Writing is fun!


The Midnight Palace

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

(translated by Lucia Graves)

Re-post of original review Secret Societies and Ghostly Terror by Bookheathen)


 ‘Never mind the number of candles on your birthday cake,’ writes Zafon in his introduction to The Midnight Palace,for those in the know, it’s what lies beneath them that matters’.


Zafon’s first four published novels were intended for young adults. The Midnight Palace, written about seven years before The Shadow of the Wind, is the second to be translated into English. The Palace is a derelict building in Calcutta, the headquarters of a secret society of orphan teenagers. As Ben and his six friends are about to leave the orphanage for good, they meet elderly Aryami Bose and her granddaughter Sheere.

It turns out that Ben and Sheere are twins whom Bose has separated shortly after their birth to protect them from a family curse. Pursued by Jawahal, a diabolical presence who can appear and disappear at will, crush flesh and bone, and melt metal at a touch, the friends embark on a quest to find answers: why has Aryami lied to them? where is Ben’s and Sheere’s father’s house? what really happened on the night when more than three hundred orphan children were incinerated in a horrific train disaster?

The teenagers’ search puts them all in mortal danger, especially Ben and Sheere, for whom the danger is not merely the threat of death but of something much worse. Against an immortal villain who appears invincible, their only weapon seems to be their love and friendship for one another. And, as is so often the case when good faces evil in an impossible contest, only a supreme sacrifice can break the deadlock.

The Midnight Palace is a fantasy but we can see already in the writing some of the elements that Zafon will use in his adult stories. There is his use of suspense and of the gothic – a haunted railway station, dark streets and fetid passageways, a sprawling mansion to which entry is gained by turning four alphabetic wheels. And, like those in his Barcelona trilogy, the antagonist in The Midnight Palace is as relentless as he is pitiless.

Although the writing in this novel is not as grand and accomplished as that of The Angel’s Game, for me it has the same feel of surrealism. The Midnight Palace is not a happy-ever-after tale like those Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton, or even the Bulldog Drummond series with all its derring-do. It is not even happy-for-now. Yet I very much enjoyed the trip back to my late childhood.



Something Nasty in the Woodshed

I was reminded just the other day on going through my ‘Reader’ of this piece, which I wrote some time ago. As this is one of my  very favourite books, I thought I would re-post my review today!

Cold Comfort Farm

by Stella Gibbons

You would expect, by all the laws of probability, to find a mad grandmother at Cold Comfort Farm, and for once the laws of probability had not done you down and a mad grandmother there was.’

Aunt Ada Doom is in her eighties. She hasn’t left the farm for twenty years. Indeed, she only comes out of her room once a year to do ‘the Counting’ – a kind of on the spot census of her numerous and eccentric relations, the Starkadder Family. When she was a young girl (we are told), she saw something nasty in the woodshed. No one truly knows what she saw, but she has never been the same since.


Flora Poste, recently orphaned at the age of nineteen and possessing an income of one hundred pounds a year, goes to live with her aunts and cousins at Cold Comfort Farm. With names like Amos and Seth, Reuben, Elfine, Mark, Luke, Micah and Harkaway, the extended family and their contingent of domestic help are as crazy as they sound. We meet nonagenarian Adam Lambsbreath and his four cows, Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless. We make the acquaintance of Mrs Beetle, a sort of housekeeper, and her philoprogenitive daughter Meriam. And we encounter from time to time minor characters like Claud, Mr Mybug, and a collection of Starkadder wives who live in the nearby village rather than with their men folk at the farm.


But Flora, rather reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Emma, has a plan! – a plan to change the farm and its inhabitants – to give to all an opportunity to achieve their ambitions, to fulfil their hearts’ desires.

She begins with Amos, a fiery preacher of hellfire and damnation and persuades him to go on a world tour in a Ford van. Next, she arranges for Elfine to marry into the County set. Seth’s passion – apart from Meriam – is the Talkies, and Flora brings a Hollywood director to Cold Comfort to sign him up as a star. She seems to know all sorts of people, does our Flora!

Reuben has his heart set on the farm, and she removes all the obstacles to his taking possession of it. His suspicion of his cousin removed, he begins to make some long-overdue changes.

The problems and the solutions are as many and varied as Gibbons’s characters, and Flora sets about changing the world without giving much thought to her own happiness. For her cousin Judith, she enlists the help of a German psychoanalyst. Her penultimate triumph is a total make-over for Aunt Ada, who is reborn as Cold Comfort’s version of Amelia Earhart/Amy Johnson, complete with black leather flying jacket.

Finally, Flora – like Emma – needs to sort out her own love life, which she does without dissembling in typical Flora fashion.

Published in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm was Stella Gibbons’s first novel. It is supposedly a parody of a genre that was popular at the time, a satire on country life, but it is so much more. We laugh with the author at the rural folks’ breeding habits (both animal and human), their quaint dialects and stubborn attachment to the soil of England. But we laugh too at the fashionable  world of Flora’s friends, and at the ‘County Set’ and their seemingly pointless existence.

Cold Comfort Farm is a novel to brighten up a dull day, full of crazy but lovable people. An added bonus in my copy are the delightful illustrations by the talented Sir Quentin Blake.

PS [added August 21, 2016] By the way, this novel has one of the best first sentences in literature [with thanks to Magic of Books and My Book File for blogging the favourite first sentences challenge]:

‘The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.’




by Margaret Atwood

‘…. [A]nyone who liked smelling daisies, and having daisies to smell, and eating mercury-free fish, and who objected to giving birth to three-eyed infants via the toxic sludge in their drinking water was a demon-possessed Satanic minion of darkness, hell-bent on sabotaging the American Way and God’s Holy Oil, which were one and the same.’

WARNING: If you are someone who is offended by the proliferation in literature of four-letter words beginning with f-, s- and c-, this book is most definitely not for you. In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t read on because, in order to review it, it’s hardly possible to avoid including one or two of said words!

maddaddamAs it says in the blurb on the book’s back cover, Welcome to the outrageous imagination of Margaret Atwood. In her crazy, dystopian, yet mostly hilarious world, much of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic. The survivors fall into five main groups:

The Crakers are genetically modified “humans” of various colours but having the common feature that certain parts turn blue at the mating season. They don’t wear clothes, are naive, enjoy purring and singing and like stories. They were created by Crake, whom they now worship as a god.

The God’s Gardeners are unmodified humans, members of a pseudo-religious cult founded by Adam One. They love nature, hate violence and modern technology, and are given to growing vegetables and keeping bees on the roofs of derelict houses.

The Painballers are vile and murderous human beings who rape and kill for fun, doing both in the most revolting ways. Not many Painballers have survived the plague but they have nasty weapons, so you don’t need many to cause havoc. They are definitely the bad guys!

The Maddaddamitesthe main focus of this novel – are as near to normal as you’re going to get in a post-pandemic world. Their group includes former God’s Gardeners and just about everyone else who isn’t either a Craker or a Painballer. The Maddaddamites wear old bed-sheets for clothing  but are otherwise reasonably sane.

There are several kinds of Animals in the novel too, the chief ones being the Pigoons – pigs spliced with human DNA which gives them reasoning abilities – and Mo’Hairs – sheep with human hair instead of fleece.

Maddaddam is the third novel in a trilogy set in this post-apocalyptic world. The first two are Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. but if you haven’t read them don’t worry. Ms Atwood kindly summarises the earlier stories for us at the start of Book Three.

‘Romance among the chronologically challenged is giggle fodder. For the youthful, lovelorn and wrinkly don’t blend …’

The main characters of Maddaddam are Toby and Zeb, respectively female and male, middle-aged lovers, who are living with their fellow survivors in a compound, and sharing it with a group of Crakers, including Blackbeard and Abraham Lincoln. Snowman-the-Jimmy, a sort of prophet of Crake (who has passed on to the Happy Eternities), is in a coma and Toby takes on his role as chief storyteller. Most of her story is about Zeb, his ingenious brother Adam, his corrupt father Rev, founder of the Church of PetrOleum, and about how she and Zeb came to meet.

'Who killed Fenella?
 A really evil fella.
 Hit her on the head,
 Gave her quite a whack.
 Everything went black,
 Now she's fuckin' dead.'

In fact, Fenella is Adam’s mother. She’s buried under the rock garden and when Zeb and Adam expose their father as the murderer they have to go on the run. Adam devises all sorts of clever schemes to avoid discovery, and his ingenuity coupled with Zeb’s hacking skills enable the brothers to remain a few steps ahead of their vengeful father.

‘ “….Oh fuck.” Jimmy lies back, closes his eyes. “Oh fuck.” “Who is this Fuck?” says Abraham Lincoln. “Why is he talking to this Fuck? This is not the name of anyone here.” ‘

As I hinted at the start, in addition to zany antics and improbable characters, there is a lot of “swearing” in this book. I confess I don’t usually like too much in a novel; after all, expletives are often a sign of inadequate language skills. However, such is Margaret Atwood’s genius as a wordsmith and so highly developed are her language skills that you can bet your life that in her hands fuck (with or without the capital letter) will take on a whole new identity and literary meaning.


When their compound is threatened by the surviving Painballers, Toby, Zeb and the Maddaddamites form an alliance with the Pigoons. They lead their followers to the AnooYoo Spa, where Toby once worked – and thence to the Egg for a final confrontation and a gruesome discovery.

By now, three women have become pregnant, and the question is, who are the fathers? Are the children to be part Craker, part Painballer or perhaps even a bit of both?

And if any of this sounds confusing, irreverent, outrageous, even insane, it is! It’s true there are some sweet moments – some nasty moments too – but most of the book is incredibly funny.

I loved it!

‘Of course, once you elected to enter Painball, the alternative to winning was death. That was why it was so much fun to watch.’


The Mysteries of Udolpho

by Ann Radcliffe

‘As the carriage wheels rolled heavily under the portcullis, Emily’s heart sunk, and she seemed, as if she was going into her prison …. her imagination, ever awake to circumstance, suggested even more terrors than her reason could justify.’


I’ve been neglecting the books on my Classics Club list for a while and picked this one to get back on track. Ann Radcliffe was one of the first authors to write Gothic fiction. She was a contemporary of both Jane Austen and Walter Scott, and indeed we find references to her in Austen’s writing.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, is set in France and Italy two hundred years in the past (1584) amid romantic woods and hills, contrasting with glowering mountains and dark, forbidding castles. A few chapters into the story I didn’t think I was going to like it – or even finish it. Overburdened with description, some of it  repetitive, and in very dated style and language, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The heroine is dithering and infuriating by modern perceptions and her would-be lover rather bland and weepy. Then, about half way through Volume 1, I began to enjoy it. The protagonist was still annoying me with her ‘timid one moment, daring the next’ personality, but the plot was driving along to some sort of conclusion.

Emily St Aubert is traveling in the south of France with her father when he dies and, not having reached her majority, she is left in the care of her disagreeable and social climbing aunt. On his deathbed, M. St Aubert extracts a promise from Emily that she will locate and destroy certain documents he has hidden in his home. This Emily does but not before accidentally reading a few haunting words on one of the papers. She also retains the portrait of a mysterious unknown woman who seems to have been important in St Aubert’s life.

Emily is being ‘courted’ (isn’t that an old-fashioned word?) by Valancourt, a young army officer whom she met in Languedoc. Her aunt forbids the match; Valancourt isn’t rich! He wants Emily to elope with him but she refuses.

Her troubles really start when her aunt marries an Italian gentleman, Signor Montoni, who wants Emily to marry another ‘gentleman’, Count Morano. Neither are gentlemen as it turns out and having by now become Morano’s bitter enemy, Montini moves with his wife to his castle in the Apennines, taking Emily with them. She becomes a virtual prisoner in Udolpho, where there are some very strange goings on indeed – dark corridors, ghostly apparitions, strange music in the night, secret staircases, unpleasant servants, duelling and murder. In other words, no shortage of Gothic elements!

Radcliffe manages the tension by means of long, contrasting passages of descriptive prose, matching Emily’s various moods with the scenery around her. Two examples will serve to illustrate her technique:

‘When Emily … opened her casement, she was surprised to observe the beauties , that surrounded it. The cottage was nearly embowered in the woods, which were chiefly of chestnut intermixed with some cypress, larch and sycamore. Beneath the dark and spreading branches, appeared, to the north, and to the east, the woody Apennines ….’

‘The gloom of these shades, their solitary silence ….assisted to raise the solemnity of Emily’s feelings into awe …’

Emily eventually escapes from Udolpho with the help of Du Pont (another admirer) but her problems are not over. Some of its mysteries are still unexplained and there are a few other odds and ends to tie together, not least the matters of her inheritance, Valancourt’s character and intentions, and the mysterious woman in the portrait Emily carries on her person.


Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)

The Mysteries of Udolpho is, on reflection, a good STORY, but the plot wanders and depends too much on ill-explained coincidences. The plot has several strands, which we suppose from the early chapters are connected, yet as the narrative proceeds we begin to doubt their resolution. There are also some inconsistencies of geography; both distances and journey times are, it seems to me, condensed and Radcliffe, who probably never traveled the path of her heroine, sometimes confuses her directions.

We cannot deny that Ann Radcliffe is a mistress of atmosphere, especially where dark scenery and Gothic castles are concerned. At times, we almost expect to turn a corner and discover the lair of Dracula. However, the supernatural here is imagined rather than real. Emily more closely resembles Catherine Morland than Mina Harker. There is horror (see note **), certainly, in the book but there are also long passages where very little – or nothing – happens, making it a slow read. In the introspection of the heroine, we see occasional touches of Austen, in the descriptive prose something of Scott, and in the writing generally much of the style, language and character traits of earlier novelists.

The similarities with Austen and Scott are often noted in criticisms of Radcliffe’s work. The three writers were undoubtedly known to one another, though it’s unlikely that they ever met. My thoughts on this are that it is less a matter of influence – as is often claimed – than of exposure to the same culture, not to mention the demands of their reading public. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have given us altogether different literary tastes, driven by our experience of visual media but, in spite of that, the late 18th century still has much to offer.

Mrs Radcliffe was a successful author and immensely popular in her day. We surely cannot doubt the presence of her ghost in works of later writers, such as Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte and Daphne du Maurier.

‘Mrs Radcliffe, as an author, has the most decided claim to take her place among the favoured few ….’ [Sir Walter Scott]

NOTE: (**) Ann Radcliffe would likely have disagreed. She made a point of distinguishing horror from terror: ‘… [T]error is characterized by … indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, nearly annihilates the reader’s responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.’ [On the Supernatural in Poetry, 1826]






Speeches That Changed The World


Like yesterday’s post, this one is going to be a bit different from my usual book reviews.

I picked up this book for a very much reduced price at a book sale. Introduced by historian Simon Sebag Montefiori, it contains speeches by diverse prominent figures from the past, from Jesus Christ and Mahommed to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, to George W Bush and Richard Nixon. Each chapter also contains a bit of the history behind the speeches.

There is plenty here for anyone interested in the past, be their interest political, religious or humanist. I’d like to share with you a scientific speech, one reflecting the best of what science can accomplish.

‘Radium is no more a baby,’ said double Nobel laureate Marie Curie in a rare speech, given in 1921. ‘It is more than twenty years old, but the conditions of the discovery were somewhat peculiar.’

After describing the work of herself and her husband Pièrre, she went on to say, ‘…the special interest of radium is in the intensity of its rays …the effects of the rays make the radium so important … physiological effects on the cells of the human organism… What is considered particularly important is the treatment of cancer.’

The cancer charity founded in her name in 1948 still provides front line support today to people with cancers and other terminal illnesses. Marie also gave her name to a university and a research institute in Paris. Sadly, it was probably her pioneering work that led to her death in 1934 from leukemia.




‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.’


[Speeches that Changed The World is available in several different editions from Amazon.]



Fun With (German) Grammar

Christian Morgenstern –

 – taking the “P” out of poetry


Now for something totally different!

A little while ago, on a visit to Germany, a friend introduced me to a poet whose work seems to defy attempts to translate it into English. His name was Christian Morgenstern (the poet, not the friend) and he lived around the turn of the twentieth century. Morgenstern’s specialty was nonsense poetry, rather in the style of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. Among his best known work, and popular in Germany is his collection of Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) that takes a humorous look at life and at the German language.

Among these strange poems, and an all-time favourite, is Der Werwolf, in which he plays word games with ‘Wer‘ (English: who), which is of course like nearly every German noun and pronoun is declined. It goes something like this:

Ein Werwolf eines Nachts entwich
von Weib und Kind und sich begab
an eines Dorfschullehrers Grab
und bat ihn: ‘Bitte, beuge mich!’

[One night a werewolf abandoned his wife and child and repaired to the grave of a village schoolmaster, where he requested ‘Please decline me!’]

Der Dorfschulmeister stieg hinauf
auf seines Blechschilds Messingknauf
und sprach zum Wolf, der seine Pfoten
geduldig kreuzte vor dem Toten:

[The schoolmaster rose up onto the brass plate of his tomb and addressed the wolf who had patiently crossed his paws in front of him.]

‘Der Werwolf’, sprach der gute Mann,
‘des Weswolfs, Genitiv sodann,
dem Wemwolf, Dativ, wie mans nennt,
den Wenwolf, — damit hats ein End.’

[Here the schoolmaster makes fun of the German cases of the word ‘wer’ (who); it doesn’t really bear translating.]

Dem Werwolf schmeichelten die Fälle,
er rollte seine Augenbälle.
»Indessen«, bat er, »füge doch
zur Einzahl auch die Mehrzahl noch!«

[The werewolf was flattered by the declension of his name and rolled his eyeballs. ‘But,’ he asked, ‘you have to go on and give me the plural forms too.’]

Der Dorfschulmeister aber mußte
gestehn, dass er von ihr nichts wußte.
Zwar Wölfe gäbs in grosser Schar,
doch »Wer« gäbs nur im Singular.

[But the schoolmaster had to confess he knew nothing about that. There are certainly a huge number of wolves, but you find ‘wer’ only in the singular.]

Der Wolf erhob sich tränenblind–
er hatte ja doch Weib und Kind!
Doch da er kein Gelehrter eben,
so schied er dankend und ergeben.

[The wolf got up blinded by tears – after all he still had a wife and child. However, since he was no scholar, he took his thankful and humble leave.]

I have only just recently discovered (while researching something completely different) that attempts HAVE been made to translate this poem into English. Not quite literally of course – that wouldn’t make sense – but by making fun of some of the English language’s peculiarities. Anyone who, like me, finds the eccentricities of language and grammar great fun,  can find two of these English efforts at the following links:


and on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Morgenstern

I understand there may also be a musical version of the poem, though whether in German or English I don’t know!



Not ‘arf cut ……

Interview with local writer Rupert Ashby

Rupert Ashby is the author of Izzie, the novel about a young girl growing up on the waterways of southern England.


About the story: In the years before World War II, Isobel Horne is a boat girl with a burning ambition to learn how to read. Encouraged by her mother, she is enrolled in school. But war and tragedy turn Izzie’s life upside-down and almost put a stop to everything. But in the end, her ability to read becomes more important than she could ever have imagined.

Rupert is better known in his home city of Peterborough as Derek Harris. He sails a narrow boat himself and is a local authority on the canals and their history. For about fifteen years, Derek (as I must call him) has been giving entertaining talks to local groups about his favourite subject. He has also written and published a number of short stories.


Bookheathen: Hi Derek. Thanks for talking to me, and welcome to my blog! The first thing I want to ask is about the rather unusual sub title to your novel – ‘A Child of the Cut’. Can you explain that to us? What exactly is the Cut?

Rupert Ashby/Derek Harris: The Cut is the canal. The boating fraternity rarely, if ever, used the word ‘canal’. Their water highway was away the ‘cut’.

BH: We tend to take education for granted today – even tertiary education. Perhaps we undervalue it. It wasn’t always like that, was it?

RA/DH: In the early days of education students had to pay for their schooling.  Boat children ‘slipped through the net’ of the Education Acts as they were never in one place long enough for a thorough education.  Some schools were happy to take boat children for a few days at a time while their parents were waiting for orders and some boat companies ran their own schools.

BH: I know you have a lifelong interest in the English canals, and have been giving talks about them for about 15 years. What made you decide to write a novel about them?

 RA/DH: I’ve always enjoyed what these days is called Creative Writing.  Back in my junior school days it was called Composition and it was my favourite lesson. I never expected to win a prize for literature, but when I get an idea for a story I find it won’t leave me alone until I have, at least, started to write it. One day, I decided to set one of them down. Izzie is the result.

BH: What drew you to the character of Izzie? Was she based on a real person?

RA/DH: No, Izzie is a figment of my imagination. She is a composite character based on what I’ve read and learned about children’s lives on the boats in the 1930s and 40s.

BH: How about the other characters, for example Izzie’s parents, Bill and Maggie – or George and Jean? Are they real people or types?

RA/DH: All of the characters in the book are inventions with the exception of Mary Ward.  They are, indeed, types who I think are representative of the diverse waterway community. 

BH: You’ve put at least one real person in the story – Mary Ward. Tell us about her.

RA/DH: Sister Mary Ward lived in a canal-side cottage at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire as a child.  Her career as a young woman involved working at various convents in mainland Europe that specialised in the care of the sick.  On her return to Stoke to look after her elderly father, she renewed her acquaintance with the boat families and became, to all intents and purposes, their doctor, often paying for their medicines from her own money.  After many years service the Grand Union Canal Company put her on the payroll.

BH: Tell us a bit more about the world of your characters. How important were the canals to the British economy?

RA/DH: In the late 18th and 19th centuries the canals were vitally important to the industrial growth of this country.  Without them the Industrial Revolution could not have happened.  They were the motorways of their time.   Canal people kept themselves to themselves, often distrusted by the folk ‘on the bank’.

BH: Did the canals have any special importance during WW2?

RA/DH: By World War II the canal trade had largely disappeared, having gone to rail and road.  But the war gave a short lived boost as there was an increase in the volume of goods needing to be moved.

BH: Izzie’s father didn’t want her going to school. Why not? How typical do you think his attitude among the boat people?

RA/DH: Bill Horne has the traditional boatman’s view of education.  He never needed it and so no-one who works the boats would ever need it.  Being a ‘scholar’ was viewed almost as being disloyal to the boating trade.

BH: Great things from small acorns, they say. Without giving too much away [no spoilers, please, Derek!], can you explain the importance of Izzie’s schooling to the resolution of the plot?

RA/DH: Her schooling enables her to read an item in a newspaper, which leads on to proving to her father that he has been duped, and could go to prison as a result.

BH: It’s often said by critics that too much dialect puts people off. You have used quite a lot of it in your novel. How did you go about researching the speech and manners of the period?

RA/DH: There is, indeed, a lot of dialect, but I thought this was important to reinforce the identity of the boat folk.  Having heard numerous original recordings of boat people from the Grand Union, I settled on a kind of (diluted) West Midland accent for my characters.

BH: Today, we have motorways and huge trucks to carry goods. The canals are mainly about leisure and pleasure, aren’t they? Are any of the  waterways still in use for the transport of goods and, if so, what?

derek's boat

RA/DH: There are still some boats trading on the canals but it is very localised.  Mostly they are selling coal and wood for burning to other boaters.

BH: Are you planning to write another novel about the Cut? Or about Izzie?

RA/DHI have also published a book of four short stories, all with a canal theme, entitled The Lure of the Cut, and have started working on a sequel to Izzie.


“‘You what?’ Bill Horne exclaimed, stopping what he was doing and staring at his wife. ‘You done what? You signed our Izzie up for book learnin’? What the devil do she want wi’ bloomin’ book learnin’? Answer me that!'”


“‘I never quite caught what you said jus’ then.’ As she said the word ‘then’, Jean took hold of a handful of Izzie’s hair and pulled it hard, jerking her head back and causing her to squeal….. she put her face so close to Izzie’s that the girl felt overcome by the smell of drink and tobacco….”


Izzie by Rupert Ashby, ISBN 978 0 9575135 0 1 may be ordered through your nearest bookshop, or email derek@halfcuttheatre.com. The author donates half of all profit from sales of the book to Foxton Inclined Plane Trust charity, www.fitp.org

You can read more about leisure opportunities on the English canals at https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/contact-us/canal-and-river-faqs





‘Et tu, Brute?’


by Conn Iggulden

The supposed last words (or nearly last words) of Julius Caesar are best known from the play by William Shakespeare. Whether he said anything of the sort – or anything at all – when he was fatally stabbed, remains in doubt. But, of course, Shakespeare was writing drama, not history.

Latin isn’t taught much in British schools nowadays. You’ll often hear the argument: school days are short, and there are so many other important things for our kids to learn; why bother with a useless subject, a language that isn’t spoken today anyway? What’s the point?

Like in so many other arguments, it’s a matter of perspective. If you’re interested in languages at all, including your own, Latin (and Greek, for that matter) has a lot to teach. If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’ve forgotten most of the Latin I learned at school. However, one thing the Latin class did do for me was to stimulate an interest in Roman history. Through the medium of simple Latin narrative, and later more difficult stuff that left me floundering, I learned about Romulus, the Kings, the Consuls, and inevitably, Julius Caesar.

And it was knowing a little about Caesar that drew me to read Conn Iggulden’s novel Emperor, The Gates of Rome, the first of several (five, I believe) featuring the great Roman general and politician.


Emperor, The Gates of Rome tells the story of Caesar’s boyhood and youth. There are two main characters, Caesar himself, who for most of the book is called Gaius, and another, equally well known from the pages of Shakespeare – Marcus Junius Brutus. Conn Iggulden depicts them as growing up together, sharing their training in discipline and military skills and, in Gaius’ case anyway, learning to be a member of the nobility.

The background to the novel is the power struggle between two decorated generals, Marius and Sulla, for control of the Roman senate. Both existed; you can check. It’s strong stuff, with lots of political manoeuvering, corruption and back-stabbing (both literal and figurative). Most of the early scenes are invented, but it is considered invention, and we get a very credible picture of what the young men’s lives might have been like, growing up in the Rome of that period. The power struggle and the civil wars that followed are manipulated and condensed for dramatic effect, and it works as a story, dropping both Gaius and Marcus where they need to be in order to make a comeback in a later volume.

If you like lots of graphic killing in your fiction, then Emperor, The Gates of Rome is a book for you. I find it a bit bloodthirsty but it is certainly exciting as a historical novel. One of the most engaging characters is Renius, the ageing, no-nonsense ex-gladiator charged with making men of Gaius and Marcus. He is the sort of man you begin by hating for his cruelty but end up admiring for his endurance.

Iggulden gives female characters too little space but two stand out. Alexandria, a pretty slave-girl, probably fictional, is determined to be free and charts her own course through the turmoil that is Rome in order to earn enough to buy her freedom. I also admired Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna (both real people), who challenges conventional morality and her father’s authority to bed Caesar and eventually marry him in the novel’s bloody climax.

Though I enjoyed reading The Gates of Rome, I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the series. I’m going to vote for Shakepeare and my school Latin class!



Ballade of True Wisdom

Quotations Day 3

I’ve been spending most of the day in my garden. With temperatures  ranging from 33 degrees on the patio at the back to 36 in front of our white garage door, it isn’t the ideal weather for physical effort. But as rain is expected (actually it’s started now), I thought it best to get on with a few of the jobs that were piling up.

Being of a literary turn of mind ( as I’m sure many of you will have noticed), thinking about the garden made me think about books too  – books about gardens or with ‘garden’ in the title. A few spring to mind:


The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré

A Child’s Garden of Verses (Poems) by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Cake Shop in the Garden by Carole Matthews

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

If we extend the thought process to include things that grow in gardens, like trees, flowers and grass, we get a few more. In fact, the list may be almost endless! Here are just a few of the titles:


The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

The Red Dahlia by Lynda La Plante

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley

I’m not saying I’ve read all of those, or even that they are books I would read in the ordinary course of events. However, it just goes to show how powerful a connection there is between literature and horticulture.

And that brings me to my ‘thought for the day’ and the third of my choices of literary quotation. It’s part of a poem Ballade of True Wisdom by Andrew Lang, a Victorian poet and authority on folklore and fairy tales.

‘While others are asking for beauty or fame,
Or praying to know that for which they should pray,
Or courting Queen Venus, that affable dame,
Or chasing the Muses the weary and grey,

The sage has found out a more excellent way –
To Pan and to Pallas his incense he showers,
And his humble petition puts up day by day,
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers.

The sun has come out again – so back to the









I took her hand in mine …

For my second quotation, responding to the tag challenge set me by Anne at Inked Brownies, I have picked another from the Classics:

‘I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.’

[Charles Dickens – Great Expectations]


I suppose not many readers think of Dickens as a writer of love stories. Great Expectations, like David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby and others are biographical in nature.They are life journeys, coming-of-age stories, and not romance in the usual sense. Yet the love Pip has for Estella (though not always reciprocated) is as passionate as any in literature. The story – boy meets girl, girl leaves boy, they find each other again – is typical of so many others.

But is it?

Dickens never intended the novel to have a Happy-Ever-After ending. The familiar passage at the conclusion of Great Expectations does indeed suggest a happy resolution. However, Dickens originally wrote a different one, where Pip and Estella part forever, and he was only persuaded to change it at the last minute by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, First Baron Lytton (better known for coining the phrases ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ and ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ )

Even with Lytton’s intervention, there’s still something ambiguous about that last scene of Great Expectations.

Yet, even with Dickens wavering, I remain an optimist! Pip and Estella – like David Copperfield and Agnes Wickfield – SHOULD be together. Echoing (or nearly echoing) the words of Alan Jay Lerner,  when commenting on Shaw’s ending to Pygmalion, that he preferred his own:

– Dickens was wrong!


If any of my readers feel the inclination to pick their own quotations (at least three), please do so!



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