30 April, 2012

Lion of the Sun, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin 2011. ISBN 978-0-141-03231-3. 409 pages

Set in 260-261 AD, mainly in modern Turkey and Syria with a couple of short interludes in northern Italy and the Alps, Lion of the Sun is the third in the Ballista series, following Fire in the East (reviewed here earlier) and King of Kings (reviewed here earlier). Historical figures include Emperor Valerian, Shapur of Persia, Odenathus of Palmyra, Macrianus the Lame and his sons Macrianus and Quietus. Ballista is based on a historical figure about whom little is known. Other main characters are fictional.

Captured along with Emperor Valerian and many senior Imperial officials after betrayal led to a disastrous defeat (recounted in King of Kings), Ballista is a prisoner of the Persians. He has two desires: to return to his beloved wife and sons, and to take vengeance on the Roman usurpers who betrayed Valerian’s army to the Persians, Macrianus the Lame and his two sons. Far away to the west in Italy, Valerian’s son Emperor Gallienus has his hands full dealing with a barbarian invasion and another crop of would-be emperors, and cannot come to the rescue. Closer at hand, Odenathus Lord of Tadmor (Palmyra), known as the Lion of the Sun, holds the balance of power in the East. Will he declare for Persia, for the tyrants Macrianus and Quietus, or for the Romans who remain loyal to Gallienus? As war, murder and destruction stalk the East, the fate of the Roman Empire hangs in the balance – and Ballista, bound by oaths to all three sides, faces a terrible choice.

Lion of the Sun picks up immediately after the end of the previous book, King of Kings, with Ballista in captivity and his freedmen Maximus, Demetrius and Calgacus in the middle of a desperate flight through enemy territory back to Ballista’s family in Antioch. The action starts immediately, and barely pauses for breath for the next 400 pages. Like its predecessors, Lion of the Sun is primarily a military adventure, full of battle, chase, skirmishes, hair’s-breadth escapes (or not, for some unlucky characters) and graphic violence. Also like its predecessors, particularly King of Kings, it has a firm depth of politics and intrigue underpinning the violence, so the reader gets an impression of how Ballista’s adventures fit into the wider picture. The political element seems to be getting stronger as the series develops, perhaps because Ballista’s position in high command places him at the centre of political events as well as on the military front line. There is a strong sense of the different cultures and religions of the time, giving the novel a feeling of authenticity.

Ballista’s character remains an attractive feature of the series. An outsider in the Imperial court, he knows he is also now a stranger to his childhood homeland in Angeln in the far north. His devotion to his beloved wife and two young sons is both a source of strength and a vulnerability, as his reaction when he believes a broken oath has brought disaster on his family shows. Julia, Ballista’s wife, is another clearly defined character, intelligent, calm and capable. She plays more of a role in Lion of the Sun than in the previous book, and I look forward to seeing more of her. Most of the secondary characters are also developed as individuals, especially Ballista’s freedmen Maximus, Calgacus and Demetrius. Bathshiba and Haddudad from Fire in the East also make a welcome reappearance. The villains have a cartoon-like quality, particularly Quietus, a deranged tyrant in the mould of Caligula or Nero but without the style.

The writing style is mainly straightforward modern prose, liberally sprinkled with modern expletives (readers who find four-letter words offensive should consider themselves warned), and with archaic Latin terms. There is a glossary at the back explaining the Latin terms, though I found most of them could be worked out at least approximately from context. Two maps at the front show the Roman Empire and the Roman Near/Middle East, and are very useful for following the action. A list of characters at the back may be useful for keeping track of who is who, though I never needed to refer to it and only found it after I finished reading. A detailed Historical Afterword at the back summarises some of the underlying history (what there is of it; the Third-Century Crisis is poorly documented) and suggests further reading. Continuing the tradition of the previous books in the series, Lion of the Sun does not end so much as pause briefly before Ballista’s adventures continue in the next instalment.

Action-packed military adventure with political depth and a strong sense of authenticity, set against the turmoil of the Third-Century Crisis in the east of the Roman Empire.

25 April, 2012

April recipe: Mulligatawny soup

This spicy soup is simple to make, and its warming taste and bright colour help to cheer up a cold, wet day – which can be useful in chancy spring weather. You can vary the spices according to taste and availability, or use curry powder if you prefer.

Like chutney and kedgeree, the unusual name ‘mulligatawny’ is a legacy of empire, an Anglo-Indian dish whose name derives from the Tamil word ‘milagutannir’, translation ‘pepper-water’.

There are many variations. I have seen mulligatawny made with chicken or lamb, sometimes with rice. This is a vegetarian (vegan if you use vegetable oil instead of butter) version based on red lentils. It freezes well, so you can make a double quantity and freeze half for later use. The recipe below serves two as a main meal with bread, or four as a first course.

Mulligatawny soup
1 onion
Half a red pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground ginger
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) cumin
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) coriander
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) turmeric
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoons) tomato puree
Approx 6oz (approx 150 g) tinned tomatoes
4 oz (approx 100 g) split red lentils
1 oz (approx 25 g) raisins
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) demerara sugar
1 pint (approx 500 ml) vegetable stock or water

Peel and chop the onion. Wash the red pepper, remove the seeds and chop into pieces about 0.5 inch (approx 1 cm) square. Peel and crush the garlic.
Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan. Fry the onion, red pepper and garlic gently in the butter for a few minutes until softened and starting to colour.
Stir in the ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, tomato puree and tinned tomatoes. Cook gently for a minute or two.
Add the lentils and raisins and stir well so that the lentils are coated in the tomato and spice mixture. Add the stock and sugar and bring to the boil.
Season with salt, turn the heat down to low, and simmer over a low heat for approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour until the lentils are soft.
Serve hot with bread.
Can be frozen.

19 April, 2012

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks. Book review

First published 1993. Edition reviewed, Vintage 2011, ISBN 978-0-099-52838-8. 503 pages.

Birdsong is set in Amiens, northern France, in 1910, on the battleground of the Somme in the First World War in 1916-1919, and in London in 1978-1979. All the main characters are fictional.

In 1910, Stephen Wraysford comes to Amiens to learn about the French textile industry. Staying with a local factory owner, he falls in love with his host’s unhappy wife Isabelle, and they begin an illicit love affair. Six years later, Stephen is a British infantry officer serving in the trenches, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the men of a tunnelling unit working in his sector of the line. It is early summer in 1916, and the campaign that will become notorious in history as the Battle of the Somme is just about to start. Amid the unimaginable slaughter of industrial warfare, Stephen will find out if he has a reason to keep on living, or if his spirit has been crushed beyond all endurance.

The First World War left an indelible mark on Europe’s history. In England, even a small village will have its war memorial, with the roll-call of the dead from the First World War almost always exceeding that from the Second. Often the names come in heartbreaking clusters of identical surnames where brothers, sons or cousins all fell together, shattering families and communities. Travel through Northern France and the sheer scale of the military cemeteries, accentuated by their stark grandeur, is overwhelming. The Great War, as it was known, is a traumatic background in many a novel written in the decades following, even those that have nothing whatever to do with the war – aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey was traumatised from serving in the trenches, and the Dead Marshes of Lord of the Rings are another incarnation of the flooded shell-holes of the Western Front. And then there are the war poets, whose lines echo down the years to touch the soul.

So I approached Birdsong with some trepidation, hoping it would do justice to such a convulsive event. One reason why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it; I finally thought I should give it a try, since everyone else has. The war sections were the strongest aspect of the novel for me, especially the description of the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the account of the tunnellers, who fought their own private war deep beneath no-man’s land, attempting to drive mines and counter-mines under the opposing trenches. Occasional glimpses of civilian life back in England when the soldiers go home on leave make a powerful contrast with the appalling conditions at the front. Birdsong also gives a strong sense of the ghastly combination of terror and boredom in trench warfare. The book is well worth reading for the war sections alone.

I found the other two strands of the narrative - Stephen’s affair with Isabelle and his grand-daughter Elizabeth searching for information about the war and conducting her own love affair with a married man - less compelling. There are a great many references to ‘flesh and blood’ throughout the novel (it feels like every page), and perhaps these two strands are supposed to form some sort of symbolic parallel between sex (Stephen’s affair), death (the war scenes) and childbirth (Elizabeth’s baby). If so, it seems rather laboured, and may explain why neither of these two plotlines really came alive for me. Another reason may be the characterisation. Stephen is emotionally stunted, having never had anyone to love him as a child, and this gives him a cold, remote quality (even in the middle of a torrid sex scene). His relationship with Isabelle seems to be based on lust rather than love, and Isabelle’s side of the affair is not really explored. Stephen’s later relationship with Isabelle’s sister Jeanne, which is potentially much more interesting, is hardly touched on at all.

Elizabeth is a warmer character than Stephen, although still emotionally detached – she reflects at one point that she may have chosen a married man to fall in love with because she will not be expected to settle down with him and lose her independence. She is so far removed from the other two strands of the novel that it’s difficult to relate her to them, other than perhaps to provide some near-contemporary ‘relevance’ for readers to identify with. (As if readers cannot be expected to be interested in the experience of another time and place for its own sake?).

The writing style reinforces the impression of emotional detachment. It seems consciously ‘literary’, with lots of incidental detail and some nice turns of phrase. The sheer amount of detail makes the book very long; each detail may be telling in itself, but collectively I found they tended to act as a barrier. I always felt I was watching the characters, rather than being drawn into their experiences. This distant style is effective in the war scenes, where the events are moving in their own right. I found it less effective in the love scenes, where it made all the relationships seem distant. Possibly this is another reason why I found the two love narratives less compelling than the war sections.

Powerful description of the human cost of trench and tunnel warfare in the First World War, mixed with two rather less powerful love stories.

11 April, 2012


Slioch (“the spear”) is the mountain towering above the western edge of Gleann Bianasdail. Location map here.

Seen from the south across Loch Maree, the summit plateau of Slioch is flanked by a series of triangular buttresses, and one suggested origin of the mountain’s name is that these were seen as a frieze of spears guarding the summit.

Slioch from the south

Slioch’s summit plateau is well guarded by crags on three sides. Only when seen from the south-east, above Kinlochewe village, does the walkers’ approach via the great south-east corrie of Coire na Sleaghaich become apparent.

Slioch from Kinlochewe village

The summit is the pointy bit left of centre at the top of the picture above, still dusted with snow in early May. You can see the rest of the summit ridge sweeping away to the right. In front of the summit ridge, just right of the tree in the foreground, you can see the rounded dark grey hump of Sgurr Dubh (“dark peak”, a singularly appropriate name). The ridge connecting Sgurr Dubh to the summit is a non-technical route up the mountain, and a very fine walk it is.

Starting from Incheril or Kinlochewe, you first walk through the Enchanted Woods of Loch Maree, which is a good start to any walk, and then up Gleann Bianasdail with its sparkling waterfalls and sandstone terraces. About a kilometre up Gleann Bianasdail, you leave the path and climb left (west) up the slopes of Meall Each (“hummock of the horse”) through rough grass and heather.

At about 450m altitude (about 1500 feet), the gradient suddenly eases and you get a clear view into the wide reaches of Coire na Sleaghaich. The location map in the link above will give an idea of scale. The summit is just visible on the left of the picture below and is about 2 kilometres (nearly a mile) away and about 500 metres (about 1600 feet) above you. The corrie mouth is about 1 kilometre (about half a mile) wide.

Coire na Sleaghaich from Meall Each

The ridge to your left harbours a pair of twin lochans sitting on its top, like pools on the ridgepole of a roof, roughly where the shadow line is in the picture above. The twin lochans are your next goal, and when you reach them you’re rewarded not only with the lochans, but also with a view across to the Torridon mountains in the distance.

The twin lochans and Torridon skyline

As you climb the ridge above the twin lochans, the summit cairn comes into view

Slioch summit from the ridge

Thread your way up between the ribbons of snow and the small sandstone outcrops to the summit plateau. It’s worth walking the short distance west to the west top, perched right above the crags and with a stunning view along Loch Maree and out to sea. The landmass in the distance is the northern peninsula of the Isle of Skye.

View from Slioch west top to Loch Maree and over the sea to Skye

Having got all the way up here, it’s well worth walking around the rim of the corrie to the pointed subsidiary summit of Sgurr an Tuill Bhan, from where there is a spectacular view down over Coire an Sleaghaich to Meall Each (the flat top of which is the anonymous-looking plateau centre-left in the picture below), Gleann Bianasdail and the head of Loch Maree with its woods and gorse bushes. The descent route goes down the slopes of Sgurr an Tuill Bhan back to Coire an Sleaghaich, across the corrie to Meall Each, and then reverses the ascent route of this morning.

View to Coire an Sleaghaich, Glean Bianasdail and the head of Loch Maree from Sgurr an Tuill Bhan.