The Future of History

Monday, 30 September 2013

Review Group Blog Interview

It's my lucky week!!!

After Hereward Proop's lovely interview with me about Who Killed William Shakespeare? for Booksquawk (see below), I now have a fantastic interview about The King Arthur Conspiracy with Stephanie Moore Hopkins - it's just gone live.  Check it out:

Interview with Author Simon Andrew Stirling

I feel very honoured and privileged, and it's just the boost I need as I prepare for my talk at the Warwick Words Literary Festival this coming weekend.  More on that to follow.

For now, though, rather than me wittering on, please visit the Review Group Blog by clicking the link above.

And let me take this opportunity to thank Stephanie very much indeed for her great review and interview!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Booksquawk Interview

To go with the below ...

An Interview with the Author (i.e. me).

(With thanks to Hereward Proops)

Booksquawk Review

Busy, busy, busy ... mostly working on The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion for Moon Books and finding more and more evidence that Arthur's last battle was fought in Strathmore, around the town of Alyth.  More evidence, in fact, than I could get into one chapter.

But that's all work-in-progress, and I'll happily update you as we go along.  For now, though, as it's Friday, I would very much like to share with you this excellent review, just in, of Who Killed William Shakespeare?

There's an interview to go with the review - this becoming the new normal, these days, where the reviewer has some degree of contact with the author - and that'll be online shortly.

Now, I know that the most popular post I ever wrote was my recent one about Amazon reviews and the iniquitous behaviour of certain people on that site.  In the case of the Booksquawk review, as posted above, I will hasten to say that I met the reviewer for the first time at the Who Killed William Shakespeare? book launch in Stratford a month ago.  But I knew him well enough online as a fellow author to expect a thoroughly objective and honest appraisal of my book.  Which, I believe, is what he has done.  And it's a good 'un.


Friday, 20 September 2013

The Hamlet Doctrine

I've not read it yet, but judging by this piece in the Guardian a new book by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster will be well worth a look.

It's called "The Hamlet Doctrine: Knowing Too Much, Doing Nothing", and it examines what various philosophers and psychoanalysts have said about Shakespeare's most famous play over the years.

Sound pretty dry?  Well, maybe - but what really attracted me to the book is the way the authors introduce it in their Guardian piece.  I quote:

"Shakespeare is too often identified with a misty-eyed, middlebrow, nostalgic and undemanding picture of England and Englishness.  Indeed, the Shakespeare industry is dependent on the marketing of this image - both in the production of goods for domestic consumption (whether fridge magnets or outdoor summer stagings) and for export (the "Global Hamlet" in 102 countries).  But there is a more radical and subversive version of Shakespeare, which is most clearly evident in his greatest and best-known play: Hamlet."

So far, so good (although there is a healthy argument to be had as to which of Will's plays is the most subversive).  What really delights me is that Critchley and Webster are making much the same point as I've made in Who Killed William Shakespeare? and, indeed, repeatedly on this blog.

Basically, we have been sold a crock of sh*te about William Shakespeare.  Don't get me wrong: he wrote the plays and the poems (it's a ridiculous canard that somebody else must have done all that hard work).  But he wasn't what the Stratford clique and the academic establishment want us all to think he was.

To quote Critchley and Webster again: "The banal, biscuit-box Shakespeare needs to be broken up and his work made dangerous again."


But doing so is not that easy.  Too many cultural commentators have too much invested in the smug, silly, Merrie Englande portrait of Will - the country lad, ever so 'umble, who made it big in London and then went back home and disappeared.  Critchley and Webster explain that finding a publisher in the US for their Hamlet Doctrine wasn't difficult.  But in the UK?  Well, now.  One rejection letter from a British publisher made the situation plain.  Their book was "essentially unpublishable" because it was a "condemnation of the literary culture of my country".

The authors admit that, "in one sense, he's right: our book is an implicit condemnation of a certain, mainstream, version of English culture."

Well, good on them.  That's exactly what we need.  And it's exactly what I hope I've done with my own Shakespeare opus.

The question, however, remains: why do serious, thoughtful authors who do a little more digging into Shakespeare than the average face such blanket obstructionism from the mainstream - publishers, critics, the cronies of academia?  Why?

The answer is this: the phoney, revisionist, tourist-friendly Shakespeare of popular renown belongs to a silly and ignorant vision of England's past.  It is, to put it bluntly, the Conservative Party version of English history.  It's not based on any sort of fact (except in the very broadest sense of the word) but on massive splashes of prejudice and flag-waving nationalism.

Shakespeare DID NOT write for these people.  He saw the world around him as it was, and he channelled his disgust and his fury into his works.

And so, in order to prop up the self-satisfied and nonsensical "Rule, Britannia!" narrative of English history, Shakespeare has to be (a) neutralised, politically-speaking, and (b) completely misconstrued.  That's why we have such a make-believe Shakespeare, these days, and why so many productions of his plays are so utterly meaningless and unintelligible.  The cultural elite don't want anybody to hear what Shakespeare was saying.  In fact, it's highly improbable that they understand him themselves, because their cultural prejudices won't allow them to.

That said, their historical revisionism creates an extremely flimsy and fragile view of the past.  It cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny.  This is why individuals such as the publisher quoted above respond with such sensitivity, such disdain, such horror to a proper study of Shakespeare.  They have, essentially, wrapped themselves in a Union flag and willingly collaborated in rewriting the past, to make England seem like the eternal bastion of decency.  Shakespeare, of course, has a place in that - but only as a sort of patron saint of conservative England.  When you explain that he was no such thing, the right-wing revisionists shriek and holler - because you've threatened them with a bit of reality, and you're taking "their" Shakespeare from them.

It's as if the academics are on crutches - one crutch being a foolishly simplistic, "patriotic" view of English history; the other being Shakespeare as the perfect propagandist for such a stupid notion of our troubled past - and you've just come along and kicked one or other of their crutches away.  You've made Shakespeare real again!  How dare you!!  When they've spent so much time and energy turning him into a bookmark, a T-shirt, and the least radical writer that ever lived!

So I applaud Critchley and Webster for attacking the cosy Shakespeare industry, and I welcome them as allies.  Because, unless we can rescue the genuine Shakespeare from the cold, dead hands of the Middle Englanders, we will never hear his words and share his pain.

And that would be a far greater loss to us all than the shattering of an idiotic and irrelevant Shakespeare image, as sold to us by the guardians of "mainstream" culture.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Amazon Reviews (About Last Night)

I've often thought of the post-war generation as the luckiest in history.  The Baby-Boomers - in the UK, at least - had so much: universal healthcare, free education, welfare, jobs and houses ...

The present generation appears to have even more.  But I think they have less.  True, they have access to the most remarkable invention of all time, the internet.  Practically all the knowledge in the world is available to them in an instant.  We can talk, face-to-face, with almost anyone, wherever they are, in real time.  Music, books and films can be downloaded, often for free.

No one has ever enjoyed privileges like those before.  And I suspect that they will not last.  The infrastructure required to maintain a healthy internet is mind-boggling.  Besides which, the internet may effectively eat itself.  The way things are going ...

Let me illustrate.  Yesterday, a really rather lovely review of my book, The King Arthur Conspiracy, was posted on the new Review blog.  The reviewer knew nothing about the book when it first arrived, and I had never met, heard of or communicated with the reviewer before she received it.  For the record, she is an avid and active reviewer of books, for the Historical Novel Society and others.

She very kindly posted her review on the Goodreads website, entirely on her own initiative, and then posted it also on

And then something odd happened.  Her review on Amazon was instantly "disliked".

Now, I'm no expert on Amazon.  So when I heard through Facebook that her review was attracting numerous dislikes, all very suddenly, I couldn't pretend to have any idea what was going on.  All I  do know is that she became very hurt and upset by the reaction, which seemed to have little or nothing to do with the review itself.

Within a very short while, Amazon had deleted the entire review.

Previously, The King Arthur Conspiracy had attracted four 5-Star reviews over a fair period of time, all extremely enthusiastic and complimentary.  Then, a while back, somebody took the trouble to post a 1-Star review, pronouncing the book "pure junk".  His reasons for doing so were a bit bizarre (he criticised my use of place-names, which he pointed out were not recorded until several hundred years after Arthur lived - but then, Gaelic culture was entirely oral, and no one felt the need for maps, and to pretend that place-names were spontaneously invented just before the maps were drawn is silly, to say the least).  Otherwise, his review was a mere bile-spewing exercise.  But hey, what can you do?

I didn't respond.  What would be the point?  Just as you can't really answer back when a professional reviewer slates you, so you can't do much when an amateur tears into your work.  Best to stay out of it.

However, it is a problem - because anyone who visits the page for The King Arthur Conspiracy sees, first amongst the customer reviews, a rather savage - if barely reasonable or logical - assault, instead of the preceeding 5-Star reviews, which were uniformly glowing.  In that regard, another pleasant 5-Star review was a bit of a boon, because that would then take precedence.  The crude rubbishing would fall back into second place.

So having that 5-Star review attacked and then removed is disappointing.  It means, of course, that the nasty - and entirely less-than-typical - review returns to the top of the pile.

I'm really not sure what happened.  There are two ways of looking at it:

1) the reviewer has her detractors, who keep an eye out for her reviews (of which there are plenty) with the intention solely of "disliking" them

2) the book has its detractors, who keep an eye out for positive reviews, which they then seek to spoil and, if possible, force Amazon to take them down as quickly as possible

I can't think of any other options.

Whichever it was - concerted intolerance towards the reviewer or the book - we're looking at something unpleasant, ignoble ... and sadly all too common in the internet age.

There are "reasons" why option (2) might be the right one.  Arthur arouses strong emotions, especially among those who have - shall we say - imperialistic notions, and want Arthur to be the familiar knight-in-shining-armour of the medieval fantasies.  Such people are hugely intolerant of any research into the historical Arthur.  In much the same camp, broadly speaking, are those of a hard line religious persuasion, who would no doubt seek to harm the book and its reputation because of its revelations about the early Church.

On the other hand, if option (1) is correct - the frenzied attack on the review was motivated more by animosity towards the reviewer - then I'm slightly more perplexed.  Why do that?  As far as I have been able to determine, the reviewer is a hard-working, conscientious person with a genuine love of books and a commendable desire to promote authors if and when she feels that their work is worthy of recommendation.  And she recommended The King Arthur Conspiracy very highly.

It's all rather puzzling.  Whatever the cause or motivation, an independent review of my book on the historical Arthur immediately became the target of a concerted attack for reason or reasons unknown and by persons who were too cowardly to show their faces.

Overall, Amazon's policy of inviting and encouraging customers to leave reviews of their products has always struck me as a good thing.  It's very democratic, and intended - no doubt - to be helpful to all parties.  But human nature is what it is, and the system has repeatedly come in for abuse.

Some writers have got all their friends and family to flood their pages with excellent reviews.  Some authors have set out to sabotage rivals by posting anonymous scathing reviews.

Now, either individual reviewers are being targeted (why?) or individual books are being targeted because a group of people don't want others to read them and so they will take steps to ensure that only the most vicious (if wholly useless) reviews remain immediately visible.  Either way, we're dealing with some extremely sad and twisted people here - people who will undermine the unpaid work of a dedicated reviewer or strive to harm book sales for their own ideological reasons.

I would ask everybody to be aware of this.  For the sake of free speech - which I believe is a given - I do not seek to have negative reviews deleted, nor do I respond to such reviews.  Assuming that the review in question represented a genuine response to my work (and not, say, a kneejerk backlash based on ignorance or prejudice), then it has every right to remain there.  The balance remains with the positive, 5-Star reviews.

But it would appear that there are people - acting in concert, it would seem - who don't believe in free speech at all.  Whether it's the work of the reviewer which they seek to spoil or the work of the author which they disapprove of, the outcome is the same.  A good review is attacked and then removed.  The reviewer suffers (she was very upset), as does the author, whose sales are inevitably affected.

If the type of internet troll or bully who indulges in this sort of behaviour had any form of moral courage and integrity, they would either ignore reviews they disagree with or give reasoned and rational grounds for attacking them.  Entering into any sort of debate, though, is anathema to such people.  In fact, free and open debate is the opposite of what they want.

They want to shut down free speech and bury historical research.  They want to prevent hard working writers and reviewers from having their say, simply because they have developed a grudge.

You are not allowed to write about the historical Arthur or the early Church in Britain, unless you do so in the terms approved of by these invisible trolls.

In other words, you are not allowed to write about history.  Or religion.  Because they will swiftly move to have you censored.  And anyone who reads and admires what you have written will be victimised.

It would seem that we don't burn books on bonfires anymore.  We just rubbish them on Amazon.  And so the internet proves to be every bit as bigoted and fanatical as the Inquisition.

In years to come, people will gather in caves and tell stories of their predecessors - gigantic people, who ate whatever they wanted whenever they wanted (food was "fast"), who made heat and light happen just like that, and who had all the knowledge in the world at their fingertips. 

But they destroyed it all through petty bickering, jealousy, selfishness, and a weird fascination for the pointless and inane. 

And because some of them could not tolerate free speech and the results of painstaking research.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The King Arthur Conspiracy

A really lovely review of The King Arthur Conspiracy - How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero, courtesy of the good folk over at the Review Group blog:

The King Arthur Conspiracy

I'm very touched, and hugely grateful to Stephanie for all her enthusiasm.

There'll be an author interview to follow in a couple of weeks.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Friday, 13 September 2013

Blog to Blog

I wasn't around much yesterday - was down in London town on a secret mission - so I didn't get chance to flag this up.  But that's okay, because we've extended the deadline for the "Win Yourself a Signed Copy of Who Killed William Shakespeare?" competition until tomorrow (Saturday).

Still time, then, to answer the question, which you'll find on the "Spectacular Virtual Review Group Blog Launch" Facebook page, and be in with a chance.

Here's the short piece I wrote about researching Who Killed William Shakespeare? for the new Review blog:

And thanks to those great guys in the Review Group for all their hard work on getting this started.  A worthy cause, my friends!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Win a Signed Copy

Just a reminder ...

On Facebook tomorrow - Thursday 12 September 2013 - there is an opportunity to win a first edition hardback copy of Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means, signed by the author (me) with whatever message the winner desires.

There will be an oh so simple question to answer, and the winner will be chosen at random.  It doesn't matter where in the world the winner might be - the signed copy will be posted for free (which means that if the winner is in the United States, for example, they'll get their copy before the book is even released over there!)

This will be just the latest fantastic giveaway taking place on the all new Review Group Blog.  So, if you get this message in time, please pop over and have a look.!/events/368011109968529/

Good luck!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Grail

I just had to share this with you.  It's an awesome and amazing image, isn't it?

The hugely talented Lloyd Canning created this.  It's a sort of overall concept of the Grail, as discussed in The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion, which I'm currently publishing in monthly chapters on the Moon Books blog (  Every chapter comes complete with a black-and-white graphic drawing specially created for it by Lloyd.  But this full-colour acrylic painting is essentially the whole thing right there on canvas, and it first saw the light of day at the launch event for Who Killed William Shakespeare? at Waterstones in Stratford.  Now it's available as a high-quality print.

It's not exactly the best photo I've taken (doesn't really do justice to the original) but you get the idea.  Check out Lloyd Canning's Art on Facebook for more of his work.  I think we'll be hearing a lot more about Mr Canning as time goes by!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Flodden Field, or: Arthur's Ghost (again)

Something big happened 500 years ago today.  The Kingdom of Scotland was at war with the Kingdom of England.  The armies met near Branxton in the English county of Northumberland.  The Scottish king, James IV (pictured), became the last British monarch to die in battle.  Apart from which, the losses - especially on the Scottish side - were enormous.

Towards the very end of The King Arthur Conspiracy I refer to this battle and, in particular, to a curious incident which took place beforehand.

James IV was probably the last Gaelic speaker to rule over Scotland.  Legends tell of him disguising himself in order to mingle with the ordinary citizens and find out what their lives were really like - something which William Shakespeare seems to have picked up on and reminded James VI of Scotland and I of England when he wrote Measure for Measure (the Duke in that play is clearly based on King James; Shakespeare apparently wanted to draw his sovereign's attention to what a popular monarch his predecessor had been).

The fourth King James of Scotland was also rather chivalrous.  This proved to be his downfall.  He gave King Henry VIII of England a couple of weeks notice that he was about to invade.  Which was very decent of him.  But it meant that the English were prepared.  The chivalry, it would seem, went only one way.

Just before he set out to meet his destiny on an English battlefield in 1513, James IV went to church in Linlithgow.  Sometime later, George Sinclair, professor of philosophy at the University of Glasgow, described what happened there.

The king was "at his Devotions" when an "Ancient Man came in, his Amber coloured Hair hanging down upon his Shoulders, his forehead high, and inclining to Baldness, his Garments of Azure colour, somewhat long, girded about with a Towel, or Table-Napkin, of a Comely and very Reverend Aspect."

The "Ancient Man" approached the king and addressed him thus:

"Sir, I am sent hither to entreat you, to delay your Expedition for this time, and to proceed no further in your intended journey: for if you do, you shall not prosper in your enterprise, nor any of your followers.  I am further charged to warn you, not to use the acquaintance, company, or counsel of women, as you tender your honour, life, and estate."

Naturally, the bystanders were intrigued by this person and many were eager to speak with him after the service.  But the "apparition" disappeared, "having in a manner vanished in their hands".

The "apparition" clearly cut a striking figure.  The description of the Ancient Man's hair seems authentic enough: the high forehead, "inclining to Baldness", with the hair flowing long at the back of the head, is instantly reminiscent of the Druidic tonsure, which was also adopted by the early Christians of the Celtic Church.  In contrast to the Roman tonsure of St Peter (the familiar shaved crown of the medieval monk), the Celts shaved their foreheads from ear to ear; the hair at the back of the head was allowed to grow long.

The lengthy "Azure" garments are also reminiscent of an early-5th century description of the Ancient Britons.  The court poet Claudian described a personified Britain as wearing the skin of some Caledonian [i.e. Scottish] beast, "her cheeks tattooed, and an azure cloak, rivalling the swell of ocean, sweeping to her feet".

So this phantom "Ancient Man" was ... well, pretty ancient, really.  And, as I suggest in my book on the original Arthur, he was possibly still trying to defend his homeland and his people against the English, just as Arthur himself had striven to hold back the tide of the Anglian advance.  Even his remarks about trusting women have a poignancy about them (Arthur, his comrades and his people, were ultimately ruined by the perfidy of a woman - namely, his wife).

We'll never know, of course.  But I do find it telling that the last Gaelic-speaking King of Scotland, and the last British monarch to die in battle, was warned by an "Ancient Man" not to put himself so recklessly in jeopardy.  A Gaelic-speaking war-lord who also died in battle, perhaps?  One who returned from the spirit world because the same fatal mistakes were about to be made?

But he was ignored.  And on 9 September 1513, King James's army of 30,000 Scots was routed at the Battle of Flodden Field.  The "rent surcoat of the King of Scots stained with blood" was sent to King Henry VIII as a trophy.

Nearly a thousand years had passed since Arthur fell victim to similar circumstances.  King James really should have heeded his ancestor.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Hot Off the Press

A big feature in the Stratford Herald this week, thanks to Sandy Holt, Arts Editor of that periodical.  We got about half a page: significantly more than a piece about the furore over Julian Fellowes having tinkered with Shakespeare's text in his script for the Romeo and Juliet movie, which was also covered in a recent post on here.  Seems that controversy is the name of the game in matters pertaining to Shakespeare right now!

But better still, in many ways, is the fantastic spread in The Village magazine this month.

I have much to thank The Village and its editor for, seeing as it was the photographs of the skull at Beoley, reproduced in an issue of that magazine from October 2009, which allowed me to compare the skull with the various images of Will Shakespeare.

The magazine covers the area around Alvechurch, including such gloriously named places as Lickey End and Cofton Hackett (we do village names really well here in Worcestershire).  It also covers Beoley, the quaint village which deserves to be more famous.  Shakespeare's skull is there.

Now, I'm aware that many of the occasional readers of this blog don't live in or near Alvechurch.  But The Village magazine has a very good online presence, and so I am able to share the main features of the story published in their most recent edition with you:

So, while Stratford writhes with contention, Beoley and its satellites get to enjoy a bit of notoriety.  Which, as they say in these parts, or near enough, is "bostin"!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

New Review Blog Launched TODAY

The ecology of publishing is changing.

In the Industrial Age, books were printed and bound in quantitites.  They were then transported, stored, distributed and stacked.  It was an expensive and fairly complex process, but essentially the same as any sort of manufacturing industry.

That still goes on, of course.  But new technology has allowed alternative publishing models to thrive.  Now, a writer can register online with a print-on-demand company.  He or she can then create two files (one for the inside of the book, one for the outside) and send them to the printers.  A bar code or "ISBN" on the book means that all the relevant details can then be displayed by online booksellers, such as the mighty Amazon.  When the book is ordered, the message goes out to the printers, and a copy is printed, bound, packaged and sent out.  Overheads ... practically nil.

And then there are ebooks.  Once a book has been written, edited, formatted and converted into the right kind of file, the sky is the limit here.  Any number of ebooks can be sold and instantly despatched to ebook readers at no real cost.  There aren't any production overheads: as long as the consumer has a Kindle, a tablet, a computer, an ebook reader, then the book can be "produced" for free.  Which means that most of the profits go straight to the author.

What this means is that a whole new publishing industry has developed.  Gone are the old, painful processes of acquiring agents, approaching publishers, piles of rejection letters, long waits and tiny royalties.  Publishing can now be almost instantaneous.  Everything is in the hands of the writer now.

But what about the reader?  Well, there's suddenly a lot more choice out there.  And most books published by the new methods are considerably cheaper to buy than those which have gone through the traditional process.  A newly published ebook, or nicely-produced print-on-demand copy, can be purchased for - what? - about $3 maybe.

When there's an explosion of new product, readily accessible at relatively low cost, a new form of marketing has to emerge.  The old system relied on the marketing contacts, resources and budgets of the publishing houses.  The new system relies on networking, social media and recommendations.

Reviewing books is effectively the new trend.  It's about the only way that a reader and prospective purchaser can decide whether or not they want to try out a new book.  And this year, reviewing is taking off in a BIG way.  I've just received a new hardback novel to review for one of my favourite historical websites (those lovely Historical Honeys), and will soon be getting a couple more to review from the fascinating Moon Books stable. 

Authors are going to be spending a lot more of their time reviewing other authors' books, because we can no longer rely on the traditional marketing methods.  Now, we do it ourselves.

So ... it gives me great pleasure to announce the launch of a new blog dedicated to reviews of new books, along with author interviews, competitions and prize giveaways.  This REVIEW blog grew out of a very active and exciting Facebook group, and such has been the interest in the new REVIEW group blog that the official launch party has been extended from a week to a fortnight!

Please pop over and have a look.  My day is Day 6 - Thursday - and I'll be giving away a free signed copy of Who Killed William Shakespeare? to go with my own blogpost about historical fact and fiction.

This is how we do things nowadays.  The old media are lumbering along.  New media is where publishing is really happening.

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Grail - Men of the North

The latest chapter of The Grail has now gone live on the Moon Books blog:

This means that we are now two-thirds of the way through the project (or just over two-thirds, given that for reasons which are two complex to go into here, Chapter 2 needed to be a little longer than the others).

Little by little, the story is leading us now towards the site of Arthur's final confrontation.  This requires a modicum of setting-up, because it's not where many people think it was.  And so we have to move there one step at a time, taking in such matters as the identities of the heroes who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Arthur, those "Men of the North" who gave the current chapter its title.

But I have some interesting things to reveal when we finally reach the last battle.  The Grail is visible nearby.  There is evidence - hard, physical evidence - for its existence.

Watch this space.

(And thanks, once again, to Lloyd Canning for another great chapter image!)

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

M- M- M- My Verona!

Okay, so now we're going to try to be very clever by linking the previous post ("Shakespeare's Dark Lady") to a forthcoming post (about Shakespeare and the Cobbe Portrait) by way of something that's in the news.

There's a new Romeo and Juliet movie heading our way (see poster, credit: Relativity Media).  Apparently, it's less like Baz Luhrmann's hyperkinetic William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (which came out 17 years ago, can you believe?) and rather more like Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version.

That said, the script has lately come under fire.  Julian Fellowes, who adapted the original for the screen this time around, has been accused of "dumbing down" the language of Shakespeare so that modern audiences can understand it.

Now, I'm not all that surprised that there's a bit of a backlash here.  It's been due for a while, not least of all because (for all its international success) Downton Abbey is an impossibly rose-tinted and soapy work of historical revisionism, in which the upper classes are generally marvellous and the First World War lasted all of two weeks.  At least Gosford Park had Robert Altman at the helm, and so some much needed scepticism and cynicism was brought to the country house dreamworld which Fellowes seems to inhabit.  And it might reasonably be asked, if your intention is to translate Shakespeare's much beloved tale of adolescent longing into today's teenage idiom, whether Julian Fellowes was really the right man for the job.

But in a sense, all that is missing the point.  It's not that Shakespeare's language is impossible to follow (Baz Luhrmann stuck to it, and his flashy adaptation was a huge hit wiv da yout').  The problem isn't the words Shakespeare used.  It's what he was really on about.

The tagline for the latest R & J adaptation is "The Most Dangerous Love Story Ever Told" - which rather puts Antony and Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah, Tristan and Isolde, Francesca da Rimini and Abelard and Heloise in their place!  But what is it that makes Romeo and Juliet the "Most Dangerous Love Story Ever Told"?  After all, the reason why those two households, "both alike in dignity", are at war with each other is never explained.

It didn't have to be.  The audience in Shakespeare's day would have known exactly why the Montagus and the Capulets hate each other so much.

Now, a lot of our previous post ("Shakespeare's Dark Lady") referred to events which took place in the year 1594.  Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, turned 21 in October of that year.  He was instantly stung with a huge fine.  His father had died in suspicious circumstances when Southampton was a boy, and he had been brought up under the dubious guardianship of Lord Burghley, the Queen's chief minister.  Burghley was a self-serving Protestant who tried to marry his aristocratic ward to his own granddaughter, Elizabeth de Vere.  Southampton refused, and was hit with a massive fine for doing so when he came of age.

Southampton himself came from a Catholic family.  His father had died in the Tower of London shortly after the Jesuit, Father Edmund Campion, was arrested.  His mother, Mary Browne, was the granddaughter of the defiantly Catholic Viscount Montagu (and so Southampton was, by way of descent, a Montagu, like the fictional Romeo).  Swithin Wells, the first tutor employed by the Southamptons, was hanged for attending a Mass in 1591.  The Jesuit Father Robert Southwell (a distant cousin of William Shakespeare's) acted as a "spiritual adviser" to the young Earl of Southampton before he was captured in 1592.

When Southampton did eventually marry, it was to Elizabeth Vernon in 1598, when Elizabeth was already pregnant.  It is not known when their affair began, but because Elizabeth Vernon was one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, Queen Elizabeth I threw a fit when she found out about the marriage and sent both bride and groom to prison.

It is possible that Southampton was already enamoured of Elizabeth Vernon at the time of his 21st birthday in 1594.  Shakespeare would have spotted the problem immediately: Southampton was a Catholic - a Montagu, no less - whereas Elizabeth Vernon was first cousin to the Protestant Earl of Essex and almost certainly a Protestant herself.  She was, then, a "Capulet" - a "little chapel" person who wore a little knitted cap in church.

The world of Romeo and Juliet was dangerous because of the religious division which was tearing England in two.  It was, essentially, a case of Sunni versus Shia, or Presbyterian vs Episcopalian.  The two households - the Catholic Montagus and the Protestant Capulets - were at each other's throats over their religious differences which, in 1594, when Romeo and Juliet was written, probably as a 21st birthday present for Southampton, were reaching new heights of violent severity.

Romeo is at first in love with Rosalind.  There are several Rosalinds in Shakespeare's plays.  The name was pronounced "Rose-aligned" (think of the rosary).  But when Romeo sneaks into a party at the Capulets' place and sees the lovely Juliet, he falls for a woman from the opposite side of the religious divide (which was also, of course, a political divide, the Protestants furiously persecuting the Catholics because that was how they became rich and powerful).  Their love is doomed, not because they are young and reckless, but because they are caught up in a hideous sectarian conflict.

Put the play back into its context and the language presents fewer difficulties.  "O Rome, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" doesn't mean "Where are you, Romeo?"  It means "Why are you 'Rome-o'?"  Why are you a Roman Catholic, and therefore forbidden to a Protestant girl like me?

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."  Why these labels - "Catholic" and "Protestant"?  A "Roseley" (see previous post) would be just as gorgeous, whether he were a Catholic or a Protestant.  In Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a young gentleman protests that he is about to be executed "for a name", the name in that instance almost certainly being "Jesuit".

Shakespeare knew that marriages which crossed the sectarian divide were not necessarily happy ones, having himself been dragooned into marrying a woman from a Puritan family.  It could all end in tears - as it does in the play.

So is it too much to ask that, instead of cheapening or "dumbing down" Shakespeare's language in order to make it easier to understand, we might simply try to understand what Shakespeare was actually saying?  A Catholic might fall in love with a Protestant, and there is no reason at all why their love should not blossom ...

... except that, under Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers (like the egregious Lord Burghley), there was no place for such idealistic and romantic notions.  You were either Protestant, or you were dead.

And so the lovers die, because there is no place for true love under such an embittered, repressive and fanatical regime.

Somehow, though, I can't help feeling that the Julian Felloweses of this world would rather meddle with Shakespeare's text than shine a light on the period in which it was written.  Because if you think Downton Abbey is a fair and accurate reflection of Edwardian England, you're pretty much bound to believe in the "Golden Age" of Elizabeth I.  The very "Golden Age" in which young lovers were likely to die if they fell in love with the wrong people.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Shakespeare's Dark Lady

Thomas Nashe was an undersized playwright and satirist.  Born in November 1567, he was three-and-a-half years younger than William Shakespeare.  One of his main claims to fame is that he collaborated in 1597 with one Benjamin Jonson on a play entitled, The Isle of Dogs.  This satirical play was considered so "seditious" that it led to an order from the Privy Council, insisting that all of London's playhouses should be shut down.  And knocked down.

Some three years earlier, he dedicated his rather strange novel, The Unfortunate Traveller, to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (pictured).

That was in 1594.  Somebody else was dedicating literary works to Southampton at that same time: William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare had dedicated his two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece to Southampton in 1593 and 1594, respectively.  There are good grounds for thinking that a number of Shakespeare's Sonnets were written to and/or for the attractive and wealthy young earl, possibly as early as 1592.

Thomas Nashe made an intriguing remark in his written (and published) dedication to Shakespeare's patron:

"A dear lover and cherisher you are, as well of the lovers of poets themselves."

What?  Thomas Nashe was saying - out loud, and in public - that the Earl of Southampton (who turned 21 in October 1594) was a lover and cherisher, not just of poets, but of their lovers too.

Also in 1594, a rather scurrilous poem was published which detailed a somewhat seedy three-way relationship or love-triangle.  A young man, identified in the poem as "Henrico Willebego" or "H.W." falls in love with a "modest maid" who just happens to be married.  H.W.'s "familiar frend" is an "old player", identified simply as "W.S."  This "old player" has just recovered from his own infatuation with the maid, and he eggs his "frend Harry" on, promising the youth that "in tyme she may be wonne".

The poem was Willobie his Avisa.  The poet wilfully admitted that he had given his heroine, the "chaste and constant wife" the "feigned name" of Avisa.  In other words, the author of the poem was having some fun with the story of the alleged seduction by "H.W." of an (unidentified) married woman, encouraged by his familiar friend, the old player "W.S.", who was also in love with the maid.

This at the same time as Thomas Nashe was remarking that Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and patron to the player William Shakespeare, was a "dear lover and cherisher" of poets and their lovers.

One thing that is made clear in Willobie his Avisa is that the "modest maid" was based at - lived and probably worked in - an inn known as the George.  Internal evidence in the poem led me to determine (after extensive research) that the inn was the George Inn at the village of Banwell in Somerset.  The attempted seduction of the maid by "H.W." took place in or around the month of April in the year 1593.

Will Shakespeare was just about to publish Venus and Adonis, the first of the long poems he dedicated to "H.W.", the Earl of Southampton.

There was another woman who worked in an inn or tavern and who was romantically linked with Shakespeare.  She was Jane Davenant, mistess of The Taverne in Oxford.  Jane and her husband - John, whom she had married in about 1593 - left London and moved to Oxford to take up the lease on the Taverne in about 1600.  Thereafter, Shakespeare is reputed to have visited the Taverne whenever he passed through Oxford on his journeys beween Stratford and London.

Before her marriage, she was known as Jane Sheppard.  When I searched the Banwell area to find if there were any Sheppards there in Shakespeare's day, I discovered that the Sheppards had been a prominent family in Banwell and the surrounding villages.  Like Will Shakespeare, though, they had been drawn towards London.  Jane was actually baptised at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 1 November 1568.  Three of her brothers worked for the royal household, two of them as glovers and perfumiers.

The plague was rampant in London between 1592 and 1594, and it would only have been prudent for Jane Sheppard (who became Jane Davenant in about 1593) to leave London for the healthier climes of the countryside, and the famously beneficent "Christall well" which gave Banwell its name.

Of course, it is quite possible that Will Shakespeare might have enjoyed a fling with Jane Sheppard before she left London, so that when he and his patron visited Banwell (Sir Walter Raleigh had his eye on a property there) Will possibly still had feelings for the vivacious young woman but was willing to encourage his attractive young patron because that is what one did!  And there can be no doubt about it - Shakespeare, in his Sonnets, gave plenty of hints that his "Fair Youth" had betrayed him with his own lover:

"No more be griev'd at that which thou hast done,
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud ..."

The name Wriothesley seems to have been pronounced "Roseley".  "Roseleys" had their thorns, and "silver fountains" had their mud.  Jane Sheppard was living beside Banwell's "Christall well" at the time.

I believe that Will Shakespeare had an affair with Jane Sheppard in 1592.  He met up with her again in Banwell, this time with his youthful patron, Henry Wriothesley, the following April.  Jane was possibly now married to John Davenant, vinter of London, and so Shakespeare refused to touch her.  But that didn't stop the beautiful 3rd Earl of Southampton from having a go.

There were few secrets in those days.  By the following year, the love-triangle had become common knowledge, not least of all because Willobie his Avisa was published, dropping the heaviest of hints about it and managing to enjoy the scandal hugely whilst assuming a prurient attitude towards it all.

Shakespeare's love for Jane Davenant was later rekindled, probably in 1604, when Jane and John Davenant were settled in Oxford.  In the summer of 1605, Jane Davenant fell pregnant.  She was delivered, in late February 1606, of a boy named William.  He was, by all accounts, Will Shakespeare's godson ... but there were rumours, which William - later, Sir William - Davenant did much to encourage and nothing to deny, that he was Shakespeare's natural son.

In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I give fuller accounts of Will's on-off relationship with Jane Davenant (nee Sheppard).  To me, their tortured love is one of history and literature's great untold stories.  I believe she fascinated him.  She was witty, captivating, and dangerous as only a woman can be.  Certainly, she must have been pretty impressive to have been beloved (twice?) of William Shakespeare and wooed by a wealthy and attractive young aristocrat.

It must have been a painful love.  When both parties were married (to rather boorish spouses) and when every poet-satirist in the land seems to have spread their secrets abroad like a tabloid journalist.

I confess, I have a fondness for Jane Davenant.  Her son, Sir William, is a largely-forgotten hero, a truly remarkable man.  But then, his mother was really quite something.  She was William Shakespeare's "Dark Lady", his Cleopatra.  And she drove him up the wall.

New Review Blog About to go Live

In these days of t'internet, writers are able to help and support each other in ways which just weren't possible not so long ago.

This has its downside as well as its upside.  Where do you start?  How much time do you spend on social media?  What do you do to get your work seen, read, reviewed and talked about?

Well, there's a new resource on its way, and I'm very pleased to be a part of it.  A Facebook group known simply as "The Review" is about to hold a week-long launch party for its new Review blog.  The blog will include reviews (naturally), interviews, guest posts, recordings and all the fun of the fair.  There are also some spectacular goodies to be given away.

I have a guest blog post on the subject of "FACT OR FICTION", which will go live on the Review blog next week.  And because so many juicy morsels are on offer, I felt that it would only be right to place my own giveaway on the table.

We'll be giving away - for free - a signed first edition hardback copy of Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means.

So, if you're interested in books, authors, writing, reading, go to this page and join the Spectacular Virtual Review Group Blog Lauch party:!/events/368011109968529/

Sign up for your chance to win all sorts of freebies (including a signed copy of my booky-wook) and to keep track of the excellent work of these dedicated reviewers.  The party starts this weekend.

Don't miss it!  And spread the word!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

When is a Book not a Book?

(Don't worry, dedicated followers - there's more on the Cobbe Portrait and Shakespeare's face to come!)

I've just discovered that a Kindle edition of Who Killed William Shakespeare? is now available, even in those parts of the world - such as the United States - where the hardback will not be released for a month or two yet.

It's a slightly odd thought.  You just about get used to the fact that all your long, hard work has resulted in a rather lovely object - a Book - which can be sniffed, handled, written in and stacked on a shelf, and then a sort of virtual edition appears.  A version of your book which (like Schroedinger's cat) simultaneously does and doesn't exist.

There have been a few conversations about Kindle in our household lately, following on from a TV advert which shows children talking about reading their favourite books on a Kindle device.  My considerably better half reached for the Compact Oxford Dictionary:

book n. 1 a a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.  b a literary composition intended for publication (is working on her book) ...

And so on.  In effect, Kim had proven that, according to the first definition, anything on a Kindle device cannot in fact be a 'book'.

This all got me thinking.  I'm ancient enough to remember the days when you saved up and then got the bus to go to a record shop to buy the music of your chosen band on vinyl.

That was rather like purchasing the hardback edition of a book.  It was BIG.  It had a big illustrated cover.  And you cherished it, like a precious first edition.

Then came CDs.  Which were a bit like paperbacks.

Now, downloads.  Cheaper and quicker (cover art is neither here nor there, really), and you store them, thousands of them, on a little pocket device.  You listen at random.  There's no actual collection of albums or CDs - just some sort of enormous digital (i.e. virtual) memory.

Do we appreciate the music as much as we used to?  Do we treasure the tracks?  We certainly don't pore over the album and its cover for hours, admiring the detail, the feel of the thing.  We don't shut ourselves in a room and play our singles over and over.  And we don't have to go to all the trouble of guiding the stylus into position and trying so hard not to scratch the record, or even of assembling a handful of meaningful tunes onto a 'mix-tape' for a friend or lover.

I'm not getting all dewy-eyed and nostalgic.  I just don't feel that music matters as much these days, when we can just download a track in seconds, as it did when we had to go out and buy it and then find somewhere to put it.  After all, whatever is 'virtual' doesn't really exist, does it?  And if it doesn't exist - in the way that an actual book or album exists - then why should we care for it?

Will books go the same way?  Will there be a small but zealous community of hardback enthusiasts (like the music lovers who insist on vinyl) and a far greater community of ebook downloaders who quite like reading but have no sense of the value of the book as an object of desire?

Will we just shuffle ebooks at random, dipping in whenever we see fit, downloading whatever takes our fancy with no real intention of building a library?  Are we in danger of snatching at the odd thing that passes by without any real discrimination - and then adding it to our massive, but largely neglected, collection of virtual stuff?

And what happens when we discover that the infrastructure required to support an internet is no longer sustainable?  Books, it has to be said, are sustainable: forests grow, we pulp a few trees, we have a book, which can then be recycled.  I'm not sure that the devices necessary for downloading and storing ebooks are sustainable in any meaningful sense of the word.

Actually, what most interests me about Kindles and other ebooks is their place in the circularity of history and human progress.  You know that the oldest surviving work of literature - the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which is about 5,000 years old - was written on clay tablets?

Aren't some ebook reading devices known as 'tablets'?

You can trace the course of human progress, and the transformations of our society from 'primitive' to 'civilised', by way of the written record.  Not just what was written, but how it was written.  From clay to papyrus.  Parchment to vellum.  Goose quills to moveable type.  When Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable type printing to Europe, he kickstarted the Reformation.  The arrival of cheap paperbacks spread the printed word still further.

And then came the internet, and a billion voices all talking at once, all writing, all publishing.

That can't go on forever.  It's too costly to sustain.  Kindles might just be the last word in a certain process of development.  It's a revolution every bit as fundamental, in its way, as the Gutenberg press.  But it might be the last of its kind.

We'll all go back to actual books because, while it might be simpler right now to download, the resources necessary to make that sort of thing possible are finite and stretched to breaking point.  The genuine book will return because books have always been here (although we might yet resort to recording our most important stories on 'tablets' again, one day).

But it will also happen because the historical cycle of civilisations strongly suggests that it must.  In the beginning, the ability to read and write was enjoyed by a carefully selected few.  The arrival of Christianity gave a boost to the spread of literacy (under strict control, of course), and monks were employed in the scriptoria of medieval monasteries to copy out the sacred texts.  We've come a long, long way from the painstaking transcription of illuminated manuscripts.  Now anybody can write and publish, and anybody can access one of those publications in seconds on their ebook readers.

History teaches us, though, that civilisations collapse, and the growth of those civilisations follows a fairly predictable pattern, as does their eventual implosion.

So, what I would say to you, dear reader, is this -

Please feel free to purchase and download Who Killed William Shakespeare? (or any other book) on Kindle.  And I hope you enjoy it.

But if you really treasure books, and want one that will last, maybe it would be better to invest in the real copy, rather than the virtual one.