William Marshall – an extraordinary life

Sometimes a non-fiction book comes along that tells such an enthralling tale in such an enthralling manner that it comes across almost as a work of fiction.  A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to come across just such a book.  But  just such a book can make for a lengthy review, so I apologise in advance if I bang on longer than usual.

The book is entitled The Greatest Knight, and carries the wordy subtitle The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones (Simon & Schuster, 2015).  NYCC libraries hold two copies.  The  author is Thomas Asbridge, a fellow of Queen Mary University, London.  To my mind Asbridge is one of those gifted writers who can bring history alive.

William Marshal was born in 1147 and he lived long, to the age of 72, at a time when average male life expectancy was 31 years and when even well-nourished men were considered old in their forties.  Yet William nearly had no life at all, for at the age of 5 he came close to being hanged.  In those times it was customary for a person who had promised to do something important for another to hand over an item of value as surety, to be redeemed when the promise was fulfilled.  The item of value was often a person, and in this case young William’s father, John, had handed him over to no less a person than the King of England, Stephen.  Having pledged service to Stephen, John promptly broke his word.  Enraged, Stephen ordered the little boy’s hanging.  Then at the last moment he relented.  John Marshal said he was  unconcerned about the fate of William; the youngster was, after all, only a second son, and he (John) was easily capable of procreating more.

The Marshals were minor gentry from Wiltshire.  William’s mother, Sybil, was rather better bred than her husband.  While John was a doughty warrior whose military advice was valued by royalty, Sybil brought with her some sense of honour and kindness.  Young William inherited the best of both his parents. His upbringing took place largely in France.  By the twelfth century Kings of England ruled the western half of France, from the Channel down to the Pyrenees.  This huge land area was, with England, one political whole – the Angevin Empire.  Many English families had wider family in France, so at the age of thirteen William was sent for his upbringing to an uncle in Normandy – William of Tancarville.  This latter William brought William Marshal up exceedingly well: in Normandy he earned a knighthood, developed remarkable very considerable military skill, and acquired respect for bravery and for honourable conduct.  As he grew, William honed a talent for diplomacy that stood him in good stead for the rest of his life.

At the age of 21, William was captured fighting in France.  By then his reputation had travelled to the  court of King Henry II in England, and he was ransomed by the formidable Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife.  At that time, Henry was mulling over his own succession, always a tricky problem at times when might could easily overcome right.  In 1170, with the aim of securing an orderly transition, Henry took the unheard-of step of crowning his 15-year old son, also named Henry, as joint King.  The younger Henry was to rule jointly with his father, and William Marshal was appointed Young Henry’s tutor at arms.   The joint ruler arrangement quickly unravelled.   Old Henry held the reins too tight, and in 1173 Young Henry rebelled.  He thus dropped William Marshal into a difficult and dangerous position.  As Young Henry’s tutor, William owed him loyalty, but his sense of right and wrong could not countenance rebellion against his father. Judging correctly that Old Henry would be somewhat indulgent towards his son, William took steps to cool Young Henry’s hot head, and stuck with him.   Thus Marshal’s skill on the political tightrope came to Old Henry’s notice.

Although he was not formally exiled, Young Henry, with William Marshal at his side, spent the next three years on the French tournament circuit (tournaments were banned in England).  The tournament was no mere joust but a serious competition between armed men, run sometimes over very large tracts of land.  Skill at arms and mastery of a horse were the ingredients of success. Henry wasn’t bad, but William Marshal was spectacularly good.  Over three years he became the Lewis Hamilton of the tournament.  From his feats he earned a small fortune, not from prize money (there was none) but from capturing opponents and ransoming them – the accepted practice of the age.  A high-ranking captive could earn his captor a huge ransom; if the knight were only middle-ranking, his horse might be ransomed for more. 

Here I should break off to praise Thomas Asbridge’s memorable descriptions of tournaments and of the sometimes (though not always) chivalrous conduct of the participants.  Asbridge also offers new insights into the notion of chivalry itself: it was not the soft, chastely romantic stuff that many people (me included) are brought up to believe.  Asbridge skilfully interpolates this absorbing material with such ease as not to spoil his rollicking narrative.

In 1181 William fell out of favour with Young Henry after being accused of conducting an affair with Henry’s wife.  We don’t know whether he cuckolded Henry or not, but after a year Henry accepted that William was innocent and the two reunited.  The year after that, Young Henry tried another rebellion against his father, failed, then died of a fever in 1183 at the age of 28.  For William this was bad enough, but worse, in honour of a promise given to his dying master, William reluctantly set off to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade.  For him crusading  was a chore.  The evidence suggests that he did a bit of desultory fighting, then quickly came home again.  Jerusalem was a long way to go for little or no benefit.

Shortly after his return to England William was invited to re-join King Henry’s court.  By then he was 39, verging on middle age. In the final years of Henry II’s reign, William’s star rose and rose. You need to read Dr Asbridge’s book for the details, but suffice it to say that William acquired considerable wealth in return for his shrewd and unfailing support to Henry.  He drove a hard bargain too: William knew his worth and wasn’t above whingeing for it.

One of his better prizes was the wardship of a very wealthy orphaned lady, Isabel of Clare. Isabel was a ward of the crown, and in those times the crown would often pass the wardship to a nobleman of merit or political convenience.  It was not unusual for the guardian to marry his ward, and William did indeed marry Isabel in 1189.  She was then 20, less than half William’s age.  But she was by far his social superior, bringing with her extensive landholdings in Wales and Ireland and making William a baron to be reckoned with.  

That same year Henry II died and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, known to us as Richard I or the Lionheart. In our times Richard has been portrayed as a warrior king of good Christian virtue and kindness.  While his military prowess was unquestionable, his conduct in other respects was appalling.  In Aquitaine, that part of France which his father had earlier given him to govern, Richard was loathed for his brutality, greed and debauchery.  William Marshal, already well known to Richard,  occupied the same valued advisor position he had earned with Henry II, and when Richard decided to absent himself on the Third Crusade in 1190, William was appointed a justiciar of England – in effect a non-royal regent.  William had thus risen very high, and that same year rose even higher when Richard elevated William to the nobility as Earl of Pembroke.  After returning from four years in the Holy Land, Richard almost immediately set off (with William Marshal) to fight in France, where the Angevin lands had come under serious and sustained attack by the French.  The fighting went on for several years, and it finally cost Richard his life.  In 1199 he took a crossbow bolt in his shoulder, the wound turned gangrenous, and at the age of 42 he died. 

Richard, having no heirs, was succeeded by his brother, John.  John had already caused a great deal of grief.  He was even more greedy, brutal and debauched than Richard, and completely untrustworthy into the bargain.  In military matters he was incompetent and cowardly.  While Richard was away crusading John had misguidedly and treacherously surrendered most of the Angevin lands to the canny and untrustworthy French king, Philippe II. Nevertheless, on becoming king, John wanted William Marshal to hand, and William, notwithstanding his contempt for John as a character, accepted.  Six years later, however, they fell out and William retreated to his lands in Wales and Ireland. 

Again, I will now divert briefly to praise Thomas Asbridge’s treatment of these tumultuous times.  Complicated though they were, Asbridge’s well-aired prose cuts cleanly through the plots and sustains his reader’s unflagging interest.  This is history-telling at its best.

In England, John had alienated many who might otherwise have supported him – so much so that civil war was brewing.  William Marshal, seeing from afar the parlous state of king and country, proffered a hand of friendship to John, had it accepted, and returned to court, albeit with misgivings, in 1212.  In 1215 peace of a kind was secured between a grudging King John and his affronted barons through an agreement that history has come to know as Magna Carta.  But no sooner had the deal been done than John began reneging on it; it then had to be rewritten twice, in 1217 and 1225, before it could be regarded as one of the cornerstones of later English law.  John did not live to see the revisions: his dissolute life had weakened his health, and in 1216 he died of dysentery – an unpleasant end, richly deserved.

Even with King John’s death, there remained seething discontent among the barons – enough that it looked as though there would be an insurrection, aided and abetted by the French (of course) against the new king, John’s son, Henry III.  Henry was then nine years old. It is thought that John on his deathbed gave Henry into William Marshal’s care.  In effect William became de facto king in an astonishing ascent from his undistinguished origins.  On Henry’s accession William embarked on what proved to be his final act of service to the Angevin dynasty, leading troops on Henry’s behalf at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217.  His victory was decisive, and the boy king grew up to become one of England’s longest-serving monarchs.  One cannot help wondering if, in taking up Henry’s cause, William saw in him the same little boy, facing death, that he himself had been some seventy years before.

William died peacefully in 1219, aged 72.  Sadly, all that he had built up in his lifetime ran into the sand within a generation.  Isabel died a year after her husband, their sons produced no male heirs, and their daughters married husbands who had no aptitude for  managing vast estates.

In his seventy-odd years, William saw – one might say oversaw – a transformation in the role of knights and the landowning aristocracy from one of dependency sustained by the caprices of a king’s good will, to one of acting as a check on corrupt and overweening monarchy.  This was a first step, and a faltering one at that, towards constitutional rule that took centuries to come to fruition. Nevertheless, William Marshal’s role in kick-starting it is undeniable.  We owe him.  And we owe Thomas Asbridge too, for telling William’s tale in such erudite yet colourful and memorable terms.

Bob Young

A Rising Man by Abir Mukhirjee

This is a detective novel set in 1919 Calcutta, the seat of British rule of the Bengal area at the time of the British Raj in India. The main character is Detective Inspector Captain Sam Wyndham, ex-Scotland Yard, who has taken a job with the Calcutta Police Force to make a new start, following recovery from his injuries in the Great War and the loss of his young wife in the influenza pandemic. His side-kick is an Indian Sergeant called Surrender-not Banerjee (because a colleague couldn’t pronounce Sarendrath) product of a public school/Oxbridge education in England. Much of the story shows the developing trust and understanding between the two and by the end Banerjee has saved Wyndham’s life twice and they are sharing an apartment together because Banerjee has been disowned by his parents for working with the British. 

The story begins when the British aide to the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal is found brutally murdered in an alley near a brothel. Wyndham investigates in the face of interference  from the military secret service and senior administrators and the author weaves a clever tale as Wyndham and Banerjee gradually gather information and unravel the complexity of relationships in the British Raj, including the activities of Indian terrorists seeking to end British rule, commercial interests of very rich and powerful men and the underworld of brothels and opium dens. A potential love interest for Wyndham is introduced in the form of a beautiful mixed-race woman who was secretary to the murdered man.

Through a host of characters’ dialogue the author gives the reader much historical background (perhaps a little overdone at times). Many of the characters have something to hide, including Wyndham himself, who has a dependency on ‘O’ following extensive treatment with morphine for his head injury in the war.

The Rising Man of the title is revealed as the murdered man, but later the author also applies the same label to another character, a terrorist turned peaceful protestor, and to Wyndham himself as he establishes himself in his new role and learns to work the system.

The book is written in the first person, from Wyndham’s POV, descriptions of various areas of Calcutta are well drawn, as are the various characters and the plot has a few unexpected twists.

The author, son of immigrant Indian parents, grew up in Scotland, but now lives in London. This is his first novel, published 2016, since when three more have followed featuring the same detective. It won a CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger and the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition.


Review by Susan Fisher

E-Books part 2 Summary and Update

E-books –Update Summary  (see  my article E-Book borrowing from the Library*) K.Kinder



If you have an i-phone or smart phone, use it to download and open  this Update Summary from the library’s web address:


You will now be able to follow the instructions below, step by step on your i-pad or tablet.


Please be aware that the icon and symbol arrangements on each tablet or i-pad may differ from mine.


Acquiring the Overdrive – Libby App

On older e-books, you cannot  download, read any library  e-book, or listen to any eAudiobook until you have installed the Overdrive – Libby app from either the Google Play Apps or Apple Apps (for i-pads). For more help, go to the main web site https://www.northyorks.gov.uk/libraries-0  and choose  Digital Library/Download e-books, e-magazines and digital audio books.   Scan the list below on the screen to find Launch Overdrive and Libby….. Once installed the Overdrive App will have a blue icon with a circle on it. This will appear on the main page of your tablet or i-pad.

However, see NYCC Library – A New Development for E-book Readers,  at the end.


Once you have an idea as to what book title you are interested in go to https://capitadiscovery.co.uk/northyorkshire/   and save the web site as a Favourite.   See *  article for suggestions.  Type the author’s name or title of the book into the long, tube-shaped box. One or more pictorial icons of the book’s cover will appear. Choose the one for “e-book” and follow the instructions. “E-Audiobook” also works with these instructions.   You will need your member’s passcode and PIN number. Unless you want just 7 borrowing days, click on the little box and choose 14 or 21 days. If you have forgotten your PIN number, during the covid lock-down, ring  01609 533878    (Northallerton library HQ).


The Overdrive -Libby interface

You will be advised when  the book is down-loaded. Finger-touch/click on the Overdrive icon to open it. Inside you will see a pictorial icon of the book’s cover. Underneath, on the screen is the title and the number of borrowing days. At the right side of the title are 3 tiny, pale grey dots.  Finger-touch/click on those and you will see you can send the book back to the library before the expiry date. The book’s pages proceed to the right, or the left to go back. It just requires the merest touch to turn a page. When you have finished a reading session and closed the programme, you will find on your return, that the e-book opens at the page where you left it. If you want to open at any particular chapter, give the page a firm press in the middle of the page. Up pops a little black box. You will then see what percentage of the book you have read.  Note it for future reference if you wish. The top of the page exposes a narrow menu bar. At the extreme top right, there is the pages icon, looking like 3 mini lollipops!  Finger-touch/click on that. You will see the complete chapter headings’  list appear on the left. Finger touch-click on any one chapter and you will be taken straight there. Apologies for omitting this instruction in the article  E-Book borrowing from the Library*.


Combined Kindle- Tablet  – please read the advice in the  *  article. 


Project Gutenberg 

To go to Gutenberg Home page , click on/finger touch   https://www.gutenberg.org  There is a lot to read on this page. To give you an idea of which book you would like to choose first, look at      Frequently down-loaded…….  or consult the list in the article*.


Next, choose Search and Browse, followed by Browsing Options on the next page. Decide whether you want to go for the title or the author. I usually choose the author so that I can see what works are on offer, although if you choose John Buchan, whose name I accidentally omitted from the list in the article*, it is a long way down to u!  Scroll with your finger at the right hand side. It may take a short or a longer time As soon as you find the author’s name , highlight a book title. You  are taken to a list of formats to download.  If you use Overdrive, choose epub; if Kindle, choose mobi. (the largest download, takes up the most computer space).   Alternatively, you can choose to download as txt (text), or html to read online. You can choose html (better than txt) without any extra software, so have a go.  NB. On occasions, you are offered a book with or without illustrations. Illustrations and photos are re-produced beautifully. I have recently down-loaded as html, Dickens’ Christmas Carol, complete with 19th century illustrations. 


The html Format

The text goes immediately on to the internet screen. It is good to read and scrolls from top to bottom in one continuous page.  Gutenberg are constantly upgrading the presentation of their e-books and the most recent have blue, activated Page Contents lists. The older Gutenberg html files do not re-open on your return at the page you last read, as do both  the Overdrive and Amazon Kindle formats, so before  ending a reading session, it is best to read to the end of the chapter and then  make a note of it. In books of poems from Gutenberg, like Poems of Emily Dickinson:Three series (lovely book), it is the list of poems (in blue type) and not chapters, that can be accessed by a click on/finger touch on the chosen poem.   You save an html file by making it into a bookmark.  To do that, click on/finger touch the empty tab at the top of the screen. To re-open, you will find the book file in the Bookmarks list. To remove the file from the Bookmarks list, click on/finger touch the Bookmark symbol to make it blank.


Here is another experience,  I have downloaded Beowulf  and read till stanza XXV, when I saved the file as a bookmark before closing down the program. On loading the file again from the Bookmarks folder  Beowulf opened at stanza XXV!    Be aware of the possibilities.


Overdrive- Libby and Gutenberg

Try Gutenberg first. Then if you have not already done so,  move on to downloading the free Overdrive-Libby App from either the Google Play App store, or if you have an i-pad, from the Apple App store. See above.  If you are nervous about this, ask a friend or family member, who knows how to down-load apps, to do it for you.  By choosing the epub format,  you can now download Gutenberg books into the Overdrive folder alongside the books from the library. You will then enjoy the best of both worlds. At the time of writing, the libraries are closed and no more printed books are circulating, but there are plenty of e-books speeding on their invisible way to be read on people’s tablets and i-pads.


New Developments for Book Groups

A meeting of the Book Group of which I am a member, was due to take place at the end of March 2020 and was postponed until the end of November 2020. It was my turn to introduce the book, on this occasion, Stacey Hall’s The Familiars. All the printed borrowed copies had been returned to the library, but I had the e-book copy on my tablet. Before I left home, I downloaded the book and left the tablet open at the page I wanted. The tablet then went into “sleep mode”. Because the download had not been disturbed, the book was still available for reference in a house where the tablet was not receiving wifi. This experience points the way to which tablets can be used much more in  Book Groups, especially when there is a shortage of printed copies. 

NYCC Library – A New Development for E-book Readers  15/11/20

I have just downloaded 2 more e-books, published  recently in 2020. As well as the epub format extension for the Libby software, I was offered a download onto my web browser. This will have an html extension, exactly like what I can choose in Gutenberg. As with html in Gutenberg, you save as a Bookmark by clicking the blank Bookmark label at the top. The title will appear in the Bookmark List. I downloaded one of the 2 books into my browser. The print is clear and the pages turn normally, left-right, right-left. Finger-tap/click towards the bottom and a small info menu appears with page number and percentage of the book read info.. I’ve taken to photographing that with my i-phone. You can use a smartphone too.  Leave the page where you have finished reading and go back to the Home screen. When you return, the book will open where you left it before. 

Please expect slight variations in lay out and facilities in new  e-books as attempts are made to improve the reading  experience for borrowers. One thing is sure, many more e-books have appeared in the library system since 2019.


A Late Discovery for Kindle owners

You can now download the Overdrive app from the Amazon store into your Kindle and can  download e-books from the NYCC library and Gutenberg.            


The Accompanying Photographs  (soon to appear) The books with full colour picture covers are library downloads. The others are downloads from Gutenberg in the epub extension. The photograph of  Marley’s ghost + text. is from the 1843 first edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, down-loaded as html  from Gutenberg into the internet browser. You can of course, do this without any Overdrive app.


Kathleen Kinder  – Friend: Settle Community Library.   15/11/20


E-Book Borrowing from The Library

Until March 23rd 2020, e-book borrowing from the library had been very much a minority but a slowly growing  interest as more people possessed i-pads and tablets on which they could comfortably read downloaded e-books. Many of us who enjoy reading both printed as well as e-books, have had Kindles  for some time, in my case, since 2011. These books from Amazon are bought at a price, less than that we would pay in a bookshop. Now however, with the addition of postage, many books from Amazon Kindle can be nearly the same price as those from our local bookshop. Amazon were not the first to offer e-books to the public. That honour goes to Project Gutenberg  https://www.gutenberg.org/  which from the 1970s has offered as free downloads, in several formats and languages, of more than 60,000  fiction and non-fiction books, all of which have  been published before the American copyright cut-off date, at present 1925. These books are in the public domain; they are not borrowed; they are ours to keep on our device, if we wish.


I learned from members of an online Book Group in 2011 how to down-load from Gutenberg on to my Kindle using a USB cable.  Now, the download process is much easier. I do not think I would have been able to have delivered the Talks I gave in the library some 3-4 years ago, on the History and Development of the English Novel, and then on Murder, Mystery, and Thrillers had I not been able to download   free from Gutenberg, all the examples of English classic literature I wished to consult and keep. I started with Beowulf  and continued with examples to the present day. I explain how to use Gutenberg as well as the main  North Yorkshire library web sites below.


Gutenberg poses no threat to the North Yorkshire library service. A link to the Gutenberg web site is given on the North Yorkshire web site. 



North Yorkshire continue to hold printed copies of classic books more than 50 years old, but in reduced numbers, a few in e-book format. Jane Austen’s books are some of the exceptions. There are plenty of library copies of her titles.  In normal times, thousands of books, many of them fiction, are published every month. Whether their books go into e-book or e-Audiobook format, or not, writers need to have books in printed format to make money if they can, and novelists in particular, are anxious that their books should be present in their local library. Physical storage has now become a real problem. There is a policy of removal of worn and least- read books to avoid libraries being overwhelmed.  E-books take little invisible computer storage space, and if they  go into “cloud storage”, like my Kindle books, you only see the print when you choose to download the publication. You can select, order and begin to read an e-book  at home without leaving the comfort of your chair. 


Since the pandemic lock-down, e-book borrowing has become a significant minority interest . During the lock down, the libraries were closed so no printed books were going in or out. E-books and e-Audiobooks were the only borrowing concerns of the libraries nation-wide. No printing presses were operating and therefore, no new printed books were being published. One major supplier of new books to North Yorkshire County library went out of business. The movement of people was severely curtailed. Even when there was an easing of restrictions, and libraries were opening their doors again, albeit in a carefully managed way, many older and the most vulnerable borrowers stayed at home, fearful of going out into a public space. The footfall in libraries country-wide was much reduced. At the time of writing, with the steady increase of corvid 19 cases again in the country, another national  lock-down is about to come into force. By a fortunate coincidence, North Yorkshire had just completed an overhaul of their comprehensive library web-site just before their branch libraries close for a second time, giving us a chance to re-consider our e- borrowing options.


In recent days, there has been considerable discussion nation-wide about the rise in the numbers of borrowers asking for more e-books to. These titles are not cheap for libraries to procure. North Yorkshire Library been holding titles in e-format for some time. I’ve made a note of nearly 100 e-book authors which interest me, some of whose books I have read as either e-books or printed copies. I append some of them (my choice, of course) to give you an idea of the  choice our library has to offer. More are appearing each time I look. See https://northyorks.overdrive.com/  for the latest impressive number, and you can download any of these by clicking/finger-tapping any one of your choice, if you already have the Overdrive – Libby app on your device. See below.


The e-book format  usually accompanies the book in hard back, paperback, eAudiobook and CD formats on the web site. I have found one exception; there maybe more. Margaret Irwin whose historical novels inspired Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory, is represented by just 4 e-books. I loved her books as a teenager, especially,  Young Bess. Josephine Tey, the great crime writer who like Margaret Irwin,  wrote from the 1930s-50s is represented by a number  of titles. I have just  downloaded the single e-book copy of her book The Daughter of Time, voted in 1990 by the Crime Writer’s Association as no. 1 in The Top 100 Crime Novels of all Time. It concerns a modern police officer’s investigation into the alleged crimes of Richard III. Did he kill those little princes in the tower? The e-book was  being  borrowed initially, but I was informed by email 3 days after, that it was available for download. This highlights a growing problem with e-book borrowing when the number of copies available of a popular book is only 1. Will the library eventually be able to afford more than 1 copy?  


You can of course, download eAudiobooks, but not CDs, for which there is a rental to pay in the library. In around  6 months, from March 2020, some 3000 borrowers and would -be borrowers  asked North Yorkshire library service to provide more e-books. With branch libraries closed or partially open, more people are joining the library online to make use of North Yorkshire’s e-book  collections. Normally, if you want to join, and it is free, you would go to your local library, or online to  https://www.northyorks.gov.uk/libraries-general-information, but the covid pandemic has made other arrangements necessary.  There is a web site to consult:


Membership card numbers and PIN will be emailed to you separately. To join the library, renew 

membership or get your PIN number, please call  tel. 01609 533878.   


Equipment, and Overdrive – Libby App Required 

You cannot download and read any library  ebook, or listen to any eAudiobook until you have installed the Overdrive – Libby app from either the Google Play Apps or Apple Apps (for i-pads). For more help, go to the main web site https://www.northyorks.gov.uk/libraries-0  and choose  Digital Library/Download e-books, e-magazines and digital audio books.   Scan the list below on the screen to find Launch Overdrive and Libby…..  I am  not yet an e-Audiobook listener. I have also a desk top PC. for main typing tasks.


Since  2018,  I have used an Amazon Fire 10,  a combined tablet-Kindle for e-book reading, the internet and email.  Amazon then did not provide easy access to Google Play to get the Overdrive Libby app.  I had to seek expert advice to down-load the app.  However, there was success eventually. The Overdrive – Libby App was down-loaded and I’m very happy with the result. Now, I understand from a friend who has recently acquired an Amazon Fire 10, that the download for her presented no problem whatsoever, and like me, she is thoroughly satisfied with the tablet and is enjoying having the best of  all worlds.  There are dedicated e-readers available to buy online , but some people  go for an Apple i-pad , or a tablet to have access to email and the internet as well. Choose a tablet  or i-pad, if possible with a viewing screen  of 8 or10 inch in size, with a back- lit screen and access to Google Play, if non-Apple. If you have an old Kindle and want to upgrade, go for the Amazon Fire 10. Reading from it is a very comfortable experience indeed. It also has an excellent camera for Zoom.  E-books can be read uncomfortably from an i-phone or Smart phone.


How to borrow an e-book or e-Audiobook  and a selection of Authors with e-books in the North Yorkshire Library, 

The selection below is based on the authors of some e-books I’ve read and also what I observed from borrowing habits relating to printed books when I was working as a library volunteer in Settle Community library. In each case, I checked whether the author’s work was offered also in the e-book format.  To see what is on offer, go to https://capitadiscovery.co.uk/northyorkshire/   and save the web site as a Favourite. This web site is a link from the main one  (above). You will use the capitaldiscovery web site the most. It is a good idea to become thoroughly acquainted with what it has to offer.  On my P.C., I need only to type in the Search slot once, but on my tablet, a second or third attempt is often required. The experience with your device may be different. The web site demands a correct spelling. It has no imagination to guess a title or author’s name with just one  letter missing or  one incorrect. Therefore, type correctly a chosen author’s name. When the list of  his/her publications appears, scroll down to find which is in e-format. 


If you would like to borrow any, click/finger-tap Check Availability. When the next screen appears, read the information carefully. Have you membership and pin numbers  ready and then   click/finger-tap Log in to request . Follow the rest of the instructions. Decide whether you want 7, 14 or 21 days of borrowing time. The e-book or e Audiobook will go into your Download folder. To activate the e-book, click/finger tap  on the download. The book opens and its presence is then located in the Overdrive folder where you are told to choose the reading time from 7,14 or 21days  The number decreases day by day.  At the end, the book disappears. Delete it from the Downloads.  Recently I chose 21 days to read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a sequel to and better than The Handmaid’s Tale in my view. As I had read it in a week, a polite request appeared to the effect that since I had read the book, did I want it removed before the 21 days of borrowing time were up? I wrote “Yes”, and the e-book melted into the ether. You can borrow 3-4 e-books at any one time and can download an e-book for a second time, provided it is not reserved for anyone else.


Here is a selected  list of authors with e-books  mostly in adult fiction:

Diane Allen, Isabel Allende, Simon Armitage, Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, David Baldacci, Muriel Barbery, Sebastian Barry, Julian Barnes, Alan Bennett, William Boyd, Bill Bryson, Julia Chapman, Lee Child, Tracy Chevalier, Ann Cleeves,  Bernard Cornwell, Emma Donaghue, Helen Dunmore, Sebastian Faulks, Elena Ferrante, Leah Fleming,  Ken Follett,  Gillian Galbraith, Stacey Halls, Joanne Harris, Robert Harris, Victoria Hislop, Dinah Jefferies, Linda La Plante, Hilary Mantel, Val McDermid, Ian McEwan, Santa Montefiore, Michelle Obama, Amanda Owen, Ann Patchett, Terry Pratchett, Ian Rankin, Danielle Steele, Elizabeth Strout,  Anne Tyler, Sally Vickers……and many more. 


The E-reading Experience


E- book reading has had to face some opposition. “I prefer real books” is a common utterance. I love browsing through the printed books in my several book cases. It is a pleasure to sit and look at them and sometimes, re-read. I tend to read a mixture of e-books and printed books. The authenticity of a book is less to do with whether it is digitally produced or printed, but more to do with the pleasure  and learning capacity of the reading experience. There are no physical limitations as with printed books, the library circulation of which is being severely curtailed by the covid pandemic.  Novels in an e-book format can be read quickly; you lightly touch a page to turn it, not flick it over.  Both Kindle and  the Overdrive Libby app, open at the page you have left when you return for another reading session.

 On October 23rd, the following article appeared in the Books section of the online Guardian, which explains the current situation clearly:

“Library ebook lending surges as UK turns to fiction during lock-down.”



Ebooks need not damage the library’s place in the community, nor the position of printed books at all. Krystal Vittles, the head of the Suffolk library services in a later Guardian article thinks that the digital revolution will bring advantages, not disadvantages:


No doubt, the future will reveal all.


Project Gutenberg


In c .1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press in Strasbourg and introduced the modern era of mass communication of  information and knowledge. The e-book revolution is nowhere near as world-changing where communication and the speedy spread of knowledge are concerned. What the e-book is doing is working alongside the printed book to enlarge the sphere of communication and broaden the base along which knowledge and information are disseminated. What is most important, is  that it has the means to bring into the public domain the knowledge, learning and wisdom of past ages. The secular culture of major western countries  has had a tendency to disregard the “dead language” of the past. Many do not see it as the bedrock of what we read and learn today.  Project Gutenberg with their offer of free books for the last nearly 50 years have been doing their utmost to right the balance with their offer on every conceivable subject and in several of the world’s major languages, free books published before 1925.


To go to Gutenberg Home page , click on/finger touch   https://www.gutenberg.org  There is a lot to read on this page. You will learn eventually  that Gutenberg downloads books in several formats. If you use Overdrive, choose epub; if Kindle, choose mobi.   Alternatively, you can choose to download as txt (text), or html to read online. You can choose the latter without any extra software, so have a go.


Next, choose Search and Browse, followed by Browsing Options on the next page. Decide whether you want to go for the title or the author. I usually choose the author so that I can see what works are on offer. Scroll with your finger at the right hand side. It may take some time. As soon as you highlight the author’s or title’s name, you are taken to a list of formats to download.


I give 3 examples:


  1. I go for Wilkie Collins and his novel Armadale, which is another of his excellent mystery novels. I already have read and have kept The Woman in White, The Moonstone and No Name in my e-library.  The format I choose is epub, which is the one used by Overdrive – Libby. An instruction to OPEN appears at the bottom. I click on it and Armadale appears in the Overdrive folder, besides the books on loan from the library. Go  to  the Downloads folder on your tablet where the book first landed. The last item at the top is your book identified by a numerical code. Click/finger-tap the 3 dots at the right and choose Rename. Type the name Armadale.  You also  can Delete the book from here, when you wish to remove it.  


  1. I enjoy the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and I’d like to have an e-book copy of  his work. I select  The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and then, because I have a combined-Kindle tablet, I choose mobi –for download. When the line of text appears at the bottom, telling me the book has downloaded, I select Open to check. I then close the Gutenberg web site and go to Downloads. The new file with a numerical code is at the top. I go to the 3 dots at the right and choose Re-name. The name I choose is of course, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. If I want to Delete, then I choose that. Unlike, the Amazon Kindle and Overdrive systems, the page you left is not memorised, even though you have used the mobi format. The book of course, is from Gutenberg and not from an Amazon source for the Kindle. Before you end the reading session, you need to note the location. Alternatively, you could read to the end of a chapter in a novel and note the number of the next one. When you return to the book, pull out a menu from the left side, and choose either the chapter number/heading, or Go to for the location.


A disadvantage is that  e-book pages are not so easy to find without  noting down the location beforehand. That is necessary if one  wants to go back to re-read a section on a previous page. If you tap a page twice in quick succession, you learn where the location is and what percentage has been read. When you return to the book, pull out the menu from the left side, and choose   Go to for the location. Overdrive does not provide a left side pull-out contents menu.


  1. As I have explained previously, if you have a tablet that has no Overdrive-Libby or Kindle app, you can still read Gutenberg books by choosing the html format (better than txt)  and read from the internet. Save as a Favourite.  There are quite a few titles children might enjoy in Gutenberg’s store. You could download all the Beatrix Potter stories if you wish. All E.Nesbitt books are available. I’ve downloaded my favourite The Railway Children.  On my tablet, all the chapters are highlighted  on the internet screen for easy access. The background is cream , but the print is still easy to read. This is a good way to try out this new method of reading books before you download the Overdrive – Libby app.


To give you an idea what novels and stories are on offer amongst the Gutenberg books, here is a selection of novelists and writers.  Most are from the  19th or early 20th century.


Daniel Defoe, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, William Thackeray, Mary Webb, H.G.Wells, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Arnold Bennett, Anthony Trollope, John Galsworthy, E.M.Forster, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, Louisa Alcott, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Nathaniel Hawthorn, O.Henry, Eden Phillpotts, Edgar Wallace, Rose Macaulay, Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Pepys,  Arthur Conan Doyle, A.E.W. Mason, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lytton Strachey, Edith Wharton, John Buchan,  Edgar Allen Poe,  Lewis Carroll, P.G. Wodehouse, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde,  Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf. Jerome K Jerome, Henry James, Bram Stoker, Frederick Marryat, Sir Walter Scott. G.K. Chesterton, Rafael Sabatini, H. Rider Haggard. Oscar Wilde. Charles Kingsley.

New Developments for Book Groups

A meeting of the Book Group of which I am a member, was due to take place at the end of March 2020 and was postponed until the end of November 2020. It was my turn to introduce the book, on this occasion, Stacey Hall’s The Familiars. All the printed borrowed copies had been returned to the library, but I had the e-book copy on my tablet. Before I left home, I downloaded the book and left the tablet open at the page I wanted. The tablet then went into “sleep mode”. Because the download had not been disturbed, the book was still available for reference in a house where the tablet was not receiving wifi. This experience points the way to which tablets can be used much more in  Book Groups, especially when there is a shortage of printed copies. Book Groups cannot meet physically during a lock-down,. I’ve just heard from a friend in Surrey of a Book Group, where all the members, who live in different counties,  have tablets or i-pads. They propose to down-load from Gutenberg one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels and discuss its contents together on Zoom.  Only Gutenberg can offer free limitless copies of one e-book title at the present time. When the libraries are able to do that, there will indeed be a revolution in verbal, pictorial and oral communication. 


Kathleen Kinder Nov 2020



William McGonagall – “The Greatest of the Bad Poets”


Among English-language poets this rare title has been held for well over a century by William McGonagall.  Many people who enjoy literature will know his name and be aware of the accolade.  But who was he?  What poetry did he write and why is it so bad? And why is he regarded as the greatest of the bad poets?   Here I shall try to answer the questions. 

I – McGonagall’s life and creative process

William McGonagall was born in 1825, to impoverished cottage weavers who had come over to Scotland from Donegal.  First they tried Edinburgh, where William was born, then Glasgow, and then Paisley, finally settling in Dundee.  In 1846 William married Jean King, a lady of Stirling, thereafter spending most of their lives in Dundee.  Jean was illiterate (she had to sign William’s death certificate with a cross) so she was perhaps not the obvious partner for an aspiring litterateur; and there is not one mention in William’s writing of Jean or of the seven children they had. So the marriage is hard to fathom.

While working in the family weaving business William became smitten with the theatre, above all with Shakespeare.  He began to think of himself primarily as an actor, eventually going freelance and giving performances that, in his own description, were tumultuously received.  As a thespian, William was not short of self-confidence: he once rewrote Macbeth in order not to be killed off in the final act because in his view the actor playing Macduff (Macbeth’s murderer) was merely trying to upstage him.

Once he had mastered Shakespeare, William went on to write poetry of his own, and then to declaim his verse in public, perhaps aiming to emulate Dickens, whose public readings had been lucrative sell-outs. 

In 1878 William walked the sixty miles from Dundee to Balmoral with the intention of asking Queen Victoria  to appoint him “The Queen’s Poet”, apparently unperturbed by the fact that Tennyson was already Poet Laureate.  The Queen did not receive William, but he was treated kindly, fed and watered, and politely sent packing.  

He then tried performing further afield, travelling by boat to London in 1880.  Touring did not make him any money, but in 1887, at the age of 62, he tried again, this time in New York.  What made him think that New York audiences would comprehend him, let alone flock to hear him, is hard to imagine.  Unsurprisingly his misjudgement cost him dear, so much so that he had to cadge the fare home from a fellow Dundonian in the city.

Throughout his career, William was roundly mocked, and nowhere more hurtfully than in Dundee.  At some of his appearances fruit and eggs were thrown, and for a while the city magistrates made him refrain from  performing.  Regardless, William kept his head down and continued writing.  His apparent ability to shrug off denigration and turn in on himself has prompted one psychologist to suggest that William perhaps lay somewhere on the Asperger’s to Autism spectrum.  

In 1890 a letter unexpectedly arrived advising that the King of Burma had appointed William a Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant, with the title Sir William Topaz McGonagall.  Whether William saw this as a hoax or simply ignored is not recorded; but thereafter he took to advertising himself under his new honorific.

Nevertheless, his money problems kept mounting.  Friends bailed him out in 1890 by financing the first publication of his work, a volume wordily entitled Poetic gems selected from the works of William McGonagall, poet and tragedian, with biographical sketch by the author and portraitPoetic Gems contains the first 32 poems of the 258 that William eventually composed.

In 1893, tired of Dundee, he declared that he was intending to leave the city forthwith.  Mockery still followed him, though; for someone on the local paper wrote waspishly that because Dundee rhymed conveniently with 1893 William was unlikely to leave that year – and indeed he didn’t depart until 1894.

In his final years, having moved to Edinburgh, William must have cut a very sad figure.  He remained poor and became increasingly ill.  He died in 1902, at the age of 77, of a cerebral haemorrhage. He is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard.


I turn now to William’s poetic process.  He writes that in June 1877, when he was 52, some form of divine combustion consumed him, turning him instantly into a fully-fledged poet.  Here is how he describes his transformation:

“A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt so happy, so happy that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became.  It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, ‘Write” Write!’ So I said to myself, ruminating, let me see; what shall I write?…”

He then proceeded “while under the divine inspiration” to write his first poem, a piece in praise of his recently deceased friend, the Reverend George Gilfillan (1877).  Signing his poem “W.M’G., Dundee” he dropped it through the letterbox of the Dundee Weekly News, which published it.  After that there was no holding William back. He carried on writing in an unbroken stream, covering events great and small, for twenty-five more years, right up to his death. 

So why is his verse regarded as so bad?  What are its hallmarks?

The short answer is his determination to make his lines rhyme – no matter what.  If it rhymed it was poetry.  It didn’t matter how long each line turned out to be nor whether the stressed syllable in each word fell in the right place.  He either had no respect for, or did not understand, metre.  Worse, his vocabulary is of the most banal.  

Now see for yourself!

II – Extracts from his poems

It is arguably The Tay Bridge Disaster that brought William to prominence both  in and beyond Dundee.   On December 28th, 1879, the railway bridge across the Firth of Tay collapsed in a severe gale as a train was crossing on its journey to Dundee.  The entire train fell into the Firth, with the loss of all lives.  This horrifying event  got William’s creative juices flowing.   Here are the first and last verses of the poem he completed a month after the event.

The Tay Bridge Disaster (1880)

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

These lines pick up characteristics from William’s first poems, and they reappear time and time again through to his last.  Note:

  • reference to the Firth of Tay as “silv’ry”.  The Tay occurs often in his poems, and it is always silver, never blue or angry or sparkling, or anything else
  • the widely differing lengths of the two verses 
  • William’s readiness to ride roughshod over grammatical correctness in order to force a rhyme, as in the two lines beginning “Had they been supported…” 
  • the banality of “Which will be remember’d for a very long time”, which occurs four times

These self-same features – cliché, lack of metre, and forced rhyme – figure prominently in the extracts below, taken from two further poems written ten years apart:

The Inauguration of the College of Dundee (1883)

I hope the ladies and gentlemen of Dundee will try and learn knowledge
At home in Dundee in their nice little College,
Because knowledge is sweeter than honey or jam,
Therefore let them try and gain knowledge as quick as they can.



Lines in Memoriam Regarding the Entertainment I Gave on the 31st March, 1893, in Reform Street Hall, Dundee

’Twas on the 31st of March, and in the year of 1893,
I gave an entertainment in the city of Dundee,
To a select party of gentlemen, big and small,
Who appreciated my recital in Reform Street Hall.

The meeting was convened by J. P. Smith’s manager, High Street,
And many of J. P. Smith’s employees were there me to greet,
And several other gentlemen within the city,
Who were all delighted with the entertainment they got from me…

For sheer banality, as well as lack of metre, the line beginning “The meeting was convened…”  strikes me as verging on genius.

That same year William wrote up his decision to leave Dundee:

A New Year’s Resolution to Leave Dundee (1893)

Every morning when I go out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
‘There goes Mad McGonagall’
In derisive shouts as loud as they can bawl,
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me;
And such actions are shameful to be heard in the city of Dundee…

Nevertheless, he couldn’t keep away altogether, for here he is, three years later, covering the Dundee Flower Show:

The Dundee Flower Show (1886)

The Industrial School Boys Band were there on Saturday
And played most eloquent music both plaintive and gay
Which met with the appreciation of the people there
And for the time being helped drive away dull care

For beauty such plants and flowers here have been seen
That were displayed in the Flower Show on the Magdalen Green
Especially plants in pots, were most lovely to see
Belonging to W. P. Laird & Sinclair, Dundee

On top of everything else, the second verse betrays a shaky grasp of punctuation.

Finally, here is his poem on the coronation of Edward VII.

The Coronation of King Edward VII (1902)

And as the Archbishop approached to put the crown on his head,
A silence fell on the great congregation, as of the dead,
Because they saw the Archbishop seemed pale and shaky with dread,
And felt unable to put the crown on the King’s head,
But the King saw what was wrong, but he didn’t frown,
And with the aid of his own hands he put on the crown.

When Queen Alexandra was being crowned she looked lovely and gay,
And the ceremony took only a few minutes’ delay,
And the King permitted the Archbishop to retire to his chair,
Likewise the Primate felt very weak, he was well aware.

The sameness of William’s output throughout his life is remarkable.  You cannot pick up an undated piece of MacGonagall and say, “Well, that’s an early one” or “That’s from his middle period” because in twenty-five years of writing William developed his technique not one bit.

That is why, perhaps, he is regarded as the greatest of the bad poets, and why he will be remember’d for a very long time.


Having been consumed by the same fiery poetic spirit that consumed William, I round off this piece with two verses of my own of which I hope he would approve. 


To the beautiful town of Settle (in respectful acknowledgement of the Tay Bridge Disaster)

Elegant ladies and gentlemen of the beautiful town of Settle,
Which is set so fair on the banks of the silv’ry Ribble,
Your tow’ring crags and tea-rooms little, most nourishingly the Naked Man and the Singing Kettle,
Do cast a wondrous spell and cause a poet to scribble
By the beautiful banks of the silv’ry Ribble!

But many sensible men does say
That even poets must learn to call it a day
Along the beautiful banks of the silv’ry Ribble.
So now I must end my modest little article,
Which among English letters is but an insignificant little particle,
For the more I do make my verses shorter,
At any rate to be no longer than they ought to,
The less I shall make the elegant citizens of Settle to be bored,
And the less chance I have of being ignored.



For those who would like to know more about William McGonagall and his work, I recommend the McGonagall online website.  It contains much detail about his life, and most of his works.  If you would like to hear Scotsman Roy Macready recite The Tay Bridge Disaster, it can be found on YouTube.  It runs for 3½ minutes.

North Yorkshire County Council libraries hold one copy of William McGonagall – Collected Poems, 2006.  Also available is a CD narrated by Scottish actor David Rintoul, entitled William McGonagall…the world’s worst poet? (2016).

Appendix – metre, rhyme and vocabulary in poetry

While most people can recognise and appreciate poetry when they hear it, the technical terms that define it are perhaps less well known, so a short explanation may be helpful.

English words are heavily stressed, so, for example we always say “bacon” with the stress on the first syllable and “about” with the stress on the second.  Stressed syllables falling in a regular pattern are what makes poetry poetry.  Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does need the regularity that stressed syllables provide, and the pattern of regularity that poets use is known as metre, or sometimes scansion.

  To quote Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils…

Here there are eight syllables to each line, and the natural stress in each word provides a steady rhythm. 

The use of rhyme – or not – is  entirely up to the poet.  Shakespeare, for example, uses relatively little rhyme, quite often reserving a couple of rhyming lines to round off a lengthy speech.  On the other hand, in the daffodils piece above, Wordsworth is keen to rhyme, and he keeps it up through the whole poem. In the short extract above rhyming words occur at every other line: cloud/crowd in lines 1 and 3, and hills/daffodils in lines 2 and 4.  

Down the years, the  combination of rhythm and rhyme have made Wordsworth’s verse both memorable and enjoyable to countless readers. 

To be memorable, poetry often places together – juxtaposes – words that we wouldn’t normally see together.  Here is the opening to Samuel Taylor-Coleridge’s Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

Unexpected juxtapositions that stick in the mind here are stately/pleasure; caverns/measureless; and sunless/sea. The rhythm and rhymes too are as regularly patterned as in Wordsworth.

Incidentally, what can be said about poetry can also be said about music.  Music doesn’t have to have a tune to be music, but it does have to have rhythm. 

Bob Young

October 2020

Book Review – The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell


The Alexandria Quartet. No, not a small band of string players but the crowning achievement of English novelist Lawrence Durrell, and arguably one of the great literary masterpieces of the twentieth century.

Lawrence George Durrell1 was born in India in 1912 to British colonial parents. Sent off to England at the age of eleven for his education, then failing to make it into Cambridge, Durrell took his disenchantment abroad, spending much of his life in the eastern Mediterranean. He first became known for his poetry; his prose writing took some years to achieve recognition but has remained his enduring legacy. To augment his income from writing Durrell worked for some years for the Foreign Office. His official postings and private sojourns during and after World War II inspired much of his work – and “inspire” is the right word: he writes memorably of Corfu, Rhodes, Cyprus and Egypt. He finally settled in Provence, where he lived for thirty years before his death in 1990.

The four novels that form The Alexandria Quartet were published between 1957 and 1960. In order they are Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960), each book taking its title from one of its leading characters. The first three present the perspectives of different people of a single set of events in Alexandria in the years just before the Second World War; the fourth book is set six years later.

In his preface Durrell says that “this group of four novels is intended to be read as a single work”, and I have found for myself that it does indeed work properly only as one whole thing. Durrell describes it as “an investigation of modern love”. Modern love is shot through with sexual and political intrigue, some of the relationships conducted à deux, some as triangles, others as polygons. The fraying fabric on which Durrell’s characters weave their web of interactions, perceptions and reminiscences is the city of Alexandria, beautiful and repellent.

The city is the one constant in the whole work, and Durrell’s portrayal of it sticks in the mind: his prose-poetry is unsurpassed at conveying its sights, smells and tastes. Margaret Drabble describes Durrell’s style as “ornate, lyrical and sensual, perhaps too much so for English tastes…” and she argues that, perhaps for that reason, The Quartet has been much more highly regarded outside England than within. Personally, I don’t find Durrell’s writing “too much”. Here is a small sample, taken from the opening paragraphs of the first book.

“Five languages, five races, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar… Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick-dust, sweet-smelling brick-dust, and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water… The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion.”

The principal narrator of The Quartet is an impoverished teacher of English, L. G. Darley (the initials those of Durrell himself). Chief among the Egyptian characters are members of the Coptic, i.e. Christian, Hosnani family. The eldest son, Nessim, is married to Justine, a beautiful Jewish girl whom he plucked from abject poverty. Nessim’s younger, hare-lipped brother, Narouz, is swept up in the rising tide of anti-British resentment that began in the 1930s and exploded in the Suez conflict of 1956. Narouz is trouble, and he eventually pays with his life, though at whose hand is not clear.

The sexual intrigues mingle Egyptians and expatriates. In the opening book Darley is the lover of Melissa, a Greek night-club dancer (and a little more besides) but has just begun a clandestine affair with Justine Hosnani. Justine’s personal magnetism is irresistible, but she is unreadable, unpredictable and untamed – a handful, one might say. She is not the only Hosnani playing away: her mother-in-law, Leila, is conducting a passionate relationship with a much younger British diplomat, David Mountolive; that affair drives some of the later narrative. These relationships are fraught with danger, creating tensions that Durrell exploits with great skill.

Mountolive recruits another Alexandrian ex-pat, the novelist Pursewarden, as his advisor, i.e. spy. Pursewarden is led into a painful conflict between friendship and duty, and it ends badly. Pursewarden’s own story is related by another narrator, Balthazar, who gives his name to the second book. Darley and Balthazar exchange reminiscences throughout The Quartet, the second narrator subtly revealing further perspectives on the same set of events.

The main characters are educated, articulate and generally not wealthy – except for the Hosnanis, who are filthy rich. But the secondary characters play vitally important roles. Durrell uses Darley’s connections to depict the lower life of Alexandria – as well as to throw in some howlingly funny dialogue and scenes. (There is a parallel here with Shakespeare’s knockabout characters popping up in serious drama.) We are thus entertained by Scobie, transvestite and closet homosexual (“I have The Tendency, old man”) who is, improbably, recruited into the Egyptian police force. Shockingly, El Scob, as he is known to the Egyptians, one evening goes prowling the docks in drag and is beaten to death by British sailors. Equally unforgettably, there appears Pombal, a minor overweight French consular official. Such a delicious name: you can almost hear the air whistling out of a leather cushion as he sits down. Pombal routinely struggles for the right English phrase in translation. The French phrase émissions nocturnes sur les ondes courtes (intended to mean night-time broadcasts on the short wave) emerges in Pombal’s English as nocturnal emissions on the short hairs.

The fourth and final book, Clea, provides a sense of passing time which the previous three do not. It covers the war years and after, adding to and nudging our earlier understanding of what had taken place. Clea is a Greek artist with a lesbian past, notwithstanding which she and Darley begin a brief affair after bumping into each other in the street. Thus the sexual provender of Alexandria, noted at the beginning of the quartet, remains unexhausted at the end.

Clea reveals that, while war prevents Mountolive and Leila from forming a permanent relationship, happiness continues to elude them when it is over, for reasons which I will not divulge here. Improbably, Justine and Nessim reunite in a relationship that is physically and intellectually satisfying. Balthazar and Clea pursue their separate lives in Alexandria. Darley takes himself off to a remote Greek island with the dead Melissa’s illegitimate child, there to write his recollections.

So, no happy ending and no sad one either, and, in a sense, no ending at all. Durrell’s thesis is that, amid the characters’ diverse perceptions of what went on, there is no such thing as the objective truth. There are only individual perceptions of it, and these may overlap, but they are never completely congruent and do not necessarily lead to conclusions.

Durrell is undeniably demanding on his readers’ education and concentration, but that is how he casts his spell. The Quartet is a lengthy read too, some 900 pages in standard paperback format. But what a rewarding read it is! During my adult life I have read The Quartet three times, always end-to-end without a break, and each time have found it more satisfying than the time before. I am not ashamed to say that, despite the plethora of other pleasures in modern English writing, I feel a fourth reading coming on.

Bob Young

Endnote: There are three copies of The Alexandria Quartet available through NYCC libraries. Note also that the first of the four books, Justine, was filmed in 1969, with Anouk Aimée as the title character. It failed to do justice to Durrell’s language or vision and was deservedly panned by the critics. It was a financial flop too. Well worth avoiding!

1 Lawrence Durrell was the eldest brother of Gerald Durrell, who is best known for his TV zoo series, drawn from his book My Family and Other Animals.

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