Bernard Cornwell’s “Fools and Mortals”

Bernard Cornwell’s novel Fools and Mortals is a triumph of historical writing, proving that you don’t need battles and epic events to produce a fine historical novel. Bernard Cornwell’s take on late Elizabethan London and the world of the Shakespearean playhouse is superbly realised. He portrays so vividly the violent and stinking society whose predilection for entertainment in the form of plays led to the greatest of our literature.Fools and Mortals by [Cornwell, Bernard]

I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell for many years, right from the first Sharpe novels. I think the stories of the Alfredian warrior Uhtred give us much of the best historical writing I’ve seen in recent years. So I was intrigued at this new departure into the world of Shakespeare and his plays.

There are no battles in this one, though there are one or two fights. But there is a great feeling of menace as the hero, William Shakespeare’s brother Richard, falls foul of various elements of the Elizabethan Establishment in his desire to abandon playing women’s parts and seeking out male leads.

Much of the novel is set against the first staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Bernard Cornwell does a masterly job of interpreting just how plays would have been staged in the 1590s. He has a great gift for transporting you right into period, you feel you are there. This is a writer at the height of his powers. Re-creating the past fictionally isn’t easy, as I know from my own experience. Bernard Cornwell makes it seems effortless, a sure sign that he’s taken a great many pains to get it just right.

His actors are wonderfully portrayed, as bitchy and self-seeking as any acting company down the years. I particularly loved his portrayal of the great extrovert clown and jig-master Will Kemp. I’ve always had an interest in Kemp myself and he comes alive again in the pages of Fools and Mortals. I also liked the tension between Richard Shakespeare and his famous brother. I suspect Will Shakespeare was rather like this portrayal, ambitious, impatient, not tolerating fools easily.

I’ve always been an ardent Shakesperean. I became aware of my father’s copy of the collected plays as soon as I could read – my father took Shakespeare with him when he took part in the Normandy Invasion in 1944. I read the plays first when I was quite a small child. I went to a sensible state school in the Midlands where we were taken to see the plays performed at Stratford and at the Birmingham Rep. Reading and watching Shakespeare has remained a delight to me ever since.

I remember being taken to Stratford in 1964 to see the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, when a representation of the poet’s London and his stage were recreated – this in the days before we had the Globe Theatre.

But even if you are not a fan of Shakespeare this is a novel to seek out. Mr Cornwell has created a world to lose yourself in.

 

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Robin Hood and me

I’ve been thinking a lot about Robin Hood lately, now that I’ve completed Villain, number three in my novel series The Chronicles of Robin Hood.

The final book in the sequence will be out next summer.

When you consider it, Robin Hood is quite a remarkable guy – with King Arthur one of the two essential British myths. For darned near a thousand years, the people of Britain, and then the citizens of the world, have been entertained by his exploits.

He reaches out and says something to us all to this day.

What’s the attraction?

Well, Robin Hood appeals perhaps to the rebel in all of us, the man who’s prepared to champion the poor and powerless against the uncaring rich and powerful. Mind you, if you read the original ballads he’s not quite so selfless.  But it doesn’t matter. People need a champion and Robin Hood’s quite a good one.

I think it’s interesting that you could take a medieval peasant away from his plough, transport him through time and put him down in front of a television and let him watch Robin of Sherwood say, or Richard Greene in The Adventures of Robin Hood and he’d get the point. (Assuming he wasn’t overcome by technology or changes in the English language, of course. I frequently am!

I have always enjoyed the tales of Robin Hood, and my novels LoxleyWolfshead and Villain, have been decades in the making.

It probably all started watching episodes of the Richard Greene series. Playing at Robin Hood was always the favourite game in our neighbourhood  – in those happy days when children could make a longbow or wield a wooden sword without social services coming round to take you into care as a potential menace to society.

Unlike so many children today, our lives were spent mostly in the great outdoors, where we would vanish for hours on end, building dens and taking massive treks across the countryside. The countryside where I lived became Sherwood Forest during these youthful expeditions.

In the 1980s, the whole myth received a tremendous boost with Richard Carpenter’s imaginative remake Robin of Sherwood, which took the story in such interesting new directions.

In many ways, in the years since my first encounter with the man in Lincoln Green, I’ve led a rebellious life.

I’m sure it all started under the subversive influence of Robin Hood!

I spent a year living – mostly alone – in a wood back in the 1980s. Park Wood, at Spitchwick on Dartmoor, just across the River Dart from Holne Chase, an old Norman hunting ground.

I’d practised archery over the years, and learned many of the arts of fighting. I took up fencing at university. I’d already practised a variety of martial arts. One or two of these skills I’ve had to use in anger.

Every writer on Robin Hood takes a different tack. Some of my fellow authors portray him as a saint or sinner, or, like me, a mixture of both. Some writers prefer Robin in Barnsdale rather than Sherwood. I chose Sherwood out of sentimentality, I guess.

In some versions, the villains, such as Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff are out and out rogues.My versions aren’t quite as clear cut as that. And I’ve been kinder to Prince (actually Count) John than a lot of other writers. My Robin questions the hierarchy of the society of his time much more than most Robins.

There have been thousands of interpretations and no doubt there are thousands still to come. We all have our own vision of Robin Hood.

If you want to read mine, the first three novels in the sequence are available in paperback and on Kindle.   

Edward Thomas – A Miscellany

Edward Thomas – A Miscellany, selected by Anna Stenning, is a splendid new anthology of some of the prose and poetry of the well-known country writer who died tragically young – just over a century ago – at the Battle of Arras in the First World War.

This handsome edition in the Rucksack Editions series by Galileo Publishers has been specially produced in a small but readable format with a tough chunky cover so that it might be packed in a knapsack and read on walks – though I’ve been dipping into it as a bedside book.

Readers of past blogs will know that I’m a great enthusiast for the works of Edward Thomas. Not just because he was a country walker of some repute, but also because he captured the British countryside at such a crucial moment in time – when rural England was going through a fundamental change, when the population had become mostly urban, and there was a great cultural desire to records many aspects of the rural way of life.

Lovers of Thomas’s work will find some old favourites in this volume, but a lot of material that isn’t quite so familiar – arranged in chapters with inviting titles, such as Footpaths and Roads, The Historic Landscape, The Journey, Inns and Sleep, Folk Traditions etc.

If you don’t know Thomas’s work this is an admirable introduction, featuring a good spread of his poetry as well as some excellent excerpts of his prose work. Long-standing admirers, such as myself, enjoyed discovering old favourites and it was pleasing to be reminded of works that had slipped out of my memory.

There’s a very good introduction by Dr Stenning, with a brief biography of Edward Thomas.

Compiling an anthology isn’t as easy as you might imagine. I’m currently doing one myself, and have found that out.

This really is a work to go out and buy and to be dipped into.

Recommended, available from online sites and good bookshops.

Rucksack Editions have companion editions to this featuring work by John Muir and Dorothy and William Wordsworth.

Victorian Thriller on Sale

My Victorian thriller Deadly Quest is on sale for Kindle readers for just 99 pence/cents until late next Monday night. Just click the link below to have a look and to start reading for free…

This is to mark the fact that I’m now writing the third book in the William Quest series – it doesn’t have a title as yet. Unlike the first two books, which were set in London and Norfolk, this one is set in the winding streets and ginnels of York.

And – as Quest has never been to York before – this puts him at a considerable disadvantage as he faces menacing new foes.

I’ll let you know how the writing goes. Hopefully, the book will be finished by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t started the series, do seek out the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest

They are also both out in paperback as well. And free to borrow on Kindle Prime.

Just click on the links below:

The Compleat Trespasser for 99 Pence/Cents This Weekend

For just this weekend, my book The Compleat Trespasser – Journeys Into Forbidden Britain is available for just 99 pence/cents as a Kindle read for your smartphone (with a free Kindle App) or to read on a Kindle device or laptop.

It’s also out in paperback.dscf8425

Walk Magazine in its review said:

“On a vagabonding tour through Britain’s most delightful countryside and forbidden tracts, Bainbridge charts the history of access and assesses the present state of the law.

Villainous landowners feature; so do the likes of GHB Ward and CEM Joad, calling at rallies for access to mountain and moor. Gamekeepers, spring-guns and mass trespasses also get a look-in.

Redolent of country air, with nature and archaeology dealt with in graphic style, the book evokes the age of campaigns before words like ‘stakeholder’ and ‘partnership’ were hatched out.

The author lends his support to the England Coast Path campaign and calls for the Scottish access model to be extended throughout Britain. It’s thought-provoking stuff and well worth a read.”

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

ABOUT THE COMPLEAT TRESPASSER: In 1932, five ramblers in England were imprisoned for daring to walk in their own countryside. The Mass Trespass on to Kinder Scout, which led to their arrests, has since become an iconic symbol of the campaign for the freedom to roam in the British countryside.

The Compleat Trespasser – Journeys Into The Heart Of Forbidden Britain, written by outdoors journalist and novelist John Bainbridge, looks at just why the British were – and still are – denied responsible access to much of their own land.

This ground-breaking book examines how events through history led to the countryside being the preserve of the few rather than the many.

It examines the landscapes to which access is still denied, from stretches of moorland and downland to many of our beautiful forests and woodlands.

An inveterate trespasser, John Bainbridge gives an account of some of his own journeys into Britain’s forbidden lands, as he walks in the steps of poachers, literary figures and pioneer ramblers.

The book concludes with a helpful chapter of “Notes for Prospective Trespassers”, giving a practical feel to this handbook on the art of trespass. At a time when government is putting our civil liberties at threat, destroying the beauties of our countryside, and your right to access it, this book is a most useful read.

John Bainbridge has been a country walker for over fifty years. He was recently commended by the Ramblers Association for his many years of campaigning service to the rambling movement. He is the author of some thirty books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, mostly about the countryside and outdoor life.

John is also the author of the historical novels LoxleyWolfshead and Villain, chronicling the adventures of Robin Hood – one of Britain’s most notorious trespassers – as well as the thriller Balmoral Kill and the William Quest mystery novels.

To order or to begin reading for free just click on the link below:

Finding Novel Locations

We’ve been in York, searching out locations for the third William Quest novel. Interesting to walk around a city getting atmosphere for an historical thriller set in 1854. As an historical location, York is easier than most. Such a lot survives, compared to other places in Britain.

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York Minster

In the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest, my hero is mostly adventuring in London – a place which has changed a great deal since the mid-Victorian period. But the Victorian elements can still be sought out even there, though they are few and far between. I’ve spent such a lot of years studying Victorian London that it seems very familiar to me. Indeed, modern London seems strange whenever I’m there.

York is a joy. Although there has been modern development and new shop fascias, many of the streets would still be recognisable to a man from 1854. In my book, William Quest has never been to York before, so he’s lost one of the great advantages he’s had while  carrying out his often dubious activities in London – which he knows like the back of his hand.

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Grape Lane

For anyone who’s never encountered William Quest, he’s a mysterious figure, usually armed with a pistol and a swordstick, who rights wrongs, defends the weak against the strong, fights corruptions and has his own occasional vigilante methods of dealing with wrongdoers.

But in this book he’s having to take on the role of detective as well, solving a puzzle that has baffled the citizens of York…

And it means peril, high adventure and a sinister conspiracy….

Having spent the past couple of months writing the third Quest (no title as yet), it’s great to revisit familiar old haunts in York – though I confess to spending a lot of time in bookshops. York has some great second-hand bookshops!York October 2017 011

We go to York quite often and always do a lot of walking around the streets, but I felt I was at the point in the novel where I wanted to see again some of the places I’d mentioned in the chapters written so far. There is one particular street, Tanner Row, which appears in the book and which I didn’t really know at all  – an important street leading to what was once York’s original railway station. The one someone like Quest would have used in 1854.

This original railway station was within the city walls, the present station, though Victorian and magnificent is outside the walls. Much of the old station still exists, though it’s been revamped as offices for the city council.

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Tanner Row

Nearer to the Minster, we walked the streets where the mystery occurs which provides my novel with its plot – the area around Stonegate and Grape Lane. I know these streets very well, but it was valuable to stroll through them with my characters in mind. It’s the little details that make the difference when you are imagining fictional characters in a real landscape.

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On the city walls

Most of my novels are set in real places. I often get ideas for stories by just going for a walk. The whole story-line of my 1930’s Scottish novel Balmoral Kill changed when I walked around Loch Muick in the Highlands. You could re-enact the final duel in that novel across a real landscape if you wanted.

I find as a writer that just going out for a walk is the greatest source of inspiration.

Some areas of York have changed since the 1850s. The streets known as the Water Lanes, down on the River Ouse, were a rookery at that time.  In the 1870s a new road, Clifford Street, was driven through and much of the rest redeveloped. It’s still Victorian and charming to walk through, but not quite the setting Quest would have known.

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The old railway station

Much the same happened in London. Jacob’s Island, where my book Deadly Quest comes to an end, was a much viler rookery than the Water Lanes. Charles Dickens used it for the ending of Oliver Twist, where it is Fagin’s final lair. Today Jacob’s Island is full of very expensive luxury apartments. If the ghosts of the poor devils who lived in the diseased original Island could come back and see it, I do wonder what they would think?

I came back from York enthused by what I’d seen. The visit spurred me on to finish the book. I hope it will be out at the turn of the year.

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Below the Water Lanes

Though I still don’t have a title!

If you haven’t read the first two William Quest novels, there are links below. Both are available in paperback and on Kindle – and there’s a free Kindle App available for your Smartphones if you like to read on the move.

 

Writing Robin Hood

I’ve now written three out of the four Robin Hood novels in my Chronicles of Robin Hood series – the final novel will be out next year.

The three books so far are all available in paperback and on Kindle. Now here’s the deal, if you have a smartphone (free Kindle App) or Kindle, you can download the first volume Loxley for just 99 pence/cents until next Monday night. Just click on the link here to start reading for free and for ordering information. It’s FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited if you subscribe to Amazon Prime.

I’ve always wanted to write about Robin Hood. These books have been decades in the making – ever since, as a small boy, I used to watch Richard Greene as Robin Hood on television, then go outside with my longbow and relive the adventure I’d just seen. Then came the iconic Robin of Sherwood, with its innovative new take on the Robin Hood legend.

My Robin Hood is different from the television series. I’ve tried to root Robin in some sort of medieval reality. My Robin is basically a good man, but he’s what today we’d call a freedom fighter. He has a dark edge. And I think that’s important. People are rarely all good or bad. There’s light as well as shadow in most of us.

And I didn’t want to make the villains, completely villainous. My overlords – the Sheriff, Sir Guy of Gisborne and their associates are not out and out bad. I wanted them to be balanced individuals, even if our sympathies are not really with them.

Each book has an historical note on some aspect of the Robin Hood legend, whether it be the truth about the Robin Hood ballads, the setting – I chose Sherwood Forest – and other aspects of outlawry.

Now, I’ve been a professional writer for much of my working life, though mostly in magazines, non-fiction country books and historical mystery thrillers.

Not that I didn’t write fiction. I did and lots of it. But at last I’ve managed to pen the Robin Hood books I always wanted to write.

If you enjoy Robin Hood stories – or historical fiction generally – why not give them a go?

You can find a lot more of my thoughts about the Robin Hood legends on this blog. Just type Robin Hood into the search.