If you regularly read my Friday posts on this blog, you will have noticed that last week I was a day late. This is because on Friday I was away visiting Den Haag (The Hague).
It’s a nice little town, quiet and pretty, but unless you are a fan of art galleries, there isn’t a great deal to interest the average tourist, so many visitors will end up visiting the famous model village at Madurodam. Personally, I wasn’t impressed (you can see my Trip Advisor review here) but it did feature quite a nice model of the Peace Palace. I recommend that model, because it’s the closest you are going to get to the real thing.
The Peace Palace is another of the attractions that the guide books recommend to visitors. It was designed as a temple to peace. It is a place of stunning beauty with artworks from all over the world so that countries could provide a concrete gesture of their support for the idea that disputes could be resolved by arbitration rather than through warfare. The walls are covered with decorative tiling and the ceilings are elaborately painted.
For anyone interested in the history of the place, the first suggestion that there might be a mismatch between its ideals and the practical realities of the world comes with the fact that it was opened in 1913. The next year, of course, the First World War started.
Nowadays the Peace Palace is home to the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Outside the gates is a little monument with stones from all the countries of the world that acknowledge the jurisdiction of these courts. There is an eternal flame – the flame of peace – that burns beside the road. It’s quite touching to see the way that people come to acknowledge the importance of peace at such a building.
I looked forward to seeing inside this beautiful place, which stood for something so important, or maybe exploring the gardens.
I was in Den Haag because my wife was attending a conference at the Peace Palace. I turned up with her that morning to see it. ‘Make sure you get there early,’ she’d been told. ‘The security can take a while.’ Guards looked at the underside of vehicles with mirrors; everything went through an x-ray machine. Her credentials and passport were checked – there was no question at all of my going in, even to get a glimpse of the entrance hall, but, still, there was always the visitor centre. ‘It opens at 11.00,’ a friendly guard told me.
So at 11.00 I was back and I went into the visitor centre, just outside the gates. There I saw photographs of the wonderful architecture and old film of Kaisers and Czars attending conferences there, negotiating peace for the world.
The route through the visitor centre leads to another entrance to the security gate I had been at earlier, but the door through was firmly locked. ‘There is no entrance to the Peace Palace or grounds,’ the notice said.
I trudged away through the snow (it had started snowing), past those optimistic shrines to peace. There was a peace tree, where people, ordinary people who had come, like me, to see the palace, had written their wishes for peace and attached them to the branches of a bare little tree just outside the gates.
The whole place is built for its symbolic impact, but the impact it had on me was not what the builders had intended. To me, it looked like a beautiful palace in which important men in big cars could meet in fantastic surroundings to talk about peace, though the world seems to be filled with war and rumours of war. Outside, ordinary people look through the gates, imagining the wonders of a place dedicated to peace and fastening their wishes to the peace tree – but they will never be allowed in. The wonders of the palace aren’t for them. They’re just the little people and the Palace of Peace can only be protected if walls and gates and security guards keep them safely outside. Peace, after all, is far too precious for everybody to have access to it.
I’ve heard that people can get in. My wife, for example, had presumably appreciated it. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘Our conference was held in a little annex round the back.’ Obviously she wasn’t important enough to share the rulers’ dreams of peace either.
The real Peace Palace: outside looking in
NOTE: I’ve checked and it seems that the Palace is sometimes open for guided tours, this weekend being one of those special dates. Tours are limited to 20 people at a time. I don’t think this really changes the point I’m making.
Ed Reardon is the star of ‘Ed Reardon’s Week’ which, from time to time, gets the odd half hour on Radio 4. Back in 2005 his adventures were transformed into a book (also Ed Reardon’s Week) which I have somehow only now got round to reading.
Reardon is a brilliant comic character, though sadly unaware of how funny he is. His first novel, Who Would Fardels Bear? was a great literary success. As a fan of the radio series, I know that Reardon was tipped as a young man to watch in a Sunday magazine feature back in the 1960s. Sadly, despite penning one episode of Tenko, his career has since then failed to flourish and he has been reduced to ghost-writing for celebrity cooks, sportsmen, and, for all I know, Victoria Beckham (although he is far too professional to admit the last one).
His divorce exhausted whatever funds he may have acquired from his early success and he is now reduced to living in a flat over a hairdressing salon where he is becoming increasingly bitter about a world that has rejected his genius in favour of (in his view) the inane wittering of 12-year-old television executives.
Reardon’s persona allows the authors to express their trenchant views on everything from the state of modern publishing through the inadequacies of the railway system to the doubtful joys of living in Berkhamsted (“the fastest-growing property market in Europe”). The writers are thus able to enjoy the privilege offered to court jesters, through the ages: saying politically incorrect things to poke fun at the modern world, whilst simultaneously insisting that these aren’t their views, just those of the appalling old dinosaur, Reardon. It’s great fun, though, like most satire, increasingly difficult to keep up as the idiocies of the life today overtake anything that the writers’ imagination can produce.
Back in 2005 when the world was young and London buses had yet to tell you to hold on because they were “about to move” thirty seconds after they had already done so, Reardon’s acerbic comments were still simultaneously wildly exaggerated and bang on point. If you have ever enjoyed anything with “Grumpy Old” in the title, you’ll love Ed Reardon, the archetypal grumpy late middle-aged man.
For writers (and I believe that some of the people who read this blog may be writers) it is Reardon’s continual struggles to produce anything remotely worthwhile and to persuade his publishers to give him an advance on his latest idea that particularly resonates. Reardon’s orgies of self-pity are in part justified by the success of his friend Jaz Milvane who, having adapted Who Would Fardels Bear Into an appallingly saccharine Hollywood movie, has gone on to massive commercial success.
The characters of Ed and Jaz are stolen from George Gissing’s 1891 classic New Grub Street, which pokes less fun at the institutions of the day but concentrates its withering fire on publishing. Edmund is a genuine literary genius, but his books are not commercially successful. Jasper, on the other hand, is an appalling hack who turns out rubbish that he knows to be rubbish but which is carefully crafted to meet the market. Ed, inevitably, faces increasingly desperate hardship and literary obscurity, while Jasper grows rich and successful.
The modern Reardon is not averse to writing for the market either – he’s just not very good at it. He resents readers, publishers and, most of all, his terrible agent who long ago lost interest in him and who has now fobbed him off on Ping, a young woman whose Oxford education has left her, in Reardon’s view, unfitted for literary life, but who somehow seems richer, more assured and more successful than him.
The book could be a miserable wallow in grumpiness and self-pity (the original New Grub Street definitely veers in that direction), but, unlike Gissing’s novel, this is unremittingly funny, whether detailing Ed’s efforts to earn ten pounds by taking part in identity parades (“ the experience might furnish me with useful research material”) or his disastrous attempts at speed dating. But for writing friends, there is a particularly poignant humour in his increasingly desperate attempts to produce what his publishers demand.
“Basically the brief is: celeb cats and dogs grumbling about their owners. What does the Downing Street moggy really think about Cheri Blair?”
“Just cats and dogs?” I asked, out of politeness.
“No – rabbits, hamsters, whatever. You’re the author. Could even be a fun chapter by an Aussie insect about what it’s like to be eaten by Janet Street-Porter. It’s so you.”
Ed Reardon’s Week also avoids the tragic ending of New Grub Street. Ed [spoiler alert] does not die in a garret. Strictly speaking, if the authors were models of artistic integrity, he would. But his survival ensures that Radio 4 listeners will be able to laugh at him another day. And, until the next series, there’s always this book to keep us amused.
Since the beginning of the year Endeavour Press have republished all three of the existing books about James Burke. There are two more already planned in the series which will take us back to Burke’s first experience as a British spy and will see him fighting with Wellington’s army in Spain.
Just in case you haven’t met James Burke yet (though I can hardly believe any of my blog readers won’t have bought at least one of the books by now), here’s a summary of what you’re missing. Last week saw the publication of ‘Burke at Waterloo’.
James Burke, was a real person and his first adventure (‘Burke in the Land of Silver’) was based on a true story. The other two are written around actual events, but Burke’s role in them is entirely fictional. It’s given me more of a free hand in developing James Burke as a sort of cross between Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe and Ian Fleming’s James Bond. The stories aren’t really written in order (there’s quite a long time gap in the middle of the first book and the adventures in the second one fill that gap) and you don’t have to read them in order. But I did realise the other day that if you buy all three on Kindle, you can get them for a whisker under £7.($10.97 in the US.) That’s a quarter of a million words of Napoleonic adventure for £6.97. You’d be mad not to, really.
Anyway, her’s what you get for your money.
James Burke is sent to South America to prepare for a British invasion. (We’re not that keen on the Spanish at the time.) All goes well until the British occupy Buenos Aires and, instead of allying with the locals, start treating them slightly worse than the Spaniards had. Burke’s attempts to negotiate a British withdrawal end with him in front of a firing squad.
There’s more double-dealing, wild women and political intrigue than you could ever make up. A thrilling tale from a time when the world was in turmoil and a few good men (or, I’m afraid, quite often bad men) could change the course of history.
In 1798, there were rumours that the French might be planning an expedition to Egypt. James Burke is despatched by the British Secret Service to see if there is any evidence of French activity in the country. Irritated by what he thinks will turn out a wild goose chase, Burke is far more interested in the fate of Bernadita, the Spanish girl he finds imprisoned as a slave in Cairo, than he is in improbable French agents. Then, fleeing with Bernadita, he stumbles across the French plot.
The race is on to stop Napoleon and Burke sets in motion a train of events that ends in one of the great naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Review described ‘Burke and the Bedouin’ as “an entertaining light read”, which is good, because that’s what I set out to write. The history is solid, though, (and the Historical Novel Society likes the battle scenes).
If you write stories set in the Napoleonic Wars, it’s the law that you have to do Waterloo. 18 June is the 200th anniversary of the battle, so now seemed a good time to have Burke there at Napoleon’s downfall.
Burke is sent to Paris where Bonapartists are plotting the assassination of the Duke of Wellington. (For some reason, the history books tend to neglect this, but they really were.) Having foiled their dastardly plans (spoiler: the Duke of Wellington survives), Burke pursues their leader to Brussels where people are far too busy celebrating the peace to think that Napoleon is still a threat to Europe.
Then the Corsican Tyrant flees Elba and everything changes.
As Wellington arrives in Brussels and Europe prepares once again for war, Burke is at the centre of affairs. And his own mission and the fight against Napoleon both come to a bloody climax on the field of Waterloo.
Paul Collard (author of the Jack Lark series) said of this book,”This really is historical fiction as it should be written.”
What reviewers have said about James Burke
“James Bond in breeches, this novel (and others in the series) should satisfy fans of the era and the Sharpe novels.” Laura Wilkinson on Amazon
“… exciting, clear, fast moving and so interesting about the history and geography of the time” on Amazon
“Tom Williams brings Burke and his adventures in South America to vivid life through telling but never intrusive detail” on Amazon
“Great swashbuckling fun!” on Amazon
Lately I’ve been writing about events in the run up to the Irish Rebellion of 1798, so when I saw a biography of Roger Casement on a free promotion on Amazon, I “bought” it. The events of the Easter Rising of 1916 clearly followed on from the failed revolt of 1798 and had many similar details. I thought it would be interesting to read the life of somebody so intimately concerned with the 1916 uprising and compare their life with, for example, the life of Wolfe Tone, the famous 18th century Irish Nationalist (and incidental character in my book).
The end of Casement’s life did have remarkable similarities to Wolfe Tone’s. Like Tone, he was born a Protestant. He, too, quit Ireland to live in a country at war with Britain in the hope of persuading Britain’s enemies to assist a rising of the Irish. Like Tone, he was received sympathetically and there were many indications that assistance would be forthcoming, but, like Tone, he discovered that, in the end, Britain’s enemies saw Ireland as unworthy of any significant military effort. Like Tone, he saw the rising against the British as doomed to failure and, again like Tone, he placed himself in a position where his capture, and ultimate death, was almost a certainty, preferring to die in Ireland than live on in exile. (Sadly, Casement was executed in England and for many years his body lay in Pentonville, until it was returned to Ireland, where he was reburied as a national hero.)
Casement’s earlier life, though, could not have been more unlike Tone’s. He was born in Ulster, but after he had left school his uncle got him a job in Liverpool with a shipping line. He persuaded the company to let him go on a trip to Africa and was so impressed with what he saw that he decided he must return. When he was just 20 he started working for Stanley. This was the start of an involvement with Congo that was to define much of his life. At the time, Leopold of the Belgians was exploiting the Congo natives to harvest rubber from the jungle. The natives were treated as slaves and frequently abused and tortured. Casement believed that the European countries had a duty to develop the economy of Africa in the interests of the local people and started campaigning against Leopold’s cruelties.
That one sentence summary of Casement’s activities in the Congo grossly simplifies what is the theme of about the first third of the book. Casement’s activities in the Congo were often the stuff of “Boys Own” adventures and Inglis’s writing style carries you with it like any historical thriller, despite occasional jolts because of what seem to be typographical errors. These can be confusing, as (as with any biography) Inglis uses a lot of quotations from contemporary reports, letters to or from Casement, etc and these are frequently not set off from the main text, so that you can read a paragraph without realising that this is no longer Inglis, but somebody completely different. This does lead to a certain amount of doubling back, which can take you out of what would otherwise be a gripping story. Even so, I belted through the account of Casement in the Congo and felt that, by the end, I knew much more about a particularly shameful episode of Western colonialism than I ever had before. I can just remember from my childhood the horrific legacy of Belgian rule in the Congo working itself out in wars and revolts, the echoes of which resonate down to the present day. This is the first time, though, that I have ever known how these problems started and this, on its own, would make the book worth reading.
Casement’s success in improving the lot of the Congo natives led him to attempt a similar intervention on behalf of the natives of Putumayo in the Amazon who were being similarly exploited by the Peruvians. He was less successful this time, largely because of a failure by the Foreign Office to pursue the matter with any vigour. Even so, his adventures in the Amazon are, again, nothing if not an exciting read.
Throughout Casement’s adventures there is what, in a novel, would be a subplot about his promiscuous homosexuality. So outrageous that they are at times genuinely comical, Casement’s sexual adventures were not funny at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Casement himself saw his sexual predilections as a personal failing and the stress of living with this secret may have contributed to what Inglis suggests was quite severe mental illness later in his life. The publication of some of the more torrid parts of his diaries after his death go some way to accounting for the fact that Casement’s considerable achievements are not as well known in England as they should be.
Of course, the fact that Casement was hanged as a traitor has also damaged his reputation. The homosexuality does seem to have been a significant factor, though, as by today’s standards he was definitely a freedom fighter up there with Nelson Mandela. If you think this must be an exaggeration, I can only suggest you read some of the fulsome praise of his character produced by supporters at the time. His behaviour was certainly no more treacherous (and arguably much less so) than, say, that of Gerry Adams, a man who England seemed quite capable of doing business with.
It was Casement’s involvement with the Easter Rising that drew me to the book, but in the end it was the least interesting part of it. There is an enormous amount of detail on the infighting between the various Republican parties that bedevilled the movement for Irish independence and continues to wreak havoc in the North. For those of us sitting comfortably distant in London, the detail of who is on whose side when becomes almost incomprehensible. Interestingly, in another parallel with Tone’s life, Casement spent much of his energy is trying to bring the squabbling factions together.
Casement’s adventures in Germany are a sad tale of growing disillusionment. Having read Tone’s account of life in France, there are, again, strong parallels. In the end, Casement realised that the Germans would not provide military support to any uprising and that an attempt at a coup against England was doomed. He returned to Ireland hoping to prevent an action that he knew would kill many Nationalists without any prospect of victory. Ironically, his return was used by the English as evidence of his involvement in the uprising and he was hanged. It’s a desperately unhappy end to a remarkable life.
Inglis’s biography verges on the hagiographic at times. Unfortunately, he feels the need to quote extensively from Casement’s poetry. Casement was not a great poet and these outbreaks of versification do not improve the book. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s improved by all the quotes from Yeats either, but Yeats’s skills as a poet are more generally acknowledged. Overall, though, this is a surprisingly readable account of the life of a sadly underrated man who deserves the recognition in England that he does get across the Irish Sea.
Burke at Waterloo was published this weekend.
At the start of the book Napoleon is safely in exile on Elba, Louis XVIII has been installed on the throne in Paris and the victorious Allies are planning the future of 19th-century Europe. Then, suddenly, Napoleon is back. Louis has fled and French armies are marching on Brussels.
How did it happen? How did Napoleon escape from Elba?
In my last post about Napoleon on Elba we saw that he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with life there. He could probably have coped with the boredom – he had always been fascinated by detail and immersed himself in the various projects he had set up on the island – but he was not prepared to tolerate the French reneging on their promise to pay him a pension or the attempts to keep him from his son. He knew that he still had supporters in the army and in Paris and he decided it was time to leave Elba and join them.
Although the British kept a representative, Sir Neil Campbell, on the island to keep a discreet eye on Napoleon’s activities, the Emperor was quietly able to buy military supplies. He had these put aboard the ships of his little navy (generally used to bring supplies to the island or to move him to the adjacent islands of the archipelago of which Elba is a part). The horses of his Polish Lancers were prepared for immediate movement and the saddlers were kept busy ensuring that all their harness was in good order. The troops were inspected and new NCOs were appointed.
It’s remarkable that, given all these clear military preparations, the secret of Napoleon’s planned escape seems to have been well kept. The only person who knew for sure was Princess Pauline, who wormed the secret out of General Bertrand, one of the two men Napoleon had entrusted with his plans. She had her silver shipped to Livorno in Italy for safe-keeping a few days before the escape, but even then no one seems to have appreciated the significance of this.
Neil Campbell was so blissfully unaware that there might be anything amiss that on 16 February he left Elba to visit the Italian mainland. Such visits were a frequent occurrence, ostensibly to liaise with officers in Italy, but in fact to visit his mistress, Countess Miniacci, in Florence. (There are even suggestions that she was a Napoleonic agent.)
Campbell’s own account of his unfortunate decision to leave the island appears in his published journal:
On February 16, I quitted Elba in HMS “Partridge”… upon a short excursion to the Continent for my health… I was anxious also to consult some medical man at Florence on account of the increasing deafness, supposed to arise from my wounds with which I have been lately affected.
Campbell’s position was made worse when his captain let fall to the French that the Partridge was to return to the mainland to pick him up ten days later. Napoleon thus knew he had ten clear days to make his preparations and escape before Campbell or the Partridge were in a position to stop him.
With Campbell away, Napoleon was able to order that no ships were to sail from Elba, so that, even if there were suspicions about his plans on the island, there was no way to get news to possible enemies.
As part of the pretence that all was normal, on 25th of February Napoleon and his officers all attended a ball given by Princess Pauline, but the next day at about one o’clock in the afternoon the gates of the town were closed and Napoleon’s army received its orders for departure. Even at this stage nobody was told where they were going. If the British had had an inkling of Napoleon’s plans to escape, they would almost certainly have assumed that he was heading for Italy. There were even suggestions that Elba had been chosen for his exile in part because it suited the Russians to have the Austrians permanently needing to keep up their guard up against potential Napoleonic interference with their Italian possessions.
Napoleon leaves Elba – Joseph Beaume 1885
By mid-afternoon, Napoleon’s fleet was ready to sail. At eight o’clock Napoleon himself boarded his brig, the Inconstant. Extra cannon had been mounted aboard and her hull had been painted in the colours usually used by British ships, to improve her chances of escaping any blockade. She was accompanied by the Stella, the other ship of Napoleon’s navy, the Caroline, a French merchant brig, the St Esprit, which had been chartered for the occasion and three other small vessels. He probably had around a thousand men with him.
When the fleet left Elba, it was carried by a good southerly wind, but the next day the wind dropped. It must have been a nerve wracking time for Napoleon. The Mediterranean was patrolled by French and English fleets and every British ship had a portrait of Napoleon in the captain’s cabin, so that he could be easily identified if intercepted on the high seas. The calm did affect the enemy as well as him, though. Because of the lack of wind Campbell did not arrive back on Elba until the 28th, so the alarm was not raised until two days after Napoleon’s escape.
The winds picked up again on the 27th, but the Inconstant was hailed by a French naval ship, the Zephyr. Its master, realising that the Inconstant had sailed from Elba, asked how Napoleon was. “Marvellously well,” came the reply – supposedly dictated by the Emperor himself. With no reason for suspicion, the Zephyr allowed Napoleon’s vessel to pass.
Napoleon landed in France near Antibes on March 1, 1815. He had, as the Bonapartists had always believed, returned as the violets bloomed in the spring. The events that led to Waterloo were under way.
Peter Hicks (2014). Napoleon On Elba – An Exile Of Consent. Napoleonica. La Revue, 19,(1), 53-67. doi:10.3917/napo.141.0053.
Katherine Macdonogh (1994) ‘A sympathetic ear: Napoleon, Elba and the British’ History Today, vol. 44
Campbell’s journal was published by his nephew under the title Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba (John Murray 1869)
For a detailed account of Napoleon’s time on Elba and his escape, see The Island Empire by the anonymous ‘author of Blondelle’, published by T Bosworth in 1855 and available in Google Books.