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Books of the Year 2013

31 January, 2014 at 10:15 pm by belgianwaffle

This is only slightly belated. I nominate the following as the best books I read in 2013. [Obviously, my sister-law's new book was the best read of 2013 but not listing for fear of an assumption of prejudice]. Here are the others in order of merit:

“Castlereagh” by John Bew
“Family Romance” by John Lanchester
“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua
“The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family” by Selina Guinness
“High Rising” by Angela Thirkell
“Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson

I am absolutely astounded how much non-fiction features on the list, since I read a lot more fiction. I am, perhaps, more discriminating in my non-fiction choices. More detailed reviews below.

“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.

“Family Romance” by John Lanchester

This is a family biography by one of the last children of the empire. His father was born and grew up in the far east and so did he. His mother was Irish. Usually in these kinds of stories, the Irish mother is Anglo-Irish but this woman was not and he was clearly fascinated by her. She was born into a poorish farming family in the West of Ireland. She spent many years in a convent (before emerging and marrying his father) and he spends much of the book looking at her life and motivations. It’s an insider’s outsider view of an Irish life and, for an Irish person, a really fascinating slightly disorientating view. At the centre of the book (spoiler alert) is the fact that his mother lied to his father about her age. I think that this is viewed by Irish people and English people in quite a different way. He is appalled by this and worries about the affect of this life of deceit on her. But Irish people have a long tradition of lying about their age. When the state pension came in, there were armies of people who changed their age. My own great aunt’s age was only known when she began drawing the pension having seen no need to tell people (including her husband) that she was nearing 50 when she married.

It made me determined to write down as much as I know about the history of my own family. Written so far: nothing.

“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua

This is about a very ambitious mother and her very bright daughters and the contrast between the Western and Chinese ways of doing things. I found it very entertaining. As did the Princess and Mr. Waffle. Recommended all round.

“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.

“High Rising” by Angela Thirkell

These is a social comedy written and set in the 1930s. I found it great fun – nicely written and gently amusing. Did I welcome the fact that the character known as “the incubus” was Irish and had a mother stashed away in County Cork? Not entirely perhaps but I rose above it. She reminds me a bit of Stella Gibbons and Barbara Pym but not as sharp as either; a much more restful read though. Delighted to see that there are 28 of these books in the series (this is book 1). I intend to read them all. How wonderful to find a new writer to enjoy and see that she has a hefty back catalogue.

“Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson

I have read all of Kate Atkinson’s books and I think that she is a terrific writer. That said, this got off to a slow start. It’s about getting a chance to live your life again and again and doing things differently to make it better next time. It’s a clever premise and it’s very well done. While this is still a very good book, it’s my least favourite of her books after “Not the End of the World” [short stories] and “Emotionally Weird”.


29 January, 2014 at 11:48 pm by belgianwaffle

My siblings pressed upon me a random collection of children’s books which they gathered up at our parents’ house in Cork. They included the very popular Krazy annual.

This is a source of fascination to our childminder as it dates from the year before she was born.

There was also an illustrated “Bible for Children” which my mother used to read every night. My brother repeatedly begged to hear about the plagues, so there was quite a focus on locusts and rivers of blood in our bedtime stories which is, I feel, unusual. It was funny to look through the old and very familiar 70s pictures. Herself picked up the book and read it through. At the end, she announced that the Bible should be over 18s. She doesn’t approve of the story of Bathsheba. Indeed, who would?


30 November, 2013 at 11:15 pm by belgianwaffle

The Princess, her aunt and I went to see Pride and Prejudice in the Gate this evening. It was very long and the lead actors had as much chemistry as a pair of lemons. Disappointing and very tiring.

Naming Policies

29 November, 2013 at 7:39 pm by belgianwaffle

A lot of Irish women are called Majella. St. Gerard Majella is the patron saint of expectant mothers and those parents who didn’t fancy Gerardine for their daughters often went for Majella. Whenever I meet a Majella, I think, difficult birth. I am not sure whether Majella has any traction elsewhere but it continues to be a reasonably common name here for women aged 35 to 65. Goretti (another saint’s surname – St. Maria Goretti) is also a, less popular, choice for women of that age group.

You think that pair are bad? There is worse to come in this trend of using saints’ surnames as girls’ first names. My mother has a friend called Labouré which is, I think, the world’s worst name, just shading Gobnait (second worst girl’s name). I am reminded of all this because there was a quote from St. Catherine Labouré in the leaflet at mass on Sunday: I place myself before the good God and I say to Him: “Lord here I am, give me what You will.” If He gives me something, I am very pleased and I thank Him. If He gives me nothing, I still thank Him because I do not deserve anything.

So, not only the source of awful names but sanctimonious also. Feel free to share weird names you have known in the comments.

Swimming against the Tide

9 November, 2013 at 4:50 pm by belgianwaffle

In today’s paper there was an obituary of a Fianna Fáil politician. He was one of the Ansbacher account holders. He was described as “a devout Catholic, non-smoker and non-drinker”. I am not quite sure how he squared his banking arrangements with a devout catholic conscience; anyhow, these words do make him sound joyless and judgemental and I feel that they were intended to do so. It certainly painted a mental picture for me and it was not a particularly positive one.

It then occurred to me that the words might also be applied to me. Given that the criteria for devout catholic have relaxed quite a bit since I was younger and weekly mass-goer seems to be sufficient to make the grade, I am in there. I have never been a smoker. And I don’t like the taste of alcohol, so I tend not to drink. I will often take a glass of wine, if people are insistent (and, in Ireland, they often are) but I’ll just have a sip and in my experience, people don’t notice you’re not drinking, if you have a full glass of something in front of you. My only hope of salvation is, clearly, to continue to pretend to drink.

Did you know that you were reading the blog of a devout Catholic, non-smoker and non-drinker? Also, a pedant which is why I wonder, catholic, c or C? Advice in the comments please.

First out of the Suggestion Box

8 November, 2013 at 9:13 pm by belgianwaffle

I think for the remainder of the month, I will be working my way through the suggestions my kind readers have made.

So first up: what do I make of Roy Keane’s appointment? Well, I know next to nothing about football but even I know that this is going to be a complete disaster. Obviously, the only saving grace is that he is from Cork.

More tomorrow. But not on Roy Keane.

It’s Not Cheating

5 November, 2013 at 10:17 pm by belgianwaffle

You may have thought that there was no post yesterday but you were wrong. I lovingly crafted something when I came in from bookclub last night and posted it. For reasons that are mysterious, it was posted date stamped March. I have updated. It still counts.

But, today, today, I have nothing. And it’s only November 5. This is unlikely to end well.

Please suggest themes to cover in the comments. Please.

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