Asterix and the Chariot Race – Jean-Yves Ferri

This is not the book I was planning to post about this week as I am aiming to do a fuller story of the Asterix books later this year but I was doing a quick scan read to get my head round what I wanted to say and this book came up as extremely pertinent to the current world news, so I have added this short review.

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Now you may wonder why a book set during the time of Julius Caesar featuring a small tribe of Gauls would be so relevant to the present day and I will get to that but first a little bit about the series. The Asterix series of books started with ‘Asterix the Gaul’ written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo in 1961 and now run to 38 volumes although now no longer by the originators. Goscinny  worked with Uderzo on the first two dozen titles until he died in 1977. Uderzo then wrote and illustrated a further ten books until 2009. In 2013 the first book written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad appeared and this team have so far produced four titles of which this is their third (overall book 37) and was published in 2017. All comments below relate to the English translation of the text which was done by Adriana Hunter, this was her first time translating Asterix and overall I think she does a good job having taken over from Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell, who between them translated the first 36 books.

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The story starts with complaints about the state of the roads with potholes everywhere throughout the network in Italy. Consul Lactus Bifidus is challenged in the Roman Senate to do something about it as he is in charge of the roads but instead announces a chariot race to prove how good the roads are. The race is to be open to all comers and will start in the north of the country in what is now Lombardy and speed down to the south with a cup for the winner. Asterix and Obelix decide to enter even though neither of them are charioteers mainly because as the chief of their village, in the English translation he is Vitalstatistix, says

It might be fun bothering them on their home turf for once

A lot of the names are changed in the English translations but I need to point out at this juncture that the significant one from this book is the same in the original French edition ‘Astérix et la Transitalique’. The route of the race can be seen on the flyer shown below.

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Lactus Bifidus is visited at home by the Emperor Julius Caesar and it is made quite clear to him that a Roman has to win or he will be personally fixing the roads in Libya which can definitely be seen as an incentive so he finds a great champion. Now this is where the book becomes a bit weird for those of us reading it in March 2020 as the name of the great charioteer is revealed and he is subsequently cheered on in very large text through the rest of the book.

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Yes you read that right, the person racing down Italy starting in Lombardy, for the honour of the Roman people, in a book published in 2017 is Coronavirus.  To prove that this is the original name and not one which Adriana Hunter came up with below is the original French panel.

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Stay safe everyone and let’s hope that things improve soon.

 

Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter and Emma Thompson

For the 110th anniversary of the first publication of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter in 1902 her publisher, Warne, commissioned a very special edition.

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One thousand copies were printed of this collectors set of the original Peter Rabbit, with some illustrations included for the first time as Beatrix Potter had actually done too many for the book that was first published and indeed almost all subsequent editions. Alongside this the actress and writer Emma Thompson created a new work illustrated by Eleanor Taylor to take the story further. Inside the outer card box you are presented with another box…

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and within that the lined purple inner with the books inside presented in their separate sections.

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This is certainly a luxurious edition of a classic children’s tale, and so it should be for the purchaser got two small hardbacks along with a facsimile letter to Peter from Emma Thompson for the, clearly opportunistic, price of £110.00.

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Now don’t get me wrong the production level of this set is extremely high, the books are cloth bound with a specially designed print and just 1000 copies were made with a retail price of £110, but that is still a large sum for Warne as the margins on books for the retail booksellers are actually quite small and this sold out almost immediately so Warne very quickly made their profit. I paid considerably less than this when the set came out by buying from Amazon and there are currently a couple of sets available on Abebooks for around that price (including postage costs) but the set has largely vanished from the secondary market which may mean that I have made a good investment although that wasn’t the reason I bought it.

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This is probably one of the finest editions of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter yet printed, and I do have the two 100th anniversary editions (cloth or cream leather bound) produced in even smaller amounts back in 2002, (500 cloth and 100 leather bound editions). But this is truly lovely with the purple page edging and the exceptionally fine printing of the remastered illustrations including various versions never before included in a single copy of Peter Rabbit. A prime example of which is shown below as this was in the 1902 first edition but dropped in 1903 for the reprint, not to appear again for 109 years. Other pictures never made early editions for reasons of space but are now included in this printing.

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Emma Thompson actually made a very good job of capturing Beatrix Potters original style and whilst the illustrations by Eleanor Taylor lack the fine definition of Potter’s originals they do still capture the flavour of the much earlier books.

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That they were successful can be seen by the later production of two more titles by Emma Thompson, The Christmas Tale of Peter Rabbit in 2013 and The Spectacular Tale of Peter Rabbit in 2014. The Further Tale is also available as a separate volume outside of this collectors set.

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As can be seen above Peter has not learnt his lesson from 110 years ago and is still intent on exploring Mr McGregor’s garden and the wonderful selection of vegetables to be found there. This time he climbs into his picnic basket, rather than a damp watering can, and eats the sandwiches to be found there before, feeling full, he falls asleep in the basket. Waking in a rocking basket he finds that he is on the back of a cart heading off into the countryside an just manages to escape when he is found to be the picnic thief. Running away he encounters a giant Scottish rabbit

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and ends up as an unwilling participant in the bunny equivalent of the The Highland Games. The gentle humour of the new book is a welcome counterpoint to Beatrix Potter’s quite often more near the knuckle story telling and I can see why Thompson was asked to write two more sequels.

Of the classic twenty three books usually collected in the box sets of Potter’s works all but two have now passed 100 years old, we just have Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes (1922) and The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930) to go. There are several others not normally counted such as The Fairy Caravan (first printed in the US 1929 and UK 1952) right up the The Tale of Kitty in Boots which didn’t get it’s own printing until 2016 when it was illustrated by Quentin Blake but this box set includes a fine edition of the first Potter book and also the first official book set in her stories not by Potter. It’s an interesting, if rather expensive, addition to the oeuvre and with the popularity of the tales only increasing with the release of new films it should be regarded as a landmark set for Beatrix Potter collectors.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Original Radio Scripts – Douglas Adams

The very first broadcast of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was on the 8th March 1978 so this coming Sunday it will be 42 years since that date and as anyone who has read H2G2 will know 42 is a very important number, it is after all The Answer.

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That is, the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Knowing that to be The Answer leads to the next problem. What is The Question? That unfortunately the great supercomputer Deep Thought couldn’t tell us.

My copy of the scripts is the first edition and was published by Pan Books in 1985 by which time Hitch-Hikers had become a massive success as a series of books, a play, a couple of records, a video game, a TV series, and even a towel, but for some reason it had taken seven years for the original material to be available as a book. I remember the impact those initial broadcasts had, there had been nothing like this before and I, along with many others, was hooked. The book contains all the scripts up to that point so the original six part series first broadcast in March and April 1978, the Christmas special from the same year and the second five part series first broadcast in January 1980. They were so amazingly popular that by the end of 1984 the first series had been repeated five times, the Christmas special six times and the second series had already had four repeats in as many years. Douglas died on the 11th May 2001, aged just 49,  having extended the book series to five and later on these extra three books would (in a reverse of the original process) be converted to radio scripts but what we are concerned with here is Douglas Adams own work rather than the later adaptations even though these were wonderfully done and largely utilised the original cast. But why The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy?

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I have deliberately put this blog into the ‘Book Tales’ category rather than a review because frankly there are plenty of reviews of H2G2 and me adding another would be pointless and probably impossible so I would rather look at how this highly improbable phenomenon came to exist in the first place. Although clearly the book would be very enjoyable with just the scripts each episode is also followed with footnotes that explain what was going on during the production or some interesting facts about some aspect of the script itself. They also include a list of the music sources for each episode where you can check and go “oh yes of course it was, why didn’t I recognise it the first time”. The signature tune for example is from Journey of the Sorcerer by The Eagles, apparently many of the people who wrote in asking what it was were surprised to find that they already had the album it came from. Surprisingly large amounts of the other music used is by Hungarian composer György Ligeti. It is these extra nuggets of information that make this book so much fun. As for the included text Geoffrey Perkins wrote in his introduction.

These scripts include numerous alterations, amendments and additions, often made during recording, which helped to make a little more sense of the whole thing and gave us something to do while we were waiting for Douglas to come up with the next page.

and

Douglas is the only person I know who can write backwards. Four days before one of the Hitch-Hiker’s recordings he had written only eight pages of script. He assured me he could finish it on time. On the day of the recording, after four days of furious writing, the eight pages had shrunk to six.

This he explains is that Douglas was a perfectionist and if he spotted something that could be improved he would do that rather than create the next new part. Douglas himself freely admits in his foreword that he was a champion procrastinator and could come up with excuses for not writing far easier than he could come up with the actual ideas themselves.

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His inability to get things written on time is a constant theme of the footnotes, with scripts frequently being delivered to the actors whilst they were actually recording the episode. These would often be typed by Douglas on ‘snappies’ small booklets of quite flimsy perforated paper with carbon paper between them so he could dash out and hand them new pages of script as they were working. This led to a belief amongst the cast that he was reduced to typing the scripts on lavatory paper as his small office was next to the toilets at the studios. It all got a bit critical with the final episode of the second series, Jonathan Pryce was cast to play the Ruler of the Universe but when he arrived for the recording Douglas hadn’t actually written that bit yet so he played Zarniwoop and the voice of the Autopilot instead. The Ruler (who didn’t know he was) was ultimately played by Stephen Moore who also played Marvin the Paranoid Android along with a couple of other characters. More delays with this episode meant that it was still being edited twenty minutes before it was due to be broadcast but in a studio three miles away from where it needed to be to get on air. They made it but only just…

At the end of the first series, i didn’t really expect with any confidence that anyone would want me to do any more, so I brought the story to a very definite close. This then caused me huge problems getting the story going again for the second series. At the end of the second series I knew I would be asked to do more and deliberately left the ending open so that the next series could get off the ground straight away. Of course, we never did a third series.

Douglas Adams 1985

Happy 42nd birthday Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ll raise a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster to you on Sunday with a shot of That Old Janx Spirit to chase it down and I will definitely make sure I know where my towel is.

If none of that last sentence makes any sense then go and read the scripts, or the books, or both it doesn’t really matter which but go and read them, then you too can aspire to being a hoopy frood, you’ll thank me for it…

The Wanderer & other Old-English Poems

My latest limited edition book from The Folio Society is The Wanderer illustrated and signed by Alan Lee. An artist best known for his decades long association with works by Tolkien, both in illustrating his books and his many years in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

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The text is largely from a 1966 Penguin Classic ‘The Earliest English Poems’, translated by Michael Alexander, which also included four pages of Beowulf. Over the years this has been revised until the 2008 edition which provides the entire text for this book, with some amendments, which by then was entitled ‘The First Poems in English’. Lee was approached by The Folio Society to see if he would like to illustrate something for them and between them chose this work as it takes him back to the source materials that so inspired Tolkien in his writings. This is by no means a typical way round, the society would normally choose a book that they wanted to publish and then approach an artist to illustrate it; but what it has produced is a book where you can see the love the artist has for the material and I suspect they eventually had to stop him from creating any more artwork so that the book could actually get published. As it is each poem has its own distinctive decorative borders along with the beautiful tipped in colour paintings and on page printed black and white illustrations.

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The poems and riddles themselves come from a very short window in time, between the reign of King Alfred the Great over the Anglo Saxons (886 to 899AD) where he started the process of moving the written word from Latin to Old-English and the Norman invasion of 1066 when all that was swept away with the imposition of Norman French. In truth there were probably just thirty or forty years where Old-English hit its peak before becoming almost extinct. The greatest source material for the work of this period is The Exeter Book which was regarded as largely worthless for centuries before becoming recognised as the treasure trove that it is.  The poems are much more powerful than might be expected from their great age, they clearly come from an oral tradition as they are directed at the reader as though being read to them, I am reminded of the Icelandic sagas in concept if not in size. Indeed as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in his especially commissioned foreword

There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile

Along with the general introduction and note on translation each poem has its own introduction setting the scene for the following work and providing mush needed context. The works are over a thousand years old and the people who wrote and read them were very different to ourselves.

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The original Penguin book its variants and companion volumes have sold over a million copies in the fifty years since they came out and the quality of the work shows exactly why Michael Alexander is such a respected translator and this edition makes reading them so much more of a joy than the original paperbacks. The text is presented with the original on the left hand side and the translation on the right as can be seen in one of my favourite works included the fragment of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the section of Heroic Poems. I suspect I like these more than the somewhat more introspective other poems is my fondness for the sagas and these have more of a feel of those. However this is an account of a real battle that can be also seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such a level of detail that there is also an accompanying map included with the text so the reader can easily see how the fight progresses, which frankly is not well for the English side and a lot better for the attacking Vikings.

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The riddles are great fun and at the back are a set of proposed solutions, however the one that I have shown as an example also has drawings by Alan Lee which somewhat give away the answer. All the riddles are from The Exeter Book where presumably there are a lot more as these start at number seven and there are lots of numeric gaps.

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The answer is of course mead.

As only 750 copies were printed at £395 each and these are all sold out from the Folio Society it would be difficult to get a copy of this fine edition, but if I have whetted your appetite for Old-English poetry and riddles then the Penguin paperback is still in print and considerably cheaper.

There is a short video showing the book from the Folio Society

and a longer video of an interview with Alan Lee.

 

The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde

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This book has as its full title The Happy Prince and Other Stories as there are three more short tales by Oscar Wilde included although easily the most famous is The Happy Prince. As I read this story it seemed familiar although I’m quite certain that I haven’t read it before I must obviously have maybe heard it or read a summary at some point. All of the stories carry a moral so lets look at the four stories individually, they are short so not giving away the ending in a review is tricky but I think I have managed it…

The Happy Prince

The prince in the story is actually a statue on a high pedestal looking out over the city, the statue is covered in gold leaf, has emeralds for eyes and a ruby set in the pommel of his sword and he is far from happy. The young prince he is modelled on however led a ‘happy’ and sheltered privileged life not seeing anything outside the luxurious palace grounds and not knowing anything of the poverty that surrounded his domain, so the statue became known as The Happy Prince. Up here on his column however he can see the poor all around him and wishes he could do something to help them. He is visited by a swallow seeking shelter for the night on his delayed migration to Egypt which is why he is flying alone after the rest of his kind. When the statue tells the bird of how he wants to help the people he comes up with a plan to donate the riches that he has on his body to the needy and enlists the help of the swallow to distribute what he can. The story is heartwarming but ultimately tragic and I really enjoyed it.

The Young King

This concerns another happy prince within his gilded cage although this time he is about to become king and he has not always lived this life of privilege. This one however is enamoured with the riches that surround him, lost in wonder in front of great art and fine fabrics and jewels. The coronation is coming the robe, sceptre and crown are prepared when the night before the ceremony the young king to be has three strange dreams. In them he is confronted with the reality of how his ceremonial raiment has been made, the grinding poverty of the weavers, the death of a pearl fisherman, the deprivation of the mines needed for the fine jewels. The next morning he explains his dreams to the courtiers come to dress him for the ceremony and refuses to wear the outfit prepared, preferring a more lowly guise of the goat-herder he had been before being recognised as the heir apparent. At this point I was sure I knew where the story was heading but I’m glad to say I was wrong.

The Devoted Friend

My least favourite of the four stories, perhaps because it just repeatedly bangs the reader round the head with the moral, where the devoted friend turns out to really be the one who doesn’t consider himself the title character. I confess that I got irritated by the story as Wilde kept pushing his point

The Model Millionaire

The shortest of the stories also includes my favourite quote from the selection with Wilde employing the barbed wit for which he is famous. The story concerns an impecunious young man who whilst visiting an artist friend finds him painting a portrait of a beggar. Now the young man is in love, but the father of his beloved has made it clear that as he has little money and no prospects of getting any he is not considered an appropriate suitor for his daughter. Despite this he hands the beggar most of the money he has on him only to find his generosity repaid handsomely. What is the quote I liked so much, well it makes much of a fine distinction.

Trevor was a painter, indeed few people escape that nowadays. But he was also an artist, and artists are rather rare.

The cover of the book is a detail from a painting by James Pryde and is perfect to represent The Happy Prince on his column. The book is part of the Penguin 60’s series, published in 1995 to mark 60 years of Penguin Books. I bought all of them at the time and I’m ashamed to say still have a lot of them to read twenty five years later.

Ringworld – Larry Niven

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What must be Larry Niven’s best known book was originally published fifty years ago and remains a classic of Science Fiction and for the most part the scientific basis of the potential futures and situations depicted is largely founded in reality. This is more than can be said for the image used on the cover of my copy, see above, where the artist has fundamentally misunderstood the concept of the Ringworld, we should be seeing the world from above in the lit squares not from the side.

The main protagonist, Louis Wu, is celebrating his 200th birthday as the novel starts and has decided to prolong the experience by using ubiquitous matter transmitters in the non-specified future that the book occurs in to skip to a city in a time zone one hour earlier just before midnight wherever he is. This makes the book unique in science fiction as far as I am aware by starting in Beirut, even if by the end of the first page we are already in Budapest. It is during one of these hops from city to city that he is diverted, something that apparently should be impossible, and the novel which initially appears to be dealing with future Earth takes a leap that would ultimately lead us to Ringworld.

The diversion was organised by a member of the alien Puppeteer race which should also have been impossible as they had left ‘known space’ centuries earlier so what was one doing on Earth? It turns out that he is looking for a very specific crew for an expedition to investigate an artefact that he won’t talk about and for their fee he will provide blueprints and a working version of a new type of starship that can travel at speeds thousands of times faster than any other ship…  So much has happened and we are still only four pages into a novel that runs to 283 pages in the 1977 paperback from Sphere (ironic publishing house considering the subject matter) that I have. A definite page turner…

As we get to understand the various races brought together for this journey we discover that all of them are struggling with the issues caused by overpopulation and the exploitation beyond sustainable limits of the various planetary resources that they have all faced. This is a novel concerned with ecology well before it was fashionable and the different races have come up with very different solutions to the problem. Puppeteers are forbidden sex without difficult to obtain permission so have gone the all so difficult abstinence route. Another crew member is a Kzin (basically a race of intelligent and warlike eight foot cats) and they fight amongst themselves if food gets difficult to obtain, however they have also fought several wars against mankind which they have lost fairly convincingly which have also heavily reduced their numbers of potential breeding males.

The humans of Earth have introduced strict limits to the number of children that a person can have although they have largely avoided the problems China had years after this book came out by having specific exclusions from the limit including paying a large sum of money on the basis that being able to afford the fee suggests a certain ability that is worth preserving (it also removes the temptations of bribery). More importantly for the plot of the book there is also a lottery for the right to reproduce and Teela who joins the crew is from the fifth generation of people who all won the lottery. Are humans breeding for luck? It certainly seems so and so she was selected as a lucky talisman for the expedition despite having no other skills that would make her an obvious candidate but the Puppeteer spent a long time trying to find the hundred or so people that fit the category.

Ringworld, when they finally get there is potentially the ultimate solution to population problems being cylindrical in form and a million miles wide from side to side, with a radius of almost ninety million miles, surrounding a sun whilst rotating at 770 miles per second to replicate an almost Earth like gravity by utilising centripetal forces. There are also great plates in an orbit of the sun inside than that of the ring which provide for day/night periodicity.  Niven states that the surface area is equivalent to three million Earths, it’s actually more like 2.87 million assuming the maximum values for radius and width that he gives but it does at least mean that he worked it out. But who built this enormous object and why, and also why does it have Earth like gravity and day/night sequences? Those are the main questions of the book and what Louis, Teela, Neesa the Puppeteer and Speaker to Animals the Kzin apparently have to answer. Along the way we will also discover why the Kzin kept losing their battles with Earth and also just what, or who, was behind the birthright lotteries.

The book is very well written as befits a Hugo and Nebula awards winner but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. Like the wire that becomes so critical to the solution there are too many loose ends that don’t get sorted out with the way they leave the Ringworld.

The Trial of Charles I

As I start reading this book it is 371 years to the day (January 30th 1649) since the execution of King Charles I and the events that led up to initially the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland later that year and then by 1653 the Protectorate under the control of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The republic he founded turned out to be somewhat less of a democratic state than its founders hoped, relying on military force to control the country rather than popular support. The appointment of Cromwell’s third son, Richard, as Lord Protector on the death of Oliver in 1658 and thus replacing one hereditary leader with another did little to suggest that getting rid of the monarchy had led to significant change and eventually led to the Restoration in 1660 with King Charles II taking his place on the throne. It’s a fascinating period of British history so I’m looking forward to tackling this slim volume published by the Folio Society in 1959 and bound to resemble a book from Charles I’s own library.

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The book is split into six sections, the first is a really good summary of the reign of Charles I and the issues that led to the Civil War and the subsequent trial after Charles lost the conflict. This twenty six page introduction is written by noted historian C V Wedgewood and she succeeds admirably in setting the scene for the remainder of the book which is made up from contemporary sources.  These take us from 13th November 1647 when Charles fled to the Isle of Wight hoping to avoid parliamentary forces and maybe get across the channel to France right through to his funeral in February 1649. The texts come from two sources and are interleaved as they cover the time period. Initially we come to Sir Thomas Herbert who was Groom of the Bedchamber throughout the book and was therefore in constant contact with the King right up until his death, the second source is John Rushworth who was a lawyer and collected information about any court cases that interested him and therefore is the best non-partisan recorder of the trial and its aftermath.

Thomas Herbert provides a lot of interesting background to the incarceration of Charles in the Isle of Wight and thence Windsor and ultimately St James in London for the trial itself. Although by inclination a Parliamentarian he provides a fair and balanced account of the Kings actions during this time and the publication of his account helped considerably with the improvement of the regard Charles was held in when it revealed the calm and dignified way he acted at all times compared to the treatment he received from his captors. Rushworth’s account of the trial itself, relying as it does on transcripts paints a clear picture of what would now be regarded as a kangaroo court where the decision of guilt had already been made before they started, the only question was if Cromwell could persuade enough judges to pass the death sentence. Charles is brought before the court and legitimately challenges the legality of the process. In fact there was no actual basis in law for Parliament to sit as a court and they were well aware of this as his repeated challenges simply result in adjournments to the next day whilst they try to come up with a legal argument. In the end Parliament simply ends up with the effective position that this is a legal court because we say it is and will not allow dissent from this statement. Unsurprisingly, after a couple of days of ‘evidence’ where Charles was not allowed to attend let alone challenge anything given against him they decided on the death sentence that Cromwell had wanted from the first.

We then switch back to Herbert’s account of Charles’s last few days, which are spent in prayer and in trying to do what he can for his children. Rushworth is used again for a description of the execution before we return to Herbert to cover the funeral. These three sections are a lot shorter than the first two but again show the King in a favourable light. What is particularly interesting is the use of these two contemporary sources, I learnt about the Civil War at school and we probably covered the entire period of this book in one lesson being more concerned with the start of the conflict and the battles rather than the capture and trial of King Charles I. This book is an extremely interesting addition to my knowledge of this part of British history, for instance I didn’t know that the Scottish parliament had written to the English one complaining about the way they were handling the situation as Charles was also their King and they certainly didn’t want him executed.

There are four brief appendices, the most interesting of which concerns the death warrant itself and the changes made to it which suggest that it was written earlier and then had to be amended to fit the ultimate date along with two names that have been written over ones subsequently removed. It appears that the decision of the judges was more fluid than the Parliamentarians would have liked.

Valley of Hunted Men – Paul Evan Lehman

There is an entire genre of fiction that I have never read any example from and that is the American Western. Well I’ve recently bought a copy of Valley of Hunted Men so time to find out if I should have explored the category years ago…

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First impressions were mixed, right from the first page we have a train robbery, six men holding up the express causing death and destruction before riding out of town with $20,000 in gold coins, a classic trope of the genre. So yes I was intrigued where this was going but I was already caught up in the issues of the language used in the novel, the slang and unusual spelling would be familiar with regular readers of this style but I found it off putting whilst recognising that it was a necessary part of the writing structure. One word in particular struck me as anomalous, which was the constant reference to the stolen loot as specie. Now I know this is the correct word for gold (and sometimes silver) coins rather than paper currency but I’d only ever come across the term in books written or set in Victorian London so it seemed odd to it was being used here, in fact I found it so jarring that it kept pushing me off the narrative and every few pages I’d put the book down and not pick it up again for a couple of days, I just couldn’t get into the story.

The tropes just kept coming though, a wounded mystery man falls off his horse at the feet of the pretty daughter of the man running the valley so she takes him home and nurses him back to health where he gives his name as Kirk Dane but refuses to say anything about how he came to be there. But the pretty daughter falls in love with him anyway. There are outlaws in them thar hills surrounding the ranch, and talking of the ranch there’s a grumpy old roustabout with a heart of gold to almost complete the set and then the biggest stereotype of them all rides into the mix…

“Stranger” muttered Butch to his companion, “Ain’t he a dude though

The man was of medium build with smooth olive skin, dark expressive eyes and perfectly moulded lips shaded by a small waxed black moustache. He was attired in a black frock coat, a white silk shirt and a stetson which must have cost fifty dollars at the least. Under the table Kirk had a glimpse of dark trousers and handmade boots of black Spanish leather.

And then finally I got it, I remembered the Spaghetti Westerns I had seen as a child. The wounded cowboy lounging on the porch smoking as he recuperates, the ultra smart man in black, we have Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef all that was needed was a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and I was back almost fifty years. I could at last picture what I was reading and the second half was read in one sitting after fighting for two weeks with the first. It’s quite clear that Kirk is after the men who did the train robbery but why? Who else is on the same quest? Which of the various possibilities is the lawman on a mission, Kirk is too obvious and when about fifty pages in some of the outlaws decide he is the marshal after them it’s quite clear that he isn’t going to be. There were lots of characters to keep track of, although that does get easier as the book progresses as they start getting killed off. Of course it has a happy ending, well apart from those that don’t make it to the end anyway, I guess that is normal for the genre.

In the end I quite enjoyed the book but the first half was a real struggle until I finally managed to settle down with the plot flow. Will I read another Western? Probably not, it took me over fifty years to get round to reading this one and if that’s my rate of getting to them then I may not get there. Lehman appears to have been a successful writer in the genre with plenty of books to his name but no I don’t have the need to read another.

Darwin in Malibu – Crispin Whittall

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This play by Crispin Whittell was premiered by The Birmingham Repertory theatre in Birmingham, England in May 2003, it opened on the 9th May and finished its scheduled run on the 31st, I attended the performance on the 21st. The copy of the book I possess was bought at the theatre and includes several pages relating to the performance including biographical details of the performers along with details regarding the theatre company and the theatre itself. Presumably these pages are not present in later versions of the book as it is replacing the need for a programme at this particular performance and is not relevant to any later production.

The entire play takes plays on the deck of a beach house in Malibu, California and is viewed as though the audience are sitting on the beach looking towards the house with the sea behind them. It is clearly the present day from the attire of the young woman who appears on the stage as the play opens. Already seated on the deck is an old man with a white beard wearing a Hawaiian shirt and reading a book, which turns out to be Malibu by Pat Booth. Already I was intrigued by the set-up, as presumably this was Charles Darwin, and nobody had said anything yet. Sarah and Darwin chat aimlessly for a while, she is clearly a little ditsy and missing her boyfriend whilst Darwin appears to have discovered a rather unlikely liking for horoscopes.

The two are joined by Thomas Huxley who was Darwin’s friend and public champion of his theory when it was published in 1859 whilst Darwin himself had stayed at his home in Kent most noticeably at an acrimonious  debate at the British Association’s Oxford meeting in 1860. It soon becomes clear that both men are well aware that over a century has passed and that they are both dead. They are also puzzled as to why in that case they are sitting in a beach house in Malibu and also why they are joined by Sarah who is clearly not a Victorian ghost. Nevertheless they chat about the Oxford debate and also technological discoveries since such as DNA which shows how Natural Selection (as Darwin called it) works.

Then suddenly from along the beach the bishop of Oxford from that same debate, Samuel Wilberforce, arrives. It was with the bishop that Huxley famously, and possibly apocryphally, disagreed most. Apparently back in 1860 Wilberforce facetiously asked Huxley whether his ape ancestors were on his grandfather or grandmother’s side. Huxley replied that he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man with an impressive brain and considerable influence who chose to employ those facilities in the ridicule of science. The three of them attempt to continue the debate on stage and although it is now 143 years later it is clear there will be no meeting of minds, just as we also slowly find out who Sarah is and why she is there.

Now if that all sounds a little dry and overly intellectual for an evenings entertainment I have to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst not a laugh a minute it is very funny when it wants to be and poignant when appropriate. I still have the flyer for the show I saw which is tucked into the book as a bookmark and the quote from Darwin’s lines in the play printed on it sums up the effect of California on the great thinker. The play is seldom performed although it has had a few revivals not just in the UK but America as well, if it ever on near you I recommend it.

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Wind, Sand and Stars – Saint-Exupéry

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I think most people come across Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry, to give him his full name, via his massively popular novel The Little Prince which is one of the most translated books ever written, only beaten by The Bible and, depending on where you look, Pinocchio. Once you have heard of his work then quite often you discover that he was a French pioneer aviator, flying mail planes from 1926 and that he died in mysterious circumstances during WWII whilst on a reconnaissance flight looking for German troop movements in mid 1944. This lovely Folio Society edition concerns some of his flying experiences from a student through the 1930’s. He was to write another book covering his wartime flying called Flight to Arras and having finished this book I now need to get hold of a copy of that.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, tales of daring do, a man against the elements in what was still very primitive machinery perhaps, what I had not allowed for was how much the philosopher and poet would shine through. Indeed near the beginning in the chapter called ‘The Elements’ which describes being caught in a storm in the Andes Saint-Exupéry makes it quite clear that my first thoughts are not to be realised

And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.

In reality the story that follows is dramatic, but not because of excitable reportage which may have been the style selected by a lesser writer, but for the calm descriptions of each problem thrown at the pilot as the storm winds batter his plane around the sky. The various chapters whilst maintaining an internal consistent time-frame are not placed chronologically in the book. Chapter one does cover his days as a student pilot, or at least the preparations for his first flight as the pilot on a mail plane rather than his student days and as the book progresses you find him in South America and later the Sahara although in reality his three years as a desert pilot preceded his time across the Atlantic.

There is surprising little flying in the book at all, the longest chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ starts out with a proposed flight from Paris to Saigon in December 1935 and does indeed have Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic in the air for several pages until the inevitable crash presaged by the chapter title has them down in an unknown part of the desert. The main part of the chapter concerns their attempts to attract rescue and treks away from the plane wreckage to seek water and nourishment almost all of which had been lost in the crash. But even here Saint-Exupéry deflates the tension pointing out early on that he is writing the story so they must have eventually found help, even  though it was at the last possible chance as they were almost dying from lack of water. This for me is the best chapter of the book, closely followed by ‘Men of the Desert’ which again is chiefly not concerned with flying but rather the people on the ground that he comes into contact with and almost half the chapter regards the freeing of a slave held by desert nomads and returning him to Marrakesh.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Barcelona and Madrid (1936)’ covers some of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in this conflict was never as a participant unlike George Orwell whose time there led to his book Homage to Catalonia. In fact it is not clear exactly what he is doing there as he manages to be on both fronts and is vitriolic regarding the futility of the conflict.

There was not much to choose between Barcelona and its enemy, Saragossa; both were composed of the same swarm of communists, anarchists and fascists. The very men who collected on the same side were perhaps more different from one another than from their enemies. In civil war the enemy is inward; one as good as fights oneself. What else can explain the particular horror of this war in which firing-squads count for more that soldiers of the line?

and a little later

Here in Spain a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Here again Saint-Exupéry is dealing with mankind as his subject, the title of the book is probably a little misleading, you expect Biggles but you get Descartes.

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On the 23rd July 1944 Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work The Little Prince was published for the first time. Eight days later he set off on a routine reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning looking for German troops and was never seen again. Indeed no trace of his plane was to be found for over fifty years, first a bracelet was discovered in the nets of a Marseilles fisherman and that led to the discovery of a wrecked P-38 off the coast. Checking a recovered serial number proved the wreck to be his plane but there was no body. Near the end of The Little Prince the eponymous hero has to return to his own planet and amongst his last words are

I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true…

For over fifty years fans of Saint-Exupéry wanted that to be true of him also…