Claudius the God by Robert Graves

Claudius the God cover

Claudius the God by Robert Graves was first published in 1934 and is of course the sequel to I,Claudius. You can read what I thought about that one here.

I think inevitably Claudius the God wasn’t as gripping a read as I, Claudius probably because that one featured so many power crazy emperors, executions, murders and poisonings were constants so it was all go.

The story is of course being told by Claudius and when he reluctantly dons the purple robes of emperor (he wanted to bring back the Roman republic) he tries to put the country on an even keel by melting down all the gold statues that Caligula had had made when he was completely mad. Claudius is very popular amongst soldiers and ordinary people, but the senators aren’t so keen on him and a few of them had already tried to grab power before the army declared him emperor.

This book is Claudius’ account of what he did and why he did it. In some cases he behaved just as badly as previous emperors although he acknowledged his mistakes, the end result was still miscarriages of justice. The worst mistake he made though was to trust his wife Messalina. Despite the fact that he had seen how his grandmother Livia had abused the power given to her by her husband Emperor Augustus, Claudius gave Messalina just as much power as he had, giving her a duplicate of his seal so she could and did do whatever she wanted. As she was just as evil as Livia, she caused mayhem but poor Claudius had no idea of her real character at all.

Herod Agrippa features quite a lot and of course it was Claudius who invaded Britain so that is very interesting although I have no idea how true that account is. Did they use elephants and camels in the invasion terrifying the British who had never seen such animals before?

It seems that Claudius was wise in many ways, or maybe it was just that he was well read and ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’. But in many ways he was completely naive.

This book was one of my 20 Books of Summer and also counts towards my James Tait Black Memorial Prize Challenge as it won that prize in 1934.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

St Magnus Cathedral

After a few decent days of weather on Orkney a storm rolled in, terrible high winds and torrential rain, so we decided to drive to Kirkwall which is the main town on Orkney. We dashed from shop to shop in a bid to avoid the worst of the rain, not that there are that many shops in Kirkwall.

St Magnus Cathedral beckoned us over the road and although there were quite a lot of people inside – that didn’t detract from the beauty of the place. I usually much prefer the atmosphere in small churches (not that I am at all religious) as some large places of worship often have that ‘fear of God’ about them, but this cathedral felt like a place of peace.

St Magnus Cathedral back towards door

The floor is particularly lovely.

St Magnus Cathedral Floor

As is the font which is encrusted with semi-precious polished stones.
St Magnus Cathedral Font

St Magnus Cathedral altar

St Magnus Cathedral Wall

I love this model of a Viking ship.

St Magnus Cathedral Viking Ship

There are more images of the cathedral here.

Duncansby Head, Caithness

When we were travelling up to catch the ferry to Orkney we ended up being far too early for it, we had factored in a possible couple of hours of delays, obviously we didn’t want to miss the boat! So before stopping off at John O’Groats we drove to nearby Duncansby Head which is the real north eastern tip of Scotland.

It was a bit misty when we were there so we didn’t take many photos.

Duncansby Head

Rock Cliffs at Duncansby Head

Flowers at Duncansby Head

Duncansby Stacks

It’s a shame we didn’t have more time to spare as I would have loved to go on a good long walk along the cliffs there, maybe we’ll manage that another time.

You can see more images of Duncansby Head here.

A few Guardian links

With it being Jane Austen’s bicentenary (of her death) there are lots of things in the newspapers about her. Some well known authors write about their favourite Austen books here.

Jane Austen stars in a Bank of England literary links exhibition. It looks like it would be worth going to – if it wasn’t in London! You can read about it here.

I’m interested in the way language changes so a book called That’s the Way it Crumbles: The AmericaniZation of British English by Matthew Engel might be one I’ll seek out, you can read about it here.

One thing that really amazed me when we were in the Netherlands recently is the amount of English that appears everywhere. There’s no doubt that it must be a great help to people who wish to learn a language to have signs in that language all over the place, but I’m just wondering why the Dutch aren’t ‘up in arms’ about it (as the French usually are). On many shop doors in Dutch towns there were signs saying – Come in – We’re OPEN And also MID SEASON SALE signs were on many shop windows. These were in towns where tourists will rarely visit – we were only there because some members of my family live nearby. I even heard Dutch teenagers speaking in English to each other in the street – I suppose it must be fashionable. Can you imagine teenagers in Britain choosing to speak in a foreign language – for fun?!

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

The Doves of Venus cover

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning was first published in 1955 and it really couldn’t be any other era. I suppose that to young people reading this book will seem like ancient history as everything is just so different nowadays. I don’t think the type of young women featured in the book exist now, I was born just at the back end of the 1950s – to older parents so a lot of the attitudes seemed very familiar to me.

The setting is London where eighteen year old Ellie has moved from Eastsea where she lived with her widowed mother and older sister. Ellie has hopes of becoming an artist and her relationship with a much older man Quintin leads to her getting a job in a shop painting old furniture. It’s a hand to mouth existence with every penny being counted.

Ellie has fallen hard for Quintin who is married but separated from his wife – off and on, but as far as he is concerned females are just to be used, picked up and put down at his convenience. But the older female characters are often manipulative and avaricious, this isn’t a book that portrays all women as being good while the men are all bad.

London has changed so much since the 1950s and there is now no way that a teenager working in a shop could rent a room in Kensington or Chelsea, and I’m happy to say that in the 21st century mothers have more ambition for their daughters than getting them safely married and off their hands before they are out of their teenage years.

I really enjoyed this one although it doesn’t come up to the heights of Olivia Manning’s Levant trilogy or her Balkan trilogy.

The blurb on the back says: ‘Manning writes always with a poet’s care for words and it is her usual distinction of style and construction that lifts the novel … far, far above the average run’ STEVIE SMITH, OBSERVER

This one was one of my 20 Books of Summer.

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson

Katherine Wentworth cover

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1964. My book is an original but sadly it didn’t have its cover. As you can see from the one on the right which I found on the internet it’s a lovely illustration of the setting.

Reading this book was like soaking in a lovely warm bath, and it was just the sort of reading that I needed to take myself away from all the rotten things that are happening in the news at the moment.

I suspect though that it means I’m terribly parochial, because the fifth word in the first sentence is Edinburgh and Katherine is walking in Princes Street gardens, just as I was one day last week. I can’t help it, for me it’s always a plus when I can see clearly the locations in my mind.

Katherine has had a tough time of it. She’s only 27 years old but she’s already a widow with two children of her own to look after as well as a sixteen year old step-son. Money is very tight and she had been very down for a while but she dragged herself out of her despondency, concentrating on trying to be cheerful and being determined to keep her independence despite an elderly aunt asking the family to move in with her.

Independence had been important to her husband Gerald when he was alive. He had been expected to manage his family’s estate, despite not being in line to inherit it, and his determination to follow his own dreams led to a split with his family. Some years after Gerald’s death his elder brother also dies and as the estate is entailed it means that Katherine’s step-son will inherit it and she finds herself having to meet her intolerant and bullying father-in-law.

A chance meeting with Zilla an old acquaintance from school draws Katherine into an unwelcome relationship with her. Zilla is a manipulative compulsive liar, but fear not – she also has a brother!

As I implied earlier, this was a comfort read for me, especially as the action moved around Scotland to Moffat and Peebles and lots of places known to me. Old fashioned maybe, but very enjoyable.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer and also Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Unstan Cairn, Stenness, Orkney

Unstan's chambered tomb

Just by the salt water Loch of Stenness is the Unstan cairn, another Neolithic burial chamber. But this one you can just drive up to and explore on your own. There’s a gate over the entrance but it isn’t locked.

Unstan's tomb

The chamber has a modern-ish roof and a skylight in it so it’s surprisingly bright when you get in there.

Again, you have to bend down to get through the low tunnel.
Unstan's tomb

As you can see, this Neolithic burial chamber is partitioned off in places. These big slabs of stone are all over the island and have been used for buildings all over the place, very handy, they’re even used for fencing off fields sometimes. A lot of crouched skeletons were found in this burial cairn, along with a large number of pieces of pottery.

Unstan's tomb

Quite a lot of the stones have been carved/grafittied over the years, some of it quite modern probably but the photo below might be of original carvings.

Unstan cairn

A couple of horses were grazing in the field just outside the chamber.
horses + Loch of Stenness

It’s well worth stopping off at Unstan Cairn if you’re visiting Orkney.

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

Antidote to Venom cover

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts was first published in 1938 but as you can see my copy is a British Library Classics one.

I quite enjoyed this one, but I felt that it dragged quite a bit in the middle, I seem to remember that I’ve felt the same about a few of his books.

George Surridge is the director of a zoo, it’s his dream job, and it comes with a comfortable house so he should be sitting pretty. Unfortunately he is married to a woman who is a social climber who had been spoiled by her parents and doesn’t seem to understand that George doesn’t have an endless supply of money for her to spend. The result is that George is always strapped for cash and is forever worried about it.

Clarissa’s attitude takes a toll on the marriage and when George meets a more sympathetic female he falls for her hard. This of course means that he gets into even deeper debt as he hires a flashy car to take her out and about – far away from his home. He dreams of getting free of his wife and so begins a convoluted murderous plan.

Unusually the author manages to make all of the main characters fairly likeable, so it’s quite a sad tale of broken lives due to bad decisions.

The covers of these British Library Crime Classics are usually quite stylish but I can’t say that I’m all that keen on this one.

Maeshowe on Orkney

Ever since I realised that Maeshowe existed I’ve wanted to go there as I’ve always had an interest in Neolithic (Stone Age) monuments and their significance to the winter/summer solstices. Maeshowe is aligned with the winter solstice and the sun shines onto the back wall of the tomb then – if it is a sunny day of course! As you can see, from a distance Maeshowe is a green mound, Orkney is full of such mounds but only a tiny amount of them have been excavated – exciting stuff. If I lived there I’d be tempted to get my trowel out, especially as one woman told me that every time she dug in her garden she found something ancient and interesting.

Maeshowe Mound

You can see a photo of the interior here.
You have to go on an escorted tour to get into Maeshowe and unfortunatley they don’t let you take any photos of the inside of it, not that there is much room to do that anyway. The tomb is 5,000 years old but in more modern times, 1153, some Vikings broke into it to shelter from a snowstorm which lasted for days and they filled in the time by carving runes on the walls, you can read more about that incident here.
Maeshowe Mound

Below is a photo of the entrance and you have to bend almost double for about six yards/metres in a tunnel before you reach the interior.
Maeshowe Chamber  entrance  ce

The land around Maeshowe has cows grazing all around it and one American father pointed out to his wee boy that a calf was getting a drink of milk from its mother – he said: These are happy cows. I don’t think they had ever seen anything so rural before.

The photo below is looking over from Maeshowe to the Stones of Stenness and the Ness of Brodgar.

Stenness and Brodgar 2

There’s a lot more information on Maeshowe here if you’re interested.

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Miss Ranskill Comes Home cover

My copy of Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd is a Persephone reprint and it was first published in 1946. I was surprised to learn that the author wrote lots of children’s books including the Worzel Gummidge books, but under the name Barbara Bowers.

I’ve had a few disappointments with Persephone books but this one was a real page turner, for me anyway.

It begins with Miss Ranskill digging a grave for her companion the Carpenter, they had both separately been washed up on a desert island and for a few years they had been living on fish and sea birds, keeping their fire going and building a boat, hoping to escape the island. Sadly the Carpenter died before they could set sail and it’s left to Miss Ranskill to cast herself off on her own.

Miraculously she is rescued by a British merchant ship, and you would think that her problems would be over, but they’re just beginning. For one thing World War 2 broke out while she was on the island and it has been going on for over three years. Miss Ranskill (Nona) finds herself in a totally alien society, she knows nothing of rationing and coupons, air-raids or black-outs. She’s so out of place at ‘home’ that people assume that she must be a spy working for the Germans.

As Miss Ranskill had fallen overboard from a liner (whilst trying to retrieve a hat she didn’t even like) she has been presumed dead and her will has been proved, everything is so different from what she had expected of her return. Nona’s sister seems hardly bothered by her return from the dead but the family dog is happy to see her. Eventually she does come up with a solution for her predicament, and at the same time helps others whose lives have been turned upside-down by war.

Nona Ranskill is a really likeable character and the book is very entertaining, it’s a real pity that this is the only book for adults that the author wrote. I’m now tempted to seek out he Worzel Gummidge books, I never read any as a child although I watched it on TV. Have you read any of the books?

The endpapers are from a cotton textured fabric which was designed for Helios by Graham Sutherland, and it’s called Sutherland Rose. I had no idea he had designed fabric, but I can’t say I’m all that struck on it.

Sutherland Rose