“On Canaan’s Side” by Sebastian Barry
This is beautifully written but I found it very difficult to keep going. It was a very thoughtful book and those can sometimes be hard going. It’s about a woman who found herself on the wrong side of the Irish civil war; her father was an RIC officer and her boyfriend was in the Black and Tans. Even now, I don’t think that there are many Irish people who would admit to having a relative in the Black and Tans. The RIC has been rehabilitated somewhat but I remember growing-up hearing about a man whose father had been in the RIC. People still knew and it wasn’t held against him in any way; he was very successful in his field. But people knew. And this was in the 1980s – more than 60 years after the demise of the RIC. Our heroine, ends up having to go to America to escape from vengeful locals in Wicklow and lives her adult life there. It is very full of incident and adventure but something about the way it is written makes it seem very slow. An interesting book but hard going at times.
“A Postcard from the Volcano” by Lucy Beckett
This is about a bunch of friends in Germany between the wars. Their various ominous fates hang over them from the beginning. It’s interesting in spots though somewhat didactic in tone; the author has clearly done a great deal of research. What really put me off is the author’s obsession with catholicism and Nietzsche [she is in favour of the former and against the latter]. You might think that this would appeal to me as a catholic myself but it just doesn’t, she is too emphatic and too didactic. And at 500 pages or so it’s a lot to trawl through. The characters are really just messengers for what she’s trying to convey and have no depth. They are dreadfully one dimensional – take for example the rather obviously named Eva who is a fallen woman who lures our hero into an affair. Or Adam, I’m ruining it for you now, who becomes a priest. On the plus side, I know a lot abut Breslau or Wrocław as we now know it.
“Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons
This is a book of short stories. It is not, as you might think, a sequel to the spectacularly successful “Cold Comfort Farm”. Once you get over this disappointment the stories are fine. A little bit sad but also funny which is her speciality. Some of them are a bit dated but most have stood the test of time.
“Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian” by Eoin Colfer
I think that Eoin Colfer is really tired of Artemis Fowl. You can see it here and I think that he should bow out gracefully while Artemis has his dignity in tact.
“The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family” by Selina Guinness
I really liked this book. I think it’s very well written and quite touching. It’s about a suburban girl who ends up, by degrees, owning her family’s big house and their farm, in the Dublin mountains. She is related to the Guinnesses but her family is the cadet branch and has no share in the brewing fortune. I was astounded that it divided our book club. I was in the minority. The majority didn’t like it much and found the author patronising and the book not particularly interesting though competently written. You’ll have to make up your own mind. For what it’s worth, I would recommend it very strongly and it is possibly the only book which my mother-in-law and I have both enjoyed.
“A Glass Full of Blessings” by Barbara Pym
I like Barbara Pym for a quiet, relaxing nothing particularly happens read. Lots of that in this book. It’s written and set in the 50s and it’s about a woman who is a bit bored with life and throws herself into the activities of her local church. That makes it sound a lot more active than it actually is. But it’s funny, in a mild way, and pleasant.
“Castlereagh” by John Bew
As you know, of course [as our paediatrician in Belgium used to say] Castlereagh was British foreign secretary during the Napoleonic wars and enjoys the unusual distinction of having a dismal reputation in both Ireland and England. When I mentioned to my father that I was reading a book on Castlereagh, the very first thing he said was “I met Murder on the way/ He had a face like Castlereagh” – this is also quoted on the dust jacket of the book [being immortalised by a romantic poet - Shelley in this case - is not always all it's cut out to be], so Castlereagh is clearly a man in need of a revisionist biography. Cometh the hour, cometh the brilliant young historian. Step forward Dr. Bew.
The early part of this book deals with how Castlereagh grew up in an atmosphere of liberal Presbyterianism. I must say, I was singularly ignorant of this aspect of Presbyterianism and if you’d asked me for a list of words to sum up this religion, liberal would have been quite a lot further down the list than, say, dour. So, I was fascinated – a whole aspect of Northern Ireland opened up to my interested gaze. And then it moves to 1798; anyone who went to school in the republic of Ireland has learnt about 1798 as the uprising that really almost succeeded. It was rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant with the aid of the glorious French republic about to overthrow the oppressor’s yoke etc. etc. Castlereagh was active in suppressing the rebellion and then, for good measure, steered through the Act of Union after which dissolved the Irish Parliament and was a terrible blow for Dublin and Ireland. So not a popular figure in school history and, to be fair, revisionist or not, there is much in Bew’s description of Castlereagh’s conduct that makes him seem pretty unpleasant. That said, according to Bew [and he has lots of sources] Castlereagh genuinely believed that the Act of Union would bring about catholic emancipation which would have certainly been a huge achievement. The rest of the book adduces a fair amount of evidence that this was something that Castlereagh attempted to achieve throughout his career in the measure he could without rocking the boat.
This first part is full of great quotes about Ireland and the Irish parliament which, regrettably, could still be used today. End of Part I. The book is subtitled “Enlightenment, War and Tyranny”. At this point, I did feel that the repression of the 1798 rebellion was pushing it under the “Enlightenment” heading.
The second part of the book (war) deals with the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna. It begins by discussing Castlereagh and Wellington’s relationship in the course of the Napoleonic Wars and this remains a theme. The author points out that they were both Irish men born in Dublin in the same year. They also both became MPs in the Irish House of Parliament in the 1790s and knew each other well from Dublin. While I knew that Wellington and Castlereagh were both Irish, I hadn’t really given much thought to how this influenced their views on each other and helped their relationship to develop. It is odd to think of that epic contest of England and France being led on the English side by two Irish men. But, I suspect that they didn’t think of themselves as Irish men first. I wonder whether Castlereagh had an Irish accent though. I suspect he did because he went to school in Armagh. The bit on the Congress of Vienna is very interesting despite the fact that I had the slenderest grasp of its aims and conclusions before beginning to read it. This is the high point of Castlereagh’s career and he performed brilliantly. I am fascinated by how he resisted the idea of war reparations from France (in the face of stiff Prussian opposition – watch this space in 1870/1914) and how he wanted France to be a strong power. He wasn’t entirely motivated by noble disinterest. He wanted a strong France to ensure a balance of power in Europe and he was nervous about Russia’s influence.
Part III (the tyranny bit) sees him back in England hugely popular after his successes but becoming rapidly unpopular. Budgetary worries were a big issue. The war was very expensive. Pitt, famously, introduced income tax to pay for war with France in 1799 and people were not absolutely delighted to see it still knocking around in 1816 (only for a few more years they were told – oh how we laughed).
He was pretty down on radicals but, to be fair, his personal safety was regularly and alarmingly threatened by the mob and his experience of 1798 and views on the French revolution influenced his thinking throughout his life. Castlereagh did not always cover himself in glory. In Peterloo yeomen killed 11 and injured hundreds of others in an unarmed, non-violent crowd listening to a radical speaker. Our author gives a weak defence of Castlereagh’s position on this:
‘Peterloo’..was indefensible; the protest had been entirely peaceful. Castlereagh himself did not bear any personal responsibility for the atrocity. Indeed he was deeply troubled by the outcome of the event. But as the government’s spokesman in the Commons it fell to him to justify the conduct of the local magistracy and yeomanry to an outraged public.’
Castlereagh was very shaken by the Cato Street plot as well he might have been but the revolutionaries seem to have been, like many good revolutionaries, a bit short on the implementation strand of their plot.
Thistlewood hoped that the assassination of the cabinet would be a spur for a general uprising and [it was later revealed] that they planned to display the decapitated heads on Westminster Bridge as a signal for national uprising….On the morning of the plot, Thistlewood worte a manifesto for the public in preparation for the national uprising: ‘Your tyrants are destroyed. The friends of liberty are called upon to come forward. The provisional government is now sitting.’
As you might imagine, this did not end well for the revolutionaries.
[Spoiler alert] In the end, Castlereagh goes mad and cuts his throat. The author does convince that this was a man doing his duty according to his lights. His constant concern was to steady the ship of state and act in the United Kingdom’s best interests. To modern eyes, and even to many contemporary eyes, his position on radicalism and slavery are entirely indefensible but the author does a great job of putting these in the context which Castlereagh would have seen them.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, if you are at all interested in the period. One quibble is that the Quercus edition I read is full of typos. I don’t normally tend to notice this kind of thing but some of these were fairly egregious [the word whig substituted for wig, for example - obviously both Whigs and wigs feature in the text]. I think there’s an OUP edition available and, if I were you, I would go for that.
“VII” by H. M. Castor
I got this as a present. I’m not crazy about the Tudors but this is a book for teenagers and I like those. It’s the story of Henry VIII told in the first person from inside his head. It didn’t do it for me but it did make me reasonably well-informed when they dug up Richard III there recently. Look, I’m extracting the positive here.