[Review] The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World by Gareth Russell

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When the ship of dreams sank, so did the Edwardian era.
In this original and meticulously-researched narrative history, Gareth Russell considers the real story of the Titanic, and the seismic shift of modernity the 1910s have come to mark in the West.

Had she survived her first voyage, The Titanic probably would have dated like other ocean liners. Instead, within a week of setting sail on 10th April 1912, the disaster of her sinking had turned her into one of the biggest news stories of the century. Writing in his signature prose, Gareth Russell peers through the portholes of six first-class travellers to immerse us into the Edwardian era while demonstrating how modernity shook up the class system of the age.

Lucy Leslie, Countess of Rothes; “son” of the British Empire, Tommy Andrews; captain of the industry John Thayer and his son Jack; Jewish immigrant Ida Straus; and model and movie star Dorothy Gibson. Each subject’s unique story offers insights into the established hierarchy during the fin de siècle of pre-war Britain and America, the Titanic’s respective spiritual and economic homelands. Through these entwining lives, Russell investigates social class – its mores, its foibles, its accents, its etiquette, its benefits, its casual or intentional cruelties, its potential nobility. Those nuances also invite analyses of the shipping trade, the birth of the movie industry, the aristocracy, the American Gilded Age, the Irish Home Rule crisis, and Jewish-American communities.

The Titanic is the vessel in which we can extrapolate lessons on hubris, folly, greed, love, class, magnificent courage and pitiable weakness. She carried thousands of people and, in that way, she still has thousands of stories to tell. Drawing on brand new and unpublished materials, journal entries and film archives from the time, The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World focuses on the symbolism of the Titanic as the floating symbol of Anglo-American success, its clientele an apt illustration of the limitless – technological, financial – possibilities of its time.

I was absolutely honoured to receive a review copy of Russell’s latest book, having read and utterly adored his book on Katherine Howard – so when I received this book I was seriously excited to get stuck in. I must admit it’s taken me a while to get through it, but the fault is entirely my own thanks to that bothersome thing called real life getting in the way. When I did pick it up I found myself lost in the past, on board the Ship of Dreams as it set sail from Southampton and as it sank into the icy waters. I’ll say it now – this book is an absolute gem and needs to be read by everyone, whether they know a lot about the Titanic or not.

Russell once again proves himself to be a master of his craft with a narrative that is both chock full of facts and drama, telling the story of a number of passengers through the medium of eye witness statements and other sources – with such a well known event in history it is hard to believe that there is anything new to uncover, yet Russell has done the impossible. He has crafted a meticulous re-telling of the sinking of the Titanic and how its demise during the early hours of April 15th, 1912, saw the end of the Edwardian era, and his narrative is so incredibly moving that there are many times whereupon I felt myself moved to tears – from the accounts of the sounds those within the water made going silent, to the psychological trauma affecting the survivors, this is a brilliant non fiction narrative that really will tug on your heartstrings and make you see the sinking of the Titanic in an entirely new light.

As someone who lives close to where the Titanic sailed from, I jumped at the chance to read and review this book. And let me tell you, I am so glad that I did. Russell has done a phenomenal job crafting this book and it really has to be placed up there as one of the greatest books ever written on the Ship of Dreams.

The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World is available from Amazon and all good bookshops.

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OTD in history: 12th March 1507

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It’s that time again, folks. A day in history that always chokes me up just a little bit…

On 12th March 1507 Cesare Borgia, the feared Duke Valentino, was killed during a skirmish outside the small town of Viana in Navarre.

Having joined up with the King of Navarre following his miraculous escape from the prison of La Mota in Spain, Cesare and the army of the King decided to take the town of Viana back into the hands of Navarre.

As the weather in Viana turned bad, Cesare believed that in such weather no attack would happen. In his mind, he and his soldiers were safe. Except this was the opportunity that the enemy had been waiting for. They attacked, and as the alarm was raised in the town confusion reigned. Cesare dressed quickly in light armour and ordered his soldiers to ride out with him to meet the oncoming enemy. Cesare, in his excitement, rode out before his soldiers – he rode so fast that he outdistanced himself and did not realise he was alone until it was too late. Three men ambushed Cesare as he rode forward – as Cesare raised his arm to attack one of the men struck him underneath the arm with a lance. He was mortally wounded but still, having fallen from his horse, fought for his life but he was overcome. Stabbed countless times, Cesare Borgia died just days before the Ides of March and the death of his hero, Julius Caesar. He was just thirty-one years old.

Stripped naked, Cesare’s attackers covered his genitals with a stone to cover his modesty. The man had absolutely no idea that they had killed Cesare Borgia, whom they had been ordered NOT to kill if they met him in battle. It was only when Cesare’s squire, Juanito, was shown his master’s armour that they realised. The boy had burst into tears.

Cesare’s body was moved back into the little town and buried inside the church of Santa Maria, within a beautiful tomb. The tomb was inscribed with the words:

“Here in a scant piece of earth, lies he whom all the world feared”

However in 1527, the Bishop of Calahorra had Cesare’s remains removed from inside the Church and destroyed the tomb. His reasoning for this was that a man who was such a ‘monster’ had absolutely no right to be buried in consecrated ground. His bones lay under a pavement, and were walked over for centuries, until the Bishop of Pamplona agreed that Cesare could be moved back inside in 2007. His remains had previously been excavated by and studied by a Spaniard who came to the conclusion that the bones found within the small grave were almost certainly that of Cesare Borgia. Following the re-internment of the bones, a simple slab was placed over Borgia’s final resting place, describing briefly who he was an his military exploits.

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[Looking Back] An Interview With Dan Jones

I’ve been somewhat quiet lately – unfortunately life has taken over and I’ve gotten somewhat buried in new job stuff and editing the work in progress. So today, given as I’m just way too burned out to write any sort of proper blog post, we’re looking back at an interview the amazing Dan Jones gave me! Enjoy!

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Today I am honoured to have Dan Jones on the blog for an interview. Dan Jones is a well-known and highly respected historian who has written books on the Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses and the Magna Carta. He has also presented television documentaries on British Castles, the Wars of the Roses and the Great Fire of London.

Sam Morris: Firstly, thank you very much for agreeing to this little interview. I know my readers will be really excited to see you on the blog! First question then – Growing up, what was it that initially sparked your interest in history?

Dan Jones: I started vibing history in school, relatively late, I guess. You may think I was inspecting battlements as a six-year old or being chaperoned around monuments before I could talk, but put that thought out of your mind. I was about the age of 15 when I ran into a teacher at school who made history burst into life. His name was Robin Green and he taught Tudor history like a demon dog, got me hooked on it and helped push me towards studying it at Cambridge.

SM: You’ve written a range of books with topics from the Tudors through to the Templars – which era of history is your particular favourite and why?

DJ: Well, evidently I have something of a yen for the European middle ages, and particularly for the history of England between about 1150 and 1500. But I couldn’t say for certain that I have a clear favourite. I tend to pick subjects I either know or imagine I will enjoy spending three years wrestling into submission, and I work to a plan. So the Templars was a subject that had some very flimsy overlap in terms of subject matter with my earlier books on Plantagenet England – but it was also a way of easing myself into the history of the crusades, which is an area I intend to stick with for the next few years.

SM: Regarding your upcoming book on the Templars, I myself have visited Templar castles over in Portugal – the Convento de Cristo in Tomar is a personal favourite. Is there a particular place associated with the Templars that made you think “hang on a minute, I’d love to write about these guys?”

DJ: Not really – I just had this instinctive sense that the Templars was a subject that would draw in regular people who don’t read a lot of history, get them intrigued and have them clamouring for more of the same. As regards Templars locations, I have spent a lot of time in the Temple Church in London, which is a true gem on the outskirts of the City, now surrounded by barristers’ chambers, so a hub in the middle of lawyer-town. William Marshal’s tomb is there.

SM: You are regarded as a young and ‘hip’ historian – what advice would you give someone wanting to break into the field of history? (This is something I could have done with before writing my first book!)

DJ: Work hard, read a lot, write a lot, and know exactly what you want to write about. I have had such a weird career that I don’t think I can offer it up as a model pathway – but I don’t think the basics are hard. Graft. Meet people. Specialise. Enjoy.

SM: You studied at university under the eminent David Starkey. What was it like to be taught by someone so respected in the field?

DJ: Well, it’s a long time ago now, but I remember turning up to David’s lectures in my first year at Cambridge, despite not having signed up for a Tudor history paper. I just knew that I wanted to be around someone so manifestly brilliant and (at that time) impossibly famous. I buttonholed David after a lecture one day and demanded that he supervise me (i.e. that he spend one academic term teaching me one-to-one for a single hour, once a week – this is the structural basis for all undergraduate history teaching at Cambridge, or was when I was up at least). He said yes, and then duly came up from London once a week to do the job – a task for which I now realise he was not paid or thanked or rewarded in any meaningful way, and which I basically took for granted at the time. He was a superb teacher, who besides sharing his knowledge of sixteenth century England also took it upon himself to teach me how to write decent prose. I owe him a huge, huge debt of gratitude.

SM: What are your interests outside of history?

DJ: Sport: I write a sports column for the London Evening Standard. Also, I was for a while in my twenties one half of a fairly dreadful DJ combo. Our biggest gig was Ministry of Sound… on an under-sixteens night. We had the knack of emptying any dance floor within three songs.

SM: Following on from your book on the Templars, have you got any other projects in the pipeline?

DJ: I’m working on a lot of TV stuff, as usual. But my next book will be a collaboration with the brilliant digital recolourist Marina Amaral (marinamaral.com), who colours in old black and white photos – to astonishing effect. We are doing a book called The Colours of Time – a new history of the world from 1850 to 1950 and I am loving every second of it.

SM: For a little bit of fun – who should win the Iron Throne?

DJ: Oh, give it to someone who doesn’t want it. Pod, maybe. Or Grey Worm. I am finding the endgame of Thrones rather less enjoyable than the first six seasons.

SM: Whilst writing my books, I found it incredibly easy to get distracted and also found myself hating my subject quite a lot. When you’re writing, do you find yourself getting put off and how do you go about getting your head back in the game?

DJ: Put your cell phone in another room. Turn wi-fi off on your computer. Stop reading this interview and do some goddamn work. Discipline… there are no tricks except for controlling your own environment and practicing self-denial with focus and intent.

Dan’s new book, “The Templars” is out on 7th September and available on Amazon.

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Leonardo: A Life in Drawing ~ Southampton City Art Gallery

It goes to show just how out of touch I am with the local goings on in my town that I had absolutely no idea about the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that had been going on at my local art gallery. It’s even more shocking that I had let something about a man who is part of an era I’m so passionate about almost pass me by. So today, I took myself up the art gallery for a quick lunchtime jaunt.

The exhibition at Southampton is part of a simultaneous number of events taking place across the country at 12 different venues – all of this is to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the genius’ death. Each venue holds 12 drawings. And then in May over 200 of Da Vinci’s drawings will go on display at Buckingham Palace and Holyrood House.

As such the exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery is very, very small. But to even be able to see such incredible works of art with my own eyes was absolutely astounding. The 12 drawings featured in Southampton’s exhibit included drawings of anatomy (including some wonderful sketches of muscles, bones and internal organs), sketches of horses and nature. At most it will take you around 15 minutes to peruse the drawings on display, but if you have any sort of interest in the life of Leonardo da Vinci and the era in which he lived, definitely try and take a few minutes out of your day to check this little exhibition out.

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Leonardo: A Life in Drawing takes place between 1 Feb – 6 May 2019 at Southampton City Art Gallery. Entry is free.

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[Review] Medici: The Magnificent

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When Medici: Masters of Florence was shown on Netflix, I fell in love with the series despite all its flaws. It brought to life a family from the Italian Renaissance who I’ve long held a great amount of love for, and it did so beautifully. Yes, there were some inaccuracies however it was the sort of historical drama series where you could look past that and just enjoy the series for what it was. It wasn’t like, say, The Borgias, where the writers turn the whole history on its head just to tell what they believe is a be.

Medici: The Magnificent is the second series and this one tells the story of a young Lorenzo – a man who would later be given the sobriquet of “The Magnificent” (hence the title of the show – clever, right?) and his rise to power. In this series we see the ongoing feud between the Pazzi and the Medici, leading up to one of the biggest and bloodiest events in Medici history. We also see romance blossom and jealousy and hatred bloom.

The main antagonists of the series are the Pazzi family – a family who utterly despised the Medici. They believed that they were nobility and therefore had the right to hold power in Florence, whereas the Medici were nothing more than “jumped up wool merchants”. The jealousy and hatred would later lead to an incredibly violent confrontation. The Pazzi were headed by Jacopo de’ Pazzi, played in the show by the utter brilliant Sean Bean.

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Bean truly brings the character of Jacopo to life and from the get go I utterly despised the character. What surprised me, though, was how by the end of the series and Jacopo’s nasty end I actually felt sorry for him. He and his family had been brought up to despise the Medici and knew no different – the belief had been utterly ingrained in not only Jacopo but his nephew’s also. Bean’s characterisation of Jacopo is utterly stellar – he drips venom is his words and you can truly see the hatred in his eyes.

The Pazzi family also includes Francesco and Guglielmo, the nephews of Jacopo who have been brought up to hate the Medici also. Both brothers evidently wish to be friends with the Medici, however. Francesco and Lorenzo are shown as friends in their youth, yet Francesco is twisted and moulded by his uncle. Guglielmo is the far more affable brother – he marries Bianca de’ Medici and, in a way, unites the two families. Unfortunately for Guglielmo, it’s not enough…

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As is always the case in historical drama, we have a heck of a lot of sex and romance. Lorenzo dallies with other women as well as his wife, yet learns that it is his wife who is the one for him. Their story is truly moving and I found myself absolutely adoring Lorenzo’s long suffering wife, Clarice. In history the two held a deep respect for each other and I felt that the series showed this really very well.

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Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici were my favourite characters in the whole series. Perhaps I’m somewhat biased given my long standing love for Lorenzo the Magnificent…the only gripe I have is that Daniel Sharman, who plays Lorenzo, is far too good looking!!! Lorenzo the Magnificent was known for being rather ‘ugly’ – yet he still managed to pull in the ladies! Giuliano, however, was incredibly good looking and Bradley James really was the perfect fit for the ill fated Giuliano de’ Medici.

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The inclusion of Sandro Botticelli was brilliant – many would have forgotten the part that Boticelli played in the early lives of the Medici but the show runners did it perfectly. I was so pleased to see that they showed him and his deep-seated love for Simonetta Vespucci, the woman who became his muse and whose figure appeared in some of his most famous artworks – Primavera and the Birth of Venus being just two examples. They also included the rumoured love affair between Giuliano and Simonetta, which was also done beautifully.

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I must admit that I was somewhat worried about how the series would show the brutal events of the Pazzi Conspiracy. However I was pleasantly surprised. There were a few inaccuracies in their version of events, however. They did not show Francesco stabbing himself in the leg during his attack on Giuliano, nor did they show that one of Lorenzo’s friends sucked at the wound on his neck just in case it was poisoned. They also showed Giuliano as still being alive despite the attack, dying only after he had seen his brother – Giuliano was long dead by the time Lorenzo was escorted from the Duomo and as he left he kept asking after his brother. He did not see his brother’s corpse. Nor did he show his face at the Palazzo della Signoria during the attempted coup. Instead he went to his home on the Via Larga and appeared there to prove that he was still alive. It was only then that the people truly turned on the Pazzi and chased their supporters through already bloodstained streets. Despite the inaccuracies, the final scenes brought me to tears. Giuliano’s death was incredibly moving and both Sharman and James acted their little socks off.

It is during these last scenes, as Lorenzo deals with the loss of his brother, that we see a big change in him. In these scenes Sharman acts with his eyes, and it’s beautiful. He shows us Lorenzo’s change from head of a family to a true leader in a totally stunning manner.

I’m very very impressed with Medici season 2. Very impressed. Yes, there are some inaccuracies but not enough to make someone who knows the era beyond angry. It’s a beautiful television series, incredibly well written with an insanely talented cast. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who loves well written historical dramas, whether they know the history of the era or not. And if you don’t know the history, it’s a GREAT stepping stone to spark someone’s interest.

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