A tale worth telling: The Siege Of Loyalty House is a beautifully written and lucid account of an extraordinary episode of the English Civil War

The Siege Of Loyalty House: A Civil War Story

Jessie Childs                                                                                        Bodley Head £25

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Basing House today is a semi-circle of grassy lumps and an enigmatic and shabby brick wall. Yet its neglected tale is well worth telling, as Jessie Childs shows in her compellingly readable book.

Basing House – or Loyalty House, as it became known – was one of the largest and longest-lasting strongholds held for the King and his allies against the armies of Parliament during the English Civil War.

To it fled actors, printmakers, astrologers, writers, artists, musicians – a metropolitan elite, if you will – who had served the court and could imagine no other life. They managed, with armed help, to hold off two major assaults.

Oliver Cromwell’s (above) men had been spurred on by the promise of supplies and plunder, and also by the relentless demonisation of the defenders

If these are just words to you, reading this book will help them come alive. As well as the strongly Catholic lord of this particular manor, accustomed to playing chess with the King, we meet a wide range of people who simply wanted to live their lives.

They are an engaging crew, who found themselves besieged by a fanatical and unrepresentative minority who shouted loudest.

If the Parliamentarians look a bit repulsive here, the more romantic Royalists look amateurish and incompetent. No plans had been made on the Royalist side for the slow torment of defeat.

The Royalists had confidently expected to destroy the New Model Army in the field, not because God was on the side of the Anglicans, but because it was assumed that the army was staffed entirely by scum.

However, the scum were motivated, fanatical and organised.

The Battle of Naseby (above) in 1645 was an enormous defeat for the Royalist army and survivors trickled into Basing House in Hampshire

Childs does not explain just how extraordinarily they were organised, but the main factor was probably promotion on merit rather than the previous system of giving the job of command to the person of highest social rank.

Who knew that such a thing could work?

It worked a treat at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, and the result was an enormous defeat for the Royalist army. Survivors trickled into Basing House in Hampshire.

The attempt to turn it into a stronghold to be held not just for the King himself – who never went there – but for his fleeing supporters as the siege lines around Oxford, the Royalist capital, collapsed was haphazard and belated.

The more people arrived, the more difficult supplies became. Non-combatants ate the food, and disheartened and discouraged the soldiers.

Against Oliver Cromwell’s cannonade, women and children threw stones or dropped melted pitch from the walls. Cromwell’s men had been spurred on by the promise of supplies and plunder, and also by the relentless demonisation of the defenders.

To 21st Century readers, the defenders – a collection of colourful characters – don’t look especially demonic. They are a little like the Wild Wood dwellers in The Wind In The Willows: fierce outsiders, understanding the rule of loyalty rather than law.

Among them was the governor of the garrison, Marmaduke Rawdon, who adopted a stoat as his personal badge. Stoats are ferocious predators but it was also believed that a stoat would rather die than besmirch its beautiful white fur.

Then there was the owner of the house, the Marquess of Winchester and his second wife, Honora, who had initially wanted to marry the attractive-sounding Randal MacDonnell, a handsome man with red hair who was the grandson of the Irish rebel Tyrone.

At 19, she had been written off as a failure on the marriage market, even though she was beautiful, and the granddaughter of Francis Walsingham, the great spymaster of Elizabethan England.

Her mother had briefly been married to the poet Sir Philip Sidney, and after that, to the Earl of Essex, favourite of Elizabeth I, so Honora knew all about the power of Monarchy on the private lives of the aristocracy.

She also knew about the price of religious allegiance. Her mother converted to Catholicism, inspiring bitter laughter among the Catholics persecuted by Walsingham.

How could people withstand the experience of living inside such a brutal conflict, beginning to starve and fall prey to disease as the cannons fired again and again?

Childs admits that we cannot always know, but she does a splendid job of portraying the trauma of being forced together into a tiny space that is all that’s left of a life.

When the house fell, the furious besiegers attacked the remaining defenders. The artist Inigo Jones was stripped to the skin, and those without any transferable wealth were slaughtered.

It makes for harrowing reading. Perhaps that is why this part of British history is less well known to most than it deserves to be. This beautifully written and lucid account of a single extraordinary episode sets out to change that.

 

So Help Me Golf: Why We Love The Game

Rick Reilly                                                                                                Headline £18.99

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Much of golf journalism is samey and so-so.

A weary loop of the usual subjects just tarted up and booted back out the door. Endless drills and tips; tournament write-ups of the Any-Brand-Goes-Here Ho-Hum Classic; plodding interviews with a succession of slim-bodied, yet strangely chubby-faced, US Tour pros.

Not forgetting entirely forgettable essays and opinion pieces.

Much of golf journalism is samey and so-so but American sports writer Rick Reilly is the glorious exception to all this

American sports writer Rick Reilly is the glorious exception to all this. When he wants to tell you something golfy, it’s because he knows you’re ‘gonna’ love it.

He is clearly smitten by the game and has become its biggest cheerleader, drinking it in from all angles and snuffling out priceless golfing truffles wherever his nose for a story takes him. 

 Anything to do with golf, big or small, sparks his curiosity. No doubt he’s writing a rollicking essay on ball-washers even as I write.

This book is Reilly’s heartfelt ode to the game: a bulging collection of sharp and snappy snippets. True tales and personal takes on anything and everything. And while it’s all about golf, it’s not really.

The author likes people even more, so many of the pieces here are really about the things that people do. Some of which will touch you in ways you don’t see coming.

His usual wit and charm is in abundance, but what actually keeps you turning is just how fascinating, informative and revealing it all is.

Highlights include the pro who robbed banks between tournaments, the astronaut who played golf on the Moon, the man on his third heart who nearly won the US Open, the player who hugged the fan who cost him victory, the 18 most unforgettable holes in the world, golf in PoW camps, and how Tiger Woods is allergic to grass.

Reilly’s previous book was Commander In Cheat, a nose-holding dive into Donald Trump’s golfing lies and disgraces.

It’s entirely possible that Reilly felt compelled to write immediately this entertaining and feelgood follow-up to help restore our faith in humanity and the game itself. If so, he has succeeded in rare style.

Richard Russell  

Crickonomics

Stefan Szymanski and Tim Wigmore                 Bloomsbury Sport £18.99

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In his autobiography, the inter-war cricketer Fred Root assured his readers that ‘there are no tedious statistics here, for averages are an abomination to real cricket’.

A dangerous comment to quote verbatim in a book about cricketing number-crunching. Yet it speaks volumes about the confidence the authors have in their brief that they happily include Root’s pronouncement in their narrative.

The summer game has always had an ambivalent relationship to facts and figures, with devotees poring endlessly over runs, wickets and averages, while simultaneously stressing the game’s unquantifiable beauty and grace.

Crickonomics attempts to marry cricket’s facts and figures with its unquantifiable beauty and grace – and will leave the most ardent cricket geek purring with pleasure

Crickonomics attempts to marry the two by using data to unlock the hard facts behind the sport in the 21st Century. The authors analyse some unexamined (and occasionally unasked-for) conundrums of the modern game.

Why do batters get paid more than bowlers, why has the women’s game been a catalyst for innovation, and does the weather – or even the presence of the (in)famous Barmy Army – really affect who wins?

The answer to this last question reveals the harsh realities of sporting economics.

England overseas tours nowadays generate huge crowds of travelling English fans, resulting in cash-strapped host nations such as the West Indies and South Africa consulting the once renegade ‘Barmies’ on both preferred dates and venues before cementing itineraries in order to maximise tourist revenue.

But by far the most important change, the authors agree, is the rise of Indian franchise cricket.

The Indian Premier League model, in which specially created ‘city’ teams compete against each other, has unlocked vast new revenue streams via advertising and TV rights.

No wonder the centre of power has lurched from Lord’s to Dubai and New Delhi.

Szymanski and Wigmore also chronicle how the Russian invasion of Afghanistan resulted in countries such as Germany, which took in a quarter of a million Afghan refugees, becoming burgeoning cricketing nations in a way unimaginable even 30 years ago.

For anyone fascinated by the intricacies of the Duckworth-Lewis method, Crickonomics is packed with sufficient statistical analysis to have the most ardent cricket geek purring with pleasure.

Michael Simkins

 

Burning Steel

Peter Hart                                                                                             Profile Books £25

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Peter Hart was the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum for nearly 40 years, and this fascinating account of one tank regiment’s experiences during the Second World War has been compiled mostly from testimonies given by surviving veterans.

The regiment was the second Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (2nd F&FY), a traditional territorial unit that largely managed to retain its Scottish character despite a later influx of recruits from south of the border.

It was composed, in Hart’s words, of ‘ordinary men, performing extraordinary deeds, in a noble cause’.

What Hart has done superbly is to weave their many voices into one seamless narrative, letting the men speak for themselves and imposing his own commentary with the lightest of touches.

Individual voices emerge distinctly and the reader comes away with a vivid sense of what it was really like to serve at the sharp end of war.

The regiment spent long years training and didn’t get into action until June 1944, but thereafter it was constantly engaged until the war’s end.

The first battles in Normandy were the most gruelling, and it was a shock for the men to discover that their Sherman tanks were both undergunned and horribly vulnerable.

Poor design meant that a hit on a Sherman almost invariably set it on fire, and many men were burned to death in hideous circumstances.

The book conveys in sobering detail the relentless grind of modern warfare: bursts of intense, lethal action, followed by periods of tedious waiting, both extremes usually accompanied by lousy food and few creature comforts.

‘Tiredness was the daily ration,’ stated William Steel Brownlie, probably the regiment’s most effective troop commander.

But the horrors notwithstanding, once it was over, many men found it hard to adjust to civilian life. ‘We missed the camaraderie, the comradeship we’d got used to,’ said Trooper Len Newman.

You get the feeling that they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Simon Griffith

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