I have just finished Lamentation, the sixth novel by C. J. Sansom in the Shardlake* series, a massive 700 page historical mystery and detective story centred on the last year of the reign of the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII from the summer of 1546 until his death in January 1547.

The humanitarian and caring Matthew Shardlake, lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, is once again, unwilling, involved in the murders and religious mayhem that ran rife during Henry’s reign.

The novel begins with the ghastly account of the burning at the stake of Anne Askew, and three other unfortunates in Smithfield, accused of heresy, a charge which Shardlake himself will face later on in the novel, recalling the last time the hunchback lawyer was dragged to the Tower of London for a tortuous questioning.

IMG_0997Without giving too much away, as Henry VIII vacillates between reform and traditionalist religion during the last months of his life, his court is divided between the Catholic and Protestant councillors vying to control Henry’s successor, the eight-year old Prince Edward. Henry’s last wife, the reformist Catherine Parr, formerly Catherine Latimer and the unrequited love interest of the solitary and melancholic sergeant -at-law, enlists his aid as she desperately fends off attacks from within the court and from mysterious and powerful influences in the world outside Whitehall.

As with the previous five Shardlake novels, the multiple plots concern a legal case unconnected with the hunchback lawyer’s involvement with the Tudor courts, something he had previously sworn to avoid. The inevitable conflicts, brought about by intimidation and violence, confirm the determination and bravery of Shardlake, showcasing his conscience and the inevitable consequences in a world of religious and political turmoil.

As always, London itself plays an atmospheric role as Shardlake trudges the dusty and pungent streets and alleyways of the medieval city in his quest to aid the endangered queen and to solve the litigations case between two quarrelling siblings with which he has become embroiled. The authentic background, the rich characterisation, and the wonderful weaving together of plot and historical reality combined with the final, real-politic twist make Lamentation the apotheosis of this sextet of fantastic novels.

Excitingly, C.J. Sansom hints, in the very last pages of the novel, that Shardlake may continue to see further service, but this time, in the service of the future Queen, Elizabeth I. Like many others, no doubt, I hold my breath in anticipation and look forward to a continuing Shardlake saga.

  • See my earlier blog about the first five Shardlake novels in the series

Going back to the Roots

Given that the original reason for this blog thing was to blow my own horn with regard to the book I wrote and self published on Smashwords – and yes, it is still available on Amazon but I have no idea where that money goes as I seem to have failed to set up a banking account with them.  Anyway, never mind, live and learn.  So, to return to origins – this blog thingy was meant to be about my book Raiding Cooley (or Cúailnge, if you prefer) in particular and other writings that I come across, do myself, admire and so on.  In that vein, here is a scene I have been working on recently.  It is going to be part of something much larger and this scene takes place fairly near the start of a much longer story.  Anyway, comments, likes, dislikes, objections, that sort of thing – basically any feedback at all would be most gratefully accepted.  I can’t really give you any more as this is very much part of a work in progress and I might never actually use this scene.  Wonderful, ain’t it!

The Argument

” You ungrateful whelp, you will do as I say,” Calpurnius crashed his gnarled fist down on the polished table, making the goblets jump. “Don’t you understand what this means to us all? Do you think I want to give up all of this?” he shouted, gesturing at the tilled fields stretching from the walls around the villa down the hillside bounded by the blue line of the sea below them.

Maewyn stood up abruptly, pushing his stool back roughly so that it crashed on the mosaic floor. “You can’t make me do this. I don’t care, it’s your job – not mine,” but even as his stomach roiled in fear at this rebellion, he could hear the petulance in his own voice and was ashamed of himself.

Ignoring his mother reproachful looks, he brushed past his father and rushed out of the villa, past the fountain in the vestibule.

His parents’ Pelagian Christianity meant nothing to him and Maewyn looked with youthful scorn upon his father’s attempt to evade his duties as a tax collector and councillor by taking shelter in his relaxed form of religious orders. Certainly he had no intention of assuming his father’s harsh and ruthless role exacting taxes from the local Ordovices people rather than making up the deficit from his own land and slave holdings. Nevertheless, he had to admit that his family’s way of life was comfortable and he enjoyed the respect his father and his father, Potitus, before him had garnered over the years, landowners who had long accepted Roman ways and customs. Their cultured way of life was in sharp contrast to the local Brythonic tribes from whom they exacted the heavy tax that Rome demanded from its provinces and localities. The whole idea of collecting taxes for the Romans was pointless now that the empire was collapsing, Maewyn told himself. Even the legate, Stilicho would be recalled to Rome shortly despite what he had overheard the previous night.

“You know the law” Stilicho had insisted, enjoying the power his position afforded him in Britannia Prima. The Roman was powerfully built with blunt, heavy features, thick dark hair swept back from a broad forehead above a long bulbous nose creased heavily at the bridge. His thin mouth was accentuated by the persistent shadow on his square jaw, despite the ministrations with an obsidian blade. Hard, grey eyes had assessed, understood and despised the fawning attempts of Calpurnius and Conchessa to distract him with a beaker of the dark yellow wine he favoured.

“But you know these raids on the coastal districts make collecting the taxes difficult,” Calpurnius had pleaded. It was true, Goidelic raids were becoming more frequent as Roman power declined in the west and although the last stronghold of the Celts on the island of Mona had been replaced almost three and a half centuries before with a permanently garrisoned fort at Seguntium, the raids had increased in frequency and daring recently. Stilicho, as the newly appointed legate to the western province of Britannia Prima, was keen to lead a retaliatory raid on Hibernia. Broad, muscular shoulders and pale scars on his thick forearms were proof of his military bearing and experience.

“You know the law,” he repeated implacably. “What is not collected must be made up from your own pocket. You can always sell your slaves to raise the necessary portion.”


What makes a book irresistibly good? What type of book garners remarks like “couldn’t put it down”, ” a real page turner” and so on?

Are they character driven, or is it the genre, the plot, the setting, the style, the twist or the originality? All of them, of course and much more as well.

But to find, not only all of the above in a strong, character-driven novel, but also a specific and vivid historical mystery in Tudor times, is a find indeed.

In the Shardlake series of novels by C. J. Sansom both mystery and a historical vividness blend seamlessly in the humanist form of a candid and honest barrister at Lincoln’s Inn during Tudor times. Unwillingly, he finds himself working for Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s first minister, and other members of the court as the massive task of dissolving the monasteries’ grasp on power and land begins. An ardent reformer in his youth, Shardlakes begins to withdraw from the capriciousness and cruelty of the court but finds himself investigating, on Cromwell’s behalf, the murder of a high official at an isolated monastery in the depths of winter.

The six novels in the series (so far) span the reign of Tudor Henry VIII, from the winter of 1537 to the summer of 1546. Tudor England, where Henry has already broken with Rome and assumed the role of Head of Church as well as State, is a dangerous world of fanatical religious reformers, ambitious and jostling informers and unscrupulous and powerful performers and where to speak one’s true thoughts on religion and God could lead to charges of heresy and death by torture and burning.

IMG_0231In Dissolution, the first in the series, Matthew Shardlake, single, a lawyer, a humanitarian and a hunchback, regarded with distrust and fear by most people because of his deformity, reviled but used by the nobility for his intelligence, diligence and ability, is sent to investigate the sacrilegious murder of one of Cromwell’s commissioners in a remote monastery in the midst of a freezing winter. Drawn into a world so completely realized, the actual setting is as palpable as the villians he encounters, Shardlake’s involuntary involvement with the politics of the law and church unravels murders and mayhem. Increasingly disillusioned, he must juggle personal and conflicting ideals, as reforms seep into the kingdom. Emotionally scarred by his brush with politics and greed, Shardlake is determined to withdraw to an ordered and quiet life at Lincoln’s Inn helping those who are most in need of his legal skills.

However, in Dark Fire, the second in the series and, again at Cromwell’s express IMG_0232command, Shardlake, with the help of his new assistant, Jack Barak, must discover the source of a lost secret weapon – Greek Fire – with which Cromwell hopes to regain the king’s favour while at the same time acquiring an apparently hopeless case defending a young girl accused of murdering her own cousin.

Fascinating in both the legal details of the time – “peine et dure” being a case in point – and the seething background of the London scene, Shardlake discovers that in the world of alchemy and greed, nothing is as it seems and avariciousness plays an equal part in the life’s of both the common and noble folk.

IMG_0234Hoping to avoid further contact with the court after Cromwell’s downfall, Shardlake is nevertheless involved on missions for Archbishop Crammer and in Sovereign, he travels with Henry’s court to York on the Great Progress, dealing with legal submissions to the king but also to oversee the welfare of a traitor due to be conveyed to the Tower of London for a torturous interrogation. A seemingly irrelevant murder in York involves the lawyer and his irreverent assistant in a cache of secret documents which undermine the sanctity of the Tudor throne and which brings Shardlake terrifyingly face to face with the torturers in the Tower.

Revelation, the fourth novel, delves into the twisted IMG_0306world of a serial killer – a concept so alien to the ordinary Tudor mind that it arouses fears of witchcraft and sorcery, all the more so when inextricably linked with the prophecies of the biblical Book of Revelations. Taking on the case of an accused heretic, confined within Bedlam insane asylum, Shardlake must navigate the treacherous waters of religious purges while investigating the murder of his best friend linked to the dark prophecies of Revelations.

IMG_0241Heartstone, the penultimate novel in the sextet, sees Shardlake set off for Portsmouth on a private mission for Catherine Parr in the summer of 1545 as Henry prepares the Mary Rose and The Great Harry for a imminent French invasion.

Strong, driven characters, grounded in a specific time or era, essential but often locations are cursorily sketched or taken for granted but not so, in these multi-layered mystery events set in Tudor times. Shardlake, with his modest and unassuming air, a strong moral integrity and a keen interest in using the law to help the downtrodden, is a true renaissance man who grows and develops through constant danger among the shifting thoughts and trends of Tudor politics, a vivid and immediate setting, dealing with bewildering and baffling murders, alien to the beliefs and understandings of the time.

Multiple plot lines weave seamlessly together as characters assume unexpected relationships which reverberate through the stark realities of the Tudor world where being different or out of favour risks cruelty or execution. Shardlake, determined, scrupulous but above all, human must investigate events as feared and misunderstood at the time as terrorist outrages are today.

I’m looking forward to getting my hand on the most recent in the series, Lamentations.







Big Brother’s Younger Sister

The Circle

Some books claim to change your life but then when you pick one up, it seems banal, run-of the-mill but you glean that it is actually giving a real message. So it was with this book – The Circle by Dave Eggers.

Ithe-circle didn’t like it for a lot of reasons (but I did admire the logo) and I couldn’t empathise with the main character, tech worker Mae Holland -who seemed, from my point of view – exasperatingly stupid, naive, foolish or just plain insensitive – and she was (initially, anyway) on the side of the good guys.  Joining a lavish and ever expanding Tech company which provided all the bells and whistles that an aspiring Google or Facebook employee could dream of – free pizza, concerts, parties, saunas, down-time, the latest proto- gadgets, all of which “newbies” like Mae are expected to not only partake of but also to recommend and support. The all-pervasive company began to take over every aspect of Mae’s life, with her lack-lustre willing acceptance.

The “baddies” were just the same but manipulative, faux-caring and determined to dominate. Their use of language irritated me, a meta-language insistence on agreement, even as their ideology is absorbed with a generous helping of sugar as in the Sound of Music song. Statements, directives and implicit orders always ended with something like “do you see the benefits of that?” or “Does that sound interesting / appealing / better?” The never relenting stream of “…, don’t you think?“, the condescending “… sound good?” or the more insistent “…, don’t you agree?” wear the reader down, as they are intended to do.

Set in near or contemporary time, the Circle is a global network linking billions of people sharing and associating with others similar to them, rather like people do on Facebook. Much like Orwell’s Animal Farm, where such aphorisms as “All animals are equal” and “four legs good, two legs bad” take the place of meaning, phrases in The Circle like “secrets are lies,” “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft” illustrate the philosophy of the tech company. One of the innovations of the company is a lightweight, wearable camera allowing everyone to see what the wearer sees, a bit similar, perhaps, to police body cams which monitor the actions of both the police and the suspect. Once the ice is broken by a minor politician wishing to be “transparent” to his constituents, the rush is on for everyone to allow the world to see what they are seeing at all times.

Bit by bit, witless Mae gets sucked deeper and deeper into the folds of the Circle where every aspect of her life, and that of her parents and her friends, is constantly streamed to the world. In a justification for its ever encroaching inroads on privacy, the Circle administration claims that it never extorts citizens to provide their private data – everything was willingly provided by the eager masses clamouring to hand over every aspect of their lives, from what they had for breakfast to photographs and videos of their private and domestic lives.

And then, recently, on the BBC, there was an article on the incredible advances of facial recognition technology which is increasingly used by both governments and corporations to screen and vet everyone within their gambit.

High-definition cameras – measuring such things as the distance between the eyes, the length and width of the nose, along with other “nodal points” on our faces – combine with machine learning algorithms, utilising ever-enlarging databases of videos and photos, available to individuals, organisations and businesses, and to intelligence and law enforcement agencies, sort through this vast store of data to improve security and surveillance and to identity verification for business transactions.

Technological Tools such as FaceSearch, analyse more than 350 aspects of the human face, enabling suspects to be matched to a cloud-based database of more than 15 million “mugshots” while Faception, a middle-eastern “facial profiling” company claims it can determine your personality traits, with an 80% accuracy rate indicating whether you are on a government watch list for terrorism, extortion, paedophilia, or merely an “average Joe”

The Georgetown Law Center for Privacy and Technology claims more than 117 million US adults have their images logged in a facial recognition network of some kind – a trend civil liberties groups describe as “a real and immediate threat” to privacy while New York plans to install facial recognition tech on its bridges and tunnels to scan and identify people driving in and out.

In theory, you could track down a complete stranger you snapped on the bus or train and what price is privacy then?

I remember an Irish movie from the late 90’s – The General – in which Brendan Gleeson the-general
played the role of Martin Cahill, a prominent Irish criminal who gained a certain notoriety in the Dublin media, which referred to him by the sobriquet “The General”. During his relatively short lifetime – he was gunned down at the age of 45 – Cahill took particular care to hide his face from the media by spreading the fingers of one hand across his face. Perhaps that is what we should all do to preserve our increasingly elusive privacy.

The flip side of the coin, however is that while Big Brother and his little sister keep a constant watch on us all, the same applies to organisations and governments world-wide. Increasingly, individuals, armed with a camera concealed in a shirt button, or some other innocuous thing, can challenge the power of a brutal and despotic regime, by filming human rights abuses by soldiers, militia groups and corrupt officials. Just as cameras – think the multinova traffic speed cameras – can inhibit anti-social behaviour, the same goes for the governments as well as those governed. Let’s hope so, anyway.


I haven’t done an audio recording of Raiding Cooley for a while – and it would feel a bit too strange to do a video recording of me reading, so I think I’ll give that a miss for now.

Anyway, trying to decide what to read – whether to begin at the beginning or just pick a point at random, like I’ve done before.

OK, the very, very, very beginning.

The Prologue outlines the reasons why the Triple Goddess of War cursed the warriors of the Ulaidh Kingdom in Celtic Ireland, thereby setting the scene for the future consequences of the curse, and, incidentally, the beginning of the story proper, about 450 years later. Imperial Rome is still occupied with subduing the Celts in Gaul and Teutonics in northern Rhineland in 57 BCE but Caesar is already planning the first invasion of Britain. Ireland, while sharing extensive linguistic, cultural and extensive trade links with both Britain and Europe, remains a land of mystery, remote from Roman rule.

Memory of a Childhood Christmas in Ireland

Christmas has always remained in my memory, I suppose because it was such a magical and loving time. For weeks before Christmas, food preparation was in full swing. Mummy would set about making the gigantic Christmas cake and three dozen mince pies. Daddy would spend every spare moment in the Golf Club trying to win a turkey or a special Christmas hamper. Stockpiling of foods and drinks would begin. Large brown glass flagons of Bulmer’s Cidona would be stored on the floor in the pantry under the stairs, green bottles of 7-Up would be bought for the “chiselers” while mummy would always have to remind daddy to pick up a bottle of A Winter’s Tale Sherry for granny. My father would receive gifts of bottles of Jameson whiskey and Cork CDC gin and every year we would be given a box of strongly smelling coal tar soap from McCormack’s Coal Merchants near the old west pier. I never thought to ask why we received these gifts from people I had never seen; it was just the way it was.

The Christmas tree would be bought a few days after my older brother’s birthday on December 15. Usually, we would get it from Davis’ shop around the corner of Temple Hill but sometimes we bought it from the narrow little shop with the two high stone steps leading up to it down in Monkstown, near the roundabout. It was always my job to find the Christmas tree stand, a hollow iron tube with three supporting scroll-like legs. Then the bole of the tree would have to be whittled down, by my brother with the small hatchet, out in the back garden, to fit into the tube or, if the bole was too thin, it would be wedged into place with old magazines.

Christmas decorations would be taken down from the attic above the bathtub and my brother would be needed to climb up there. My father would test the two sets of Christmas lights, the wires still wrapped around a rolled up magazine from the previous year. Invariably some of the bulbs of the Disney decorated lights in their old-fashioned egg-cup-sized plastic shades would need replacing, as would a few of the elegantly shaped plain coloured lights.

Orders for the ham and the turkey and a peculiar, gritty, brown spiced beef would be placed with Farren’s down in Blackrock or sometimes further down the Main Street at Grehan’s the butcher, with its old worn wooden chopping blocks and the sawdust liberally sprinkled on the tiled floor. The Galtee rashers and Hafner’s sausages and black and white pudding, and the kidneys would, of course, be bought up in Rheinhart’s or Hicks in Dun Laoghaire. My mother never did all her shopping in any one shop or supermarket, but would distribute her trade among a dazzling variety of places in both Blackrock and Dun Laoghaire which always made going shopping with her an exhausting business. God help you, if she sent you out alone with two pound notes wrapped up in a shopping list and you bought everything in one of the new supermarkets coming on stream then at that time in Dublin!

Christmas Eve followed a routine. Twice the amount of potatoes – half for mash and the other half to be roasted with the turkey – had to be peeled and left standing overnight in a large pot of cold water out in the scullery. The fires had to be set, but not lit, in the drawing room and in the dining room. The mahogany table in the dining room had to be dusted with Johnson and Johnson wax polish before one of the “good” linen, lacy tablecloths was put on. Then the heavy, gilt-edged place mats would be placed around the table for the six of us while the heavy box of silverware cutlery had to be pulled out from under the sideboard and every piece polished along with the silver table candelabra and the silver sauceboats. Then, they all had to be washed in hot water and dried carefully to prevent watermarks forming. Usually my sisters would have to attend to all of that while my brother and I were in charge of the potatoes and last minute urgent messages up or down to the shops. Everything always had a sense of urgency about it which all added to the Christmas thrill.

Short quarrels would break out among my two sisters and brother -all older than me – waiting impatiently for their turn in the one bathroom, one or other of them impatiently opening the door of the kitchen cupboard and feeling the huge copper tank of the old hot-water immersion heater and complaining that the other was using all the hot water. I was always the last to get my bath as I wasn’t going anywhere on Christmas Eve.
Instead, mummy would give me one of daddy’s or my brother’s, rugby socks and I would pin it up on the wooden mantelpiece in the drawing room beside my sister’s stocking, the elder two siblings too old for that kind of thing. A small tray, with a home-made mince pie, a bottle of Guinness Stout and a small glass of whiskey on it, had to be prepared and left out for the imminent arrival of Santa later that evening

Then, sitting excitedly in the kitchen, watching Bonanza on TV while my mother made last minute, endless preparations and my father sat by himself at the card table playing intricate games of Patience and Solitaire while he waited for my mother to finish whatever she was doing so that they could play their nightly game of gin rummy.

I’d twitch aside the kitchen window curtain sometimes to spot Santa on his sleigh or, even more magical, to see the snow swirling down in the orange glow of the street lights along Monkstown Road.

Up early the next morning, vague memories of my brother sitting on the edge of the bed the previous night, smoking a forbidden cigarette before flicking the butt out the window into the rhododendrons below. My father would shake us awake in the cold darkness by 6:45a.m. but no complaining was allowed on Christmas morning. Waiting downstairs in the hall for my mother, who was invariably the last to come down the stairs, I would just have time to peek into the closed drawing room to ensure that Santa had actually come in the middle of the night, appreciated the thoughtful offerings and that my stocking was bulging.

Then the brisk walk, led by my father, down to the church in Blackrock for the 7:30 mass. Numbed by the cold and the eerie quietness of the hour, our breath hanging in the still air, the church was alive with whispers and murmurs, the altar ablaze with candles and flowers, the air thick with the smell of incense, the priests resplendent in their heavy, embroidered robes, solemnity on everyone’s face, Children, smaller than me, unable to restrain themselves, squirming in the hard wooden pews whispering “Is it over yet? is it nearly over yet?”. The long, tortuously slow, queue for communion, people edging in and out of their pews while we waited our turn and then finally the priest would intone “The Mass is over, Go in peace” to which the congregation would respectfully reply “Thanks be to God”!

It would take an age to shuffle out of the church, dipping the tips of our fingers into the freezing holy-water fount in the vestibule and then stepping out into the cold still dark air, greeting well-wishing neighbours and relatives before heading back home, up Temple Hill, the excitement mounting for the day ahead.

Hats and coats off and put upstairs in the bed rooms to leave room in the pantry for visitors coats and scarves, but still no time for present opening, and then mummy would disappear upstairs to do her hair while my father took charge of the scullery, a linen dish cloth tucked into the front of his trousers, his collarless shirt open at the neck. The large kettle would be put on for tea while I would finish setting the breakfast table in the kitchen. Halved chilled grapefruit, each segment carefully loosened with a serrated paring knife, sweetened with a dusting of castor sugar, a red cherry in the centre, would be placed in glass bowls and put at each place setting. Daddy would light the oven and start the massive fry of bacon and sausages, eggs, black and white pudding, mushrooms, kidney, sliced tomatoes, the lot kept warm in the hot oven, the day outside slowly brightening. Waiting for mummy, my father would impatiently jerk open the kitchen door and go out into the hall to shout up the stairs to his wife “Shall I take the mea?” This was a common spoonerism, along with “Shall I take the most” that we all understood but which only served to irritate my mother who never understood what he was saying but who never failed to respond. She’d open the bathroom door and demand to know what was he talking about.

Finally breakfast, and with a flourish, daddy would serve us all, mummy snapping “mats, mats, mats” for the plates, red hot to incautious fingers. Cups of hot tea, Yorkshire Relish liberally sprinkled on the fry, runny egg yolks mopped up with crisp fried bread. As soon as breakfast was over, everyone had a job to do. Someone had to do the washing up, someone else had to dry and put away everything, then the two fires in the drawing and dining rooms had to be lit, ice put in the plastic pineapple ice bucket on the trolley in the dining room along with the ginger ale (for the whiskey), tonic water and the Mi-Wadi orange squash (for the gin). Then glasses and tumblers needed to be laid out on the sideboard and the oven in the scullery turned on to preheat for the turkey. The ham had to be taken out of the water in which it had been steeping overnight and rinsed in cold, fresh water and then put on to cook gently, steaming up the windows in the scullery.

Daddy commandeered the bathroom to shave, affix his collar to his starched white shirt and Brylcreme his hair, while mummy closed herself up in her bedroom to, yet again, get ready. Last minute ironing of pleated skirts would be carried out by my eldest sister, while my brother and I would wrestle with starched new shirts. Someone would be pounding on the toilet door, mixing accusations of whoever was inside of reading to desperate pleading that they were “bursting” and all the time, the pressure and excitement continued to mount among the increasing bustle of our Christmas morning.

To release some of this pressure – and to keep me from under their feet – my sister and I were now allowed to open the Christmas stocking presents, but on no account to touch the brightly wrapped packages and parcels under the Christmas tree by the drawing room window. Cheap, wind-up toys, made in Hong Kong, and bought in Hector Grey’s, off Henry Street in Dublin, Dinky and Matchbox cars, plastic bracelets, hard sweets and Urney chocolate bars barely dented our fierce anticipation.

No presents could be opened until we were all assembled in the drawing room and the turkey had finally been put into the oven. A week or so before Christmas, Daddy had given me a few pounds to buy presents for my brother and sisters well as giving me a present – usually a heavy brass figurine – to give to mummy. Now, sitting on the couch in the drawing room, the heat from the fire, the twinkling of the Christmas tree lights, the chocolate already eaten on top of the huge breakfast, the imminence of present giving made me almost sick with excitement. Not only were there the presents from mummy and daddy, but also from my sisters and brother, granny, my Godmother, and from different aunts and uncles. In addition, there were also the communal presents of large tins of Quality Street sweets and flat tins of Butter Shortbread.

And then mummy would finally come down the stairs and daddy would insist on her having a small whiskey and ginger before anything else could be done. At last, reaching under the tree, he would lift up the first present and make a great show of squinting at the label on it before reading out loud the gift card sellotaped to it. The frantic tearing off the paper to reveal jig-saws, Mechano sets, Lego, storybooks, Christmas Annuals of The Beano and other popular comics, The Guinness Book of World Records, sets of cuff-links for my brother, Switzer’s vouchers for my sisters, torches with coloured plastic overlays, board games of Cluedo and Checkers, new shirts, fleece-lined pyjamas. The big moment, of course was when daddy gave his present to mummy. We all knew that the success of that particular gift would make or break our Christmas Day. There would be an involuntary silence while daddy would present a carefully wrapped package to her. Sometimes it would be a large flat package which, when opened, would reveal another smaller one inside that and so on until finally Mummy, with a great show of exasperation, would demand to know was she getting anything at all.

Looking back now, I can’t remember the hits and misses that must have occurred over the years. I do remember the elegant bracelet, each slender, oblong green stone encased in fine gold links and the looks of joy and happiness that passed among us all. And then, “Cripes, the turkey”, daddy would shout and rush off to the kitchen to baste the slowly roasting turkey with hot oil.

My sister gave daddy one of the first small, pocket electronic calculators I had ever seen and we amused ourselves by calling out involved sums to daddy which he would do in his head faster than our clumsy fingers could tap the numbers into the display. “Bloody thing!” he’d claim, proudly “Sure, can’t I do all of that stuff in my own noggin just as well?” Months later, I noticed that he always kept it in the breast pocket of his suit for ease of constant access!

By 12 noon, the first visitors arrived. We didn’t have a car, so we never went anywhere on Christmas Day. Instead, uncles and aunts, cousins and neighbours would drop in for Christmas drinks and to exchange presents, if they hadn’t already dropped them off in the days preceding Christmas. “How art thou?” mummy would archly greet the menfolk. Granny, in her high heeled, black, buttoned boots, diminutive in an armchair, clutching her glass of Winter’s Tale, a morose aunt in a coat with a fur-trimmed collar, sipping a small whiskey and ginger, a jocular uncle in a mustard coloured waistcoat, his hands tucked under the flap of his loud check jacket, warming his backside at the fire, a large gin and tonic on the mantelpiece beside him, a thickset uncle, reminding me a badger, a white streak in his thick head of hair, a twinkle in his eye belying the severity of his look, cuddly aunts, smelling of perfume and sherry, the sweet tang of pipe tobacco, the roars of cousins racing up and down the hallway and stairs, a tall uncle with a beaky nose coming out into the hallway to bellow “Shout quietly, or I’ll knock the block off the lot of you” before helping himself to another whiskey in the dining room.

Just as suddenly as they had all come, they were gone and the job of picking up the torn wrapping paper – mummy always wanted to save it while daddy would order me to throw “the bloody lot out, for cryin’ out loud”.

On the second basting of the turkey, daddy managed to splash his wrist with the hot oil and an enormous, painful blister immediately developed. I was amazed at his stoicism until I overheard my brother whisper to my sister that he was fluthered. The kitchen – the heart of the house – was unnaturally quiet and empty, the smell of the roasting turkey and the gently cooking ham and spiced beef flavouring the room. As suddenly as the bustle had begun, quiet descended with mummy and daddy going upstairs for a snooze, after giving strict instructions about putting on the potatoes and preparing the vegetables for a late dinner at 5:30 or so.

A second round of visitors would arrive then for my older brothers and sisters. The drawing room would fill with the smell of cigarette smoke, bottles of Smithwicks beer and Harp Lager would appear. I sat, half hidden, at the top of the stairs, peeping down at my sister kissing a tall, dark, saturnine boy in the hall under the mistletoe while I nibbled home made traditional mince pies.

The dining room table had to be checked, fresh mustard made in a tiny blue dish which sat inside its own silver pot. My brother would carefully open a bottle of red wine for my parents and make sure that there was enough white wine in the fridge. No shortages of anything could be tolerated on Christmas Day

Mummy and daddy would come downstairs, looking refreshed after their afternoon snooze and my father would carefully stoke up the fire in the drawing room so that there would be a good blaze there when we returned after dinner. Mummy would cautiously stir her home-made parsnip soup and adjust the season while daddy would have another small whiskey before dinner to take the edge off his appetitie (he used to claim) so that he could enjoy the dinner the more!

Then, when we were all ready and set, the lights would be dimmed, the candles lit and mummy and my sisters would start carrying in the food from the kitchen. Turkey on a huge oval platter decorated with sprigs of holly, crisp roast potatoes in a bowl of their own, creamy, fluffy mashed potatoes with a glaze of brown sugar in another, moist Brussel sprouts adding colour to the carrots cooked with honey and brown sugar, peas glistening with melted butter, the round Irish ham studded with cloves, spiced beef, pink and rare in the centre, crusty and brown around the edges, candlelight glinting off daddy’s precious Waterford crystal glasses, our plates loaded with everything we desired, and always plenty more to come. When we could eat no more and the dinner plates had been cleared away, the candles blown out, my brother and mummy disappeared back to the kitchen to reappear with the plum pudding on its special Christmas plate. My brother had carefully poured a small glass of brandy over the pudding and just as mummy carried it into the dining room, he would light it with a match so that the round hump of the pudding was wreathed in exquisite blue flames as the liquor burnt off. Of course we were all far too stuffed – had sufficient, mummy would attempt to get us to say – to even attempt a serving so the pudding, after being admired by all was carried back to the kitchen and stored for the following Easter! Instead, the fruit and sherry trifle would be carried in by my sister. A light sponge base, doused in sweet sherry and loaded with fruit suspended in jelly topped with fresh, whipped cream, we could always find room for a few spoonfuls. Daddy would make the coffee in the rarely used percolator and allow us all to have a tiny glass of liqueur – coffee-flavoured Tia Maria, honey infused firey Drambuie, or the sweet orangeness of Cointreau.

The tedious task of clearing the table and washing all the plates, bowls, dishes, cups, silverware and glasses was divided up amongst us all. Once again, everybody had a job to do, picking up and tidying because, as mummy used to say, ”You’d never know what dog, cat or divill might drop in on top of us.”

Back from the chill of the unheated kitchen and scullery and into the warmth of the drawing room where the flames were just beginning to lick through the coal slack daddy had heaped on the fire before dinner. A fresh tea-towel would be laid on the low coffee table and the Christmas game of poker would begin. Almost a rite of passage, it was not a game I was allowed to play as a child. Daddy took poker seriously and showed no mercy to mummy or anyone else as he bluffed, raised or bet. Woe betide anyone who mis-called their hand of cards. I remember, sitting on the arm of his armchair, when someone, in an attempt to theatrically raise the tension of a winning hand, called out their opener as two pair when fours were actually held. Daddy insisted on enforcing strict rules and a declared hand was entitled to that value only. Tears and apologies were brushed aside and no quarter was given in a cut and thrust game of family friendly poker. “Sure, if you can’t afford to lose the money, you shouldn’t be playing the game in the first place” was daddy’s hard maxim. Looking back now, I see it as an attempt to prepare us all for the harsh realities that we might well face outside the security of our own family. Hard lessons were learned by us all but, for us all, it was still a part of Christmas.

Exhausted by the excitement of the long day, sated with rich food, bloated with fizzy apple Cidona and Seven-Up, giddy from the strength of the liqueur, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open as the carriage clock on the drawing room mantelpiece ticked away the minutes remaining on Christmas day. Gathering up my books and games and toys, the Airfix models sets, the Mechano, Lego boxes, coloured-light torches, teddy bears, the new shirts still in their cardboard boxes, I often needed a strong extra arm to help me upstairs to bed. And then the pleasure of finding, last thing of all, that someone had remembered to put a hot-water bottle into my bed. Drifting off into warm sleep, my last thought would be that the next day would be just as good

The Gift of Rain

I’ve just – sadly – finished a novel and, you know, sometimes within the first page that what you are going to read will be exceptional. It might be the evocation of a familiar setting, a specific time or place, the sharp delineation of a character, the nostalgia of a mood or scene or the beauty of the imagery clarifying a picture or a dozen other details but you know you have found one of those rare novels that hooks you immediately. In my case it was the imagery in the following sentence “” I could almost hear the chimes themselves and see the dust motes in the ray of sunshine filtering through wooden shutters into darkened, silent rooms.

So it was with A Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, a taut, gripping story and a deep look into the darker sides of loyalty, honour and family and what those bonds involve, when placed under intense and conflicting pressures.

51vjpzwval-_ac_us160_Set in Penang, a former British bastion akin to Singapore, Hong Kong and Rangoon, several years before and during the Japanese invasion of Malaya and told by the elderly Phillip Khoo-Hutton to distract a surprise guest from her physical pain. The scion of a rich British merchant and a powerful Chinese family, Philip never felt he fully belonged to either culture and as tries to explain his relationship with the figure that has dominated his life and deeply impacted too on the life of his visitor he finds he may seek absolution from his guest in exchange for the honesty of his relationship with his mentor.

Images and similes are used beautifully to capture a precise moment in time as in “The sea sighed each time a wave collapsed on the shore line like a long-distance runner at the finishing line….. the waves roll to the shore with the detachment of a monk unfurling a scroll.”

Faced with differing cultures and ideas, Philip is gradually made aware of the importance of ancestry and loyalty to family but it is with his mysterious mentor that Philip experiences a rare and fleeting moment of intense lucidity.

“He had betrayed my innocence but at the same time had replaced it with knowledge and strength and love”

But that had never been enough to quieten the internal conflict his betrayal of all sides, the Japanese and the inhabitants of Penang, his homeland, had caused. Stung by his father’s accusations, Philip convinces himself that he is acting from a higher principle in line with his new understanding of family and ancestry and his duty to protect them at all costs.

Nevertheless, his suffering and pain in this confessional remembering of the paths he followed, remain and he endures now in the vain hope that he will re-experience the joy he once felt in those tumultuous times.

A fantastic read.