In English history the Tudors are seen as the bridge between the medieval world and the early modern one. They certainly helped to shape a lot of what we think about the nation state, the relationship with church and our understanding of monarchy among other things. Henry VII was the founder of that dynasty although his story has often been overshadowed by those of his more famous son and granddaughter. Penn’s portrait of Henry is of a scheming and distrustful man who ruthlessly exploited the wealth of his kingdom and his subjects (often in highly illegal ways) for the glory of himself and the furthering of his political ambitions. The narrative mimics Henry’s own kingship – as he withdraws from public life so he moves in to the background of his own story, the details fleshed out with tales of intriguing among his ministers. And even here, in this biography of Henry VII, his son and future daughter-in-law bestride everything, colouring every mention with thoughts of what will happen decades later. Henry may have been the founder of the Tudors and Penn may have done a great job of recording his life but in reality he is merely the prologue of the real story to come.
A few weeks ago I read a book that had been nominated for the Samuel Johnson prize (Empires of the Dead). The Pike was the winner of that award. And it’s not hard to see why. I must admit I had never heard of d’Annunzio before. But what a life! He was a character who truly was something you just couldn’t make up. Hughes-Hallett’s book is an absolute masterpiece in biography. Not stuffy and staid and predictable but creative and playful and hard to pin down – as shapeshifting as its subject. Marvellous.
I love bikes and I love Holland. The wife and I have been to Amsterdam many times and so a book about the two jumped off the shelf at me (not literally of course). The book weaves the life of an American ex-pat with the history of the bike in the city. The biography piece was less interesting as I just didn’t have a massive amount of empathy with the author. The sections about the struggles cyclists had with the city council to get decent infrastructure was very insightful. However you did get the feeling the book was padded out in certain areas. For example one chapter on the second world war would have been enough but instead there were several which you couldn’t help feel was just because the author had access to lots and lots of archive materials. Does nobody edit books these days?!!
Charles de Gaulle is a figure that looms over twentieth century history. As a proud Englishman I think it’s just genetics that makes me dislike him! He was tall, he was French and he was a bit annoying/aloof. This book didn’t dispel any of those thoughts but it did flesh out some of the other things he got up to. It was an amazing life from a complicated character.
Another familiar story – who hasn’t heard about the murdered Archbishop? – but once again a book that helps to flesh out the details. Covers not just Becket’s early life but also gives an assessment of the feud with Henry II and outlines what happened – without descending in to hagiography. In the end it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that this was simply a battle of wills between two incredibly stubborn individuals.
Following in the footsteps of a famous father can’t be easy. Nicolas Roche has that issue. He confronts it head on and discusses it openly in his autobiography. Mostly it’s formed from a serious of diary entries he wrote as columns for an Irish newspaper. The rest of the chapters help to fill in the blanks and give some context. The newspaper columns are far and away the best bit – they are candid and refreshing to see exactly how Roche thought and felt on those days.
Jacques Anquetil is one of the greats of cycling. The first man to win the Tour de France five times. But his private life was a soap opera – he ended up have a child with his step-daughter (among other things). Although it would be easy to sensationalise, and this book does attempt to do that sometimes, the story and the man are interesting enough in themselves to keep you going. Anquetil was a unique and driven individual. But he was also a jumble of paradoxes.