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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (panem et circenses)

Bread And Circuses Make The Tastiest Sandwiches

Jane Thynne is a journalist and historical novelist who has also written two alternate history novels under the pseudonym of C. J. Carey. I have no idea why she chose to use a pseudonym for her alternate history writing. She has always freely admitted that she is C. J. Carey so she is clearly quite happy with the books she has written using that name – but doubtless she had her reasons. The C. J. Carey books are Widowland and Queen Wallis and they are superb. Just a word of warning though, Queen Wallis has also been published under the title Queen High. Make sure you don’t buy it twice.

The novels are both set in England in the 1950s. The country has been under the control of Germany since 1940 when it surrendered to the Nazis. This is not an unreasonable assumption on which to base a story. When Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister there were two possible candidates to replace him – Winston Churchill, who was eager to continue fighting the war, and Lord Halifax, who wanted to negotiate a peace settlement. In our world, Churchill was chosen to take over as Prime Minister with results that we are all familiar with. In the world of these novels, Halifax replaced Chamberlain and as a result England has become a German protectorate.

Widowland is set in 1953 and the British public is eagerly anticipating the coronation of Edward VIII and his American wife Wallis Simpson. Edward VIII had actually ascended to the throne in 1936 but had been forced to abdicate later that same year because his relationship with Wallis Simpson was generally frowned upon. Not only was she American, she was also twice divorced and both her ex-husbands were still alive. The Church of England (of which Edward, as King, was the titular head) disapproved of remarriage after divorce, particularly when the divorced spouses were still living. Great pressure was put upon Edward to abdicate, which he duly did, stating publicly that he felt unable to continue his duties as king without the support of the woman he loved. That, at least, was the official excuse that was used to justify Edward’s abdication to the world at large. But behind the scenes, the movers and shakers regarded Wallis Simpson as a heaven sent tool that could be used to lever Edward off the throne. They felt that he did not have the intellectual capacity to carry out the duties of the monarchy, despite the fact that those duties were largely ceremonial. He was just too dumb to cope with them. Furthermore, Edward was also an avid supporter of Adolf Hitler, and his Nazi sympathies did not sit well with the mood of the country at that time.

Edward’s coronation had originally been scheduled for May 1937. The ceremony was not cancelled when he abdicated. It went ahead as planned, but the monarch who was crowned in Edward’s place was his younger brother, George VI. However, Widowland makes it clear that after the negotiated peace settlement with Germany, George VI and his family were eventually forced to flee the country. Nobody is quite sure what happened to them after that. It is not even clear if they are alive or dead, though there are rumours that at least some of them ended up in America. After the royal family disappeared, Edward VIII re-ascended to the throne. In German eyes, he made the perfect figurehead. He was someone who agreed with their policies so he would be easy to manipulate, and his royal status made him someone around whom the country as a whole could rally. So now his long delayed coronation can finally take place. Ironically (and for quite deliberate literary purposes of course) in our world 1953 was actually the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II...

England in 1953 is a rather bleak and uncomfortable place. The Germans maintain a strict control over the British citizens and have forced much of their ideology on to the administration of Government. Women are particularly tightly controlled and are very much second class citizens with few rights or privileges. They have been organised into a rigid caste system based on the ideas of eugenics and their pregnancies are strictly monitored.

Rose Ransom vividly remembers what life was like before the war but she knows better than to let it show. She works for the Ministry of Culture, rewriting the classics of English literature to ensure that they contain no subversive thoughts that might give people (and particularly women) the wrong ideas. She is extremely good at her job.

There have been outbreaks of insurgency across the country. Mostly this has manifested itself as graffiti painted on public buildings. The slogans are made up of seditious lines taken from forbidden books, most of them written by women! Clearly there is an organised countrywide resistance movement lurking somewhere behind the scenes and equally clearly it aims to return power (and dignity) to the oppressed under classes. To women, in other words.

Suspicion has fallen on Widowland, the run-down slums to where childless women over fifty have been banished. Because of her knowledge of forbidden books and because of her expertise in re-writing them, Rose is given the dangerous task of infiltrating Widowland to find the source of the rebellion.

Meanwhile, the coronation is getting closer. Adolf Hitler himself will be attending it – for some rather twee and inexplicable reason, Hitler is never mentioned by name in Carey’s novels. He is always referred to just as The Leader. I must confess that I found such prissiness mildly irritating. But so it goes.

The rebels must be identified before they can cause problems – the coronation will give them an ideal platform from which to present their manifesto. If Rose fails in her mission the results will be catastrophic for both Britain in general and for her in particular. She does indeed find much useful information in Widowland, but the rebels are well organised and they turn out to be closer to the seat of power than anyone had realised.

The second novel, Queen Wallis, is set in 1955, two years after the events of the first book. Hitler’s assassination at Edward’s coronation has provoked violent retributions and has greatly intensified the repression of British citizens, particularly women. Now, more than ever, the Protectorate has become a place of surveillance and isolation. Everyone is alone, nobody feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions with other people.

Rose Ransom herself is mildly surprised to find that she is still alive. Perhaps because she is a mere woman, her role in Hitler’s death has been miraculously overlooked. She still works at the Culture Ministry, where her tasks now focus mainly on poetry, which is seen as being full of subversive meanings, emotions, and signals that cannot be ignored or controlled and which must therefore never see the light of day.

Despite the fact that women are even more repressed now than they were two years ago, the government has implemented a propaganda drive in an attempt to promote positive images of women. This is because the American president Dwight D. Eisenhower is coming on a state visit to England and it is important to make a good impression on him. Queen Wallis Simpson will be spearheading the campaign (she is American after all), and Rose has been given the task of explaining the plan to her.

When Rose arrives at the palace, she finds Wallis is paranoid and panicking. She desperately wants to return to America and leave Britain far behind. Wallis claims she has evidence that could turn American policy firmly against re-establishing a relationship with England. She feels that she herself is in great danger because of this. Obviously the information is something the government wants to keep under wraps. So, once again, Rose finds herself at the centre of potentially devastating events.

Taken together, the two novels give the impression of being a rather weird hybrid of George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Clearly C. J. Carey has a message to preach, and there is no doubt that she preaches it effectively though at the price of sacrificing some degree of plausibility. The caste system to which women are consigned is a very effective literary device. It drives the whole plot and it illuminates much of the political and social commentary. Nevertheless it feels very artificial, partly because the Germans never implemented anything like it in any of the other territories they controlled (so they would have no very good reason to implement it in Britain either) and partly because the meekness – and in some cases the enthusiasm – with which it is accepted by one and all seems highly unlikely, particularly among the generation who clearly remember what life was like before the war. But if you can put that rather shrill bit of literary propaganda away to one side, what remains is indeed an interesting, enthralling and very clever story.

Laura Lippman has done it again. Her new novel is called Prom Mom and it’s a tour de force.

In 1997, in Baltimore, on the night of her school prom, 16-year-old Amber Glass gave birth and the baby died. Her baby’s father was her date for the night of the prom, a young man called Joe Simpson.

Amber claims that she blacked out and does not remember anything about that night. Joe says he knows nothing at all about what happened. After all, he wasn’t even there! He’d left Amber alone in their hotel room because she was feeling ill and he wanted to continue partying. The tragedy of the baby’s death became a media sensation. The press dubbed Amber as "Prom Mom" and Joe as "Cad Dad", appellations that neither of them ever really managed to live down. Amber serves a prison sentence for killing her child. After she is released, she goes to live in New Orleans where she works in a series of art galleries, learning the tricks of the trade and becoming quite an expert in them.

Years later, in 2019, Amber returns to Baltimore following the death of her stepfather, a man to whom she was very close. She has inherited her stepfather's home and she decides to put the house up for sale. While the slow real estate wheels turn she rents office space and opens an art gallery of her own. It isn’t long before her path crosses again with Joe's (Baltimore is a very small town), and soon long-buried secrets begin to come to light as old scandals raise their heads and old questions are asked all over again.

Joe is married to Meredith, a successful plastic surgeon. They have no children. Joe also has a lover, though Meredith is not aware of this (not yet, anyway). As the long, slow leisurely pages of the novel progress we start to learn more and more about what happened in 1997 and what is happening now as a direct result of that tragic history.

The chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Amber, Joe and Meredith. We gradually learn a lot more about all of them. Meredith is cold and calculating – as befits a surgeon, I suppose, though she carries it somewhat to extremes. Joe is a pathetic loser, a Trump voter with a vanity plate and a bourgeois love of possessions which he feels are a definition of his place in the world. His refusal to accept responsibility for anything he has said or done finally comes home to roost and sends everyone’s lives spinning out of control. Amber herself is deliberately manipulative, engineering uncomfortable confrontations with vengeful glee. Nobody is a nice person here, though Amber does remain the most sympathetic character and I found myself hoping that her gradually revealed schemes and plots would eventually bear fruit. They do, but in a rather unexpected way.

For much of its length this is a novel of manners, a character study informed by tragedy and even if that was all that the novel had going for it, it would still be quite brilliant. But there is more to it than that. As the pace and intensity increase, and as secrets are slowly revealed, the story metamorphoses into a very noir thriller indeed, full of hairpin twists and turns. I guarantee you that when the final reveal exposes what really happened on that tragic night in 1997 (and what is happening now because of it) it will take your breath away.

They don’t come any better than this.

Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym chosen by the novelist Christopher Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman for a series of medical thrillers that they have written together. The stories are set in Edinburgh in the nineteenth century. Marisa Haetzman is an anaesthetist and a medical historian and she has provided the stories with the very authentic sounding (and often quite gruesome) medical and surgical detail around which the complex plots revolve. So far I have only read the first book in the series – The Way of All Flesh – but I enjoyed it hugely and I am greatly looking forward to reading the rest.

Edinburgh in 1847 is a divided city. The Old Town is an area of slums, poverty and violence. By contrast, the New Town is rich and genteel. You might think that there would be little connection between the two, but you would be wrong.

Will Raven is an impoverished medical student living in the Old Town. As the story opens, we find Will grieving over the death of Evie, a prostitute with whom he had a very close friendship. Perhaps he even loved her, who knows? She has died in mysterious circumstances and Will is not sure why or how it happened. Will’s own future though is looking bright. He has managed to secure an apprenticeship with the famous Dr James Simpson who specialises in midwifery and anaesthesia and he is greatly looking forward to taking up his new position. He is sure that he will learn a lot "on the job" as it were, and as a bonus he will be moving out of the Old Town and taking rooms with Dr. Simpson so as to be present to assist the doctor whenever he is required.

Will has borrowed a lot of money from from a moneylender in the Old Town (we don’t yet know why, but his reasons for borrowing the money will become very important later on in the story). His debts have now become due and before he manages finally to move away from the Old Town he is tracked down by the moneylender’s enforcers. They beat him badly. Then one of them slashes his cheek open with knife and promises him that unless the debt is repaid in full, the next time they find him they will take one of his eyes. Will’s friend Henry, another medical student, patches Will up as best he can but when Will presents himself to Dr. Simpson for his first day at his new job his bruised, battered and bleeding appearance does not make a good first impression. Nevertheless James Simpson makes him welcome, much to the annoyance of Sarah Fisher the housemaid who does not approve. Sarah herself is a bright and intelligent person. In her spare time she reads extensively from Dr. Simpson’s library (with his full permission of course) and we soon learn that she has aspirations above her station. She hopes for a career in medicine but fears that it will be denied to her because of society's misogyny and her own poverty.

And now the team is complete – Will Raven, Sarah Fisher and James Simpson will work together to solve the medical and criminal mysteries that are the beating heart of the series.

Will accompanies Simpson to medical emergencies in both the Old Town and the New. Will soon learns that Simpson uses the money he gets from his richer patients to subsidise his treatments of the poorer ones, which is a very enlightened attitude for the times. Will attends many confinements with Simpson and marvels at the surgeon’s dexterity in bringing children into the world. But sometimes even he cannot defeat nature and his failures are heart rending.

Where possible, Simpson likes to anaesthetise his patients in order to reduce their pain and suffering. He trains Will to to act as his anaesthetist. The only anaesthetic available to them is ether which is very much a hit and miss drug. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes it proves fatal. Nobody knows why. Simpson is convinced there must be something better and conducts experiments in an attempt to find a more effective drug. Since the real life James Simpson is credited with pioneering the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic, we can be sure that he will succeed though not without some tragedies, some triumphs and a few comical episodes along the way. There is much gore and grue on display as medical and surgical procedures are examined in fine detail – this is not a book for the weak of stomach.

As Will proceeds with his training he hears rumours of other suspicious deaths that sound a lot like the mysterious fate that overtook Evie. We finally learn what Will did with the money he borrowed from the moneylender and we learn what Evie had in common with the other dead women (I’m being deliberately vague here so as to avoid spoilers). Meanwhile, in a sub-plot, Will’s moneylender problems are resolved in a delightfully ironic manner.

The deaths of the women and the strange discovery of the severed leg of a child found blocking a drain make it clear that something foul is afoot. With the help of Sarah and James, Will eventually tracks down the culprit and learns the reasons for the deaths of so many women. Those reasons are shocking and horrifying even by the callous attitudes of nineteenth century society. Once the culprit is identified, the punishment meted out is so delightfully poetic that I finished the story with a great big grin on my face.

I enjoyed the book a lot but it does have its weaknesses. Simpson’s altruism towards his less well off patients is very necessary for plot purposes but nevertheless it feels rather out of place for the times. Sarah is an unconvincing housemaid with a view of life that is much more suited to the twenty-first century than it is to the nineteenth. I was also amused to find that there is a strong "anti-ether" movement among the pregnant ladies of Edinburgh somewhat akin to the anti-vaccination movement of our own times. I have no idea whether this historical detail is accurate or not (though given that it is largely based on religious reasons I suspect that it is probably very close to the truth) but the emphasis placed on it and the rhetoric used to justify it makes the parallels a little too close for comfort and I can’t help thinking that the authors are grinding their own axes here.

While we are on the subject of medicine and surgery, let’s go back a couple of thousand years…

Simon Turney, who is well known for writing military fiction set in Roman times, has written two novels, The Capsarius and Bellatrix which tell of the adventures of a medical orderly serving in a Roman legion during the reign of the Emperor Augustus.

A word of warning, you really do need to read these novels in the proper order, one straight after the other. Together they form one long story which has only been split into two volumes because of their length. The Capsarius ends on a cliff hanger and Bellatrix follows on immediately from where the first book left off.

Titus Cervianus is the eponymous capsarius, which is the rank given to a medical orderly in the Roman army. Usually such men are mere butchers who kill more casualties than they save, but Titus is an exception to the rule. In civilian life he was a skilful doctor with a flourishing practice. However an unfortunate accident and a vengeful family have forced him out of his civilian life and into the army.

Titus speaks several languages and has a voracious appetite for books and scholarship. Although he is a capsarius, he is still a legionary and he is expected to fight in the front line with his comrades when necessary. But once the fighting is over he is the first port of call for the wounded men. The descriptions of Titus’ medical practices make for absolutely fascinating reading. The medicines and surgical procedures available to him are laughingly primitive by today’s standards. Nevertheless Titus has taken the Hippocratic Oath and his attitudes and practices (his medical philosophy, if you like) would be immediately recognisable to any modern doctor.

Titus considers himself to be a man of science and logic. He has no time for superstitious nonsense which he sees as being the "bane of all reasoned thinkers". Interestingly, this attitude will change as the story progresses and by the end of it Titus is starting to think that the gods really do exist and that they really do meddle in the affairs of men. The evidence is incontrovertible as, of course, it must be in order to convince such a rational thinker. Titus’ progression from sceptic to reluctant believer, the reverse of the normal literary preoccupation with these kinds of things, is one of the many fascinating threads that run through the story.

His legion has been sent to Egypt to shore up the Twelfth legion which has recently suffered a catastrophic defeat in Arabia. Fully aware of the perils that lie ahead of him, Titus is nevertheless excited at the prospect of seeing the sights of Egypt that he has only ever read about before – Alexandria! Memphis! Thebes! The Pyramids!

Soon the legion is marching south into Kush on a campaign that seems more driven by the arrogance and pride of their superiors than it is by any careful strategic thinking. (Where have we heard that one before?) Like Joseph Conrad some two thousand years in their future the legionaries are now heading straight into the heart of darkness. Some things simply never change. It’s worth pointing out that the parallels I have drawn here are quite deliberate. Turney is on record as stating that The Capsarius was directly inspired by Conrad’s incredible novel.

In the second book, Bellatrix, following the orders of a clearly incompetent (and possibly insane) general, the legion finds itself undertaking a punishing and dangerous trek through the desert in an attempt to take the Kushite forces by surprise by attacking them from an unexpected direction. However it soon becomes apparent that the general has seriously underestimated the Kushites both in terms of their military capability and in their sense of purpose. The legion’s supply lines are too long and too vulnerable and the loyalties of their native scouts are highly suspect. The results are disastrous for the legion (though the story itself makes for grimly fascinating and exciting reading).

As the thrust and counter-thrust of battle gives temporary advantage to one side or the other we learn that both the Romans and the Kushites had particularly gruesome ways of dealing with the armies they have defeated. Those of you who are overburdened with squeam might do well to avoid the detailed descriptions of the tortures and punishments that each side inflicts upon the other. Simon Turney lingers lovingly on every agonising action...

The dialogue remains (largely) true (ish) to its times but the attitudes expressed by the soldiers is timeless. At one point, low on food, weapons and manpower, and facing the prospect of an attack by a vast horde of bloodthirsty Kushites, one of the legionaries succinctly sums up their position. "...[as things stand] we couldn’t fight off a drunk Syrian catamite with the shits!" The story is often very funny but the humour is always dark.

This dualogy is definitely Turney’s very best book to date. His research is impeccable and his evocation of the time and the place, the personalities and the politics, the strategies and the tactics is captivating and utterly enthralling. I’ve mildly enjoyed his other historical novels, but these two stand head and shoulders above the rest. They are, quite simply, brilliant.

I’ve always liked Alan Judd’s novels. They are invariably very short (a huge point in their favour) but nevertheless they are always rich and dense and utterly absorbing. Most other authors would rewrite the average Alan Judd novel as a trilogy and lose all the flavour by doing so. But Alan Judd doesn’t write like that. Shakespeare's Sword is short, pithy, ingenious, stuffed full of ideas and well drawn characters and as an added bonus it has an absolute humdinger of a twist in the tale. What’s not to like?

Everyone knows that William Shakespeare wrote a will in which he left his second best bed to Anne Hathaway. What is less well known is that he also left his sword to his friend Mr Thomas Combe...

Simon Gold is a twenty-first century antique dealer who discovers that one of his customers, Gerald Coombs, has a house stuffed full of treasures that have been passed down in his family through the generations. It looks like none of Gerald’s ancestors ever threw anything away. One of the items that Simon discovers in the house is a very old and very dirty sword which Gerald uses as a poker. Simon becomes convinced that this ancient weapon is the sword mentioned in Shakespeare’s will and that Gerald Coombs himself is a direct descendant of the Thomas Combe to whom Shakespeare left it. The spelling of Gerald’s surname differs from the spelling used in Shakespeare’s will, but in the seventeenth century spelling, particularly of proper names, was at best an arbitrary convention. Shakespeare himself spells his own name in three different ways in his own will! So it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Gerald Coombs is poking his fireplace with the very sword that William Shakespeare himself once wielded. If so, and if its provenance can be proved, it will be worth a small (or possibly even a very large) fortune. Simon embarks on a nefarious scheme to gain possession of the sword aided and abetted by Gerald’s wife Charlotte who, it turns out, has her own agenda that dovetails nicely with Simon’s.

This is a marvellous novel, full of historical insights, information about the lore of antiques, self-justifyingly complex schemes and totally unexpected twists. If you are looking to fill a couple of idle hours, I can think of no better way of doing it than by reading this wonderful little book.

Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac’s book The Black Door details the fascinating history of the establishment of the modern British secret services at the start of the twentieth century. Then it goes on to closely examine those services ever changing relationships with (and influence upon) every Prime Minister since then, up to and including David Cameron. Unfortunately the book was published before the laughably incompetent tosspots who followed Cameron into office took up their roles so we never get to see what might have been behind the botch ups that they made of things. Pity...

I was fascinated to learn that a major influence on the creation of the Security Service in 1909 came from the fact that from about 1900 onwards, a large number of potboiling pulp authors wrote some hugely popular (though not always very realistic) novels about Imperial German spies stealing British secrets and secretly planning for war. Perhaps the most influential of these was The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, though William le Queux’s science fictional The Invasion of 1910 (published in 1906) gave it a good run for its money. Novels such as these had an unnerving effect on the (perhaps not very sophisticated) British public, and pressure was put on the government to root out all these spies and fight back in the espionage war. So they did.

The various intelligence services proved their worth when WWI broke out. The codebreaking department known as Room 40 provided valuable insight into Germany’s military and political strategies which helped to define the actions that Britain and her allies implemented on the front line. Behind the scenes the operational wings of the various services also mounted successful clandestine operations. By the time the war was over the secret services were providing high class information to successive governments about the thinking of both Britain’s enemies and, perhaps more importantly, her allies.

MI5 was charged with domestic security and MI6 with foreign security. Room 40 became the Government Code and Cipher School (GC!CS) which formed the backbone of the famous codebreaking organisation at Bletchley Park and eventually metamorphosed into today’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

After sketching out the development of the various services, the book settles down into a series of chapters, one for each Prime Minister since 1909, and it details their individual attitudes to, relationships with and attempts to control the intelligence services. Some Prime Ministers were deeply involved with the secret world and became very enthusiastic consumers of intelligence while others thought it was a dirty business and kept the secret services at arms length. Some, notably Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and David Cameron, implemented important procedural changes that made the intelligence services much more relevant to central government and therefore more influential in the policy-making process.

The book is full of fascinating insights and it is stuffed to the gills with deliciously scandalous details. One that fair took my breath away was when the book revealed that in the late 1950s the wife of the Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was deeply involved in a long-term adulterous affair with the Conservative MP and later peer of the realm, Lord Boothby. I already knew that, of course. Everybody, including MacMillan himself, was well aware of it. But what I didn’t know until the book informed me of it was that Boothby was bisexual and that while he was happily bedding the Prime Minister’s wife he was simultaneously having a homosexual affair with Ronnie Kray, the notoriously psychopathic gangster who controlled the East End of London. I wonder what effect that relationship had on the governance of Britain? Of course, the intelligence services knew all about it...

For me, the most absorbing chapters of this book were the ones that dealt with the Prime Ministers I grew up with. I well remember many of the crises discussed in the book such as Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence, the Northern Ireland problems in general and the IRA bombing campaigns in mainland Britain in particular, the Iranian Embassy siege, the war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, the so-called war against terror – the list goes on and on and on. Re-examining these events in light of the new insights that The Black Door provides on the involvement of the intelligence services in combating them was really quite eye opening. The personalities and the relationships of the main players fuming, fretting and fulminating behind the scenes while simultaneously presenting a bland, unflappable political presence to the public at large held me glued to the page. It also changed my opinions about some of the politicians that I’d thought I’d known. I lost a lot of the respect that I’d once had for Harold Wilson and I completely reversed my thinking about people such as James Callaghan, Edward Heath and John Major who I’d once thought of as weak and ineffective.

This is a fascinating and hugely insightful book that I found quite impossible to put down.

C. J. Carey Widowland Quercus
C. J. Carey Queen Wallis Quercus
Laura Lippman Prom Mom Faber
Ambrose Parry The Way Of All Flesh Canongate
Simon Turney The Capsarius Head of Zeus
Simon Turney Bellatrix Head of Zeus
Alan Judd Shakespeare's Sword Simon & Schuster
Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac The Black Door William Collins
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