Pandemic books – my 2020 reading list

2020 started where 2019 had ended – half way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-1872). That was a bit of a struggle in places, but I finally got there. And, on reflection, I did quite enjoy it.

Feeling at a loss as to what to turn to, I decided to quickly devour a couple of Arnold Bennett novels. Last year, I’d downloaded the ‘complete works’ to my Kindle.

First it was The Pretty Lady (1918) set at the outset of the First World War in 1914, and progressing through the war years as protagonist Gilbert (GJ) Hoade, a fiftyish bachelor of independent means, progresses in his relationship with French courtesan Christine who escaped to London from the German Army advancing on Ostend in Belgium.

Then it was back to the Five Towns at the end of January for The Price of Love (1914), a tale of lost money.

I finished that by mid-February, so decided to return to George Eliot and Daniel Deronda (1876). But I didn’t get very far. I’d been listening to some fine music on Classic FM one morning while lying in bed drinking my early morning cuppa, when I began to ask myself questions abut the development of music.

That got me into Howard Goodall‘s The Story of Music, that I finished at the beginning of April.

Then I decided to tackle the two books by Hilary Mantel about Tudor Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell that both won the Man Booker Prize (in 2009 and 2012, respectively): Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In March she published the last part of her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, but because of the library closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I wasn’t able to get hold of it. Until later in the year.

During the pandemic I had expected to read more. But by the beginning of May I’d run out of steam. So it took me almost two months to finish re-reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar. It was fascinating to understand something about perhaps the greatest Roman (often based on his own words, as he was a prolific writer, ever keen to make sure his place in history was secure). I bought this book around 2007, and first read it while I was working in the Philippines.

Here’s a review that appeared in The Independent when the book was first published in 2006. It’s not an easy read, and I found myself constantly confused by Roman names, as so many individuals had the same or similar name. I couldn’t help being reminded of the Biggus Dickus scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Anyway, during the first week of July as we were preparing to move to Newcastle upon Tyne once our house sale has completed, I decided to return to the novels of Thomas Hardy, which I had first enjoyed in the 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica. A re-run of the 2008 adaptation by David Nicholls of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was screened on BBC4, so I decided to tackle that novel first to see just how true to the original the screenwriter had stayed. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t find Tess as easy a read as I had imagined. Somehow, Tess just didn’t click with me this time round. Maybe it was because I had so much on my mind. During August and September things were becoming rather fraught with regard to our house sale and move. I wasn’t sleeping well at all. Feeling anxious and stressed all day, every day.

Anyway, I eventually finished Tess and on 30 September the sale of our house went through and we moved north. Settling into our new home (a rental for six months until we found a house to buy – which we have), we registered with the local North Tyneside library, just ten minutes from home. And there, on the new books shelf was Hilary Mantel’s magnum opus, and the last in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light. Highly tipped to take the 2020 Booker Prize, The Mirror & the Light didn’t even make the shortlist.

Much as I enjoyed The Mirror & the Light, I don’t think it was the masterpiece that The Guardian reviewer Stephanie Merritt claimed. It was a long read, just over 900 pages. I think Hilary Mantel was being somewhat self-indulgent. She does have an accessible writing style, and although it took me over three weeks to finish, I almost never felt as if I was struggling with the text. It was only when she had her main protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, reminiscing in his own mind that the pace of the novel tapered off.

I finished The Mirror & the Light just before we went into our second national lockdown at the beginning of November, so I hurriedly returned it to the library, and searched for a couple of local histories. The first of these was Tyneside – A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, by Alistair Moffat and George Rosie, published in 2005 (and made into a TV documentary, which I haven’t seen).

This was an ambitious history of the Tyneside region over the past 10,000 years. Ambitious, indeed! But remarkably accessible, with usefully placed boxes which went into greater detail on aspects related to the main narrative. Often, boxes such as these can be a distraction from the narrative, pulling the reader from the points at hand. But the authors have cleverly drafted their text such that the narrative came to a sort of conclusion just before a box, and picked up again afterwards.

I certainly have a better appreciation of the origins and history of Newcastle, and look forward to exploring over the coming years, especially those relating to the Roman occupation of the region between AD43 and AD410.

Next, I picked up A Man Most Driven, by Peter Firstbrook, about ‘Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America’ in the early seventeenth century. Now, I’d heard about Captain Smith since I was a child. Just the other day I talking (via Zoom) about him and Pocahontas with my 8 year old grandaughter, Zoë, in Minnesota, just as I was getting into Firstbrook’s biography. Zoë had been reading all about Pocahontas for one of her remote schooling assignments, and reminded me that Pocahontas did not marry Captain Smith (as I actually believed), but another Englishman named John Rolfe.

A Man Most Driven is a fascinating story of a really driven man who, from his own (and very possibly exaggerated) accounts had certainly had some scrapes all before he was thirty, and lucky to escape with his life on more than one occasion. It also describes how close, and many times the Jamestown colony came to failure, and Smith’s role (from his own and some independent accounts) in ensuring the early survival.

Did Pocahontas (a daughter of the paramount chief of the Powhatan, named Wahunsenacawh) really save his life as Smith wrote in his The Generall Historie? She was just a young teenager when this happened just as Smith was about to have his brains bashed out by hostile Powhatan tribe members near the early Jamestown colony in present-day Virginia. After marrying John Rolfe, Pocahontas came to English and was presented to Queen Anne (wife of James I & VI). But she took sick before she could return to America and died (aged about 21) in Gravesend where she was buried. Unfortunately the site of her grave has been lost.

I then turned my attention to local Newcastle history once again, by former Northumberland county court judge and one-time MP for Newcastle Central from 1945-1951), Lyall Wilkes called Tyneside Portraits. It’s a short anthology of eight men who contributed to the artistic and cultural life of Newcastle since the seventeenth century, as well as its physical appearance through the buildings they designed and built. Among them was William Bell Scott, and Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet whose exquisite murals grace the walls of the central hall at Wallington Hall near Morpeth in Northumberland, a National Trust property we visited in August 2013.

This was the third and last book I had borrowed from the local library before the most recent pandemic lockdown and then Tier 3 restrictions locally. The library has not yet re-opened and I was unable to replace these books. So it was back to the Kindle and a touch of Rudyard Kipling once again: The Light That Failed, first published in January 1891 (his first novel, and not critically acclaimed).

With a number of things to occupy me during December (including my daily walk whenever the weather permits) I reckon The Light That Failed will see me through to the end of the month. I’ll include a summary in my 2021 reading list compilation a year from now.

So that’s another year’s reading accomplished. And what a year 2020 has been. Who could have imagined, as the clock was about to strike midnight on 31 December last, just what we would be facing in the coming months. We’ve made it through the pandemic so far, and having access to books, good music of every genre, and daily fresh air have been key to that achievement.

Keep safe. And let’s hope for a better 2021.


 

Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.