The Heretics of De’Ath

By Howard of Warwick.

During a debate in the monastery of De’Ath’s Dingle, Brother Ambrosius drops dead. Moments later, Brother Athan enters the room, accusing Brother Hermitage of murdering Ambrosius simply because he was the only monk present at the time. The Abbot, who is a scary bastard, sends Hermitage off to Lincoln, who meets Wat the Weaver on the way, who takes an interest in the confused monk’s business. Hermitage is sent back to the monastery with Brother Simon, who has been appointed the King’s Investigator by the bishop’s man, Nicodemus, mainly because Simon an imperceptive, pointless busybody. When the trio return to De’Ath’s Dingle, they find the builders about which no one seems to know anything have arrived, and the overweight Earl of Northumbria is up to something on behalf of one of his younger sons. King Harold turns up just in time to sort things out before he pops off to Hastings to smack William of Normandy – and we all know how that went.

The writing is not the best. It’s a little like writing down a sketch for an idea for a story, but the notes have become the story. There seem to be too many people shouting at odd moments, which makes no sense. There are other occasions where the narrative jumps from one part to another as if Howard of Warwick put his pen down for a few days, but forgot that he needed to finish of the previous scene or write some transitional section. He also has characters saying, “What?” noticeably often even though this is only occasionally a pun on Wat’s name.

I’ll try the next volume or two in the series to see whether the quality of the writing improves, but can’t overly recommend the book.

The Truth about Language

By Michael C. Corballis.

I don’t like the title. It’s a click-bait title implying that we’ve all been being misled about language. It should’ve been something like The Origins of Language according to Modern Theories. There’s no truth here because we don’t really know the truth about the origins of language. Chomsky’s idea that it suddenly sprang into existence without being subject to evolutionary processes seems deeply improbable. I think it highly unlikely that about 50,000 years ago, some bloke went from “Ugh, ugh, um, ugh” one day to “I think I’ll go down the garden centre this afternoon and buy some geraniums” the next; but perhaps it did.

Corballis’s proposal, which is not exactly original, is that language has its origins in gesture. Well, I’m giving that one a two-fingered salute myself. The main issue of his hypothesis remains the gap between expressing ideas through gestures and expressing them verbally. At best, the jaw, being another movable component of the body, is just as likely to be controlled by the same part of the brain that controls the arms, legs and head. In fact, in many people, it flaps quite independently of the brain.

Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar comes in for some flak (no, not “flack”; the word is German; actually, it’s an abbreviation for Fliegerabwehrkanone in which there’s not a single “c” to be seen), but this seems to stem from a certain amount of misunderstanding of the idea as if someone discovered some of the odder American Indian languages and wondered how on Earth their grammars could stem from a set of universal principles on which all languages are allegedly based. Any proper linguist will also look for cross-linguistic evidence that a particular aspect of the grammar of the language is not a one-off.

Although I may have dealt in historical linguistics myself, which can often progress no further than idle speculation, the origin of language is not something which to me has any real value. It may be of interest to evolutionary biologists or psychologists such as Corballis, but it contributes nothing to the understanding of language as it was and is, and is likely to remain till the next iteration of our species evolves.

The Truth about Language also has a repetitive feel to it as if it’s a series of lectures for undergraduates with short attention spans written up as a book. It does manage to hold the reader’s interest without outstaying its welcome (waggish asides about students are appreciated), but ultimately, it isn’t convincing because the gap between gestures and language generated by grammatical principles is never spanned beyond some reasonable suppositions.

The Black Friar

By S.G. MacLean

Here’s a puzzle for Damian Seeker. Carter Blyth, one of Thurloe’s secret agents has been found dead, hidden behind a wall (echoes of Sherlock or Jonathan Creek) and dressed as a friar. What’s going on? Did Seeker miss his invite to MI5’s tarts-and-vicars Christmas party?

It gets even more murky when it becomes known that various children have been going missing, that Anne Winter is up to something, and that Shadrach Jones is not some harmless gerund grinder in the days when such things mattered before student-centred learning became all the rage.

If that’s not enough, Seeker also has to deal with a whole crew of religious nut jobs who make Cromwell and his regime look positively enlightened in comparison, and the grave illness that has been afflicting Thurloe himself. (Aside: Is it just me, or has MacLean never noticed the irony of the man’s name, which contains the element Thor-?)

The second volume doesn’t quite have the engaging intricacies of the first, or the climax(es). The revelation of the machinery of Anne Winter’s trickery leads to no great moment, and the resolution of the plot line about the missing children is similarly flat. “Yeah, the kiddies were down the back of the sofa.”

Nonetheless, it’s quite fun to have the likes of Samuel Pepys and various other historical personages knocking about.

This may be Seeker’s second and last outing, or perhaps MacLean is going to take him to the mean streets of Yorkshire [Er, you do realise Yorkshire’s a shire, don’t you? –Ed.] where he can say, “There’s trouble at t’ mill” and “I certainly was expecting the Spanish Inquisition because I’d been reading MI5’s intelligence reports.” And he may also find Anne Winter still up to her pretty Royalist nose in plots to unseat Oliver Cromwell.

The Seeker

By S.G. MacLean

Damian Seeker is a secret policeman, protecting Oliver Cromwell from various Royalist plots. When John Winter, one of Cromwell’s favourites, is murdered, the authorities believe Elias Ellingworth is the culprit, but Seeker is not so sure, and his investigation reveals all manner of secrets as he attempts to rescue Ellingworth from arbitrary justice and stop a daring assassination attempt on Cromwell himself.

It’s difficult to write a synopsis of The Seeker without giving the game away, but there are drug addicts, white slavers, Royalist plots, and war crimes all tangled together. Party fun for the whole family.

Seeker is an anti-anti-antihero (which probably makes him an antihero anyway). He works for the wrong people because history is against Cromwell and his religious fanatics, and Seeker’s reputation is one that instills fear in most people who cross his path. On the other hand, he’s quite determined to make sure that Elias Ellingworth isn’t executed for a crime he never committed, and he doesn’t mind bending reality out of shape to see fairness done rather than justice.

Seeker is James Bond without the sex and gadgets. He is a character who is based on reputation, and he only has to snap and snarl a little, and people crumbled in the face of his forthright questioning, but in the course of the novel, he only gets into a serious confrontation with Alexander Seaton to prove his credentials. Other than that, he’s so tough that when he wants to wash his clothes, he hurls himself at rocks in a river.

If anything, Seeker could do with a sidekick to lighten the load of being so tough that when he combs his hair, he doesn’t stop till he gets to the bone, and when he shaves, if there’s no blood, it means there’s still stubble. But who might step into this exalted position as Sancho Panza to Seeker’s, er, Torquemada? No candidates step forward immediately.

The plot is certainly engaging as it twists and turns even if it’s one of those books where some opening scene, which is a significant clue to what drives the tale, is soon forgotten. Nonetheless, the plot is sufficiently appealing for me to have me buying the next volume in the series.

The Essex Serpent

By Sarah Perry.

Cora Seaborne is a wealthy, happily widowed amateur palaeontologist who ends up in the Essex village of Aldwinter, which is gripped by tales of the Essex serpent. She is introduced to William Ransome, the local vicar, and his wife, Stella, the local consumptive cliché. Seaborne and Ransome are attracted to each other and eventually have sex before parting. That appears to be the main plot.

Alongside the main plot, Luke Garrett, who fancies Seaborne, is a brilliant surgeon whose hand gets injured in a fight. His rich mate, Spencer, is a champagne socialist who gets involved in London’s housing crisis. The books ends with them as a covertly gay couple even if neither of them is. Seaborne’s companion, Martha, is the object of Spencer’s interest, who stirs his social compassion, but shacks up with Edward Burton, whose life was saved by Garrett’s surgery. Stella Ransome is a satire on the Cult of Thinness, who becomes more beautiful the thinner she gets. Seaborne’s peculiar son, Francis, may be autistic, but this is never established.

The plot rambles dully along without ever seeming to have a clear direction, and the subplot about housing in London has no real connection to events in Essex. Climaxes? Seaborne and Ransome’s copulating? The revelation that the Essex serpent might have been no more than an oarfish or an upturned, missing boat? Who knows? There’s no sense of the story really driving towards a significant conclusion.

Most of the time, The Essex Serpent sounds like a novel written by a Guardian reader about a bunch of Guardian readers transposed to the 19th century, and is packed full of obvious worthiness.

Nonetheless, there is some clever writing here. When Seaborne and Ransome first meet, it appears that his interests lie more in the ovine than the feminine; but this is like one of those films where the trailer is all of the interesting bits, and the rest is entirely missable.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

By Helen Simonson.

Msjor Pettigrew (army, retd., widower) lives in Edgecombe St Mary with half of a prized pair of Churchill sporting guns. When his brother Bertie dies, he hopes to reunite them, bequeathed separately to him and his brother by their father, but has to contend with his rapacious sister-in-law, Marjorie, and niece, Jemima, who want to sell them off; as does the Major’s own son, Roger, who is keen to get ahead in business through the sale of his father’s guns to a valuable client.

In the meantime, the Major strikes up a friendship with Mrs Ali (widowed), the village shopkeeper, with whom he reads Kipling and gets tangled up in the Golf Club’s annual dance, which is supposed to have a Mughal theme. He and Mrs Ali attend the dance, which doesn’t quite end as expected.

For a time, the course of true love encounters some ruts in the road to happiness.

There are various subplots, including Lord Dagenham’s attempt to make money out of his costly estate, and the relationship between the overly pious Abdul Wahid and Amina, who already have a son called George.

The book, as other reviews have noted, is slow to get going, and then putters along at no great pace. It is somewhat clichéd, with the Major being an Edwardian-style Sir Galahad, while his son, Roger, is a City oik with the inevitable American girlfriend; the members of the Ladies Committee all behave like clichés; the American property developer who owns an estate in Scotland is a cliché; and the members of the Pakistani community also behave like clichés.

While the book is well enough written, the style often feels staccato, with island sentences creating vignettes perhaps in a style reflecting Simonson’s job in the travel industry. There are also a few Americanisms such as the misspelling of “Maths”; and the editor should lose marks for letting the Major say “Here, here!” when he should be saying “Hear, hear!”

The book would appear to be aimed at the American market (which is where Simonson is based), hence the obligatory American characters, with a possible eye on Hollywood.

From start to finish in three tedious hours

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Unbearably long, lots of explosions, plot thinner than a randy nun’s knickers.



Deadpool is some sort of mercenary, either intimidating people or shagging his hot girlfriend (or she shags him; either’s good in Deadpool’s world). Unfortunately, Deadpool gets cancer and is offered a cure which will alter him physically, turning his lovely smooth skin into an approximation of a pink-coloured lunar surface and rendering him immortal. The treatment is horrible, but Deadpool eventually escapes to hunt down Frances, the man who turned him into a mutant.

There’s a big fight at the end set on a derelict aircraft carrier and with the help of a couple of cut-price X-Men, Deadpool takes out Frances and his minions.

By dint of being different, Deadpool is, to a degree, a bit more entertaining than the usual Bowdlerised superhero films. It’s not as metrosexual as the Guardian hacks gushed because it’s a parody. The girl-on-boy action is part of the mockery; so, too, when Deadpool gets shot up the bottom.

Entertaining, rather silly, and not for everyone.


The Earth is dying. Well, American farmlands are dying. NASA, working in secret, has sent astronauts on a one-way mission through some wormhole that has appeared near Saturn. Cooper, an ex-NASA rocket jockey, finds his way to NASA’s secret base where Michael Caine instantly appoints him to the expedition to go in search of the pioneering astronauts on the other side of the wormhole. When the expedition arrives, they find that the whole thing has been a failure, and that Matt Damon has gone mad and causes part of the expedition’s mother ship to be destroyed. Cooper uses a local black hole to try and slingshot himself to safety, but ends up behind the bookcase in his daughter’s bedroom, trying to send her messages. Somehow he’s rescued and wakes up inside a Dyson torus.

The other half of the film is about what’s been happening on Earth while Cooper is in space. His bad-tempered teenage daughter grows up to be a bad-tempered teenage woman who hates her father for abandoning her, but ends up working for NASA and working out that Michael Caine had already solved the gravity equation, only lacking one vital piece of information, viz. what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole.

By that stage, the audience has ceased to care about this rambling, baffling film, which seems to be a metaphor for something entirely different. Something about fathers and daughters? Oh, who bloody well cares? Lacks adequate explanatory power.

The Revenant.

A group of hunters is attacked by the Ree, who are searching for the chief’s daughter, Powaqa. The survivors start making the trek by river and overland to Fort Kiowa. On the way there, their guide, Hugh Glass, is badly mauled by a bear. When it becomes clear that the rest of the hunters cannot haul him all the way to safety, he is left behind with his son, Hawk, Hawk’s mate, Bridger, and the villainous Fitzgerald, who kills the former, tries to kill Glass, and intimidates Bridger.

In spite of his horrific injuries, and encounters with the Ree and the French (also, the man seems strangely immune to being thrown into ice-cold rivers where he ought to be dying of exposure), Glass is eventually rescued and Fitzgerald’s crimes are exposed. Even after all he’s been through, Glass insists on pursuing Fitzgerald and eventually leaves him to the tender mercies of the Ree.

The Revenant is an intense film, but drags on and on and on (which seems to be a common feature of all the films which I’ve watched recently). By the time Glass fights Fitzgerald, the whole plot has outstayed its welcome and the final battle descends into bathos with the two men crawling across the snow.

The cinematography is gorgeous, though, and the wintry American wilderness has never looked so nice.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

A considered survey of the parts of this film would almost certainly end up with it being reduced by an hour to an hour and a half with the removal of all the tedious bloat. By asking the questions “Where did the First Order come from?” and “How can the rebels be the rebels if they restored the Republic, and just who is the government?”, the film almost entirely vanishes.

The main storyline is that a BB8 droid has the final piece of a map leading to the location of Luke Skywalker, who appears to have disappeared after Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, turned to the Dark Side just as his granddad, Anakin Skywalker did under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The droid eventually reaches the rebels, who also have to see off Death Star++. Han Solo leads the away team, tries to get his son to return to the family fold, and gets skewered on a light sabre for his pains.

Meanwhile, Rey, some random girl from Jakku, goes and finds Luke Skywalker.

Not boring, but definitely flabby and full of holes.

X-Men: Apocalypse.

Terry, the first mutant, who was a bit of a bastard, is raised from suspended animation by some chanting Egyptians. How does that work? (Oh, and I’m calling him Terry because he doesn’t appear to have a name.) He goes in search of the biggest bastards among the mutants of the 1980s, including Magneto. Only the X-Men can save the world.

Actually, only Jean Grey can save the world because she seems to be the only mutant powerful enough to taking down the power-sucking Terry, which begs the question why she wasn’t brought into play sooner, thus sparing the audience considerable amounts of suffering.

Anno Dracula

By Kim Newman.

Anno Dracula is based on what might’ve happened if Dracula had defeated Van Helsing and his merry band, and had then turned Queen Victoria into a vampire. In this world, some people prefer to remain human (or “warm” as they’re called) while others, typically social climbers, are keen to become vampires. The vampires themselves are split between the elders such as Dracula and his bodyguards, and the newborns. At the same time, being a vampire doesn’t always convey fame and fortune, and a lot of vampires live in grinding poverty. In additional, those vampires who are descended (so to speak) from Dracula can have various birth defects.

The action centres around the activities of Jack the Ripper, who specifically targets new-born vampires. The killer is John Seward (one of the characters from Dracula), who was unhinged by the death of Lucy Westenra. (No, this isn’t a spoiler because Seward is revealed to be the Ripper very early on.)

Charles Beauregard is employed by the shadowy Diogenes Club to investigate the murders. During the course of his investigation, he falls in with Genèvieve Dieudonné, an elder vampire who even predates Dracula himself.

Their investigation reveals the killer, and enables Beauregard to enter the presence of the bloated Dracula himself, the intention of the Diogenes Club being to bring him down, though not in the way the reader might predict.

The book is essentially another take on the League of Gentlemen and similar tales. The cast isn’t entirely a mixture of characters of fictional and real historical people, but it is a who’s-who of certain sorts of Victorian literature.

While I like the underlying idea, I generally wasn’t much interested in the Seward chapters, and there were episodes in the story (e.g. Genèvieve being pursued by the Chinese vampire assassin) which seemed to serve no real purpose. The episode with Lily, the little girl who has been turned and dies trying to shape shift, is never resolved. Genèvieve may promise to track down the vampire who is responsible, but nothing happens.

The language is also repetitious. Where “warm” (i.e., human) might’ve added to the colour by being used now and then, it got too much airtime; and “newborn” was the same, being overused without any explanation as to when a newborn vampire might become an “adolescent”. Newman did have Lord Godalming take the next steps in his development, but the rest of the newborns seemed to be a a bunch of idiots, constantly getting caught out in the sun.

The ending was somewhat abrupt. When Beauregard uncovered who the Ripper was, it seemed there was a substantial amount of book left, but the visit to Buckingham Palace, and the confrontation with Dracula were relatively brief things, which were somewhat glibly cleared up, still leaving quite a lot of book.

The remainder, which could be safely ignored, was Newman explaining various references, listing the copious number of people who had read the manuscript, a short story, and an article he wrote for a magazine. He seems to be rather keen on explaining himself, but ought to start a Facebook group to cover this material for the fans. The appendices didn’t really add anything to the experience.

I liked the conceit that John Seward had gone stark raving mad and was Jack the Ripper, but the real reason for Beauregard to solve the crime and gain admittance to Buckingham Palace was less satisfying. The Diogenes Club, which was allegedly some powerful secret organisation, seemed to be quite widely known, and yet remained apparently immune to the attentions of Dracula.

Anno Dracula is not a bad story, but the style sometimes irks.

Vanity Fair

By William Makepeace Thackeray.

Vanity Fair follows the fortunes and adventures of Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp after they leave Miss Pinkerton’s academy, where Amelia has been universally loved and Becky almost universally ignored because of her low birth.

In spite of her father’s bankruptcy, George Osborne (no, not the modern-day, loathsome oik) married her anyway, much to the anger of his father. He marches off to Waterloo, never to return, while Amelia remains faithful to him after his death; their son, Georgy, who is the spitting image of his father, also keeps the man’s memory alive. She clings to the boy, but her straitened financial circumstances mean that she has to hand him over to his generally odious grandfather, John, who instills less creditable virtues in the boy.

Becky, meanwhile, ends up working as a governess for the Crawley family, receives a proposal from Sir Pitt Crawley (the Elder), but marries Rawdon Crawley, which does him out of an inheritance from his aunt and leaves them living on nothing but credit. They, too, have a child (Rawdon; one of Thackeray’s irritating habits is to give the children the same names as their fathers; as well as the original Sir Pitt Crawley, there is his son, also called Pitt), but unlike the clingy Amelia, she loathes the child, and is often caught out when she can’t remember anything about him. She also despises her husband who does having some paternal affection for the child.

Rawdon and Becky eventually separate after he walks in on her and Lord Steyne, who has her dupe, to some degree knowingly. Rawdon becomes governor of Coventry Island and eventually dies of yellow fever.

Becky and Amelia’s fortunes are reversed as the latter comes into money and improves her social position as a consequence, while the former, penniless, ducks and dives her way across Europe until she ends up in garret in Germany and is rescued by the kind-hearted Amelia in spite of Major Dobbin’s warnings.

He was friends with George Osborne at school, and arranged his marriage to Amelia even though he himself was in love with her and continued to be so until she saved Becky. At that point, Dobbin declared that Amelia was not worthy of his love, and it was only then that she realised what a terrible mistake she had made. Indeed, Becky redeemed herself by talking some sense into her painfully innocent friend, and Amelia, now clinging to Dobbin, finally marries him.

Becky goes off with Amelia’s vain, rotund brother, Joseph (Jos), who worked as an official in India, but had fled in terror from Waterloo. He returned to India, ignoring his family, and having returned to England, he prefers to indulge his appetite on the road home to London, filling his face at every inn on the way. Having been rescued from Becky early in the novel, he ends up in her clutches and eventually dies in Aix-la-Chapelle.

Thackeray called Vanity Fair a novel without a hero. Neither Amelia nor Becky are admirable. Amelia is the very model of a martyr-like female character, who idolises her husband even though he was going to abandon her in favour of Becky, and who clings just as damagingly to her son, damagingly for both of them. Even at the end, when Dobbin, the only decent character in the whole story, finally marries Amelia, Thackeray implies that her limpet-like attachment to him will be a continuation of her unhealthy obsession with the object of her desire.

Becky is sly, but her charms only really work on men, minor female characters in the story not being deceived by her. She often, though, emerges triumphant from her encounters by ingratiating herself with her opponents. However, this is not without some cost such as Lady Southdown’s unpalatable medicinal ministrations and her tedious pamphlets.

Unlike stories about tricksters where the greater villain is outwitted, Becky is generally the greater villain, although the reader doesn’t mind that she fleeces Lord Steyne, and may only feel a slight amount of disquiet when his man threatens her with fatal consequences if she doesn’t leave Rome while his lordship is there.

It is only at the end of the book that either of them do something decent. Becky bluntly tells Amelia the truth about her late husband; Amelia marries Dobbin after recognising how badly she treated him. But Becky continues to lie, cheat and steal her way around Europe while Amelia finds someone new to smother.

Vanity Fair was originally a serial publication across 1847-48, and perhaps, if it could be read in the same fashion (in facsimile?), it might make the book seem less rambling as Thackeray turns moral essayist, trying the reader’s patience at times.

The novel ends somewhat abruptly having (so the notes say) been extended beyond the original endpoint (the Eothen chapter) as if Thackeray needed to wrap things up without worrying about the denouement too much. But perhaps the implicit message is that Vanity Fair is the way of the world, and neither Amelia nor Becky will ever really change.

China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

seThe Long Read: The country’s rulers do not just suppress history, they recreate it to serve the present. They know that, in a communist state, change often starts when the past is challenged

Source: China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

In November of 2002, my colleague and I went to Xi’an one weekend. At the time, the walls of the ancient city were being rebuilt, but there was a gap or perhaps about a kilometre left. There were large plaques up on the new walls proclaiming that the money for rebuilding the walls had come from UNESCO (I think; I can’t recall exactly). I realised in fairly short order that there’s very little in China which is more than about twenty-five years old. There may have been a temple on some site for 1,400 years, but the current incarnation is probably a recent “fake” built during the current dynasty. 大钟寺 in Beijing was being renovated when I visited it ten years ago, but how much of the building or the site was original beyond its boundaries, I can’t say.

Such places end up being little more than museums; a bit more than a building where relics are on display, but still little more than museums. I assume that most cathedrals in Europe, even if they are mainly modern tourist traps, are more than just the remains of history and are still functioning buildings. Of course some, such as Yonghe Gong (雍和宫) in Beijing are still in use; elsewhere, such as Fuzhou, where there are a lot of temples, they appear to be largely neglected.

One of the things I’ve also noted about my pupils in China is their ignorance of history, their knowledge of which, as far as I can tell, rarely goes beyond 1911, apart from key events in the 19th century such as the Opium Wars, which serve a nationalist agenda as a shorthand for something the wicked foreigners did to the Chinese Empire and something to distract people from the truth. My own knowledge of Chinese history may not be that detailed, but it seems to be more extensive than your average Chinese schoolchild, and although I’m not overlooking potential bias, my knowledge of the subject is at least not filtered through the grimy lenses of the Party’s self-serving view of history.

“Modern” China seems to be at about the level of Tudor England when Tudors usurped the throne (“It was empty, so I sat in it,” said Henry Tudor. “That makes me Henry VII”) with no legitimate claim to the kingdom, but plenty of propaganda behind them throughout their short-lived dynasty.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.