Friday, November 16, 2018

Clash of Empires.. a review..

Whilst I've been aware of his output I can't say I've ever read any of Ben Kane's books (he wrote the 'Forgotten Legion' series among others) so this was a new try for me..

Set during the early years of what was to become the Roman  Empire the book is set at the end of the Punic wars, in fact one of the early chapters deals with the Battle of Zama and is told from the separate and opposed perspective of two lowly soldiers on each side of a new conflict - Macedonia (under King Philip V who's seeking to recover the glory of Alexander) and Rome (an emerging power looking to reign in Macedonian sea power)

More than anything though it is a story about old and new, about Phalanx versus Legion, and about a changing world as Rome begins to flex its muscles..

On the Macedonian side Demetrios starts of life as a rower in one of the merchant ships supporting the army - but he has dreams of becoming a phalangist, and through good luck, and friendship with the veteran Simonides, is invited to join their ranks...  the descriptions of fighting are stunning - the phalanx fought 16 ranks deep with the veterans in the first ranks, by the time you got to the sixth you knew you were increasing in authority as promotion was through the usual reasons...  On the Roman side we have Felix (and his brother Antonius), who are hastati in one of the Roman legions. He is present at the defeat of the Carthaginians at Zama but in the aftermath is dishonourably discharged after falling asleep on sentry duty..  life as a civilian is hard, and he and his brother are reduced to hard times, but when Rome declares war on Macedonia there is an urgent need for men for the legions, so despite the huge risk (death if they're found out) they re-enlist..

Brilliant story - likeable main characters (apart from the Roman senator ) can't wait for the next one - Steve the Wargamer rates this one 9 out of 10..

Right - back to wargaming - Warfare on Sunday, and DG and I have a game on Saturday evening - stay tuned..

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Tombland.. a review

Just back from a week on a sun bed in Cyprus ..  much needed as it's been somewhat of an "annus horribilis" in the Steve the Wargamer domicile, and suffice to say that out of three holidays we had arranged this year, this was the only one that we actually managed to go on..! 

Not surprisingly therefore the current Mrs Steve the Wargamer and I did ABSOLUTELY nothing for the whole holiday other than trundle from bed to food to sunbed to food to bed while very much enjoying the late season sunshine, oh, and drinking a few Keo's.. such an environment of course is ideal for the consumption of large numbers of books, and the Kindle got a right bashing...

First on the list then, a welcome return for Matthew Shardlake in the latest of the series by the inestimable C. J. Sansom..  been a long wait for this book, and I read somewhere that it is because the author has been ill (for which my best wishes), but without a doubt the wait was worth it, as this is an absolute blinder of  book..

So for this those who aren't aware, the book series is written around the activities of Sergeant at Law Matthew Shardlake, and is set in the late Tudor period, around the last years of Henry VIII, and the succession - Shardlake is a conscientious lawyer, and is approached by people in power (in the earlier books he works for both Cromwell and Moore) when they need something investigating from a legal perspective and in this book, with Henry dead, his patron is the young Princess Elizabeth. One of Elizabeth's distant relatives has been accused of murder and she asks Shardlake to represent him in court, and to investigate the veracity of the charges bought against him..

One of the joys of this series is that Shardlake is no Jack Reacher, he is human, he has a spinal deformity that causes pain, he is getting old, he gets tired, he occasionally gets crotchety, so the work Elizabeth asks him to do is not easy as it requires travel to Norwich in a time of great social unease in England..  Edward (Henry's successor) is only 6 so the country is ruled by a council of powerful men, but power has devolved to one of them who is fixated on (a failed) war with Scotland, the country is bankrupt as a result of paying for the war, inflation is rife, wages are static, and there is an increasing move to enclose land to farm sheep for their wool..  not surprisingly civil tensions are rising, and shortly after Shardlake arrives in Norfolk, rebellion breaks out..

The book is largely then about the investigation, but is also about the civil rising lead by Robert Kett [clicky] (so this was 1549) - packed full of period colour, a damn good murder mystery, social history, and military history (the rebels were eventually defeated in a pitched battle just outside Norwich - the depiction of the battle is brilliant), this book is an absolute triumph and I recommend it and the rest of the series without reserve...  Steve the Wargamer rates this one 10+ out of 10

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"The Black Prince".. a review

This was a Kindle bargain some time ago - bought on a whim, and purely because I've been fascinated by Edward, the Black Prince, ever since, as a considerably younger Steve the Wargamer, I  built the old Airfix 1/12th scale figure, but knew surprisingly little about him...  

So it was that after a run of fiction - some of it fluffy, some not - and in support of my aim to read more non-fiction in 2018, I came to the end of a book and then spotted this sitting in my 'to read' pile..

So what did I think? Well despite the almost universal belief that this is the best biography of the Prince out there, I have to say that for all it's length it's a little thin on direct evidence of the Prince himself....

The author focuses a lot on the people round the Prince, rather than the Prince directly - a major chunk of the first part of the book is about his grandfather, and how he might have influenced his father and hence the Prince's character - a lot of the book is about his enemies, friends, and family rather than him personally, but the bits about him are excellent...

Edward III, his father, gave the Prince (who was his eldest son) a lot of responsibility at a very early age, he is made "guardian of England" at least three times (aged 8, 10 and 12) while Edward III is in France on one of the many invasions he launches against the French, in support of his claim that France is rightfully his. He is given excellent advisors and tutors in this role but the Prince was seemingly a quick learner. His made Prince of Wales at 13, and knighted at 16.

At Crecy, still 16, he commanded the vanguard of the British army, and Edward showed no favours to his son, he was well and truly in harms way during the battle and was largely responsible for the victory.

He is clearly an excellent battle field commander, and has a good grasp of strategy as well - at 25 he was appointed the king's lieutenant in Gascony, and ordered to lead an army into Aquitaine on a chevauchée (basically a huge plundering raid), during which he pillaged Avignonet and Castelnaudary, sacked Carcassonne, and plundered Narbonne. The next year (1356 aged 26) on another chevauchée he ravaged Auvergne, Limousin, and Berry but failed to take Bourges. 

Takes you back..
By now his army was in a bad way, and an overwhelming French force had outflanked them near Poitiers but despite offering peace terms, the French King (John II) demands his surrender as part of the acceptance so the Prince refuses, and his army turns and fights - with the outcome that we all know so well, and where the French King is taken prisoner and is ransomed (in the end this was never paid, and the John's son was very adept and far cleverer than his father - the English would have been better off letting John free??)

This is the high point of the Princes life to be honest - from now on in it is a slow and steady decline...

Edward makes him Prince of Aquitaine and Gascony, which he administers fairly and well, but money is always an issue and Edward does not support him as much as he should have. An expensive and largely failed campaign in Spain in support of the prime plum Pedro in his attempt to recover his throne from his half brother Henry ends in the prince winning the battle of Najera, but Pedro not honouring his debts - the prince returns to Aquitaine broke both financially, and increasingly health'wise.

Money is now short and without the support of Edward III, Aquitaine, and the Prince are increasingly under attack from forces coordinated by John's son, the Dauphin which he is hard pressed to fight off - eventually, the Princes first son dead by the plague, and badly ill, he returns to England, eventually to die of a wasting illness that to this day has not been wholly identified (Wiki says dysentery, but the author disagrees). At the very end of his life there was a rapprochement with Edward (who was going senile, and that may explain his mishandling of the Najera/Aquitaine situation) but the close relationship of his youth had been lost..

So what do we have - for me, a figure that is still seen at one remove, but who was clearly a genuinely religious man, who loved his wife (he never slept with another woman after they married), lived the knightly life completely (he founded the order of the Garter), and was very generous* to those he relied on, both high and low born, a superb battlefield commander, a strategist, and a gifted administrator who was able to charm anyone he met..   worth reading? Yes! Steve the Wargamer rates this 8/10..

*if anything a little too generous, he was always short of cash.....

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

...and even more on Warblington Castle...

Following up on this post [clicky], and then this one [clicky], and then finally this one [clicky] I happened to notice in the local paper that the place was up for sale (if you've got two and a half mill sitting round unused, by the way, it might be an opportunity?) ...

Never one to pass up the chance of gaining some additional knowledge I grabbed all the sale pictures I could...

Gatehouse - or rather what Cromwell's troops left of it when they'd finished...  love the garages built in to the bottom of it, but is it me or would you be a bit bothered about chunks of masonry landing on the roof while you were working in there??

...and from the other side showing the main gate..  so the garages are round the corner on the left...

Not Warblington - this is Cowdray House (following) - from the same period and giving an idea what the gatehouse and castle would have looked like complete..

From the grounds, and showing the remains of what I think are a moat/fosse...

Ground works plan - I think the picture above is probably the area to the south of the drive

..and this time an 18th century print - showing the gate from the rear

Last of all - a portrait of the redoubtable Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and last of the Plantagenet line, who built the castle sometime between 1515 and 1525, and was executed by Henry VIII (more for the actions of her son I suspect than anything concrete)...  read more here [clicky] on her grisly end...  what I didn't know was that in 1886, she was beatified by Pope Leo XIII as one of the English Martyrs to the Catholic faith... May 28th is her feast day...


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Portsea Island Beer Festival - 2018

It's that time again..  hurrah!

Our (8th!)  yearly amble to the Groundlings Theatre (venue for the beer festival) coincided  with a bout of fine weather int he UK - not often I get to cycle to the event in weather warm enough for a tshirt and shorts but so it was this year..

Started off with a fine full English breakfast (even the hash browns were nice and I normally avoid them like the plague) in the historical surroundings of the Ship Anson pub on the Hard in Portsmouth..

Interesting history...  been there since the 18th century - the picture dates end of the 19th - this was known as the devils acre back in the day - 50 yards to the left of the picture is the main gates for the dockyard and there were thirteen pubs in a row all vying for the money of any matelot or dockyard worker who needed something to take their mind off, well, anything really ...  the Victoria and Albert is now a newsagents..  the Ship Anson bought the pub next door (right) and knocked into one...  the London Tavern was done for by the Luftwaffe in 1941 and is now the beer garden/patio for the Anson (where I put my bike while having brekkie)..  apocryphal or not - the London Tavern is also where they reckon the term "the King's Shilling" was coined...  the landlady used to slip a shilling into the beer pot and when it was drunk you were said to have taken the shilling and therefore carted off to army or more likely navy (as a youngster I was always fascinated by the fact my Dad had some pewter tankards with glass bottoms - that was why... )  Funny to think I was sat in the window to the right of the door eating sausages  - the things you could have seen through that window if you had a time machine!

Anyway - breakfast consumed it was time for some beer..

Not a bad year this year - ie. better than last but still not outstanding..  the smaller festivals still seem to be struggling to get beer from the majors onto the list..

Bear with me on the following - one of the jolly boys poured a whole half pint over my program by accident so I'm going from memory!

Brewery (clickable) Beer (click for more info) ABV Notes (from brewery website) What I can remember...
Lincoln Green Quarterstaff5%"Stout of heart and nature. A rich, full bodied stout with flaked barley and generous blackcurrant hop bitterness."I've had a few beers from this brewery as they are based in Hucknall in Nottingham and having relatives who live there and know I like beer, so they often get me a few bottles from here for Christmas - either way I hadn't realised it was a stout when I first ordered it but it was still one of my favourite beers of the day... delicious
Brunswick Triple Hop 4% "A straw coloured ale, and like the name suggests, three hop varieties used in three separate stages. Dry, with a bitter astringency". Despite the blurb I found this decidely average - maybe I should have had it before the stout?
Kelchner Black IPA 4.8% "A black IPA that is brewed with a multitude of hops and sits comfortably on a roasty base of dark malts. Dense citrus, coffee and chocolate notes with a dry and resinous finish make this a dark beer for those who don’t want to leave the hops behind." Also known as "After Dark" on their web site...  OK - but not as good as the Quarterstaff...
Slaters Haka 5.2% "Haka is an award winning New Zealand Pale Ale that is dry hopped for three weeks". Unexceptional I'm afraid despite the three weeks - though some of the guys particularly liked it...
Triple FFF Lady Eleanor 4.6% "Fruity with a robust bitterness" My beer of the festival - nice enough I had two or three of these - strong taste of fruity bitterness, very drinkable - head and shoulders above everything I had apart from the Quarterstaff - recommended
Urban IslandHigh and Dry5.5%"A juicy and intensely hopped American IPA with an earthy herbal base and citrus finish."Tasty ale this one from a local brewery, and another of my top three for the day.. 

Think that was it...