There are a few redeeming features in the Murdoch press, notably the Saturday and Sunday book reviews.

I would expect it to be the fiction that gets to me. But no.

Take this week.

There are two — even three — reviews that are well-written, and suggest the book that’s the subject of the review might well be worth pursuing.

The third is Gerald DeGroot on JH Elliott (and I hadn’t realised he was still in the saddle) comparing — even forcing the comparison — Scots and Catalans.

DeGroot, predictably, irritates the ‘usual suspects’ by vamping on the sense of nationality. His disrespect for that mistaken obsession

starts with those foundation myths that nationalists love. The Scots trace their monarchy back to Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, while the Catalans identify their founder as Tubal, son of Japheth and pal of Hercules who sailed from Jaffa to Catalonia in 2157BC.

When Wilfred the Hairy, who ruled Barcelona in the 9th century, was hurt in battle, the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious moistened his hand with blood from the wound and made four vertical stripes on Wilfred’s golden shield in recognition of his bravery. From that came the distinctive Catalan flag of alternating red and gold bands. It’s all fake history, but the people gobble it up. As most historians accept, nations are simply “imagined communities”.

Promising! He gets better:

In 1856 The Times described Scotland as “a country in want of a grievance”. Elliott agrees. He’s quick to condemn the paranoid self-obsession evident in Scotland and Catalonia. “As memories accumulate,” he writes, “they create a mentality of victimhood that goes looking for some fresh grievance to add to the store.” Yet criticising this grievance culture is rather like telling a chronic depressive to cheer up because there’s so much that’s wonderful in the world.

Elliott clearly has trouble understanding popular passion. In one unfortunate paragraph he argues that faith in the Union was reinforced by the shared experience of the Great War — all that volunteering and dying for Blighty. Yet that’s not the way Scots I know think of the war. For Glaswegians, the fact that Field Marshal Douglas Haig was Scottish is less important than the fact that Winston Churchill sent tanks into George Square in January 1919 to suppress rioting strikers. With ordinary people, feeling always trumps fact. At the Waverley Bar in Edinburgh I once listened to a Scot recall the Highland Clearances as if they had occurred the day before. He was drunk, but that’s beside the point.

So that’s where Wodehouse acquired his famous line! Similarly, around 1962, a survivor (?) from the Connaught Rangers, in a pub in Galway, regaled Bob and me with the ‘true’ story of the July 1920 Mutiny and decimation. I think it cost us his next pint.

As I said, there are two better prospects.

Fergus Butler-Gallie rattles through King of the North Wind by Claudia Gold. Anything decent on Henry II is going to grab me, ever since I sat through Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn tearing chunks out of each other. And this review is fun:

Henry, like so many of our greatest monarchs, was never meant to rule. The death of his uncle William in a drunken shipwreck incident (the famed White Ship disaster) in 1120 made his mother, Matilda, the only legitimate heir to Henry I. Matilda’s husband, the Holy Roman Emperor, conveniently died, allowing her to marry Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, a man grand enough to have land and power, but not grand enough to threaten the widowed empress’s status as heir in her own right.

Unfortunately for Matilda, her cousin Stephen of Blois had some retrograde ideas about the right of women to rule and so seized the throne when Henry I died in 1135. The ensuing civil war, the Anarchy, was an age, one chronicler said, “when God and his saints slept”. So, from the age of two, Henry Plantagenet found himself fighting, a theme that would continue throughout his life. Eventually, after years of stalemate, Stephen (whose heir, Eustace, had gone the way of all flesh in 1153) agreed that Henry could succeed him on his death, which occurred after a horrid bout of diarrhoea in 1154.

Doubtless a promising title, but at nearly 10p a page I’ll wait for the discounted paperback, while savouring Butler-Gallie:

The impressively manipulative Eleanor used her impatient, sociopathic children to seek revenge on her brash, adulterous husband. Foolishly, Henry not only failed to keep his own near-constant marital indiscretions under wraps, but also sought to consolidate his personal power across England and France at the expense of the autonomy of his wife and sons, who were supposed to be landowners in their own right.

The Angevin dynasty had a particular penchant for treachery, with alliances being made or broken at the drop of a crown. Their capacity for backstabbing make contemporary political shenanigans look like a Sunday School session — what would our prime minister give for an elaborately staged shipwreck off the French coast?

Best of the lot, Top o’ t’ Hill, as book and review, seems to me to be Leanda de Lisle on Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain by Nadine Akkerman. As I understand, this one is already in a re-print.

Akkerman’s material is juicy, and de Lisle gives us full squishiness:

The real Charles I was no maiden aunt. He liked sex. He had pursued secret assignations with women before he married, his misogynistic father having a strong antipathy to any risk of his son producing royal bastards. When he did marry, he expelled the French priests who advised his wife against having sex on the Catholic church’s many holy days and went on to sire a brood of children that the supposedly macho Henry VIII could only have envied. By 1648, when he was imprisoned at Carisbrooke, Charles had been parted from his wife for four years, and was understandably impatient to “embrace and nip” Jane Whorwood.

Beyond that, of course, is the feminism:

The Roundhead press dismissed “She intelligencers” — the pejorative term they used to describe women agents — as mere gossips. The royalists were more open-minded, but they still warned Charles only to use women for the lowest level work, judging them “vessels too weak for the retention of strong liquor”. Charles ignored all such advice, and as Nadine Akkerman reveals “wove a web of invisible agents around himself”, an entire spy ring of “she intelligencers”.

De Lisle’s review makes much of Jane Whorwood and:

[t]he famous “killing beauty” of the age, Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, who became the model for Dumas’ Milady de Winter in the Three Musketeers, was an expert femme fatale, and one who spied for both sides during the civil wars.

I’ll happily admit Whorwood is new to me, and my acquaintance with Lucy Carlisle only in passing. But a decent offer of a discount may persuade me to spend good money on a copy. But there’s more!

Take Anne, Lady Halkett, who, along with her bigamous husband, helped the future James II to escape imprisonment. She was master of disguise and appears to have known James well, because she organised women’s dress for him in just the right size. “It was of mixed mohair . . . and underneath was a scarlet petticoat”, and she thought the teenage boy “looked very pretty in it”. It was quite a coup to get him out of the country, but when she wrote an account of her actions she felt that she had to justify her work as being carried out only as the dutiful wife she had believed herself to be.

The truth is, some of them at least very much enjoyed the work. Elizabeth, Lady Carey, who used bribes and hard cash to dispose of a key witness in a treason trial, thrived on danger, and a friend observed: “I know how much you prefer that to lazy quiet.” But it was not work they boasted of and we are privileged to be given glimpses of it.

Hold on a mo’ … there may be Careys up in the loftinesses of my family tree. And I want to know more about the ‘local’ connection:

In Ireland captured she intelligencers were transported as slaves to Barbados.

Dammit! Where’s the wallet and the credit card?

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  1. Pingback: Timing … | Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service

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