Diversity, or how progressive rhetoric about diversity and the greater representation of women, blacks and Asians masks the ongoing influence of traditional networks of private school and Oxbridge

Polemic – a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something

The British cultural élite is very concerned about ‘diversity’, which means pre-eminently more women and more ethnic minorities.

I’m making the simple point that it does not, on the whole, mean more poor and disadvantaged people, God no.

It still tends to means more ‘people like us’, more people who grew up in well-connected, upper-middle-class homes, went to élite private schools – but now more of them are women, black or Asian.

Same élite education, though. And the same confident, patronising, we-know-best, élite attitudes.

This isn’t an evidence-based analysis, it doesn’t take a serious look at the no doubt increasing diversity in broadcasting and the media.

It’s just a list, and what’s more it is cherry-picked and biased to make my point.

But then this is a polemic, knowingly biased and slanted in order to make a polemical point.

The point I’m making is that the higher ranks of Britain’s media talk a great talk about diversity and inclusion, but in reality the commanding heights of British culture continue to be managed and run by the same kind of upper-middle-class, southern, private-school-educated élite as it always has.

I am fleshing out the points made by John Gray in his numerous essays about the shortcomings of Britain’s progressive classes, as summarised in my last blog post.

It’s symptomatic that Channel 4 has for a very long time prided itself on being progressive, diverse and woke, and yet the three main presenters on its flagship news programme, Channel 4 News – Jon Snow, Matt Frei and Cathy Newman – all went to very expensive private schools, and the latter two both went to Oxford.

I’m not making an in-depth sociological analysis. I’m just rather awed that the annual school fees at Matt Frei and Cathy Newman’s private schools (£41,600 and £40,700 respectively) are far more than the average British annual wage (currently just over £30,000 for the full-time employed).

I’m awed that the children of the very well-off still run so much, or feature so prominently, especially in the arts and broadcasting, despite all the distracting rhetoric they put out about ‘diversity’ and ‘feminism’ and ‘inclusion’.

BBC TODAY PROGRAMME
Mishal Husain – Cobham Hall (boarding fees: £31,500), Cambridge
Martha Kearney – George Watson’s Ladies College (day fees: £13,170), Oxford
Nick Robinson – Cheadle Hulme School (day pupil fees: £12,300), Oxford
Sarah Sands – Kent College, Pembury (boarding fees: £11,500) Goldsmiths, University of London
Justin Webb – Sidcot School (boarding fees: £27,540), London School of Economics,

BBC RADIO WORLD AT ONE
Faisal Islam – Manchester Grammar School (annual fees: £13,000), Trinity College Cambridge
Mark Mardell – Epsom College private school (boarding fees: £38,568), University of Kent
Ed Stourton – Ampleforth College (boarding fees: £36,486 per year), Cambridge
Claire Marshall – Blundell’s School (annual fees: £13,000 ), Balliol College, Oxford
Sarah Anne Louise Montague, Lady Brooke – Blanchelande College (annual fees: £10,800), University of Bristol

BBC ANDREW MARR SHOW
Andrew Marr – Loretto School (annual fees: £36,000), Trinity Hall Cambridge

BBC WOMAN’S HOUR
Jane Garvey
– Merchant Taylors’ Girls’ School, Crosby (annual fees: £11,000), University of Birmingham

THE WORLD TONIGHT
Ritula Shah
– Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls (annual fees: £19,500), University of Warwick

BBC PRESENTERS
Samira Ahmed
– Wimbledon High School (annual fees: £20,000), St Edmund Hall, Oxford
Anita Anand – Bancroft’s School (annual fees: £19,000), King’s College London
Jo CoburnPolitics Live – North London Collegiate School (annual fees: £21,000), Oxford
Stephanie Flanders
 – former BBC economics editor – St Paul’s Girls’ School (£26,500), Balliol College, Oxford
Fi Glover – St Swithun’s School (annual fees: £34,500), University of Kent
Will Gompertz, BBC arts editor – Bedford School (annual fees: £33,000). Married to the daughter of the Provost of Eton
Roger Harrabin, BBC Environment Analyst – King Henry VIII School (annual fees: £12,000), St Catharine’s College, Cambridge
James Landale, BBC’s diplomatic correspondent – Eton College (fees: £42,600), University of Bristol.
Paddy O’Connell, presenter of Broadcasting House – Gresham’s School (boarding fees: £36,000), University of Aberdeen
Hugh Pym, Health Editor BBC News – Marlborough College (annual fees: £38,000), Christ Church, Oxford
Sophie Raworth – 6 O’Clock News presenter: Putney High, and St Paul’s Girls’ schools (£26,500), Manchester University
Alice Roberts – presenter of Coast – The Red Maids’ School (annual fees: £15,000), University of Wales
David Shukman, science editor of BBC News – Eton (fees: £42,600), Durham University
Norman Smith, BBC Assistant Political Editor – Oundle School (annual fees: £38,000), St Peter’s College, Oxford
Vicki Young, BBC News Chief Political Correspondent – Truro High School for Girls (annual fees: £14,000), New Hall, Cambridge

JOURNALISTS
Katy Balls
, The Spectator magazine – 
Louise Callaghan
Sunday Times Journalist of the Year – UWC Atlantic College (annual fees: £33,000), School of Oriental and African Studies
Melanie Phillips, The Times and BBC – Putney High School (annual fees: £20,000), St Anne’s College, Oxford
Helen Lewis – Deputy Editor of the New Statesman & feminist author – St Mary’s School, Worcester (annual fees: £18,000), St Peter’s College, Oxford

Apparently Lewis is the author of a ‘light-hearted’ Helen’s Law which states that the comments in an online magazine or newspaper under an article about feminism, justify feminism. I would suggest a light-hearted Simon’s Law, which states that the posh, white woman lecturing you about your male ‘privilege’ almost certainly went to an expensive private school and Oxford.

That’s what qualifies her to lecture you about your ‘privilege’. Somehow she’s managed to turn values on their head so that, although she had a privileged education at an exclusive private school, then three years at the elite University of Oxford, which gifted her top jobs in London’s political and literary world… you are the one who is supposed to apologise for your privilege.

See what this ruling class has done? Reinforced its position at the commanding heights of academia, media and the arts, while at the same time making everyone else feel guilty for merely being white or male.

This is not a discourse of equality. It is a discourse of power and control.

CHANNEL FOUR NEWS
Head of Channel 4, Alex Mahon – St Margaret’s School, Edinburgh (annual fees: £20,000), Imperial College London.
Matt Frei – Westminster School (boarding fees: £41,600), Oxford
Gary Gibbon – The John Lyon School, Harrow (fees: £19,500), Balliol College, Oxford
Cathy Newman
 – Charterhouse (boarding fees: £40,695), Oxford
Jon Snow – St Edward’s School in Oxford (boarding fees: £39,500), University of Liverpool

ITV
Sir Peter Lytton Bazalgette
, Chairman of ITV – Dulwich College (annual fees: £44,400), Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Dame Carolyn Julia McCall, Chief Executive of ITV – Catholic girls’ boarding school in Derbyshire, University of Kent
Jeremy Kyle – Reading Blue Coat School (fees: £17,500), University of Surrey
Mary Nightingale – St Margaret’s School, Exeter (fees: £8,500), University of London
The Honourable Robert Peston (son of Lord Peston) – Highgate Wood Secondary School, Oxford
Susannah Reid – Croydon High School (fees: £17,000 per annum), St Paul’s Girls’ School (£26,500), University of Bristol
Ben Shepherd – Chigwell School (boarding fees: £33,000), University of Birmingham

TV PRESENTERS
David Baddiel
– The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Elstree (annual fees: £21,000), King’s College Cambridge
Clare Balding OBE – Thatcham (annual fees: £39,000), Newnham College, Cambridge
Joan Bakewell
 – Stockport High School for Girls (fees: £12,000), Newnham College, Cambridge
Brian Cox
 – Hulme Grammar School (fees: £11,500), University of Manchester
Anne Robinson – Farnborough Hill Convent school (£15,500)
Hardeep Singh Kohli – St Aloysius’ College, Glasgow (annual fees: £13,500), University of Glasgow
Claudia Winkleman – City of London School for Girls (fees: £25,000), New Hall Cambridge
Lucy Worsley OBE history presenter – Abbey School, Reading, New College, Oxford

COMEDIANS
Hugh Dennis – University College School, London (annual fees: £21,000), St John’s College, Cambridge
Dawn French – St Dunstan’s Abbey School (private), Caistor Grammar School (boarding), Central School of Speech and Drama
Stephen Fry – Uppingham School, Rutland (annual boarding fees: £39,000), Queens’ College, Cambridge
Hugh LaurieEton College (annual fees: £42,600), Selwyn College Cambridge
David Mitchell – Abingdon School (fees: £40,000), Peterhouse College Cambridge
Steve Punt – Whitgift School (annual boarding fees: £40,000), St Catharine’s College, Cambridge
Jennifer Saunders
 – St Paul’s Girls’ School (fees: £26,500), the Central School of Speech and Drama

ACTORS
Phoebe Waller-Bridge – St Augustine’s Priory (fees: £16,400), DLD College London (boarding fees: £18,000), Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
Benedict CumberbatchHarrow School (fees: £42,000), London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art
Judi Dench – the Mount School, a Quaker independent secondary school in York (annual fees: £15,500)
Tom Hiddleston – The Dragon School Oxford, Eton College (annual fees: £42,600), Pembroke College, Cambridge
Damien Lewis – Ashdown House Prep School, Eton College (annual fees: £42,600), Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Rosamund Pike – Badminton School in Bristol (annual fees: £17,000), Wadham College, Oxford
Toby Stephens – Seaford College (annual fees: £34,400), London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art

CELEBRITY VICARS
The Reverend Richard Coles – Wellingborough School (annual fees £16,500), King’s College London
The Reverend Giles Fraser – Uppingham (annual fees: £39,000), Newcastle University

WRITERS
Will Self
– University College School, London (annual fees: £21,000), Exeter College, Oxford

LABOUR PARTY
John McDonnell
– St Joseph’s College, Ipswich (boarding fees: £35,000), Brunel University
Seamus Milne
, Labour Party Director of Strategy and Communications – Winchester College (annual fees: £41,000), Balliol College Oxford

LIBERAL PARTY
Ed Davey – Nottingham High School (fees: £16,000) (in the year above Labour Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls), Jesus College, Oxford

GREEN PARTY
Jonathan Bartley – Dulwich College (annual fees: £44,400), London School of Economics
Caroline Lucas – Malvern Girls’ College (annual fees: £37,000), University of Exeter

THE WOMEN’S EQUALITY PARTY
Catherine Mayer co-founder of the WEP – Manchester High School for Girls (fees: £12,000), University of Sussex
Sandi Toksvig co-founder of the WEP – Tormead independent School (fees: £16,000), Girton College, Cambridge

DIGITAL
Martha Lane Fox
– Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, CBE
– co-founder of LastMinute.com
– on the boards of Twitter, Donmar Warehouse and Chanel
– trustee of The Queens Commonwealth Trust
– previously on the board of Channel 4
– youngest female member of House of Lords 2013
– Chancellor of the Open University 2014
– 2019 named the most influential woman in Britain’s digital sector from the past quarter of a century
Martha is a member of an English landed gentry family seated at Bramham Park.
Education: Westminster School (annual fees: £42,000), Magdalen College, Oxford
For feminists, Martha Lane Fox is a pioneer and a symbol of Women in Tech and public life. For me, she is a classic example of The Establishment, with its complex nexus of power and influence – regardless of her gender.

Brent Hoberman CBE – British entrepreneur and co-founder with Martha Lane Fox of Lastminute.com in 1998.
Education: Eton College (annual fees: £42,600), New College Oxford


Three conclusions

1. Oxbridge I say ‘Oxbridge’ but of the 61 figures here, all went to public school but only half, 31, went to Oxbridge.

This post is the opposite of a serious statistical survey, but it suggests that the relentless criticism of Oxford and Cambridge about their lack of diversity (often from eminent figures in politics or the media who themselves went to Oxbridge) is missing the point.

The problem starts way before university, it starts in the network of expensive private preparatory and secondary schools which inculcate in their pupils a superior attitude of confidence and capability, which plug their pupils into extensive networks of power and influence, and prepare them for the Oxbridge entrance exams with a thoroughness and insider knowledge which very few state schools can match.

For example, Clare Balding applied to read law at Christ’s College, Cambridge, but failed her interview, then realised she didn’t want to do law after all, and so her family and school supported her to re-apply to Cambridge, this time to Newnham College, where she did successfully gain admission, second time around.

Which was nice for her, but how many families in the UK can afford to send their children to a £40,000-per-year school? And how many schools in the UK are geared up to support their 6th formers through not one but two full-scale applications to Oxbridge?

In her career at the BBC, Balding has become one of the UK’s best-known lesbian personalities, so on one level it’s easy for her and her supporters to paint her as a rebel, a disruptor of the patriarchy, a role model for LGBT+ people etc, and no doubt she is.

But she has also benefited from huge advantages of money, class and power that you and I can’t imagine.

So hammering the lack of ‘diversity’ at Oxford and Cambridge is, in my opinion, blaming the symptom, not the underlying cause.

2. Networks It’s not just about the private schools, it’s also about the extensive family networks with which the professional upper-middle-classes support each other, and which the élite schools confirm and extend.

Tristram Hunt is a textbook example of John Gray’s contention that the Labour Party has for decades been haemorrhaging its working class support, especially in the North of England (read any analysis of the 2019 election results) while at the same time as it has slowly turned into the preserve of the privileged, southern, private school-educated, professional class.

Tristram Julian William Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Well-connected family: son of Julian Hunt (,leader of the Labour Party group on Cambridge City Council and awarded a life peerage as Baron Hunt of Chesterton); grandson of Roland Hunt, a British diplomat; cousin of Virginia Bottomley (former Tory cabinet minister, now Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone)
Private education: University College School, Hampstead (annual fees: £21,000), Trinity College Cambridge
Committed progressive:
Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central from 2010 to 2017
Influence: Hunt is a lecturer in modern British History at Queen Mary University of London, has written several history books, presented history programmes on television, is a regular writer for The Guardian and The Observer

Miranda Hart is a good example of a media star (actor, writer, comedian) who is held up by feminists as a role model for women, despite having benefited from extensive family connections and an extremely expensive private education that you and I could only dream of.

Miranda Hart, actor
Well connected family: Her father was commanding officer of HMS Coventry when it was sunk by the Argentinians in the 1982 Falklands conflict. Hart is from an aristocratic background. Hart’s patrilineal great-great-great-great-grandfather was Sir Percival Hart Dyke, 5th Baronet (1767–1846). Her distant cousin, the 10th and present baronet, Sir David Hart Dyke, lives in Canada. One of her first cousins is plant hunter Tom Hart Dyke, creator of the World of Gardens at Lullingstone Castle. Her maternal grandfather was Sir William Luce (1907–1977), Commander-in-Chief and Governor of Aden (1956–60). Her mother’s only sibling is the Lord Luce, a former Conservative minister, later Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar (1997–2000). Richard’s son, the journalist and author Edward Luce, is one of Miranda Hart’s first cousins. Her great-uncle, the brother of her maternal grandfather, was Admiral Sir David Luce, who served as First Sea Lord. The father of David and William, Miranda Hart’s great-grandfather, was Rear Admiral John Luce. John’s brother, her great-great-uncle, was Major General Sir Richard Harman Luce, who served as Member of Parliament for Derby (1924–29). Her other maternal great-grandfather (through William’s wife Margaret Napier) was Vice Admiral Sir Trevylyan Napier, who was the Commander-in-Chief, America and West Indies Station (1919–20). His wife, Miranda’s great-grandmother, was Mary Elizabeth Culme-Seymour, daughter of Sir Michael Culme-Seymour, 3rd Baronet, Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom (1901–20). Hart is a fourth cousin, twice removed, of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Private education: Downe House, near Thatcham (annual fees: £39,000), where she was a friend of the sports presenter Clare Balding, who was head girl. University of the West of England, Bristol
Influence ‘Miranda Hart is one of the UK’s best-loved comedians’

Role model? In the sense that most people can afford to send their daughters to £39,000-per-year schools?

3. Progressive politics is the modern reincarnation of Victorian class superiority And so focusing on ‘diversity’, on the ‘representation’ of women and ethnic minorities, while not intrinsically wrong, allows the larger injustice of 5% of the population benefiting from a fantastic education, dazzling facilities and life-enhancing social connections which the other 95% of the population does not enjoy, to just carry on.

Cathy Newman loses no opportunity to flaunt her ‘feminism’, but her secondary school education alone cost at least £250,000 and plugged her into networks of power and influence that you and I can only dream about.

Yet she feels confident to lecture you and me – who never had a fraction of her advantages – about sexism because… that’s what expensive private schools do. They give their pupils the confidence to lord it over the rest of us, convinces them that their values are impeccably, unquestionably correct.

Private school-educated progressives are the modern reincarnation of the Victorian missionaries and Imperial administrators which the private schools were originally set up to churn out by the thousand.

But instead of being sent to farflung colonies, today’s loftily superior missionaries go on to run the British media and the arts and our political parties.

But the instinct to lecture their fellow countrymen (and it is mostly men they lecture) from a lofty position of moral rectitude remains exactly the same as it was with their Victorian forebears.

150 years ago the public school elite looked down on the majority of their fellow Brits for being illiterate, uneducated, unchristian, plebs – so unlike their own superior, spiritual souls.

Now their modern reincarnations look down on the majority of their fellow Brits for being racist, sexist, xenophobic, gammon-faced, Brexit-voting chavs – so unlike their own feminist, diverse and politically enlightened selves.

Different age, different issues and different insults.

But the same basic attitude of superior, snobbish elitism. The same conviction of their own utter rectitude. The same patronising disdain for the majority of the actual population of the country they live in.


Related blog posts

A Dance With Dragons 2: After The Feast by George RR Martin (2011)

The seventh and most recent (2011) book in George RR Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, this is in fact, as previously explained, part two of the fifth book, Dance With Dragons, itself too large to publish in one volume. The two Dance with Dragons books combined would have totalled 1,117 pages of text, plus the 60 pages of genealogies at the end of each book; hence their division into two more manageable volumes.

But if you are reading the series, this is the final, most recently available book. Finish it and you join the legions of GRRM fans waiting impatiently for the next instalment, The Winds of Winter, expected publication date – 2015!

Photo of Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

This is a photo of Viserys Targaryen, exiled as a child from the kingdom of Westeros where his royal father has been brutally overthrown and killed. Viserys is brought up abroad, dreaming of completion and fulfilment, hoping to return and claim his rightful throne and bring his sad story to a triumphant conclusion. Instead he spends his childhood in an alien city and his adult years wandering across an endless steppe, thrown among brutal strangers, abused and humiliated, before being suddenly and sadistically killed by having molten gold poured over his head.

It is tempting to joke that reading all seven Song of Ice and Fire novels has been a somewhat similar experience. It’s taken me three long months to read them, three months during which my initial enthusiasm, my delusions that the multiple plotlines might reach some kind of fulfilment or closure, has peaked, plateau-ed and then, in this last book especially, rapidly declined.

Three things in particular have eroded my initial enjoyment – the misogyny, the climate of failure and the sense of disappointment. I’ve written about the misogyny of the novels in another post.

The Reader’s Disappointment

The first book, Game of Thrones, is given the underlying tension and page-turning excitement of a thriller as we watch Lord Eddard Stark close in on the Great Secret at the heart of the Lannister succession. In the last pages he is abruptly executed and his secret is casually revealed in the second book by which time no one cares as the kingdom is descending into civil war.

The next few books have brooding over them two great, exciting threats – the attack on the Great Ice Wall which we know is being planned by an unseen army of wildlings and things of the night – and the threat that Daenerys Targaryen will sweep back to Westeros to claim her throne astride the three mighty dragons she has brought to life.

Yet both these overarching narrative arcs fizzle out with no real resolution: King Stannis’s army decimates the wildling horde pretty easily; and Daenerys locks her dragons in a dungeon and gets bogged down in endless pointless politicking in the godforsaken slave city of Meereen.

Other great set-piece conflicts are set up, such as Robb Stark’s military triumphs in the North and Renly Baratheon’s elegant march across the South. These also are rapidly deflated as Robb is unceremoniously assassinated at Walder Frey’s castle and Renly is also assassinated by an evil spirit. The biggest battle in the whole series, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, also has a great sense of anticlimax as the attacker Stannis loses all his forces and the evil Lannisters emerge victorious.

“All signs are foreshadowing the terrible disaster that is to come,” it says on the Wikipedia entry for A Clash of Kings. But it never comes. One reads the ensuing four books in hope that something, anything, decisive will happen. Instead Robb is crushed, Stannis is crushed, Renly is crushed, Daenerys runs into the sand – the characters and plotlines may ramify out like weeds, but the edge-of-your-seat tenterhooks of the earlier novels slowly evaporate.

And this is directly connected to…

The characters’ failures

  • Lord Eddard Stark thinks he’s acting nobly and for the best. He fails and dies.
  • Eddard and Robert Baratheon think they can secure a peaceful transition of power but both fail; instead the continent collapses into brutal civil war.
  • Lady Caitlin Tully thinks she’s acting for the best when she releases Jaime to be exchanged for her daughter, Arya and Sansa. But Jaime is captured and mutilated and she never lives to see her daughters.
  • Robb Stark thinks he’s acting from duty when he marries Jeyne Westerling who he’s been sleeping with. it is a catastrophic error, as he had promised his hand to a daughter of the powerful Lord Frey and Frey takes his revenge by killing Robb, his mother and most of his army.
  • Sansa Stark thinks her young boy king fiance will give her a life of chivalry and beauty. It is a terrible failure of judgement; he strips and humiliates her.
  • Cersei Lannister’s every action is designed to protect her children but her beloved son dies in front of her eyes, while her daughter Myrcella is hideously maimed. She then plots to get her boy son’s fiance, Margaery Tyrell, accused of made-up crimes of fornication and debauchery – only to be herself imprisoned and tried for the same crimes – in her case, with justification.
  • Lord Tywin Lannister is motivated solely by the good of his House but he dies at the hand of his disgraced son, and it looks like the the entire house will be eclipsed by House Tyrell.
  • Jon Snow sends Maester Aemon to the Citadel for his own safety but far from being safe, Aemon dies on the way from the rigours of the long sea journey. Jon makes elaborate plans to incoporate the wildlings into the Night’s Watch, against mounting opposition from his own men who eventually turn on him and murder him.
  • Stannis Baratheon judges himself the rightful king of Westeros but all his plans are crushed at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Although his defeat of the wildlings beyond the wall is a success, his journey to attack Winterfell is another catastrophic disaster in which most his army perish in the deepest blizzard seen for decades.
  • Brienne of Tarth dedicates her life to defending King Renly who is promptly murdered before her eyes. She is charged with bringing Jaime to King’s Landing and fails to prevent him being mutilated on the way. She is charged with finding Sansa and Arya and fails, getting herself hanged in the process.
  • Daenerys Stormborn is such a vital and heroic figure at the end of book one, having endured a forced marriage, and then the death of her beloved husband and unborn son, before being reborn along with three dragons ushering in a new age in Westeros. Sadly, she spends the next six books wandering deep into the desert continent of Essos, shedding dead followers along the way, before embarking on a pointless quest to liberate the slaves of the great slaver cities. Her stated aim is to return to Westeros and claim the throne due to her (and her dead brother Viserys), as children of the deposed king Aerys. Instead her threads in two or three books are entirely devoted to evermore tedious politics of faraway cities full of ungrateful citizens who she’s liberated form their shackles. All the promise and excitement of her thread died years ago.
  • Theon Greyjoy is an epic failure: determined to prove his worth to his father and touch sister, he takes the almost empty castle of Winterfell, only to be himself overrun by the terrifying Ramsay Snow, who locks him in a dungeon, starves him and tortures him, destroying his mind and body.
  • Mance Rayder, the Night Watchman turned wildling, assembles and leads a vast army of the ‘freeborn’ against the Great Ice Wall which defends Westeros. But after several books of threat and suspense, just as he’s attacking the Wall, King Stannis and his army emerge from the mist and decimates Mance’s forces, shattering all his ambitions and leading to his enchained imprisonment. In a later twist he’s freed to lead a raid on Winterfell, wrongly believing the young girl betrothed to Ramsay Snow to be Arya Stark. It isn’t her, all his spearwife helpers are killed, and he himself captured and tortured.
  • Ser Jorah Mormont, in exile in Essos, dedicates his life to defending Daenerys but when she realises that he’s been informing King’s Landing of her doings all along, she dismisses him from her service and he becomes a wrecked man.
  • Failure runs in the family as his father, Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, leading an ill-fated expedition north of the Wall to spy out the wildling forces and rescue Ben Stark, fails in both endeavours and ends up being murdered by his own men in Caster’s House.
  • Young prince Quentyn Martell, son of the gouty old Lord Martell of Dorne, is despatched to Essos to make a match with Daenerys the dragon mother, only to arrive far too late, Daenerys being up to her neck in complex court machinations in Meereen; and then, in making a stupid attempt to free the dragons from the dungeon where they’ve been chained, is himself burned to death.
  • Arianne Martell seduces Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard to get his help in smuggling little princess Myrcella away from Sunspear. She intends to declare the little princess queen and raise an army around her. Instead her plot is foiled, the loyal Ser Oakheart is chopped to pieces before her eyes, and little Myrcella has half her face hacked off.
  • Victarion Greyjoy, a man already haunted by the failure of having his charismatic brother cheat on him with his wife (whereupon he beats his wife to death by hand), sets himself to be the next king of the ironborn when their father, Balon, dies. He is ignominiously defeated. When he sails for Eassos, also attempting to contact Daenerys and her dragons, almost half of his iron Fleet is destroyed.
  • Davos Seaworth, the “Onion Knight”, having had his fingertips chopped off by his stern lord Stannis, then watches his master’s plans come to destruction at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, where no fewer than four of his sons are killed. He is later despatched by Stannis to White Harbour to secure the loyalty of local lords, in which he completely fails and is imprisoned.
  • The dwarf, the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, sets out to preserve his family and keep his lover, Shae, safe –  but ends up killing his own father and strangling the beautiful Shae. He flees abroad seeking safety and ends up being sold into slavery.
  • Lysa Tully is hopelessly in love with cunning Petyr Baelish and thinks her dreams are finally coming true when he arrives back at the Eyrie, despatched from King’s Landing to secure her allegiance. Until he calmly pushes her out of a window 600 feet up a mountain. So much for childhood sweethearts.
  • Kevan Lannister believes he is acting for the best when he allows his niece, Cersei, to be led naked through the streets of King’s Landing to atone for her sins. He is just carefully planning  his next move when he is assassinated.
  • Even the supercunning eunuch, Lord Varys, though still alive, hadn’t anticipated when he helped to free Tyrion Lannister from the King’s Landing dungeons, that the Imp would defect from the escape plan to track down his own father and kill him with a crossbow – thus ensuring the end of Varys’s career as a statesman and player.

After this exhausting marathon, almost the only major living character who hasn’t failed is the (very) cunning Lord Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) who has successfully based himself in the Vale of Arryn, cooly murdered his over-trusting wife, and is playing divide and rule among the local lords.

My son and I have been reading the series together, discussing its many aspects – and we’ve agreed our favourite characters were Tyrion, Jon Snow and Littlefinger.

Only with the death of Jon and enslavement of Tyrion did it begin to dawn on me that we liked this trio precisely because they were successful. With the others increasingly revealed as failures (and dying is a pretty tell-tale mark of failure) it dawned on me that maybe this is the reason we, as readers, like Baelish – even though he’s shown himself to be an amoral killer – because he has the charisma of success.

Tyrion also had it for most of the series – in the early books he was a benchmark of irony and sanity and savvy – but his successive failures and humiliations have rubbed it off him.

This is interesting because it suggests a novel needs at least some characters we readers can identify with – not in the naive sense that they are like us, but in the Freudian or fairy tale sense that they live out our fantasies – they overcome obstacles and succeed.

Watching a succession of unlikable characters fail, more or less miserably, while countless bystanders get hacked to pieces, in an atmosphere drenched in woman-hating swearwords and crude abuse, has taken its toll on my senses – and I am oh-so-relieved to have finished this vast, amazing, appalling odyssey and escaped back to the real world.

The TV series

 

The books have been made into an ongoing HBO TV dramatisation. Series 1 and series 2 are now available on DVD. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.


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A Dance With Dragons 1: Dreams and Dust by George RR Martin (2011)

The night was rank with the smell of man.
The warg stopped beneath a tree and sniffed, his grey-brown fur dappled by shadow. A sigh of piney wind brought the man-scent to him, over fainter smells that spoke of fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf. Those were man-smells too, the warg knew; the stink of old skins, dead and sour, near drowned beneath the stronger scents of smoke and blood and rot. Only man stripped the skins from the other beasts and wore their hides and hair. (page one)

This, the fifth volume of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, starts with a wonderful prologue, a vivid description of a warg, a man who can enter the bodies and experience the keen sensations of animals, who is both lying shivering in a snow-covered shelter in the far North of Westeros, but also inhabiting the body of a wolf hunting with his pack, hunting fleeing, ailing humans. I’ve never read anything describing this situation and rarely read anything so vivid and powerful and cold and tangy. Chapters of writing this good are one of the reasons GRRM fans adore him.

Dreams and Dust – as GRRM explains in the preface – doesn’t exactly follow the ‘previous’ novel, A Feast for Crows. It runs in parallel with it. The series is now so complex and unwieldy, he has so many plotlines unravelling in all directions, that one volume simply can’t contain them all, so he needed two running in tandem.

So – A Feast for Crows covered the ongoing adventures in the kingdom of Dorne (Lord Doran Martell), on the Ice Wall (Jon Snow and King Stannis Baratheon), among the Ironborn Vikings (Asha, Victarion and Euron Greyjoy), in the Riverlands (Jaime Lannister raises the siege of Riverrun), in the Vale of Arryn (Petyr Littlefinger strengthens his grip and cultivates the runaway Sansa Stark), with Samwell Tarly (accompanying the aged maester Aemon on the long sea route to the Citadel) and in King’s Landing (where Cersei Lannister’s paranoid incompetence brings disaster)…

Whereas Dreams and Dust covers the same period of time, but follows a different set of characters:

  • The ironical dwarf Tyrion Lannister, on the run from murdering his father Lord Tywin, is in Essos where the same magister Illyrion who sent Daenerys on her adventures, despatches him on a boat with a mystery crew down the vast river Rhoyne, introducing a whole new landscape, new peoples and languages and perils. The strange abandoned cities their boat passes silently in the fog are wonderfully evocative…
Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Daenerys Targaryen, supposedly progressing west along the coast of Essos with her three dragons and aiming to reclaim the Iron Throne lost when her father was murdered by the Lannisters. But she has become embroiled and delayed. After liberating the slaves in two of the great cities around Slavers Bay – Astapor and Yunkai – only to see them descend into anarchy, the kindhearted Daenerys has not only liberated the slaves of Meereen but is determined to rule them and their city peacefully and justly. This turns out to be harder than she thought as an insurgency of resentful former rulers takes to murdering the men and women she’s freed, as gruesomely as possible. Meanwhile her dragons have now grown so large that they are killing sheep and cattle and Daenerys is having to compensate angry farmers and, eventually, is forced to chain them in a dungeon…
  • Once upon a time the idea that Daenerys was reborn in Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre along with real live dragons was mysterious and strange; her travels across the desert and the growing dragons threatened she’d bring a revolution to Westeros. But by the end of Dreams and Dust this storyline has fizzled out, losing all its energy; Daenerys confronting yet another roomful of angry citizens is as fantastical as watching Boris Johnson on TV. I speed-read her last few chapters just to see if anything happened. And nothing did…
Photo of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Crippled 11-year-old Bran Stark, carried by the gentle giant retard Hodor, continues his quest north of the Ice Wall, along with the two crannogchildren, Meera and Jojeen. They are guided by an improbably friendly Other, Coldhands, further and further into the snow in quest of the owner of the third eye, a prophet, one of the last surviving children of the forest, the almost exterminated aboriginal inhabitants of Westeros. I found it increasingly hard to remember why these children persisted in driving deeper into the freezing north at risk of their lives, though the intensity of their suffering is certainly harrowing and vivid…
Photo of Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The Merchant’s Man turns out to be Quentin, the son of Lord Martell of Dorne, who has been despatched to the Free Cities to meet Daenerys and recruit her dragons for the cause of Dorne. Which is ironic because we know the mystery crew of Tyrion’s ship down the Rhoyne turn out to be  escorting the supposedly dead Prince Aegon Targaryen on his mission to raise sellswords and form an alliance with Daenerys to reclaim his rightful throne in Westeros. Everyone is after Daenerys’s dragons, except Daenerys who is frightened to use them.
  • Meanwhile, a thousand miles north, gorgeous pouting Jon Snow takes to his duties as Lord Commander of the Night Watch, pitifully undermanned as they seek to guard and protect the 700 foot-high Ice Wall from the next wave of attackers who will either be wildlings – free humans – or the terrifying Others, blue-eyed black-skinned zombies. He has to cope with mutterings among the older Watchmen on the one hand and on the other manage King Stannis Baratheon and his prophetess Lady Melisandre, who came North with his army to destroy the first wildling invasion. This threatened invasion, led by the renegade Watchan Mance Rayder, created an atmosphere of brooding menace throughout the 2nd, 3rd and 4th books, giving a real sense that the invasion of these supernatural forces would sweep away the vicious scheming factions let loose by the War of Five Kings. However, their sudden and absolute defeat by Stannis’s army evaporated that threat and, in my opinion, has taken some of the pleasure out of the books… Martin tries to revive the sense of brooding threat over the Wall but, having seen how the first attack was swiftly crushed, it is gone, there is no threat, the tension has vanished…
Photo of Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night's Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night’s Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Davos Seaworth, long-suffering servant of King Stannis, is despatched by sea to win over the harsh lords of the eastern islands, namely Lord Wyman Manderly of White Harbour. There he suffers bitter failure, discovering Lord Manderly’s castle full of Freys, the vast extended family who own the Twin Towers castle in the Riverlands and who killed the self-proclaimed king of the North, Rob Stark, and massacred his army during the so-called Red Wedding. And so Manderley, afraid for the life of his son, held hostage by the Lannisters in King’s Landing. rejects Davos’s offer of alliance with King Stannis and it is difficult, again, to see where this storyline is heading…
  • Reek is the dungeon name of the raddled wreckage of Theon Greyjoy who we first met happily playing with the Stark children in Winterfell in volume one. In teenage competition with his clever sister Asha, he led a small troop to capture Winterfell, left almost empty by Robb Stark as he went campaigning in the North. But in his naivety, Theon was taken prisoner by the psychotic Ramsay Bolton who stormed into Winterfell, murdered everyone, burned the castle to the ground, dragged Theon back to his fortress of Dreadfort. Here Ramsay throws Theon into prison, flays him, tortures him, and reduces him to a shattered wreck of a stammering, shaking, filthy grey-haired dog. This is a particularly disturbing narrative thread, and goes a long way to justify accusations that, as Martin has run out of plot, he has resorted to ever more disgusting sadism. The scene where the terrified Reek is ordered to deflower the terrified young girl given to Ramsay in marriage, is particularly repellent; it describes the systematic humiliation of a naked 15 year old girl by a psychotic killer.
Photo of Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The chapters are named after: Tyrion (9 chapters), Jon 8, Daenerys 7, Davos 4, Reek 3, Bran 2, The Lost Lord 2, The Merchant’s Man, The Windblown, The Wayward Bride, Melisandre, The Prince of Winterfell, The Watcher.

Martin continues to write blistering scenes, to vividly depict fights, feasts, treacheries and betrayals, moments of fear and panic or quiet, soulful moments, in a crisp clear style:

Jon stepped out into the night. The sky was full of stars, and the wind was gusting along the wall. Even the moon looked cold; there were goosebumps all across its face. Then the first gust caught him, slicing through his layers of wool and leather to set his teeth to chattering. He stalked across the yard, into the teeth of that wind. His cloak flapped loudly from his shoulders. Ghost came after. Where am I going? What am I doing? Castle Black was still and silent, its halls and towers dark. My seat, Jon reflected. My hall, my home, my command. A ruin. (page 442)

He can write the mysterious, incantatory chapter where Bran finally meets the lost prophet and begins his spiritual journey:

The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. The pale sun rose and set and rose again. Red leaves whispered in the wind. Dark clouds filled the skies and turned to storms. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, and dead men with black hands and bright blue eyes shuffled shuffled round a cleft in the hillside but could not enter. Under the hill, the broken boy sat upon a weirwood throne, listening to whispers in the dark as ravens walked up and down  his arms. (page 521)

Hundreds of pages show his writing at its immersive, imaginative and compelling best. But I enjoyed this least of the six books I’ve read. My son said the last two are the worst. The woman I’ve been swapping notes with at work about the series just wants to hurry up and finish it. For me the mystery, the suspense and the threat which made the earlier books so thrilling has evaporated to be replaced by an increasing and depressing reliance on foulmouthed brutality:

“”I would sell my mother for a bit of breeze,” said Gerris, as they rolled through the dockside throngs. “It’s as moist as the Maiden’s cunt, and still shy of noon. I hate this city.” (page 101)

“We’re the Windblown and we fuck the goddess Slaughter up the arse.” (page 107)

“Does your dwarf ride as well as he pisses?” (page 131)

“Can Salladhor Saan eat the king’s word? Can he quench his thirst with parchment and waxy seals? Can he tumble promises into a feather bed and fuck them till they squeal?” (page 144)

The dwarf watched Lemore slip into the water. The sight always made him hard. There was something wonderfully wicked about the thought of peeling the septa out of those chaste white robes and spreading her legs. (page 210)

As the drums reached a crescendo, three of the girls leapt above the flames, spinning in the air. The male dancers caught them about the waists and slid them down onto their members. Dany watched as the women arched their backs and coiled their legs around their partners while the flutes wept and the men thrust in time to the music. (page 237)

The wine was strong and sour and required no translation. “I suppose I shall have to settle for your cunt.”… “Cut off my head and take it to King’s Landing,” Tyrion urged her… She did not understand that either, so he shoved her legs apart, crawled between them, and took her once more. That much she could comprehend, at least. (page 338)

“Before you came Meereen was dying. Our rulers were old men with withered cocks  and crones whose puckered cunts were dry as dust.” (page 347)

“You look awful, even for a man’s been dead a dozen years. Blue hair, is it? When harry said you’d be turning up, I almost shit myself. And Haldon, you icy cunt, good to see you too. Still have that stick up your arse?” (page 361)

Too heavy even to stand unassisted, he could not hold his water, so he always smelled of piss… But he was said to be the richest man in Yunkai, and he had a passion for grotesques: his slaves included a boy with the legs and hooves of a goat, a bearded woman, a two-headed monster from Mantarys, and a hermaphrodite who warmed his bed at night. “Cock and cunny both,” Dick Straw told them. “The Whale used to own a giant too, liked to watch him fuck his slave girls…” (page 336)

He pushed her back onto Glover’s bed, kissed her hard, and tore off her tunic to let her breasts spill out. When she tried to knee him in the groin, he twisted away and forced her legs apart with his knees. “I’ll have you now.”… She was sopping wet when he entered her. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn you damn you damn you.” He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. (page 390)

Her last foe was a northman with an axe, a big man bald and bearded, clad in a byrnie of patched and rusted mail that could only mean he was a chief or champion. He was not pleased to find himself fighting a woman. “Cunt!” he roared each time he struck at her, his spittle dampening her cheeks. “Cunt! Cunt!” (page 406)

Behind them some sailor was bellowing loudly. “”They call this ale? Fuck. A monkey could piss better ale.” “And you would drink it,” another voice replied. (page 428)

“I said we could not abandon her in Volantis. That does not mean I want to fuck her.” (page 509)

The dwarf lingered in the galley after supper, celebrating his survival by sharing a few tots of black tar rum with the ship’s cook, a great greasy loutish Volantene who spoke only one word of the Common Tongue (fuck)… (page 515)

“Lady Arya. Get on the bed. Yes, against the pillows, that’s a good wife. Now spread your legs. Let us see your cunt.” The girl obeyed wordless. Theon took a step back against the door. Lord Ramsay say beside his bride, slid his finger along her inner thigh, then jammed two fingers up inside her. The girl let out a gasp of pain. “You’re dry as an old bone.” Ramsay pulled his hand free and slapped her face. (page 582)

These books have a vast wealth of compelling writing and gripping storylines, a whole convincingly-imagined, alternative worldful. But I, too, feel like I’ve been slapped in the face, and just a few too many times.

Photo credits

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and was released on DVD in March. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes copyright George R.R. Martin.


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A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow by George RR Martin (2000)

A Storm of Swords is book three of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. This one book is divided into two volumes, presumably because volume one’s 569 pages plus volume two’s 554 pages would have made a pretty unmanageable 1,123 page book. Plus the maps. Plus the 53 pages listing the characters.

Part one of A Storm of Swords is titled Steel and Snow. As with the two previous books in the series, the novel follows quite a few complex plotlines, embracing hundreds of characters scattered over two continents of his fantasy world, Westeros and Essos:

  • Beyond the ice wall Jon Snow has abandoned his comrades of the Night Watch, pretending to join the wildlings or Free Men who live in violent anarchy in the frozen North. Their leader, Mance Rayder, has assembled a ramshackle army of anarchists and psychopaths to break through the great Ice Wall and invade Westeros but around them are gathering the Others, undead zombies who rise from their tombs, garbed in black ashes with bright blue eyes, who can’t be killed by normal weapons.
  • In the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing, the ironical dwarf Tyrion recovers consciousness after helping cruel 13 year old King Joffrey Lannister’s forces to victory in the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay in which the army and navy of the pretender Stannis Baratheon are destroyed in a great conflagration of dragonfire.
Photo of Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Meanwhile Robb Stark, erstwhile King of the North, makes a terrible tactical mistake by not carrying out his promise to marry the daughter of Lord Frey, ruler of the key crossing of the Trident river, the Two Twins. Instead he marries for love an unknown 18 year old beauty, Jeyne Westerling, thus alienating his key ally in the North.
  • Thirteen-year-old Sansa Stark is still held hostage by Cersei Lannister in King’s Landing and betrothed to the vicious 14-year-old king Joffrey although, during the course of the book her fate is changed, as a new dynastic arrangement is made for King Joffrey and Sansa finds herself reassigned to marry the dwarf Tyrion.
Photo of Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The tone of the whole book lifts with the arrival of Lord Tywin Lannister, father to Cersei and Tyrion and Jamei. Cold and relentless, he is a surprisingly reassuring figure because he isn’t cruel or sadistic; every strategy is carefully planned and Tywin moves in a permanent web of plans, schemes, plots, alliances and manouevres. His cunning at least has a purpose unlike the unspeakable nastiness of the vile Joffrey and the demented Cersei.
  • Arya Stark manages to stay alive by posing as an anonymous serving girl in the vast ruins of Harrenhal – until she manages to escape (killing a guard in the process) and heads North back to her home castle, Winterfell.
  • And Daenerys Targaryan, widow of Khal Drogo, and owner of three baby dragons who symbolise the rising of new magic in a world fast heading towards Winter and catastrophe, buys – or liberates – an army of the ‘Unsullied’ – eunuchs trained to obey unquestioningly and never feel pain – with which to return and conquer what she regards as her rightful kingdom, the Westeros which all the other characters in the book are fighting and scheming for.
Photo of Jerome Flynn as the sellsword Bronn in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jerome Flynn as the sellsword Bronn in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of  A Clash of Kings, the second novel in the series, which aired in the States and on Sky Atlantic last year. The dvd of GoT series 2 is available now.

Series 3, based on the this book, will start broadcasting on Sky Atlantic on 1 April this year.


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A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin (1998)

A Clash of Kings (1998) is the second volume in the epic seven-volume fantasy series by George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. It follows seamlessly on from the end of the first volume, A Game of Thrones, with numerous plotlines continuing to unfold:

  • from the 700 foot-high Ice Wall which defends the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings and strange powers lurking in the frozen north, Jon Snow, aged 15, bastard son of the great Lord Eddard Stark, accompanies a reconnaissance mission of the Night’s Watch into the frozen waste.
Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • the terrifying and cunning Lord Tywin Lannister dispatches his dwarf son, Tyrion Lannister, to the capital, King’s Landing, to take power from the incompetent, spoilt boy, Joffrey, aged 13, who is reigning as king and alienating everyone except his evil mother, Cersei Lannister, she who conspired in the death of her hated husband Robert Baratheon to enable her son to succeed to the throne.
  • Tywin himself hunkers his army in the haunted ruins of ancient Harrenhal, built by Harren the Black to be impregnable but then melted by dragonfire back in the legendary days.
  • It is to this gloomy ruin that little Arya Stark, aged 10, tough tomboy daughter of the executed Lord Eddard Stark, arrives through a series of accidents, fights and massacres, a witness to and survivor of the brutality and sadism all around her.
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Meanwhile Robb Stark, 15, heir to his father’s house, is declared King of the North and leads his armies to victory against Lannister forces at Whispering Wood and Oxcross.
  • And also meanwhile, the brothers of the late king Robert Baratheon – young courtly Renly, and hard old Stannis – both declare themselves King in the South and raise armies from different sets of bannermen and subjects to fight each other, Stannis leading his army to besiege his brother in the ancient citadel of Storm’s End on the east coast of Westeros…
  • While an eerie sub-plot unfolds concerning Stannis’s conversion to the new religion, the way of the Lord of Light, which is replacing the old religion of the Seven gods. The old way was administered by septons in their temples, called septs. In a haunting chapter Lady Catelyn, distraught widow of the executed Eddard Stark of Winterfell, prays in a smallfolks’ septon en route back from trying to broker a peace between the brothers Baratheon – and the outlines of the crudely drawn seven gods dance and mock before her eyes…
Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • … But just as war between the brothers seems inevitable, King Renly is struck down in mid-sentence in the safety of his own tent by a shadow which seemed to slide into the tent and raise its sword and cut wide his throat with no physical presence. Is this new black magic controlled by the Red Lady, the priestess Melisandre, devotee of the Lord of Light, who has found favour at grim King Stannis’s court?
  • And while Lord Eddard Stark’s heir, Robb continues his successful drive in the west against Lannister forces, sneaky Theon Greyjoy, who spent 10 years as a ward in Winterfell, the seat of House Stark, and desperate to impress his harsh father Lord Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands,  returns to capture Winterfell with a small handful of fighters. But the lad finds keeping a castle can be harder than winning it…
Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • And meanwhile, a thousand miles away on a different continent (Essos), Queen Daenerys (aged 14), sole survivor of the overthrown House Targaryen follows her lonely destiny. She was betrothed to the savage Dothraki Khal Drogo by her brother, Viserys, as part of a deal whereby Viserys hoped to use the savage’s soldiers to reclaim his throne, both Viserys and Daenerys being children of the mad king Aerys Targaryen of Westeros whose overthrow and murder by Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark is the mainspring of all the plots. But Viserys went mad with impatience and was killed by Khal Drogo, who himself was turned into a lifeless zombie by a captured witch – leaving Daenerys to fend for herself.
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • In a bizarre twist at the end of the first book Daenerys walked into the funeral pyre of her husband with three fossilised dragon eggs she had been given as curious wedding gifts, and not only survived the flames but the eggs cracked to hatch three baby dragons thus, apparently, starting a new Age of Dragons when magic will once again work in the world – but to what end…?
  • This book sees Daenerys venturing across the arid deserts of Essos accompanied by her loyal knight, Ser Jorah Mormont, a small band of Khal Drogo’s surviving followers and her three baby dragons, seeking help in the slave cities of the south to return to Westeros and reclaim her rightful throne, unaware of the complex machinations and battles going on back in Westeros for that very throne..

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of A Clash of Kings, which aired in the States – and in the UK on Sky Atlantic – last year, and is now out on DVD.

Series 3, based on the third novel, A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow, starts airing on Sky Atlantic, also in March 2013.


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A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (1996)

‘How different, how very different from the home life of our own dear queen’,’ one is tempted to comment about the shenanigans at the court of King Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, who led a victorious rebellion to overthrow the mad king Aerys and his House of Targaryan, and now rules the continent of Westeros.

(Numerous maps of Westeros are available on the web, including a colourful one defining the regions ruled by each House; the ones included in the books are usefully collected on this page.)

Game of Thrones is the first in the epic seven-novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, by American fantasy writer George RR Martin, set in the mythical medieval land of Westeros. The novel follows the fortunes of the powerful noble families or Houses who divide up the land, interweaving the stories of countless kings and queens, knights and concubines, servants and maesters, as they scheme, poison and fight each other for power.

Genre Swords and dragons. Fantasy.

Style The style is Tolkien meets Michael Crichton. Tolkien because, although he wasn’t the first to write stories set in medieval times, far from it, I think he was the first to combine elements of legend, the supernatural, and previously disparate folklore entities – elves, dwarves, giants – into one coherent imaginary world, created with such enormous attention to detail, to the backstory, the languages, the geography of that world – that the Middle Earth he created is a universe which fans can still immerse themselves and get lost in to this day.

Suspense Michael Crichton because the chapters are short and punchy with a clear narrative focus, moving the story on at pace like a modern thriller. Something happens in each chapter, often shocking and unexpected events. Each chapter is named after a character and tells the developments in the complicated plotlines from their point of view. So a shocking surprising event happens in a chapter devoted to the dwarf Tyrion. But instead of the next chapter following on, it will jump to the adventures of Jon Snow on the Great Ice wall a thousand miles to the North. This leaping between about ten different characters, so that you don’t find out what happened next to Tyrion, creates a permanent sense of suspense which is very gripping.

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO's 'Game of Thrones' broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style Similarly, although he throws in the odd token medievalism (‘oft’, ‘elsewise’, ‘near’ used as an adverb, inversions – “he was a man full grown”) essentially the tale is told in tough modern prose. A disconcerting symptom of the modernity of thought and style is the swearing. The characters quite often say ‘f***’ and sometimes the c word, something we do not find in the genteel narratives of Professor Tolkien. If nothing else does, the swearing alerts you to the harsh, cynical, contemporary mindset underpinning the books. Maybe it’s more like Tolkien meets Tarantino.

Paratext is the term is used by literary theorists to refer to the font, layout, pagination, prefaces etc which hedge round the text of a published book and which to some extent qualify and mediate our experience of the text. The book ‘Game of Thrones’ comes with five pages of maps, preparing you for a narrative which involves travel, and in an unknown fantasy land. It ends with 30 pages of Appendix featuring a couple of pages listing all the members of the major Houses, and a timeline of Westeros history, alerting the reader to the scope and complexity of the story. When my son was persuading me to read this book, this long appendix put me off – I thought: ‘God, do I have to learn all this?’ In the event, it’s vital and addictive: and I kept referring to it to understand who was who and why they were plotting against each other.

With a bit of license we can extend the meaning of ‘paratext’ to include the cloud of associated products and merchandising which so often surround the modern text. First, there is the network of websites, beginning with George RR Martin’s website, his blog, A Song of Ice and Fire wiki and numerous others. Each of the characters even has their own facebook page!

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Meanwhile, you can buy Ice and Fire hats, t-shirts, card games, board games, models, scarves, pendants, mugs, magnets and cook books (see the selection available at Forbidden Planet!) ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ isn’t in the Harry Potter league yet but it’s trying.

And there is now a TV series. This first book, Game of Thrones, came out in 1996. In 2011 the American channel HBO broadcast Game of Thrones converted into ten pacey, violent and pornographic, hour-long TV shows. (Beware of showing them to your children!)

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Series two covers the events of book two (Clash of Kings) and was broadcast last year (2012).  Series three has completed production and will be broadcast in March this year (2013). It transmits in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

Delay The novels themselves, originally intended to form a trilogy, were extended to a set of five, and now seven. ‘Game of Thrones’ was published in 1996. The fifth installment, A Dance with Dragons, took over five years to write and was published in 2011. The sixth book, The Winds of Winter, is being written. The waits between volumes have become notorious: see, for example, this page summarising the reasons fans are anxious GRRM may never complete his epic task.

Going by precedent, the sixth book should come out in 2014 and the last one in 2017, 21 years after the first one! And there’s a possibility the TV series might overtake – or have to pause to wait for – the books. Assuming a new season every year, the seventh season will air in 2017, so production would have to start in 2016 – a year before the book it’s based on is published.

So there’s not just suspense about the plotlines and narratives and characters in the text – there’s a higher level metasuspense about the resolution of the entire series, and its interdependency with the TV series. And the unspoken anxiety behind all this – what happens if – God forbid – GRRM (born 1948) dies before finishing the last books? Will it become the greatest unfinished novel since Charles Dickens’ ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’? Would any one of the thousands of other fantasy writers publishing today be invited to complete it? Or if GRRM does complete the series, what’s to stop his publisher commissioning other authors to extend the stories, to write sequels in the way James Bond novels continue to be published to this day, 50 years after Ian Fleming’s death?

Not just the novels – but the status, feasibility, long term future of the stories and characters they contain – will continue to be the subject of feverish speculation for the next four or five years, at least… for a humorous example, check out this video of a song written by US comedy duo Paul and Storn encouraging GRRM to hurry up and finish the series and “Write like the wind”:

The MUSIC and LYRICS of “Write like the wind” copyright Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo and Paul Sabourin

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and will be out on dvd in March 2013. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.


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