Out now in paperback: The Favourite

The Favourite, my book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Ralegh, is now out in paperback through Constable. The new edition includes a lengthy afterword taking the story through to the end of Ralegh’s life in 1618.

‘The Favourite is wonderful. Elegant and intriguing – a seductive portrait of a fascinating relationship. I couldn’t put it down.’
Helen Castor, author of She-Wolves and Blood and Roses. Helen also chose The Favourite as one of her books of 2011 in The Telegraph.

‘It is a compelling and beguiling read, full of little known details for the general reader. Like Ralegh himself, Lyons has a magical turn of phrase that compels the reader to turn the pages to find out what happens next…’
Susan Ronald, author of Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire

‘Stunningly researched, The Favourite pulses with the lethal intrigues of the Elizabethan court. Above and apart stands Ralegh, the adventurer who wanted to give his queen a new world. A moving portrait of two fiercely independent individuals and their intimate, secret bond.’
Barbara Kyle, author of The Queen’s Lady

‘Impeccably researched book by a real enthusiast for the subject, revealing the true story behind the relationship between Elizabeth I and the great Sir Walter Ralegh.’
Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

‘A beautifully-written, imaginative volume (and the prose really is superb)… very entertaining, eminently readable.’
Jonathan Wright, Herald Scotland

‘The Favourite offers an intriguing and perceptive understanding of a relationship that continues to fascinate down the centuries.’
Lucinda Byatt, Historical Novels Review

‘A vivid picture of the glitter and hazards at court, with its jealousies and intrigues.’
East Anglia Daily Times

The Favourite was also selected as a History Today summer read by historian Linda Porter.

The Favourite is available from Amazon, Waterstones and all good bookshops.

The What’s A Book Worth Campaign

As anyone who is following me on Twitter will likely know, I have just started a social media campaign called #WhatsABookWorth.

I had the idea at a forum called Did Anybody Ask The Author?, run by author and life-coach John-Paul Flintoff. The event was a day-long brainstorming session involving some thirty authors and publishers which explored ways to improve the business of publishing for authors.

I imagine we all went into it with particular bugbears. Mine is around the perceived value of books. Or rather, the gap between what we as readers know to be the immeasurable human value of books to us, and their “real” monetary value in the marketplace.

Part of this is the downward pressure on book prices from Amazon, a company which funds its low prices through tax avoidance, business practices that come close to extortion, and the willingness of Wall Street to allow it access to finance without the irksome necessity of delivering profits.

Plus, of course, as an aspiring publisher and the key driver of the e-book economy, Amazon has a vested interest in destroying the economic viability of the book trade.

Publishers have played their part too. In fact, the ongoing betrayal of the high-street retail book trade by the publishing industry is one of the more shocking and depressing parts of the affair.

But, more generally, publishing has proven itself unwilling or unable to say anything of any meaning with regard to the price and value of the things they produce.

The reality is that a book represents extraordinary value – and extraordinary value for money. You can buy a book for around the same as a couple of cups of Starbucks, or a couple of drinks, a couple of magazines, a couple of Big Mac meals, and so on, and so on.

For the cost of a disposable moment a book gives you something that will live with you forever.

In marketing parlance, books are the ultimate low-cost premium product. But who ever says that?

For publishers, pretty much all marketing is trade marketing. Money is only directed at driving sales for a particular product – the new Harper Lee, for example – not to support the category itself.

Which wouldn’t matter if the ecosystem of the category wasn’t being eaten away from inside and out.

So, to return to where I began, I was talking about all of this with John-Paul and Dan Kieran of Unbound, who was also at the event. Dan was talking about how much his life had been changed by reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and we agreed we should all talk more about the capacity of a book to influence and change and inhabit our lives.

Hence this campaign. You can read about it here, and join in here on Facebook and here on Twitter.

I simply cannot imagine my life without books – fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. Characters, events, places, turns of phrase – real or imagined – people my own experience and imagination so thoroughly that to erase them would be to black out the sun.

The words of men and women I will never meet – long-dead and living – evoke and articulate my own joys and sorrows, losses and loves, with a sharpness that is so human and alive the recognition and sense of fellow-feeling that comes from acknowledging that fact is vivid to the point of pain.

A book is a conversation with the author, with the past, with the present, with oneself. We walk among the words and they walk among us, in us and between us.

A book is a magical thing. We fail to treasure and celebrate them at our peril.

If you’re reading this, you probably agree. Come and join us.


NB It is perfectly true that the same problems currently bedevil other kinds of art – most obviously music. If anyone wanted to start a #WhatsASongWorth campaign, say, they would have my blessing and support!



The LRB, Twitter and Craig Raine’s ‘Gatwick’

June 3rd was a strange day on Twitter. For most of it, a living poet was trending.

Unfortunately for Craig Raine, the poet in question, he was trending because a long poem of his entitled ‘Gatwick’ had appeared in the LRB and Twitter didn’t like it.

Most comments ranged from amused contempt to, well, just plain old contempt. But it wasn’t only angry feminists, as some suggested, who leapt into action. Indeed, I saw much more ridicule than anger. Many of us were merely enjoying mocking what is by no means a good poem.

Which is the point, really. Certainly there is no shortage of bad poetry in the world. I have written some of it myself. But most of it doesn’t end up in the LRB.

For those who haven’t read the poem, it falls into three sections. The first comprises just two lines, name-drops Tom Stoppard for no apparent reason, and rhymes “Gatwick” with “sick”. The second muses on an encounter at immigration control between Raine and a young woman with an MA in English poetry who Raine is delighted to find recognises him. The third involves Raine eyeing up a young Swedish woman on the bus. He notes her trainers, the size of her breasts – they are big and he likes them that way – the moles on her face, and the likelihood of her inheriting her mother’s hips.

The ‘old man looking longingly at a young woman’ genre is a well-established one but Raine adds little to it. Some of the writing has a distinct EJ Thribbish quality. One stanza in its entirety runs: “I want to say, hey / I like your moles.”

Some of it is worse.

“She glances, she frowns
she turns it upside down
so it can be read by a machine.
She stares at a screen.”

Raine made his reputation in the 1970s with poetry of acute observation and inventive, even outlandish metaphor. There is precious little of that energy here. He is nothing if not a cerebral writer, but artful banality is still banality. And sadly it is not just the writing that is banal, but also the thought. The point of the poem seems to be that Raine, as a poet and and old man to boot, can say things in writing that ordinary people would think inappropriate to say in real life.

But what does he actually have to say that is worth breaching that taboo? The things that might be interesting about these encounters – a poetry graduate working in border control, how it feels to be confronted with the beauty of youth in old age, how both propriety and time guard the borders between the young and the elderly – go unexplored.

Rather, he seems to be straying into the territory of the pensioner who feels their age entitles them to share their opinions of you and your children whether you wish to hear them or not.

But at least Raine has got people discussing poetry. If for nothing else, he is to be commended for that.


Please note that this piece first appeared in The Spectator online.

History Today column: Taking history out into the world

My eyes were caught the other week by a news story in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, which reported an interview with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Defending his country against accusations of anti-semitism, Zarif cited, among other things, the role of Cyrus the Great, who led Persia in the mid-sixth century BC, in rescuing the Jewish people from Babylon.

It’s not often that politicians reach quite so far back in history for their examples. Indeed, as a rule few politicians are much interested in history at all – even those, like George Osborne and Gordon Brown, who studied it at university. Even if that were not the case, I would have thought the gap between the Achaemenid Empire and the Islamic government of Iran was unbridgeable.

It is a reminder that history – the history of peoples, of nations, of empires, of cultures – is perhaps more salient politically now than it has been for a very long time. Across the Middle East, the nation states largely created by colonial powers in the last century are being pulled apart by social and ideological forces that long pre-date colonialism. Islamic State avowedly pursues the fantasy of an idealised Caliphate in the Arab dust; it would be laughable if it weren’t so steeped in blood. Putin’s neo-imperial Russia is looking hungrily at its old territories in Ukraine and elsewhere. Nationalist parties across Europe are on the rise, peddling dubious rhetorical tropes dressed up as calls to ancient liberties. The UK itself is straining under the force of Scottish nationalism and the national British parties’ confused and inept response.

The past is everywhere in the present. I cannot recall a time in which people have looked forward more to the past, or to an idea they have of the past that offers some kind of Utopian escape from the difficulties of the global now.

The news media is not short of political pundits and commentators to chew over the bones of these issues. But where, in the public sphere, are the historians?

Surely now more than ever we need historians to be a part of national and international debate – of public life – to provide informed insight and, perhaps more importantly, an informed doubt that challenges the pseudo-pious certainties others hold about the past. The quality of doubt is public life is at its lowest point and the media’s fondness for talking points and for facts so trite they are indistinguishable from factoids makes it difficult for individual historians to cut through. History resists simplicity, we know. But how can the public reach us – or how can we reach the public?

There is no lack of hunger for seriousness, for intellectual challenge in public life. Look at the phenomenal success of the TED talks. Why is there no forum for historians to foster and inspire debate? Is it that we are too used to talking to ourselves, in a language designed to exclude non-specialists, to engaging only with coteries of like-minded men and women focusing on ever-smaller disciplines and sub-disciplines? Or is the problem elsewhere?

For all the modish talk of public history in faculties up and down the country, there is very little actually being done at a significant public level. Most people’s idea of a public historian would probably be David Starkey. Starkey is among our finest historians but too often in his appearances on Question Time he seems cast in the role of an irascible don escaped from a minor piece by Terrence Rattigan. That is not good for anyone.

Perhaps, though, the problem is organisational, as well as cultural. Perhaps what we need is an organisation that loudly asserts and argues the value of history – an Institute of Public History or similar. It would be both think tank and bully pulpit, organising debates and talks on current issues and aggressively pushing them out into the world as TED does, across all media. It would be a platform from which historians could challenge the mendacity of politicians and the banality of media alike. It would push back against the glib simplifications that make decision-makers sleep easier at night. It would take the public seriously – and offer seriousness and intelligence in return.

After all, intelligence – in its old sense of information – is the lifeblood of a democracy. It is our duty to take our wares out into the public square. The people need us.

Canada AM: the Prince Charles letters

Those who follow me on Twitter may already know that I was TV twice last week. The first appearance, to discuss Prince Harry’s career, was on Sky News. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, depending on your point of view – I can’t link to that. But I subsequently appeared on CTV’s breakfast show Canada AM talking about the propriety or otherwise of Prince Charles’ letters to the Blair administration, as revealed by The Guardian after a long legal battle. The link for the latter is here.

Country Life, Shakespeare and midsummer madness

Country-Life-May-20-2015-400px-300x387Like most people, I suspect, I was surprised by the news that someone had discovered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare. And bemused, too, that they would chose to reveal the fact in Country Life.

My heart sank, though, when I saw that the case relied on ciphers. I am sure there are carefree souls for whom the word ‘cipher’ conjures up the happy image of Alan Turing/Benedict Cumberpatch at Bletchley Park. Well, happy-ish. For anyone with any knowledge of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, however, it brings back the chilly absurdities of Baconianism, which twisted language, logic and sense with ciphers in order to torture Bacon’s hand from the handiwork of Shakespeare.

Would the much-trumpeted discovery of botanical historian Mark Griffiths be any different? The promise of identities encoded in flora was at least novel and refreshing. But what level of certainty could the argument possibly claim after 500-odd years?

I think you know where this is going.

The answer is: Not much.

Are there any actual facts in Griffiths’ piece associating Gerard with Shakespeare? No. What Griffiths presents are a range of speculations – typographical, literary, historical – which mutually reinforce each other without any reference to provable evidence.

The maker’s mark
The keystone of his argument is the mark beneath the portrait of “the fourth man”, having identified the first three portraits as Gerard himself; Rembert Dodoens, Gerard’s collaborator until the latter’s death a decade before; and Gerard’s patron of twenty years, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

You will have to read Griffiths’ piece yourselves to see the heavy lifting he has to do to turn what has usually been regarded as a printer’s mark known as a sign of four into a cipher for Shakespeare’s name. It involves far more wishful thinking than any decent argument should, finding a bewildering range of nuances in character widths, Latin puns, and other factors besides. It requires the presumed owner of the book to identify Shakespeare by knowing the colour of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and relating what looks like an A in the mark to his maternal familial roots in the Forest of Arden. It also involves ignoring the very evident numeral 4 in the mark.

Mark Griffiths clearly regards his discovery as following iron laws of logic. The identification he puts forward is not a suggestion. It is incontrovertible fact. This is far from the case. Ockham’s razor is an imperfect tool but I fear Griffiths was rash to discard it.

He describes the title pages as being full of “encoded, typically Cecilian cleverness”; but the cleverness – an excess of it – is all his. The laboriousness of it; now that is authentically Cecilian.

It is through Burghley that Griffiths seeks to bring Shakespeare and Gerard together. But he fails to make the case that this ever, in fact, happened. His argument is based on the premiss that Cecil’s political reputation was so damaged by his handling of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 that three years later he needed to hire the then unknown William Shakespeare as a kind of Tudor Dan Draper to restore his fortunes.

The former is, to say the least, wildly over-stated; the latter without historical basis.

He also asserts that Shakespeare addressed Venus and Adonis to Southampton on behalf of Burghley, the latter’s guardian. Is there any evidence adduced for this? No. Yet the idea that Southampton himself might have been Shakespeare’s patron is brushed aside with reference to an 18th-century anecdote about Shakespeare being given £1,000, which is as convenient a straw-man argument as you will find.

Of course, none of this necessarily means that Shakespeare and Gerard weren’t familiar with each other’s work. Shakespeare’s writing is famously full of detailed observation of English flora; they both share a sense of the landscape and its infinite possibility, great riches in a little room. But the lack of corroborating evidence ought to at least to cause Griffiths – and his editor at Country Life – some concern.

Certainly, Griffiths pads his argument with a range of speculative readings of plays and entertainments. None of the latter have been attributed to Shakespeare before, although Griffiths clearly wishes to do so with regard to the 1591 Theobald’s Entertainment. A “new” Shakespeare play is promised next week; perhaps that is it. But the readings do little to enhance Griffiths’ case.

Griffiths begins his piece with the revelation that he made the discovery on Midsummer’s Night. He might have paused at some point to reflect that if Shakespearean comedy teaches us anything, it’s that midsummer night is when hobgoblins and sprites famously plant foolish conceits in human heads to make them seem ridiculous in the morning.

Ralegh and Gerard
One last thought, a little mischievous perhaps.

As regular readers will know, I have written a book about Walter Ralegh. It seems to me that if the figure in the engraving represents any contemporary figure – a tendentious claim, still – Ralegh is a more plausible candidate than Shakespeare. A low boast, I agree.

The mysterious fourth figure is holding an ear of maize, a clear reference to the Americas, with which Ralegh was publicly – even notoriously – associated. Moreover, Ralegh, a known patron of and enthusiast for scientific knowledge and progress, was the dedicatee of Gerard’s Catalogus Arborum, published the following year.

Griffiths notes that the two men were friends and comments that Gerard was an investor in Ralegh’s first Virginia colony – something Griffiths dates to 1589 rather than 1585 for some reason.

So: Ralegh was a friend of Gerard’s, one of his patrons in the late 1590s and was closely associated with one of the plants apparently linked with the mysterious fourth figure in the engraving.

Is this a strong case for Ralegh? Not particularly. But it is far stronger than anything Griffiths has to offer for Shakespeare, alas.

Heart of darkness: from the time-honoured barbarity of the Tudors in Ireland to Islamic State

The leader of a small military force – perhaps 500 strong – is determined to subdue a province, and to do so quickly. Terror is his explicit policy. Every inroad he makes into enemy territory is followed by indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. Every man, woman and child is killed. Houses, churches, crops – everything is burned and despoiled.

Each night, the heads of all those who have been killed are lain in a path to the commander’s tent so “the people . . . see the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they come to speak with the colonel”.

If this sounds like the barbarity that Isis has made commonplace in the news in the last couple of years, think again. It is not Isis. It is the English in Ireland in 1569 and the leader in question is Humphrey Gilbert. He was knighted for his efforts within months; the following year he became an MP.

Drawing analogies between events at different times in history is always fraught; circumstances change. But where there are echoes we do well to heed them, because what resonates with the past can inform our understanding of the present. And while there is little in English history per se to match Isis, our record in Ireland is a different matter. It is there that we succumbed most deeply to the poisonous cocktail of religious self-righteousness and nascent nationalism that so intoxicates Isis. Protestantism and Wahhabism are closer cousins than we care to think.

Five years after Gilbert, the Earl of Essex at the head of the English army in Ireland hunted down and butchered 400 women and children of the M’Donnell clan at Rathlin Island off the northern coast of Antrim. A few made it down to the caves by the sea but Essex’s men followed them and smoked them out, cutting them down on the shore as they ran choking from their hiding places.

At Smerwick on the west coast of Ireland in November 1580, a group of 600 or so Spanish soldiers surrendered a small fort to an English force under Lord Grey of Wilton. Grey sent in a number of men under the captaincy of the young Walter Raleigh. Once disarmed, the Spanish were all put to the sword; there were too many bodies in the fort for the English to count. Pregnant women were hanged. Three men were dragged off to the local blacksmith where their joints and bones were smashed with a hammer on the anvil. They too were hanged. The English used their bodies for target practice as they hung on the gallows, literally shooting them to pieces.

Elizabeth I was delighted. Her handwritten note of thanks to Grey said, “You have been chosen the instrument of God’s glory”.

As for the kind of destruction practised by Isis at Nimrud and elsewhere, the remains of Protestant iconoclasm – Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs” – still litter our landscape. To erase all taint of Catholicism, windows were smashed, statues pulled down and broken, paintings defaced and whitewashed, plate melted, jewels taken, books burned.

Some buildings were destroyed more thoroughly than others. Thomas Cromwell, who personally took possession of the great Cluniac priory at Lewes, employed an Italian military engineer to raze the building to the ground.

There were over 800 religious houses before the Dissolution. The extent of the loss across the country is hard to underestimate. And there were other, more subtle, but no less catastrophic, destructions. The religious houses looked after the poor, the sick, the elderly, the infirm. There was no national health service back then, but the religious orders came close. They were the country’s principal education providers too.

In many parishes, church treasures were hidden among the parishioners. They were being vigorously hunted out and destroyed for decades. As late as August 1578, Elizabeth I’s progress through East Anglia brought her to the house of a Catholic gentleman named Edward Rookwood. His house was searched and an image of the Lady Mary discovered in a hay rick. It was “such an image . . . as for greatness, as for gayness, and workmanship, I never did see such a match”, reported Richard Topcliffe, later infamous as the government’s principal torturer.

Elizabeth ordered the image to be burned in sight of everyone that evening.

That Isis is depraved is beyond question. But if history teaches us anything, it is that the human talent for depravity does not belong to one people or one faith or one era. All evil is banal, repetitive in its cruelties.

The question shouldn’t be why Isis behaves this way, but what conditions enable or encourage any human to behave like that. The line from Gilbert to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – by way of Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz – is a short one, and surely too short for our moral comfort.

NOTE: This piece was first published by the New Statesman online.