Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa, offer the early signs of spring, and hope that we will move out of lockdown before too long and can perhaps look forward to a return to new life.
Having just finished reading the third in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, rather than posting one review here, I thought I would bring together my three reviews, each originally posted online soon after I read the book.
Book 1 – Wolf Hall
Now I’ve finished Wolf Hall, I feel as if I’ve been an insider, in the world of Henry VIII. I bought the book following a friend’s recommendation. She said she found it so powerful that she couldn’t read anything else for quite some time after she’d finished it.
And certainly I’ve changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we occupy throughout the novel. Upon reading Hilary Mantel’s account of this man, I admire him and can understand his role in relation to Henry, and his extraordinary gifts as he navigated Henry’s changing whims.
As to Henry himself… what was his prayer? That he might have a healthy, long-lived, legitimate male heir to take over the English Throne for the Tudors, and carry their dynasty well into the future. Of course, in the end, his dynasty only lasted for 118 years, considerably less than the Plantagenet dynasty which had gone before.
I can imagine now how he must have felt each time Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. He felt professionally devastated and personally anguished; frightened that he had incurred the displeasure of God; afraid that after having been in his hands the throne would go where he did not want it to go; afraid his hopes and dreams would never be fulfilled; afraid that this was God’s punishment. After all, the English Throne was his professional business, his livelihood, his calling.
Now, of course, with historical hindsight, we can judge him as wrong and foolish and deluded, if we wish: see he was wrong to have Anne Boleyn beheaded; and wrong to have various people brutally slaughtered for not agreeing with his divorce, and for not thinking the right things at the right time about religion, and for thinking he, Henry, was wrong.
But what should he have done instead, according to us with our historical hindsight? Some may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and lived out his life married to her.
What actually happened? Ultimately the English throne became strong and proud under Elizabeth I – though she died childless and thus failed to extend the Tudor dynasty, she is still considered by many to have been England’s greatest monarch
So we may well say that God answered Henry’s prayer – but not in the way he expected.
This philosophical rumination has been inspired by Wolf Hall simply because so many of us are familiar with the Tudor story – but in fact the narrative of this novel only goes as far as the execution of Sir Thomas More leaving the downfall of Anne Boleyn still in the future.
Perhaps the thing that most fascinated me about Wolf Hall is the way the reader follows through delicate, graceful, civilised conversations – gentle, balanced, measured… and then out of them comes a decision to burn someone alive, or have them hanged, drawn and quartered.
One sentence in the book goes as follows: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”
Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what you learn here of human nature will stay with you.
Book 2 – Bring Up the Bodies
When it comes to the art of making momentous decisions on the basis of throwaway remarks, idle boasts, gossip and loose talk, the Tudors gave us a masterclass. But isn’t this in some measure the story of our own lives, though we never know how momentous any of our decisions may be? Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we are so fascinated by the Tudors.
In language sometimes poetic, elegant and stylish and at other times crude, ribald and cruel, to match her subject matter, Hilary Mantel continues to chart Thomas Cromwell’s course through the treacherous marshes of Henry VIII’s bizarre emotional and mental life, to the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn.
Whilst reading Mantel’s compelling narrative, I felt as close as I possibly could be to the personal experience of “Master Secretary” Cromwell himself. (In fact I wondered if he ever suffered burnout or stress from working for an unstable boss like Henry.) In such an environment, the news that you’ve got your own final appointment at the Tower must almost come as a blessed relief.
I look forward to being guided through Cromwell’s journey to that final appointment in the next novel in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy.
Book 3 – The Mirror and the Light
A highly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy: from my experience of Hilary Mantel’s skills as a storyteller, I had come to expect the most lyrical, musical and graceful writing, covering all registers, along with the horror, spiteful gossip, cynical manipulation, brutality, paranoia, religious extremism, lies, betrayal and twisted thinking.
Yet I also felt moved and touched by Thomas’s relationships with his loyal lieutenant Rafe Sadler and his son Gregory. (Afterwards I couldn’t resist looking up all Gregory’s many descendants, from his marriage with Elizabeth, Jane Seymour’s sister). In this book I particularly enjoyed Thomas’s conversations with Ambassador Eustache Chapuys, who always speaks his mind about Henry; he cannot be a traitor to this king but only to his own master, beyond England’s borders.
Sadistic cruelty, jaunty chat, razor-sharp observations: all is recounted, and intermittently we are uplifted by the most fluid, entrancing, poetic prose, which somehow draws the events from micro to macro, rippling backwards and forwards in time, as the high stakes, the pity, and the terror stalk these pages along with the merciless, paranoid king.
Hilary Mantel’s genius is to make us feel sorry for Henry as a human being, whilst his monstrosity is plain to us; and also we feel compassion for Thomas Cromwell himself, navigating the power games and political marriages; and even for the Lady Mary, daughter to Henry by Katherine of Aragon, despite the fact that we know what her future held for her.
The story is told ‘looking over Thomas Cromwell’s shoulder’. In the final part of the book, recounting the Anne of Cleves crisis, the reader feels such a sense of impending doom as Henry behaves like a spoilt, dangerous child, whilst Thomas Cromwell and Hans Holbein try so hard in good faith to make this all work. But Thomas is now on his inexorable downward slope, finally toppled by his refusal to promise anything he does not believe he can deliver, and criticised for not being firmer with Henry when the king shares his plan to take a disastrous course of action.
Henry is described in various places as ‘mutable… mercurial…. impulsive.’ Yet, at times of greatest peril to those he once loved or counted as friends, when a word from him would save them, he remains hard and stubborn.
I feel that Hilary Mantel has done great honour to Thomas Cromwell in telling his story as she has – with such grace, wisdom and discernment.
Finally, two examples of her inspired turns of phrase:
Thomas moves close to his moment of execution:
He feel netted by the past, suspended in some high blue instant, strung up in air.
And this, as Thomas, incarcerated in The Tower, takes his leave of The Queen’s Lodgings, to be transferred to the grim and austere Bell Tower: He says goodbyes to the goddesses, a last flitting glance over his shoulder. No trace of Anne Boleyn. He remembers her saying – was it in this very room ? – ‘Be good to me’. He thinks, if I see her again, perhaps this time I will.
Many of us love the arrival of snow – as long as it doesn’t last too long or lie too heavy or cause too much disruption…
When snow falls it creates an immediate transformation. We see the familar scenes in a different light. And many also associate it with fun – snowmen, toboggans, slides and snowball fights.
I love to see all the familiar trees and shrubs and objects set in sharp relief by the snow.
Guys Cliffe, the subject of chapter one in my new book, Paranormal Warwickshire, always takes on a fresh aura of mystery in the snow.
Paranormal Warwickshire is widely available online and via any bookshop.
Curious how when we are instructed by the government to stay at home and only venture out for a very few clearly defined purposes, those of us who didn’t do enough walking prior to the pandemic suddenly find ourselves seizing the opportunity to get out every day.
And I am one of those. Living in Warwick we have several lovely walks not far from our home. We can head for Leamington Spa, and Jephson Gardens; or to Abbey Fields in Kenilworth. Both are very special places and water is in abundance there and in many other local places – either the River Leam or the River Avon or the Finham Brook or the Grand Union Canal….
Do you have lovely places to walk, close to your home? I’d love to hear about them! Do share in the comments below.
During the Covid-19 Pandemic and throughout the three lockdowns in the UK, many have sought the consolation of escape – into books or films. Every so often I return to one of my top favourites – The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn. To my mind this film exemplifies classic story structure; but above all it centres upon a likeable, engaging young hero. Each time I watch it I know again why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.
The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while. But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.
I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).
As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.
You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.
Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.
There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.
Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.
The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.
In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.
A hero learns, and changes. A villain never learns, and never changes.
TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.
Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it does me?
On Wednesday 30th December at the end of the Covid year 2020, we visited the Light Trail at Warwick Castle.
As a local resident I have long been a frequent visitor to Warwick Castle, and of course it features in my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire.
Tonight the castle was especially magical. Merlin Entertainments really had excelled themselves.
Entering through the courtyard coach-house tea-rooms, we emerged out on the path to the castle.
Powerful beams intermittently bathed Guy’s Tower and the ramparts in mauve and green and blue, and the stalls of the Christmas Market were decked out in myriad lights.
As we entered the path to the light trail, I felt every trace of the anxiety and low spirits and fear and disappointment of this Covid-oppressed year melt away, and in its place all the excitement and wonder of childhood, at the magical vision that had been created in this iconic castle and its grounds.
We walked past the market stalls and along the trail, entering the castle courtyard through the arch to behold the battlements and gatehouse, Caesar’s Tower, the State Apartments, Time Tower and Elfrida’s Mound all washed by waves of alternating colours.
The voice of an actor broadcast around the courtyard the story of Sir Fulke Greville who after his arrival in 1604, transformed the castle into a grand palatial residence and created exquisite gardens here. He also, as a poet, entertained many famous literary figures here, among whose numbers William Shakespeare would have appeared.
Through the windows of the State Apartments we saw glimmering Christmas trees. Although visitors were not allowed to enter the Castle due to Covid restrictions, nevertheless we were able to gaze at the gorgeous decorations within the rooms.
Having circled the coutryard we left through the arch and made our way around past the Mound and down the slope and across the bridge to the island. In every aspect the castle and its grounds was transformed into something beyond this physical world. It is a beautiful, magical sight anyway, in broad daylight; but with the play of lights it was truly dreamlike.
Traversing the island and returning across the bridge we all climbed the slope to the left leading out into the fields beyond the Peacock Garden.
The giant trebuchet was irradiated with purple light, and the boathouse seemed like a gingerbread house from a child’s storybook.
All the while the full moon perfectly harmonised with the man-made light displays. The backdrop of trees glittered with rich colour, floodlit to set out in sharp relief the ones in front.
Every detail of the monkey puzzle tree glowed with crimson light.
There we passed numerous brightly coloured illuminated tents; and then a field of what looked like giant luminous fungi – in reality multi coloured open umbrellas on the grass.
We headed across the field to the illuminated tunnel where several couples couldn’t resist taking romantic selfies surrounded by the glittering lights.
We emerged into the peacock garden with is glowing Christmas tree and every feature of the garden delineated in lights.
Within the Orangery glittering Christmas Trees could be seen.
As we completed the trail and made our way out of the castle, an then on the long walk through the illuminated woodlands back to the car park, we took with us the joy and enchantment of this wonderful light trail.
Do check out more photos and many curious tales surrounding Warwick Castle in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.
Many of us share a fascination with the power of nature, and we love to gaze at storms and mighty waterfalls and erupting volcanos and turbulent seas and raging rivers – as long as we are in a safe viewing spot, and not in the middle of them.
And so we were among those drawn once again to the Saxon Mill, near to my home in Warwick. Our purpose: to gaze in wonder and exhileration, and experience the drama of the swollen river Avon. I felt as if we were on an island surrounded by the dynamic power of racing water.
The Saxon Mill is of course one of my haunted locations in my new book Paranormal Warwickshire. Do check it out here: http://bitly.ws/8xJJ
Here’s another of my haunted locations for Paranormal Warwickshire.
Abbey Fields in Kenilworth is much loved by the local people and I have continuously visited this atmospheric place ever since my children were young.
The ancient abbey ruins, the beautiful old church of St Nicholas and its enchanting churchyard, the view of Kenilworth Castle, the lovely lake and the Finham Brook that runs through Abbey Fields – all combine to make this a place that draws many back again and again.
Recently I walked along the path beside the Finham Brook, noticing how high and lively the waters ran, and an old lady turned to me and said she had come out from her home where she lived alone, and setting aside all worry about the ongoing pandemic, she found joy and consolation in gazing at these tumbling waters. She always finds it in Abbey Fields. She echoed my thoughts exactly.
A place haunted by many happy memories… and by other curious tales too which you might find in my new book Paranormal Warwickshire.
Out now, it may feed a curiosity about atmospheric places, enhance your knowledge of English history, and also provide a welcome retreat from the current woes of the UK, as you enjoy the many photographs. An ideal gift this Christmas, it’s available everywhere good books are sold.
Happiness. An endless sandy beach, blissful sunshine, a turquoise sea spangled with silver, cocktails, a balmy breeze and… happiness? contentment? inner peace?
I was inspired to write this post by Andy Mort who runs Haven.
Andy occasionally sends out thought-provoking and discerning emails to his subscribers and I particularly agreed with him about the slippery soap that is our pursuit of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness puts me in mind of a brilliant book I read called “Finding Sanctuary” by Abbot Christopher Jamieson. In this book he talks about how we wear numerous masks during our lives, and in pursuit of happiness we constantly seek products which the advertising industry tells us are going to make us happy. We long for peace and a state of calm and inner contentment, and we seek it through more products, such as holidays. In fact we can never escape from the compulsion to seek the fulfilment of our ultimate longings within a product of some kind.
Being reflective about all this is such a good step on the journey to seeking some kind of release from this compulsive drive. It has been said by a doctor that everyone needs to go on retreat once a year (and of course Abbot Christopher was the one who featured in that TV programme The Monastery about the men who went on retreat). Though it could be argued that even a retreat is a product!!
I write this as I am busily selling a product myself …. a book called Paranormal Warwickshire – and I do my fair share of using marketing techniques tried and tested by the advertising industry – the Mr Bigs of this world. In fact when I think about it all, I could despair, except for the one saving grace that helps us keep it all in perspective – a sense of humour!
Today I reblog a lovely post by fellow author Maressa Mortimer who recently launched her 2nd novel ‘Walled City’. With the help of her children and husband, Maressa enjoyed her special book launch cake on a very entertaining Facebook Live. I so admired her for doing that! I’m saving my ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ cake till my 1st opportunity for a physical event in 2021! My copy of ‘Walled City’ is winging its way to me now, and I look forward to reading it.Rest a Little
Sometimes, Maressa says, resting is necessary:Rest a Little