea, the Bitter Sea and the Liquid Continent. In this magnificent book, David Abulafia brings all those meanings to life again.

 Corruption in its different avatars plays a significant role in David Abulafia’s The Great Sea, a tribute to the Mediterranean’s capacity, over 3,000 years, for revealing the imagination, resilience and ruthlessness of its human populations, from cave-dwellers in the Rock of Gibraltar to those entrepreneurial Chinese who recently acquired the Piraeus docks from a cash-strapped Greek government.

Abulafia’s concern is with the layered experience of successive generations testing the sea as a source of survival, as a bearer of promises and rewards, rather than with these waters as an ecosystem swayed by currents and geology. He challenges the orthodoxy established half a century ago by Fernand Braudel in his monumental multi-volume work on the same subject. The French scholar’s gloomy assertion that “man is imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand” is convincingly dismissed. Political initiative, rather than resistless fate, the present writer suggests, determined not just the importance of Mediterranean cities and settlements but their actual locations.

As he says early on, “Mediterranean history can mean many things”; fortunately for readers he has taken it to mean a study of human life, civilisation and endeavour, rather than a worthy economic survey. A professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge University and biographer of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, Abulafia wears his scholarship lightly, even daringly. As he puts it, his is a “history of the Mediterranean Sea rather than a history of the lands around it; more particularly a history of the people who crossed the sea and lived close by its shores in ports and islands”. It is indeed this, and much more.

From 2,500BC little ships were on the move, growers and makers as well as traders travelling to sell their goods. Olive oil moved alongside stinking fish sauce and wine and silver and pots and plates and even amber from the North. Coins and the idea of coins, as opposed to blocks of precious metal, went by sea; the Greeks in Southern Italy were especially keen on them. Spices came out of the East, but they also went back: saffron was shipped to Syria from the fields around the towers of San Gimignano. Grain travelled North from the rich Nile delta, from Sicily and Sardinia; when the Vandals in North Africa controlled the flow of bread to Rome, they had the city by the throat.

The sea was the heart of things, the cradle of our kind of western civilisation, and endlessly busy. Death travelled; sometimes it’s possible to name the ship on which plague arrived. Ideas travelled, too: a mad kabbalist who needed to see the Pope to proclaim himself Messiah, the Cathars whose dualist worldview may have been imported along with the Bogomil exiles from Constantinople.

Byzantine images influenced Jerusalem. The cathedral at Pisa was decorated with fine, shining Muslim ceramics just as the Crusades were starting. The notion of an alphabet, then the idea of vowels, had to be carried around the Mediterranean long before there was a lingua franca for trade. And so it goes on. People are at the core of the book.

 The ethnic links and trading bonds that emerged across the Mediterranean over the centuries are shown by Abulafia to be equally influential and lasting in forming the essence of the place as the physical elements that constitute it. People do leave their mark on the land just as much as the land (or sea) forms their character. Surely Braudel and Abulafia are reaching the same conclusion from different angles; man and nature are intertwined in ways which we can only appreciate, but must seek to understand.

 Whether Abulafia has succeeded in writing a solely human history of the Mediterranean is difficult to accept. Is it possible to remove the geography from the history of a geographical entity, or is this kind of history an effort to redress a balance between man and nature? Complex and, probably, pointless questions. This is a very well-researched and consistently argued analysis of the development of civilisation along the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the learning and detail is not over-bearing, but rather engrossing and captivating. The vision and scope of this history is reciprocated with literary style and imagination. In short, a very good read.

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, by John Julius Norwich

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The Mediterranean has nurtured three of the most dazzling civilisations of antiquity, witnessed the birth or growth of three of our greatest religions and links three of the world’s six continents. This work tells the story of the Middle Sea itself – a story that begins with the Phoenicians and the Pharaohs and ends with the Treaty of Versailles.

Beginning with the island of Crete, Norwich charts the rise and fall of the Greco-Roman world; he seamlessly mirrors the decline of the Roman Empire in the west with the continuing splendor that was the Byzantine Empire in the east, and chronicles the rise of Islam culminating in  the centuries long struggle for power in the middle sea. Much of the book focuses upon the efforts of the western powers to stem the tide of Islamic advance, the crusading movement is explored at length, and the failure of the Papacy and the west to adequately support the bulwark that was Constantinople is rightly condemned. Culminating in the disastrous conquest of the Byzantine capital in 1204, an event from which the Byzantine state never fully recovered, the ill-considered semi-religious desire of Christianity to reclaim the Holy Land is demonstrated to have been both self-defeating and pointless.

St Marks Venice

The rise of La Serenissima, the maritime empire of Venice is clearly a favoured topic, as is the cultural melting-pot of Sicily under Norman rule. It is in his description of the glories, follies and might-have-beens of these two unique entities the Norwich truly excels. One can sense his admiration, hope, and disappointment, and really touch the Kings, Queens and Doges he depicts.

Even at its zenith, the Mediterranean was being supplanted as the centre of the world. When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, he sounded the death knell for Mediterranean as the pre-eminent waterway of the world. From now on, trade routes gradually moved towards the Atlantic, and the eyes of the world moved hither also. Though not a backwater, the middle sea now witnessed a gradual decline in the relative strength of its inhabitants. The Italian maritime powers slowly sank into glorious decline, the Sublime Porte controlled the east by sea, and inched it’s armies forward by land.

It would be pointless, and cruel, to recount the story to the present, as Norwich himself does it with greater skill than I can muster. It requires tremendous knowledge and confidence to consider researching and writing such a book, but John Julius Norwich is as worthy as anyone to attempt a history so vast and complex as any history of the Mediterranean must be. Previously, he has written on the Byzantine and Venetian empires, as well as the short-lived Norman kingdom in Sicily and Southern Italy. More than this, he possesses the breadth of vision and simultaneous attention to detail that is required for the task of narrative history. Norwich has a knack for story-telling; he is ever enthusiastic, humourous and compassionate, he writes with colour and imagination he has style.

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453

Most importantly, he recognises the limits of his endeavour. His is a personal history, it focuses on those events, trends, and personages that appeal to the mind of the writer; it ignores much, and gives a passing nod to even more. Yet it acknowledges these flaws, if flaws they are. The parameters of geography and time always are problematic – it is impossible to discuss Mediterranean history with any confidence if one constantly drops threads once the physical boundaries of the sea are not visible. Policies in London, Paris, Madrid etc. are fundamentally relevent to events in the Mediterranean itself. Norwich is not troubled by this, and nor should he be. A history that includes even the most important events in recorded history from every angle would run to many volumes, and the personal touch would be lost.

But thankfully Norwich never loses this touch. He enthralls and transports the reader to a time when the Mediterranean was much more than beaches full of irritating tourists, extravagant yachts, and monster cruise ships. Perhaps the Mediterranean of the mind is now more glorious and romantic than the reality, but if you can find a piece of untouched beauty, or unadulterated architecture somewhere along that long shore, bring this book with you, and read.

Book Review: Agent Zigzag: Lover, Traitor, Hero, Spy, by Ben MacIntyre

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Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced. Inside the traitor was a man of loyalty; inside the villain was a hero. The problem for Chapman, his spymasters, and his lovers was to know where one persona ended and the other began.

In 1941, after training as a German spy in occupied France, Chapman was parachuted into Britain with a revolver, a wireless, and a cyanide pill, with orders from the Abwehr to blow up an airplane factory. Instead, he contacted MI5, the British Secret Service. For the next four years, Chapman worked as a double agent, a lone British spy at the heart of the German Secret Service who at one time volunteered to assassinate Hitler for his countrymen. Crisscrossing Europe under different names, all the while weaving plans, spreading disinformation, and, miraculously, keeping his stories straight under intense interrogation, he even managed to gain some profit and seduce beautiful women along the way.

The Nazis feted Chapman as a hero and awarded him the Iron Cross. In Britain, he was pardoned for his crimes, becoming the only wartime agent to be thus rewarded. Both countries provided for the mother of his child and his mistress. Sixty years after the end of the war, and ten years after Chapman’s death, MI5 has now declassified all of Chapman’s files, releasing more than 1,800 pages of top-secret material and allowing the full story of Agent Zigzag to be told for the first time.

Agent Zigzag brings to life an extraordinary man; a man whom neither the British or Germans truly understood, but both believed him loyal to them alone. Chapman was courageous, intelligent, duplicitous, and yet possessing an integrity that transcended his espionage operations. He was a fascinating character, and his life makes for engrossing reading. MacIntyre is not the first to try to capture the essence of Eddie Chapman, but he has comfortably superseded previous efforts with Zigzag.

I highly recommend picking up a copy; Eddie Chapman is a man everyone would benefit from knowing just a little bit better.

Germania: A Personal History Of Germans Ancient And Modern, by Simon Winder

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I bought this book mainly because I loved the cover. Sad, I know, but it is the only way to judge a book without reading it in its entirety, so why not?

Germania is an apt title for Winder’s project, not because the province of the Roman empire bears much of a resemblance to the place we know nowadays, but because Roman senator Tacitus’s book of the same name has managed to fire up the German historical imagination like few others. A polemic rather than straightforward reportage, Tacitus’s Germania contrasted the decadence of the imperial capital with the simplicity of the savages from the provinces, conjuring up a people who were more geographically and ethnically unified than they had ever been in real life. Ever since, German nationalists have scrambled back to Tacitus’s text whenever the fever of nationalism has seized the country.

For all his adult life, Winder has been traversing and re-traversing the towns and castlescapes of the German lands. He has visited dungeons, cabinets of curiosities, beer halls, and model-train museums. He has clambered up towers and down into crypts. He has scrutinised suits of armour, paintings, garden gnomes, cathedrals and museums of marzipan. And all the while he has been reading his way deeper and deeper into German history. Out of all this he has spun an enthralling weave of travelogue, anecdote and historical mock-epic.

The anecdotes are often hilarious, beginning with a disastrous family canal holiday in Alsace-Lorraine, and including such gems as his account of being rather trumped by a German contemporary when discussing what they got up to on their sixteenth birthdays (Winder played his new Simon and Garfunkel record; the German rode his new motorbike and slept with his friend’s mother – ““I remember feeling out of my depth on hearing this.”)

Fairy-tales of old Germany: King Ludwig II's castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria

A helpless fan of small-town museums, bad civic paintings, and similar oddities, Winder can’t stop sharing his finds with us. These include some real marvels, like the poorly preserved horse of Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus on display in Ingolstadt almost 400 years after it was shot out from under him at the battle of Lutzen. Just as characteristically, Winder’s evocation of the Thirty Years’ War — during which Gustavus’s invasion of Germany saved the Protestant side from disaster — appealingly blends historical knowledge and imaginative empathy for the traumatized lives people led in the war’s “terrible theater of helplessness.” He isn’t all laughs and curios by any means.

Many a theme is introduced with a regretful nod to the Third Reich, or bid farewell with a wave heavy with premonitions of Nazism. From the very beginning (both of the book and German history) poor old Tacitus’s use of the phrase ‘pure blood’ is described as ‘catastrophic’ (despite it taking more than a millennium and a half for it to seem so). The Nazis appear fairly regularly, very distractingly and seemingly inevitably – rather like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition.

However, the rise of Nazism is constantly avoided and militarism is never treated with anything more than a nod; Winder is no apologist, but by his very avoidance of such issues, the silence becomes even more deafening. Why try to present a more balanced view of the sweep of greater German history if you roundly ignore a key element? Why stop at 1933?The answer appears to be that Winder wishes to remove the ‘mental quarantining’ of German history caused by the deeds of Hitler and the Nazis. In that case, his approach is somewhat justified. I still feel he has missed an opportunity by choosing this path.

By turns Germania reads like detailed narrative history, a series of impressionistic essays on cultural and historical themes, and personal travelogue. Some may find this pleasingly eclectic; others might find it combines to produce a book that’s a little too long, a bit uneven and with a tendency to ramble. In any event, it’s an entertaining read, full of interesting facts and insights – even if one feels an opportunity has been missed.

The Last Crusaders: The Hundred-Year Battle for the Center of the World, by Barnaby Rogerson

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Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
     The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
     The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
     That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
     In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
     Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.

The Battle Of Lepanto 1571

G.K. Chesterton’s famous poem about the Battle of Lepanto (1571) serves as worthy introduction to Barnaby Rogerson’s study of struggle between Christendom and the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. Chesterton portrays the glory and pageantry of this clash between civilisations, albeit from a profoundly occidental viewpoint. Chesterton’s bias is understandable; his desire to highlight the courage and swagger of the Christian princes at the expense of the Turk is part of a long and ingrained historiographical tradition. Rogerson is cut from a different cloth –  his analysis of both west and east is more subtle and even-handed, however the sense of wonder and awe remains.

Rogerson shows how, to this day, the disputed borders of the Crusades era stand as defining frontiers and dividing lines between languages, nations, and religions. From Constantinople to Fez, from Rhodes to Granada, The Last Crusaders is narrative history at its richest and most compelling.

It is about the titanic struggle between Hapsburg-led Christendom and the Ottoman empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though it focuses on the great naval campaigns and the ferocious struggle to dominate the North African shore it was also, in its way, the first world war. The conflict spread out along trade routes into the Atlantic, Red Sea, Persian Gulf and across the Sahara. There was even a plan hatched for taking the war into the Caribbean. It consumed nations and cultures, destroyed dynasties, flattened cities and depopulated provinces. Yet the borders they fought for stand to this day as defining frontiers – the dividing lines between languages, nations and religions.

Mehmet II, attributed to Gentile Bellini

The geopolitical sweep is impressive, and reminds us how much of what we now take for granted about the political, religious, and cultural landscape of the modern era was not a foregone conclusion. It was not inevitable, for example, that the Ottomans would remain bottled up in the Mediterranean and not compete with Christians’ powers in the process of Atlantic exploration, just as it was not inevitable that Portuguese and Spanish toeholds in northern Africa would not turn into some more durable and extensive presence.

Whether dealing with the traditional plot lines or alerting us to less familiar sideshows, Rogerson knits his whole story together into a coherent and compelling whole. The book tells its tale with aplomb and dash, and, as befits an author with a travel background, the evocation of place and of the culturally exotic is well handled. This is all good swashbuckling stuff, its vision of the past as a place of excitement, brutality, excess, larger-than-life characters and strange twists of fate.

Rogerson errs when he applies the term “Crusaders” willy-nilly to all Westerners coming into contact with the Muslim world, for this massively over-simplifies the range of interactions between Christianity and Islam and reduces the complexities of Crusade thought and practice to a form of holy war posturing. Something of the sophistication and cleverness of his leading characters, Muslim as well as Christian, is lost in the process.

The book is furnished with excellent maps, a useful chronological chart, numerous illustrations, and a full bibliography. The writing is engaging and vivid, never pedantic. Any history buff will find this book a pleasure.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

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In his own words, he looks “like a murderer”, and many consider that to be the least of his crimes. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is an enigmatic figure even to those who claim to know him. Cromwell appreciates the power of silence: “It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires”. He is a reticent man by times, but eloquent when required. It is this use of half-light, half-truths, and silence that fascinates his contemporaries, that creates mystery and fear, and a sense of omnipotence and omnicompetence. Cromwell operates in a new a strange world of shadows, figures, theology and administration, which his fellow courtiers are unable to comprehend and compete.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel persuasively depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs manoeuvrer as one of the most appealing – and, in his own way, enlightened – characters of the period. Taking off from the scant evidence concerning his early life, she imagines a miserable childhood for him as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith in Putney. Already displaying toughness, intelligence and a gift for languages, he runs away to the continent as a boy of 15 or so (his date of birth isn’t known, and in the novel he doesn’t know it himself). He goes to France because: “France is where they have wars”. He learns banking in Florence, trade in Antwerp. He develops a prodigious memory, and possesses the skill to read people, and manage them. He serves Cardinal Wolsey loyally until his fall and then steps into the power vacuum. He emerges from his picaresque youth as an intimidating, witty, and resourceful man:

“Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything”.

Wolsey uses these skills as the vehicle for the dissolution of England’s great monastic orders; their houses are overdue reform and the money garnered shall pay for his new college at Oxford. Cromwell is no lover of Rome and despises the waste and sloth that he encounters. He proves an irresistible force, impermeable to the insults and jibes of his social betters and possessing the legal knowledge and intellectual flexibility to stump all objections. He is also introspective and deeply human. His heartbreak at the death of his wife and daughters in plague epidemics is movingly portrayed by Mantel.

 Indeed, it is this capacity to transmit the complexity of emotion that Cromwell contains sparingly and with subtlety that makes him such a superb and arresting narrator. Cromwell’s flashbacks are a key narrative device in the book; delivered in present-tense with a vivid, humorous retrospection, they penetrate to the core of the man in a profound fashion. Cromwell appears to be a man of stone, a particularly intangible and flexible stone granted, but certainly his face is unreadable to those who encounter him. Mantel manages to depict that ‘stonefacedness’ alongside the subterranean quicksilver of flowing thought, words, and deeds that comprise the real man.

There is something incredibly poignant about the journey of Cromwell and his fellow characters. We know that many will not survive the crises to come. The references to Wolf Hall itself throughout the book, with its’ Seymour connotations, bode ill for our hero. For a hero in fact Cromwell is. He is more a man for all seasons than the intractable martyr Thomas More, and the intellectual equal of both More and Henry VII. He is a man with sensibilities closer to our time, in a way, than to that of most of his contemporaries. Taking five years to complete, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, and although a sequel is in the works we may have a while to wait to be enthralled again. I have not enjoyed any book as much in quite some time, and having inflicted it upon a great number of people with success, I am as impatient as anyone!  I can only recommend it most highly to lovers of history, excellent literary fiction, and to those who wish to be transported into a different world; a world of high drama, low intrigue, and essentially human figures reborn under a supremely gifted hand.

The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, by Tristram Stuart

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Stranded in the countryside and confronted with a live chicken which he has to roast, Withnail is paralysed. ‘ I think you should strangle it instantly,’ says his anxious friend Peter, ‘in case it starts trying to make friends with us.’ ‘I can’t,’ he adds, ‘those dreadful, beady eyes’. Any book beginning with allusions to Withnail and I is bound to catch my attention, but one focused on vegetarianism has little chance of holding it. Tristram Stuart has succeeded where many others have failed, and has managed to make this burger-lover consider my relationship with food; he has also enthralled me with a history of a movement that has carried some of the greatest minds of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries along with it. In short, I  enjoyed this book.
 
The history of the vegetarian movement is fascinating. European interest in the vegetarianism originated from contact with India in the 17th century. Society’s collective consciousness was pricked. Franklin, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Shelley all became involved in the debate about man relationship to animals. There were, broadly, three phases of vegetarianism in the period he scrutinises. In 17th-century England, eschewing meat was a means of religious dissent by those who saw the church as corrupt. It was an attempt to purify religion. Isaac Newton, who tried to prove the unity of all religions, viewed ‘being merciful to all animals’ as one of the cross-cultural ethical imperatives.

The second phase, which began in France, was scientific. Was man naturally carnivorous or herbivorous? The penitent Dr George Cheyne, whose weight rose to 34 stone due to indulgence, transformed his life by eating only vegetables and milk. He become an assiduous evangelist of such a diet among the metropolitan classes in London.

The final phase is revolutionary and climaxes with the French Revolution. Meat signified social inequality – only the rich could afford it – as more and more land was enclosed for pasture so the privileged could indulge themselves. Seditious circles in Paris and London were crammed with vegetarians. Underlying it all, philosophers and scientists, savants and rabble-rousers searched for the perfect religion, health and society.

Stuart has the capacity to be informative and passionate, without being preachy, and coupled with an engaging narrative style achieves a fine debut with this book.His fundamental thesis is to demonstrate that the study of attitudes towards food is the gateway to appreciating how people understood their place in society, their relationship to their environment and the significance of being human. Whether you are a carnivore or a herbivore, get your teeth stuck into this soon!

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop €10