THE YELLOW CROSS by René Weis

20 07 2014

The Yellow CrossThe Cathars flourished in the south of France (and in Corsica and the north of Italy) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They were a Christian sect, but they were not Roman Catholics. They did not have a heirarchy of priests, bishops and cardinals: their equivalent of the Catholic priest was the Goodman or Perfect. Also (like the later Quakers) they had no sacraments as such, though they did practise the ‘consolamentum’, a ‘laying on of hands’ when a man or woman was ordained a Perfect or was approaching death.

They had little time for the Old Testament: their Scriptures were the four Gospels (they especially revered the Fourth Gospel) and the letters of St Paul. They were, to some extent at least, dualists, distinguishing between this world, the world of the children of darkness, and the Kingdom of God, the world of the children of light. They identified ‘the Prince of this World’ with the Pope of Rome. They seem to have believed in reincarnation, and were in theory against all forms of killing (including war and judicial execution): the Perfects at least were strictly vegetarian, and wandered the countryside in pairs, preaching their gospel.

The ordinary people had only to compare this with the rich, corrupt Roman Church to decide which they preferred.

During the twelfth century, the Cathar Church grew exponentially. Many of the noble families of the Midi (Languedoc) became converts. A clash was inevitable.

In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched the so-called Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. Languedoc was not at that time officially part of the Kingdom of France; so the Crusade had the enthusiastic support of the King of France, intent on enlarging his kingdom, and of the French nobles from the north, greedy for land. Slowly the Cathars were driven back to their final stronghold, the hilltop fortress of Montségur. Here, after a long seige, they surrendered. Hundreds were burnt.

It was over. But there were survivors in remote villages and (leading a double life) in towns.

This book is about the campaign against the children and grandchildren of those survivors which took place in the closing years of the thirteenth century and the early years of the fourteenth.

It is immensely detailed because their chief persecutors, the Inquisitors Geoffroy d’Ablis and Bernard Gui (yes, him, the one in The Name of the Rose) and Bishop Jacques Fournier (later Pope Benedict XII), kept records of every word given in testimony during the long trials, and these records have been preserved.

It is really quite fascinating. Many of the people lived in mountain villages and knew their way back and forth across the high passes of the Pyrenees – they took their sheep across to Spain for the winter and brought them back in spring (the transhumance) – and we see them eventually set up home in Catalonia when life in France becomes impossible. But even there – thanks to the presence of a traitor, an undercover agent of Fournier’s – the long arm of the Church reaches out and eventually finds most (but not all) of them, including “the last Perfect”, Guillaume Belibaste, who was burnt at the stake by the Archbishop of Narbonne in 1321 .

History at its very best.

And the “yellow star” of the title? Cathars that the Inquisitors considered unimportant were released after questioning or after a term in prison; they were normally ordered to wear a yellow cross on the back and front of their clothes, just as Jews had to wear a yellow star.





JAMES BOND The Authorised Biography

13 07 2014

James Bond biography

The most successful fiction writers create the most plausible alternative universes. Or the most fascinating, or the most horrifiying, or the most desirable. Who would not rather live in Homer’s world of goddesses and heroes than in what was no doubt the nasty, ugly and sordid environment that was reality around the Aegean one millennium or so BC?

I am not here going to allow myself to get distracted into the mind-blowing possibility of the reality of all alternative universes (or as speakers of US English would have it, alternate universes). (That’s not what “alternate” means. It means this one yes, that one no, this one yes, that one no, as in alternate numbers – 1, 3, 5, 7 etc or 2, 4, 6, 8 etc, and AC, alternating electricity. We rang the bell at alternate doors – this one yes, that one no, etc.)

But back to alternative universes.

In James Bond – The Authorised Biography, John Pearson has created an alternative universe in which James Bond really exists; behind the scenes, of course, being a secret agent, but alive and facing all the existential problems that just being alive entails. The book was first published in 1973, when James Bond was in his early fifties, which means he would be in his nineties now, like the other WWII survivors we see at ceremonies such as the ones held recently in Normandy. He was in fact (according to Pearson) born on the 11th of November, 1920 – when both the Sun and the Moon were in Scorpio! (Click here for my take on Moon in Scorpio.)

It would be a spoiler of the worst kind to tell you how the book is organised, how the story is told. Simply take my word for it that it is brilliant (though it does tend to fizzle out a little at the end). And, if you are a James Bond fan – as I am, of the books, and the early Sean Connery films – you will be unable to put it down. Not only will you marvel at the way what Fleming left out and I at least always wondered about, is filled in, but you will read about other James Bond missions that Fleming never mentioned (perhaps never knew about!).

Years ago I read most of the books – they’re still on one of my grandmother’s bookshelves – and now I plan to reread a few, the ones where I now know much more about the background to the story: starting now, as soon as I have posted this, with Casino Royale, which I have not read before. It is not Bond’s first adventure by any means – it is set in 1951, and he had been an agent in the 1930s and throughout WWII – but it was the first to be recorded by Ian Fleming.

So now for an evening with James Bond! Pearson has created a viable alternative universe that I will re-enter any time with pleasure; I much prefer it to ours, the one in which James Bond was nothing more than a figment of Fleming’s imagination.

(Or was he?)





THE SECRET LIVES OF SOMERSET MAUGHAM by Selina Hastings

9 02 2013

SLs SM coverSomerset Maugham was one of my grandmother’s favourite authors, and though she only ever got me to read one of his books – The Moon and Sixpence – when I was a teenager, I still remember her going on about his last years, the shame and the embarrassment to such a great man. I wasn’t really listening, didn’t really understand, and didn’t really care. Now, having read this excellent biography, the last chapter of which is reminiscent of Othello and can only be decribed as pure classical tragedy, I do understand and I do care.

I am today in the middle of reading Rain and Other South Sea Stories, and have Cakes and Ale, Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge to hand, so there is going to be a lot of Somerset Maugham on this site during the next few weeks.

Back to the biography. Maugham was born in Paris, spent his early years there, and for the rest of his life felt at home in France and speaking French. But following the death of first his mother then his father, he was transferred to the care of his uncle, an Anglican vicar in Whitstable, Kent, and so grew up English, attending King’s School, Canterbury, and St Thomas’ Hospital, London, where he qualified as a medical doctor.

His heart, though, was elsewhere and he never practised medicine apart from his time as a probationer in the slums of south London, which provided him with the setting for his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. After that, he never looked back, and settled into the daily writing routine which he was to maintain for the rest of his life and which explains his prodigious output.

It was in the theatre that he had his first real success. He was never really at home in that world though, and as soon as the money started rolling in – four plays running simultaneously both in the West End and on Broadway – he began to develop the itch to travel which never subsequently left him. (An itch I, oh, so well understand!)

And from these travels all over the world came the many, many wonderful short stories for which he was, and still is, so admired. I am quoting here from the biography, where Selina Hastings herself is quoting fairly typical adulatory comments:

In the opinion of the novelist John Fowles it is as necessary for a writer to have mastered the ‘Maughamesque short sory … as it is for an artist to have mastered the art of drawing.’ [...] ‘His plots are cool and deadly and his timing is absolutely flawless,’ said Raymond Chandler. [...] ‘His extraordinary knowledge of human beings is like that of an experienced confessor,’ said Raymond Mortimer, and like a confessor ‘he is never shocked.

The problem was that, although married (unhappily, and later divorced) with a daughter, he was a closet gay. But then it was a time when, if you were gay, it had to be “closet”. (He was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde’s – he had met him and Robbie Ross and knew Reggie Turner well – he simply lived much, much longer.) His life revolved around the in-many-ways admirable Gerald Haxton and the totally despicable Alan Searle.

But buy or borrow the book. It is (unlike many literary biographies) compulsively readable, and if it doesn’t have you, like me, ordering his books before you are halfway through it, I shall be very surprised.





PRINCESS NEST OF WALES by Kari Maund

23 11 2011

This is the kind of biography which, if page after page of speculation is not to become indistinguishable from fiction (and I personally would almost always prefer to read a fictitious account of the life of a historical character), it must focus as much or more on the history of the place and period as on the subject of the biography, and this for the simple reason that very little is known about her.

” … like the majority of women in this period, her life went largely unrecorded.Chroniclers, including her grandson Gerald, tell us of her sons and their deeds, but they record nothing of Nest’s feelings or beliefs. Her story has to be pieced together from a patchwork of sources …

But Kari Maund does this successfully. She opens with a brief history of medieval Wales (“Nest’s Wales”) which is full of details it would be virtually impossible to find elsewhere. (Anyone thinking of writing a novel set in 11th-12th century Wales should start their background reading here!)

And what is more, she is refreshingly realistic about the place of women in Celtic society. So many modern writers, all of whom should know better and some of whom surely do, create a picture of a utopian world utterly destroyed by the male chauvinist Saxons and Normans. In fact, as Kari Maund observes in her Introduction (and maintains with examples throughout the book) “Despite popular modern myth, medieval Welsh women enjoyed little respect and scant freedom. Legally lifelong minors, they remained pawns in the hands of male kin, incapable of owning land and married off to suit changing political needs. Women in Anglo-Norman England enjoyed wider privileges, and Nest, the daughter of a king, probably found herself accorded an importance she had never experienced before.”

Legally lifelong minors“: I like that.

I liked the whole book. And I liked Nest, of whom I had never even heard before. As Kari makes clear, “the seductress of the English” was quite a lady. The daughter of a Welsh king; the mistress of the Norman English King Henry I (to whom she bore a son); wife of Gerald of Windsor (one of their grandsons was Geraldus Cambriensis, the great historian /chronicler); abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan, son of another Welsh king and leader of resistance against the Normans; later married again, and again, to other Norman lords, who all sought her hand. And it can’t have been just her hand that made her so irresistible. It must have been, as George Harrison didn’t quite put it, something in the way she walked.  





ISABELLA: SHE-WOLF OF FRANCE, QUEEN OF ENGLAND by Alison Weir

6 09 2011

Let’s start with the title. First, the “of France”: true she was born in France, was “the daughter of the King of France and the Queen of Navarre,” and as such “a great prize in the marriage market: no queen of England before her had boasted such a pedigree.” But after her marriage she was very much the Queen of England, and there no evidence that her loyalties remained to France. On the contrary. Her father, Philip the Fair (IV) was, like the later Henry VIII of England, a brutal megalomaniac who in any other walk of life would have ended up on the scaffold or in the madhouse. Her life from the moment she arrived in England was no longer his to dictate.

And as for the words “She -Wolf”, the phrase “She-Wolf of France” was in fact, Alson Weir tells us, coined by Shakespeare (why am I not surprised?) but he used the words of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; it was not until the eighteenth century that it was first applied, by the poet Thomas Gray, to Isabella. And – very unfairly – it stuck.

Isabella, as Alison Weir makes clear, was not a simple femme fatale, “one of the fairest ladies in the world,” “the fairest of the fair,” but a good queen. If it had not been for her infidelity she would be seen as a great queen, a liberator, for Edward II and his friends the Despensers were, by the time she organised the coup d’état, running what was certainly the worst example of tyranny in the history of England. To see what life was like under Edward and the Despensers, you have only to read one of Michael Jecks’ books such as The Mad Monk of Gidleigh or A Friar’s Bloodfeud. In modern times, that infidelity would not be held against her, especially when we consider that her husband was far more interested in his “friends” (Piers Gaveston, and later Hugh le Despenser) that he was in her.

The other problem is how and why – and if – and on whose orders Edward II was murdered following his deposition. In this book, “the Fieschi letter” is reproduced in full and the reader, as she considers Weir’s arguments for and against its authenticity and credibility, must make up her own mind whether Edward II in fact escaped and lived on, abroad. Personally, I am convinced that he did, and that it was not in his son’s interest to acknowledge his father’s continued – and shameful – existence when he finally learnt of it. I suspect that he felt only contempt for his father, and admiration for his mother, the lioness who had brought him up and made him king. He had to get rid of Mortimer, his mother’s lover and de facto ruler of England, but he never turned against Isabella.

Another wonderful biography from Alison Weir. I am proposing to read, next, her The Princes in the Tower – Edward IV’s sons Edward and Richard, two more who are said to have been murdered but rumoured to have survived.

 





RUNAWAY by Evelyn Lau

20 01 2011

Subtitled “Diary of a Street Kid”, this is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a Chinese-Canadian who, at the age of 14, ran away from an oppressive, loveless home, only to end up, a few weeks later, in a psychiatric hospital. Why? Because she had swallowed thirty aspirin in an attempt to commit suicide.

I remember feeling superior in the waiting room, dismissing the psychiatric patients as crazies I’d never have to join. There was the scrawny Chinese woman with the greasy hair, the mumbling Caucasian woman with the wiglike hair she brushed from her face with nervous hands. Loonies. I was going to get out; I belonged to the outside world.

Then they hand me hospital clothing, dull blue, and the walls begin to spin. [...] The Chinese woman runs to me in her fluffy yellow slippers that remind me involuntarily of Big Bird (just another way of degrading the patients here), holding me, her sharp face begging, ‘Don’t hurt her. Please don’t hurt her.’ The man on duty drags me to the floor, so used to doing it that he no longer needs a reason. [...] I make a run for the washroom [...] A nurse forces her way through the bathroom door, then another; white-clad nurses spill into the bathroom, murmuring, hands searching my pockets for sharp objects. I’m kicking, screaming, crying, wrenched from former freedom.

I’d rather be living on the streets, standing in puddles of glistening black and neon – at least I’d be free. [...]

A deaf, dumb and blind woman performs the Thorazine shuffle endlessly, methodically, from early morning till bedtime.

At last she is released into the care of the parents she has come to hates. And immediately runs away again.

Two a.m at the bus depot. [...] Unshaven men are my company tonight, picking out items from the garbage can in front of me. [...] Two strangers pull up in their car and ask if I need a ride and do I give head [...] It’s graduation night for three of the High Schools in the district, and everyone is either drunk or high. The girls laugh at Death, hair wild in their faces in the limousines, while the guys in their tuxedos feel like men. I’m sure the men in this depot don’t feel so grown up [...]

Now I’m in a restaurant; at least it’s warm. [...]

The staff in this place just kicked out a derelict in his tattered, stained clothing, who apparently seeks out this restaurant each night to slump into a chair and try to sleep. I beg them to let him stay, offering to buy him food, but they refuse and then gossip in the kitchen. [...]

The restaurant closes and I migrate to a twenty-four hour coffee shop, where I meet the derelict again, drinking coffee and shaking. Beside me at the counter, he asks tentatively, ‘Can I touch your leg?’ and places his fingers there in a curiously obligatory manner, as if he had to because I was female. I shake my head tiredly. He takes his fingers back in silence, and doesn’t try again.

That is just the beginning. Soon the drugs begin. Then the “giving head” to get money for the drugs … She too becomes “a derelict”.

But I am not approaching this right. I am giving the wrong impression. Let me start again:

This is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a writer who had it much harder than most. Living in a garret is nothing to this. Her day job was giving head to jerks who picked her up in their cars, then, gradually, as she became known, her own clientele. The day job, I stress. (Or should I say night job.) Because all the time she was writing. This wonderful diary is only the half of it. She was also writing poetry. Winning prizes! Even giving readings!

When she first ran away, at the age of 14, the Vancouver Sun splashed her on their front page with the words “I’ve never met a kid who could write like that” – “the only kind words they allow,” Evelyn comments. But the reporter was right.

And the closing paragraph of the book says it all: If I had saved the story of my adolescence to write when I was older, it would have been a very different book …

It would indeed. And that it was written at the time is its beauty. It is not a book by a writer about the life of a street kid. It is not a book by your ordinary, everyday, inarticulate street kid. It is a book by a writer written while she was living as, no, while she was a street kind. It reminds me of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. He was down and out in London and Paris. Like Evelyn, he had known the comfortable life of the relatively wealthy. Like Evelyn, he was now authentically down and out, on the street. And like Evelyn, he was a great writer.

Think of it, then, as Down and Out in Vancouver and New York. (Yes, she spends a while in New York, too.)

It is really something very special.








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