Saturday, 30 December 2017

Showing off!

When I was at school in Derbyshire, 'showing off' was probably the very worst thing you could do - possibly apart from being 'mardy'. (Which means being a wimp, a crybaby.)

I still feel hesitant about showing off, but I'm going to do it anyway. After all, if I can't show off on my own blog, where on earth can I?

So here are two bits of news about my new children's book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley. The first is that it's been chosen to be part of The Summer Reading Challenge 2018. Organised by The Reading Agency and administered in libraries, this seeks to keep children reading over the summer holidays. Each year they have a different theme, and this year's is Mischiefmakers - and Jack is certainly a maker of mischief! Here he is, together with all the other books chosen this year - he's on the second row from the bottom, fifth from the left.

And the second is that Jack has been included in a round-up of the best books of 2017 by Books for Topics, an organisation that recommends books for use in primary schools. I'm thrilled to see him in both of these!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Les Parisiennes, by Anne Sebba

I am truly in awe of the enormous amount of research that went into the making of this book. It's about the lives of women in Paris during, just before, and just after the Second World War. It's surely true that up until recently, the narrative of the war has largely concerned itself with men - for understandable reasons, but still: that means that there are a lot of untold stories about women's lives in the war that have yet to emerge. Anne Sebba brings an astonishing variety of these stories out into the open.

There are some particularly interesting issues around her choice of France - and in particular Paris - as the setting for her book. Britain was not occupied: France was. For everyone living under the occupation, there must have been choices to be made, compromises to create, accommodations to be decided on. Put simply, did you keep your head down for the sake of your family and try as far as possible to avoid trouble - or did you 'take arms against a sea of troubles' - and resist? It could not have been an easy choice.   

Paris in the thirties, as it's described at the beginning of the book, was a hub which drew in people from all over the world who wanted to experience its culture, its art world, its lifestyle. Many of them found themselves caught up in something very different when the Germans invaded, and they reacted in different ways. Coco Chanel took a German lover. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor eventually left when it looked as if life was going to become less luxurious than they were used to. It must have seemed unbelievable that such a cosmopolitan city could ever come under the yoke of the Nazis. But after the initial shock, Paris set its chic little hat straight, squared its shoulders and carried on, as far as possible, in the way that it always had. It helped that the Germans had a sort of reverence for the city: they didn't want to destroy it, they wanted to enjoy it.   

And a lot of women made the pragmatic decision to help them enjoy it. Some danced with the handsome German officers, sang for them, slept with them, fell in love with them. 

But others took a different route, and as the book goes on, the focus shifts to the many young women who played a huge part in setting up and running escape routes and resistance networks - women such as Genevieve de Gaulle, the niece of Charles de Gaulle. She worked on an underground anti-Nazi newspaper: she was captured and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. She survived and returned - but only just. 

Of course the bulk of the women who were sent to Ravensbruck and other camps were Jews, and only a tiny percentage of them survived. There is a photo in the book of one of the Rothschild, beautiful, poised, expensively dressed: how could this woman have ever imagined the state to which she would be reduced in the hell of the camps?

Anne Sebba also explores - through interviews as well as documentary research - the story of what life was like for the few who survived and returned. 

After the war, the Parisians wanted to party and then to move on. Too awkward to delve into who did what during the occupation, once the initial denunciations - often of women who had slept with the enemy - were over. They didn't know what to make of these women who had returned from hell, skeletal thin, malnourished and ill, with harrowing tales to tell of their treatment. Many of them came home to find their families dead, their homes and livelihoods gone. And too often, Paris shrugged its shoulders and forgot about them. Anne Sebba puts that right. 

Friday, 22 September 2017

Stories from Greece and Rome

This isn't one book - I've recently read three which are set among the Greeks and Romans.

The Beautiful One, by Frances Thomas
The story of Helen of Troy is a powerful and enduring one - she must have a claim to being one of the most famous women in the world, EVER. Yet she herself is curiously absent from her story; we see her always through the eyes of the men who desire her, fight over her, or eulogise her beauty. This book seeks to redress the balance by telling the story of Helen as a child. We see her living happily with her family, aware that she is beautiful because of the reactions of others, but seeing this mysterious beauty as something apart from her, something separate. She dreads marriage, but knows it's inevitable because of her position as a princess and a woman; there's a sense that she'd rather do something else, but there are no other options. She does have a romantic dream that perhaps one day she'll meet someone very handsome and there will be a coup de foudre... the reader shivers a little at this point, because, of course, we all know what's going to happen.

I became engrossed in the story - it's strange how this can happen, even when you really know how it's all going to end - and ancient Sparta seemed a perfectly real place. The legends - such as that of Leda (Helen's mother) and the swan - are really skillfully woven in; Helen hears them, finds them strange, but knows they must be true. My only quibble is that I hadn't noticed that this is quite a short book, and was quite startled when it stopped: I wanted to go on reading about Helen and poor Menelaus and the unfortunate Clytemnestra and all the rest of them. So I hope Frances Thomas will continue her story - which is suitable for teenagers and adults.

The Centurion's Son, by Lynne Benton
A fast-paced story set in fourth century Roman Britain (in Caerleon in Wales, to be precise). It tells the story of Felix, the son of a centurion. Twelve year-old Felix is puzzled and concerned when his father disappears without even leaving any food in the house. But there's much worse to come - his father is accused of treachery, and Felix is turned out of his home. Felix, certain that his father is innocent, is determined to clear his name and find him. 

The only person apparently on his side is a British slave girl, Catrin, who has mysterious powers - a sort of second sight. Together, the two friends manage to unravel the mystery and restore the centurion's good name - but they have to go through danger and heartache on the way.

This would be an excellent book to use with young pupils (7-9 or thereabouts) 'doing' the Romans; it's an exciting read, and it also tells you a great deal about the Romans and how they lived and ruled. There are some nasty moments, though - one in particular. But then I'm sure there were lots of nasty moments in Roman Britain!

Mark of the Cyclops, by Saviour Pirotta
Back to Greece for this one, which is the first of  series and is aimed at a similar age group to Lynne
Benton's - both are perfect as background reading for children at KS2 studying the Greeks and Romans; the stories will engage young readers, and will also unobtrusively tell them an enormous amount about the civilizations they're learning about.

Mark of the Cyclops is a detective story. Like all good detective stories, there is a detective and a sidekick. The detective is a clever slave boy named Thrax, and his sidekick - his Doctor Watson - is the narrator of the story, a young scribe called Nico. They're both delightful characters, with the potential to develop in future books. When they travel to a wedding with their master, an engagingly awful poet, they are asked by her mistress to help clear the name of a slave-girl who has been accused of breaking a valuable vase. A mysterious figure with the mark of the Cyclops on his face seems to keep cropping up... what can it all mean?

The story's very enjoyable - but I was particularly struck by the amount of detail Pirotta includes about life in Ancient Greece - what they ate, what they wore, how they travelled.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Glass Mountain: Tales from Poland - by Jan Pienkowski

I'm not sure where I came across this book - browsing somewhere or other on the internet, I suppose. I noticed it partly because of the bright colours and unusual style of the cover art, and partly because I have two grandsons who are half Polish - so this seemed like a good fit.

Folk tales are often pretty brutal. Think of Hansel and Gretel, abandoned orphans who save themselves by bundling a witch into an oven and lighting it - or all the suffering Gerda has to go through to save her friend, Kai, from the cruel Snow Queen. Many have been softened around the edges to suit sensibilities more delicate than those of their original audiences, but these stories have not: they're strong and fierce and told crisply and with gusto by David Walser. The first one, for instance, called The Fern Flower, is about a young man who enters the forest on Midsummer's Night to find a magical flower which will confer on him huge riches - provided he doesn't attempt to share them, and provided he finds it before dawn.

The first two times he tries to find it - in the process missing out on all the fun everyone else is having on Midsummer's Eve - he fails. The third time he succeeds, and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. But, like Midas, untold wealth results in loneliness. Eventually, he goes to visit his mother - ironically, she was the one who told him about the flower - and finds her in poverty. He is about to go in and give her some money, but stops when he realises that this would negate the terms of the deal. He goes back again a few weeks later: now she is ill - but he weighs things up and makes the same decision. He returns a third time - and she is dead. Bogdan turned away. He cursed himself with a bitter oath. As he did so, the earth opened in front of him and swallowed both him and the fern flower which he still kept in his tunic next to his heart.

Jolly stuff, eh? But I guess that when these stories were first told, the world the storytellers lived in was a harsh one. Some years ago, we were in the Carpathians, in southern Poland. We walked through a forest where there were signs warning travellers to beware of bears and wolves. At one point I had fallen behind - I usually do on a walk - and looking round at the trees which stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, I felt disorientated. Suddenly, the world of 'fairy' stories, where the forest is a place of danger, absolutely made sense; the dangers perceived, the warnings given, reflected everyday life. Children needed to be warned - and in the long dark evenings, everyone needed dramatic stories which would keep them entertained and make them gasp in delicious fear as the candle light flickered and made huge shadows on the wall.

These stories still do that. But there's one at the beginning - a true one - which I found more fascinating than all the rest. It's a glimpse into the childhood of Jan Pienkowski, the artist. The pictures, with their solid blocks of bold colour and sometimes slightly ragged outlines, are collages made of torn paper, and Pienkowski explains that paper cut-outs are a form of Polish folk-art, which he learned as a small child during the war - first from a countrywoman who would come and make 'curtains' out of white paper cut-outs which she would then glue to the windows - and later from a soldier during the Warsaw Rising, who cut out paper animals to amuse the children as they sheltered in cellars from German bombs.

I don't know if Pienkowski has written a longer memoir, but if he hasn't, I wish he would!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The House in Norham Gardens: Penelope Lively

It's odd, the way we happen across the books we decide to read. Sometimes, of course, you can't miss a book, particularly if it's by a celebrity or an already successful, best-selling author: to those who have shall be given (and yes, there is just a smidgeon of a hint of envy there), and such authors are given posters on the underground and prominent positions in bookshop windows.

Penelope Lively is a well-known author, both of adult and children's books, and I certainly read some of her books a fair few years ago. But I hadn't read this one, which first came out in 1974 but has very recently been republished. I heard about it when a friend on Facebook said she had just read When Marnie Was There (reviewed below), and demanded to know why she hadn't heard of it before, and what she could read now to keep her in the same mood?

In the comments, a couple of people mentioned this book, The House in Norham Gardens. They mentioned others too, but this was the one I noticed - because, by a strange coincidence, I had stayed the weekend before in Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford - whose entrance is in Norham Gardens. (If you ever need a place to stay in in Oxford or Cambridge or Durham - and quite possibly in other university towns too - it's worth checking out university rooms if you're travelling outside of term-time - they're very reasonable, and often very tranquil places to stay.)

I checked, and yes, it was the same Norham Gardens. So I ordered it. It's about Clare Mayfield, aged fourteen, who lives with her two elderly aunts in a rambling Victorian house in North Oxford. The aunts - really great-aunts - have never married; they have both had successful careers as academics. Their father had been an anthropologist, who'd studied tribes in New Guinea. Nothing had been thrown away in the house, and the attic is a treasure trove of Clare's great-grandmother's beautiful clothes, and objects brought back by great-grandfather from his travels.

One day, Clare and the lodger, Maureen, are poking about in the attic, when Clare finds an oval piece of wood, painted with a design that is something like a face. It was a painting, but it was also a carving, because the lines had been gouged into the wood before they were painted. It seemed to say something: if you understood its language, if this kind of thing, this picture, this pattern, was a language, then it must have been a shout, once, to someone. Now, up here in the attic, to them, it was a whisper, a whisper you couldn't even understand.

Somehow, Clare feels she mustn't put it back in the trunk where she found it - it mustn't be hidden again. She begins to dream of her grandfather's visit to the place it came from. Each time she sees it, the colours have become more bright; each time she dreams, it becomes more difficult to escape back to reality. She realises that a wrong has been done, and that somehow, she must put it right.

In some ways, it's very obvious that this book is set at least forty years ago. There's an obvious lack of technology, of course. But there's also a sort of innocence about it. Clare lives in a sort of genteel poverty which could hardly exist today. The house is huge, but the aunts can't afford to keep it properly repaired, and there comes a point at which Clare realises that they no longer have enough money to buy food. So she consults with Mrs Hedges, the lady-who-does. They both agree that Mrs Hedges' services are indispensable; the aunts - fragile and elderly, though still with sharp and enquiring minds, have to be cared for - and they hit on the plan of finding lodgers. First comes Maureen, then later, John Sempebwa, who is a mature student studying anthropology. In some ways it's a much more innocent time - the aunts are perfectly happy for John, whom they've only recently met, to take Clare off to London for a day. And they're right to trust him - he's a great help to Clare. When the teachers at school notice that Clare is looking tired and behaving differently, they just tell her to have a rest - no social worker turns up to check out her home life. (And indeed, there's nothing wrong with her home life; the problem is the tamburan, the wooden shield...)

But there's nothing old-fashioned about the writing. The characters are wonderfully realised; I particularly liked the banter between Clare and her formidably clever aunts. Penelope Lively doesn't write down to her readers. For instance, this: Clare is in a school performance of Macbeth, and is watching from backstage. 

Clare, costumed for the banquet scene, sat on a pile of mats while people came and went - ordinary, familiar faces and shapes oddly translated into the shadow of something else. Not the substance, because in no way were these really Shakespeare characters, or even actors, but the shadow of such a thing faintly cast upon faces seen every day, talking, eating, singing, yawning. Faces distorted by make-up, but perfectly recognizable beneath, familiar voices inexpertly proclaiming thoughts and beliefs that could hardly be more inappropriate to a lot of people aged about fourteen leading uneventful lives in the South Midlands...

Nothing massively dramatic happens - no-one dies. Yet the tension mounts inexorably, the strangeness seeps through, the intermingling of the two world is completely convincing.

There's so much more to think about with this book, so much more to say. It considers the nature of time and memory. And absolutely central is the issue of ownership of a culture, and the artefacts created by that culture: Clare's uncle didn't steal the tamburan - but was he right to ask for it, and to take it away? It's a very topical subject - but here's Penelope Lively writing about it over forty years ago.

I loved it. I've already read another of Penelope Lively's books - an adult one - and I'll be seeking out more.

Friday, 8 September 2017

When Marnie Was There: by Joan G Robinson

Earlier this year we went on holiday to Norfolk. I'd only been there once before, to Yarmouth, years ago, and I didn't have very high expectations. I thought it was going to be flat and rather dull.

I was so wrong! In North Norfolk, where we were, the countryside was lovely: sloping fields, sometimes with rows of daffodils, woods, streams - and just something about the light. The towns and villages were compact, with characterful coffee shops, there was Nelson's birthplace, Blickling Hall and Sheringham Park - and then there was the coast. Salt marshes, great stretches of sand, circling birds - and vast skies.

At a shop at Cley Nature Reserve I bought the first in a series of mysteries set on the Norfolk coast, written by Elly Griffiths. (Brilliant - for a review, see here.) After I'd written about it, a friend who lives in Norwich, writer Paeony Lewis, asked if I'd read a children's book called When Marnie Was There, by Joan G Robinson - it too was set in Norfolk, and she had a feeling I might like it.

She was absolutely right, and I don't know why I hadn't heard of it before. It was published in 1967 - I was a teenager then, so I suppose I was a bit too old for it and perhaps that's why I missed it. As with the Elly Griffiths books, the shifting, changing seascape is an integral part of the story; you can't always be sure what you're seeing - or even, perhaps, when you're seeing it. People from the Neolithic, Vikings, smugglers - none of these would look out of place here.

So it really doesn't seem too surprising when lonely orphan Anna, staying with an elderly couple for the summer, sees a girl in a white dress with long pale hair in the window of a house across the creek - a girl whom no-one else seems to have noticed. Anna is a self-contained child and a lonely one. She doesn't know how to make friends and she's given up trying. 'She knew perfectly well... that things like parties and best friends and going to tea with people were fine for everybody else, because everyone else was 'inside' - inside some sort of invisible magic circle. But Anna herself was outside. And so these things had nothing to do with her. It was as simple as that.'

But it's different with Marnie. The two girls are drawn to each other, and Anna - in this world of the sixties, where a child can spend hours by herself on the sea shore, in a boat, sometimes with an eccentric old man called Wuntermenny - is happier than she has ever been. As she spends time with Marnie, Anna blossoms; she becomes happier and more confident, more able to reach out to other people. I won't spoil the story - but at the end of it, Anna has learnt a great deal about herself in all sorts of ways - from her encounter with the mysterious Marnie, she's gained so much.

I can't find an image of the copy I have, but here's a still from the film. made by Studio Ghibli.

From the postscript, written by Joan Robinson's daughter, it's clear that this has been a novel which has appealed to people all over the world - she tells the story of a Japanese man, who, having read the book as a teenager, set out to find the place where it was set, with only the book itself as a guide. In the book, the village is called Little Overton - but that wasn't much help, because its real name is Burnham Overy. Still, he took the train to Kings Lynn, as Anna did in the book, caught the bus along the coast as she did - and recognised the place by a windmill which features in the book.

First published in 1967, my edition was printed in 2014. A film was made of it recently. And this doesn't surprise me. It may be set in the mid-twentieth century, but the emotional landscape of Anna - initially bleak, cold and lonely - ensures, sadly, that it will always be relevant; there will always be children who feel they don't fit, who are always on the outside looking in. And the physical landscape of the Norfolk coast - wild, empty, sea-washed and so very beautiful - provides a perfect reflection of Marnie's inner life, and a  perfect setting for a story where the barriers between reality and imagination shift and rearrange themselves - like the sand dunes and marshes themselves.

This review first appeared on Awfully Big Reviews, a site where children's books - both recent and not so recent - are reviewed.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Books set in Sicily

Well, like Arnie, I'm back! During the long summer break I've been reading, as ever, and there are books I want to write about.

This August we went to Sicily, and as usual, I hunted out some books set in the place where I would be staying. For one thing, it's fun to pick out places you've just seen in the pages of a book - and sometimes to be alerted to places to visit; for another, a book will give you a different perspective on a place, particularly if it's written by someone who lives there or who knows the place well.

The first book I turned to was Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, by Mario Giordino, and it was great fun. By chance, it turned out to be set very close to where we were staying, between Catania and Taormina, so that was another plus. It's a quirky detective story featuring the massively larger than life German incomer to Sicily, Aunt Poldi, and following her adventures as she gets settled in to her new home - and determines to find out what has happened to her charming young gardener, Valentino. Along the way she meets up with a policeman, Vito Montana, who has 'hands like a pianist's, slender but strong, with the curving thumbs indicative of power'. It's easy to see from this that Poldi - who is of a certain age and wears a wig (I don't like the wig or see the need for it; we're never told why she chooses to wear it) - will come to be interested in Montana not just as the investigating policeman.

It's a perfect holiday read - funny, quirky, with a strong narrative pull and loads of local atmosphere.

Being in Sicily was an obvious prompt to re-read some of the Inspector Montalbano books, which I've already written about here. There's a particular one that I want to single out: The Shape of Water. As ever, it has the lovable and very effective team - Mimi, Fazio, Catarella - but it's one of the darker books in the series. It's about the exploitation of refugees, and this is an issue that Camilleri clearly feels very angry about; it's also an issue which must feature very strongly for Sicilians, even more than it should for all of us - because Sicily, lying as it does just north of the African coast, is on the front line.

The book begins when Montalbano is present at the landing of a group of refugees. A small boy runs off; Salvo follows him, gains his confidence, and returns him to the person who is apparently his mother. Yet Salvo cannot shake off a feeling off discomfort; why did the child gaze at him with such despair in his eyes, if this was truly his mother?

Soon after this, Salvo hears that a six year-old child has been killed in a hit and run accident. With a sinking feeling, he knows that this child is 'his' child, and although the case is not officially his, he tales it on. And he discovers horrors. It is not just about unscrupulous traffickers extorting money from desperate refugees to crowd them into unsafe boats which will as like as not sink - it is even more calculated and vile. I think this is one of the most powerful - and most disturbing -  of the series.

Finally, The Optician of Lampedusa, by Emma Jane Kirby. This is the true story of a mild-mannered optician, who likes everything to be very orderly. One day, he goes sailing with a group of friends. Lampedusa, between Sicily and Africa, is even closer to the front line, and the friends find themselves in the midst of the terrible aftermath of a shipwreck. They manage to rescue over forty survivors, but though they are hailed as heroes, they continue to be tormented by the thought of all the people they were unable to rescue.

This is a beautifully written book. Emma Jane Kirby - a regular on Radio 4's PM - gets right under the skin of the people she is writing about. She makes you aware - as the optician and his friends become aware - of what it is truly like to go through such horrors. The optician tries to return to his normal life, but he can't forget what he has seen:

He saw the yellowing eyes full of terror, the shivering naked bodies slicked with the slime of diesel oil, the trembling forms cowering under gaudy beach towels. He realised that he was aching to be back with them. he wanted to take their hands again, to talk to them. He wanted to sit down with them, to ask how they were, who they were, why they'd come here...

The cathedral in Noto

One day we went to a town I'd never heard of before - Noto: a beautiful baroque city on a hill, built of creamy golden stone. It had been completely rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed the old city at the end of the 17th century. (I recognised it in a recent episode of Montalbano on BBC4; the building opposite the cathedral is the setting for the place where Salvo has to go and see his boss when he can't get out of it.) Inside the cathedral I saw this sculpture: it's made out of scraps of wreckage from refugee boats, and the notice at the bottom says something like Monument to solidarity.

I found this piece very moving: it drew together the beauty of Sicily and the terrible human tragedy to which its location has recently made it bear witness.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Au revoir...

For the time being, I'm going to take a break from this blog. I've enjoyed doing it, and I'd like to thank those who've read, followed and commented - but at the moment I think I need to concentrate more on writing books.

I shall continue to blog with The History Girls, a group of historical fiction writers, on the 16th of each month, and I've just started to blog again with An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, which is a group of children's writers. I'll be posting there on the 25th of each month, and it would be lovely to see you in either of those places. And of course you're very welcome to visit my website for news - it has a contact form too, in case you want to get in touch.

Like Arnie, I may be back. But for now, I'll leave you with some pictures of the lovely hill - and do feel free to roam about among the reviews!

Looking from Roundhouse across Cheddar Reservoir.

Spring cowslips

A fiddled-with view!

And off into the sunset...

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Desperately Seeking Hamlet!

This time last week, during a holiday in Copenhagen, we decided to head north to Helsingør. It was only a short train-ride, and there was someone we were eager to meet - someone who has intrigued me (and a few zillion others) for many, many years. Yes: Helsingør's English name is Elsinore, and the enigmatic hero we were searching for was - Hamlet!

The station's palatial entrance hall set the scene. Clearly, we were on the right track. Outside, sea birds circled overhead, calling plaintively. We crossed the road into the town, alert for any glimpse of a slender, black-clad figure. Was that a swirl of his cloak, just disappearing at the end of this narrow cobbled street?

Was he one of the characters in this painting? Was this perhaps the ship in which his stepfather sent him off to England with his perfidious friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

We reached the water's edge again - you are never far from it in Elsinore. Now here was a curious structure, made entirely of brightly coloured plastic cast-offs. Perhaps he was behind that...?

No. He wasn't. It probably struck the wrong mood - too cheerful, too silly. Then I spotted something promising - this dark figure, striding purposefully away. But no - too, too solid.

And then, across the water, almost looking as if it was floating, we saw it - the castle. Now it's known as Kronborg: Shakespeare just called it Elsinore. It stands guard over a narrow sound which divides Denmark from Sweden, and through which ships had to pass in order to access the Baltic: for centuries, the kings of Denmark built up their wealth by exacting tolls - the sound dues - from every passing ship. Elsinore then was prosperous and powerful, a famous royal court. At last - we were on the right track! We hastened towards the castle. Storm clouds gathered overhead: the wind pushed back at us and sudden heavy raindrops pelted us - but on we went.

Soon we were in the royal apartments. We passed through a sitting room, the chancellery, the king's rooms - no sign. Then - we arrived at the queen's apartments. We couldn't help but notice the arras to the right of the fireplace, and hoped Polonius wasn't so foolish as to be hiding there.

Suddenly, we heard shouts and the sound of clashing swords along a passageway. Hearts in mouths, we hurried along - and in a huge banqueting hall, there at last he was: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark! But had his sea of troubles finally overwhelmed him? Had he taken up arms to end them? Happily, no - it was just a practice bout with Horatio. Phew.

Our final glimpse of him was as he shared a tender moment with Ophelia - it would, we thought, be unkind to disturb them. I do hope that this time, it all works out for this charming young couple...

NB It's an interesting experience to encounter characters and scenes from the play as you walk through the castle. We saw a group of small children, wide-eyed with excitement as they exchanged a few words with 'Claudius', clad in blue and silver and smiling genially. But as well as these performances, Kronborg hosts a Shakespeare Festival each August, and many famous actors have appeared here over the years, including Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Michael Caine (as Horatio), Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law and many more.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

Apologies - it's been a while since I've posted a review. This is partly because I've been busy doing other things - but mostly because I haven't read anything lately that's really blown me away. So if you have, do please tell me in the comments.

That's not to say I haven't read some good books. The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, is a very good book. But somehow, it didn't quite seize my imagination. It's probably just me; maybe I haven't read it at the right time - because there's no doubt that it's absolutely beautifully written, and it's won some seriously impressive prizes. Perhaps it's a book you should read in the winter, in an isolated house, by a cosy fire, with the mist curling round outside and just the occasional lonely cry of a seabird.

As you may guess from this, it's set mostly on the Essex coast - a particularly liminal area, because it's not only at the boundary of land and sea, but there's also that shifting middle ground of marshland (as there was in Elly Griffith's very different books, the Ruth Galloway mysteries). It's the perfect setting for a story with an uncertainty at its heart - is the Essex serpent, a mysterious and possibly lethal sea creature, real, or merely a product of over-active imaginations? No-one is quite sure. The heroine, Cora Seaborne, certainly wants it to be real; she wants it to be an undiscovered species which she will identify so that she can then take her place alongside Mary Anning, the fossil-hunter, as an eminent woman of science.

Set in Victorian times, it has the flavour of a gothic romance. But the characters have a contemporary liveliness and individuality - they won't be pigeonholed. So Cora, though clearly a strong and independent woman has, after the death of her husband, emerged from an abusive relationship. She has an uncomfortable relationship with her son, Francis, who seems to be on the autistic spectrum; her friend, Martha, is socially and politically active and believes marriage to be a patriarchal straitjacket. (You'll see that though the setting is Victorian, the concerns are modern.)

After her husband's funeral, Cora goes to Essex to hunt for fossils. There she meets a vicar, William Ransome, and his lovely but fragile wife, Stella. She has a friend, Luke Garrett, who's in love with her, and he has a friend, Spencer, who - well, you'll just have to read it. The story of the serpent undulates through it, but it's not really the main point: the heart of the novel is the collection of strong, distinctive personalities: the way they interract with each other, and their strivings to find a way to live which is meaningful, which makes sense of their lives. There are no simple answers for any of them, no pat solutions - and I like that.

So why would I give it 4.5 instead of 5? Maybe it's just because, like Cora, I would have liked the serpent to be real. Which is silly, because it's not that kind of book.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The picture I didn't take.

A couple of days ago, I did my usual walk with Nessie up on the hill - up through the wood, then along a tunnel-like little path and out into the open, with a panoramic view stretching round from Glastonbury in the east to the reservoir and the distant coast in the west.

But for some reason this time, I glanced up to the right as I came out onto the hill - and there were two roe deer, a stag and a hind, not that far away. Nessie didn't notice - she was too busy watching the ball in my hand, willing me to throw it. They saw me too; the stag raised its head and watched me calmly. Neither of them seemed disturbed, and I stood still and gazed.

If I'd had my camera or phone with me, as I usually do, I would have tried to take a picture. I would have been concentrating on raising it very slowly, adjusting the zoom, keeping as steady as I could. I would have been watching the deer, but on the viewing panel, not for real. Probably, despite all my efforts, I would have disturbed the deer and they would have taken off.

As it was, we stood and stared at each other for several minutes. The hind moved about, feeding; the stag seemed relaxed, but watchful. In the end, I was the one who decided it was time to go.

If I'd got a good picture, I would have been pleased. But actually I'm glad I didn't have my camera, because I saw far more without one - and more than that, there was a sense of just being three creatures in a landscape - a fine thread of shared awareness.

As I went on, I thought about why it is I have this compulsion to capture a fleeting image. I thought of Louis MacNeice's poem, Sunlight on the Garden:

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold.

But I still keep doing just that - seeking to cage that minute. As you see.

My favourite tree on the hill. The deer were just up to the right, outside the frame of this picture.

You can just see Nessie, manic ball chaser, with the reservoir in the distance.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Born To Run, by Bruce Springsteen

So, this afternoon I was listening to Bruce Springsteen (Devils And Dust), as I have been doing since round about 1975 - and I remembered that I hadn't written about his autobiography, which I read a few months ago. He's amazing, Bruce. Even when he's singing about sad things, as he often is, he never fails to lift the heart and set the feet tapping.

As I said, it's a while since I read it, so I can't go into a lot of detail. But it's a fascinating book. Bruce - may I call you Bruce? I feel as if I may - Bruce tells it all. Well, obviously not all, but certainly a great deal. He starts by writing about his family and the small town he came from - a setting which is clearly the bedrock for most of his songs. At first, you can imagine that the teenaged Bruce and his pals, determined somehow to get into music, with no money, no knowledge of the industry will surely sink without trace as so many other would-be young musicians do. But of course he doesn't. And though he doesn't brag - far from it - you see why: he is utterly determined, he works incredibly hard, and he is a poet. He's someone who just never stops creating. He describes here how it feels when he and his band finally get a record deal:

We'd climbed to the heavens and spoken to the gods, who told us we were spitting thunder and throwing lightning bolts! It was on. It was all on. After years of waiting, of struggling toward that something I thought might never happen, it had happened.

He tells the story behind each record, explains what he was trying to do, what the concept was. This I found fascinating: I'm not knowledgeable musically, I just like to listen to the songs. But when you see how much thought and energy went into the records, you get a glimpse of why they work so well.

You get the sense of a person who is driven, but who is also kind; who knows that he wants to be the leader of a band, not just another member, yet is not arrogant. He writes about his demons - and with an intense creative drive such as he has, it's not surprising that he has them - with honesty and pain. I think he set out to tell the truth about himself, as much as that's possible, and he makes a really good job of it.

Favourite song? The Queen of the Supermarket, from the album Working On A Dream. It's a beautiful song. A perfect little story of love that will probably never be requited, sad and pure - and it all takes place in the unromantic setting of a supermarket.

And while we're on the subject - why do they never use any of his songs on Strictly Come Dancing? Perhaps he won't let them. I can see it's not very rock'n'roll. But my goodness, with their emotional punch and powerful lyricism, they would inspire some stunning routines.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Tobacconist, by Robert Seethaler

Robert Seethaler is an Austrian living in Berlin. His previous, very successful book, A Whole Life, is the story of a simple man who lived in the mountains, only leaving them to go to war. You might expect the main part of the book to be about his experience of war, because surely that's the obvious, the most dramatic bit to choose to write about; but no. As the title suggests, it's about the whole of his life - which isn't packed with incident (though there is one tragic occurrence): it's essentially a quiet life.

This strikes a chord with me. I've often been told that my own books are too quiet - and I can see that there's some justice in this. Bernard Cornwell and I have both written books about Alfred the Great and his daughter Aethelflaed. He's written a whole series, which have sold in squillions and been made into a successful TV series. I've written one book, originally intended for teenagers (Warrior King, since you ask) and a short story in an anthology, which didn't sell in squillions. The Last Kingdom, Cornwell's book, has bucketsful of gore, lots of drama, and a gorgeous hero. Mine has some jolly nice people, one cracking villain, a silver-eyed magic lady, a sensitive hero troubled by doubt, and rather less gore. It's pretty easy to draw a lesson from this - yet I'm still drawn to subtle stories about quiet people. I suppose the trick is to write them so well that the drama is just as powerful, despite the lack of Sturm und Drang - sorry, just showing off that I did German at school - it means 'storm and stress'. And it does link back to Seethaler - rather neatly, though I says it as shouldn't - because Seethaler writes compellingly about ordinary people - quiet people - and the moments which affect and change them.

In An Ordinary Life, he writes beautifully about how his protagonist falls in love - but this is only a part of his life, though it is a very significant one. The things that happen in the wider world have an effect on his life, of course - but they are merely a backdrop to it. In The Tobacconist, what is happening in the wider world is much more intense - because the book begins in 1937 and most of the action takes place in Vienna. The hero, 17 year-old Franz, at the beginning is living a comfortable, rather spoilt life in a village by a lake with his mother. But then his mother's 'protector' dies in an accident and money is suddenly short. So Franz is sent off to be an apprentice to an old friend of his mother's, a tobacconist in Vienna. Franz, a simple and open character, copes surprisingly well with life in the city. He enjoys his work, gets on well with his rather crusty employer, makes friends with one of the customers, a certain Professor Freud, and falls in love with an unsuitable girl.

But Jews are welcome customers at the shop, and the Gestapo come calling. When the tobacconist is arrested, Franz feels he must protest.

Like An Ordinary Life, The Tobacconist is a short book. It doesn't have a complicated structure, it doesn't have a huge cast of characters, there is no big secret to be revealed, not much by way of twists or turns, no horrifying accounts of torture or interrogation. Yet it works - the story grips. Ordinary lives have their own drama; we all have a story to tell. Only we aren't all good at telling it. Seethaler is.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Hotel Florida - Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civi War: by Amanda Vaill

Probably most of us know something about the Spanish Civil War: that it took place in the 1930s; that it was fought between the Republicans and General Franco's forces, and that Franco won; that lots of idealistic young people from other countries went to Spain to fight for the Republic; perhaps we know also that some of the atrocities that took place remained hidden for decades, and are still now only just coming to light.

But probably even these things we only know in a hazy sort of way. The conflict, after all, was contained in a country which only borders two others, Portugal and France; it's on the edge of Europe, almost surrounded by sea. All hell could be - and was - let loose there, and the rest of Europe could stick its fingers in its ears and turn the other way.

Some countries - Britain and France, for instance - did just that. Others used the conflict as a sort of practice ground for the much greater one to come. So the Germans trialled carpet bombing when they destroyed a small country town called Guernica with the Condor Squadron which they had put at the service of Franco; the Russians supported the Republicans - and spirited the huge Spanish gold reserves out of the country, promising to keep them very, very safe - and ruthlessly suppressed rival left wing factions. The cynicism of Russia and Germany as they pulled the strings of this war, despite all we already know of their actions in the conflagration to follow, are truly shocking.

The history is complicated, ugly and difficult to grasp. This book gives an excellent overview of the conflict by focusing on the lives of three couples - who all at one point meet up at Madrid's Hotel Florida. It's not a novel: the author tells us in her introduction that it's a reconstruction, firmly based on evidence.

Probably the most famous of the six individuals is Ernest Hemingway. I've never managed to get on with Hemingway's writing. I can read a page or two and admire the prose style - but there's something about the personality behind it which has never appealed to me. After reading this book, I can see why. In the mid thirties, he is a very successful writer - a celebrity. He has a wealthy wife, Pauline, and uses her money to enjoy a very privileged lifestyle. He's a hunter, a fan of bull-fighting, a drinker, a man's man. He's macho, arrogant and very ready to use his fists.

But his writing has gone stale, and he sees Spain as a worthy, pure cause. (Despite his lifestyle, he sees himself as a communist.) So he gets himself accredited as a war correspondent and heads for Madrid - with an ambitious, well-connected young journalist called Martha Gellhorn at his side. She has blonde hair and long legs; she's also determined and fearless. Like many others, she hero-worships Hemingway.

The second couple are Arturo Barea, the only Spaniard of the six, and Ilse Kulcsar. As the civil war begins, Arturo, caught between a wife and a mistress (neither of whom he loves) also sees the Republican cause as something pure, something to which he can devote himself, becomes a censor working with the foreign correspondents who have flocked to Madrid, trying to ensure they write a truth which will help the cause. Ilse is Austrian and began her political life as a youthful communist, which has got her into trouble with the government. Together with her husband, she starts a resistance cell which also includes Hugh Gaitskell, later to become a prominent Labour politician in Britain, the poet Stephen Spender - and a certain Kim Philby. She becomes disillusioned with the Party, and with her husband, and like many others, sees the Spanish Republican cause as one worth fighting for. In Madrid, she works alongside Arturo, and they fall in love.

But perhaps the most attractive and likeable couple are Robert Capa and Gerda Taro (above - the picture is from the book). Both names are pseudonyms. She was born Polish, he Hungarian; both are Jewish, both are very young, both are determined to become war photographers and both are wildly, quixotically brave.

Amanda Vaill takes her time, moving between the three couples, letting us get to know them. As we follow their progress, we learn about the progress of the war. We read about the horrors which each side inflicts on the other - and which sometimes, one side inflicts on its own followers. We feel the surge of hope when the International Brigades are formed, and the shock as it becomes clear that the Republican forces - the forces of the elected government - are facing defeat. And finally we are told the fate of the six.

It's a fascinating book: readable, moving, clear and informative. After reading it, I felt I had a much clearer idea of what happened - though I shall need to find a different book to explain to me what led up to it.

PS Yesterday I downloaded a book by Alan Furst, who writes about some of the murkier corners of the Second World War. It's called Midnight In Europe, and it's hero is a Spaniard living in Paris. A few pages in, there is a description of the Hotel Florida, where a character is staying. Don't you just love it when connections like that happen, apparently by accident?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

More watery places... and birds.

This time, in Brussels and Flanders over the last few days...

This was one massive bird!

Enjoying the sun at Het Vinne, Belgium's largest natural lake.

Black-headed gulls

Extraordinary mandarin duck - such colours! At Rouge Cloitre, in the Foret de Soignes.

A pile of goslings...

...and their mum (or possibly dad: an Egyptian goose

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Bookless in Norfolk 2: the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, by Elly Griffiths

At a place called Cley on the coast of Norfolk the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has a visitor centre. I didn't take a picture of it, and I can't find a good one, so you'll have to take my word for it that the centre looks rather like a beached ship, and fits very beautifully into the landscape. The front wall is mostly windows, and it looks out over the marshes, first freshwater and then salt, which lead to the edge of the land and the sea. There's a lot of sky above you, and a lot of space in front of you. Even if you're not an accomplished birdwatcher; you can't miss the birds.

A little white egret
The marshes

Like any visitor centre worth its salt (!), Cley has a shop. I homed in on the books, and found a mystery series set in Norfolk and written by Elly Griffiths. I bought the first one, which is called The Crossing Places, and it turned out to be an absolute treat.

It features a forensic archaeologist (someone who specialises in bones), called Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives on the edge of the marshes in a lonely little cottage, and she loves it. She is called in by the local police - in the form of one Harry Nelson - when they find the bones of a child near the site of a prehistoric wooden henge which Ruth played a part in uncovering some years before. Nelson hopes they are the bones of a child who went missing ten years before - he is desperate to give closure to her parents, and haunted by a series of anonymous letters taunting him about his inability to solve the case. However, the bones turn out to be considerably older than that.

Then another child goes missing. Ruth helps Nelson to investigate the case - and finds that she herself is drawn into danger.

The story is good and it's very well told. But it's the characters that are the real draw. There's Ruth, who is fortyish, overweight, clever, independent and funny. There's Nelson, who is tall, handsome, does a good line in dark scowls, and is fiercely loyal to his team and protective of his family, the beautiful Michelle and their two daughters. There's Cathbad the druid, who really does seem to have semi-magical powers, and has a way of being exactly where and when he is needed. There's Cloughie, the detective sergeant, who eats all the time but never puts on weight, and Judy, also a detective sergeant, who's tough but also good at empathy, and vies with Clough for Nelson's approval. There's beautiful Shona, Ruth's friend, feckless and faithless, and there's loathsome Phil, Ruth's ambitious, attention-seeking boss.

All of these and more reappear in all the books - I think there are nine to date. Their intertwining stories are ongoing, and to appreciate and enjoy them properly it really is best to read the books in order. Each book is set at least partly in a different bit of Norfolk, and the plots don't repeat each other, although some elements do. The characters aren't predictable. Their lives become messy, but just in the way that real lives do. The landscape is described beautifully, and its long history is often integral to the stories.

I've read them all now, except for the last one, which I'm trying to save, like the last bit of chocolate. I meant to stop after a couple and make them last - but it's so fatally easy with a Kindle; your finger hovers over the screen, as you think, 'Well maybe just one more - one more won't really make a difference, will it...? Because I really do need to know whether it's going to work out between X and X, and whether Y is going to happen...'

I really do recommend this series. Elly Griffiths is a seriously good writer, albeit one with a great sense of humour and the ability to observe human nature with forensic accuracy, but also with kindness and understanding.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Bookless in Norfolk - well, almost. City of Shadows, by Michael Russell

I’m on holiday at the moment, in North Norfolk. I’ve never been here before; it’s a green, rolling landscape, with unspoilt villages whose houses are faced with flint pebbles or made of russet brick; clear streams, daffodils and hellebores, ponderous pheasants, swooping owls at dusk  – and a clean, breezy coastline edged with marshes teeming with lapwings, terns and little white egrets.

A watery bit of Norfolk.

What it doesn’t have – well, our particular little bit of it anyway – is internet or phone service. This is because, a few days ago, a farmer drove his tractor into a telegraph pole and took out all the cables – and this apparently will take at least a week to fix.  It’s quite interesting really; it’s as if we’ve gone back in time, or as if we're cut off from the outside world. The village shop can’t take cards or ring in orders. A van driver wanders in looking bemused; his sat nav has suddenly stopped working, and he can’t find the house he’s looking for.

And I’ve run out of reading matter. I hunt through the books in the cottage we’re staying in, certain I’ll find something there. I try three. The first is painfully badly written. The second – I can’t even remember the second. The third is a Ruth Rendell, and I have high hopes, but in this particular novel, she seems to be grappling very uneasily with notions of political correctness and with characters with whose background and way of life she is palpably ill at ease. The result is uncomfortable and rather dull.

So I hunt through my Kindle. I can’t download anything new, because there is no wifi. I go back, in search of something I haven’t yet read. And I find this: The City of Shadows, by Michael Russell. I don't remember it. I probably downloaded it before I was going away somewhere, in a sudden panic that I might run out of things to read – an Amazon recommendation, perhaps. It’s a detective story, and it’s set partly in Ireland and partly in Poland. Three reasons for me to be interested, so I start to read.

Set in the early 1930s, it begins with an evocative description of night-time Dublin, with the moon shining on the River Liffey. ‘Yet sometimes, when the moon was low and heavy over the city, the Liffey seemed to remember the light of the moon and the stars in the mountains, and the nights when its cascading streams were the only sound.’ Peaceful yet brooding, this sentence alone is enough reason to read on. But the peace doesn’t last; a few pages in, a young gay man is brutally murdered. It’s clear that the Church, and a high-ranking priest, are involved.

Cut to two years later, and Detective Sergeant Stefan Gillespie is trying to catch an illegal abortionist. A young woman goes into his house, and Stefan – who is himself half German - and his constable, Dessie, assume that she is seeking an abortion at the hands of the German doctor. But things are not as they seem. The woman, Hannah Rosen, who is Jewish, is not there on her own account: she’s searching for a missing friend. And Dr Keller turns out to have powerful protectors who warn Stefan off.

Stefan, a widower with a young son who lives with Stefan’s parents on a farm outside the city, agrees to help Hannah. But things become increasingly murky; and Stefan has his own problems with a fanatical priest who wants to take his son away from him, because he believes Stefan is not giving him a properly Catholic upbringing.

Stefan’s desire to help Hannah, and to uncover the truth behind Keller’s involvement and subsequent smoothly effected escape, takes him to Gdansk. The plot deepens in complexity, and Russell helped me to understand a great deal more than I did before about both the position of the Church in Ireland, and about the history of Gdansk – which was a few years later, of course, the place where Hitler’s troops invaded, lighting the touch paper for war.

But it’s also beautifully written, and the characters are subtle, complex and very believable. (I hate to think there could really be fanatics such as the village priest, but I fear the evidence is all too strong that there were - and are - people who are so blinded by a perverted vision of faith that they are capable of appalling cruelty.) It’s a very good book.

Next time – another fruit of being bookless in Norfolk!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

I'm a big fan of Rose Tremain. I don't often re-read books, but I've read the The Way Home, about an economic migrant to Britain from Eastern Europe, several times: it's touching and funny and sad and warm, with complex, richly realised characters. Music and Silence - which I've also re-read and, thinking about it, may read again is set in the 17th century Danish court - very different, and quite mesmerising.

The Gustav Sonata is quite a short novel. It's divided into three parts, and after finishing it occurred to me - musical ignoramus that I am - that this might mimic the structure of a sonata, and sure enough, it does:

Sonata: a type of composition in three sections (exposition, development, and recapitulation) in which two themes or subjects are explored according to set key relationships. It forms the basis for much classical music, including the sonata, symphony, and concerto. (Google)

The two subjects are two boys, Anton and Gustav, with Gustav being the point-of-view character. They live in a Swiss town where nothing much happens. Gustav's circumstances are materially and also emotionally poor; his mother seems bitter and cold, and unable to really love him. His life is enriched when he makes friends with a new boy, a musical prodigy, whose parents are loving and warm and take Gustav into their hearts.

The second section goes back in time to explore the story of Gustav's parents (his father died during the war - in which, of course, Switzerland did not take part - when he was very small). Then the third section moves forward in time, to explain what becomes of Anton and Gustav in middle age.

As in all Rose Tremain's books, no matter how diverse their settings, the characters in all their complexity are the focus. And not just the main ones: Lotte, beautiful in her youth, still hungry for life, passion and fashion in her old age, is a wonderful creation. Even bit-part players, like Lunardi the chef, is completely three-dimensional; though he says little, he's very real. She explores and highlights relationships: weakness, selfishness, the accommodations that people make, the deceptions they learn to live with - but also the strength of love, the kindness and generosity to be found in unexpected places.

I knew nothing about life in Switzerland during the war, and it was interesting to discover how, despite being neutral, it was still affected. But really, what grips is the story of these two lives, and how they touch and are touched by those of others. It's a satisfying, thought-provoking and moving novel, and you really couldn't ask for much more, could you?

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Might and right - Thomas Becket

Geoffrey Chaucer - a kindly face from Canterbury.

A few weeks ago, we went to Canterbury. I always compare other cathedrals to Wells, my 'local', and Wells always wins - it is so very beautiful. But what Canterbury does have is an incredibly powerful story which is soaked into its very stones. It's the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170: specifically, it's the story of his murder. He died because he resisted his King; because he believed that what he thought was right aced his duty to his liege lord. Perhaps there's a message here for the people who surround our present leaders.

Becket came from a moderately well-to-do Norman family. As he was beginning to make his way in the world, his father suffered some kind of financial setback, and Thomas had to take a position as a clerk to pay his way. However, he did well: working to start off with for a relative, but later moving to the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury - then, as now, the archbishopric of Canterbury was the foremost one in the English church. Becket did well, and in 1154 he became Archdeacon of Canterbury, as well as being given various other posts in the church.

In fact, he did so well that Theobald recommended him to the King, Henry 11 for the post of Lord Chancellor - a position of considerable power and renown. Henry was engaged in a struggle with the church, because he felt it had too much power - power which too closely rivalled his own: for instance, a priest could only be tried in a church court, not in a civil court, no matter how heinous his crime. He believed that Becket was on his side - that he was ideally placed, with one foot in the church camp and one in the secular camp, to help him to shift the balance of power in favour of the crown.

At first, all went as planned. Becket helped Henry to extract money both from the church and from secular landowners; the two men got on well, with Henry even sending his son to live in Becket's household.

Then Theobald died, and Henry had a brilliant idea: he would make his friend archbishop, and then power over the church - with all its possessions and immense riches - and state would reside firmly in Henry's hands.

But it didn't work out like that. Thomas took his new position and responsibilities extremely seriously. He saw it as his duty not to do what Henry wanted, but to defend the church - if necessary, to the death. Henry was astonished. How dare this man, whom he had raised up - his friend - defy him? Wounded and furious at this perceived betrayal (is this reminding you of anyone?), he exiled him. The Pope eventually brokered a kind of peace, and Becket returned: but still he defied the King. Eventually, in what might possibly be called a tantrum, Henry turned on his courtiers and demanded to know why none of them would sort Becket out for him. (The exact words are not known, but he is commonly said to have railed at them: 'Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?') And four knights took him at his word.

This is where Thomas was killed. The two swords, and their shadows, represent the four knights who killed him.

They went to Canterbury, and inside the church, in a small space where one staircase led to the crypt, another up to the altar, and a door led to the cloisters, they brutally attacked him. As he died, his blood soaked into the stones.

Did Henry really mean this to happen? Did the knights misunderstand? Afterwards, he came to the cathedral and did humble and apparently sincere penance. But the four knights, though they eventually had to go into exile, were not arrested and their lands were not confiscated.

Very quickly, Becket's tomb inside the cathedral became a place of sanctity and pilgrimage - a place to come and be healed. Becket was soon declared a saint. Fifty years later, his remains were moved upstairs to the new eastern part of the cathedral, beyond the altar, into a tomb richly decorated with gold and jewels. In the sixteenth century, Erasmus, the famous Dutch humanist, priest and theologian, saw the tomb and was astonished by it; he said that the gold was the least of its riches, compared to the wealth of precious stones which had been given by kings and nobles in homage to the martyr.

A few years later, Henry VIII ransacked the tomb and stole the gold and the jewels. It wasn't just about the money: it was about the story as well. Henry, the power-crazed despot, had to do everything he could to obliterate the cult of Thomas Becket; because, even more so than Henry II, he couldn't bear the thought that a commoner should defy the king; that a man's conscience should be more important to him than his allegiance to the crown.

But it didn't work; the story, and the cult, survived. Thomas, and what he stood far - a determination to act according to his conscience - was not forgotten, despite the best efforts first of one king, then of another, far more brutal one.

I'm not a believer, but I think that's quite an encouraging message from the stones of Canterbury Cathedral. Especially at the moment. Those who are close to political leaders, take note: your allegiance to what is right takes precedence over your allegiance to your boss. That's the message that resounds down the centuries from Thomas Becket.