Fiction’s hard wired into my DNA – whether it’s the work of Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck or V.S.Naipaul – I’m an English Lit graduate for goodness sake! Endlessly sailing to the shores of remarkable storytellers is all well and good, but now and again, I’m caught with a craving for a political biography – whether it’s Churchill, Thatcher or Blair – and America’s political leaders, too, notably, presidential sparring partners, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. What made our leaders – and the leaders of the free world – tick? What drove them to the top of their respective greasy poles? .
I’d read the amazing, imaginative work of historical fiction – Wolf Hall – by Hilary Mantel – a little while back. When you see her recommendation name-checked on the cover of a piece of historical biography as you browse Waterstones Bookshop, you know it must be pretty good.
So, Henry VII. What did I really know about this rather shadowy geezer? I say shadowy in the sense that what little I knew of him told me he was the dynastic warm up act for those other two headlining Tudors – Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I – seen below.
What Thomas Penn’s Winter King does is to demonstrate what a pivotal figure Henry VII was. A king who has seized the throne after years of civil unrest and who spent much of his reign looking over his shoulders and dealing with a variety of pretenders to the crown.
I certainly feel like a historical blindspot of mine has been corrected and it’s fascinating to speculate on the fate of the country socially and economically, let alone whether it might ever have declared religious UDI from the dead hand of Rome had Henry VII’s oldest son – Prince Arthur – not succumbed to illness shortly after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Just as today, with our current Queen – Elizabeth II – a simple twist of fate and suddenly the whole dynastic line of succession can change in an instant. Although the book does present a clear picture of the care and attention Henry paid to his elder son’s preparation for kingship and gave us some sense of the loss on his death, the personal ramifications are never fully explored.
What the book occasionally lacks in the account of the personal aspects of Henry and his immediate family is more than made up for in terms of the high level of detail of the wide range of players on the broader political scene. It reminded me of studying the many novels of Charles Dickens at university years ago; my strategy for keeping up to speed with the heaving mass of characters and the spider’s web of relationships was to keep a running list at the front of the book as one by one the characters took their turn on the narrative stage.
Winter King is, at times. a dense read, and you do need to pay attention. But it’s well worth the effort. What I find fascinating is to be able to draw parallels between our modern constitutional monarchy and it’s modus operandi and this Tudor monarch’s attention to ceremonial pomp, splendour and public relations! I’ll be watching tomorrow’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames through the prism of history and the life and preoccupations of the current queen’s ancestor.
Growing up in the early 60’s as an only child in the first instance, and with television also in it’s infancy, books played a big part in feeding my imagination. There’s one that I’d remembered really clearly but lost all trace of until it turned up on the internet .. The King Who Learned to Smile – by Seymour Reit.
This was the cover which is almost quite baroque in terms of it’s style. Think the warm, rich colours must have appealed. Lost count of the times I must have opened this book. It was strange how quickly the narrative came back all these years later.
The book’s appeal undoubtedly owed a lot to the superb illustrations by Gordon Laite. I’ve been reading posts by others who remembered this book and everyone seems to agree that the images have remained in their memories over the years. His style was highly illustrative but there was something curiously compelling and at times a little dark about it.
A quick look at some of his other work confirms this haunting, almost gothic style.
Kids were clearly made of sterner stuff in those days!
Seymour Reit made sure that The King Who Learned to Smile had a happy ending. He, too, it turns out, had been an animator at one time and had even been co-created Caspar the Friendly Ghost. More interesting still is that he went on to write many pages for the hugely successful and zany ‘Mad‘ magazine – also to become a bit of a favourite of mine as I was growing up.I’d never put the two together though!
I’d just finished reading David Baldacci’s ‘The Sixth Man’ – an ingenious and dramatic piece of US crime/thriller fiction. Don’t often read these books by the likes of Baldacci and Patricia Cornwell et al. For me, they’re a little like eating a ‘Whopper’ at Burger King; I can happily go for months and not want one. But every now and again, it’s the perfect bite to eat and satisfies a craving.
So I started ‘Snowdrops’ almost the minute I closed the last page on ‘The Sixth Man’. The debut novel of ‘The Economist’ journalist, A.D. Miller. And shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize no less. Surely more gourmet dining than fast food I thought.
The novel’s set in contemporary Russia. Did I just say ‘contemporary’? By the end of the novel, much of life in modern day Moscow seems to have more in common with our cave-dwelling forebears than with the 21st Century. The novel meticulously records the bloat and excess of modern day Muscovites who’ve grown hugely wealthy and corrupt since the demise of the Soviet Union. It’s a grimly fascinating world. Like the complicit banker and lawyer-narrator, who come to realise they’re no more than “fleas on the Cossack’s arse”, as readers, we’re taken uncomfortably close to a disturbing and dirty world of vodka, prostitutes and cruel scams.
Authenticity is the novel’s strong suit I’d suggest. Sometimes subtly dealt, and at other times, it’s a hand played with brio. Here’s Miller describing part of the Metro system; “The old part of the Moscow Metro, in the city centre, is the sort of subway system you get if you give a tyrannical maniac all the marble, onyx and disposable human beings he can dream of.”
And it’s got pace too. Although I do wonder about books that start with the closing image. On balance, I think it’s a bit of a cheat, and acts as a phoney magnet dragging the reader forward. Have to wonder, too, about the value of the confessional device, the narrator sharing his experiences and the confessional with the readers and an absentee confessor.
Where the novel falters a little more is with the credibility of the first person narrator. Moscow winters are undoubtedly very cold and eat at the soul, but are we being asked to believe that it’s numbed his common sense and reason too? I felt like I was at a pantomime at times, with our Prince Charming surrounded by all manner of stereotypical villains, and wanting to shout “Behind you” or “Oh no it isn’t” to jolt his irritating gullibility. Give Baldacci his due, his characters are smart and mostly on the money.