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Thursday, 13 December 2018

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Book Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

I've read several Cornwell books over the years, but the historical fiction genre is something that I only dip into from time to time - in fact, I think the last book I read by this author was Stonehenge which I remember really enjoying and so looking for a change of pace I picked up The Last Kingdom from my TBR pile.

I knew nothing of the BBC TV series when I picked up the book (though I this last few weeks binged watched all three seasons) and I'm kind of glad since the story came to me fresh - or at least as fresh as a story so heavily based on actual historic events can be. After all, we learned all about Alfred the Great and the Saxons at school, so I had a basic knowledge of the period and the established facts. However after reading the book you have the sense of having been there, for whilst you travel between the covers you are indeed transported to Wessex, Mercia and beyond.

And that, I think, is  Cornwell's biggest talent - he holds an  immense skill in creating readable stories, and pushing his  research and knowledge into the background so that the action drags the reader into this world. Before  you know it you are completely enthralled in the world of the books and it's as if you are there in Wessex, experiencing the day to day life of the characters. So faithfully does the author transport you to a time and place that the reader might as well have been issued with a passport - that 9th Century England stamp will sure stand out between the stamps for two weeks in Ibiza, during which I dined that fat bird while the warm sea breeze blew through our hair three years ago,  and next year's trip to the States when I, no doubt will entertain an equally voluptuous bird or two. Hey, I'm nothing if not an optimist.

'I am Ulthred son of Ulthred.'

The book starts in the year 866 with Ulthred, then still called Osbert. He is, at this point nine-years-old and it is his older brother who took his father's name. During the day the elder brother is killed by Danes and so Osbert becomes Ulthred. The story then moves forward until almost a year later when Ulthred is almost ten years old and find himself going to war for for the first time.

'That was the year 867, and it was the first time I went to war. And I have never ceased,'

Young Ulthred expects to fight in the shield wall but he is told by his father that he will not, he is told that he will watch and he will learn, and throughout the book the shield wall becomes something of a metaphor for the journey to manhood. For although Ulthred faces and overcomes considerable dangers throughout the story it is not until he finally fights in a shield wall in the closing sections of the book that he truly considers himself a warrior. But it is during his first experience of war that his father and their fyrd are completely wiped out, and he is taken away by the Danes.

Ulthred is at first treated like just another slave but soon he gains a new father in the Dane, Ragnar who treats his well and as the years pass, the young grows towards adulthood and begins to consider himself more Dane than Saxon. However Ulthred will soon follow his destiny and end up serving King Alfred in his many battles against the Danes as the visionary Saxon King sets about the long task of achieving a unified England.

The author uses many of the events depicted in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles to give his series a sense of reality, buy he is constantly aware of the need to tell a good yarn, to keep the reader turning the pages and he does this so well - as a writer myself, I'm envious of the author's talent in delivering a house-brick of a book that doesn't outstay its welcome, and indeed leaves the reader eager for more.

Apparently this series of books has only recently been re-named the Last Kingdom series because of the success of the TV series - they were originally published under the collective: The Warrior series, and as soon as I closed the covers on The Last Kingdom, I immediately turned the first page of the second book in the series, The Pale Horseman so expect a review soon.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Heroes of Comedy: Benny Hill

Political Correctness is actually cultural oppression and I despise it and all those who spout the nonsense - Benny Hill, the British comedian who remains hugely popular across the world, was a martyr in the fight against political correctness. The Benny Hill Show was broadcast from 1955 until 1991, when he was pulled from the air following a decade in which a new wave of British comedians kicked against the working class comedy that Hill did so well. One of his best known detractors was Ben Elton who famously said Hill's comedy was responsible for rape - Elton later said his comments were misunderstood but what he should have said was that Hill was far funnier that any of Elton's so called Marxist comedians.

Hill lived for his work, and following his axing he grew depressed, became something of a hermit and was found dead in his flat in 1992. In his unopened mail was a contract for a new television show.

It's a sad end to a man who gave joy to so many with his harmless brands of saucy seaside humour and slapstick. I recently picked up an old LP record of Hill's comedy songs and I was reminded of just how good he was. Yeah, his jokes are corny but they raise a smile and some of the songs on this album are absolutely wonderful.

Thursday, 8 November 2018


Available now in both print and digital editions.

Looks at the Cardiff Pals and other local regiments who fought in the Great War and how the experience of war impacted on the area, from the initial enthusiasm for sorting out the German Kaiser in time for Christmas 1914, to the gradual realization of the enormity of human sacrifice the families of Cardiff were committed to as the war stretched out over the next four years. An important place for Coal export this book looks at how the balance between working and fighting was achieved by the Dockyard workers

The Great War affected everyone. At home there were wounded soldiers in military hospitals, refugees from Belgium and later on German prisoners of war. There were food and fuel shortages and disruption to schooling. The role of women changed dramatically and they undertook a variety of work undreamed of in peacetime. Meanwhile, men serving in the armed forces were scattered far and wide. Extracts from contemporary letters reveal their heroism and give insights into what it was like under battle conditions.

Amazon, Pen and Sword Books, Waterstones and anywhere books are sold.....

Commando Comics Commemorate Armistice

The Commando series of comic books have been going strong since 1961  - something quite unique in British comics. Sure there are some titles that have been going longer - The Beano  springs to mind, but the Commando comics are the only adventure series to enjoy such a long run. Noted for their distinctive 7 × 5½ inch, 63 page format the Commando comics  have remained more popular than many other British war comics, and some would say British comics in general, despite their simplistic stories and black and white artwork, with only the covers in colour.

The series continues to prosper and these days digital editions are released alongside the regular books, taking the series into a future un-imagined when the first title rolled off the presses all those years ago.

This month Commando are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the Great War, with four new titles in the shops now that are based around that momentous day when the guns fell silent.

Titles are War Bus by George Low with artwork by Manuel Benet

Danny's War by Iain McLaughlin with artwork by Dafeo and Morhain

Stolen Glory by C G Walker with artwork by Carmoa

Front Line Fear by Robert Smith with artwork by Janek Maysiak

All are available now priced £2.25

Danny's War, although a stand alone story, is part of a five part series with the subtitle, The Weekes War - the Weekes family are all involved in the Great War and each issue will presumably centre on on a different member of the family, with the first telling the story of Danny Weekes, a trench-hardened Captain. The second and third story featuring the Weekes family will be out November 15th 2018.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Book Review: The Return of Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

After recently reading and loving the novel, Little Big Man I had to dive straight into the sequel, which was originally published back in 1999 - It turns out that Jack Crabb faked his death at the end of the Little Big Man novel in order to get rid of that pesky journalist, and now he's back, at 112 years of age to narrate the rest of his story into one of those new tape recording machines. And the book, like its predecessor is an absolute delight.

"I had had my own grievance against Custer, whose attack on the Cheyenne camp on the Washita, years earlier, had resulted in the loss of my Indian wife and child, and thought for a while I'd kill him if I could, but I never got the chance, and now that somebody had done it with no help from me, I both lacked a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of purpose as to what I'd do with the rest of my life."
-- from the first chapter of 'The Return of Little Big Man'

Narrated of course in the first person; a chatty style as if Crabb is narrating his story onto tape for future generations, and the end of this one is absolutely excellent and both definitively finishes the story, while somehow leaving it open for yet another volume. Though with the author having died, Patrick Bergar that is not Jack Crabb at the young age of 89 back in 2014 it seems that the story is now over.

Once again Jack is as hand to witness historic events in the old West - Hickock's murder, of which Crabb sees himself as responsible, the gunfight at,, or rather close to the OK Corral and the murder of his good friend Sitting Bull by reservation police in 1890. He's also at hand when Queen Victoria comes out of a quarter of a century mourning to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Circus, of which Jack is a part. Other historical figures come in and out of the book - Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Bat Masterton and Libby Custer to name but a few.

I loved this book and found it even better than Little Big Man - this time Jack's wanderings take him over a far larger canvas and the comedy is far broader, though never slapstick and always believable. For instance once scene in which Jack buries his beloved dog, Pard is absolutely heartbreaking but suddenly becomes insanely hilarious when the dog, very much alive and having dug itself out of its early grave, comes padding up to him. I won't give away the details of this scene but I will say that it works so well that, I think I shed a tear at the death of the pouch. I know I laughed out loud when it was revealed that he hadn't been dead  but......well, I won't give it away but will say that Pard doesn't seem to harbour any ill feelings to his adopted master for having prematurely buried him.

There are so many other highlights in this superbly crafted story - I've only ever read two Bergers books, this one and the volume that came before, but he seems to me as a kind of Mark Twain for the modern age. I guess I'm going to have to check out his other books.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Vintage Western Review: The Lonely Man 1957

Directed by Henry Levin.
Paramount Pictures.
Main Cast: Jack Palance, Anthony Perkins,Neville Brand, Robert Middleton, Lee Van Cleef.
Black and white
88 minutes
Original Release Nov 10 1957

Early hours of the morning, and I'm lounging on the sofa, my pipe filled with a Virginia/Perique mixture, a glass filled with a creamy porter from Brains, and I'm just flicking through the TV channels, so many of them with nothing to watch when I stumbled on this western, which I don't think I've seen before, on Netflix.

It was odd seeing Jack Palance in a role such as this -  he was usually cast as the bad guy, playing the part in some memorable westerns including of course Shane, but here he's the leading man. Technically, he's a bad guy but he's determined to go leave his life as a gunslinger behind him at the outset of this movie and provide a life for his son, Riley (Anthony Perkins).

The plot is quite simple - Gunslinger, Jake Wade (Palance) rides into save his long abandoned son Riley (Anthony Perkins) and provide him with some kind of future after the death of the boy's mother. The son though hates his father, is totally fixated on his dead mother and acts like a petulant child - seems that even then Anthony Perkins had cornered the market on playing dead mother fixated young men. Though Perkins doesn't display this by dressing up as his late mother and running around with  a carving knife, but instead refuses to accept anything from his father. The pair end up torching the family home and moving out together - at the first town they try to settle in they are moved on because of Jake's gunslinger past, and so they go to the home of Ada (Elaine Aiken), a women who looks wonderful in a pair of blue jeans. The woman's in love with Jake but all he can think of is providing some kind of future for his son.

Jake: What do you do for a living?
Riley: Nothing...I get along.

Soon the ;past catches up with Jake, in the shape of enemies from the past and it is revealed that Jake is going blind - what good's a blind gunfighter?

I'm surprised this movie is not better known - I pretty much have a good knowledge of western movies, and I can't say I'd ever heard of this one. It doesn't follow the standard structure of such movies, and the performances are quite excellent. It was also filmed in Vistavision which gives a clarity to the black and white images, unusual in itself since most Vistavision pictures were filmed in colour. The scenes in which Palance and his small band try and round up the wild horses are breathtakingly filmed, and look quite beautiful, and the inevitable final showdown is brilliantly staged. The female lead played by Elaine Aiken in her debut performance, and I don't think I've ever seen a woman fill a pair of jeans so well, but incredibly she didn't go onto have much of an acting career though did become one of the leading acting teachers at the Strasberg Theatre Institute. She is brilliant here and pulls of the part of a women torn between father and son with gusto.

You can't beat a good western - I've always said that, it's my favourite genre, And I really enjoyed this movie. Tonally, I found it not dissimilar to the Anthony Mann westerns of the same period and Palance and Perkins are both excellent, as are the rest of the cast.