Their legacy is obviously ABBA – a Review of Napoleon & Wellington by Andrew Roberts

Where did Napoleon keep his armies? Up his sleevies of course!

Yes, that was terrible, and yes, I won’t make any more bad jokes. I promise.

This is the second proper book I’ve read about Napoleon and Wellington, and it focuses on the relationship between the two men. They never met in person until that fateful day outside Waterloo, but Wellington was of course well aware of Napoleon from the beginning of his rise, and the latter had over the years grown to realise Wellington as a significant adversery.

It was packed full of information on what they said about eachother, Robert’s analysis of this, what other people said about them, and how much of that is probably porkies. It enabled me to actually feel like I vaguely understood how both men thought. I enjoyed it but I had to slog through a little because it was very, very, long.

Time for the mythbusting: First and foremost…. Napoleon wasn’t even French. He was from Corsica. I mean, how ridiculous is that? Honestly… next they’ll be telling us that Hitler wasn’t German, or something. 😉

Secondly *sob*: Wellington’s remark that ‘Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,’ is not in fact a jolly hockey sticks appraisal of good old English gallantry and willingness to ‘play the game, what’. Wellington wasn’t talking about the cricket pitch – he was talking about the corner of the school grounds where all the boys used to beat each other up.

Oh. *national anthem grinds to squeaky halt*

I wonder if they still have this corner…. I wonder if Hiddles and Harry Lloyd and Eddie Redmayne ever beat eachother up in this corner… now I have these really deranged ideas of Eton just being full of upper class actors in top hats, brawling. Ahem, moving on.

Apparently both Napoleon and Wellington where extremely attractive to women. Really? Napopleon? Really?

Okay so I’m sure he had the whole ‘Charismatic and Exceedingly Powerful Emporer’ thing going on, but if he’d tried to have his way with me I would have been like ‘Don’t push it ya French midget!’

Napoleon had a mean sense of humour. He told one woman ‘Madam, they told me you were ugly, they certainly did not exaggerate.’ Ouch, she got told! Bit harsh coming from a midget (okay, I promise I’ll stop with the midget jokes). Sort of reminds me of Winston Churchill’s famous diss, ‘Madam, I am drunk and you are ugly, the difference is, in the morning I shall be sober.’

As well as his famous quote ‘The English are nothing but shopkeepers and their glory consists of their wealth’, here are some other amusing things Napoleon thought about the English:

The English seem to prefer the bottle to the society of their women.

England is said to traffic in everything. I should advise her to sell liberty, for which she could get a high price, and without any fear of exhausting her stock.

There is a greater number of honourable men, proportionately, in England than in any other country; and yet they have some very bad men there – they are in extremes.

Shakespeare had been forgotten in England for two centuries: Voltaire… praised him, and everybody began to repeat that Shakespeare was the greatest poet in the world.

And my personal favourite:

The English are in everything more practical than the French; they emigrate, marry, kill themselves, with less indecision than the French display going to the opera.

You know, personally, I thought the French actually showed quite a lot of decisiveness when they went and chopped the heads of all their aristocracy.

Roberts challenges popular stereotypes of the two men, contradicting the other book on the subject which I’ve read, which gave the impression that Wellington was modest and prudent. Wellington certainly had to be very careful about not getting his men killed, as he was answerable to the British government. Napoleon on the other hand was effectively dictator, and could do what the heck he wanted, so if he wanted to freeze half his army to death then tough – they got popsicle-ised. Roberts dismisses the myth that Wellington was an overly cautious commander – he often went on the attack, he was simply more careful going about it.

Prudent in this respect Wellington may have been, but Roberts shows that he definitely wasn’t modest – he surrounded himself in his house with memorabilia which lauded his victory – such as Canova’s mahoosive statue of Boney himself. Wellington also had a bit of a thing with ‘collecting’ Napoleon’s ladies… yes… that means sleeping with two of Napoleon’s mistresses, and hanging revealing portraits of his female relatives around his house. Doesn’t really sound like the work of a bloke with a small ego if you ask me!

Robert concludes that what these two men thought of each other is in contrary the popular opinion that Wellington respected Napoleon, who underestimated and despised the former. In fact, he argues, Wellington loathed Napoleon as a man and a military leader, whereas Napoleon had a high regard for Wellington… until Wellington beat him, of course. He then spent his final years on St Helena cursing his name.

‘You think because Wellington has beaten you that he is a good general, well, he is a bad one.’

Napoleon’s famous remark on the morning of Waterloo is often taken to show his overwhelming arrogance, but Roberts argues that it is taken out of context and constitutes an anomaly. Napoleon frequently praised Wellington, and did not underestimate and this comment was made at a moment where he could not be seen to be in the least doubtful of victory, and had to insult Wellington to keep up morale.

Yeah, so he lost anyway.

Napoleon made many mistakes at Waterloo, primarily, sending a large contingent of men to chase after the Prussians and so losing out on numbers, and letting his ill health that day prevent him taking firm control of the battle at points, and allowing his (as far as I can see, frankly useless) Marshals run the show. The truth however still stands that if Blucher had not made it to Waterloo with Prussian reinforcments in time, Wellington would have been stuffed.

And would we now all be living in the French Empire? Zat is zee question!

In the end I ended up rather liking both these colourful characters in a ‘They’re awesome but they’d be right arrogant jerks in real life’ sort of way. Wellington, national hero that he is, was a hilarious snob, and I bet he’d be great fun at dinner parties. Napoleon was a genius whose energy and inspiring leadership must have been amazing and terrifying to see. His mere presence could cause royalist soldiers to desert their cause and join him, and staggeringly, he lost only ten or so out of seventy battles. On the other hand, he was also a power crazed psychopath.

I think Napoleon’s downfall was that his vision was not tempered, be it by caution, meticulous organisational skills, or rubber ducks. Wellington, though driven and determined, was not giddy with the power he wielded (if only not get fired). Napoleon’s ability to make mistakes (you know, accidentally kill off a few thousand French here and there, let a whole bunch die in Russia, etc) without getting called in on it by anyone eventually lead him to make one mistake too many.

Over ambition was, I think, Napoleon’s fatal flaw, something which Wellington, as an also incredibly skilled commander, was able eventually to exploit. You see, Napoleon may have rarely lost a battle…. but Wellington didn’t lose any.

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You mean Spartans don’t wear Speedos? – a Review of Persian Fire by Tom Holland

In Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, Tom Holland covers the Persian empire right from its Assyrian roots all the way through to the ill-fated invasions of the jumbled collection of city states and provinces we all now know as Greece. And that means Marathon and Thermoplyae and all those other famous battles! The history geek inside me leaps for joy. The 300 Spartans constituted only a minor section of this book, but rest assured that they will constitute the majority of this post. Awoo! Awoo! *ahem serious face*

This book was, quite frankly, incredible, and I was hooked from start to finish.

Tom Holland wasn’t just regurgitating a story from history, he was spinning a gripping yarn which would totally engross even the most casual of readers. But, I hear you cry, how could any reader possibly not be enthralled by the incredible story of the ‘First Battle for the West’? Well, let’s face it, some historians have the uncanny knack of reducing the most exciting episodes into dry dusty figures. Not so for Mr Holland, no way. Persian Fire was stunningly evocative, to the point where I really think Holland should turn his hand to fiction – it was more compelling than many a historical novel I’ve read (Conn Iggulden, take note).

And of course, it was all real history, so I felt smart reading it. ;D Until reading this book the most I knew about the Persians is that they had beards, and that Bible story about Esther.

Holland made some really fascinating assertions in his introduction which to be honest almost bamboozled me, humble school girl that I am.

The 300 Spartans had a far greater influence on the present than a few dodgy movies: without the Greek defence of their homeland, Athens would never have become a great democratic state, its culture would never have been absorbed by the Roman Empire, and western civilisation as we know it today would not even exist. However, while the Greek’s victory is paraded as the first war for liberty, many of the states in Greece might have had more freedom under the rule of a Persian king than they subsequently did under the yoke of their neighbours.

The war between East and West was the beginning of an animosity between cultures which has lasted till today, with the War on Terror. He then said that if, however, Persia had invaded Greece, there would never have been the explosion of classical Athenian culture, and so Plato would not have existed, and so therefore neither would Islam in the first place. Conversely, President Bush’s phrase ‘axis of evil’ derives from the teachings of an Iranian prophet.

Wow. That’s pretty deep, and seems alarmingly clever. Remind me what Plato has to do with Islam again? Because I have no idea and have never considered linking the two in my life. Hey, by the way, who exactly was this Plato dude anyway? People seem to throw his name around a lot…random all round genius philosopher guy I assume, since the Greeks seemed to have loads of them…he wasn’t the one that jumped in a volcano was he?

*google time*

I had no idea that all these Greek philosophers influenced early islamic philosophers too. Well, whaddya know.

Persian Fire also proved to be a bit of a mythbuster for me.

Earlier in the day I’d learnt that the famed Ninth Legion did not, in fact, go missing in Scotland. So on finishing the book I was basically standing among the newly destroyed ruins of my childhood. *sob*

Deep Lies I have been Cruelly Lead to Believe:

  1. All 300 did not cop it. Only 298 Spartans died at Thermoplyae, one being sent as a messenger and the other sitting out because he had an eye infection. There was a second with an eye infection, but refusing to leave his comrades to their doom, he had his Helot lead him back into battle – some serious bravery there. The messenger later commited suicide from shame for not having died with his men. The other guy eventually redeemed himself by dying heroically (and stupidly) in a later battle.
  2. The marathon is not dedicated after a bloke who ran from Marathon to tell Athens of the Persian defeat… and then drop down dead. There was a runner, but he ran to Sparta and back to try and get them to help, and he didn’t die. The marathon is named after the return of the triumphant Athenian hoplites from Marathon.
  3. The 300 Spartans did not wear Speedos. And there was me thinking Gerard Butler was legit Leonidus and everything.

However on the upside, things which Mr Holland verifies as true include:

  1. The Persian ambassadors were pushed down a well.

Eh, heh, heh eh eh. I know being pushed down a well is pretty horrible, but you’ve got to admit it’s kind of hilarious. Okay, so nobody yelled ‘This is Sparta’, but what actually happened was even wittier. The Persians demanded earth and water as tribute for King Darius. The Spartan reply?

‘If you want earth and water, look down there.’

2) King Leonidus did actually say ‘Tonight, we dine in hell!’

Alright, so technically he said ‘Breakfast well, for tonight we eat in the underworld,’ but it just depends on the translator. I’m sure in previous centuries the translation from original Doric Greek would have been ‘Chop chop, eat up old boys, for later this day Hades shall invite us for afternoon tea and scones.’ Maybe if someone did it now it would be ‘Yo homies, eat that sh*t cos we’re dying today, innit.’ Personally I think ‘Tonight we dine in hell’ has more of a ring to it.

In conclusion (conclusion? Conclusion of what?) this has definitely confirmed for me that I’m totally fascinated by ancient history, and that I want to read a lot more about this period. I’m signing off now, so that I can go straight on Amazon to order the rest of this guy’s books. 😀

A childhood dream fulfilled – a Review of Ruby Redfort: Look Into My Eyes by Lauren Child

As a kid I utterly loved the Clarice Bean books, and used to spend hours wishing that the fictional Ruby Redfort novels Clarice reads in her novels actually existed. So imagine my excitement when no less than eight years later…Lauren Child actually wrote one. I’d been waiting, quite literally, half my life.

I was even lucky enough to meet Lauren herself, and get a signed copy. A Ruby badge reading ‘Hey bozo’ now takes pride of place on my jacket.

The story follows Ruby, a smart and bored American rich kid in the 1970s who is recruited as as codebreaker by the mysterious spy agency Spectrum. Ruby is not only far brainier than the average 13 year old but also has a biting and oddly cynical sense of humour. She also has a whole host of taglines such as ‘Watch it, buster’ and ‘Sure thing, bozo.’ You can’t help but love her, and the light hearted dialogue concealed a wry, almost adult humour. The rest of the cast are an equally interesting bunch, from the suave spy/butler Hitch, to the kickass housekeeper Mrs Digby. Yeah, even the names of the characters immediately give you a good idea of what they are like. Imagine, for example, Count von Viscount – I don’t even need to tell you that he’s evil and wears a cloak.

School work and laziness conspired to prevent me from finishing it until now and reading the book in two sittings, I actually got very different impressions of the two halves of the book.

I was very disappointed with the first half; it seemed almost forced. Child’s witty style of writing, with all its colourful characters and cheesy Americanisms, totally fell flat against what I percieved as an abject lack of plot. I was actually bored, which was a tragedy after how excited I’d been to read it. In depression, I put it aside.

Then, picking it up again a few months later, I raced through the second half and loved every minute. The plot zipped along in all its purposefully cliched glory, smattered with tidbits of clues and details of an exaggerated America Child is clearly having loads of fun creating, and there were moments where I laughed out loud. It leads me to wonder if I’d been having a bad day when I read the first half, and to basically ignore my opinion of it, other than the fact that the plot definately does come together more once Ruby has been ‘recruited’.

Though this novel obviously owes its existance to the Clarice Bean series, it is in no way related, and is written entirely differently. It’s the sheer ridiculousness of the book which gives it such charm. Everything is over the top, and stereotyped, and it’s absolutely wonderful to the point where I think that the younger audience might not appreciate how clever it is.

I recommend this to all the readers who, like me, spent their years reading Clarice Bean wishing for Ruby Redfort as well. I would also recommend it to anyone who’s interested in a fun, refreshing take on the ‘child spy’ genre.