CANAL BOATING HOLIDAYS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’m planning an exciting trip with another couple for next fall. It’s a boating holiday unique to England and parts of Europe, called canal boating. Everything about the English branch of this subculture is different from what most Americans think of when they think about boating.

The boat used is called a narrowboat. It’s like a long, thin steel barge designed for use as a houseboat. It can be 45, 55 or 65 feet long but it is always only 7- feet wide. It has a small diesel engine that can go up to 5 miles an hour. You steer with a single rudder in the back of the boat. This would not work well on the ocean or a lake, but you are floating on a totally calm, 20-foot wide canal that gently winds its way through the countryside of England.

Tom and me on our first canal boat

The boats are usually painted with colors and designs specific to the canals. They are surprisingly spacious, with a living area and kitchen, full bathroom and sleeping areas. The boats sleep from 2-10 people. Some have a separate eating area, like a banquette but the smaller boats just have a table in the living room.

Interior of our canal boat

Tom and I have spent three weeks on the canals of England for two excursions. Both trips were just us, which is easily doable and enjoyable. Many retired couples in England buy a canal boat and choose to live on the canals during the open season from April through October.

However, this kind of traveling lends itself to traveling with other couples or groups because there are plenty of tasks for everyone. My first canal boat experience was in 1987 with four adults and four children ages two, seven, eight and nine.

We brought bikes so anyone could cycle to a nearby town or through the countryside. The advantage of having at least 3 adults is that there are many locks throughout the canal system, which take physical work to get through.

Tom on our second canal boat

One person has to drive the boat into the narrow lock and it goes a lot faster when you have two adults manning the lock-machinery. It can be done with one person on the ground but it’s slow and tiring for the lock operator.

The experience of just puttering down the canal is peaceful and relaxing. You can go through all kinds of scenery. There are suburban stretches with beautiful, manicured homes along the canal; there are areas of farmland with fields and cows, sheep and horses. There are woods and marshes as well as more urban areas. Each route is different. This is a vast canal system that wends its way through much of England and Wales.

Once you are on the water, you’re fully independent on the canal. You can do what you want when you want. You can pull over and stake the boat down whenever you choose to eat, relax, sleep, walk along the picturesque canal or enjoy the local sights. There are numerous pubs to stop at for a drink or a meal (the food is really good).

There are nearby towns to walk around or shop for food. There are also museums and other local curiosities that are worth a stop. We toured the Wedgewood china factory, which was fascinating. We also saw one of the rare underground ‘bomb shelters’ from the 1950s which was designed to house the local government in case of a nuclear war.

When you pull over to stop, you’ll usually find other boats and end up chatting with other boaters. There are also lots of dogs and cats on canal boats and they are also very friendly. We had a cat come into our boat and sleep with us one night.

Driving the boat and manning the locks are a form of constant activity for people who like to be doing something all the time. But there’s also plenty of downtime for those who prefer to put their feet up and relax with a good book or listen to the fabulous BBC4 radio station. It has all kinds of programming, much like our TV stations. News, talk shows, game shows, dramas, sitcoms, continuing series, all high quality.

For the nature lover, you’re usually in the middle of nowhere but for the homebody, you’re always ‘home’ in your boat.

Canal locks

If you are traveling with other folks, make sure you can spend 7-days together most of the time. You have to make lots of decisions as a group. You need to decide where to stop, for how long, where to eat or what to cook. Someone has to be the driver and the others need to manage the locks, and so on. On my first, family trip, the 2 dads were both alpha males and spent most of the time arguing over everything! One of the kids asked why the dads were acting so childishly.

This can be an amazing vacation, with something for everyone. I’m planning my fourth canal holiday because I just can’t get enough of this immersive, unique vacation.

AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY – Marilyn Armstrong

Every nation revises history. They leave out the bad bits  — slaughters of the innocent, unjust wars against minorities and civilians. They invent heroes, turn defeats into victories.

Landing of Negroes at Jamestown from a Dutch Man-of-war, 1619. In this image, the Dutch sailors, who have captured slaves from a Spanish ship, are negotiating a trade with the Jamestown settlers for food. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

American history is no different. It’s relatively easy to make our history match our myths when such a large percentage of U.S. citizens haven’t learned any history since third grade. There’s some question about how well third-grade lessons were absorbed. Recent studies show a troubling pattern of ignorance in which even the basics of history are unknown to most of our natural-born citizens. Ironically, naturalized citizens are far better educated. They had to pass a test to become citizens. The rest of us got a free pass.

Battle of Lexington & Concord

College students don’t know when we fought the Revolution, much less why. They can’t name our first president (George Washington, just in case you aren’t sure). Many aren’t clear about what happened on 9/11.  I’ve been asked which came first, World Wars I or II — indicating more than ignorance. More like deep stupidity.

All over Facebook, morons gather to impress each other with the vigor of their uninformed opinions. They proclaim we fought the Revolution to not pay taxes and keep our guns. Saying that’s not how it happened is insufficient. I lack the words to say how untrue that is.

Why did we have a Revolution? How come we rebelled against England rather than peaceably settling our differences? Wouldn’t it have been easier to make a deal?

The Tea Party wharf

Yes, it would have been easier to make a deal and we tried. Unfortunately, it turned out to be impossible. We fought a revolution when we exhausted every peaceful option. Petitions and negotiations failed, but we kept trying, even after shots had been fired and independence declared.

We didn’t want a war with England. There were lots of excellent reasons:

      • Our economy was entirely dependent on trade with England. Through English merchants, we could trade with the rest of the world. Without them, we were stuck with no trading partners or ships
      • We were ill-equipped to fight a war
      • We had no navy, no commanders. No trained army. We barely had guns
      • Our population was too small to sustain an army
      • We had no factories, mills or shipyards
      • We relied on England for finished goods other than those we could make in our own homes, including furniture, guns, clothing, cutlery, dishes, porcelain
      • We needed Britain to supply us with anything we ate or drank (think tea) unless we could grow it in North America.

All luxury goods and many necessities came from or through England. We had some nascent industries, but they were not ready for prime time. It wasn’t until 1789 we built our first cotton-spinning mill — made possible by an Englishman named Slater who immigrated from England and showed us how to do it.

Our American colonies didn’t want to be Americans. First of all, there was no America to be part of … and secondly, we wanted to be British. We wanted the right to vote in parliamentary elections as equals with other British citizens. The cry “no taxation without representation” (remember that?) didn’t mean we weren’t willing to pay taxes. It meant we wanted the right to vote on which taxes we paid. And how much.

We wanted to be heard, to participate in government. Whether or not we would or would not pay a particular tax was not at issue. Everyone pays taxes. We wanted seats in Parliament and British citizenship.

King George was a Royal asshole. His counselors strongly recommended he make a deal with the colonists. Most Americans considered themselves Englishmen. If the British king had been a more flexible, savvy or intelligent monarch, war could have been averted. We would be, as the Canadians are, part of the British Commonwealth. There would have been no war. A bone-headed monarch thought a war was better than compromise. He was a fool, but it worked out okay.

British surrender at Yorktown

We declared war which many folks here and abroad thought was folly. We almost lost it. We would have lost were it not for two critical things:

      • British unwillingness to pursue the war aggressively
      • French ships and European mercenaries.

Without French assistance and hired mercenaries from central Europe, we would have been squashed by the British who were better armed, better trained. They had battleships with guns and trained seamen to man them.

We didn’t.

Just as we considered ourselves English, albeit living abroad in a colony rather than in England, British soldiers and commanders were not overly eager to slaughter people they considered fellow Englishmen. They didn’t pursue the war with the deadly determination they could have … and if they had? Who knows how it would have worked out?

Did we really win because the British were inept and couldn’t beat an untrained ragtag rabble army? That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

I side with those who think that the British found it distasteful to shoot people with whom a short time before they had been friends and with whom they hoped to be friends again. Many British soldiers had family in “the colonies” and vice-versa. It was a painful fight, not unlike a civil war.

Many British citizens sympathized with the colonists including a goodly percentage of troops. Sympathy ran high even in the upper echelons of the British government. Many important people in England were none too happy with King George. So they did as they were ordered but without enthusiasm.

Getting the people excited enough to take up arms is hard work.

Then there was a huge miscalculation. The British did not expect the French to show up. As soon as the French fleet arrived, a few more battles were fought and the British went home. Had they pursued the war with vigor from the start, we wouldn’t have lasted long enough for the French to get here, much less save our butts.

The mythology surrounding the American Revolution is natural. Every nation needs heroes and myths and we are no exception. But as grown-ups, we can apply a bit of healthy skepticism, read a couple of books. Learn there’s more to the story than the stuff we learned when we were eight. Like, the second part of the Revolutionary war known as “The War of 1812.” Part two of the Revolution which we lost fair and square when the British burned Washington D.C.

We did not win the Revolution. We survived it. Barely.

Revolutionary tea party crate-dumping

This is why our current government is more than a mere miscalculation, a bad election. It’s not something we’ll “pull out of” after which everything will go back to normal. I’m not sure we have a normal to go back to.

It’s not only how the evil underbelly of America has been exposed for all to see. It’s also that the planet is under attack. Americans — and everyone else — need to fix it if we want to continue to live here.

We need to be very careful about how we move “forward.” We have to tread carefully. We have to work with our allies and our non-allies because everyone needs to put their shoulders to the wheel to keep our world livable.

World War 2 tank

We used to have the good fortune to live in a nation of laws but I’m not sure this is a nation of laws anymore. I’m not sure what we are. I’m not sure what the world is or whether there will be a world in another 100 years. Or for that matter, in another thirty.

Ignorance is the enemy of freedom. And our current government is the enemy of education, learning, and truth.

THE MYTHOLOGY OF AMERICA FOR AMERICANS – Marilyn Armstrong

Every nation revises history. They leave out the bad bits  — slaughters of the innocent, unjust wars against minorities and civilians. They invent heroes, turn defeats into victories.

This (attributed to ) originally appeared duri...

American history is no different. It’s relatively easy to make our history match our myths when such a large percentage of U.S. citizens haven’t learned any history since third grade. There’s some question about how well third grade lessons were absorbed. Recent studies show a troubling pattern of ignorance in which even the basics of history are unknown to most of our natural-born citizens. Ironically, naturalized citizens are far better educated. They had to pass a test to become citizens. The rest of us got a free pass.

College students don’t know when we fought the Revolution, much less why. They can’t name our first president (George Washington, just in case you aren’t sure). Many aren’t clear what happened on 9/11.  I’ve been asked which came first, World Wars I or II — indicating more than ignorance. More like deep stupidity.

Getting the people excited enough to take up arms is hard work.

All over Facebook, morons gather to impress each other with the vigor of their uninformed opinions. They proclaim we fought the Revolution to not pay taxes and keep our guns. Saying that’s not how it happened is insufficient. I lack the words to say how untrue that is.

Why did we have a Revolution? How come we rebelled against England rather than peaceably settling our differences? Wouldn’t it have been easier to make a deal?

Yes, it would have been easier to make a deal and we tried. Unfortunately, it turned out to be impossible. We fought a revolution when we exhausted every peaceful option. Petitions and negotiations failed, but we kept trying, even after shots had been fired and independence declared.

We didn’t want a war with England. There were lots of excellent reasons:

      • Our economy was entirely dependent on trade with England. Through English merchants, we could trade with the rest of the world. Without them, we were stuck with no trading partners or ships
      • We were ill-equipped to fight a war
      • We had no navy, no commanders. No trained army. We barely had guns
      • Our population was too small to sustain an army
      • We had no factories, mills or shipyards
      • We relied on England for finished goods other than those we could make in our own homes, including furniture, guns, clothing, cutlery, dishes, porcelain
      • We needed Britain to supply us with anything we ate or drank (think tea) unless we could grow it in North America.

All luxury goods and many necessities came from or through England. We had some nascent industries, but they were not ready for prime time. It wasn’t until 1789 we built our first cotton-spinning mill — made possible by an Englishman named Slater who immigrated from England and showed us how to do it.

Our American colonies didn’t want to be Americans. First of all, there was no America to be part of … and secondly, we wanted to be British. We wanted the right to vote in parliamentary elections as equals with other British citizens. The cry “no taxation without representation” (remember that?) didn’t mean we weren’t willing to pay taxes. It meant we wanted the right to vote on which taxes we paid. And how much.

We wanted to be heard, to participate in government. Whether or not we would or would not pay a particular tax was not at issue. Everyone pays taxes. We wanted seats in Parliament and British citizenship.

King George was a Royal asshole. His counselors strongly recommended he make a deal with the colonists. Most Americans considered themselves Englishmen. If the British king had been a more flexible, savvy or intelligent monarch, war could have been averted. We would be, as the Canadians are, part of the British Commonwealth. There would have been no war. A bone-headed monarch thought a war was better than compromise. He was a fool, but it worked out okay.

We declared war which many folks here and abroad thought was folly. We almost lost it. We would have lost were it not for two critical things:

      • British unwillingness to pursue the war aggressively
      • French ships and European mercenaries.

Without French assistance and hired mercenaries from central Europe, we would have been squashed by the British who were better armed, better trained. They had battleships with guns and trained seamen to man them.

We didn’t.

Near home, in a ritzy Boston suburb.

Just as we considered ourselves English, albeit living abroad in a colony rather than in England, British soldiers and commanders were not overly eager to slaughter people they considered fellow Englishmen. They didn’t pursue the war with the deadly determination they could have … and if they had? Who knows how it would have worked out?

Did we really win because the British were inept and couldn’t beat an untrained ragtag rabble army? That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

I side with those who think that the British found it distasteful to shoot people with whom a short time before they had been friends and with whom they hoped to be friends again. Many British soldiers had family in “the colonies” and vice-versa. It was a painful fight, not unlike a civil war.

Many British citizens sympathized with the colonists including a goodly percentage of troops. Sympathy ran high even in the upper echelons of the British government. Many important people in England were none too happy with King George. So they did as they were ordered but without enthusiasm.

Then there was a huge miscalculation. The British did not expect the French to show up. As soon as the French fleet arrived, a few more battles were fought and the British went home. Had they pursued the war with vigor from the start, we wouldn’t have lasted long enough for the French to get here, much less save our butts.

The mythology surrounding the American Revolution is natural. Every nation needs heroes and myths and we are no exception. But as grown-ups, we can apply a bit of healthy skepticism, read a couple of books. Learn there’s more to the story than the stuff we learned when we were eight. Like, the second part of the Revolutionary war known as “The War of 1812.” Part two of the Revolution which we lost fair and square when the British burned Washington D.C.

We did not win the Revolution. We survived it. Barely.

This is why our current government is more than a mere miscalculation, a bad election. It’s not something we’ll “pull out of” after which everything will go back to normal. I’m not sure we have a normal to go back to.

It’s not only how the evil underbelly of America has been exposed for all to see. It’s also that the planet is under attack. Americans — and everyone else — need to fix it if we want to continue to live here.

We need to be very careful about how we move “forward.” We have to tread carefully. We have to work with our allies and our non-allies because everyone needs to put their shoulders to the wheel to keep our world livable.

We used to have the good fortune to live in a nation of laws but I’m not sure this is a nation of laws anymore. I’m not sure what we are. I’m not sure what the world is or whether there will be a world in another 100 years. Or for that matter, in another thirty.

Ignorance is the enemy of freedom. And our current government is the enemy of education, learning, and truth.

THE BEST TRIP EVER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Our all time favorite vacation is renting a canal boat and spending a week or two driving it through the English countryside. England has a network of canals that run throughout the country, from London up to Wales, with many circular routes or ‘rings’ in the center of the country.

The canal boats are not like any boat you’ve ever seen. They’re called narrow boats. They are basically long and thin steel barges, about 7 ½ feet wide and ranging from 45-65 feet long. They are like houseboats and can sleep anywhere from two to eight people. There is always a living/eating area, often with comfy chairs and a wood burning stove. There is a kitchen and bathroom in addition to at least one bedroom. They are amazingly roomy and comfortable.

The outside of the boats are painted in distinctive bright colors with classic patterns on them. They are beautiful and each boat is unique. The style is country craft meets gypsy. Lots of stylized floral motifs.

All the boats also have a small outside deck area where you sit or stand and steer the boat – from the back. The boat can only go about five miles per hour and you steer it with a single tiller. When another canal boat is coming in the other direction, you may only have six inches or so of space between the two boats. At first driving the boat is daunting and intimidating. But after a while, it becomes second nature and it’s no big deal.

Locks are something unique to canals. They are part of the allure and the culture of the canals. To get up and down the numerous hills and valleys, you go through locks. These are sluices that raise or lower the water level to the water level on the other side of the lock. In England, they are all manual and the boaters have to work the locks themselves. I don’t have the space here to go into lock technology. But it takes time and requires physical labor by the lock person, while the navigator drives the boat into and out of the lock compartments.

Locks add to the charm of the canal experience, except in the pouring rain or in 95 degree heat. We have experienced both.

The canals and the scenery alongside them are beautiful. You can drive through scenic farmland, dotted with cows and sheep. You can also go through heavily forested areas, suburbs with gorgeous canal side houses, or even swampland. There are also industrial towns along some of the routes. The canals were originally built in the eighteenth century for industries, like the famous English china factories such as Wedgewood. The canals were for the transportation of supplies and marketable goods back and forth around the country.

Canal boating is a very self-contained and independent type of holiday. If you see a pub that appeals to you, you stop for a beer or a meal. And there are lots of picturesque pubs along all the canals. When you get to a town, you walk to the stores and shop for food or just putter around. When you’re ready to stop for the night, you pick a spot, pull over and hammer down stakes to hold the boat in place.

You get totally caught up in the peaceful, slow-paced world of the canals. You get friendly with other boaters camped near you or going through the locks with you. Many English boaters live on the canals for months at a time, often with their cats and/or dogs. That sounds idyllic to me!

I’ve been on three canal trips. One was with another couple and four young children and two were just with my husband, Tom. It’s one of the only vacations I want to go back to again and again. To reduce stress, when I think of a peaceful, happy place, I transport myself to a canal boat in the English countryside.

TRAVEL ON – RICH PASCHALL

Where To Next? by Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog


Perhaps you have seen the commercials or print ads for a popular travel planning site that features a garden gnome. Yes, a garden gnome!  If you have done any travel planning online, then they may have popped up on your computer too.  The internet is smarter than we are and knows when to send us a picture of a garden gnome.  For years I thought the ad campaign was silly.  I could not imagine why a lifeless gnome was speaking to us from various locales from around the world.

Then a friend recommended the beloved 2001 French film Amelie to me (aka Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) .  Actually, he checked it out of the library, gave it to me and told me to watch it.  Amelie was busy in her life solving the problems of others while neglecting her own.  As the film progresses, one of the people Amelie turns her attention to is her father, a widower who rarely seems to make it past the garden and his beloved gnome.  I will not explain the importance of the wooden figurine, but needless to say, Amelie has launched a great plan that includes the gnome.  If you do not know French, watch it with subtitles.  It is worth it.

Tom Law t-shirt, Chicago

Some years after discovering why the gnome is travelling the world, I had a conversation with musician Tom Joseph Law regarding his t-shirts and where they had been seen online.  Perhaps it was just a casual conversation about the posting of a friend, I honestly don’t recall, but I do remember that I had a picture of myself at a local event in 2015 where I was wearing the shirt.  So I posted it to Facebook.

Colombia

In the picture, a stick figure Tom is falling off his surfboard while a large fish seems ready to greet him.  It is based on a rather horrible surfing accident which Tom relayed to me one day in quite a bit of detail.  Some of it is a bit amusing now that time has passed, but it was not pleasant.  It affected Tom’s voice for a long time to follow.  This is not good for a singer-songwriter.

The first time I went to Colombia, I took the shirt along and got several pictures throughout Medellin.  I am not sure which one I posted at the time, so here is one with my friend and tour guide for the visit.  Not only did John take a few pictures with my camera, but we also bothered his friends to get some pictures of us. It was the first time John and I met in person, after a year or more of conversation.

On the next trip to Colombia I may have forgotten this particular shirt, but I had another Tom Law shirt with me.  It is the drawing that also appears on the cover of an album (EP, actually).  I may have violated the true spirit of the gnome, but nothing says Colombia more than an American wearing the British guy’s t-shirt in front of the British store in a mall in Medellin. So here it is anyway.

Medellin

When I finally got to travel to England and visit the area where Tom is from, he had already left the country.  I am pretty sure that had nothing to do with our arrival.  So we found our own travel guide and went on to Bath while Tom was hiding in an eastern European country.  I guess it was his own personal Brexit.  Anyway, I got my travel companion to take pictures of my gnome t-shirt with my phone.  If you wish to see pictures of our tour of Salisbury, Stonehenge and a Roman Bath, you can find them here.

Bath, England but where is Tom?

Last month I visited my closest friend in France.  This brought the opportunity to get another picture of the traveling t-shirt with the gnome falling off the surfboard.  On a sunny day in a week that was filled with clouds, we made it to Strasbourg where I coaxed the French guy into taking pictures of yours truly in the British t-shirt. Since the guy in the foreground is not much to look at, it is fortunate we were on the street that leads up to the magnificent cathedral in Strasbourg.

Strasbourg, France

This historic building was started over a thousand years ago.  It is awesome in its intricate details and is always a site to behold.  At one time, it was the tallest structure in Europe.  Now the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg should be on the tour of anyone passing through the Alsace region, whether you are carrying a garden gnome or not.

When considering all of the countries where this shirt has been, whether there was a postcard home from the gnome or not, Tom thinks it may have made it to more countries than he has.  That’s not too bad, actually.

BORING STUFF YOU IGNORED IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Back on Facebook, the site I love to hate. Someone who ought to know better is saying “Here’s a suggestion: To solve this government shutdown, call a general election and let the people decide what should be done. Should we continue with the shutdown or go back to running the government? Sounds simple to me!”

Election day 2012

And getting the response:  “What’s simple to us is hard for our elected officials!”

It’s not hard for our elected officials. It’s impossible and illegal for our officials — elected and otherwise.

Not only that, but we do not have any mechanism that allows a plebiscite wherein everyone gets to voice his or her opinion and The Government has to Abide by Our Vote. How would that work, exactly? To which part of our legal system does that belong? Judicial? Legislative? Executive?

I’m pretty sure we have to pass laws via the legislature. To change laws, we have to get rid of old laws via the judicial branch and/or enact new laws. Which brings us back to the legislative branch. Or to put it another way — congress. If you don’t like the bozos in congress, don’t vote for them. What? You didn’t vote? Well then. I guess you got what you deserve.

The executive branch (aka The President) can’t enact laws. He can use his influence to try to get congress to create laws he likes. He can veto laws he dislikes although presidents do not use their veto much. It’s a thing. Oh, and congress can overturn a veto if enough members of congress agree. Like that’s going to happen.

So — after we have this entirely illegal “public opinion election,” who will enforce “the will of the people”? To the best of my knowledge, there is no force of law to public opinion. There never has been.

Returning to Facebook, I post a little something. Because I love it when I absolutely, positively know no one is going to pay any attention to me. I say: “You can’t just ‘call an election’ in the U.S. This isn’t Great Britain where members of parliament vote “no confidence’ to jumpstart a new election. The U.S. has scheduled elections. Beginning and end of story. The Constitution specifies how and when elections will be held. You can vote down a government in England. You cannot do it here.”

Everyone ignores me. Probably because I’m so smart.

So what can you do about all the stuff you don’t like? Between scheduled elections, you are free to gripe, whine, wail, argue, rant, piss and moan … but you can’t vote until the next scheduled election.

Green is for going.

Green is for going.

It’s one of several fundamental differences between our government and parliamentary governments (like England, France etc.). Americans are always saying how superior our government is, yet they don’t seem to know how it works. Hmm.

So I love it when folks call for an election to change something they don’t like. As if the United States has ever or could ever “just call an election” and “let the people decide.” Even in a parliamentary government — which is nominally more responsive to public opinion — you can’t just “call an election” anytime citizens are displeased with what’s going on.

Somewhere in every government throughout history a lot of citizens are/were/will be unhappy with whatever the government is or isn’t doing. If you had an election every time a bunch of people were mad at the government, we’d always be in the middle of an election.

Wouldn’t that be fun!

You are not required to like what’s going on, but if you want to participate, you need a fundamental grasp of how your government works. The boring stuff you ignored learned in grammar school. Today, you’re all grown up and your government is boring. I know. It’s not fair.

Feel free to ignore me. I should never read anything on Facebook. It just pisses me off.

 

Woven of Myth: The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

By Dan Jones

PENGUIN GROUP Viking – 560 pages

Publication Date:   April 18, 2013

This is a highly readable book. Although it is pure history, it’s so beautifully written, so lyrical it feels like a novel. Rarely has any book about this remarkable family given me the sense of destiny and the full impact of their influence and the romance of England’s premier ruling family. To a large extent, the Plantagenets defined England — perhaps even created it. This view of the Plantagenets was unique concept for me. As soon as I read it, it made complete sense. That the more than 200 year reign of this remarkable family, with its peaks and its depths continues to define British identity was something I’d never considered. Now it seems obvious, but like so many obvious things, I never noticed it until the author pointed it out.

It was wonderful to read history where the author appreciates not just the facts, but the drama, romance, story and myth. The imprint left by this ruling family on Great Britain is deep, pervasive and affects every aspect of England’s identity, even in the 21st century long after the family has — technically — disappeared. On many levels, this family can never disappear. They are part of the soil, the air, the heart of the island kingdom they ruled.

From its opening words, the book grabbed me and pulled me in. It “had” me before I had finished the preface, much less the first chapter.

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/Norman battle in 1066

Although I was predisposed to enjoy it, I had no idea how much I would enjoy it. This is a book that greatly and delightfully exceeded my expectations. I have read many books about the Plantagenets, both straight history and as literary “docudrama.” I am very familiar with the stories of each of the monarchs, the wars, the scandals, the affairs, the treachery. It could have been old news for me, but instead, it was like reading it for the first time. What a wonderful fresh voice the author brings to material that has been written about — one might think — to the point where you could reasonably question whether or not yet another tome on the subject serves any purpose.

Was anything new uncovered? Not really new information, but in many cases, a new way of looking at history I have read in many other books. Whether or not the information is new to you will depend on how much else you’ve read. There was no news in it for me, but I’ve been fascinated by the Plantagenets and the British Crown since I was a kid.

The debunking of characters like Simon de Montfort that seem to have surprised some readers wasn’t news to me. I have read sufficient French history of the period to thoroughly detest the man and didn’t need any more help. The same goes for most of these characters. It wasn’t new information that made the book so much fun for me, but the presentation and the obvious relish the author took in the stories and characters. His enthusiasm is infectious.

Richard_I

As you might expect, the book includes maps, lineage charts, all the family connections of the Plantagenets. The story covers that period from Empress Mathilda through Richard II’s loss to Bolingbroke. It stops in 1399, rather before the ascent of the Tudors. The author chose to end his narrative before the War of the Roses, leaving that long and ugly battle for England’s throne for the next volume. I look forward to reading that too.

At 560 pages, it is a long book. I had no trouble with its length other than finding enough time to read the entire thing. It wasn’t hard to become engrossed in each of its sections. Nor does it require any prior knowledge of the period, although prior knowledge certainly doesn’t hurt. You could hardly grow up an English-speaker and not have heard of most of the prominent people that strut, gallop or crawl across the pages. If you’ve read any English history at all, you have surely encountered these Kings, Queens, counselors, courtiers, ministers and more.

If you’ve read Shakespeare, you may feel you know this material well, but anything written by Shakespeare is strongly prejudiced in favor the usurping Tudors. It is untrustworthy as fact. Shakespeare is literature, not history and should be enjoyed as such.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a pleasure to read, whether you are a scholar, history buff,  Anglophone or Anglophile, lover of historical novels … or innocently searching for a great read.

It’s available in hard cover, paperback, Kindle and audio. I don’t believe you could go wrong no matter what version you choose.