31 May, 2009

The Crooked Cross, by Michael Dean. Book review

Disclaimer: The Crooked Cross is published by Quaestor2000 who have also published my novel Paths of Exile, although I don’t think that has influenced my opinion.

Edition reviewed: Quaestor2000, 2009, ISBN 978-1-906836-13-9. 191 pages.

Set in Munich in 1933, The Crooked Cross tells the story of a disparate group of people attempting to resist Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Senior figures in the Nazi hierarchy, such as Heydrich, Hess and of course Hitler himself, appear as secondary characters. Two of the main characters, the lawyer Glaser and the police superintendent Forster, are historical figures about whom little detail is known. The other main characters are fictional.

Adolf Hitler has just become Chancellor of Germany, and his National Socialist (Nazi) party is steadily increasing its control over all aspects of life. Disagreement is already becoming dangerous, liable to result in punishment beatings, destruction or appropriation of property, imprisonment without trial, or worse. Gerhard Glaser, a lawyer and Public Prosecutor, views the ever-increasing power of the party with concern. Two years previously his attempt to investigate the death of Hitler’s niece, Geli Raubal, was frustrated by an obvious cover-up, and Glaser believes that Hitler was responsible for her death. His failure to obtain justice in that case still haunts him, and when a Jewish art dealer is murdered and the contents of his safe stolen Glaser finds himself embroiled in another unsavoury political cover-up that reaches to the top of the Nazi hierarchy. As his attempts to investigate get him into deeper and deeper trouble, Glaser comes into contact with a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Now he is faced with a terrible choice – accept that the rule of law no longer runs in Germany, or try to take matters into his own hands….

The Crooked Cross provides an excellent – and disturbing – portrait of a society’s slide into totalitarian rule. As democratic and judicial institutions are systematically undermined, to be replaced by an arbitrary and increasingly brutal autocracy, ordinary people find their lives progressively constrained. Rival political parties are banned. Journalists who ask too many awkward questions are thrown out of a job, exiled or simply disappear. Even art is controlled, with art forms such as Expressionism condemned as “degenerate” or “un-German” and their practitioners persecuted. Individuals or groups (including, but not only, Jews) who meet with the capricious disfavour of the authorities may find their property confiscated and their livelihoods destroyed. The law becomes gradually demoted to a tool of oppression, to be used as suits the whim of the new tyrants, large and small. Having done nothing wrong is no defence.

Against this background, Glaser’s journey takes on a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god poignancy. Glaser is no political fanatic, but a decent and honest man who believes in the rule of law. Many readers may well find themselves wondering how they would have acted in his situation. The choices he is faced with – in particular, whether to risk his family’s safety for his principles – make him a compelling character. Glaser contrasts well with the other members of the conspiracy, such as the committed communist Sepp Kunde and the aristocratic socialites Ello von Hessert and her unstable brother Rudiger. The von Hesserts move in exalted circles (Ello is effectively Hitler’s girlfriend for most of the book), with all the privilege that implies. Whereas for Glaser and his family the potential danger is all too real.

The novel isn’t a thriller as such, but nevertheless the plot manages to maintain a high degree of tension. Rather like The Day of the Jackal, the reader may know the outcome perfectly well, but the characters don’t. While immersed in the world of the novel, I found myself suspending disbelief and hoping that the conspiracy would succeed and events would somehow all turn out differently. It’s a considerable skill in historical fiction to make known events – especially events as well known as Hitler’s career – seem open to possibility, and The Crooked Cross succeeds admirably.

All the plot threads are resolved either by the end of the novel or in the Epilogue, including the solution to the art dealer’s murder and the fates of the central characters. A helpful Historical Note explains the underlying history and the liberties taken, and sets out which characters are fictional and which based on real figures. A map would have been useful, but it’s not difficult to consult a modern atlas to find out where the various towns and cities are.

Thought-provoking novel charting a disturbing period in recent history.

More information on the novel and the historical background on the author’s website.

29 May, 2009

May recipe: Fishcakes with asparagus

I was never terribly keen on fishcakes as a child. They mostly came pre-packaged and frozen, flattened discs of an indeterminate starchy substance powder-coated in fluorescent orange particles. Sometimes they were shaped like a child’s drawing of a fish, which presumably meant either that the manufacturer had just hired a new marketing manager with whimsical tendencies or needed a foolproof way of separating the fishcakes from the otherwise indistinguishable potato croquettes. I daresay it didn’t help that I once found half a beetle in one. Half a beetle, please note. I sincerely hope that the other half was still somewhere in a field and not in the previous forkful. So it is perhaps not surprising that I’d been cooking for a couple of decades before I finally learned to make proper fishcakes.

When I did, of course I wondered why it took me so long. They have been a fixture in my repertoire ever since, mainly cooked in spring or autumn when maincrop potatoes are available. Crushed new potatoes tend not to stick together in the same way as mashed maincrop potato does, so I don’t think new potatoes would bind properly, though I haven’t tried it to find out.

Here’s my recipe:


Serves 2

8 oz (approx 250 g) assorted fish pieces, e.g. salmon, cod, haddock, smoked haddock, skate, according to taste and availability, skin and bones removed. If you have some left over from making a fish pie, that’s ideal.
8 oz (approx 250 g) maincrop potatoes
1 Tablespoon (approx) chopped fresh parsley, or about 1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried parsley
Milk or cream to mix
Plain flour for coating

Peel, boil and mash the potatoes. Stir in some butter to taste if liked, but careful not to get the mash too sloppy or the fishcakes won’t bind.
Cut the fish into small pieces, about 0.25 inch (approx 0.5 cm) across. If the fish is already cooked, e.g. if it was left over from making a fish pie, flake it into pieces.
Mix the mashed potatoes, fish and chopped parsley in a bowl, and season with salt and black pepper. Add a teaspoon or two of milk or cream if needed to make it all stick together. The mixture should be firm but not sloppy.
Shape the mixture into four rounds (or any other shape you fancy) and flatten them to about 0.5 inch (approx 1 cm) thick.
Coat the rounds in plain flour.
Shallow-fry the fishcakes in cooking oil in a wok or frying pan over a medium heat for about 5 minutes until the underside is crisp and golden-brown, then carefully turn them over and fry another 5 minutes on the other side. The times are approximate, as it will depend on the heat, the thickness of the fishcakes, and the depth of the oil in the pan, so use your judgement.
Serve with mashed or new potatoes and salad or a green vegetable of your choice. I like them with asparagus.

26 May, 2009

A Bishop of Chester?

In an earlier post, I discussed the likely survival of Chester’s Roman defences into the early medieval period. Clearly some of the Roman fortress wall was still standing at the time, since parts of it are still standing now, but it may not have been fully intact.

During Roman government, Chester was a legionary fortress situated in the territory of the Cornovii, whose tribal capital was at Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum). Could it have become an important ecclesiastical centre in the early medieval period?


Annales Cambriae

601 - The synod of Urbs Legionis [Chester].
Annales Cambriae

Some of the dates in Annales Cambriae are two or three years different from those of the same events given by Bede (e.g. the date of the battles in which Edwin of Northumbria and Catwallaun of Gwynedd died), so this is very likely the synod referred to by Bede at which Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury met a group of Brittonic bishops at a date in 603 or 604 (Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 2). Bede doesn’t specify the location of the meeting, but says that it was attended by seven bishops and many very learned men mainly from Bangor-Is-Y-Coed. Bangor-Is-Y-Coed is about 18 miles from Chester, so this would be consistent with the synod being held in Chester.


A lead salt-pan discovered at Shavington, near Nantwich, bore the inscription Viventi [Epis]copi (White & Barker 2002; Keith Matthews website). The first word translates as “of Viventius”, and the second could mean either that Viventius was the episcopus or that Viventius was subordinate to the episcopus.

Episcopus was used of a bishop (whence the modern term “episcopal”). However, it could also mean “overseer” or “supervisor”. So the inscription could refer to a bishop who owned a salt works, or to the foreman of a salt factory. It is impossible to rule out either, although as Viventius is the name of a Christian saint, I’m inclined to agree with Keith Matthews that a bishop is a more likely interpretation than a factory overseer.


The Synod at Chester must have been an important event, at least in the opinion of whoever thought it worth recording in Annales Cambriae. So it is a reasonable interpretation that Chester in 601/603 was a centre considered suitable for such an event. This may reflect surviving infrastructure capable of accommodating a large number of VIPs – seven bishops and their retinues, plus “many learned men”, probably amounted to quite a lot of people. It may also indicate that Chester was a prestigious site, the sort of place where one would choose to invite a foreign dignitary (Augustine). If it was also under the control of a wealthy churchman, that would fit very well.

Salt was a vital commodity, needed for preserving food over the winter, and so salt production can be expected to have continued in some form long after the end of Roman administration. If the bishopric of Chester controlled the income from a salt works, that could have provided a substantial source of revenue in addition to whatever income was gained from the local agricultural population. An additional source of revenue would have helped to maintain Chester as a prestigious site (since it had the resources to maintain, repair or replace buildings), and contributed to the bishop’s ability to put on a big event like the Synod.

Cities run by bishops existed in fifth-century Gaul, where Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of what is now Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, governed his city and negotiated with the local king (of the Goths) in 470-480. The other city known from the civitas of the Cornovii, Wroxeter, had a complex of impressive timber houses in Roman style built on the site of the baths basilica in the late sixth century, and it has been suggested that the frigidarium of the baths was used as a church (as happened in Leicester) and that the rebuilding was organised by a bishop who controlled the city (White & Barker 2002). Perhaps Chester was also run by a bishop in the early 600s – and perhaps his name was Viventius…

Annales Cambriae, available online.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X
Mason DJP. Roman Chester: city of the eagles. Tempus, 2001, ISBN 978- 0-7524-1922-0.
White R, Barker P. Wroxeter: Life and death of a Roman city. Tempus, 2002, ISBN 978-0-7524-1409-7.

Google Maps Links

20 May, 2009

The Lords of the North, by Bernard Cornwell. Book review

Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-721970-4. 377 pages.

Lords of the North is Book 3 in Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred series, set in 878-880 AD mostly in Northumbria, against the backdrop of the conflict between Alfred the Great and the Danes*. Historical figures such as Alfred the Great, Ivar Ivarrson, King Guthred and Abbot Eadred feature as secondary characters. The main characters are fictional.

Uhtred is now aged 21, a seasoned and highly capable warrior. After Alfred the Great’s victory over the Danes at the battle of Ethandun (told in Book 2, The Pale Horseman), Alfred and the Danes have signed a peace treaty. For the moment there is no fighting in the south of England, and Uhtred is angry with Alfred, feeling he has been short-changed after his role at Ethandun. So he returns to his native Northumbria to pursue a blood-feud against the Danish warlord Kjartan the Cruel, who murdered Uhtred’s foster-father Ragnar five years previously and now holds Ragnar’s daughter Thyra prisoner (told in Book 1, The Last Kingdom). Northumbria is riven by violence and political chaos, and Uhtred finds himself becoming the mentor and right-hand man of its new King Guthred. Uhtred hopes to use Guthred to further his revenge on Kjartan, but instead finds that Guthred is using him. Betrayed into slavery, it will take all Uhtred’s determination – and a little help from some old friends – to survive and pursue his feud to its bloodstained climax at Kjartan’s impregnable stronghold of Dunholm.

I admit that I was a little disappointed with Books 1 and 2, which is why I haven’t reviewed them here. They seemed longer on incidental detail, such as how to paint shields or burn charcoal, and thinner on story than is usual for a Bernard Cornwell adventure. I found the portrayal of Alfred unconvincing, and I found it frustrating that the first-person narrative meant I had to see everything through the eyes of Uhtred, a belligerent teenager who thinks any problem can be solved by murder if he feels like it. However, in this third instalment Uhtred is starting to grow up a little and even to recognise that other people might have their own point of view, becoming more interesting and less limited as a result. Alfred is a shadowy figure in the background, and so little is known of Northumbria around 880 that there’s essentially no history to get in the way of an exciting action-adventure yarn of the kind that Bernard Cornwell does so well.

If you’re already familiar with Bernard Cornwell’s military adventures (Sharpe, the Grail Quest, etc), Lords of the North is very much in the classic mould. Uhtred is the near-invincible warrior-hero – since the series is framed as him looking back on his adventures from extreme old age, the reader already knows he is indestructible – a loner with ties to both Alfred’s Wessex and to the Danes. The trademark battle scenes are as frequent and graphic as one would expect, and after two climactic shield-wall clashes in Books 1 and 2 we are treated to a different type of engagement in Book 3.

Uhtred’s adventures spin along with hardly a dull moment, this time taking him as far afield as Iceland. Some of the plot twists are, well, improbable, and the outcome of the battle for Kjartan’s stronghold is not much short of fanciful. But the narrative sweeps along with such verve that I just suspended my disbelief and enjoyed the ride, without bothering over plausibility (even if I did find myself saying later, “Now hang on a minute, if she could do that, how come she’d been a prisoner all this time?”).

Uhtred, the central character and narrator, is a more interesting figure than I found him in the two previous books, perhaps because he seems to be starting to realise that life is not always quite as simple as “if it annoys you, kill it, if it wears a skirt, hump it”. He is even beginning to get a glimmer that Alfred is more than a priest-ridden wimp; the two men are never going to like one another, and therein no doubt lies several more books’ worth of dramatic conflict, but there’s a hint of respect starting to emerge. Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed, now aged 9, gets a walk-on part, so it looks as if Bernard Cornwell is still setting up to make her the heroine of later books in the series – as the historical Aethelflaed deserves. I confess I was also mildly gratified to see that I had correctly spotted her husband-to-be when he first appeared in Book 1. A feature I particularly liked about Lords of the North is that it shows the Danes and the English beginning to mingle and integrate in Northumbria.

Although this is Book 3 in the series, all the novels can stand alone and you don’t have to have read the first two books to read this one.

A rattling adventure yarn full of derring-do. Imagine Sharpe with swords and Vikings rather than rifles and Frenchmen, and you won’t be far wrong.

*Vikings, if you prefer.

19 May, 2009


It's May, and the sculptural tree stump from my February post is now knee-deep in bluebells

The brilliant white flowers of stitchwort form drifts along hedgerows and verges....

...sometimes sharing a sunny bank with bluebells

"Apple blossom, pink and wholesome and sweet."

--LM Montgomery, one of the Anne of Green Gables books

There's an old saying, "It isn't spring until you can cover seven daisies with your shoe."
I have small feet. I think this counts.

Summer is icumen in.