Solent Sky Museum – Southampton

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Having been signed off work for two weeks with the dreaded S word, I decided to make a bit of use of the time I have. After all, there’s nothing better than a trip to a museum to get your head back in the game. The Solent Sky Museum is located right by Southampton’s Ocean Village area and, having lived in the area for nigh on 8 years, I hadn’t really heard of it until yesterday. Which, if I’m honest is a bit odd as it’s where the voting booths are set up during elections. But that’s by the by. I toddled off down there this morning – taking all of two minutes to get there – and from the moment I stepped inside, all I can say is ‘wow’.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s a rather grey, nondescript building and the signage isn’t wonderful. But when you step inside…it’s like you’ve been punched in the face by the most amazing history. Southampton is, after all, the home of the Spitfire.

Entry is £7.50 for adults which, if I’m honest, isn’t that bad given the wealth of information crammed within the museum. Even better though is that as I gave giftaid, I now get free entry for a whole year. Hurrah!

You begin the tour of the museum by walking upstairs where you are greeted with an exhibition on Southampton’s flying boats. Yes, you heard right. Flying boats. Before seeing this exhibition I had no idea that during the 20’s, Southampton was one of the very few commercial airports in England! There were regular commercial flights from Southampton to Cherbourg for just £5.50 return (though that would have been super expensive back in those days!). Later, longer routes were brought in and flights were chartered to the Middle East and beyond. But by 1958 the flying boat service was finished, with land based flight taking precedence.

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Interestingly, it’s not all planes within the museum. There are also displays on the police and fire services – exhibitions put on by the Hampshire Police & Fire Heritage Trust. I must admit that these exhibitions were my favourite out of everything within the museum – not least because of the creepy mannequins sat in a cell!

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One of the most hard hitting exhibitions of the museum was their exhibition on the Blitz of Southampton. Not only was the Spitfire factory targeted, but much of the city as well. As I was wandering around the room looking at the photographs of the devastation. It was very difficult to comprehend that much of what I saw are places where I walk every day – it’s hard to believe that the city in which I live today suffered so terribly. And yet it did. The bombing affected huge swathes of Southampton, destroying homes and businesses, reducing churches to rubble and taking hundreds of lives.

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I finished off my visit with a walk on one of the commercial water planes within the collection. It’s certainly a far cry from the commercial planes you get on today! Following that I had a quick gander at some of the more modern planes, including the Folland Gnat F1 XK740, which was described as a ‘masterpiece of economical design’ The Gnat became well known as a plane used by the fabulous Red Arrows! There’s also a beautiful Spitfire and information telling visitors of the history of the spitfire!

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All in all a wonderful little museum and the perfect place to spend an hour or two. The staff are friendly and helpful and the exhibits are just second to none – though the mannequins are a little terrifying! I highly recommend this museum to anyone interested in aviation history, as well as the local history of Southampton and the surrounding area.

10/10. Will visit again.

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[Review] Forsaking All Other – Catherine Meyrick

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Love is no game for women; the price is far too high.

England 1585.

Bess Stoughton, waiting woman to the well-connected Lady Allingbourne, has discovered that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and wrests from her father a year’s grace to find a husband more to her liking.

Edmund Wyard, a taciturn and scarred veteran of England’s campaign in Ireland, is attempting to ignore the pressure from his family to find a suitable wife as he prepares to join the Earl of Leicester’s army in the Netherlands.

Although Bess and Edmund are drawn to each other, they are aware that they can have nothing more than friendship. Bess knows that Edmund’s wealth and family connections place him beyond her reach. And Edmund, with his well-honed sense of duty, has never considered that he could follow his own wishes. Until now.

With England on the brink of war and fear of Catholic plots extending even into Lady Allingbourne’s household, time is running out for both of them.

If you like historical and romantic fiction, then this book is for you.

I’ll admit now that romance isn’t something I would normally read. However I found myself pleasantly surprised with this book.

Set in 1585 amidst a torrid time in English history, we follow the story of Bess Stoughton and her mission to find a new husband. Normally such a story would bore me – however the main character of the story, Bess, is a strong willed young woman who takes risk. Many would perhaps say that is a cliche in the world of romantic fiction, however I found her characterisation completely endearing. She is a woman who knows what she wants, and won’t let anything get in the way. The object of her affection is a young man who would not normally catch the eye of a young woman – be it for his land and his money. But it soon becomes clear that the two cannot be any more than friends…with his mother controlling his marriage and Bess in need of a husband, they need to look elsewhere.

Not that it stays that way, of course.

The story twists and turns throughout the normality of life at the time. Bess is a waiting lady for Lady Allingbourne and we see the day to day activities that such women got up to at the same. But mixed in with that normality is the danger of life at the time, too. England is in the grip of war – not only against the Spanish, but against the Catholics at home as well. There’s always that fear lurking, on every page, that something awful is going to happen. Are there secret Catholics in Lady Allingbourne’s staff? Will the object of Bess’ affection come home from war?

The story moves quickly – Meyrick’s writing style honestly made this book a joy to read. It’s been a good while since I stayed up late to finish reading a book but this one, I just couldn’t put down. Whilst it is set in an era I know little about – there’s a wonderful section on the historical setting at the end of the book – this book was a joy to read. As I’ve already mentioned it’s not my normal cup of tea however I enjoyed it immensely and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in romantic, historical fiction.

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[Review] Machiavelli by Miles J. Unger

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He is the most infamous and influential political writer of all time. His name has become synonymous with cynical scheming and the selfish pursuit of power. 

Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine diplomat and civil servant, is the father of political science. His most notorious work, The Prince, is a primer on how to acquire and retain power without regard to scruple or conscience. His other masterpiece, The Discourses, offers a profound analysis of the workings of the civil state and a hardheaded assessment of human nature. 

Machiavelli’s philosophy was shaped by the tumultuous age in which he lived, an age of towering geniuses and brutal tyrants. He was on intimate terms with Leonardo and Michelangelo. His first political mission was to spy on the fire-and-brimstone preacher Savonarola. As a diplomat, he matched wits with the corrupt and carnal Pope Alexander VI and his son, the notorious Cesare Borgia, whose violent career served as a model for The Prince. His insights were gleaned by closely studying men like Julius II, the “Warrior Pope,” and his successor, the vacillating Clement VII, as well as two kings of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. Analyzing their successes and failures, Machiavelli developed his revolutionary approach to power politics. 

Machiavelli was, above all, a student of human nature. In The Prince he wrote a practical guide to the aspiring politician that is based on the world as it is, not as it should be. He has been called cold and calculating, cynical and immoral. In reality, argues biographer Miles Unger, he was a deeply humane writer whose controversial theories were a response to the violence and corruption he saw around him. He was a psychologist with acute insight into human nature centuries before Freud. A brilliant and witty writer, he was not only a political theorist but also a poet and the author of La Mandragola, the finest comedy of the Italian Renaissance. He has been called the first modern man, unafraid to contemplate a world without God. Rising from modest beginnings on the strength of his own talents, he was able to see through the pious hypocrisy of the age in which he lived. 

When I picked up a copy of this biography I was seriously excited. Unger’s biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici was excellent and has to be one of my favourite biographies of all time. So I had high hopes for this book. And unfortunately the book didn’t really meet my expectations.

Now then, that’s not to say the book is bad. Oh no. I would say that the first three quarters of it are outstanding – Unger has used his extensive knowledge of the Italian Renaissance alongside Machiavelli’s own works and other primary sources to tell the exciting story of Machiavelli’s early life. We learn how Machiavelli rose through the ranks of the Florentine government to become Second Chancellor, and how he found himself rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous and influential men (and women!) of the time. I was particularly interested in the time that Machiavelli spent in the court of Cesare Borgia – who Unger seems to mainly call ‘Valentino’, based on Borgia’s nickname – and the respect that Machiavelli had for the man.

In fact I will say that had this biography finished with Machiavelli’s fall from grace and his arrest, that it would be one of the greatest biographies of Machiavelli out there. However I feel as though the last part of the book really let it down.

Whilst I understand that it’s important to analyse Machiavelli’s works – The Prince and the Discourses being the main ones – Unger seemed to go on about these works, delving into them in such great detail, for far too long. It read like something I would have to study back at A-Level or something, picking apart and analysing every little bit of these admittedly fantastic works. And sadly I found myself growing rather bored by it all. Though I will admit that I was interested in how Machiavelli used his down time away from the city to work on these pieces and how he thought his diatribe in The Prince would win him back favour. Sadly for Machiavelli, it was the book that would have him being vilified for hundreds of years.

This book then, is a book of two parts. Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. But I would warn readers to be wary of the time Unger spends discussing Machiavelli’s works towards the end of his life. This book is perfect for anyone interested in both the history of this wonderful man and the sort of work that he did – I will certainly be using it in my own current project. Up until the end of the book I would have given it four stars – however the slight let down at the end has me dropping to three, which is a great shame.

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[Review] Kingdom Come Deliverance

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The moment I heard about “Kingdom Come Deliverance” my excitement honestly knew no bounds. As a gamer, I love epic fantasy tales that involve swordplay and lots of gore but what I’ve wanted for what feels like forever is a video game that involves history. And accurate history at that – or as accurate as you can get in a video game. Despite hearing about the insane amount of bugs in the early versions of the game, I picked it up on release day. After downloading the crazy huge first patch…I was not disappointed (and actually, didn’t really come across many bugs in my playthrough. Hurrah!)

Kingdom Come Deliverance is set in Bohemia, 1403, slap bang in the middle of not only the Great Western Schism but also in what can only be considered as a bitter family feud. Bohemia at the time was ruled by King Wenceslaus IV who was actually a pretty rubbish King. Sigismund, Wenceslaus’ half brother, was King of Hungary. However Wenceslaus’ poor ruling brought him into conflict with a whole bunch of nobles and, when he refused to show up to a meeting to answer charges of failing to keep the public peace or helping to resolve the Schism, he was dethroned and captured by Sigismund. Now I don’t know all that much of the history of this time period, however this game has made me want to know more. And it will make you guys want to know more too!

The story starts in Skalitz (Stříbrná Skalice) with a young blacksmith named Henry. He’s a bit of a nobody really, just the son of a blacksmith who enjoys spending time with his friends and wooing the ladies. His father, the village blacksmith proper, has been employed by Sir Radzig Kobyla (Racek Kobyla – a real nobleman who lived in Skalice) however when a Cuman army appear before the village and attack, everything goes to hell. Literally. Now I don’t want to spoil anything but let me tell you – this introduction has to be one of the most intense beginnings to a video game that I have ever seen. Interestingly enough, in 1403, a Cuman army did indeed attack Skalice – they murdered everyone in the village who didn’t manage to flee. But dear old Sir Radzig and those who had holed up within the castle managed to sneak away during the night, in the middle of a massive thunderstorm.

That is just one example of the historically accurate events that happen throughout the game. Add onto that the sheer effort that has gone into building the area around Skalitz – the team at Warhorse employed full time historians to work on this game, mapping out the historical landscape to such a degree that you can compare the game map to a modern map of the area and see just how it matches up.

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The amount of research that was put into the social interaction as well was just brilliant. Every decision that you make as Henry affects how people will treat you in your day to day dealings with them – commit crime in a town? People aren’t going to want to deal with you. Show up after days and days of not washing? They’ll make a comment on just how much you stink. Show up covered in blood…well, you get the gist. But if you do good deeds, pay for your crimes in the form of a prison sentence etc, it will all go a long way to giving you one hell of a good reputation. And in towns where you have a good reputation the people will greet you like a long lost hero. It’s bloody brilliant!

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The combat in the game is clunky. But it’s so be expected – you’re wearing heavy armour and swinging a sword. So it doesn’t take much to have you get seriously hurt. You get hurt to the point where you’re bleeding, if you don’t bandage it up then you’ll bleed out and die. And you can fight those who are better swordsmen than you – and they will kick your arse if you try it on with them. But as you progress through the game you do get better – you learn skills, your strength levels up as does your swordplay. But that’s not to say that the combat gets easier. Dodging and parrying is hugely important. And honestly I have no idea how I even completed it given as how my mantra was ‘just poke the guy with my sword until he dies’….it meant there was a lot of rage moments and rage quitting, let me tell you!

But it’s not all about the fighting. Oh no! You have to be diplomatic at times as well – so your speech skill is just as important as your strength. Many quests involve you talking your way out of trouble. I lost count of the amount of times I couldn’t progress in a quest as my speech skill wasn’t high enough, so I’d have to head away and talk to literally everyone in the area.

Throughout the game you will come into contact with people and places who, although not historically important in the grand scheme of things are important in their own way. The little people, as it were, were just as important. But you also come into contact with names such as Jan Hus, Sigismund, Wenceslaus…it doesn’t stop. And at times it can be seriously overwhelming. It’s not a simple game at all. But it’s one that will pull you in. And you will waste hours and hours talking to people. You will waste hours wandering forests, discovering hidden treasures and listening to the birdsong. More importantly you will fall in love with the characters as they wind their way through 1403 Bohemia, trying desperately to survive in one of the most torrid periods of Czech history.

This game is truly a masterpiece and one for both fans of RPGs as well as those interested in history. I highly recommend it.

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Girolamo Savonarola: One Man against the Renaissance – an interview with Truce Podcast

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Today it’s my absolute honour to be over on Truce Podcast, with the lovely Chris Staron, talking about the history of Girolamo Savonarola and the storm that he brought to Florence.

The podcast is available over on Itunes as well as at the Truce Podcast website. Please do swing on by and have a listen, and subscribe to the podcast!

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