By C.J. Sansom

When Catherine Parr’s book, Fifty Shades of Religion [Really? –ed.], goes missing, she turns to her favourite PI, Matthew Shardlake to find what has happened to it. It seems that the wrong people have probably got it and will publish it any day… Any day now… Or perhaps not.

Shardlake’s day doesn’t get any better when his searches get him tangled up with the oily Sir Richard Rich, who has been involved in a little extrajudicial interrogation of Anne Askew, the religious fanatic who got burnt at the start of the book. She managed to write an account of her time in the Tower which is at risk of being smuggled abroad, and indeed is after a desperate battle at the docks. Yet in spite of that volume going abroad, there’s no sign of the Queen’s modest tome which, she fears, is going to annoy the King if he gets his pudgy little hands on it.

In his usual OCD style, Shardlake just won’t let go, and his two sidekicks won’t let him go alone in spite of the near-fatal injuries done to Jack Barak.

As Shardlake eventually discovers, there are some top people involved, and he manages to live to fight another day, but sent packing with a right royal flea in his ear.

Six months later, Henry has died, and the threat from Sir Richard Rich increases with his promotion to Lord Chancellor, but the Dowager Queen has a solution, and they all live happily ever after – at least until the next novel.

As with other books in the series, some judicious cutting might’ve helped, and once again, there was a certain amount of repetition, not just words, but also passages where the same ideas were repeated.

Once again, Shardlake has problems with his steward, who is open to blackmail because of his son; he keeps falling out with Guy of Malton; he nearly gets Barak killed (and seriously annoys Tamasin because of the deceit surrounding Barak’s other injuries); and while the reader hopes that he’ll succeed in spite of the opposition against him, he’s not the most endearing character.

Although Sansom may have other Shardlake novels in the pipeline, I’m inclined to think that the death of Henry VIII should see the end of the series. After all, what’s he going to do with Edward VI? “You, peasant,” demanded the gangly adolescent king, “find my iPhone for me, the one which has all my naked selfies, which I sent to Jane Grey.”

Sovereign and Revelation


By C.J. Sansom

Although Matthew Shardlake may have escaped Cromwell’s clutches (what with him being dead and all), he gets pulled in by Archbishop Cranmer to head to York to provide assistance with legal matters to Henry VIII’s progress and to ensure that Sir Edward Broderick is in good health for a spot of brutal human rights abuse in the Tower. What could possibly go wrong?

Before Shardlake has taken two steps inside the gates of York, there’s a murder which leads to the discovery of some secret papers that could topple the monarch. He also sees something else that he ought not to have seen, but if Henry VIII was playing with dolls in a locked room with no windows, Shardlake would see him doing so. There’s the usual cast of bullying, heartless bastards all making Shardlake’s life just that bit worse as well.

Shardlake makes friend with Giles Wrenne, a elderly local lawyer suffering from a terminal illness, while Jack Barak, Shardlake’s assistant (inherited from Cromwell) meets a pretty girl called Tamasin Reedbourne

The story drags on until it reaches a climax as the gang travel back to London, and the reader thinks, “I don’t mind not knowing about the rest because it’s now fairly obvious who the other villain is.” But there’s quite a bit of book left before it’s all resolved and Shardlake is extracting a promise from Cranmer not to bother him with matters of state again. The grateful archbishop promotes him.

Some uncompromising editing would’ve improved the pace of the book and with some care, the second villain, whose identity was immediately obvious after the Unexpected Guest Villain had been revealed, might’ve remained a mystery a bit longer.


An inventive, religious-themed serial killer has been murdering people is various gruesome ways based on the Book of Revelation. One of the victims would happen to be a mate of Shardlake’s, and before he can say a Hail Mary, he’s right up to his neck again when he finds himself in Cranmer’s presence once more because these killings have implications.

Who’s the killer? Who knows, although the evidence points in one definite direction? With dogged determination, Shardlake works out the puzzle.

He also has to deal with another religious extremist, who has ended up in (the) Bedlam because he’s been praying himself silly, although there seems to be no rhyme or reason for it until Shardlake works out the answer in the course of his investigation.

Meanwhile, Jack and Tamasin Barak have been having marital problems following the death of their first child.

Although Shardlake has successfully solved another case, he can’t quite escape the clutches of some very important (grateful) people.

Dark Fire

By C.J. Sansom.

Matthew Shardlake is hired to deal with the case of Elizabeth Wentworth who has allegedly pushed her cousin, Ralph, down a well. The girl is entirely reticent and is likely to be pressed until Cromwell gives her a stay of torture because he needs Shardlake to investigate another matter.

To this end, Shardlake is joined by Jack Barak, one of Cromwell’s men to search for the Gristwood brothers, who have acquired the secret of Greek Fire, but who have been predictably murdered.

As Shardlake investigates this matter, he also gradually uncovers the truth about the Wentworth case, and while the conclusion to that is successful, the search for Greek Fire ends less well. Shardlake also acquires his Dr Watson in the form of Jack Barak.

Since the first volume, Sansom has got a bit more into his stride with Dark Fire, although that’s not to say there’s no repetitious vocabulary. Barak is prone to calling everyone “arseholes” (34 times).

Dark Fire also has a bit more energy as well. The introduction of Jack Barak gives the novel some dynamism which Dissolution lacked, and to the same end, setting the story in London supplies the book with a wider variety of locations than the monastery of Scarnsea in Dissolution.

Overall, this was enough to get me to buy the next book in the series, Sovereign.

Three book reviews

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Wolf Hall is the plump opening tale of Thomas Cromwell, and his rise from a child abused by a brutal father to one of Wolsey’s servants to one of the key players in the court of Henry VIII as the king pursues Anne Boleyn and breaks with the Catholic church.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically as someone of low estate who rises in the face of class prejudice from the likes of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. Sir Thomas More is an academic snob, who looks down his nose at those who are allegedly intellectually less capable than him. (I don’t know to what extent this is an accurate portrayal of More and his attitude towards others; nor do I know what his interactions with Cromwell were like; his character seems to be fictional, but it may be based in reality; More has always seemed to be someone who was at least admirable for standing up to the tyrannous Henry over his split with Rome.)

Although Wolsey fails to get Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and then fails to become the Pope to achieve the same end, Cromwell finds favour with the king and continues to rise even after his first master falls.

As others have noted, Mantel has this oblique style of writing where she starts talking about a character without stating which one. Most (all?) of the time, it’s Cromwell, but the style can be irritating because it’s unnecessarily obfuscatory, and apart from being a quirk, it seems to have nothing to recommend it. Whatever Mantel’s aim might have been, such vagueness soon loses its novelty value.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières.

I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin many years ago. De Bernières’s proclivity for sounding like the worst excesses of a Chinese SAT word-list book did not endear him to me and smacked of pretentiousness. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts was recommended to me by a colleague of mine, who handed me a battered volume.

The story is is a collage. Part of it is about a village which is likely to find itself targeted for having Communist sympathies when it has no particular political inclinations. Part of it is about the clandestine programme of savage torture in the capital and the Disappeared. Part of it is about a band of guerrillas, and part of it is mystical and faerie tale like. But part of it is also de Bernières expostulating anthropologically about some aspect of South American society over many pages when a brief paragraph would have been sufficient.

The author also once again resorts to the pretentious style of writing of which he is so fond.

Sometimes the tale is amusing, and at other times, unremittingly grim. The title is really just there to catch the eye because Don Emmanuel’s nether parts don’t feature that much, and the war surrounding them comes to nothing.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts is a book which doesn’t appear to know what the author wants it to be. Perhaps a series of short stories might have been better.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom.

Matthew Shardlake, like any good fictional ’tec, has a particular quirk, viz. he’s a hunchback.

His boss, Thomas Cromwell, sends him off to the monastery of Scarnsea where another of Cromwell’s people has been murdered. Shardlake arrives as a reformist with the dissolution of the place hanging over its head.

In best Inspector Morse style, there are two more murders, and the corpse of another victim, is dredged out of the fishpond. If that wasn’t enough, there are thuggish monks, gay monks, ethnic-minority monks, and a mad Carthusian to contend with as well.

Shardlake doggedly investigates the entire sorry affair while his zeal for reform is tempered by his experiences, including Cromwell’s indifference to admitting that the evidence against Mark Smeaton, the musician who was executed for allegedly bonking Anne Boleyn, was fabricated.

In his first book in the series, Sansom hasn’t quite got the style right. It feels clunky and clumsy as if he sat down at his desk one day and decided to have a crack at doing some creative writing. As well as his awkward style, Sansom has a tendency to repeat (novel) words in quick succession, which makes them stand out. I suppose it’s something that I latch onto because I see it so much in my pupils’ writing, and even though the word in question may not be significant, it sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. A little revision wouldn’t have hurt.

I’ve now moved on to the second book in the series. We’ll see whether Sansom’s writing improves with experience.

What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

via What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ.

One of the English B topics we do is language diversity. The book we use has several articles arguing that English may or may not retain its crown as, more or less, a global language. Mandarin is often touted as a possible successor, but I remain sceptical because China has none of the cultural clout globally that America does. At most, Mandarin may become a lingua franca among nations with less reputable regimes which are nominally cosy with China.

However, I’m less interested in this particular debate than I am in what Dr McWhorter has written in his article for the Wall Street Journal. Let’s start with my lead above.

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

Two thousand years ago, Germanic was a Sprachbund (which to all intents and purposes is pretty much any language with a minimal amount of dialectal variation). When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain in AD455, they were still speaking dialects of West Germ­anic, and wouldn’t be speaking Old English until sometime in the 7th century at the very earliest. Even then, the Anglo-Saxons could still have returned to the mainland Europe and have conversed with their continental cousins. St Boniface was the West Saxon who took Christianity to the German parts of the Frankish Empire in the middle of the 8th century (wikipedia).

Old English bristled with three genders, five cases and the same sort of complex grammar that makes modern German so difficult for us, but after the Vikings, it morphed into modern English, one of the few languages in Europe that doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects.

Five noun cases? Try four; and in the masculine and neuter, the nom­in­at­ive and accusative had merged. And if German has such a complex grammar, how on Earth do the Germans manage to acquire it at all? What about the Lithuanians, who have twice as many noun cases, or the Finns who have about four times as many? How do the Hungarians and Turks cope with all that agglutination? What about all those languages with noun incorporation?

As for the Vikings, they did have a lexical impact on English (e.g., leg, egg, skirt, they, their, them, though), but changes to English grammar came from within the language. The inflectional system of English was dying throughout the Old English period. Unlike Old High German and Old Saxon, Old English had reduced the present plural endings of the verb to -aþ, which was, in origin, the 3rd per­s­on ending.

The same applies to the effect of French on English. The lexicon may have been irrevocably altered, but the morphology and gram­mar of the language remained native. Whatever the source of continuous verb forms in Modern English (a feature which is not shared by any other continental European language), it cannot be Old Norse or Old French.1

Mandarin, Persian, Indonesian and other languages went through similar processes and are therefore much less “cluttered” than a normal language is.

A “normal language”? Does this mean that Mandarin, Persian, and Indonesian are all abnormal?

Even if much of the article is sound, it is statements such as these which undermine any pretension which McWhorter might have to academic rigour or merit.


1. Icelandic also has continuous verb forms, and such constructions can also be found in Italian, but have a much more limited scope. One possible areal feature of European origin in British English is the range of the perfect, which is wider than it is in American.

It’s that week again

Stepping up to the microphone.

It’s been that week again when in 1949, Chairman Mao addressed the ex­cited crowds in Tiananmen Square, welcomed them to the People’s Re­public of China, and warned them about how deadly PTSD could be.

“But PTSD isn’t generally life-threatening,” said someone in the crowd.
“It is in my case.”
“Say it isn’t so, Son of Heaven.”
“Ah, I meant life-threatening for you. I’ll be fine. No, no. I’ll live to a ripe old age and traumatise the Empire… Sorry, nation, for generations to come.”
“Can I vote for someone else?” asked the man.

It’s the 65th anniversary of the founding of the current dynasty, although apart from a few posters proclaiming this, it doesn’t seem to have been treated as one of those landmark anniversaries.

I went to Chengdu to see Linda, but since the trip was largely domestic, I’ll confine most of the rest of this post to pictures.

Apart from a couple of occasions when it was grey and damp, the weather in Chengdu was warm and pleasant to the point of being summery, and the air quality was generally very good by the city’s usually dubious standards.

I agnize that it’s antique vocabulary


[07.09.14. I originally posted this as part of a larger entry on the 3rd of February 2007, but decided to extract it from that and make it a se­par­ate entry.]


We read Othello when I was at school. 6th form, if I remember rightly. I remember that no one, apart from me, had the faintest idea about the function of the grave accent in the edition we used so that the meter got mangled at times. Most of the time was spent reading the play out loud, but I don’t remember much about the meaning of the English or the themes. I think I regarded Iago as an interesting character because he was completely without scruples in his quest to destroy Othello.

There is one linguistic thing I learnt from Othello, and that is the verb “agnize” which, not surprisingly, I thought might’ve been some variant of “agonise”, but it actually means “recognise; acknowledge”. It’s only used once in the whole play in

I do agnize
A natural and prompt alacrity
I find in hardness and do undertake
These present wars against the Ottomites.
(Act I, Scene iii)

I don’t know whether it’s ever had any airtime beyond this single instance. A search of Renaissance Editions [dead link removed] yields only two examples – the one above and the following from John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays.

I hate to correct and agnize my selfe, and can never endure but grudgingly to review and repolish what once hath escaped my pen. (Book 3, Chapter IX: Of Vanitie)

Robert Southwell (1561-1595) uses it in the following stanza from New Heaven, New War.

The same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is He that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agnize your King a mortal wight,
His borrow’d weed lets not your sight;
Come, kiss the manger where He lies;
That is your bliss above the skies.

From the Twenty Fifth Book of Harington’s translation of Orlando Furioso we have

13. Now when the youth from danger quite was freed,
And all that sought his death away were fled,
He thanks the author of this worthy deed,
And thanketh her that had him thither led
Then, when of helpe he stood in greatest need,
When otherwise he doubtlesse had bin dead,
And executed like a malefactor,
Agnizing him his Lord and benefactor.

I don’t know why I happen to remember agnize. I’ve never used it myself since it’s obsolete for a start and I’d forgotten what it meant until I checked the meaning on

I wonder how much longer it’s going to take before someone agnizes that Shakespeare’s English needs to be translated to facilitate the comprehension of his works. The content may have meaning for us, but much of the language doesn’t.

Now, some homework. Yes, that means you lot. Find other instances of agnize from English lit. When was it last rarely used?

Well, Herr Hirschmann, was talken Sie about?

Those old neologisms in full.

cpo has just released Telemann, Grand Concertos for Mixed Instruments Vol. 1 performed by La Stagione Frankfurt. It came with a complete pdf booklet, which is fairly remarkable because most of my cpo albums have never come with any additional information (the cpo website does fill in some of the missing details, though). This booklet is a strangely large file, weighing in at 62Mb for a mere sixteen pages.

As I said above, the cpo website includes some information about each album. The translations from German to English appear to have been done by machine, perhaps with some post-production editing. The English is often a little odd – grammatical, but with German styling.

The few pdf booklets I have for cpo albums also employ the same slightly pompous, bombastic style, but the quality of the translations appears to be better. However, in the booklet which came with Grand Concertos, we have

Along with the motoric ‘perpetuum mobile’ of the Presto the pendulum again swings toward Italy.

I looked at “motoric” and wondered whether this was some adjective with which I was unfamiliar. My Concise OED didn’t have it, and looking up the German motorisch on line left me no more enlightened. However, according to the OED on my Kindle, the word is usually spelt “motorik”, which is used in music to mean “marked by a repetitive beat suggestive of mechanized action or movement”.

The other adjective of which Herr Hirschmann seems fond, “motivic”, was also new to me, but the meaning was immediately transparent.

I’ve learnt my lesson

[21.08.14. The following review was extracted from another entry, which I originally posted on the 4th of April 2008.]

And finished off Ancient Chinese Miniature Stories.

I must admit that these tend to be a little repetitive, viz.

The King of Chu declared that he was going to declare war on the state of Qi and that if any man opposed his plan, he’d shave his balls off with a bacon slicer. No one dared ask whether the king’s balls were for the chop or those of his critic. Wang Fujing emptied out a sack full of kittens into the courtyard. They scampered about, playing with each other or sleep­ing. The king understood. If he went to war, he could not enjoy kittens stir-fried in a wok; but if he did go to war, he’d be the kitten.

They’re also fairly short, hence it doesn’t take a long time for me to read through a hundred of them.

Deep Space Nine

[20.08.14. This post was extracted from an entry from 2008.]

Deep Space Nine, Series 2

I finished watching the second series last night. If the Dominion hadn’t made an appearance in the final episode, I probably would’ve given up on DS9 when it was first shown all those years ago. The episodes were, once again, very TOS/TNG and probably averaging about a C. There were potential story arcs such as political issues on Bajor; the election of a new kai (the Bajoran spiritual leader); and the maquis, but nothing got going because none of these stories were really Space Opera™ material. The maquis were potentially romantic as settlers defending their lands against the evil railroad company the Cardassians, but they came across as whiny nuisances.

On this occasion, I couldn’t help but note that the series seemed to be more like a Western set in space. If some new race turned up, they were farmers. If anyone went to Bajor, their dealings were frequently with, er, farmers. Obviously the writers have no idea what modern farming entails because it’s not some guy tilling the fields by hand. It’s mechanised, computerised, deodorised. All right, perhaps not deodorised. But it’s a business. And by the 24th century (or whenever this is set), you’d expect things might be a little more sophisticated. I quite like the style of steampunk, but this isn’t even agripunk, which might redeem the general ludicrousness of this conception of agriculture.

If the future is full of farmers in space, then the military are a bunch of cave dwellers. Pretty much every planetary base (secret or otherwise) is in a cave because the military always operates in hills where there are caves. I’m sure that somewhere in The Art of War, 孙子 must’ve written, “Secret bases in caves are kewl.” Now if you’re part of the resistance, you probably don’t have the money to spend on something techie, but it seems that as a rule, the military are cheap bastards. The general wants a new uniform; his troops have to live in caves.

In retrospect, it was probably clear fifteen years ago, if you considered the matter carefully, that the Trek universe needed a Russell T. Davies to overhaul it. I recall noting more than once in the reviews that I posted on my original website that a lot of the ideas for DS9 and Voyager seemed to come from The Big Book of American Clichés.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.


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