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Book Reviews

This section is a bit longwinded, but as I was reading these books, I thought I'd let other people know what was written there.

History: The Story of England

Makers of the Realm

by Arthur Bryant


This History book was written in 1953, but of course nothing has happened since then that affected the past, and so the history of what happened before hasn’t changed.  It straddles the years from the very beginning of England; of the Celts to the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons (Germans who we were named after), the Vikings and then the Normans.  It is interesting to note our peoples are made up of these many waves and types of foreigners and yet many of us were and are seen to hate the very foreigners we have been descended from.


For many years and having been invaded many times without being able to defend ourselves, our land was pillaged and our people killed, which makes Stonehenge having survived that much more impressive.  I suppose not many of our invaders thought that a few stones standing in a field was little more than a glorified cairn and not worth the bother.


When the Romans came, they gave a great boon to the island, one so helpful that we still learn Latin in schools today, and have lots of lovely ruins to look at.  Indeed even Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep the Scots out was impressive, not now of course because it is only 3 foot tall; and when I saw it (on TV) I was very sceptical as to how it kept the Scots out, but in the Roman days it was 20 ft tall, with many towers and forts all along its length.


Alfred, King of Wessex was the only chap who made any decent defence of the island.  He reformed the country, having built many small strongholds to protect the farms and took fyrds from the farming population to take up arms (pitchforks and the like) every so often.  He even built some ships against the Vikings.  He was the first King to unite the peoples to defence against the foreigners (and was therefore named ‘Alfred the Great.’


Unfortunately there were a lot of weak Kings at this time (like Ethelred the Unready.)  These Kings had to pay ransoms to the Vikings (Danish for example) to get them to leave, which unfortunately were not very effective as they would come back to raid and pillage the English straight away after they had spent it all.   


But the French came to our rescue.  It seems that the Norman Kings (who later considered themselves English) after William the Conqueror, especially the Henrys, were able to turn the country into a decent place with riches and power, with territories in France, Wales and Ireland.  With the Domesday Book, a census which tallied how many sheep each person owned, was the country made profitable and was the beginning of its power and moneys.


The Kings were always lusting for more power.  The Church however was an obstacle, for they had heaven and hell to threaten people with, and hence gained many riches.  Henry II, though, tried to gain power over English Christendom by sending his best mate Thomas Becket to Canterbury to be Archbishop.  But Thomas, who was later made a Saint (because he was slaughtered rather nastily and later revealed to have worn a hair shirt with lice and boils on his skin his whole life), proved to be a thorn in his side.  He did not help his old friend King Henry, indeed he opposed him his whole life and was even made to flee to France before he was killed – he didn’t want to flee again, for despite his piety he still disliked the French, and when he returned he was chopped up in Canterbury cathedral by a couple of knights loyal to the crown.

The Church was very powerful at the time, and the Crown had to work alongside it.  For the people’s faith in those days was very strong, and the wealth of the Church was great – their monasteries, churches, abbeys and cathedrals are still spread across England to this day.  They believed intently of right and wrong, good deeds and sin, and it equalised the peoples, the rich and the poor being the same in Gods’ eyes.  So all followed Christ, and paid the church money.  However in Gods eyes, he wanted people to live without this money.  It is strange therefore that a lot of the high ranking folk within the church lived lavishly.  Penance though and forgiveness could be given by them donating some of their money though, so the rich folk just spent a little more.


At the same time (1100s) England’s only ever Pope, Adrian IV went to Rome.  In those days the only way to be anyone if you weren’t born into it, was to join the clergy.  And so peasants became Bishops and Priests, and Adrian himself worked in a cathedral before being elected to Pope.


There was a lot of killing and war, for even when there weren’t civil wars and battles between Kings and their children, knights went overseas to Jerusalem to kill Arabs in the name of Christ – the Crusades.  It cost a lot of money, particularly when Richard the Lionheart was ransomed back to England from the Spanish, but we had loads at the time, for we were the first in Europe to become a united nation, one with a strong economy, trade and justice system.  They therefore sold off all their gold goblets, giblets and gilded hats to fund the fighting.  And even when the knights got back, they had to go to the smithies to get their helmets beaten off their heads by blacksmiths bearing hammers, because they were flattened and crushed so strongly onto them in battle.  I guess they deserved their fealties, wine and chicken.


After Richard and Henry, John came along, who wasn’t the best of Kings and who lost most of the lands held by England in France (which would then provoke many wars) and who made a complete mess of getting them back. 

He was very suspicious of everyone (particularly important people) and in this day and age would probably have been sectioned and piped full of drugs.  He was a bigot, who took from his vassals many hostages so they wouldn’t kill him.  He enjoyed torturing people, and was an amoral King who was even excommunicated by the Pope, which probably endeared him even less to his mostly very devout citizenry.

He taxed everyone to extremes never before seen, so he could buy lots of lovely rings to pay his mercenaries with (for he tried and failed to recapture northern France) and it was miraculous that this didn’t cause an immediate civil war.

John realised before it was too late to repent to the Church, suddenly going from a position of severe religious antipathy and at risk of being attacked by a crusade from France, to kneeling before the Pope in repentance.  He must have realised he wasn’t doing a particularly terrific job of things for he wasn’t a stupid man, just a bad one.

Apparently he wasn’t much of a ladies man, but still went off with his Barons’ wives, sleeping with them just because he could.

I think he just enjoyed pissing people off.  He played around with people’s lives and used his power to its greatest extent, only stopping just before anything serious would happen to him.  No one liked him - he even needed a troop of guards to accompany him wherever he went but ended up suspicious even of them, so he had to disband them.

Eventually in the end his people couldn’t take anymore of his injustice and bigotry, and so he had to back down.  He had pushed his people and his Barons too far and they raised an army and marched on him, forcing him to sign a treaty - the Magna Carta - which meant he couldn’t fleece them for all their money or treat them badly anymore.

Of course this lasted only a few weeks, after which John used his Barons’ money against them and he waged civil war upon them.  This did not go well for him.  As he fought against and burnt his own country, King John ended up dying of dysentery.


This was just as well for the Kingdom, for his son King Henry III was crowned and given a chance to fix the mess his father had made out of the country.  Even at the age of 9 Henry III was a better King than John, and there was peace once more.

Henry spent a lot of money and borrowed from Italian moneylenders to build many lovely buildings.  However he didn’t expect the Pope to come across and fleece his country for even more, but this was exactly what happened.  The Bishop of Lincoln however was not pleased and didn’t pay, even writing a letter to the Pope warning him that even he was in danger of going to hell.


And thus was Parliament created; the country was being beggared by the pope, and they thought the king needed a bit of help.  So his Barons were called upon to make major decisions in Parliament – a word derived from the French for ‘deep speech.’

As always there were conflicts between the Church and the Crown.  Both wanted money and power, and both got it.  They were deeply respected in England, and people were stubborn about change.  Even with many invasions and may different peoples they all seemed to band together as Englishmen and follow ever the ways of the nation in its histories and customs.


The book ends in the reign of Edward I, when people took pride in their country instead of battling amongst it.  It even mentions that the people played baseball, which is news to me, but maybe it’s a different sport than the American one.  Apparently English baseball had no official rules though, so it could have been or become any sport, possibly even boxing.  Without rules, I think most things descend into boxing or fighting of some sort.  Controlled legal fighting is usually better than the ‘I chop your head off before you chop mine off’ warring one.  But the more famous and enjoyable pastimes were of course gathering in village drinking-houses and getting well and truly drunk.  ‘It was a symbol of their unity and nationhood,’ so says the final line of the book.  And so England became great and won many gold medals at the Olympic Games.


Menagerie Manor

By Gerald Durrell


A fellow wishes he could own a zoo as a young boy and surprisingly and refreshingly gets to live his dream.  Not many people get to be firemen or astronauts and even less get to own a zoo, but someone has to do it and I don’t think superman has the inclination.  And if you love animals to such an extent that a family dog isn’t quite enough, this seems to be the logical conclusion.


After returning from India as a kid, where there are a lot of monkeys, the author visits Jersey, and with the benefit of tax breaks and overdrafts he builds his zoo there.  He collects many animals, mainly from animal dealers or from visiting their countries, and puts them in cages, to which most seem fine with, to transport them; although one particular animal was so used to its shipping crate they had to put it in its cage for it to sleep in.


The zoo seems very laidback at times, for some animals are allowed free rein to run around the zoo, particularly a bird called Trumpy who welcomes each and every other animal newcomer by standing around their new digs, even despite being beaten up by a pair of penguins.


With his knowledge of animals and having access to them for the most part, he is invited by the BBC to do various programs on them.  If child actors are considered difficult to work with, it seems having semi-wild animals is even more trying; although in their case, they haven’t had any formal training or even some basic pay.  I’ve seen David Attenborough programs but never Gerald Durrell ones, which is a shame, for he seems to know what he’s talking about and can easily make jokes out of his creatures.


In owning his zoo he learns many lessons; being bitten and muddied; in begging for money; and even in various dietary problems.  They each have their own diets and obtaining lots of snails and worms can be difficult.  Fattening up your own more exotic and highly strung animals can be a problem, and even slimming them down can make weight watchers a speed dial on your mobile phone.  For unlike cows who live to be made into steaks, these captive animals do not have to suffer being eaten in McDonalds.  Indeed dying of heart disease is just a premature gluttonous waste.  So these dietary enigmas must comprise watching the weight of certain animals, guess what others would eat, and even force feed some.


Some animals find it so difficult to get used to their new surroundings, especially the young ones that serious measures have to be taken.  One baby monkey had to replace its old, probably dead mother with a teddy bear.  The bear needed to be cleaned at times however, and the monkey would throw a fit, screaming to hell unless it was replaced immediately, and so the double bear back and forth was created.  Much like a dog with a bone.  Except the monkey didn’t eat the bear.  A guinea pig was introduced later as the monkey was weaned, before it was moved in with the other monkeys and it would be manhandled (or monkeyhandled) very harshly.  Fortunately it was very stupid and didn’t mind its new job too much.


You wouldn’t expect squirrels in a zoo but in this one, there are brought some brightly coloured foreign ones.  It was let out of its cage for some reason and later found the lizards’ cage with its infra-red heating in it; and after they found it the squirrels found the tortoises were good seats; started sitting on them and nicking their food as they couldn’t eat it fast enough.


Animals as a general rule tend to injure themselves from time to time, sometimes just by falling over.  In tending to them, you run the risk unfortunately of being injured yourself, as the animals have inbuilt weapons such as claws and teeth and it is hard to explain to them why you have to jab a needle into them.  They even however injure or even kill each other in activities no matter how amorous or friendly, even during the course of mating.


When animals are successful at mating though, they usually have babies.  These babies, such as the marmosets are often naughty as if it’s genetic, and end up in play or exploration, falling off trees or getting locked in the ladies loo.


Throughout the book, the author paints a picture (as well as including illustrations) of activities in the zoo and is well worth the read.  If you have ever been to a zoo, I think it is not the same as owning one, for if so, across the years, you would learn their habits, become friendly with them, care deeply about them, often save their lives and sometimes sadly watch them die.  Mr. Durrell makes it seem worthwhile though, for Gorilla chasing, galloping Bears and wrestling Orang-Utans make up a job with many pleasures.


Black Beauty

by Anna Sewell

There are a lot of horses involved, one of whom is black and beautiful.  At the start this horse is called Darkie.  I’m not sure how much racism is involved because of it, or from it, but she is a good horse.  All the horses can speak to each other, but only to their own species.  They can even count.  But they don’t know everything.

Later, when she can wear saddles properly, she is renamed Black Beauty.  It is at this point where I learnt the horse was actually male.  Also Black Beauty was almost called Rob Roy, who was actually his brother, and who died in the beginning from falling over.  Neither of them was Scottish however.

After they had romped around a bit and become used to trains, they became annoyed about fashion, which was imparted upon them by those who saw them as fashion accessories.  It was important, especially to their female owners, for it meant that they looked good but only through evil means.  One horse had its tail docked; and another its mouth harmed with an over tight bridle.  I am sure Naomi Campbell agrees with the fact that fashion can be harmful, what with her high heels and her falling over on stairs, although supermodels themselves wouldn’t get put down and shot for it, which happens to the horses because they are not human.  It seems vanity comes at a price regardless of species.

It becomes quite religious at this point - that man shouldn’t force fashion, blinkers or even his fat bottom onto horses - for God’s creations shouldn’t be messed around with.  The problem is that sometimes we do it to ourselves, and so we think little of forcing onto other creatures.  This could be down to stupidity or modernism, but the horses themselves would rather be without it.  I don’t know whether Mary Magdalene ever wore make-up.

It came to me here, that they might have named the horse Beauty not because it was good to look at but because it had an innate knowledge and sense that they did not and hence was able to save their lives from drowning in a storm.  If the horse had not been treated so well, maybe it would not have acted so well, so it proves that one good turn deserves another or something to that effect.  It seems like you should use the bible as a training manual for horses just as it should be for children, but I’m not sure horses understand morals or parables for that matter.

Black Beauty is the most likeable and has the easiest nature of any horses, despite seeing his brother dying at the beginning and nearly dying himself after a hard run to save his mistress’ life.  Unfortunately he was sold to a stables where they don’t take as great care of their horses and use the ‘bearing rein’ which apparently is unbearable.  There they called her Black Auster, perhaps because of the similarity to the word Ostler, but who knows?  It was not the bearing rein however that ruined him, but because of bad riding by a drunkard who drank too much, and her knees broke as a result.  These stables couldn’t keep him with his knees in such state.   Since the owner of these Lords’ stables bought him for his appearance, which was why the bearing rein was used, and which pulls the horses’ heads up and causes much discomfort at the price of beauty, his knees were not then acceptable.  It was lucky for him though for the bearing rein can kill horses.

The horse then proved its name as Beauty, for as he had been treated badly many times as an older horse, he still kept his temperament and did not complain, bite or kick.

He was then sold to a cab driver in London.  The cab driver seems a very fair and likeable man, whether or not he is a cockney I do not know.  He does not like driving too fast either, and does right by his horses.  It mentions time and time again of the cruelty dealt to horses by ignorance or malice even though it was against the law to do so.  The invention of the internal combustion engine really must have been a godsend to horses.

There were no traffic lights (or even it seems a highway code,) so many people were knocked over and rush hour was quite manic especially when it was election time, when all the drunk representatives of the parties, who had different colours attached to them needed to go places quickly.  The butchers seemed to be the worst as the meat was always going off and needed delivering quickly.  And so the horses were spent and the hospitals filled.  A lot of the economy it seems was driven by horses.  And they didn’t even get the vote!

Black Beauty, now called Jack did well here though and had a cabbie who didn’t drink, for it seemed that alcohol was rife with alcoholics and the horses suffered.  The alcoholics were rich enough to pay compensation for all the heinous acts they committed, so they just carried on with it.  Maybe there were not enough lawyers, or maybe the lawyers were all drunk themselves!

After three years as Jack the Cab-horse, he was sold on to a corn dealer and baker.  Here would have been his end, but he was sold once more.  Again he was a taxi horse, but had a terrible time of it.  He nearly died again, from overwork.  It seems it was a hard life being a horse.

A kind man called Mr. Thoroughgood then bought him and was true to his name.  It ended happily for Black Beauty in a country house, luckily and justly with those he had been so kindly brought up with at the beginning of the book.

A Story of English

by Joseph Piercy

Surprisingly there were languages before English. Even before the Anglo-Saxons. Then it all got confusing given the number of invasions by foreign speaking devils. Each added their own vernacular at times but English eventually forced its way through. People even thought about writing their words down on stone or scratching it into the bark on trees, just like kids in a park. This was done originally in an alphabet (from the Greek alpha, and beta) called 'Ogham.' This was a strange runic alphabet made of five lines, so that people could spell things with their hands - clearly a stone age version of sign language or txt-speak. People and languages were then imported, with swords and much chopping of heads - from Germany, Denmark and France. These eventually became English, as people combined those languages with the indigenous Celtish. It was completely different from modern English and there were so many different people, and different places, that they all developed their own dialects, so none of the individual tribes could make themselves understood to each other, even to the extent of trying to buy eggs. So along came the bureaucracy and Edward I introduced the Chancery Standard, a group of clever blokes who standardized how people should speak and spell. This was never going to work, even today there are many different ways of doing this. Unfortunately most people were illiterate, so even those who went to church or court would not know if people were reading them lies. They did develop a decent alphabet though, and scribes or monks would painstakingly copy books out by hand, especially of course the Bible - but the Vikings decided to invade and burn them all. There was therefore a dearth in the libraries of England, for they only had one book - the Bible. A chap called Chaucer was born though and he and his fellow poets starting writing new books - various things for people to read and learn. And along came Shakespeare - who may not have even written his books. People went to his plays and were thoroughly mystified because they couldn't understand his complicated language. But the King liked them. The King James Bible was next - a translation for the common man, so he could educate himself about heaven and hell and how not to covet his neighbour's ass. This was the most widely published book of all time. This wasn't banned, like the previous versions and no one was imprisoned for it. Dr. Samuel Johnson then came along, a man with many problems, including Tourettes, to write his famous dictionary, published in 1755. It was strange however given his spasms and mental troubles that no swearwords were included. However because he wrote it, he could put in whatever words and meanings that he wanted. It took him only nine years to write, as opposed to the French who employed forty writers to finish theirs in half a century. Dr. Johnson's had only 42,000 words, as opposed to the modern OED, which is continually updated and has 600,000 words, although a little too many I feel. The OED however took over 70 years to finish and even took five years just to get to the word 'ant.' Language it seems is a big job. The problem of course in learning it or writing about it, however, is that it is always evolving and expanding so it is impossible to actually finish a dictionary, or to fully understand it. But it's a good language nonetheless.

Holy Roman Empire

by Viscount James Bryce

History is really complicated.  Especially in this book.  The sentences are huge and the meaning behind them complex.  But this is understandable: a lot of things happened.

The Holy Roman Empire existed from 800 to 1800 AD; its period and law determined by the Pope and the Emperor.  It comprised a collection of states in central Europe.  One ruler for the spirit, another for the body.  Unfortunately they meddled in each other’s affairs.  One was supposed to look after the other.  And it wasn’t clear who was in charge or who elected who.  The pope, who represented god on earth was meant to crown the emperor, but very often they were forced into electing someone who wasn’t god.  Sometimes the pope held the power and could crown who they liked.  Sometimes not.

The power and control of the HRE switched between them, and often they ended up having no power at all.  But the history of the HRE is a history of Europe, the dominant power of the world in the middle ages.  It emerged from the fall of the Roman Empire.

Rome, when it was destroyed stood for society, for order, for the whole world.  Its ending was preached by some to be the end of the world.  And so it had to be continued, even under a different name and system.  Freedom from the Roman Emperor came with its dissolution, but so did the ideas which would spark both world wars.  Essentially it was a German kingdom, but comprised also parts of Northern Italy.  Its borders changed, even from the very start, for its first emperor was Charles the Great (who was French.)  By another name (The First Reich) it was in nature a precursor to the Second and Third Reichs. 

Despite the chaos of the Renaissance and the Reformation, which upheaved the nature of feudalism and the structure of the HRE’s nation states, there was a freedom of choice between religions, and ways of life.  As rebellions are meant, they changed life for the people who took up arms.  Whether or not it improved things is unsure.

Inadvertently, for at times the Emperor became powerless, it may have spurred on those who lusted after the crown, and so wars were fought over a position that was merely a figurehead.

In ages where tradition was stronger than reason, when people knew nothing but what they experienced and were told, the Roman empire was more powerful than modern day governments or institutions.  It influenced not only the world of the old, around the Mediterranean, but also spread to India and America.  The ideas of Rome did not die with it, nor even after the fall of the HRE.  From 800 AD to its fall in 1806 AD, it vacillated, waxed and waned but is still alive in some parts of the world today – for its architecture (ironically not its own creation anyway) and laws were ahead of its times.

The very nature of God seemed to be contained within its ideals.  From Christ there became the Pope and the Emperor via St. Peter as his representatives on earth.  So life and the way it worked was derived from it.  A Christian life in the middle ages was seen as the rightful life for all; the ideal life for man; and the life which most men had.  It was so part of daily life that it was life.  It was there to make peace, civilise barbarians, to teach and give guidance and with the power of history and sacrifice made people what they were and guided their lives.  And so the Emperor worked for the Pope and the Pope for the Emperor.  And people therefore followed them.  Very few thought for themselves before the Renaissance and the Reformation.

The idea and glory of ancient Rome could not last forever.  People and society change and the ideas of old will not always work or apply to the world of the present.  The society that was the HRE existed in its past and as an outdated form of rulership – it was no longer applicable.  The liberty of man changed this – as he threw off his fetters of feudalistic loyalty and began to think for himself and educate himself, so did he pass beyond the laws and customs of the HRE.  There were so many wars, that it seemed that the Emperor nor the Pope could not allow them freedom and peace.

In those days this system of government (ruled by a secular Emperor and a spiritual Pope) represented the highest ideals of human government; even if those ideals were merely intellectual alone.  It would not work nowadays, but it is interesting how evolution affects us all, from the past to the present to the future.  We go forward and back and then forward again.  As a method and a symbol of justice, for a world that above all needed it, its inherent principles and religion stood as a champion against barbarism and the enemies of righteousness.  There was no constant peace nor a universal protection of police, but in a world where your defence was God, the Church and the Pope, the HRE stood as a protection, even if just spiritually, against the evils of the medieval world.  At the time though it was a system of rule and government that was created, better than that which happened before, and worse than what came after it.  And so progress is made.

The laws of Rome which were so far ahead of their time were retained – but would not last forever.  It was fairer it seemed that it was ruled not by a successive family of kings but an elected emperor.  This was not directly in accordance to how it happened.  Most of the Emperors tried to retain it within their families.  These electors and Emperors became selfish and warlike because they could not rely on the throne to enforce peace.  There was no united power in Germany.  They saw themselves through the descendants of the once ubiquitous Roman Empire which made them warlike and arrogant.  And perhaps this is why the Empire lasted for so long – beyond when it was helpful and existed just as an antiquarian relic.  It provided for them a First Reich, which may have later spawned the Second and Third.  And also perhaps a leaning for them to think themselves a superior race, inducing the First and Second World Wars.  There was a sense of unity, despite not having a capital, and there being many different states in Germany.  For there was no united Germany before Rome conquered it, but many disparate tribes who ironically helped bring about the downfall of Rome itself.

The HRE brought together many different peoples and cultures; their feudalisms, their rulers, their principles. It lived for a while in power and substance but with time faded to a relic of the past, like an ancient church where nobody continued to worship.  But without the pillars of ancient Rome - its laws and its church - modern civilisation would not be the same.  And because they had all been one – a nation under Caesar - and then broken up, and a new order then established, their unity, culture, peace and religion became stronger than ever.

My Thoughts:

Does the lack of religion and faith in the West nowadays give those who struggle and worship in privation and poverty in the East deserve a reason for Jihad?  Inculcating violent religious ideas into people at a young age might give them reasons for terrorism and suicide bombings. 

Despite peace being advocated in the HRE, wars, sins and all their leanings were frequent back then.  Better quality of life may provide a stimulus for peace – learning and education; citizenship in the Roman Empire – helped civilise and provide the Pax Romanus in the past.  A world, all contained within one Empire was the goal, and it is a shame that it was never brought into being.  In the past the word for a foreigner was the same as the word for a barbarian.  Maybe one day none of us would be foreigners.


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