Our Holiday: Winceby Battlefield

Not too far from where we were staying, there is a memorial to a battle fought during The English Civil War. I have always been interested in that period, and have been a member of The Cromwell Association for a long time. As we were going to be so close, I thought we could combine it with a trip into the nearby town of Horncastle.

Winceby is tiny. A ‘blink and you miss it’ village. I had expected some signs directing me to the battlefield, but after driving back and forth for twenty minutes, there was nothing to indicate where it might be. Giving up, I started to head back, on the busy main road. As we passed a lay-by on that road, Julie spotted a notice board that looked relevant. After turning round in a side road, I drove back and parked in the lay-by, and there it was.

(Both photos are full-frame, and can be enlarged for detail by clicking on them.)

Behind the sign, a hedge borders the fields where the battle took place, in a landscape virtually unchanged since that day in October, 1643.

If anyone is interested, here are some more details about the battle.

On 10 October at the village of Horncastle, approximately 6 miles west of Bolingbroke Castle, the Royalist force commanded by Widdrington came upon a cavalry detachment screening for the Parliamentarians sieging the Royalist garrison. A brief skirmish took place and the Parliamentarians withdrew. The Parliamentary detachment reported back to the main army that the Royalists were moving towards them.

The next day the two opposing forces simultaneously took steps to confront each other. Manchester took part of his force and arrayed them on Kirkby Hill to prevent the Bolingbroke garrison from leaving the castle and organizing an attack from the rear. With the remainder of his army, Manchester advanced towards Horncastle. Meanwhile, Widdrington and the Royalists moved out of Horncastle and advanced toward Bolingbroke Castle.

The Parliamentary horse, which moved faster than the infantry, met the Royalists advancing in the opposite direction at Winceby. The field of battle was not ideal as the land falls away into sharp gullies on one side, but it was not poor enough to prohibit a battle. The two forces were approximately the same size and composition, all cavalry.

The ensuing battle lasted about half an hour. Cromwell feigned a retreat and lured the Royalists from a good defensive position onto flat ground. A small party of Parliamentarians advanced on the Royalists who discharged their weapons at them. Cromwell then led his main body of horse in a charge hoping to press home his attack before the Royalists had time to reload. But dismounted Royalist dragoons managed to fire a second volley, hitting several of the Ironsides. Cromwell had his horse shot from under him, apparently by Sir Ingram Hopton (who was himself killed in the subsequent fighting and is commemorated by a memorial canvas found above the font in St. Mary’s Church, Horncastle.) The canvas’s inscription describes Cromwell as the ‘Arch Rebel’ and bears the incorrect date of October 6, 1643 for the Battle of Winceby.

Cromwell was only able to rejoin the battle after he had secured another mount. A Royalist cavalry division under Sir William Savile counterattacked Cromwell’s right flank. The Royalists were, in turn, attacked in the flank by Sir Fairfax’s horse. In the resulting melee, the Royalists lost cohesion when the command by Savile to about face was taken to be an order to retreat and Savile’s horse fled the battle. On the Parliamentarian’s left wing the Cavaliers enjoyed greater initial success, but the collapse of the Royalist left and centre meant that Widdrington had to retreat or face envelopment. A flanking attack by Cromwell’s reformed cavalry was enough to cause the Royalists to flee the field in confusion.

In Horncastle, at a place now known as “slash hollow”, some Royalists were killed or captured when they became trapped against a parish boundary gate that only opened one way (against them) and in their panic the press of men jammed it shut. For the remainder of the day the Parliamentarians hunted down Royalist stragglers not stopping until dusk, which in October occurs in early evening, when they were recalled by Manchester. The Royalists lost about 300 men and the Parliamentarians about 20 with a further 60 wounded

Given the fact that Cromwell was present at the battle, and it was a significant victory for the Parliamentary rebels, I would like to see the site better commemorated.

Book Review: Turncoat’s Drum

This title was ‘suggested’ to me by Amazon. It is set in a period I am interested in, and on offer at just 99 p for 377 pages, I thought it was good value too. This is book one in series of six, by the same author. It forms part of the ‘Shadow On The Crown’ set of novels, all set during the turbulent years of The English Civil War, from 1642-1651.

Like many similar books in the genre, it takes a series of real events, then peoples them with characters who actually existed, mixed in with fictional ones who mainly drive the plot. In this case, we see the effects of the Civil War in the Western sector of the conflict through the eyes of the opposing generals of the Royalist army, and the Parliamentary rebels seeking to overthrow the monarchy. Also individual soldiers and cavalrymen on both sides, as well as the officers and noblemen drawn to conflicting causes.

Civilian life is dealt with in detail too. The ravaged countryside, looting, stealing of food and livestock, and destruction of property during bitter sieges and larger battles. Women on both sides hoping for love or marriage in the midst of war, strumpet camp-followers trailing both armies selling their bodies for financial gain, and unscrupulous businessmen seeking to profit from selling goods to both sides at inflated prices.

And the ‘Turncoat’ of the title is reflected too, with some soldiers willing to change sides after losing in a battle, or for the chance of better pay, or more loot.

This book has an old-fashioned style, but that is a good thing. It reflects life in 17th century England well, a time when landowners demanded obedience from their workers, mothers sought good matches for their sons and daughters to retain their wealth and inheritance, and bitter differences in religious practices often lent a ruthless fanaticism to the battles. There is a softer side too. Relatives and old friends discovering each other on the opposite side during a skirmish, families divided by adherence to one cause or the other lamenting the events that brought them to this.

Historical accuracy is first rate, as all the engagements between the two sides actually happened. Then there is the description of camp life, or the hardships of defending a town under siege. The weapons used, the uniforms worn, and the tactics employed by the opposing armies, all are related in authentic detail. And when it comes to the full-on battles, the author has done his homework, with completely believable blow-by-blow accounts of 17th century warfare, from cavalry formations, to the ghastly wounds inflicted by the weapons of the time.

This is my kind of book, and I lapped it up. I have also just bought the second book in the series, which follows on from the last page of this one.

If you like your history bloody, bawdy, and completely true to life, then this is a book for you.

Here is an Amazon link. (It is still just 99 p on Kindle.)

Some films I shouldn’t like

There are certain films that a serious film fan just should not admit to liking. They should revile them, pour criticism upon them, and expose their flaws and weaknesses, all the time secretly enjoying them, in private. The following films all fall into this category, for some reason or another. Trouble is, I really like them all, and I will try to explain why.

Pretty in Pink. A 1986 American romantic drama, with High School kids fretting over relationships and Prom dances. Come on, me? It should just go into the bin, surely? But no, you would miss out on some great performances, good characterisations, and some young actors really stepping up, to lift his film out of its brat-pack roots. You even get Harry Dean Stanton, as the pouting Molly Ringwald’s dad. This hackneyed tale of poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks, falling for rich boy she can’t have is just that. But it’s better than that, so much better, and the reason is simplicity itself. Because they all take it so seriously, playing their parts as if they are in a Stephen Soderbergh Art House film, many years later. (And some were). We get early flashes of brilliance from James Spader, as the slimy friend of the object of Molly’s Ringwald’s desire, and a quiet, sleepy turn from Andrew McCarthy, as the boy himself. What seals the deal for me, is the fantastic performance by Jon Cryer, as the socially inept Duckie, who has always loved the girl, and is prepared to sacrifice everything for her happiness. His mimed performance of  ‘Try a little tenderness’, across the floor of a record shop, is one of my favourite moments in cinema. Then there is the title song, performed by the Psychedelic Furs, but only over the closing credits, at least on my version. Pop magic. Oh yes, there is a happy ending too, sorry about that. Here is Duckie, miming to the Otis Redding version of that song I mentioned. I could watch this every day.

Caligula. This 1979 epic was directed by Tinto Brass, an Italian film maker well-known for his cheap titillation films, on the borders of soft porn. It was funded by Bob Guccione, head of the Penthouse magazine and blue film empire, and had to be cut to ninety minutes for cinema showing, because of its nudity, and pornographic content. It is now available uncut, in a full version, running just under three hours. What’s to like then? Well, pretty much everything, and for one good reason, the cast. As they say in poker, read ’em and weep. Peter O’Toole, John Geilgud, Helen Mirren, a clutch of Italy’s finest, and Malcolm McDowell, playing the lead role of Caligula, in a manner so crazy, it was a wonder he wasn’t banged up in a nuthouse as soon as filming ceased. Even a hammy script, dubbed Italian hunks, and completely shameless sex and full-frontal nudity cannot detract from the quality of the performances. There are mad set pieces too.  A huge machine that cuts off the heads of prisoners buried up to their necks in the sand. A scene in an Imperial brothel, where the wives of senators are forced to take on all comers, to raise money is filmed on a vast set, with a huge cast of fornicating extras, indulging in all kinds of unspeakable perversity. There is rape, murder, buggery, torture, execution, incest, and even abortion by disemboweling. No degradation is too low to sink to. But this was Rome, at the time of its most depraved emperor; that was pretty much what it was like. I feel I should apologise in advance, but I just can’t resist it. Make sure you get the uncut version though, and don’t watch it with your Mum.

The Blair Witch Project. In 1999, this indie film, made on a shoestring budget, took the fringe festivals by storm in America. Audiences screamed, or walked out of the cinemas, either from fear, or disgust at how bad it was. It made the evening news in the UK, and the hype was full-on. The best promoted film with no budget for promotion, ever. I finally got round to seeing it, expecting the worst. Hand-held camera, unknown small cast, all set in a few acres of woodland. How can it possibly be any good? It wasn’t good, it was fantastic. Everything about it screamed talent, and innovation. The three lead actors gradual downward spiral into distrust, and downright hatred of each other, is superbly portrayed. The tension built up by the finding of a few twigs or stones, arranged in a pattern is hard to imagine, until you see it. Close up camera angles, and one of the cast always being out of shot filming the others, it all just works. The night photography, and eerie sounds heard from the black expanse outside the tent can make the hair stand up on your arms. And the last scene, with little action except one person standing motionless in a dark room, lit by the camera, is one of the most chilling moments I have ever witnessed in a film. Believe the hype. This is that last scene. Do you see what I mean?

Witchfinder General.  There have been remarkably few films about the English Civil War. This 17th Century conflict ravaged most of England, and set families against each other, resulting in the execution of the King, and a short-lived dictatorship by Cromwell. As someone very interested in this subject, I tend to collect, or at least watch, all and any films made about it, or set during those years; and this is one of them. Made in 1968, it was sold to the public as a ‘horror’ film, with scenes of torture, executions, and some sexual content. By today’s standards, it is remarkably tame, showing less than we might expect to see on a modern TV drama, after the viewing watershed. It stars Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, who was actually a real person, and self-styled ‘Witchfinder’ during those times. Using this time period, and the Civil War setting, is merely an excuse for a film about nasty people, preying on the fears and insecurities of an ignorant population already in shock, as a result of this devastating war. Hopkins, and his leering assistant, obtain money (and some sexual gratification) by examining women to see if they are witches They usually are found to be so, and executed accordingly. Hopkins is then paid by the local dignitaries, in gratitude for his ‘work’, before moving on to the next town. He uses the spurious authority of ‘Parliament’ as his cover, although he was never officially appointed to that role. The meek villagers he encounters are too afraid to question him, and he continues unchallenged, until he makes the mistake of interfering with the family of a young Roundhead cavalryman, a member of Oliver Cromwell’s regiment. This proves his undoing in the film, though of course, this was not the case in real life. This film enjoys cult status with many, and does have some effective moments, alongside many questionable acting performances. I like it simply for the Civil War connection, you may well enjoy it for a number of other reasons. Who knows? Here is the theatrical trailer.

Excalibur. The legend of King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table, has been the subject of numerous films, almost all of them forgettable. From the cringe-worthy musical ‘Camelot’, to the lampooning farce of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, there have been many others purporting to bring the truth behind this legend onto the screen. In 1981, the film maker John Boorman threw his hat into the ring, and brought us this epic version. Taking liberties with time and place, and moving the events from their supposed time in the 6th Century forward a few hundred years to a more recognisable medieval setting, he assembled a magnificent cast, and a suitable budget. At the time, I remember coming out of the cinema in London, thinking that I may have just seen a future masterpiece. The crashing soundtrack, swirling visuals, and (for that time) astounding special effects, left me reeling. Thirty years later, it does all seem a bit tame, and surprisingly clumsy in parts, but I have not lost my affection for it. Helen Mirren is at her sex-siren best as the wicked  Morgana, playing her part as if it was written by Shakespeare. Nicol Williamson as Merlin is capricious, irritable, and yet shows that it is really him that holds all power, regarding the other characters like children that he has to look after. Nicholas Clay plays a worthy Lancelot, even though costume (and direction? ) make him come across like a gay pin-up boy. The cast list rolls on, never failing to impress; Gabriel Byrne, Cherie Lunghi, Patrick Stewart , Liam Neeson, Corin Redgrave, at times it just feels as if everyone is in it. Nigel Terry takes the lead as Arthur, a strange choice. For reasons best known to the director, and possibly Nigel himself, he plays the part as a country bumpkin, with appropriate accent, and slack-jawed appearance. Supposedly educated and groomed to manhood for his role as the King by Merlin, he doesn’t really alter his performance at all. That aside, there are other treats in store. Robert Addie appears as Mordred, the incestuously conceived son of Arthur, all childish wickedness, and resplendent in gold armour, looking as camp as a row of tents. He brings the country to war, famine, and disease, by attempting to seize the throne; and the Knights leave, in search of the grail, which they believe will save the realm. It is great stuff really, pretty much irresistible, but it is tosh. Here is the trailer, accompanied by the powerful music of Carl Orff.

Sorry about the length of some of those reviews, I suppose they took longer, as I had to explain why I like things that are generally considered to be unwatchable, or forgettable. Each of these films remains fresh in my mind, and each supplied one or two fantastically memorable scenes that I will never forget. That sums it up, I think.

We all have a book in us

How many times has this been heard over the years? Approaching Retirement, I was often told, ‘now is the time to write that book’. After all, I had led a comparatively exciting working life. Over 20 years in a front line ambulance, followed by more than 10 years behind the scenes working for the Metropolitan Police. I had attended bombings, and major disasters. I had delivered babies, cared for victims of terrible burns and injuries, and ended my working life deploying firearms officers in Central London. There was also the possibility to inject humour, with unusual tales of quirky events, mistakes and errors made, and the strange characters that I had dealt with, or worked alongside. I had travelled a fair bit. What about experiences behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in Soviet Russia, or visiting East Germany many years before the wall came down?
If this did not provide fertile enough ground for that book, there were always my personal interests. History, Civil Wars, Cameras and Photography, Dickensian London, and the development of weapons through the ages. Maybe I could use my experiences with the Police, to write about modern crime-fighting in the Metropolis? There was always the possibility that my new life in Norfolk would yield great material for a book about the transition from London to the countryside. I would definitely look into it. After all, didn’t my life deserve a printed legacy, or to be available as an electronic download? Surely I too deserved to be in the remainder bins at half price, or in the window of Waterstones as the cheapest of the ‘buy 3 get 1 free offer? Failing all that, I could adapt these experiences and interests, to write a work of fiction, loosely based on something I knew a bit about.

I considered all the options, starting with the obvious. My Life in the Ambulance Service. An interesting read, with a few chuckles, and lots of gasps. From the end of the 1970’s, to the start of the 21st century. Strikes, civil disorder, changes in the NHS, advancements in care, yet the job was essentially the same. There have been a few written already. They didn’t sell well. There was one exception to this, the marvellous ‘Bringing out the dead’, the only work to ever get inside the darker aspects of the job of a Paramedic. Generally though, people don’t want to read the truth about injury and illness. It just isn’t entertaining or informative.
What about Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War? I have always been interested in that period. I am a member of the Cromwell Association, and I live in East Anglia, so research should be easy. I was forgetting Antonia Fraser. Her definitive biography of the man and his times, as thick as a telephone directory, immaculately researched, and a great read for anyone interested in the subject. No point trying to better that.
Perhaps a crime thriller, drawing on my Police contacts? I remembered the novel ‘By Reason of Insanity’. Probably the best book about a serial killer, and those hunting him, ever written. Then there were the books about forensic detectives, pathologists, or those with a gritty, authentic feel, like the ‘Rebus’ series. Could I do better than all these?

I doubt it.
How about a non-fiction work of importance, say the history of a great city like London? Oops, Peter Ackroyd beat me to that one.
This leaves the fish- out- of- water transition to a strange land, as my best bet. Hang on, am I forgetting Bill Bryson, or ‘A Year in Provence’? My feeble musings on a life in Norfolk are never going to hold a candle to these best sellers.
So, it had to be a well-researched, thought-provoking work about the unhappy lot of the working class in Victorian London. I would start right away. I had the credentials, as I came from the poorest district in South London, Rotherhithe. Nuzzling the south bank of the Thames, this was a place that had changed beyond recognition, from unspeakable slum, it had become a fashionable, dockside development. The docks had closed, and the inhabitants mostly moved away. There had to be some mileage in that surely? No. I had forgotten Charles Dickens, not to mention Mr Ackroyd (again).

My conclusion is that we do not all have a book ‘in us’. Writers and authors have books in them. They get up early, write long and hard. They research, they study, they read other books, and they strive for excellence. They are their own harshest critics, and they give their lives to their work. Families are shunned, homes re-mortgaged, lovers abandoned, luxuries are foregone. They also have good ideas, and act upon them.

The recent meteoric success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and its sequels, fuelled by social media sites on the Internet, is a good example. Written by a lady who waited until she had seen her family grow, and her career aspirations satisfied, she embarked on her trilogy of lust, bondage and dark love. It has probably made her a fortune, and she has the film rights to come as well.
I could have had that idea. I could imagine sex and bondage, vulnerable females, and a dark central character. It can’t be that difficult can it? But I didn’t have the idea, and if I had, I wouldn’t have acted on it. E. L James had the idea, and she did the work necessary to get it into print. She reaps a just reward, good luck to her. That is the difference between writers and readers. If you want to be a writer, you have to act on those ideas, and be prepared to work hard to make them appear on a page. They don’t always have to be new, but they must catch a mood, and be of their time. Just because you did something interesting, doesn’t necessarily make that thing, or you, interesting as well, when translated to the written page.

Keep reading, and enjoy those books. I choose to stop believing that I have a book ‘in me’. I don’t.