See that girl

vita

Vita Sackville-West’s writing desk, Sissinghurst, Kent (National Trust Photo Library)

Long ago as an Eng Lit undergraduate, I endured a term on 20th Century literature with a tutor who could have come straight out of a Malcolm Bradbury novel. Bearded, corpulent, booming-voiced, with a bottle of booze constantly at his elbow, he never wasted an opportunity to bully me because I liked Virginia Woolf. Lawrence, he thundered, that was what it was all about! Woolf was effete, privileged – she had servants! What did she know about real life? If I encountered him now I would say at least two things – one that bonking on the rug in front of a roaring fire in the household of a thinly-disguised Ottoline Morrell isn’t exactly social realism, and two that Lawrence had a servant, too. She was called Frieda, she left her husband and kids to service his monumental ego, because a wandering social pariah, and at least the Woolfs paid their domestic help.

I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.

Vita Sackville-West

I found myself thinking about this yesterday as I walked past a house that’s presently being renovated, and had to move into the middle of the road because the pavement was fully occupied by a bloke in a white van eating his lunch with the doors both wide open. That’s the thing about toxic (and occasionally non-toxic but thoughtless) masculinity – it is based on the assumption that men take up space and women squeeze around them. The first women to challenge this, and to literally demand their own space, tended to belong to social and/or intellectual elites. Vita Sackville-West, with her glorious book-lined tower writing room at Sissinghurst, comes to mind. As does Woolf herself, with her country retreat at Monks’ House and her accommodating, possibly celibate, marriage.

Elites have a bad press these days, but they have their uses. When privilege is really deeply entrenched, they are in a particularly strong and visible position to challenge it. Yes, I hear you all cry, what did Vita and Virginia ever do for the suffering unemployed? Fair enough, but how many of the people who throw rocks at Virginia know about the devastating series of personal losses she’d experienced by the age of twenty, and her horrendous struggles with severe mental illness before the era of anti-depressants? Let’s be terribly understanding and sympathetic about mental illness, let’s wear the T-shirt and tweet the supportive slogans, but God forbid that we should include someone wealthy in our circle of empathy.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

Virginia Woolf

I am sure that Virginia, Vita and their circle could be ghastly, self-indulgent snobs. But that is because they were human, not specifically on account of their class or gender. And roistering males who expressed their creativity through titanic bouts of alcoholism and strings of wrecked relationships don’t seem to be exposed to the same scrutiny. Nobody’s social class or gender ought to give the a free pass. But in all fairness, that should apply to everyone, not only those considered to be cool and authentic.

There are an awful lot of people around like my tutor, who broadcast their personal preferences as self-evident truth. They congregate on Twitter, quick to mock Abba and say they got into The Clash. Fine, I’ve no problem with that. But this very quickly turns into bullying, forcing dissenting, more marginal voices into the middle of the road while you eat your lunch. Please, let’s call it out for what it is.

I can imagine the eye-rolling if I get back onto the subject of Dancing Queen. But one of the reactions that saddened me among the flood of tweets was that it was “the saddest song ever written.” It’s all about death, apparently. A sad old person watches a young girl lost in the moment of joyful self-expression, and mourns the loss of their youth. Sorry, but I don’t see it that way at all. That’s an interpretation, but mine is different. I see it as someone rejoicing as they observe a young woman’s confidence and freedom, her indifference to what anybody else thinks about her.

It’s quite possible to be older than seventeen but not particularly want to be on the dance floor yourself, to rejoice in the simple pleasure, confidence and freedom of others. Middle age has taught me that. We should probably spend more time watching young people find their joyful space, and cheering them on. It doesn’t matter what they are dancing to. It’s the dance that counts.

 

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What if we told a Shakespeare history play from a woman’s POV?

Shakespeare would probably have found the idea of himself as sole originator of a canonical text quite difficult to get his head around.

jadeanouka

In an early trilogy, Shakespeare tells the story of Henry VI, a desperately weak king of England who spent much of his reign in a catatonic state because of severe mental illness, and whose formidable French wife, Margaret of Anjou, more or less ran the country – that is, once she had wrested control from the deputies and minders who had ruled on Henry’s behalf since he had inherited the Crown as a baby.

It has been said that Queen Margaret is Shakespeare’s greatest female role. If you add together all her lines throughout the three plays, and the sequel to them, Richard III, they outnumber King Lear’s. So, in these more enlightened times, it seems like a great idea to condense the plays into one, call it Queen Margaret, and market it as the play Shakespeare would have written if he was alive today. Then you cast it inclusively, giving the titular role to one of our best black actresses and several of the feuding nobles’ roles to women.

The whole package sounds like terrific theatre, if a little on the well-meaning side. But there are problems. It is one thing to offer an audience a  new take on Hamlet or Julius Caesar – most theatregoers will be familiar with the plot, if not the original play. The Henry VI plays, however, are another matter. They are rarely performed; even RSC enthusiasts are likely to be unfamiliar with them. They tell a grim, complicated story of violence, rivalry and civil war. They go on, altogether, for eight or nine hours. Also, dare we say it, they were Shakespeare’s early work and – well, let’s just say he got better.

I realise I am plunging into a hornets’ nest here, and want to say that I am very much in favour of inclusive casting. Some of the best Shakespearian adaptations I have seen have been the least faithful in detail – Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood absolutely nails Macbeth, with an all-Japanese cast and aesthetic and nary a word of the original text so far as I recall. I also find that sometimes a complete cultural transfer and reboot works brilliantly – Julius Caesar set in an African republic, for example, or Much Ado About Nothing as an Indian rom-com. I’m looking forward greatly to Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra at the NT. I also thought Jade Anouka was brilliant as the formidable Queen Margaret. Her passion and stamina powers the story and lights up the stage. In fact, she deserved better.

How can anything be better than Shakespeare? Ah, there’s the rub. We tend to approach Shakespeare with enormous reverence, delighting in finding a 21stcentury sensibility struggling to fight its way out of even his below-average works, hampered by pesky Elizabethan prejudices about minorities on stage. Jeanie O’Hare, who adapted Queen Margaret from the sprawling Henry VI plays, worked at the RSC through Michael Boyd’s three-year staging of the history plays. ““It was an amazing cycle, but, for three years, Stratford was crawling with men in uniform,” says O’Hare. “I got more and more obsessed by the women in the plays: their place, their role.”

Her project to bring Margaret out of the sidelines of history as Shakespeare writes it and put her centre stage seems entirely commendable. Jade Anouka gives it her all – it’s a huge, sprawling, emotional part, and yet it somehow seems light on character development. O’Hare says she tried to think of Shakespeare as her co-writer. You get the feeling that she felt somewhat presumptuous and interrupted as little as she could get away with.

The irony is that, while we tend to revere Shakespeare’s lines as Holy Writ, almost a secular Bible for Western culture, he worked in a very collaborative environment. There are credible claims that Christopher Marlowe helped out with Henry VI Part 1 at least. Shakespeare would probably have found the idea of himself as sole originator of a canonical text quite difficult to get his head around. Almost all his works were based on existing stories. If something bombed on stage, he would have happily rewritten it and many of the plays, not least Hamlet, exist in multiple versions suggesting an almost constant process of revision and adaptation.

I think Queen Margaret would be a much better play if O’Hare had strayed rather more from Shakespeare’s vision, or even ripped it up and written something different altogether. For all her fire and courage, Anouka seems constrained by an Elizabethan corset, and the play’s use of selfies and Play Stations can’t overcome that essential problem.

I have been trying for a while to figure out why I find so much revisionist Shakespeare well-intentioned but not entirely satisfying, and I have come to the conclusion that if you are distracted by the minority group the actors come from the production isn’t quite working as it should. It’s not that we undervalue female Henry V’s or black Macbeths. It’s more that we overvalue Shakespeare. We put fresh faces on our stage and yet fear to follow them wherever they take us. I would also like to see more actors not playing Shakespeare, the ultimate dead white male writer, and performing stuff that will make me think about someone else’s story. An experimental two-hander about a gay Muslim performed in a sari shop, for example, or a promenade performance in a warehouse that simulates the alienation and bewilderment experienced by asylum seekers. (In Manchester, over the last 18 months or so, I’ve seen both of the above).

Shakespeare often travels much better than we think he will – his themes are universal, his language and plotting, particularly on one of his off-days, sometimes aren’t. I don’t think Jeanie O’Hare needed a co-writer. Not even him. I rather wish she’d collaborated with Jade Anouka instead, and dumped the squabbling York, Sussex and Warwick once and for all.

Jeanie O’Hare on writing Queen Margaret (The Guardian)

“Frailty, thy name isn’t woman: fresh feminist takes on Shakespeare (Michael Billington, Guardian)

Queen Margaret is playing at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until October 6th.

 

 

 

“I Was Hitler’s room-mate”. A haunting new novel examines complicity with evil

hitlerlinz

Days before his suicide, Hitler examines an architect’s model of his home city of Linz, rebuilt as a Nazi cultural capital

THE TRISTAN CHORD by Glenn Skwerer

“I was Hitler’s room mate.” It sounds like a nasty B-movie, doesn’t it? But for six months in Vienna in 1908, a young man called August Kubizek actually was. In fact, he had known Hitler for a couple of years by then. They had met as teenagers in the opera queue in Linz, their hometown, and become inseprable companions. Kubizek was under no illusions about his friend’s hang-ups – his endless, self-centred monologues about music, architecture and the potential of the arts to purify degenerate mankind, his almost complete inability to sustain normal relationships, his refusal to take part in any social activity that would expose his obsessions to a healthy scrutiny. He had seen Hitler’s devotion to his mother, and terrible grief at her death. As a frustrated musician himself, he could empathise with his friend’s discontents, his longing to transform the world. After Hitler persuaded his parents to allow him to try his luck at the Conservatoire in Vienna,  he was emotionally bound to him in a way he would never quite be able to define or explain.

Almost 40 years later, Kubizek found himself interred by American occupying forces, regularly pumped for information on his troubling past as the Hitlerjungenfreund (friend of the Führer’s youth). Eventually they released him and he wrote a book about it. This is the basis of Glenn Skwerer’s haunting novel.

Skwerer is up-front about his fictionalisation of Kubizek’s narrative. He gives him a different name, Eugen Reczek, and invents a relationship between Reczek and the cultured Jewish mother of one of his music students, which eventually drives Hitler out of his life. But never, quite, out of his dreams. That’s the most disturbing thing about the book. Not the exposure of the horrors of the concentration camps, Adolf’s disgusting obsessions and personal habits, or even that the two young men hooked up in the first place. Most of that is on record. There will be people who find it difficult to cope with the scene where Hitler, the devoted son, tenderly places ice on his dying mother’s tongue, when she is too sick to drink liquids. They won’t like to think of him having any redeeming qualities whatsoever. But as Skwerer points out in an Afterword, to make Hitler into a monster isn’t honest or wise. He was human. Deal with it.

It’s the quietly devastating final section of this book that really lingers in the mind. Reczek becomes a provincial official of the kind Hitler despised, his musical career derailed by the First World War. He hides away the watercolours that Hitler once painted for him and never mentions their friendship to his wife. Yet the allure remains. When Hitler becomes Chancellor, they resume contact. Unprompted, Hitler writes a huge cheque for the musical education of Reczek’s three sons.  He invites Reczek to Bayreauth to hear their adored Wagner as it should be performed, and Reczek is transfixed. His ecstatic love of the operas remains undimmed. And what of his love – if such it can be called – for the Führer himself?

The Americans chip away at his defences. Reczek tells them he was never political by nature. He only became a Nazi when it seemed rude not to. He secretly finds his interrogators a little vulgar, unable to appreciate the transformative power of great Germanic art. He suspects, at least until very late in the day, that reports of the death camps are Allied propaganda. Yes, Hitler was a bit weird. He made him very uncomfortable at times. But, you know,  Austrians greeted the Anschlüss with open arms. Well, except for the Jews of course. It was a pity about the Jews…

The payoff from all this is that by now we have identified with Reczek through his long first-person account. Who hasn’t known someone at uni who got into some weird stuff? Who became downright creepy? When do you raise the alarm? It’s not as if they all go on to murder six million people. Most of them grow out of it. Okay, his friend was a little odd. Well, very odd at times. But, you know, there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Vienna in the old days. It wasn’t a nice place. How was he to know?

By now we’ve come to regard Reczek as a reliable narrator. We want to believe he’s okay, just a bit misguided. But at what point do we no longer trust him? When he lets the Nazi top brass fete him and offer him a job? When he never mentions his Jewish assistant’s disappearance? When he goes to Bayreauth and has the best week of his life? When he finds out that none of the family of his boyhood mistress survived the death camps? And that’s what makes the ending of the story so unsettling. Does he accept the truth, or simply make the necessary accommodation with reality?

And that is the tricky bit. For evil to triumph, good men must do nothing. What makes a good man? We may even be one of them ourselves. Faced with Hitler as a room-mate, when would we raise the alarm? And what if no-one listened?

Stephen Fry explains Wagner’s revolutionary “Tristan Chord” – video

The Tristan Chord is available now from Unbound for £24.00, or from Amazon for £12.50

What the Romans knew

The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both.

Time was running out for Caesar, and it looked certain that he would miss the deadline for submitting his nomination. Naturally everyone expected that he would choose to triumph rather than become a candidate. Pompey had done that; every victorious general in Rome’s history had done it: there was surely nothing to equal the glory of a triumph. But Caesar was never a man to mistake power’s show for its substance. Late one afternoon….when the chamber was almost empty and the long green summer shadows were creeping over the deserted benches, into the senate house strolled Caesar. The twenty or so senators who were present could not believe their eyes. He had taken off his uniform and put on a toga.

Robert Harris, “Lustrum” pp 350, UK paperback edition.

 

Illustration – Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC production, “Imperium”, photo by Ikin Yum

It’s a “this changes everything” moment. In the dying days of the Roman republic, victorious generals were barred from running from political office for ten years after their return from the battlefield. The Senate knew the dangers of allowing charismatic, ambitious and brutal military superstars accompanied by their legions to run riot through the city. Instead, they were offered the ultimate prize of a triumph – a vast parade through the streets accompanied by their prisoners and spoils, and cheered on by the plebs relishing the show.  Any general who broke the rules and came into the city before his triumph had been granted was automatically debarred from having one. Some of them hung around for years waiting for their moment of supreme glory. Even the mighty Pompey accepted the rules.

Then Caesar came along and tore up the rule book. He had no right to wear a toga but he didn’t care. Within a month he had been elected consul and Rome’s slide into imperial dictatorship had begun in earnest.

It’s remarkable that Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy was completed a decade ago. But he’d already had a career as a political journalist and he knew that the mechanisms of regime change have historical precedent. It happens when someone gets strong enough to appeal to the people, condemn thoughtful and principled legislators as an out-of-touch elite, and mobilise the mob. And sooner or later there will be a reckoning, and the elite (who are, given the complicated nature of politics, generally morally compromised to at least some extent), will be told that their rules no longer apply.

Timothy Snyder has written a short but extremely powerful little book, On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, outlining the defining characteristics of this political shift. A key indicator is when the forces of violence protecting the candidate’s personal interests becomes identified with the powers of state coercion and control. Also vitally important is manipulation of the media, creating the climate when myth and symbolism take on their own life and are acknowledged as truth.

Hence the mighty power of the Roman triumph, that intoxicating display of ostentatious wealth and power, a combination of a May Day parade, the Mardi Gras, a reality TV show and a raucous political rally. Hence the Senate’s constitutional resistance to it. The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both. The pressures built up to the point where they were uncontrollable.

All fictionalised accounts of history have their drawbacks and have to be read with checks and balances in place. They are at best an interpretation of events, and Robert Harris is quite up-front about his use of dramatic licence. Having said all that, the ancient Romans seem to be having a moment right now, for obvious reasons, and Harris’s life of Cicero, told across three epic novels, is a riveting and thought-provoking read. It has recently been adapted into two very long but thrilling plays by the RSC, and I hope very much that a London production is immanent. I saw the plays first, but the experience would have been richer and more nuanced if I had started with the books.

Harris’s Cicero is all the more powerful for being flawed. Feted as the saviour of the Roman Republic after crushing the Catiline conspiracy, he succumbed to vanity and began to believe in his own personal mythos. This led to a series of errors of judgement which ultimately ruined him. All this is told through the devoted but clear-eyed perspective of Tiro, his slave, personal secretary and constant companion. Tiro was a real person – he invented a shorthand system to help him record Cicero’s orations and is known to have worked on a biography of Cicero, now regrettably lost. Harris’s imaginary recreation of it is a masterpiece and will take you deep into the sights, smells, sounds and adrenaline-fuelled chaos of ancient Rome. It might seem both alien and disturbingly familiar.

Ambition forced many men to become false, to have one thing hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongue, to value friendships and enmities, not accordingly to reality, but interest, and rather to have a good appearance than a good disposition. These things at first began to increase by degrees, sometimes to be punished. Afterwards when the infection swept on like a pestilence, the state was changed, the government from the most just and best, became cruel and intolerable.

Sallust, The Catiline Conspiracy, Chap X

 

How Julius Caesar started a big war by crossing a small stream (National Geographic magazine article)

 

 

 

The Scottish Referendum – Heart says yes, head says no

Scottish independence rally on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh (Picture by BBC)

I don’t like bullies, whether they are having a go at the kid in the playground or whole countries. And that’s why I find myself torn between a head that says “No” and a heart that says “Yes” when it comes to the #indyref

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In theory it’s none of my business. I”m English and I won’t be able to vote. But in fact, whatever the outcome, every person living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will wake up in a different world on Friday morning. We’ve seen all the major party leaders of Westminster wheedling, threatening and emoting like a violent husband sobbing at the front door as his wife gets in the car and puts her foot down. I still love you. I’ll give you anything. You’re just having a little tantrum, darling. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I know that if the Yes vote prevails my first reaction will be euphoria, closely followed by fear and dismay. Euphoria because at last we’ve seen that progressive politics can galvanise a whole country into saying, “There’s got to be another way.” Anyone who’s left a violent, controlling partner will know that sometimes an insecure and frightening future is preferable to a life where your soul and spirit is crushed, where you are continually infantalized. Some of the rhetoric of the anti-independence campaign this week has been deeply offensive. Normally liberal papers who would shrink from making sweeping generalisations about other enthnic or cultural groups have branded Scotland spoilt and bratty, a cosseted baby that needs to grow up. Look at the real problems in the world, they say – migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, IS on a killing rampage.

I don’t buy it. Every bully presents the victim as someone incapable of making mature decisions. It’s part of the psychology of control. You could just as well argue that Scotland has seen the great neoliberal, don’t give a damn for anybody, money is everything, society in action, and said a resounding, “No thanks. There has to be a better way.” It’s outrageous that a resourceful and dignified people who have contributed so much to the United Kingdom and the British Empire in their time, whose capital was the cradle of Enlightenment philosophy and who gave us many of the most important medical and scientific advances that have shaped the modern world, should be dismissed because they’ve become too uppity to toe the line. Nobody is perfect, and there are venial, dishonest and self-seeking characters on both sides, but who the hell are we to lecture them about that? Take the mote out of your own eye first, Westminster.

Devo-max will solve nothing. If money follows rhetoric, which is by no means certain, it will send a message to the other regions of the UK that shout loud enough and you’ll magically get enough money to keep your poor from dying in the streets, let your sick die with dignity and give your young people hope. What’s not to like about that? Can anyone seriously imagine the North East, one of the most deprived regions of England, meekly accepting austerity when they see money being showered on communities just a few miles further north?

So where does that leave us all? Thinking outside the box, whether we like it or not. The old ways of doing things aren’t going to cut it any more. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.” As the major parties squabble over the shrinking middle ground, disillusioned voters will vote for somebody – even UKIP – that offers the hope of fresh thinking. For all our sakes, I pray that the fresh thinking comes from a progressive, socially responsible and outward looking place before it’s too late and the Galloways and Farages have inherited the earth.

The best idea I’ve heard all week comes from Graham Stringer – while the crumbling Palace of Westminster is being renovated, a project that cannot be put off much longer – move the whole rabble of them up here to Manchester. Why does the legislature have to be in London anyway – hundreds of miles away from these Scots that Cameron professes to love so much? Let them come up here, out of their gilded bubble, for a while. See how they like having to do a responsible job after a three-hour daily commute. At least they’ll have the BBC on their doorstep.

You can’t have it both ways. Either we’re all in this together, or we ain’t. If we’re together, then the North of England is as good a place as anywhere to base the corridors of power. And if we aren’t, then away you go, Scotland, and good luck to you.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W B Yeats – The Second Coming (1919)

 

Gutenburg’s Apprentice, by Alex Christie

Publicity material
Publicity material

Four hundred and fifty years ago, a dishevelled entrepreneur called Johann Gensfleisch arrived at the huge Frankfurt trade fair to launch a project he had been working on with a team of skilled craftsmen for four years. Some thought it blasphemous; many marvelled and a lucky few put down a deposit for their own copy. The exhibit was the monumental Gutenburg Bible, the first to be set in moveable type. For once, it is no exaggeration to say that the world would never be the same again.

The basic technique Gutenburg developed, that of making castings of each individual letter in metal, arranging them in rows, then in frames, inking them and pressing the letters against vellum or paper, remained in use with various technical modifications until the 1960s. Even now, well into the digital age, we use terms derived from the process. We talk about upper case and lower case letters, referring to the way that the hundreds of metal casts were stored; we talk about going to press, print runs and inking contracts. It is hard for us to imagine, as we tap away at our keyboards, how filthy, noisy, exhausting and technically demanding printing used to be. Many years ago, I joined a tour of a newspaper works and still recall the excitement as midnight approached, the enormous presses roared into life and the first edition was pulled from the rollers, little knowing that I was witnessing the end of an era.

Gutenburg would have known all about ending an era. Both the Catholic Church and the powerful trade guilds in his native city of Mainz were prepared to play dirty to get their hands on his revolutionary printing press; secrecy and subterfuge gave way to hard bargaining and deals on the side; the Catholic Church, as the world’s largest bureaucracy, knew that their power rested on the mass production of indulgences as much as illuminated religious texts. At first, the fledgeling enterprise bought off the local trade associations to prevent rumours circulating. The end of the world as we know it is always going to upset somebody. And this technology was definitely in that league. Within 50 years of the Bible being shown, a mass of small printers had sprung up throughout Germany and the authority of Catholicism was being challenged. Information revolutions, and the debates they lead to, are not confined to the digital age.

How apt it seems, therefore, that the writer of the wonderful novel I’ve just finished, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, was born in Silicon Valley. She has worked as a journalist and as a printer, on her own 1910 letterpress. Her account of Gutenberg’s Bible, seen through the eyes of the three real people at the eye of the storm, is masterly. At its heart is Peter Schoeffer, plucked from his promising career as a scribe by his hard-nosed adoptive father, Johann Fust, and ordered to join Gutenberg’s workshop.

At first Peter hates it and plots his escape by sneaking out to beg work from his old contacts in the scriptorium. No wonder – he has gone from a highly skilled and refined job to a Stygian hellhole of filth and fire where his boss’s idea of discipline is to lose his temper and burn his arm with boiling metal. Gradually, however, Peter forms bonds with his fellow workers and a grudging, if guarded, respect for his near-impossible boss. Ultimately he sees the production of the Bible as his life’s calling, and part of the tragedy of the novel is that eventually betrayal and disagreement break the fellowship of labourers, even as their finished project ignites the Western world.

One of the best things about Alex Christie’s book, and this sets it apart from most historical novels, is that at its heart it’s about the joy and brotherhood connected with finding truly meaningful work. Not that it lacks in drama, romance and political manoeuvring; it has all those spades, but the beating heart of the story, and of Peter’s life, is the crucible of innovation and the bond forged by the intensity of work on a project that pushes them to the limit in every imaginable way. Nothing is romanticised; this is emphatically not the glib story of some lone genius having a lightbulb moment. We see this revolution through the eyes of Peter, whose skill and commitment see it through against almost impossible odds and Fust, the financial backer whose wheeling and dealing make everything happen, rather than Gutenburg himself. Far from being presented as a hero, Gutenburg comes over as a medieval Steve Jobs whose abrasive personality threatens the success of the great Bible as much as facilitates it, and Peter’s developing role as his fixer and executive director becomes utterly draining as the challenges escalate. Christie’s marvellous story will transport you to medieval Europe, and a characteristically German story of craftsmanship, engineering brilliance, and innovation. It joins Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as part of a new wave of realistic historical fiction, casting great figures of the past in a refreshingly modern mould.

How a giant water lily made the modern world

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“The Flower of Empire” by Tatiana Holway, now (appropriately) available at Amazon.co.uk

One of the pleasures of being an Amazon Vine reviewer is that you occasionally stumble upon absolute gems that you would otherwise have missed. I’ve just finished one, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who enjoys reading about horticulture and the Victorian period.

In 1837, as he struggled upriver in Britain’s only South American colony, severely underfunded by his sponsors the British Geographical Society, the young German explorer Robert Schomburgk found his way blocked by a remarkable plant. A water lily, its leaves several metres across and armed with lethally sharp spines, but adorned with exquisite pale pink, fragrant flowers, clogged the river ahead of him. Since Schomburgk was moonlighting as a plant-hunter to supplement his meagre stipend, he spotted a good thing when he saw it, managed to obtain a specimen and painted this “vegetable wonder.” Then he got on with the job, blissfully unaware that the specimen he’d sent to the coast and the accompanying illustration would create a sensation back home.

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Victoria Amazonica on display at Kew Gardens, England

The specimen was a stinking mess when it reached England, but an accident of timing meant that a young Victoria was about to ascend to the throne. In a culture obsessed with flowers, and almost as potty about the British Empire, it seemed like a “no-brainer” to name this amazing flower after her. This involved a bit of botanical slight-of-hand, particularly when a couple of cheeky Continentals rudely claimed they’d already catalogued the specimen. It was unthinkable to call it Victoria Amazonica – the Amazon women were bare-breasted savage huntresses, for Heaven’s sake. After some wrangling about the Latin and who had the right to the publicity (the Botanical Society, or the Geographical Society who’d paid for the trip but expressly warned Schomburgk against excessive plant-hunting?) , the compromise title Victoria Regia was, more or less, accepted.

"Victoria regia – Opening Flower" Ch...
“Victoria regia – Opening Flower” Chromolithograph from Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) Victoria regia; or Illustrations of the Royal Water-lily . . . London: Reeve and Benham, 1851 The gigantic water lily from South America, now Victoria amazonica. Chromolithograph, hand-coloured (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Royal assent followed and the race was on to get a specimen to England and persuade it to flower. This was not a trivial task and involved much cutting-edge technology in the glasshouse trade (pardon the pun). The main contenders in the race were the Duke of Devonshire, whose deep pockets funded England’s vastest indoor gardens, the Royal Gardens at Kew, struggling to make a comeback after decades of neglect, and the Duke of Northumberland’s botanical collection (which ultimately became the Royal Horticultural Society). Tatiana Holway pulls off the remarkable feat of making this story so gripping that you might well find yourself staying up too late to see the lily’s first bloom before you go to bed.

But it didn’t stop there. Victoria Regia (or possibly Regina) and the technology invented to make her  bloom did much to shape that crowning showcase of the British Empire, the Great Exhibition. In less skilled hands than Holway’s, these final chapters would be anti-climactic after the race to get a lily flower to the Palace. And indeed, they do feel a little hectic and rushed at times.

But it’s all about chains of connection. Via the Crystal Palace, argues Tatiana, the Amazonian Water Lily shaped our modern world. A startling claim, but reading about the frenzied lead up to the Great Exhibition, the fear of terrorist threat, of crowds of the wrong sort of people making trouble, of vast structures collapsing and the country running out of money, not to mention what on earth to do with the huge building after the party was over, have more than a little of the flavour of London 2012 about them. Spin, PR, ostentatious, overwhelming and occasionally meaningless spectacle and huge events precariously balanced between triumph and farce, are indeed a part of our modern world. And according to Tatiana Holway, the Millennium Dome, the Crystal Palace and every overblown shopping mall can be directly linked to the discovery of a “vegetable wonder” in British Guiana almost 180 years ago.