Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Conquest by Stewart Binns

Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Author: English
Published: 2000s

Conquest reads like an old Norse epic, told over countless wintry days when the snow and short days kept people indoors—and the Norse were great story tellers.

And not only does the introduction to the story adopt this attack but the characters are also larger than life: Hereward of Bourne is a demonstrably large character not only in size but early on in his fierceness and lack of control, but later his determination to achieve justice for the “little people”, his wife Torfida’s loyalty and purpose fall into this pattern—and so it continues with all the characters.

This wasn’t a character driven story but one focussed on the history and what a history Binns conquered for me: battle: Hastings, the protagonists; William the Bastard and Harold Godwinson, the winner William the Conqueror. How different would the world be if William the Conqueror not won and remained William the Bastard?

What I got from the story was the people (originally Danes, Celts, Saxons etc) melded together into a society with the underpinning principles of freedom and justice, the interest in maintaining the decentralised powers of the smaller Saxon based society over the strongly centralised control exercised by the feudal Norman structure; and how at the end the struggle was about retaining the underpinning freedom and justice of England at that time within the feudal Norman structure. That was a huge undertaking and one that resonated with me.

And I got to learn a little about a character I’d never heard of before—Hereward of Bourne—and the role he played in history. I never realised that the close run between Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror was in large part due to the Hereward’s skills (the Normans won by only a few short hours because help did arrive from the north only it was too late to be of any use). I also never understood that the conquering of England wasn’t the end of the resistance as the English continued to overthrow William’s rule—a sort of William Wallace of the English.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge

Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Author: English
Published: 1900s

The story starts with the devoted Myrtle following Master Georgie, who discovers his father, dead, in the bed of a blowsy, drunken prostitute. Definitely a beginning to hook you in, and the book meanders through Georgie’s childhood and offers us George, now a surgeon and amateur photographer, as he sets off from his comfortable life as a Victorian gentleman, and heir to a fortune, to offer his services in the Crimea.

George is followed to the Crimea by a caravan of devoted followers. The voices of George himself and others (such as his wife) are quiet as the story is told by only three who offer their perspectives of George: Myrtle and Pompey Jones (two foundlings rescued by Master Georgie) and George’s brother in law Potter, who might be educated but basically he's insensitive and pompous.

But George--as lover, father, surgeon and photographer, human being--is different according to each narrator, and we have to compare and contrast to uncover the “truth” of George.

I don’t know who I believed more: the besotted Myrtle (prepared to be George’s sister in public and the mother of his children to be near him), Pompey Jones (George’s homosexual lover), and Potter (whose insensitivity and intellectual leanings sadly skewed the opinion of the only person who might otherwise be a more disinterested observer than either Myrtle or Pompey).

This book unfolds rather than clings to a plot, and the telling of the tale through the eyes of Myrtle, Pompey and Potter means that everything we see of George is through the filter of these characters. But I didn’t find this detracted from trying to understand who George was.

And who was he: in the end it seems (and probably rightly) that everybody’s perspective is right. Maybe a re-read will help.