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 MacIntyre is not the first to try to capture the essence of Eddie Chapman, but he has comfortably superseded previous efforts with Zigzag.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.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

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There is a prophesy. Long ago, Albion’s greatest magician, the Raven King, wrote ominously that “two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me; the first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction.”

We are in an alternative 1806 with the same king (George III, just as mad), the same politicians; the Napoleonic War; Byron; pedantic, provincial, learned societies; gentlemen living on their estates, and (mostly) the same back history. But there is such a thing as magic and, furthermore, northern England has been under supernatural rule for centuries.

Hanoverian hegemony over the territories north of the Humber is theoretically a stewardship pending this entity’s return. The church exists as a social institution, but not as a religious one. For a couple of centuries, magic has been purely academic; there have been no successful spell-casters. But first one, then another, magician arises: a pedant called Mr Norrell, then a country gentleman called Mr Strange.

A partnership arises between these two magicians, but it is an uneasy one. Norrell is conservative, secretive, and fearful, whereas Strange is innovative and attracted to the most dangerous, wildest kind of magic. His interest in the shadowy figure of the Raven King becomes more than academic; this quest puts at peril all he holds dear, and especially the woman he loves. The Raven King, John Uskglass, moving beneath and beside the early 19th century, is attempting to set upon the throne of England a king to rival the current occupant, the befuddled George III. In order to preserve their world, and save his wife, Strange must unite with Norrell and seek to defeat the most powerful magician of all.

At just over 780 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell clicks along at such a comfortable pace that it seems, if not much shorter, just stunningly well-structured for its size and scope. In all its length there is not a single instance of padding, never an eye-glazing moment of pure, dull self-indulgence. To a degree, the story is episodic, but every event is precisely positioned in the narrative to build upon previous events and lead smoothly into upcoming ones. Rooted in two unique and memorable characters, the story just sweeps you up and carries you along, never lapsing to tired clichés nor trading in sentimentalism for its emotional depth. Clarke’s best thematic conceit is her often hilarious depiction of the politicization of magic, leading to the kinds of rivalries you always see in real-life politics, or the arts and sciences. The efforts of politicians and generals to grasp the practical applications of magic is particularly amusing:

‘Can a magician kill a man by magic?’ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‘I suppose a magician might,’ he admitted, ‘but a gentleman never would.’ Lord Wellington nodded as if this was just as he would have expected.

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke’s magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. Clarke’s fantasy is more akin to Laurence Norfolk, Umberto Eco or a slightly touched Dickens, than a Tolkien or Peake, but it is the equal of any of those august names. Perhaps it appeals as much to the historian as to a fantasy-lover, but the humour and sheer skill of the writing must appeal to all lovers of great literature. The leisurely pace of the novel is more than made up for by the astonishingly imaginative footnotes, which are folktales, anecdotes and mini-essays that enthrall the reader as well as inform the plot.

I have always had a soft spot for the epic, the imaginative, and the nostalgic glance into the past. I have more than a soft spot for this book; it contains all these things and more, and if one is brave enough to open ignore the thick spine and heavy cover, the journey that awaits you is worth every second.

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

Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey, by Rachel Hewitt

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For those amateur cartographers and map-lovers amongst you, Map of a Nation is a welcome addition to the minimal attention the Ordinance Survey has been given to date. In this 438 page study, Hewitt describes the heroic effort of the eighteenth century map-makers to extend their knowledge of mountains, lakes, rivers and plains, and to provide a practical visual aid to travellers, government and the military of the day.

As a consequence of the English army’s need to control the untamed wilderness of the Scottish Highlands in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, William Roy was employed by the Board of Ordnance to provide a military survey, and, armed with a circumferantor and a few companions, he succeeded by 1755. The connection between military planning and the furtherance of the Survey continued when the French Revolutionary Wars necessitated the mapping of the English and Welsh coastline to assess invasion risk. This new surge in mapping from 1791 onwards, resulted in the completion of the Kent/Essex section in 1801. Popular enthusiasm for the vision and efficacy of the Survey increased with this initial publication, and further squares on the grid were filled in over the next decades.

However, the course of the Survey did not always run smoothly. The decision to extend the Survey to Ireland in 1825 provoked the suspicion of the nation; it was seen as an imperialistic and intimidatory act, and was unwelcome to say the least. Portrayed immortally by Brian Friel in Translations, the desire to control and circumscribe the land ( and therein the people) was misunderstood and mistrusted, and not just by the peasantry. Romantic poets were disturbed by the cold functionality of the Survey; surely something was being lost by this rationalistic drive to map, enlist, and mercilessly describe. It was not art.

The Ordnance Survey was primarily a military exercise, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that the focus shifted to civil servants, economists, industrialists, and walkers.The Survey has entered the popular consciousness and has shown the versatility to survive the onslaught of computer technology. However justified the fears of the Romantics have been, and although the world has lost much of its mystery through exploration, cartography, and television, the old Ordnance Survey maps are a window into the past, and have engendered a mystery of their own. Perhaps the maps are art of a different kind, a beauty born of accuracy, detail and utility. Their creators deserve to be celebrated, and Hewitt has done so.

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop

Paul Henry: Paintings, Drawings, and Illustrations, by Dr. S.B. Kennedy

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Paul Henry (1876-1958) is considered Ireland’s greatest twentieth-century landscape painter. Trained in fin de siècle Paris under Whistler, he also absorbed the influences of Post-Impressionism, which linger throughout his work. Henry depicted Ireland, and in particular, the west and Achill Island; he captured the light of sun and cloud on the unique landscape of this corner of Europe with impartial yet knowing eye. His work is iconic – like Constable or Cezanne he captures the soul of a region and a way of life on canvas.  Kennedy provides a full account of Henry’s life and career, and includes an illustrated catalogue of his oeuvre in this comprehensive book. While many of Henry’s paintings are well known, his drawings and early illustrations are less so, and they provide an intriguing insight not only into the artist’s way of working but to his lifestyle and personal circumstances. For someone lost in the world of art, and more comfortable in the field of history, Henry’s work provides an insight into our past, and Kennedy illuminates the history of this fascinating man.

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop for €40

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

There is a popular myth that regional minorities in France were dropped into a blender and emerged as part of a nation France. Through exhaustive research and a witty, engaging narrative style, Robb corrects this misconception by showing how, even as modern developments like democracy and the steam engine transformed France from “a land of ancient tribal divisions” into a centralized nation-state, a wealth of regional particularities persisted in “disparate, concurrent spheres.” In its pivotal years between the revolution and World War I, France emerges in Robb’s telling as a land where the past did not morph seamlessly into the future; a land where diversity existed in a permanent tug of war with uniformity; “a land in which mule trains coincided with railway trains, and where witches and explorers were still gainfully employed when Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris.”

Also, it has become conventional to argue that France has been in slow, inexorable decline since 1900. This is true with regard to the loss of empire and political prestige around the world, but it is also true of all the formerly ‘great’ powers. What has really been happening in France, Robb argues, is the erosion of centralised political control in Paris as the plural identities of France – linguistic, cultural and even religious – re-emerge from the margins.

Written as a “social and geographical history” in which “‘France’ and ‘the French’ would mean something more than Paris and a few powerful individuals,” “The Discovery of France” draws its material not just from the usual array of scholarly sources, but from the author’s own back-road explorations on his bicycle. (“This book,” Robb notes, “is the result of 14,000 miles in the saddle and four years in the library.”) Although Robb eschews the orthodox map of French history, his book covers roughly the pre-Revolutionary period to the present day. This is the era usually defined as the France of heroic modernity – the years when French ideas, from Revolution to art, urbanism and poetry, were exported across the world as universal truths.

In fact it has proved difficult to demonstrate that this unit, or Grand France, has ever occurred, that it was possible to “forge this swarming continent of microscopic kingdoms into a single nation.” Robb shows that regional peculiarity has always survived despite the convulsions that France has undergone, and that these unique ethnic and cultural traits are re-emerging in the national consciousness.

The Discovery of France is the sort of history that seems almost to have disappeared from the world of professional academic historians: written in a light and pleasant style, crammed with colorful and unexpected details, it offers what seem like tantalizing glimpses into a vanished, forgotten past. Robb possesses a masterly narrative style, which floats the reader on a sea of conflicting national identity and linguistic development, while interspersing personal experience with historical analysis. Nonetheless, this is not an academic work to be avoided by francophiles and amateur historians. It is a romantic, slightly nostalgic look at a complex nation still trying to find itself after centuries of nationhood. Most importantly, it is an engrossing read!

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop € 10

A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration, by Jenny Uglow

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Charles II was thirty when he crossed the Channel in fine May weather in 1660. His Restoration was greeted with maypoles and bonfires, like spring after long years of Cromwell’s rule. But there was no going back, no way he could ‘restore’ the old. Certainty had vanished. The divinity of kingship fled with his father’s beheading. ‘Honour’ was now a word tossed around in duels. ‘Providence’ could no longer be trusted. As the country was rocked by plague, fire and war, people searched for new ideas by which to live. Exactly ten years later Charles would stand again on the shore at Dover, laying the greatest bet of his life in a secret deal with his cousin, Louis XIV. The Restoration decade was one of experiment: from the science of the Royal Society to the startling role of credit and risk, from the shocking licence of the court to the failed attempts at toleration of different beliefs. Negotiating all these, Charles, the ‘slippery sovereign’, played odds and took chances, dissembling and manipulating his followers. The theatres were restored, but the king was the supreme actor. Yet while his grandeur, his court and his colourful sex life were on display, his true intentions lay hidden. A Gambling Man is a portrait of Charles II, exploring his elusive nature through the lens of these ten vital years – and a portrait of a vibrant, violent, pulsing world, in which the risks the king took forged the fate of the nation, on the brink of the modern world.

The restoration period is well documented; the diaries of Pepys and John Evelyn cover much of book’s span, and the nobility’s love of court gossip provides even more juicy information for the author. Charles Stuart is at the heart of everything, as it is his character and decisions that navigate the monarchy through the rocky shoals of a changing England. Though Cromwell’s time is past, his legacy truly remains intact in the aggressive and questioning nature of restoration society.  considerable religion minority exists, who are unwilling to compromise with the flexible consciousness of their king. Uglow wants us to see Charles II as “a gambling man”, who played for very high stakes. This is a motif that runs through her book, which is divided into sections with playing-card titles, illustrated with examples of contemporary cards. His greatest gambles, she thinks, were that he could get away with keeping mistresses as well as maintaining a queen, and that he could survive his eventual disclosure of his Catholic conversion.

Charles lacked the vision and skills to avoid the religious intolerance that came to characterise his reign. Perhaps the fear and mistrust of the Anglican dominated parliament, coupled with the intransigence of the Dissenters, made any compromise impossible. The years of plague, fire and war proved to be very difficult, but he survived them, and in so doing ensured the survival of his line. Charles II learned how to be a king in a time of great extremes and change; the splendor and recklessness of court life contrasted sharply with the secular philosophy of the Royal Society, and the religious zeal of the Dissenter minority. Greater change was to follow, and soon, and Charles in his own flamboyant and inconsistent manner, facilitated that revolutionary change.

http://www.jennyuglow.com/

For those of you who enjoy historical biography, the restoration period, or just good writing; this is a book I would highly recommend. Pick up a copy in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop – only €6, and there are a few copies left!