“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

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“Gimson’s Kings And Queens” by Andrew Gimson (2015)

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gimson“William I conquered England.”

The throne of our island has been occupied by forty-one individuals: a Stephen, a John, an Anne, a Victoria, two Marys, two Elizabeths, two Jameses, two Charleses, three Richards, four Williams, six Georges, eight Edwards and eight Henrys. You’ll usually find the number racks up at forty though, given the odd co-ruling of Mary II and William III, but you can expand the number further if you’re going to include Matilda and Jane. In short, though, the role of monarch is one that is held by very few people. In Andrew Gimson’s marvellous and entirely up-to-date new book, he spills the beans on every single person who has taken control of England (and later Britain) since 1066.

Gimson explores each monarch in turn, starting from William the Conqueror with his 1066 invasion, and passing on right up until Elizabeth II, dedicated two to ten pages to each king or queen. A brief biopic of each character is then laid out, going over their greatest achievements (if any) and biggest failings, what the public thought of them, how their legacy lives on, and how they got on with the rest of the family and dealt with other issues of war, religion, politics, disease, sex and money.

Some of the kings and queens featured you’ll know rather well. Victoria, Henry VIII, both Elizabeth I and II, and perhaps Richard III, are the most well-known of the people who have worn the crown, but they are far from the only ones who are interesting. It’s a great book for realising that there are may well be some pretty huge gaps in your knowledge of the royal family. You might know all about Henry VIII, sure, but did you know that his father Henry VII was responsible for providing the royals with immense riches, working more like an accountant than anything else? Did you know that William II was so hated by his people that he when he was found dead, people thought it was more likely murder than accident? Do you know which king had a head shaped like a pineapple, who was an avid stamp collector, and which queen had two phantom pregnancies, so desperate she was to believe that she could provide the country with an heir? And do you know anything about Henry IV or William III?

While the book doesn’t pull any punches with pointing out the utter stupidity of some of the monarchs, noting which ones had no interest in art and culture, and which ones were always in debt, it also doesn’t really write any of them off. They are all important to some degree or another (possible exception to be made for Edward V who ruled for just 78 days) and they paint a fascinating picture of the country as it evolved. Gimson’s even fairly nice about Oliver Cromwell in the short section about the country’s brief time as a republic, and while he doesn’t outright accuse Richard III of murder, he’s going to lay down the facts for you anyway and let you decide for yourselves.

I’ve always been something of a monarchist, really, perhaps just because I’m a sucker for this kind of traditionalism. I know a lot of people are for abolishing the monarchy, but in reality I don’t think the country would ever really go for the idea. I’ve always found it fascinating that it’s been the same family – with rather widespread branches from time to time – ruling the country for nearly one thousand years. They serve to unite our history as a people, ruling first England alone and then adding in Scotland under Queen Anne. Gimson discusses some of the ideas as to why it’s survived as it as in a final chapter.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the most interesting family in British history, or want a quick refresher course in who was who and who did what, then you can’t ask for more than this book. Sharp, funny, astute and hugely readable, this should be the glanced at by everyone. It’s especially poignant right now as, should Elizabeth II still be on the throne on the 9th September this year (that’s in six days at the time of writing), she overtakes Victoria as the longest-serving ruler in British history, an absolutely outstanding achievement.

So whether you’re mad for Mary I, crazy about Charles II, gaga for George V, or just think that Richard III was rotten, I advise you to take a look at this book and see if still feel the same after. Or even if you’re not enamoured, it’s almost worth it just for the excellent cartoons of each king and queen preceding each chapter.

“The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett (2007)

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uncommon

“One has been enjoying Fifty Shades…”

“At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.”

With wind and rain lashing the south of England, and the skies the colour of a particularly nasty bruise, the only sensible course of action was to buckle down with a novella and hope that neither the roof blew off or lightning destroyed the shed. I headed for a book that hasn’t been on my shelf long, but I’ve been aware of and meaning to read for years. It concerns a very important woman indeed, and has a very important message.

In The Uncommon Reader, the main character is none other than Queen Elizabeth II herself. She has just discovered that a mobile library pops by the palace every Wednesday and, once aboard and exploring, decides to borrow a book. Although it isn’t that good, she reads it anyway and returns it the following week, taking another book with her. Soon she is mesmerised by the literary world, a world that until now she has rarely experienced.

Encouraged in her new passion by Norman Seakins, a skivvy from the kitchens (who soon recieves a rather hefty promotion), the Queen begins to devour books, finding within the pages of Proust, Dickens and Plath truths about the human condition that, in her priveliged position, she has never experienced. Her obsession begins to affect everything else. She becomes late for everything, has little interest in anything that keeps her from her books, and she is taking less interest in her appearance. She’s even learnt how to read and wave at the same time. The royal household is worried about what her new hobby is doing to her – reading, they suggest, excludes her from many of her subjects – and begin to take matters into their own hands.

More than anything, this is a love story to the written word. Reading and writing are both spoken of fondly, revealing to all the true magic and wonder that exist in the simple activities. The Queen makes for an excellent character and, while I’m a royalist anyway, I found myself even more enraptured with the notion of this mysterious old woman who rules the country and keeps herself to herself. The Queen is, of course, a very private person – by nature of her job, she has to be, really. As she says, she is not to have interests, but must be interested in everything. To see this side of her, no matter how ficticious it may be, is wonderfully interesting and brings her to life a little bit more. This Queen is sweet and duty-bound to a fault to perform the tasks asked of her, but she keeps an edge of steel that reminds you that even though she is a twenty-first century monarch, she’s definitely related to those royals of old.

The secondary characters make for interesting folk, too. Norman Seakins is a young man who doesn’t treat the Queen the way everyone else does, seeing her rather more as a grandmother figure than as his monarch. The Queen’s private secretary Sir Kevin Scatchard is less of a pleasant fellow, unable to see any good coming from the Queen’s new hobby. He gets his comeuppance in a brief scene when one realises that to deny the Queen anything is futile.

The ending tugged at my heartstrings a little, and made me somewhat sad, but otherwise this is a wholly charming and wonderful novella about the power of books and the passion people can (and should) have for them. It’s quite funny in its own way, and does very well to portray the Queen as a human being, with her own opinions, thoughts and feelings. I think sometimes we forget that behind closed doors, she must have her own ideas about things. We might never know what they are, but this book offers a tantalising glimpse of what might be happening behind palace doors.

“Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare (1613)

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HENRY_VIII“An untimely ague stayed me a prisoner in my chamber when those two lights of men met in the vale of Andren.”

I mentioned a while ago on here that I have very recently been to Stratford-Upon-Avon and, as such, Shakespeare was bound to turn up on the blog eventually. So, here he is, although perhaps not in the form that anyone expected.

Y’see, I’ve had continual issues with Shakespeare over the years. He’s the finest writer in history, sure, but he was not a novelist. He was a poet and a playwright, meaning that his work isn’t really supposed to be read, but rather seen. I’ve seen a few performances in the past, as well as some modernised adaptations, and I do generally enjoy them. So when in Stratford I stumbled upon a new way to enjoy the plays, I jumped at it. This is Shakespeare manga.

Manga, for those who aren’t aware, are comics made in Japan, conforming to certain historical rules. The style is often beautiful, alternating between simple and detailed, rarely coloured, and they cover a whole variety of genres. Manga is not just for children – it is read by most of the population. In recent years, the popularity of the format has spread globally and, with its bold designs and ability to tell any story, it seemed logical to put Shakespeare’s stories into this format. As far as I can tell, fourteen of his plays have so far been adapted for the style, and I have begun with his last play. It is one of the less well known of the canon: Henry VIII.

As you may have surmised, the play tells the story of the eighth King Henry of England and his dealings with his first two wives, as well as political figures like Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell. With Catherine of Aragon seemingly unable to provide him with a son, he moves to marry Anne Boleyn, although must first contend with the church and get a divorce. Meanwhile, Wolsey has gone crazy with power, so it seems, and many of the lords are plotting to remove him from his seat to further their own means.

While interesting and engaging, Henry VIII is not the Bard’s finest work. It is actually commonly suggested that collaborated with fellow writer John Fletcher on this one, although perhaps a collaboration with Andrew Lloyed Webber would’ve been more exciting. Otherwise, the play is notable for two other reasons. Firstly, the original has more stage directions than any other of his plays. And secondly, it was the play that was being performed when the original Globe theatre burned down in 1613, when a special effects cannon ignited the thatched roof.

Maybe this wasn’t the best one to start with – the other manga I bought are plays I know better, and will feature here in due course – but I didn’t dislike it, and the method of storytelling is a rather smart one, given that the medium is supposed to be visual. Just goes to show that you can’t keep a good bard down.

“The Secret Of Chimneys” by Agatha Christie (1925)

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Always check your chimneys for rogue Dick Van Dykes.

Always check your chimneys for rogue Dick Van Dykes.

“Gentleman Joe!”

I write these words from Stratford-upon-Avon; not my usual home, but a fitting place as any to write about one of the greatest wordsmiths in history. Obviously, it would be more fitting if I was writing about Shakespeare, but Christie will have to do. (I fear that Shakespeare will repeatedly appear on this blog in the future, however, due to the glut of new books I’ve picked up here.)

The Secret of Chimneys is one of Dame Agatha’s earliest novels dating from 1925. While Poirot, Marple and the Beresfords are all absent, it does feature another recurring character of hers – Superintendent Battle, the stoic and incredibly efficient policeman of Scotland Yard. However, the story starts in South Africa where Anthony Cade, a bored tour guide with a lust for adventure, meets his friend Jimmy McGrath. Sensing that Cade wants to escape, McGrath offers him the very opportunity.

It seems that McGrath is in possession of the memoirs of a certain Count Stylptitch, a noble from the country of Herzoslovakia, which has recently gone through hell and back after the assassination of the king and queen and the introduction of a republic. These diaries, McGrath says, will contain great secrets that would do best to keep hidden, but nonetheless a publisher in London is willing to pay £1000 to the person hands them over. McGrath offers Cade the chance to head back to England in his place and take the memoirs with him. He also asks that a private bundle of letters be taken too – they are written from a lady to a gentleman and contain information that suggests the woman, Victoria Revel, is being blackmailed. Cade is to return them to the woman in question so she can do what she wants with them.

Leaping at the opportunity, Cade heads to London under the name of McGrath and sets about trying to pass the documents on to the right people. However, his presence has not gone unnoticed and he is soon greeted by people who very much want the memoirs to fall into hands other than the publishers. He even wakes up one night in his hotel to find a waiter rustling through his suitcase. After meeting the infamous Victoria Revel, it soon becomes clear that the answer to all their problems lies at the stately home of Chimneys.

Heading to Chimneys separately, Victoria and Cade eventually reunite over the murder of a visiting nobleman, much to the annoyance of the owner of Chimneys, Lord Caterham. This would be bad enough but when it turns out that even more people are after the memoirs, there’s a jewel thief on the loose, someone is plotting to reinstate the monarchy to Herzoslovakia, and policeman from Britain, France and the United States are all descending on the stately home, Chimneys suddenly becomes a hub of considerable activity.

There’s quite a lot going on in this novel. It’s partly a small scale story about blackmail and missing jewels, while also having a second side that involves the abolition and potential reinstatement of a monarchy. I always prefer Christie when she’s writing small, but the big world-changing stuff is handled nicely. I was entirely wrong on who was to blame, as usual, and Christie once more throws everyone off the scent very smartly.

The suspects are varied and frankly all of them seem likely at one point or another. This is, however, a book where everyone is hiding a secret of some kind, and the inspectors are playing their cards very close to their chests. When Cade believes that he’s about to be implicated, he comes forward immediately and explains himself. The police may not believe him, but his story does at least hold together, if not posing further questions and suggesting a contrived coincidence or two.

The resolution is neat and leaves you satisfied, even if the characters are not. Lord Caterham is one of my favourite Christie characters I think; a man who is not so much appalled by the murder as simply annoyed that it’s happened in his house and he might now have to answer some questions rather than just fade into the background as he prefers.

Although you can tell that it’s one of Christie’s earlier works, already her trademarks are in play, messing with the heads of her readers and turning tropes on their heads to weave a tale of international mystery.