Italian Memories.

Elizabeth Butler’s autobiography is a wonderful book. One of the things I found interesting was her recollection of Italy as a young girl. I hope you enjoy it too.

“The war against Austria had been won. Magenta, Solferino, Montebello—dear me, how those names resounded! One day as we were running along the road in our pinafores near the Zerbino palace, above Genoa, along came Victor Emmanuel in an open carriage looking very red and blotchy in the heat, with big, ungloved hands, one of which he raised to his hat in saluting us little imps who were shouting “Long live the King of Italy!” in English with all our might. We were only a little previous (!) Then the next year came the Garibaldi enthusiasm, and we, like all the children about us, became highly exalted Garibaldians. I saw the Liberator the day before he sailed from Quarto for his historical landing in Sicily, at the Villa Spinola, in the grounds of which we were, on a visit at the English consul’s. He was sitting in a little arbour overlooking the sea, talking to the gardener. In the following autumn, when his fame had increased a thousandfold, I made a pen and ink memory sketch of him which my father told me to keep for future times. I vividly remember, though at the time not able to understand the extraordinary meaning of the words, hearing one of Garibaldi’s adoring comrades (one Colonel Vecchii) a year or two later exclaim to my father, with hands raised to heaven, “Garibaldi!! C’est le Christ le revolver à la main!”
Our life at old Albaro was resumed, and I recall the pleasant English colony at Genoa in those days, headed by the very popular consul, “Monty” Brown, and the nice Church of England chaplain, the Rev. Alfred Strettell. Ah! those primitive picnics on Porto Fino, when Mr. Strettell and our father used to read aloud to the little company, including our precocious selves, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, under the vines and olives, between whose branches, far below the cultivated terraces which we chose for our repose, appeared the deep blue waters of the Sea of seas. My early sketch books are full of incidents in Genoese peasant life: carnival revels in the streets, so suited to the child’s idea of fun; charges of Garibaldian cavalry on discomfited Neapolitan troops (the despised Borbonici), and waving of tricolours by bellicose patriots.”

Excerpt from an “An Autobiography.” Elizabeth Butler. Available on Archive.

These must have been exciting times. I wish I could find that sketch of Garibaldi. 


Book Review: The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander.

The Bitter Trade “A scurrilous tale, one which warns rather than elevates, of title without value and no noblesse”




Paperback: 432 pages

Publisher: Tenderfoot (12 Jun 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 099286450X
ISBN-13: 978-0992864507

Calumny Spinks. A crass, grimy unholy no-good, who by all rights should have ended up in a red coat or at the end of a noose, but by stint of his unfortunate luck, unfortunate breeding and unfortunate parentage ends up saddled as the hero of Piers Alexander’s debut novel Bitter Trade.

To say the hero is an anti-hero is to achieve high levels of understatement, if his life had not so far been a succession of cruel disappointments and calamities, so much so that he must be pitied, he would be the sort of guttersnipe true villains are made of. However I was pleased to see that the hero is accurately portrayed with some religious belief and prejudice common to the time, he’s not going to please many Catholic readers but I doubt Protestants are overjoyed with Perez Reverte’s brilliant Alatriste novels.

But as it is, his predicament is not his own doing, and it is because of this that one identifies with, him by commiserating with him. He inherits the sins of his father, whose secrets trap him as a nobody with no future, and so, angry at the world and eager to use anyone he can to become someone, he uses his smart mouth and striking looks (yes he’s irresistible to women) to cheat debt, death and ignominy. Alexander paints this likeable and unlikeable boy well, at war with the world and a mass of contradictions, he is a character well created.

The story is set against the “Glorious Revolution of 1688″ and anyone who decides to set a novel in these usually overlooked times deserves a clap. Calumny and his associates are entangled in a mysterious web of intrigue and treason, the heart of which is artfully concealed, allowing for many twists and turns to keep you wondering what will happen next.

The book is a pseudo memoir, giving it immediacy, thus the language is deliberately archaic, but it is un-honeyed, threatening and hard in tone, and you shouldn’t get lost, and there are also modern plot devices to act as direction markers if you do. Coffee as you’d expect plays a central role, but its more the people who sell the bean rather than the drink itself that the book centres on.

It’s very well paced, flowing with the smoothness of java, even when things get complicated. It’s slow at first, then picks up speed and clarity, its chapter structure made it able for me to slice through chapters at a fast rate. It’s got a solid niche story, mostly rooted in history with bags of plot,  (enough to fill a coffee warehouse), lots of intrigue, grime and general sordid doings, vivid characters, and minute detail.

I think I could give a very precise guess at where one would look to find Calumny in 15 years, but I shall follow the example of so many of the shadowy characters in this book and keep it to myself. I shall look at you over my shoulder with a knowing smile and tap my nose secretively, then disappear into the shadows.

Happy reading.


Book Review: Toward the Setting Sun by David Boyle

There need to be more narrative histories of the 15th century. In my opinion Europe had not seen so much change and upheaval since the fall of Rome as it did in this turbulent time.
This was a period defined by immense change and progress, a time of cataclysmic warfare, of the Renaissance and of world changing discoveries. Few eras have such a resonating echo down to modern times, and few events such an impact as the European discovery of America.

Format: Kindle Edition618yrPfUGhL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_
File Size: 2145 KB
Print Length: 494 pages
Publisher: Endeavour Press (12 Aug 2014)
Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
Language: English

In David Boyle’s “Towards the Setting Sun” you get a good narrative history that intertwines the lives and achievements of the great European explorers, Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci, with the backdrop of the rich tapestry of 15th century Europe.
Boyle tells the story well, no easy task given the state of Europe in this time, refining it down to the spheres that his three main subjects lived in. The early chapters deal with their rise and struggle for funds and patrons to finance their costly and honestly insane voyages. While reading about Columbus I was reminded of some inventor or young entrepreneur building a business plan and attempting to convince multi millionaires to back them. Not quite the Apprentice or Dragons Den, but that’s essentially what he was doing.
His vignettes of people and places are evocative and entertaining and quite witty in some places, though I would never describe Ferdinand II of Aragon as a “striking figure, tall and good looking” to me he looks more like my image of Sancho Pança, but in general I liked his style. Of the three, Vespucci comes out the best, Columbus is more glamorous and controversial and Cabot the most mysterious.
The book is separated into long chapters, each subdivided handily into 3 smaller parts, in turn separated into smaller sections. It’s unlikely to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the age of discovery or these three remarkable men, but it does put the age of discovery squarely in the context of the time, and these men’s stories in the context of each other, and it’s packed with information.
In that sense, this is a book is also about the “Scramble for America” or what some people thought was the Indies, with Portugal, Spain and England all racing west to find a shorter route to Asia, and then accurately identify the unknown west. Readers will find much more than tales of discovery, adventure and seamanship, it seems to sway backwards and forwards from the tales of the three discoverers to the courts of Europe, and I must say I actually found myself preferring the parts about the scheming plotting princes, something I didn’t expect. Doubtless others with more knowledge would challenge some of his assertions but I very much . All in all this is a good, lively account of how Europe looked west to find the east, and unexpectedly found out there was more to the world than had been hitherto thought.

Happy Reading


Book Review: French Guardsman versus Russian Jaeger 1812-1814 Laurence Spring.

Paperback: 80 pages

Publisher: Osprey (20 Nov 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1782003622

ISBN-13: 978-1782003625


Last year I read War and Peace. When I was finished I was overcome with a very strong desire to learn more about the Russian “Patriotic” war against Napoleon. So I did what any self respecting military history enthusiast would do, I went to my nearest Osprey Publishing carousel and began spinning.


Each Osprey series offers different things. Campaign gives you Battle’s and commanders, Men at Arms uniform and organisation, Warrior and Elite, penetrating insights into specific unit types. It is in fact possible to build up highly detailed pictures of particular campaigns by taking from all the series, as by now most compliment the other.

Osprey’s newest series; Combat, offers a front line view of battle from a boots on the ground point of view, giving a real picture of what happens after the General says “Take that hill”. The Osprey series’ have become much more detailed since their founding and these slim, highly illustrated 80 page volumes prove that.

Russian Army expert Laurence Spring has in my opinion written the finest of the series’ first wave. Examining the experiences of French Young Guardsmen from the 1st 2nd and 14th Voltiguers and their counterparts from two Lifeguard Jaeger units (Including the superb Finland regiment) and the 19th Jaegers through three battles. Krasnyi 1812, Leipzig 1813 & Craonne in 1814.

The book is broken down in traditional Osprey fashion into 10 sections:


Opposing Sides




Analysis and Conclusion

Unit Organisations

Orders of Battle

Select Bibliography


Notes are inserted into the text, which is well spiced with first hand accounts and really takes you to those deadly fields. One of the best parts apart from the excellent battle descriptions is the insights into the Russian & French army, especially the former. People like me who more often than not end up digging deeper into the Peninsular War and Waterloo, don’t get as many chances to see what was going on in other army’s and the level of detail crammed into this book was a delight.

Another reason this is the best of the first wave is the superb illustrations by Mark Stacey. Two double page spreads put the reader right in the front line, the specially commissioned artwork, creating the impression of literally being in the picture. One is in double perspective, first the reader is a Russian Skirmisher ready to cover his parter once he has fired, the other they are in the  congested French ranks, handing a newly loaded musket to a wild eyed Voltiguer. The second spread you are a French Guardsman rushing, bayonet fixed into a deadly melee to wipe put a small pocket of stranded Russians. Stacey’s composition and attention to detail is unreal, almost as if you were in a 1st Person Napoleonic Shootemup game.

The accompanying period images that illustrate the rest of the book, at an average of 2-3 a page are brilliantly chosen, and some are in colour, the best being the portrayals of Russian infantry uniforms towards the front. Maps are clear and are accompanied with detailed subtext.

In summary this is an excellent book and well worth the money if you are a Napoleon Wars enthusiast.