Reading and Hiking in 2020

Who Owns England? by Guy Shrubsole

The thorny topic of English land ownership is the concern of Guy Shrubsole’s immersive investigation into an area shrouded in secrecy and surrounded by barbed wire.

Shrubsole methodically presents his painstaking research with passion and clarity. From old money to new, the monarchy to the church, and charity to corporations, every stratum of society is shown to be owning, and abusing vast swathes of land often inaccessible to the public, or made desolate for nature. It is an excellent read, though infuriating, and I would often put the book down and not come back to it for days on end. The inequality on display is quite stunning, and bleak.

The concluding manifesto demonstrating the changes needed to combat climate breakdown, the elimination of our wildlife and the housing crisis is a welcome positive note in an otherwise depressing reveal of how unwelcome we are in our own country.

Athelstan by Tom Holland

The subject of Tom Holland’s entry into the Penguin Monarchs series is Athelstan, a hugely important ruler who has suffered the indignity of slipping from the national subconscious.

Make no mistake, this is no dry retelling of an at times incomprehensible period of our history. Holland’s prose swirls with metaphor, otherworldly imagery and religious iconography. Both sides of Athelstan’s character; the pious monarch, and the conquest-driven warrior are presented with relish. It is a testament to Holland’s writing, that from limited historical sources, and in such a slim volume, the reader gains a vivid insight of a man who helped defend his people and define the English nation as we know it today.

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

A Bond story, in which curiously, Bond does not appear until a third of the way through. In an intriguing opening, we are taken behind the iron curtain and into the minds of Bond’s Soviet nemesis. It is a playful, yet chilling portrayal of 007’s ruthless opponents. By today’s standards, some of the misogynist language does grate. But do not let that detract from a superb adventure, in which all the familiar Ian Fleming tropes are included. International travel, midnight espionage and beautiful women are packed into a slim novel that can be completed over a weekend. Ideal for slipping into an already heavy backpack.

The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Woods by John Lewis-Stempel

Cockshutt Woods is a three and a half-acre haven of flora, fauna and folklore in deepest Herefordshire. Our author, in diary form, guides us through a year of his stewardship of the woods. His persona is somewhat belligerent, as he demonstrates with confidence his expertise in this environment. I found this initially off-putting, but I soon accepted his wisdom and relaxed into his company.

The author plainly states that he is not a nature writer, but a countryside writer. He does not shy away from what he deems necessary to keep the equilibrium of the woods in balance. Squirrels are occasionally shot, and an aggressive pair of Canada Geese are dispatched in order to preserve the native birdlife. Despite these, at times harsh realities, this simple but effective book had me dreaming of far away forests as I sat in my flat, waiting for the lockdown to end.

The Wars of the Roses Series by Conn Iggulden

In tackling one of British history’s most turbulent and violent centuries, Conn Iggulden has produced historical fiction of the highest order. His gripping series begins with Stormbird and places the reader in a medieval England reeling from the death of their king, Henry V. Those familiar with the period will know of the intricate and at times impenetrable family disputes and allegiances that defined the wars. Iggulden does his best to give each distinctive faction their own motives and aspirations, and in general, does not simplify the conflict into a tale of good versus evil. Concluding with the violence of Jack Cade’s rebellion, Stormbird does not shirk from the brutality and injustices of medieval Europe. A particularly gruesome execution of a Jewish banker made a scapegoat by a French lord’s plotting, is shocking and disturbing.

The second instalment, Trinity, tightens the sprawling cast list of the first and focuses on the key players of Lancaster and York, particularly the rise to prominence of Warwick “The Kingmaker”. At this stage, the conflict accelerates, and Iggulden, moving away from the schemes and character-building he excels in, slightly struggles. The sense of battle fatigue from the author results in an underwhelming battle of Northampton that should have felt a more defining and dramatic event. Fellow author, Bernard Cornwell casts a shadow over all historical fiction with his immersive and thrilling battle scenes. There is no shame in falling short of this colossus of the genre, and Iggulden’s character development is superb, keeping me gripped and able to forgive the slightly tepid battle scenes. 

Bloodline is potentially the high point of the series. With the two sides facing off at the icy battlefield at Towton, the reader is so invested in the characters that the tension is palpable. The sympathetic portrayal of the weak and mentally ill Henry VI is superbly contrasted with the brash and powerful usurper, Edward IV. Yet we are still torn between the two. Margaret of Anjou’s emotional plight is especially pertinent. Introduced to us in Stormbird as a teenager, we see her now, in her thirties and fleeing a country she has fought so hard for.

The concluding chapter, Ravenspur, has the unenviable task of tying together decades of conflict and political scheming, whilst advancing one of England’s most controversial figures, Richard III. By and large, Iggulden pulls it off, keeping the reader hooked until the final page. If I had one gripe, it would be the lack of depth in the last half of the novel, as the Battle of Bosworth is rushed into at perhaps too fast a pace. But make no mistake, this is a superb denouement to an epic tale, and by unpicking the tangled web of family allegiances and shifting loyalties of the Wars of the Roses, Iggulden has crafted a series well worth your emotional investment. 

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