Confession of a Napoleonic Nut

Waterloo has been featuring a lot in my tweets of late, and with the bicentenary fast approaching I feel I ought to explain a thing or two as to why.

My name is Peter Smith, and I’m a Napoleonic Nut.

There, I’ve said it.

This love affair began almost twenty years ago, in 1996. I was five, and had come downstairs and caught the end of a programme my parents were watching. I can remember it distinctly now: there was a moustachioed and bloodied soldier, sat in a river, garbed in a scarlet jacket waving his sword around, singing “We’re fighting for our flag. Hurrah, my boys, hurrah.” Recognise it? Lieutenant-Colonel Girdwood, played by Mark Lambert, in the adaptation of Sharpe’s Regiment. I’ve never forgotten it.

Wind forward a couple of years. A jumble sale at my primary school. In one of the rooms was a table stacked high with boxes of 1:72 scale Italeri figures. I knew my Dad had some old WWI figures, and of course, I wanted my own, to emulate him. The box I happened to pick up was of the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons at Waterloo… the famed Scots Greys. At the time I thought little of it, but something about the painting reminded me of Sharpe’s Regiment, and that was that. It wasn’t long after that I watched Sergei Bondarchuk’s mind-blowingly beautiful film Waterloo with my Dad… I was hooked. I think I still have that box of soldiers somewhere, too. And a Scots Greys mug from that time I went to their regimental museum.

Always a voracious reader, by the time I went into secondary school I was reading the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell. How I devoured them! And then the TV films. Over and over again. It was an obsession. Through the historical notes I started to collect memoirs of Riflemen in the 95th, Osprey books… I wanted to know more about it. Looking back, I think there was just something that captured me like no other era: the end of the swashbuckling age, the pomp and colour, the background… for me, there’s been nothing else like it.

This filtered into my studies. At university, in the Contemporary Strategy module in my second year Napoleon cropped up. A lot. In the exam there was a question on him, and I wrote the longest answer I have ever done in an exam. Didn’t do too shabbily in it, but it was at the detriment of the other two questions I had to answer. Then, in my final year, my dissertation. Ten thousand words on a topic of my choice within my subject: “What factors contributed to the effectiveness of the Spanish guerrillas during the Peninsular War of 1808-14?” Almost a year reading the accounts left behind by British and French soldiers, as well as those of the guerrilleros themselves and Spanish general officers – there are still stories that haven’t been told. My obsession with Sharpe, Boney, Nosey, the whole lot paid off – I aced that dissertation, and my final 2:1 was in no small part due to this prolonged… ah… obsession.

I’m using the word “obsession” a lot, aren’t I?

Oh well.

If I see a new book on the Napoleonic era, I usually end up acquiring a copy. An article, I’ll save a copy. Fiction, no contest – give me a military/adventure/spy novel set between 1789 and 1815 and I’m yours. I have entire shelves dedicated to the era, and some of my scribblings – my very slowly progressing scribblings – are inspired by my obsession.

And all cemented by a box of toy soldiers at Waterloo and the eponymous film. So if I seem to be overly excitable at the prospect of the bicentenary celebrations this coming Thursday, at least you know why. It’s been a lifelong obsession (that f***ing word again!), but I won’t apologise for it. Nor will it change.

Although in all seriousness, it is one of the most important dates in history: it’s consequences were felt for many a year. Just saying.

 

 

 

P.S.

 

Postscript: who else saw the first part of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon on the Beeb this week…?

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Napoleon: The Escape

Napoleon’s exile to Saint Helena has been a source of debate since 1815, as have theories as to the cause of his death six years later. Equally heated is the question of whether he could have escaped, and if he had, where would he have gone?

His brother Joseph had money enough in North America, the ill-gotten gains from his tenure as King of Spain; veterans of his Grande Armée were gathering there too. There was even the plan to build a new Napoleonic Empire in South America, with Lord Cochrane freeing the Emperor and attacking Spain’s colonial domains, as well as smuggler Thomas Johnstone and the submarine plot (yes, submarine! Fulton’s second Nautilus for those curious).

Though such plans were effectively put to a stop by Napoleon’s death in 1821, it is a fertile ground for writers to weave ‘what if?’ tapestries. Shannon Selin has done so already, with her wonderful novel Napoleon in America, which imagines he escaped and joined his brother. Now Jan Needle has written this thrilling novella, which combines elements from the latter, British-based plots.

At the heart of it we have Samson Armstrong, a down-on-his-luck ship’s captain who had served on East Indiamen during the Napoleonic Wars, and now his ships are rotting at anchor. A chance encounter, overhearing a French spy recruiting newly discharged British Army veterans to the scheme, and the persuasion of Lord Cochrane leads him to aiding the endeavour. Johnstone and his submarines in tow, what follows is the effort to slip past the blockading Royal Navy ships and steal Napoleon away.

Napoleon: The Escape is a thrilling piece of historical fiction. Tightly plotted, laced with fact, skulduggery and high seas adventure alongside a brilliantly conceived cast of characters, Jan Needle’s narrative is well-written and sweeps you along at a rate of knots. Though short, it is immensely satisfying and the final (cruel?) twist at the end is brilliantly executed, offering his take on one of the mysteries of Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena.

If you hadn’t guessed, I thoroughly enjoyed it…

 

 

 

P.S.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Bugles at Dawn

So, lots of things have happened since I last blogged.  I undertook an internship at Legend Press, have now got another lined up for the summer with Endeavour Press and more applications pending left, right and centre. Unfortunately writing’s taken a back seat of late, but more importantly I have read some terrific books. One such is Bugles at Dawn by Charles Whiting, and I thought I’d write a bit about it.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and, rather pleasingly, the cover used is one of my favourite paintings: Lady Butler’s ‘Scotland Forever!’. But this is not simply another novel set against the backdrop of the conflict. While Whiting’s narrative does start at the close of the battle, events swiftly conspire, with a little assistance from Wellington, to send our hero, John Bold, to India, and this is where the meat of the yarn unfolds.

Bold goes from being a subaltern in the 52nd Regiment of Foot to the armies of the East India Company, at the head of his own irregular cavalry troop (Bold’s Horse) in a dangerous struggle against a beautiful and deadly Princess who wants to see the British out of her country. One should bear in mind that in the age of purchasing commissions, it was not unheard of for officers to have served in infantry and cavalry regiments.  This is a clever touch, because it allows us to see how the cavalry were trained as Bold adapts, and we learn about India under Company rule as he does, through his social and military escapades.

The battles are well crafted affairs, and the small details inserted really give you a taste of the age.  Whiting has a flair for the military adventure story, and his descriptions bring the words to life in your mind. You get a sense of the dusty plains, the dense jungle, the vibrant sights and the crash and speed of the onslaught.

There were moments I thought of Flashman, and others of Sharpe: John Bold sits well beside them.

While it is a tightly plotted romp, and Whiting keeps the adrenalin up for the most part, the ending feels abrupt and lacking. Threads are left hanging, and for those with an interest in the history of India will wonder whether Bold is destined for the Gurkha War or Burma. Edit: I should say that a little research shows that Whiting did indeed write a sequel, entitled Sabres in the Sun, set in Burma. The educated guess in this case is bang on! Now, where to find a copy…?

You can read Bugles at Dawn on Kindle, and given there’s the mobile app it’s pretty difficult to use the ‘I don’t have a Kindle’ excuse. This is definitely one for the fans of Bernard Cornwell and George Macdonald Fraser, and brightened up a dreary train journey.

 

 

 

P.S.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Gospel of Loki

It seems fitting that my first, and admittedly belated, blog post of 2015 is a book review. Especially as its on a book I ended up waiting a year to get, having got really excited about it when I first heard about it: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris. Having not read her other Rune books I wasn’t sure what to expect, but once I started I was hooked.

Loki, our humble narrator and the famed trickster of Norse mythology, is one of those characters who are a joy to follow; the first person viewpoint here is a triumph. As you read you can see him in your mind, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as the tale unfolds, a smirk etched upon his face.

You know deep down that you should take everything with a pinch of salt, but you don’t want to. The narration is obviously biased, perhaps dramatically so; at times it is dark yet full of wit and sarcasm and little asides; in all honesty, you want Loki to come out on top. He is one side of the mirror, Odin the reverse, and you root for him despite any preconceived notions or knowledge of the figures. Loki and Odin could almost have been cut from the same cloth. He’s brought into Asgard by Odin as a brother, although recruited seems a better word, and tries to play the game according to the rules. But he is not welcomed as promised, and so he starts to play the game in his own way, a struggle between Loki and Odin, each playing the other, culminating with Ragnarök.

Rather than twist and turn through the poems, the Edda, Harris has created a linear sequence of adventures (misadventures?) for us to follow with ease, recounted gleefully by Loki while remaining true to the poems. For instance, I was familiar with the episode regarding Thor and Loki dressing as a bride and handmaiden to recover Mjölnir, already amusing I hasten to add, but this was an absolute hoot of a passage, vividly brought to life. In fact, the whole story was.

Though Loki and Odin are the most fleshed out of the characters, none want for depth. We know who each is and what they’re like, through both their actions and their speech, and as such each individual sticks with you. Yes, there are a number to remember, but not once did I have to go back to the list of characters provided to double check who they were. Not once. Even with the warning not to trust any of them. Like I said, they stick with you.

As does the grinning, sly, compellingly roguish narrator.

 

 

P.S.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

NaNoWriMo, and beyond

NaNoWriMo this year was particularly challenging. Having got off to a great start, my laptop met a long overdue end at the beginning of the second week, as I mentioned last month.  As such I ended up on the back foot somewhat, and with an interview for a Christmas job at Waterstones (which I got – hence the late reflection on NaNoWriMo) and going away staring at me on the 28th it was an uphill struggle. I don’t like giving up, and across a variety of devices, and on paper, I continued writing when I could; what really drove me on though was the support in the NaNo Kent facebook group.

Now, truth be told, I set out hoping to participate more in the community side of it but aside from a few posts on the web forums, I did not. But in the odd moments where I found a sticky patch in my plot, or trouble with tying things together or a character refusing to play ball, scanning the group was wonderful. So much encouragement given to others was there, instilling belief and confidence to continue, and to see such camaraderie gave me the boost I needed at times. I may not have posted it, but this is my “thank you” to you all. And on top of that, it has spurred me on to what I am doing now: reading back through, and editing, my 2014 effort, which I titled The King Under The Mountain. How long that title stays I cannot say, but I rather like it, and the motif reflects the story, so far at least, very well.

This time, at the last minute as well I might add, I changed my mind in what I wanted to write. I shelved the thoughts I’d been planning, which I made reference to in September, deciding that for this I wanted a new challenge. I may well kick myself in the long run for it because I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, and now I really want to see how far I can explore it. And I have Kent-dwelling author Angus Donald to thank for my inspiration.

His Outlaw Chronicles are superb, a brutal, gangster-ish Robin Hood for those unfamiliar with them, and a new take on the legend we think we know. His hero is whoever he needs them to be within the story, weaving myth with history and creating a plausible figure, and his books just get better and better. As a child, I think I probably read more of the myths and legends than I did anything else. Robin Hood, King Arthur, the Hound of Ulster, Beowulf, the Greek heroes et al have all stuck with me through my life. I am, what you might say, a sucker for them, just like I am those glorious swashbuckling romps produced in the Golden Age of Hollywood. I decided to take one of my favourite legends and tell my own story, following in Mr. Donald’s example; not Robin Hood mind, I did that once as a short story, a few years ago and now lost courtesy of ye olde laptop and my own mistake. My protagonist had been Brother Tuck, a Templar, and was huge fun to write, but here, as then, I’m aiming to create something tangible within the realms of myth.

People groan because legends get reinvented or remade so often, but in many ways each generation ends up with their own version of the heroes in their minds. It’s like the oral tradition, where over generations the tales grow, taking on new elements while losing others. I have discovered what an absolute joy it is to write my own version of one, however much work it does need. I don’t normally make resolutions at New Year, but I think this time it might be different. After the end of this year, and the way things are now heading in next (an internship with an independent publisher), I do believe I want to finish this.

And all due to witnessing the encouragement given to others. Cheers!

 

 

 

P.S.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

One Last Time

It’s happened: Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga has drawn to a close.

And what a concluding film it was.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is unique amongst the other instalments in the series for a number of reasons. Instead of a prologue we are thrown straight into the action, with Smaug descending upon Laketown in a blaze of fury, and what follows is the shortest instalment yet. If rumours are true, even the extended edition – which for the record I cannot wait to see – will keep it in that position. And it almost pure action: from Smaug attacking Laketown and Bard’s feats with his longbow, we go to the White Council’s attack on Dol Guldur, and from then on comes the building of the titular struggle before Erebor; finally, in a lovely little sequence, we return to Hobbiton. In all this, Peter Jackson sets the link between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings firmly in place with wonderful simplicity.

It is not perfect. While I think Ryan Gage’s Alfrid was a fantastic foil to Stephen Fry’s Master, I couldn’t help but feel he was used for one gag too many in this film. Beorn was also cruelly underused, and I only hope that, as with Desolation of Smaug, he gets his just time in the extended edition when it is released on DVD next year. And while Elves are light of foot, Legolas might just have been pushed that bit too far in his ability: it’s a real shame, because it has been fun to watch, although I should say it is only one instance I’m thinking of here. And a few missing pieces to the plot at the end – those who’ve read the book will notice it too, although there is enough to hazard guesses if you haven’t. To be honest, the majority of my gripes here stem from the fact that it has had to be trimmed for the cinema. These films need the space to breath, to flow in their own time.

But, and there is a but here, it is an enjoyable romp. A very enjoyable romp. In the midst of all the action, a plot has been constructed and runs through it with surety. The cliff-hangers, the questions, they are answered, giving us a clean ending. Bard comes into his own in magnificent fashion, Thorin’s descent and ultimate redemption is incredibly intense, and Bilbo… Bilbo is as brilliant as Galadriel was terrifying. Every expression, every emotion, every little quirk, Martin Freeman could have been born to play that role. He is Bilbo. I cannot imagine anyone else doing what he does here.

When I wrote about the extended cut of Desolation of Smaug,  I wrote about hoping this would be the transition for certain things, and so it has proved. Bemoan Tauriel all you want, but she has been a great addition. I also applauded the use of the appendices, and do so again. I enjoyed the little references throughout, and the White Council sequence was truly memorable: note Saruman here. Awesome.

I left the cinema feeling somewhat moved after the spectacle, but also impressed on another matter. Yes, Billy Connolly was outrageous as Dain, brilliantly so, but it was the way his army from the Iron Hills had their big moment. They formed a shield wall in the face of attack. A proper, shields locking together, shield wall. To some this is a tiny, perhaps even unworthy thing to comment on, but not for me. In An Unexpected Journey, we saw the traits in Thorin of the heroes in the great sagas of old, but here we see the oldest tactic of battle: the shield wall may have turned into the thin red line by the age of horse and musket, but the underlying principle is the same. Like I said, that little touch impressed me – it might not have been for long given the structure of the battle and the way it was built up, but it’s great to see such a grounding in real history visualised. I applaud those who designed, and indeed decided that the Dwarves of the Iron Hills would react as such. It is such influences that make watching the appendices of the DVDs so rewarding, and I look forward to watching this particular process.

When I have another day off from temping I reckon I’ll see it again. You know, #OneLastTime. For old time’s sake.

 

 

 

P.S.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Word on the grape vin

Last night my dad and I finally got around to something we’ve spoken for years about doing: attending a wine tasting, at our local Majestic, and it was an enjoyable evening, with some wonderful discoveries.

During my second year at university I lived next door to one of the best men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and the two of us would share many a bottle of wine or ports or sherries, each of us introducing to the other our preferred bottles. As one can imagine it made for a fantastic year, a friendship blossoming from the foundations of a shared appreciation of the finer things. And last night there were truly some fine things to appreciate, and of the dozen tastings, here are those I enjoyed most.

For me, the most exciting find was the A Sticky End Noble Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Marlborough. It reminded me of Tokaji, another dessert wine, but less syrupy. The nose had a very subtle nuttiness accompanying ripe peach, and then on the palette there was a slight citrus note that enhanced the honeyed flavour. Oh so good, and will definitely be buying bottles in the future.

The Chapel Down Brut NV, England was another eye opener. My sister spent time at Chapel Down a few years back, but this was the first time I had sampled one of their bottles; it was also the first taster of the evening. It has a very yeasty flavour, but is well balanced, zesty and quite literally dances around your mouth. Being a Kentish boy, a local vineyard producing such quality on the doorstep is fantastic, and is one that I feel will give Champagnes stiff competition.

Crossing the Atlantic provided the third revelation, and until we learnt where it was from proved tricky for us to work out. It had a full bodied flavour, a nice oakiness to it, and was reminiscent in many ways of the old-style Spanish whites that are more akin to a Fino. While I particularly enjoy the old-style, I suppose you might say “they are not in vogue”, production having come to a halt it appears. So for the Saintsbury Chardonnay 2012, Carneros to evoke such thoughts was an unexpected pleasure.

I tend to drink predominantly Spanish reds, or with particular meals possibly a French, and our wine cupboard has some suitably aged bottles. My feeling when I tasted the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2013, Reserve de Capouliers was that while it had a nice depth to it, the black fruits and hints of liquorice and tannins full, it needs to age a little for it to be truly magical. Personally I’d choose to store it for another five years or so before drinking, but that’s me.

And the Calvados at the end was on another scale altogether!

 

 

 

P.S.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment