St Peter’s Bones

St Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope were Lost and Found…and Then Lost and Found Again, by Thomas J Craughwell

Image (2013), Paperback, 126 pages

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This is a story I’ve been fascinated by for many years. I first read about the excavation under the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome when I was teenager with a  passion for archaeology. It seemed to me incredible then that they may actually have found the bones of the chief apostle, Jesus’ right-hand man, and the first pope. But everything seemed to fit, the bones they discovered were of a elderly, powerfully built man, (Peter was a fisherman after all, accustomed to manual labour, and if he died during the Neronian persecution as tradition holds, he would have been about 65-70 years old) right under the High Altar of St Peter’s, exactly where tradition said they would be.  So I became convinced that they had indeed discovered the bones of the second-most important man in the history of Christianity. The addition of years and experience had made me somewhat more sceptical, and I became equally convinced that the whole thing was too good to be true, traditions just don’t get proved that easily and completely. But then, last year, my perspective was changed. I heard about the discovery of the remains of Richard III, exactly where they were supposed to be, and conforming to every respect with history and tradition. We have been told that Richard was a hunchback, and that he died violently in battle, and his skeleton showed exactly that. He had a pronounced spinal deformity, and his bones showed signs of terrible battle injuries, as well as post-mortem wounds gratuitously performed on his body by the victorious Lancastrians. To have these traditions confirmed so completely has made me re-think  the possible authenticity of the bones of St Peter, and I am now prepared to concede, after reading this little book with the latest research on the remains, that, yes, these may well be the actual bones of St Peter. The story will enthrall both those with a Christian perspective, and those of a secular bent who are fascinated by archaeology and the resolution of ancient mysteries. The story itself has been well-detailed before, with excavations under St Peter’s beginning in the 1940’s, discovering first a magnificent late Roman necropolis, the most complete ever found, with family tombs  complete with lovely structures, art and inscriptions. The excavators then sought permission from the Pope to dig right under the High Altar itself, where tradition said Peter was buried. They discovered a complex set of early Christian structures, with graffiti which seemed to attest that Peter lay nearby, finally discovering bones which were initially identified as Peter’s, it later being confirmed they were not. However, another set of bones which had earlier been removed in secret, were rediscovered forgotten in a storeroom. These are the bones which match the description off Peter so closely, and which in due course, the Vatican has officially pronounced as his remains.  Whether or not you believe this, the whole complicated story is thoroughly absorbing, and Craughwell has done an excellent job of translating the science of the discoveries into a fast-paced book accessible to the lay reader. The lack of pictures and diagrams is perhaps a disappointment, and would have made following the progress off the excavation easier to understand, but there is a comprehensive bibliography where the interested reader can locate more detailed material. An excellent little book, recommended for the both the faithful and the scientifically-minded.

9/10

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Behemoth

Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America, by Ronald B. Tobias

Harper Perennial (2013), Paperback, 512 pages

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I’m a sucker for quirky titles like this, I simply can’t resist a book that promises to shed light on some obscure portion of human knowledge or history. Micro-history is one term that has become popular to describe this type of literature, and I suppose it is as good a way as any to describe this fascinating work, concentrating as it does on the long and peculiar relationship between an animal and a country to which it is not even native. As Tobias reveals, the USA has had a 200 year association with the elephant, beginning with the first specimens to be exhibited in the colonial days, causing such a sensation that the term “seeing the elephant” became ingrained in the language as a term for going out to see the world. Pioneers who ventured out west and soldiers who served in war boasted that they had “seen the elephant”, in other words they had experienced the wonders of the world and returned to tell the tale. The elephant’s size, power, and majesty were seized upon as a symbol of the growing size and confidence of the fledgling United States, even to the extent of maps of the country being depicted in elephant form, with Florida as the trunk, New England as the head and Baja California as the tail. There was serious talk of the elephant being considered as the national symbol of the USA, and although this did not eventuate, the elephant remained an outstanding object of fascination for Americans, to the extent that buildings in the shape of elephants became a fad. However, there was a ugly side to this obsession, which Tobias reveals with unflinching and sometimes horrific detail. To satisfy the public demand for elephants, increasing numbers were brought from both Africa and Asia, and elephants being what they are, very large animals with strong opinions, likes and dislikes, and the wherewithal to impose those feelings on frail humans with crushing power, the inevitable happened. Many keepers, unthinkingly using cruel methods of control on their charges, paid with their lives as previously docile animals were goaded beyond toleration and went on killing sprees. The end result was as unfortunate for the elephant as it was for the humans, because dangerous elephants were tagged as criminals and made to pay the same price as human murderers. Tobias lists a horrific catalogue of animals executed by shooting, poisoning, hanging, electrocution (you can see the latter for yourself, it was filmed by Thomas Edison as part of his campaign to prove AC current was more dangerous than his own DC, and it’s a shocker, no pun intended, it’s ghastly to watch. Just Google “Electrocuting an Elephant” if you have a strong stomach). Attempts to breed elephants were no more successful than importing them. No elephant born in the US before 1962 lived past its first birthday, killed by their mothers who had not been properly socialized into caring for young, or through disease or malnutrition due to the ignorance of keepers in the care of infant elephants. Although this part of the book is truly depressing, there are lighter moments. Fads such as elephant baseball and trying to harness elephants to plough fields will bring a smile. The book ends on a hopeful note as concerned citizens throughout the country unite to try and give the remaining elephants in the country, many injured physically or scarred mentally, a decent life in sanctuaries where they can roam free from public attention and socialise with their own kind. This is a great read, it will alternately fascinate, amuse and horrify, but it remains compelling throughout. This is quite a unique book, I don’t think I’ve ever before read such a work on the relationship between an animal and a country to which it is not native, but it is truly absorbing. Wonderful stuff.

9.5/10

The Spies of Warsaw

The Spies of Warsaw, by Alan Furst

Weidenfield & Nicolson (2008), Paperback, 288 pages

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I have previously reviewed this author’s Spies of the Balkans and been largely unimpressed, finding it a too-slick, formulaic spy drama with an impossibly talented protagonist, teflon-plated and instantly sending all women into swooning ecstasy. Spies of Warsaw is somewhat of an improvement, the hero is more human and more vulnerable, and his love affair is a more measured and realistic happening, but it still suffers from the same slick, unengaging feel. I never really felt any attachment to the characters, there is no real tension, and the writer once again has an annoying habit of setting up potential drama and then letting it fall flat without anything exciting happening. I suppose you could argue that this is actually a sort of realism, and that spies in real life conduct many operations without serious gunplay or violence developing, but this is supposed to be a spy thriller after all, so I am wrong to expect thrills? I’ve just concluded that this author’s style is not for me, although I presume he must have many fans, because his numerous books are displayed very prominently in a place of pride in my local mystery/sci fi bookshop, always a sure sign of a bestseller. Good luck to him, but I’ll be looking elsewhere for my spy fix from now on.

7/10

Return of a King

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, by William Dalrymple

Bloomsbury (2013), Paperback, 567 pages

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This book is simply an excellent demonstration of the old adage, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Unbelievably, as the author notes, Britain has been involved in four wars in Afghanistan since the early 19th century. They have ranged from merely unsuccessful to completely disastrous, and none better deserves the latter term more than the first. In 1839, Britain, attempting to ward off Russian advances in the Asia, the so-called Great Game, sent an army into Afghanistan to place an unpopular monarch back on the throne. Two years later, after simply astonishing bungling by British officialdom  both on the ground and back in India, the entire country rose in revolt. The British garrisons were summarily outfought and cut to pieces, the remainder attempted to fight their way back to India through the snows of winter, but either froze, starved to death or were slaughtered by the Afghans. Only one European and a handful of Indians made it back to British-controlled territory, it was Britain’s worst military fiasco of the Victorian era. Two years later, the British sent a so-called Army of Retribution back into Afghanistan, who burned and butchered their way across the country in an orgy of retaliation and retook Kabul before burning most of it to the ground. However, the British soon realised the impossibility of holding the country and retreated back to the safety of India, leaving their puppet ruler to fend for himself. The whole futile exercise cost hundreds of thousands of lives and all but bankrupted the East India Company. Dalrymple’s account of the catastrophe is measured, graphic and extremely well-researched. Making use of Afghan sources not previously known in the West, he does an excellent job of giving both sides of the conflict an equal voice. Perhaps the most sombre part of the narrative comes at the end, when he details to the eerie parallels between that conflict and the West’s current imbroglio in Afghanistan.  The inability of the West, and Britain in particular, to learn from the mistakes of the past condemns them to the same result, a hugely costly and ultimately futile war, which he has no doubt will be the result of the current conflict.  The book is not easy reading, it is heavy going in parts, and the proliferation of khans, amirs and wazirs usually leads the reader scurrying back to the dramatis personae to work out who is who, but it is ultimately a compelling story with drastic relevance for today’s world. It is also a very human story, with the triumph and suffering of individuals given much prominence. It is not light reading by any means, but an excellent meaty book that leaves the reader with plenty to ponder. Worth persisting with.

8.5/10

The Secret Rooms

The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery, by Catherine Bailey

Viking (2012), Hardcover, 480 pages

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A story so bizarre it reads like fiction, yet it’s completely factual. In 1940, John Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, died at home at Belvoir Castle, the family’s massive ancestral seat. Yet, with literally hundreds of luxurious rooms to choose from, the Duke chose to live and die in a bare set of rooms within the servants’ quarters. Up to the last hours of his life he was frantically engaged in editing the family correspondence trying to remove all trace of a period during the First World War. Upon his death, his son and and successor ordered the rooms closed up, and they remained locked away for more than 60 years. Then Bailey, then a TV producer, came to the house to do research on those workers on the estate who served in WWI. She discovered the mysterious gap in the records and spent years digging up the truth as to why the Duke was so desperate to cover up that period in his family history. It emerged that the Duke , as an officer during the war, had his medical records fudged so that he could escape the slaughter on the Western front and garner an army position safely back in Britain. However the culprit was not Manners himself, but his mother, who so desperate to save her only remaining son she used her aristocratic contacts to set up fake medical examinations, and even urged her daughter to sacrifice her virginity to seduce a man who was close to a general who could offer Manners a safe position at home. The Duke, once he found about this, was apparently so ashamed he devoted the last years of his life to excising it from the records. This is a story that has to be read to be believed, literally. Those of a republican bent who believe the nobility are degenerate, inbred fossils from a bygone era, will probably have their views fully confirmed. It will also appeal to those who fancy a real-life Downton Abbey story. But those who just enjoy a real-life historical mystery will also relish this book. Bailey’s determination to root out the truth against all obstacles is truly absorbing, and although the book occasionally becomes bogged down in a welter of aristocratic names and titles, it remains spellbinding up to the end. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

9/10

The Visitors

The Visitors, by Sally Beauman

Little, Brown (2014), Hardback, 544 pages

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A lyrical, moving, beautifully handled story. Moving back and forth between Egypt in 1922 and England in the present, it is the story of Lucy, a young girl sent to the Nile Valley to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. Under the supervision of a doting American minder, Lucy gets to move among the elite social set swirling around Howard Carter and his colleagues as they  excavate the Valley of the Kings. She befriends the daughter of a American archaeologist, beginning a bond that will last a lifetime. In present-day England, Lucy, now a very old woman and the last surviving eyewitness to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankamun, is being pestered by a young TV producer to reveal what she saw and heard during those astounding days when the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century was being revealed to a wondering world. However, for Lucy remembering those days also brings many ghosts to the surface, from her time in Egypt and afterwards, the tragedies of her life. The story has a languid grace that needs to be experienced to fully appreciate its subtleties. Rather than grab you and drag you, it lays a gentle arm around your shoulders and leads you in the way it wants to go. I must admit, although I was initially drawn in by the Tutankamun angle of the story, it is Lucy’s story that I found the most enthralling. Beauman evokes the setting of 1920’s Egypt beautifully, you can almost see the dust and feel the hot wind. Dominating the landscape is the wonderfully-realized figure of Howard Carter, volcanic, moody, and cynical, totally oconsumed by a quest that seems more unlikely every day, to find an unrobbed tombed in a valley that has been picked over for centuries. You will love this book if,  like me, you are an obsessive Egyptophile, but also if you just appreciate a good story well-told with strong and endearing characters. It’s not quite in the same league as The Signature of All Things, which I read last year and have happily proclaimed as one of the 10 best novels I have ever read, but it is still an exceptional read. Perhaps its does tend to lose its way a bit after the tomb discovery, but that’s a minor quibble, the beauty of the story more than compensates. I can only say, simply, it’s lovely, just lovely.

9.5/10

Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette: A Deadly Game: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Global Plot, by Giles Milton

Sceptre (2013), Hardback, 400 pages

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Real boy’s own stuff, which sounds like it should be fiction but is actually fact. In 1917, the newly formed British Secret Intelligence Secret Service plotted firstly to keep Russia in the war against Germany, and then when that failed, to overthrow the Bolshevik regime and replace it with a more congenial government. At the same time, the Bolsheviks themselves were plotting to foment revolution in India and overthrow British rule as the first step in setting up a revolution in the Western democracies. The end result is a book chockful of good old-fashioned espionage, not modern technical analysis and white-collar spies crouched over computers, but the stuff where daring men go out with false identities and risk their lives. It’s genuine James Bond, 1917 style. It’s a roaring, fast-paced historical thriller, full of near-misses, close shaves, daring escapes and other acts of daring-do. The characters include the famous Sidney Reilly, so-called Ace of Spies, Robert Bruce Lockhart, who was sentenced to death in absentia for plotiing to assassinate Lenin, their boss, Mansfield Cumming, known as C, and George Hill, master of disguise. For those who abhor dry, academic, footnoted  history, this book is a tonic, a page-turner from beginning to end. Fun stuff.

9/10

 

 

Spies of the Balkans

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst

Phoenix (2013), Paperback, 304 pages

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By the numbers spy thriller, with the added interest of being set in the turbulent Balkans in the early years of WWII. It concerns the activities of a handsome Greek police officer who navigates the twisted loyalties and dangers of wartime Europe while saving endangered people from the clutches of the Nazis, finding time along the way to bed various women who happen to cross his path.  “Slick” is the word that springs to mind when describing this book. It is the literary equivalent of sliding on a thick coat of oil across a highly polished floor. You begin at the beginning, slide effortlessly and quickly through with minimal emotional engagement, and exit at the end, having been entertained,  certainly, but wondering if that few hours of your life invested was well-spent. There is simply a lack of drama in the story, very little sense that the characters are ever in any danger, which is essential for a spy story. The protagonist is  is simply too be good to be true, he never encounters a situation he can’t instantly think his way out of, and flits through the dangers of wartime Europe with ludicrous ease. The author has a habit of setting up situations and then resolving them without any attendant suspense or drama, which certainly moves the story along very quickly, but sort of defeats the purpose of a thriller. For instance, our heroic protagonist shoots an SS officer in the face, in the middle of Occupied Paris, which would seem to guarantee an intense manhunt and plenty of close shaves. Not a bit of it. Two pages later, he’s safely out danger and back home in Greece without turning a hair. Even James Bond had to survive being captured and tortured a few times. Not our hero, he’s literally the Teflon Man. In addition, he’s also, as required, impossibly attractive to women. Throughout the novel, a whole string of women find it impossible to resist disrobing and sampling his manly charms between the sheets. The most ludicrous example of this concerns his true love, who has barely cast a first glance his way and is straight away indicating by various subtle movements that she wants to play hide the sausage with him. I mean, I have seen lust at first sight in real life, but it usually involves copious amounts of alcohol and always at least the exchange of some words. Again, even the immortal Bond struck out once or twice, but not our hero. Really, that is the whole story of this book, it’s just too unbelievable to be taken seriously. Which is a pity, because the author’s description of the chaos of wartime Europe, the seedy underworld and labrynthine politics of the Balkans, are very good. the book just needed a bit of genuine drama and a more human protagonist to be a top class spy thriller. As it is, it is very much an airplane read, buy it at the airport, read on a long flight, leave it in the motel room for the next guest because its not worth lugging around once you’re done. Not bad, not good, mildly entertaining, but guaranteed not to stretch your intellectual capacities in any way.

6.5/10