Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Finding El Cid

What a joy!

After a year of almost exclusive focus on Napoleonics I am now returning to the promiscuous reading selection of old. One of the books I had been saving up for this moment was Richard Fletcher's The Quest For El Cid. My interest in The Leader was aroused by my visit to Spain two years ago.

The beauty of the book is that it not only describes the life of The Cid, about whom there is only a limited amount of hard evidence, but also the Spain that he lived in, and also the Spain that turned him in to a crusader saint later on.

The age of El Cid was a fluid one, with disintegration of the old Muslim Caliphate into successor states that were unable to maintain themselves against Castilian expansion. So many of them became dependents, riven apart by internal struggle to be exploited by rising Christian states in the north. However, those fought amongst themselves as well.

Christians, Jews and Muslims lived among each other, just like Spanish born were mixed with Arab and Berber immigrants and descendants. Not that it was a multicultural paradise, but at least a period of relative tolerance (see my discussion of that topic earlier on this blog).

Spain in 1086, just before the coming of the Almoravids

But that was about to change during The Cid's lifetime. On the one hand hard line Christians were starting to build a vision of reconquest, while from the North and South of the Sahara the strict Almoravid sect made rapid progress toward the Mediterranean.

The Cid was always more his own man than a courtly insider after he lost his royal patron early in life. He wasn't particularly liked and easily made enemies, but his skill at leading troops made him very useful to the leaders of his age. He served the king of Castile but also the Muslim leader of Zaragoza. And late in life he primarily served his own interest, capturing Valencia to rule himself.

In the last chapter Fletcher shows how the legend was built on this, partly from a need to attract pilgrims in monasteries and later from a need to build a reconquista ideology, and finally in the modern ago, the need to create a unifying myth for Spain.

Highly recommended, therefor

And yes, this is a perfect setting for a megagame.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

It's My Party...

This is my blog and I brag if I want to

Evert Pater shot this brilliant picture, passing by
The last couple of weeks have been very nice. It all started with the presentation of the book in the Rijksmuseum, together with an exhibition on the battle. I had so many friends and family around it was amazing and I lacked the time to talk to anyone for a sensible time. Not the least because Isabelle was tugging my arm constantly to catch the autographs of my co-authors. But for me it was wonderful to be in the centre of attention. Read a report by Dutch national broadcaster NOS and view the pictures taken by newspaper Parool.

The book has been well received with very favourable reviews in Dutch newspapers NRC (free but registration required) and Trouw (free but registration required) and some historical magazines, such as Historiek, and information vault Kennislink.

Co-author Jeroen van Zanten was interviewed in the Flemish magazine Knack (May 22nd).
Co-author Ben Schoenmaker was interviewed for the Defensiekrant

There have been a number of appearances on Dutch radio and TV:
Ben on Nieuwsuur (June 18th, after 17 minutes)
Me on OVT history programme (June 14th)
Jeroen on TROS nieuwsshow (June 6th) and on Een Vandaag (May 25th)

And we ain't done yet

An article by my hand will appear in the next issue of Mars et Historia, a Dutch magazine on military history, somewhere next month. And I went out on June 19th with a camera crew for the Dutch ironic society programme Hoe Heurt 't Eigenlijk? with dandy presenter Jort Kelder, who proved to be a bit of a history buff. I was bombarded with questions for almost 6 hours straight (except when they were interviewing the Prince of Orange and a few others in the Waterloo bivouac), even when the camera was off. Due to be broadcast somewhere this autumn.

There will also be a number of public lectures, with me appearing at Donner book shop in Rotterdam in October.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Shape of things to come

I'm sure you're all waiting for news on how the book has been received etc. This is coming soon but it has been bussyish. However, I managed to buy a spray can and apply some paint.

Yes those are 28mm Prussian Landwehr. And a few Musketeers. Summer project.

Friday, 5 June 2015

A Heartfelt Thanks To You All

I try not to pat myself on the back here too much, but today was a day that brought me enormous satisfaction: I received the first hard copy of the Waterloo book.

Just holding it sends a pleasant chill down my spine and brings a big smile to my face. It feels good, it smells pleasantly and the quality of the illustrations is really good. Even the flat water colours come off admirably.

The past months have not really been frantic, and I've been through tougher publishing processes, but this is much more *mine* than anything previously. Even if I did it with two other guys, who were very good to have around. Co-operating with Ben and Jeroen has been a real pleasure. Their experience saved me loads of time and took away a lot of potential worries.

And somehow it all fell into place. Our chapters linked up with hardly any overlap, our writing styles meshed and the structure afforded by taking a time and place as the starting point of sections of our chapters worked out as well as might be hoped. It is one book, not three parts.

This also a good time to thank a number of people who provided help during the production of this book: Paul Lindsay Dawson and Stephen Summerfield who gave me access to cutting edge literature and together with Erwin Muilwijk and a number of other regulars on internet fora gave me a good idea of where to find the best current research. Jenny Gierveld, Herman van der Haegen, Michiel Schwartzenberg, Arjan de Jong, Barbara Mounier and Jan Kees Mol gave very useful feedback on the text at several stages. Egon Dietz, Mieke Mateboer and Lona Verkooijen made it possible for me to take four months of leave from work. And last, but certainly not least, Kaj Wijmans should be thanked for turning a switch in my head.

And I want to thank all of you: facebook commenters that sharpened my arguments, colleagues that kept asking when the book would be finished, friends that forgave me when I cancelled appointments, family that had to cope with me staring at a screen late at night, and all of you for showing interest and providing encouragement. It meant and means a lot to me.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

First Time As A Waterloo Tour Guide

No not an official, certified one of course. But I took half of a group of historians from the Ministry of the Defence for a long morning around the battlefield. Since they were mostly familiar with contemporary military affairs I could contrast Napoleonic warfare with their knowledge.

The corn was more than knee high 

We did four stops: first at La Belle Alliance, then at the Sandpit to view the attack by French 1st corps and the counterattack, then onto Hougoumont from where we walked to the Butte de Lion. Here we had a peek at the new visitors' centre and finished of with the attack of the Imperial Guard.

My cheat sheet, which I didn't use
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Just blabbing on for ages about the battle and they were asking for more! They group was really kind and attentive. And I was driven there and fed to do it. Does that sound like a good deal or not? I guess there are boons to writing a book.

Makes me look forward to the book presentation in less than two weeks even more!

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Last 90% of Transpiration

It's been rather busy the last few weeks. After the first draft I handed in early March, there followed comments that needed to be processed, a few sources that I was able to includes thanks to ebooks and a kind intervention by professor Stephen Summerfield who sent me something in advance.

Last week I finished the second draft and last revisions, while also contributing to the introduction, work on the illustrations and commenting on a chapter by a co-author. Excitement alternates with menial tasks, like checking spelling and the correct recording of notes.

The guy in the portrait, Hans Christoph Ernst von Gagern, was part of the 10% inspiration. Gagern was the representative for the German interests of Willem Frederik, Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands, at the Congress of Vienna. He formed a team with baron Spaen van Voorstonde, who represented Willem Frederik's Dutch interests.
Gagern's letters to Willem Frederik (some in German, most in French) cover a lot of ground during this period: from the negotiations over the extensions of the Netherlands to the tussle with Prussia over logistics and big power politics. So I used him to explain parts of that to the reader, rather than to tell it myself.

This weekend I was able to breathe again, but now it's back to the bibliography (which means I don't have to worry about the indexing!). So any of you wondering about a publishing career, know that the 10% inspiration part is no understatement.

Luckily I have experienced editors before and I was able to make mine a coach rather than an opponent. I've also had great help from my more experienced co-authors, so that I've been relatively chilled out during the process.

My boss at work also has been very understanding of my unpredictable working hours, especially since I created more trouble for myself by diving headlong into the Kingdom of the Netherlands project and some other things. Colleagues have been very supportive all round and I've promised to give a presentation on the book once it's done. Nice opportunity to practice!

It's not done yet. As said, the bibliography needs doing, a well as the last bits of illustrations and then the conclusion and the proof reading. Then there will be the promotional activities, for which the rumours are promising, but nothing definite yet.

Will keep you posted!

Slowly, my mind is able to contemplate a period after the book is finished.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Story of a Map

One of those instances where work and hobby coincide! A few weeks ago I considered doing a tweet with a thematic map to commemorate the birth of the Kingdom of the Netherlands on March 16th 1815. It is an interesting episode because it happened in the pressure cooker days after Napoleon had returned from Elba and it included at that time most of the area we now recognise as Belgium.

My take was to create a map of the Low Countries in 1815 and link it to data from our historical collection on the 1815 census. I though that sending out a tweet with the map would be a nice gesture and likely to get picked up by the media.

I set out searching for a shapefile (a file that holds the spatial information of the map, like borders of provinces) of the Low Countries in 1815 at the time but found none. Then I thought it might be possible to stick together maps of the north and the south into one map, which is what we ended up doing in two stages. I managed to find a shapefile of the north for 1815, and on the assumption that the current Belgian provinces were much like those in 1815 my colleague in the mapping department stuck  the two together. I was SO thrilled with the result.

And so were some of my colleagues, who suggested not just a tweet but a short article, using more data and adding more maps. I set to work on that, despite the fact that I would also have to hand in my two chapters for the Waterloo book this week. That was pretty stupid.

In my enthusiasm I showed the maps to my Belgian stepfather who immediately spotted some necessary changes: in 1962 a number of municipalities was exchanged between Flanders and Wallonia to conform to the language divide, and in 1920 the Belgian took an area on their eastern border including Eupen and Malmedy from the Germans as a compensation for damages in the First World War. And a few minor others.

Just as I was contemplating defeat, another Belgian connection, a very kind historical geographer from the University of Ghent, stepped in and offered the right historical shapefiles for Belgian provinces in 1815. The colleagues at the mapping department stuck those to the north (and a current shape of Luxembourg) and voilรก!

The colleagues also suggested doing a storymap application which has turned out pretty awesome as well.

I struggled through the week, working on the article, the map and the book at the same time. Occasionally it looked like it would fail, but on Friday it all came together in the end: chapters went to the publisher, article was finalised and approved and the storymap finished. Much relieved and tired.

So on Monday: cake for the great people that did the mapping. They are awesome!

Monday, 9 March 2015

NYR for first half of 2015

Seeing the general success of the NYR for 2014, I thought I'd set myself some NYR for 2015. But it posed conflicting challenges, which I finally resolved by making separate sets of NYR for both halves or the year.

So first half of this year is fairly simple: The Book needs to be finished. In June. So that's fine. I need to read some books towards that goal (and no distractions!) and I have allowed myself two blog posts per month. That feels more like a challenge now than I thought it would be a month ago.

But the second half of year should be some kind of happy time where I intend to completely scatter my attention over a multitude of smaller projects. I've set myself the following goals:

  • 2 small paint projects
  • 6 games I own that need to be played
  • 25 games I own need to be found a new home
  • Lead pile must be reduced by 25%
  • 25 books read, 
  • there will no longer be a ban on buying new books
  • 12 blog posts
  • 1 big project to be started
  • Project Essen 2014 (4 games still need to be played)
  • Project Satan (I want the games I received from Secret Satan in 2013 and 2014 played)

Part of the fun in the coming months will be in deciding what the projects will be. I am already drawing up lists!

Monday, 2 March 2015

NYR 2014, the Reckoning

So I've been meaning to look back on 2014, which was a crap year in many ways but also one that may make 2015 one of the best. How did I do with my gaming New Year's Resolutions for 2014?

The Book: I wanted to get 85% of it done, so most of the writing by December. That didn't happen, but 70% was good enough, and next time I can do it more efficiently.

Books read: that proved a serious challenge but I feel I came very close taken all the articles I also read during this period. I had hoped to use Goodreads to keep track of all my reading but it is no good when it comes to old and non-English books. I just didn't feel like adding those manually.

Books bought: I banned myself from buying new books on subjects other than Waterloo and was pretty consistent. What I did buy were some books by people I know personally and a bunch of new Ospreys (which were allowed, I think).

I organised one megagame which was the side project. It pained me a lot not to put on a megagame later in the year when invited to, but it was a wise decision.

New games played: I came a long way, even including the one game I bought last year. But past October my focus and priority shifted to other things.

Old games removed: ditto. Just didn't get round to it.

Essen games played: I managed to play all the Essen 2013 games before Spiel 2014! I have also played quite a few of the games I bough last year.

Shifting focus also impacted on books I wanted to remove. I picked quite a few from my shelves but I didn't get rid of them, so they are still in stacks on my floor.

Lead pile reduction: I gifted my German 1940 paratroopers, which have found the best possible home as they've been painted and used in the brilliant Ypenburg demo game.

Finally, I rationed myself to one blog post per week but went way over that, which is fine.

Next post I will look at my aspirations for 2015 (yes I know it's long started).

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Surprises and Weaknesses

Okay, a nice surprise and bit of weakness here. Last week I received a package that I didn't expect but proved to be the last instalment of the Kensei Indiegogo from last year.

Some excellent sculpts in there but no idea how I will ever get it painted.

But it all fits very well with the Okko skirmish game and miniatures I bought a few years back (the game has 2D cardboard cutouts rather than miniatures), and could easily tie in with samurai. I expect there to be a flood of second hand samurai miniatures in a few years when the Ronin hype has passed.

The weakness is that I fell for the Conan kickstarter. I played the game at Essen and it has real promise, while the minis are beautiful and plenty. So it was good I did away with the ban on buying new games. That was quite the easiest NYR of last year.