The Heretic Wind by Judith Arnopp is released this week and I’m delighted to welcome Judith as a guest on Blogging with Labradors to give us some information about her latest book.
Judith’s novels concentrate on strong female characters from English history. Her trilogy of Margaret Beaufort, The Beaufort Chronicle, provided Margaret with a credible voice. She does much the same in this novel of Mary Tudor, Queen of England. Mary, due to the violent punishment she inflicted on heretics has come to be viewed as little short of a monster. In this novel, Mary isn’t white-washed; she is simply allowed to tell her own story. Judith says:
‘I always think it would be awful if, after my death, I was only remembered for the very worst thing I’ve ever done. Everyone is guilty of something, and people like Mary, and her father Henry VIII carried out horrible deeds. Unfortunately those actions have come to define them. Burning anyone to death seems terrible to us but it was the standard punishment for heresy in the 16thcentury. It would be wrong to look upon Mary as some half-mad monster, glibly sending Protestants to their death. There was much more to her than cruelty. She was kind, generous and terribly well-meaning. She adored her people but her reign wasn’t as benign as she intended. My study of Mary Tudor revealed a sad, isolated and desperate woman whose intention was to be a good and loving Queen. The fact things turned out rather differently were mostly due to exterior forces. In The Heretic Wind, the mortally sick and embittered Mary looks back on her life and explains to some extent, the reasons why things happened as they did.
Adored by her parents and pampered by the court, the infant Princess Mary’s life changes suddenly and drastically when her father’s eye is taken by the enigmatic Anne Boleyn.
Mary stands firm against her father’s determination to destroy both her mother’s reputation, and the Catholic church. It is a battle that will last throughout both her father’s and her brother’s reign, until, she is almost broken by persecution. When King Edward falls ill and dies Mary expects to be crowned queen.
But she has reckoned without John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, who before Mary can act, usurps her crown and places it on the head of her Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey.
Furious and determined not to be beaten, Mary musters a vast army at Framlingham Castle; a force so strong that support for Jane Grey crumbles in the face of it, and Mary is at last crowned Queen of England.
But her troubles are only just beginning. Rebellion and heresy take their toll both on Mary’s health, and on the English people. Suspecting she is fatally ill, and desperate to save her people from heresy, Mary steps up her campaign to compel her subjects to turn back to the Catholic faith.
All who resist will face punishment for heresy in the flames of the Smithfield fires.
Judith Arnopp is the author of twelve Historical Fiction novels:
The Heretic Wind; the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England
Sisters of Arden
The Beaufort Chronicles: the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series)
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers
To discover more, visit Judith’s website or author page
I try to imagine what it would be like to still have her with me. These days, it’s not unheard of for a woman to live to that age, and to be sound in mind, if not always in body. She’d have loved to have seen her grandchildren grow up and she’d have been desperately proud of both of them. She’d have been proud of me too. She was one of the first people I allowed to read one of my unpublished books and I was very nervous about it. Mum was a voracious reader who haunted the public library and was on first name terms with all the staff there. She was also honest. She handed me back the manuscript of A Respectable Woman with a casual air, as if it didn’t mean much to her.
“If I’d got that from the library, I’d be looking for more books by that author,” she said, in matter of fact tones. “Better get writing some more.”
It was one of the best tributes I ever had as a writer.
Mum was born in 1931 in an old weavers’ cottage in Bessy Street in Bethnal Green, East London. Her parents, Herbert and Hilda Taylor had seven children, although the youngest, Joyce, survived only a few days after birth. My Mum used to tell us that she could remember them using a dressing table drawer as a crib for the baby. The family later moved to a small terraced house in Hartley Street, close by.
My Uncle Herbie was the eldest, followed by Hilda, Violet, Jimmy, Mum and then Ronnie. The family was poor, in a way that it’s hard for us to imagine now, but fiercely respectable. There were iron-clad rules about cleanliness and tidiness and if you wore white socks they had to BE white. My Nan washed down her front steps every morning until she no longer had her own front step, net curtains were bleached and windows were cleaned even when there wasn’t much to eat. I never knew my grandfather, but I’m told he ruled the family with a rod of iron, and for all the humorous stories told about him, I’ve always suspected that all of them felt a sense of freedom along with their sadness when he died in 1946 when my Mum was just fifteen.
Wartime came, bringing the Blitz to the East End and the family separated. Herbie went into the army, Hilda joined the ambulance service and the youngest four were evacuated to Norfolk. It wasn’t a good experience, and as an adult, my Mum spoke very little of her time there. We never knew why they were brought home, right back into the middle of the bombing, but it was clearly bad. For a time they remained at home. Vi was old enough to leave school and start work, and the youngest three attended the local school, dodging air raid wardens on their way home and collecting shrapnel from bomb sites. They were still in London in June 1943 when the tragedy of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster took the life of one of their cousins and they could remember the falling of the first V1 flying bombs.
At some point, probably in 1944, they were evacuated again to a farm near Tamworth. This second experience was very different to the first. Mr and Mrs Wiggins were an older, childless couple, who probably chose the Taylors because the two boys could help on the farm, but they were very kind, if old-fashioned, and took good care of the children, inviting my Nan to visit and sending farm produce home to her when they could. My Mum was very attached to them and remained in touch after the war. I can remember the excitement of visits to the Wiggins farm as a small child.
After the war it was back to London and a short time back at school before Mum left at 14. She was already something of a rebel, and rejected well-paid jobs in local factories to travel up to the West End to work in an office. Her father was furious, believing that it was her duty to contribute as much as she could to the family budget, but Mum was determined. She was clearly bright, although it was many years later while sorting out some old family papers, that she discovered that she had been offered a scholarship to carry on with her education at the local girls grammar school. The headmistress of her school wrote a very eloquent letter begging her parents to let her go, and assuring them that the scholarship covered all expenses, even the uniform. Mum had never known about this, and I think it was a shock even after all those years, with both her parents dead, to find out that they’d refused it on her behalf without even telling her about it.
Mum did well at work, taking every opportunity she could to learn new skills. War ended in Europe and then Japan and Mum accompanied her elder sisters to the celebrations proudly wearing home made blouses sewn from parachute silk. Hilda and Vi married and soon afterwards, Hilda emigrated to Australia with her new husband.
Life changed in 1946 when my grandfather, who had been ill for many years with chest problems, probably an industrial illness, contracted pneumonia and died. My grandmother was ill in hospital with the same thing, and with elder sisters married and moved on, Mum was on her own with the two younger boys until her eldest brother arrived, rushed home on compassionate leave from the army. With her father gone, there were suddenly new freedoms for my Mum and she made the most of them. At the age of seventeen, she surprised everybody by announcing that she had signed up to join the Women’s Land Army.
Mum had very happy memories of her Land Army days near Cambridge and we loved her stories when we were children. The women’s land army finally received a veterans’ badge and acknowledgement for their service in 2007. I can’t tell you what Mum said about that, but she was actually very proud of it. I still have the badge she wore at the time. Mum’s stories made even the worst tasks sound like a laugh and talked fondly of dances at the local American and Canadian air bases. She had several boyfriends during those years, light-hearted romances with a Canadian pilot and an Irishman from an army base, called Paddy, but then towards the end of her time there, she met Kurt, a former German POW who had chosen to remain in the area after the war, working on a farm. Kurt was different, it was serious, and for a time I think she genuinely thought she might marry him, but the prospect of him possibly wanting to move back to Germany one day made her hesitate.
She was still undecided when she left the Land Army, and went up to Cambridge at weekends to visit Kurt, hitching lifts on Army lorries to save the train fare in a way that would terrify us today. Perhaps she would have taken the risk eventually, but in 1950, working as a telephonist in a City office, she was asked to be bridesmaid at a close friend’s wedding. The best man was the best friend of the groom, a young builder’s apprentice by the name of George Bryant and my Mum had been dodging him for months, knowing that Violet and Bobby were trying to set up a date. She later found out he had been doing the same thing, as he was still recovering from a broken romance. They couldn’t avoid the wedding though, they met, and my mother’s life suddenly became a lot more complicated.
It took several months for her to decide. Unusually, she was completely honest with both Kurt and my Dad, and she continued to go up to Cambridge at some weekends. Others were spent getting to know my Dad. They were both broke, so dates often consisted of long walks along the Embankment. Dad was from South London, not far from the Elephant and Castle, and wasn’t seen as a very good prospect by my Mum’s family. He was very quiet, very shy and came from the wrong side of the river, with no education. Her brothers, all as confident and full of it as she was, used to tease him unmercifully. Dad put up with it, got used to it, and won my Nan over very quickly by offering to decorate her house in his spare time. He was very good at it, ignored Jimmy and Ronnie’s tormenting and quietly waited.
At some point, he must have decided that it was decision making time. I’ve never known how that was worked out, but Mum went up to Cambridge to talk to Kurt and promised my Dad that she’d give him a definite answer on the Sunday evening when she got back. The ensuing story is a family legend, with something farcical about it which could never happen in these days of mobile phones and messaging. Mum’s train was delayed and she missed their rendezvous which led Dad to think she’d decided to marry Kurt. He went home, miserable, but then decided he still wanted to speak to her so went back out and got the underground to her house. She, meanwhile, got the underground to his house, only to find he wasn’t there. In their mutual upset, it took two more cross London train journeys before they finally managed to meet up. They were married in 1952 on Christmas Day.
Theirs was a traditional life. They lived in rented flats and houses all their lives, worked hard, saved their money and raised two daughters. Both worked their way to better jobs, my Dad spending a lot of his working life working for the Post Office and then British Telecom, my Mum doing a variety of office jobs, then staying home with the children until I went to secondary school when she took a job in a bank. There was nothing remarkable about Mum’s life, and yet in her own way, she remained quietly different.
Mum was fiercely independent to the end of her days. Although her education was severely cut short, both by the war and by her parents poverty and limited viewpoint, she was self-taught. Like my Dad, she was a reader, good at arithmetic and passionate about history. My childhood never took me on foreign holidays but I grew to know the winding back streets of London in a way that few of my schoolmates did. We walked for miles every weekend, fed pigeons in Trafalgar Square, went to every royal event, saw the Changing of the Guard regularly and got locked in the park after the firework display for the Royal Wedding, my sister and I having to hoist Mum and Auntie Vi over the fence to get out.
She supported me through school days, very hands off unless I asked for help with a problem, but willing to step in if necessary. She valued independence and would probably seem almost neglectful in these days of helicopter parenting, but she was always there, rock solid, if I needed her. She supported me through university, through working life, through marriage and children. She adored her grandchildren and was very hands on, a favourite playmate, even though my choice of late motherhood meant that she was not as active as she would have liked.
In later life, she had a variety of health problems and wasn’t always patient about it when they got in the way of real life. She and my Dad enjoyed retirement, took up sequence dancing, got more adventurous about holidays and finally got a dog. We talked sometimes about them moving to the island after we came to live here. Dad seriously considered it, he loved the countryside and being by the sea. My Mum loved them too and visited three or four times a year, but she refused to consider a move. Mum was a Londoner, and a city girl. As with her ventures into rural life as a girl, she enjoyed the outdoors, but her roots were in London, in the East End, and along the banks of the Thames where she’d done her courting and fallen in love.
When they finally moved to the island it was too late. Dad had cancer and died only a couple of months after he got here and Mum, by then, was already showing signs of dementia. She’d smoked all her life, long after Dad gave up, calmly asserting that it was her one vice and she knew the risks. We gave up arguing about it, we knew how stubborn she could be. Vascular dementia was the legacy of that vice, a series of small strokes over the years, which gradually took her away, until she no longer knew who I was.
Even in the home, with declining faculties, she was something of a legend. She found a friend who clearly reminded her of my Dad, and they managed to make themselves the centre of the day room, passing acerbic comments on whatever was going on around them. She was funny to the end, reminding me heartbreakingly of the mother I adored with the occasional sharp comment. She outlived my Dad by six years and was buried beside him on a quiet hillside in Braddan, a long way from her home town. Mum wouldn’t have given a damn about that, it was the living she was interested in.
At her funeral, the weather was appalling, and my sister and I were wholly unsuitably dressed for it, tottering over to the graveside in heeled shoes and our smart funeral outfits. The wind howled, the rain came down, and our flimsy umbrellas were instantly wrecked. The vicar, clearly Manx, was well-prepared with a big solid umbrella, and there was something slightly smug about him as he stood reciting the final words of the funeral as the coffin was lowered into the grave. There was a sudden huge gust of wind which caught his umbrella just the wrong way, and took him off his feet, knocking his glasses off and nearly sending him into the muddy open grave.
Suddenly she was there with me, laughing. I looked at my sister and I knew she was hearing it too. We stood there on that rain lashed hillside, holding each other up laughing, as we’d once had to hold Mum up, hiding behind the car at a family funeral when her much-loathed posh hat blew straight off her head and into a puddle before she even made it into the church. We cried laughing that day, despite our grief, and we did it again at Mum’s funeral, knowing that she’d never really leave us.
Happy Birthday to Iris Bryant, nee Taylor, an East End girl to the end of her days. I’ll go up in a bit and put daffodils on the grave, they were your favourite flower and both your grand daughter and I love them just as much. You’re laughing somewhere at me doing that, telling me not to be daft, to take the flowers home and enjoy them myself. I’ll get some for me as well. I always do on this day.
You were a remarkable woman in an unremarkable life, and I will never stop missing you.
Christmas 2019 #OscarWalks is a special edition to give Oscar the opportunity to with you all a Merry Christmas from everybody at Writing with Labradors. This is a special festive edition of #Oscar Walks. A combination of the weather and the Christmas season has meant that walks have been short and sweet for a few days, but that doesn’t mean Oscar hasn’t been having an adventurous life and I know he has a few things to say.
It’s been a very different Christmas for me in one way; the first one in thirteen years where I’ve not had Joey walking behind me. Toby was never very interested in Christmas until the turkey appeared, but Joey was a big fan. He loved having loads of people around to make a fuss of him and was always prepared to let us dress him up for the occasion. I missed him very much this year.
Luckily, Oscar seems to share Joey’s enthusiasm for the season and has been full of the Christmas spirit over the past week, so I’ll hand over to him to tell you what’s been going on.
What’s been going on? What’s been going on? I’ll tell you what’s been going on. Persecution, that’s what! Persecution, false accusations and fake news!
You sound like a combination of Sir Home Popham and Donald Trump, Oscar. What’s upset you?
You know very well what’s upset me, Mum. That man. That person. That individual who came into the house on Monday.
You mean the dog trainer, Oscar.
I’m sorry you’re offended, but I did explain that I need a bit of help with teaching you to walk nicely on the lead. And to come back when I call you.
I am very good on the lead. I always respond when you say heel.
You do. It’s just that I have to say it four thousand times in a ten minute walk, it’s exhausting.
Exaggeration. And defamation of character. I could sue.
Anyway, you liked the dog trainer. He gave you loads of treats and played with you and you’re already getting better.
You told me I was already perfect.
You are, Oscar. I just need you to be a little more obedient. And to come when I call you.
I already do that.
Except when you see another dog.
Well, obviously, I have to be civil to them.
Or when you’ve found an interesting smell.
That can be very distracting. It might be food.
Or when you see anything new or interesting.
Except sheep. I always come back if there’s a sheep.
That’s true, you’re the opposite of most dogs. Still, a bit of extra training will benefit both of us.
Anyway, this was supposed to be about Christmas. Your second Christmas, Oscar. How’s it been so far?
Fantastic. Excellent. Wonderful. Know what I like about Christmas?
Everybody’s here. None of this going off to work, or school, or University nonsense. Everyone’s here, mostly in the same room, we all get to eat really good food at weird hours of the day and night, watch TV, play some silly games and snuggle up by the fire.
Yes, that pretty much sums up Christmas.
And visitors. Loads of people in and out of the house all the time. They bring cards and presents and most of them give me cuddles and feed me treats. And some bring dogs. I met Roy. I liked Roy. He reminded me a bit of Toby only much smaller and different colours and different fur.
So not that much like Toby at all?
Well he was grumpy with me and growled at me a few times but didn’t really seem to mind when I teased him. Toby was like that to start with but then he got used to me and would let me play with him. Of course Joey let me climb all over him from day one.
He was soft with you. Like the rest of us.
That’s what the dog trainer said. And I got presents. Loads of treats and two new toys. Three, if you count the reindeer you gave me on Christmas Eve. No FOUR if you count the duck that Rachael brought home for me. I LOVE my new toys. And there are lots of pretty lights around, and indoor trees with things hanging off them that I’m not allowed to touch. But they look nice. And the fire’s always lit, which is my favourite.
I’m glad you approve of Christmas.
Mind you, it’s a bit tiring. What’s happening next, Mum?
Well, next week is New Year and Jon and Anya are having a party, so there’ll be lots of your favourite people here that evening. And after that it’s back to work and Anya and Rachael will go back to University.
Boo. Don’t like that.
I know, Oscar, but they’ll be back. And I’ve got lots of exciting walks planned so you can practice what you’ve been learning from the dog trainer before we see him again.
Can I show him my new toys?
You’ve showed them to everyone else, Oscar, so I expect so. Right, say Happy Christmas to your fans, and we’ll brave the rain for a quick walk now.
Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year, everybody! Is that right, Mum?
Close enough, Oscar. Merry Christmas, baby boy.
Merry Christmas, Mum.
Next week it’s back to work on book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga with Oscar’s expert help and advice from his sofa in my study. For more history, humour, fiction and Labradors why not follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.
The Battle of Salamanca was fought on this day in 1812 across the rolling plains around the small Spanish village of Los Arapiles. In this excerpt from An Untrustworthy Army, Wellington’s men are marching close to the French army while both generals try to decide whether or not to risk a battle. Wellington had almost decided to retreat on this occasion, when on the afternoon of 22 July, he spotted a gap in the French line and ordered the attack.
After a little more than a fortnight at Rueda, it was a relief to Paul to get his brigade moving. Night marches could be difficult, depending on the terrain, but most of his men were very experienced and followed each other through the darkness, relying on the voices of NCOs and officers to guide them. The clink of horses and the thudding of hooves followed the progress of the cavalry who were advancing with the light division. Paul rode up the long column to find General Charles Alten in conversation with his big German orderly. Peering through the darkness he recognised Paul and waved him forward.
“Colonel van Daan, I am sorry to have interrupted your festivities this evening.”
“It’s a relief, sir, I’ve had enough of waiting. French on the move?”
“It seems so, although I know very little, just that we are to advance with the cavalry and await orders.”
Paul pulled a face which Alten could probably not see in the dark. “When we get there, why don’t we play a hand or two of ‘lets all sit around and guess what the hell Lord Wellington is doing now’, sir?” he said. “I should have gone up to see him instead of prancing about with the Rifles for the evening.”
“Where is your wife, Colonel?”
“I left her in camp for the night with half a company of the KGL to guard the baggage and supplies. They’ll pack up early and follow us up. Where are we going?”
“We will halt behind Castrejon and await Lord Wellington.”
“That’s always a treat,” Paul said gloomily. “I hate marching around for no apparent reason and I’ve got a feeling that’s what we’re doing.”
Alten gave a soft laugh. “There is usually a reason, Colonel. It is simply that you hate not knowing what the reason is.”
Paul acknowledged the truth of this over the next few days of monotonous, repetitive marching interspersed with several fierce skirmishes as Lord Wellington and Marshal Marmont began a cautious facing dance which each day failed to result in a battle. There was nothing urgent or frenetic about their movements. Facing each other across the river and the rolling plains around Salamanca, the two armies manoeuvred in perfect timing, attempting to outflank each other without forcing a pitched battle on any ground of which the two commanders were unsure.
“It’s like a pavane,” Anne said, on the third day. She had ridden up to join Paul and was looking over the lines of Wellington’s army and then beyond to the distant columns of Frenchmen on the opposite bank. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“Nor have I,” Paul said. “What the devil is a pavane?”
“It’s a dance. A bit like the Allemande but slower and more stately; it’s very old.”
“What is an Allemande? No, don’t tell me. How do you know all this?”
“There was an Italian dancing master,” Anne said, and laughed aloud at his expression.
“Your stepmother should have locked you up,” Paul said grimly.
“If she had, Colonel, we probably wouldn’t be where we are now.”
“True. But it’s a lesson to me about keeping an eye on my daughters as they’re growing up. I’m shocked at how young girls behave.”
“You did not say that to me in a shepherd’s hut in Thorndale,” Anne said serenely. “How long is he going to keep this up?”
“I don’t know,” Paul admitted, looking out over the lines. “He’s not saying much even to me. I don’t think he’s sure.”
Anne followed his gaze. The countryside was a vast plain with low rolling hills and the river snaking between the two armies. An occasional shot was fired when the two came too close but for the most part, the forces moved watchfully along, ready to fall into position at a moment’s notice. They passed villages and small towns and the people came out to watch them sombrely. There was none of the excitement and joy of their entry into Salamanca. It was as if the locals knew that the generals were contemplating battle and dreaded the consequences for their crops, their homes and their families.
We visited the battlefield during our tour of Portugal and Spain in 2017. The Salamanca battlefield site is immense; not in actual size since it probably isn’t the widest battlefield Wellington fought over, but in the sheer amount of information available. I was halfway through writing book five which is based around the battle of Salamanca and the Burgos campaign, so this visit was particularly useful as it was made ahead of the writing. I had read about the small interpretation centre in the village of Los Arapiles to the south of the city of Salamanca, but had not really looked it up until we were about to go there. I was hugely impressed to find that it was open two days a week, Thursday and Saturday, and we had set aside a Thursday for this trip.
I was so glad we did. This is definitely the best small museum we visited. For one thing, everything is in both Spanish and English which wasmuch more useful than our desperate attempts to translate interpretation boards in other places. For another, it is amazingly detailed and accurate. From the advantages and disadvantages of the different infantry formations of line, square and column, to the best way to load a musket, somebody here had done their research and very well.
The other joy was the map we were given of a series of interpretation boards around the battlefield site. There are ten in all, each with information about the battle as it unfolded, and each board has a QR code which can be scanned by a smart phone. A short dramatised account of that section of the battle, in English, can be listened to at each point.
The routes on the map are marked for walking or cycling. The good news is that in good weather all tracks are passable in a car. A 4 x 4 would be best, some of them are very rough, but we managed it on dry roads without. It took about three hours to do the whole thing. Honestly it would have been less if it were not for my pedantic insistence that we do the boards in number order so that we got the chronology right for the battle as opposed to working out the shortest circular route which might have taken half the time. That day, the man I married gave the word patience a whole new definition.
With the help of the museum, the interpretation boards, which are excellent, my trusty battlefield guide and a map, the Battle of Salamanca became suddenly very clear to me. Driving from board to board and then climbing hills and rocky outcrops to view the various vantage points of the battle it was very easy to visualise how Wellington was able to split the French line and send their army fleeing within a few hours.
After exhausting ourselves scrambling over battlefield sites, we drove to Alba de Tormes, across the river. This is the route that a lot of the fleeing French army took, and no action took place there in real life. In my book a significant skirmish takes place there so I wanted to check if my story worked with the location. I was delighted to realise that with a small adjustment it will work very well.
We went back into Salamanca for dinner. As we are English this involved almost two hours of wandering around this beautiful university city, musing about how it is possible to be in a major city at 7pm and find nobody open for dinner. It always takes some time to Spanish dining hours. But time wandering in Salamanca is never wasted, it’s so lovely, especially the university buildings, which feature in An Untrustworthy Army, since both French and then English used them as barracks and storage buildings.
Given that my fictional regiment fights as part of the Light Division, Salamanca had the potential to be a bit of a disappointment for me, since Charles Alten’s men did not play a significant part in the battle. Since I know that Colonel van Daan is easily bored, I chose to give the third brigade a skirmish of their very own out at Alba de Tormes. The battle is included in the book, seen through the eyes of Lieutenant Simon Carlyon who is on temporary transfer to Pakenham’s staff.
A great deal has been written on the battle of Salamanca. For me, the best book on the subject by far is Rory Muir’s book which explores the battle in depth. I highly recommend a tour of the battlefield and interpretation centre; as long as you have transport it is one of the ones it’s perfectly possible to do without a guide.
An Untrustworthy Army is book five in the Peninsular War Sagawhich follows the fortunes of the fictional 110th infantry and Paul van Daan, the man who rises to lead it, through the long years of Wellington’s wars in Portugal and Spain.
With M J Logue, you get two series for the price of one. The author, who writes historical novels set in the English Civil Wars and the Restoration, has created a family of characters who move from one series to the other, with a collection of excellent short stories and novellas popping up in between.
I first discovered the Uncivil Wars series just over a year ago, when I was in hospital and then convalescing after a foot operation. It should have been a fairly miserable time, but it passed in a bit of a blur for me, as I read my way through the series. Part way through, I contacted the author for some clarification about the best order to read them in. That conversation has been going on pretty much ever since, discussing everything from writing to cats and a few other topics to odd to describe.
The hero of the Uncivil War books is a Parliamentary cavalry officer by the name of Hollie Babbitt. Hollie isn’t your typical dashing officer type, to be honest. A former mercenary with an attitude problem, I imagine most of his senior officers must have spent a fair bit of their time with their head in their hands. Hollie, to tell you the truth, is a bit unpredictable at times, and it’s that which makes him such a fabulous character to follow through the bloody chaos of the Civil Wars.
Battles, hardship, history, romance – these books have everything. They just don’t have them in quite the same way that a lot of other books do. Hollie’s love story with his unglamorous Essex housewife is down-to-earth, unromantic and extraordinarily touching. Equally well drawn are his relationships with the scruffy collection of reprobates he commands, particularly his two junior officers, Luce Pettit and Thankful Russell. These three characters form the backbone of the series, with Luce’s wide-eyed idealism and Russell’s scarred, drunken disillusionment making them part of a perfect triple act with their irascible commander.
There are no heroes in these books, and yet every character is a hero in his or her own, undistinguished way. Be warned, once you start reading them, it’s very difficult to stop.
The same can be said of the author’s Restoration novels. Major Thankful Russell is back, serving the restored monarchy, a soldier reaching middle age, and finding himself in trouble and in love, with his former commander’s straight-talking daughter. Thomazine is twenty years his junior with a mind of her own and is determined to join her husband in every mad-brained scheme that his work as a government intelligencer gets him involved with. These books are currently being reissued, with the first book, An Abiding Fire, due out in January.
The Russell series can be read on its own as an excellent historical mystery and adventure series, although I think reading the Uncivil War books first, brings an extra dimension to understanding the characters. Both series are funny, emotional and exciting, bound together by an extraordinary knowledge of the period and an exhaustive amount of research. They are among my favourite historical novels.
M J Logue’s books are currently available on Amazon kindle. If you’ve not tried them yet, I really suggest you do, but be warned, you may find you get very little else done for a while.
Toby was the result of a snap decision after spending some time with friends who had a young black labrador. It was a decision that changed our lives.
We had lost our beloved cats, Reggie and Ronnie, over a year earlier. Both lived to be more than twenty and we couldn’t imagine finding cats with their enormous personalities to replace them. We were living on the Isle of Man by then with two young children, both of whom had fallen in love with Tavey, our friends’ dog during our visit. On the way home, Richard said suddenly:
“Shall we get a dog?”
“A labrador?” I asked hopefully. I’d spent a huge amount of time many years earlier staying with the family of a university friend. They always had dogs, black labradors and a springer spaniel. I adored Worthington and Henry and had always thought that if I could have a dog, that’s what I’d like.
“Well they’re good with children,” Richard said.
The conversation might have rested there, but when we arrived home, I picked up the free paper from among the mail and flicked through it. With our conversation in mind, I glanced at the classifieds and to my surprise, there it was, a small advert.
“There’s somebody advertising labrador puppies here, in Ballaugh,” I said.
Richard looked at me. “Ring them,” he said. “We can go and have a look. We don’t need to get one. Don’t let the children know, in case we decide not to do it.”
Looking back on that piece of naivety makes me howl with laughter.
There was one puppy left when I rang, a black boy. It was a small litter, only four puppies, the mother a family pet. We arranged a time to go up when the children were at school, having told them nothing.
The house was chaos, puppies confined to a large pen but still taking over the room. Richard sat down next to the pen and someone deposited a black puppy onto his lap. “This is him. We call him Homer, he’s the biggest of the litter. Look at his paws.”
We looked. It was hard to miss those paws, they were enormous. I stroked the puppy’s ears. It had climbed up Richard’s chest and was licking his face. “What do you think?” I asked.
Richard didn’t answer. He’d obviously lost the ability to think, he was too busy falling in love.
Toby came into our lives like a small black tornado. He was lively, he was bouncy and he ate everything in sight. He ate our shoes and our clothes and our kitchen. He resisted all forms of training or discipline and made puppy training classes a nightmare. He clearly knew his name but had no idea why it mattered since he had no intention of responding to it. He was a new full time job and we adored him from day one.
My memories of Toby are a series of snapshots through the years. Toby as a puppy, failing to look guilty as some new piece of destruction came to light. Toby taking forever to learn ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘heel’ and ‘come’, but then unexpectedly learning ‘turn’ and ‘paw’ without effort.
Toby first learning to swim down at Groudle Beach and then refusing to come out of the water because he loved it so much.
Toby as a young dog, taking pride of place beside Richard in our little red Mazda with the top down, ears blowing in the breeze as they headed off for the beach or the plantation.
Toby at two and a half, when we introduced Joey, the new puppy, patiently letting him jump all over him and then batting him halfway across the room when he got bored.
Toby at a barbecue, stealing a sharp kitchen knife off the worktop and racing out to greet an arriving guest to cries of “Hilary, watch out, he’s got a knife”
Toby refusing to come back to the car when it was time to go home, not once but many many times, making me late to collect the kids while I was coaxing him.
Toby at Silverdale, meeting an elderly man unexpectedly on the path and eliciting the remark: “Bloody hell, it’s the Moddey Dhoo!”
Toby taking the descent down Peel Hill too fast, rolling to the bottom and ending up with an operation and weeks of hydrotherapy to get him walking again.
Toby curled up on the beanbag with Anya when she was practicing her reading, listening to stories about dolphins and mermaids, loving the cuddles.
Toby on our “dog training for awkward dogs” intensive course, earning the nickname “Mr I will if I feel like it” after his determination not to walk to heel on the lead defeated experts in the field.
Toby getting older, his beard and eyebrows going grey, still handsome, very distinguished.
Toby sitting beside Jon and then Anya through their GCSEs and A levels, headbutting their books and laptops to get attention when they were trying to study.
Toby with arthritis, too stiff to move fast or go for long walks anymore, but loving the garden or a mooch around the beach.
Toby meeting Oscar, the new puppy. Standoffish at first, then interested, but very much in charge, very much the senior dog. All the little steps of acceptance; the first time sharing a bed, letting Oscar lick him, licking him back. Toby watching Joey and Oscar play fighting and then finally joining in, a bit stiff and awkward, but having fun, his tail wagging.
Toby sunbathing in this warm weather on the tiled front porch with his brothers, his fur warm to touch, snoring gently.
I’ve started to cry again as I write this. There is so much to say about Toby that I can’t write it all. He was my friend, my beloved dog for fourteen years, and I struggle to believe that I won’t see him again.
There was a day, a few weeks back, when we took the dogs to Groudle Beach. I’d not seen Toby go into the water properly for a long time but he clearly wanted to show Oscar how it was done. It brought tears to my eyes to see how happy he was, splashing about. He looked like a dog who was discovering some of his lost youth and seemed to be enjoying it.
A week ago we took the three of them to Derbyhaven Beach in the evening. He was less keen to swim that day but he paddled, and sniffed the rocks and walked around on the sand looking so happy, his tail wagging, a big grin on his face.
On Monday 23rd he joined in a huge playfight in my study, trashing the place and making work impossible until I kicked them out. They all fell asleep in mid-game, slept for about four hours and woke up to eat dinner, then sat outside with us watching the lights come on.
The next morning I found him apparently sleeping peacefully in the kitchen. There was no sign of illness or distress or any kind of trauma. Joey was sleeping next to him; Oscar nearby in his cage. He’d died in his sleep, almost as if he’d decided that this was as good as it was going to get. He refused the inevitable declining health and mobility; the misery of a family trying to decide when was the right time to let him go.
He went kindly and with dignity and that kind of death was a gift that many pet owners don’t get. I was in shock and then distraught and I cried when we buried him and didn’t know how I would ever stop. Our family has lost a beloved member and I hate that he’s not curled up next to me. There’s an empty bed; an empty space on the porch in the mornings and an empty space in my heart that will always be there for Toby.
There’s been an outpouring of sadness and sympathy online, not only from friends and family who knew Toby but from people who have got to know him online through following Writing with Labradors. I’ve been so touched at all the messages. It doesn’t make losing him any easier but it does help.
It’s only been a few days, and grief still catches all of us unawares. We all deal with it differently; the girls talk and cry a lot, the boys are quieter, sadder. Joey spent the first day wandering from room to room, knowing he was missing, which made me cry more. But we were so lucky to get Oscar, the perfect puppy, when we did. His company has settled Joey very quickly. It would have been much harder without him.
I’m never going to stop missing my big boy and I’m horribly aware that Joey isn’t that much younger than him. But the pain and the grief of loss when a pet dies is worth every moment for all the years of love and fun we’ve had with him. He was a fabulous dog, loving, funny and daft, and I don’t regret any of it.