The Past is a Foreign Country

As L P Hartley accurately said in The Go Between, The Past is a Foreign Country, they do things differently there. A couple of recent reads certainly demosntrate this.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII.
Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII.

I have managed to get myself quite bogged down with books at the moment.  I started the final book of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel exactly a month ago. The previous two volumes were long, but this one is a mighty tome and could quite easily be used as a door stop – 879 pages is a lot of reading. This one starts where the previous one finished with the execution of Anne Boleyn. Her swift decapitation was by a french swordsman as she knelt, hoping for a last minute pardon. The book has a handy list of characters at the beginning but it took me a while to remember who was who and what all the old alliances were. I did struggle with it for a good few weeks and although it started to get really quite interesting, I had no idea that the North of England rose up in protest at the religious upheavals instigated by Henry VIII and of course implemented by the book’s protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, I decided to put it down for a short while and immerse myself in the Cambridge spy network.  

Cover of book, Stalin's Englishman, by Andrew Lownie.
Stalin’s Englishman, biography of Guy Burgess.

Stalin’s Englishman is a biography of Guy Burgess one of the group of bright young men recruited by the soviets at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s. It’s a very well written and fascinating read. Burgess was bright, outrageous and astonishingly allowed to have access to some of the most secret documents in the British establishment for over 15 years.  In 1945 alone, he handed over 389 top secret documents to the KGB . He was totally amoral in every sense of the word, not just his political affiliations but his personal life was – well it’s entertaining reading; I’ll leave it at that. He and another spy, Donald McLean famously disappeared in 1951 and it was a while before it was realised that they had fled to Russia were they both lived for the rest of their lives. What was also astonishing is that these were very well educated and privileged people who were given access to the highest echelons of government on the basis of their family connections and with no consideration taken of their well documented political affiliations. As it says in the title, the past is a foreign country – it’s difficult to imagine how these decisions were made and you would hope that it couldn’t happen now.

I will return to Thomas Cromwell and his machinations – all 579 more pages. 


  1. Interesting! I only learnt a little while ago that Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabelle. (They stayed for a few weeks in the Alcazar Palace in Cordova during the time of the reconquest of Spain.) Good luck with ALL those pages!


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