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    June 3rd, two days from now, is the first anniversary of the London Bridge terror attack, in which eight people were killed and 48 injured. It happened yards from where I live. When something like this happens, everyone asks, What can I do?

    I’d spent the past few years working with the wonderful family of Milly Dowler on a book about their long ordeal. The Dowlers taught me many lessons about how to take testimony from traumatized people about their extraordinary and terrible experiences. It’s a difficult thing to do, and I made many mistakes while trying to understand and convey their pain as well as their incredible combination of dignity, true-heartedness and humour. But the Dowlers were endlessly strong and patient, and we got there in the end.

    So when the terror attack happened here, to the question What can I do? my answer seemed to be: take testimonies; let people talk; give them the space to make sense of what they saw and went through. And that’s what I’ve been doing – more than a long novel’s worth now. The material was never intended for publication. But some of it will be performed in two services on Sunday’s anniversary at Southwark Cathedral, which has, from the first hour, taken spiritual responsibility for the necessary healing. We are so fortunate to have the leadership of Dean Andrew Nunn, Sub-Dean Michael Rawson, Canon Precentor Gilly Myers and many others who have dedicated themselves to cleansing and reclaiming places that saw violence, composing heartfelt liturgies and sermons and, most of all, reaching out to all those who were harmed physically and emotionally by the attack.

    None of us who live or work here shall ever forget the victims and their suffering or the pain of those bereaved. They will always be remembered, and their damage has become part of the fabric of this place. We have also found things to bring back from those dark days here. The Cathedral has worked with Amir Eden, a young Muslim community leader, to make sure that the attack has had the opposite effect on this place to the one that the terrorists intended. Diversity, an anathema to extremists, has only been reinforced here. There has been an outpouring of love for our places of life, work, play and worship. There has been bonding between residents and business owners. New friendships have been forged; even several romances.

    The afternoon of the attack anniversary will be marked by a special service for the bereaved and first responders in the afternoon. In the evening, the Cathedral will host a Grand Iftar for people of all faiths and none. In line with its inclusive, mindful approach, the Cathedral has also commissioned a work of art from Alison Clark. 

    In doing so, they have entered the highly sensitive area of commemorating or memorializing terror.

    Artists memorializing the Holocaust have come up with interesting solutions to the issue of how to address a brutal incident with no natural poetry to it at all. Some insisted that memorials should not be in places of grace and beauty like parks, but on busy street corners. The Monument against Fascism, Hamburg-Harburg (Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, 1986) was a 12-metre column designed to sink slowly into the ground, so it never became a taken-for-granted part of the built environment. Looking at it was not a passive activity: viewers were invited to make their own engravings in its lead-clad surface using a special pen provided. Before it sank below the ground in 1993, this ‘counter-monument’ attracted abundant initials, scribbles, graffiti, including swastikas and even gunshots: so the attitudes of the present were inscribed on the past in a dynamic way. The artists wrote of their column, ‘One day it will have disappeared completely and the site of the Harburg monument against fascism will be empty. In the long run, it is only we ourselves who can stand up against injustice’. Another thought behind the artwork was this: each generation needs to find a new way to address the Holocaust. It can never marked ‘done and dusted’. Creativity must do constant battle with forgetfulness when it comes to events that should never be repeated. In this way, society will not be allowed to become desensitized to the crimes of the past. They will stay fresh, shocking and relevant.

    So it’s not easy to conceive mindful and appropriate ways of memorializing a terror attack. How do you aestheticize suffering and violence? Should you even do so? How do you express the unspeakable? How do you show respect to those cruelly denied the chance to speak for themselves?  Involuntary errors of taste and judgement can easily occur if you commission art with good intentions but neglect to consult all the stakeholders in an area that has been subject to terror. For example, we residents are distressed to watch the thousands of people taking jokey and romantic selfies in front of these sparkly hearts that suddenly appeared in Stoney Street a couple of months ago, described by Network Rail as a memorial to the attack.

    Image from Network Rail's Media Centre
    No decent person willingly shows disrespect to the dead. The selfie-takers are doubtless decent people. But to them the artwork evidently manifests as happy, funny and romantic. They simply don’t know what they are doing, which is why I am not including a photograph of them. It wouldn't be fair. They have not been given a choice because neither the event nor the names of those harmed are named in the mural. (The name of the artist is, however).

    There have been other decisions (and omissions) here that have hurt the bereaved and also those that have distressed local people who were caught up in the nightmare of the night.

    Southwark Cathedral, however, has navigated the difficult waters of memorializing with grace and energy. Key to that is, of course, confronting the damage and not brushing it under the carpet, pink-washing it or privileging commercial considerations over attention to grief and trauma. Alison Clark's artwork addresses both damage and healing in ways that are integral to the experiences of the night. In the course of my Testimony project, I took Alison's account, which she has kindly allowed me to post below. So often, I discovered that the key to the way people reacted to the night and its aftermath could be found in their own past experiences. Alison is no exception.

    Apart from Alison’s work, there will be other lasting memorials in and around the Cathedral. The 3pm service will include the blessing of four corbels commissioned to mark the anniversary. One is a portrait of Wayne Marquez, the British Transport policeman who distinguished himself by his bravery on the night. Another corbel immortalizes Doorkins Magnificat, the Cathedral’s resident feline. Doorkins has her own book, Facebook page and Twitter account. While the clergy were cordoned out of the Cathedral in the days after the attack, they received many anxious emails about Doorkins. It turned out she was fine and being fed Chicken Caesar Salad by the police. In the Cathedral courtyard, there will be a blessing of an Olive Tree of Healing, planted in the Cathedral Churchyard in compost made from the floral tributes laid on London Bridge a year ago.

    Mary Hoffman has kindly agreed to swap her slot with mine this month, so I could bring this to you in time for the anniversary, and so that you might also have a chance to come to Southwark Cathedral to see Alison’s beautiful and subtle work and perhaps also to participate in one of her mending workshops.

                                                   TESTIMONY – ALISON CLARK

    Alison during her artist residency
    at Northlight Gallery, Stromness August 2017
    November 2015, artist and academic Alison Clark’s in Paris. She’s nervous about delivering the keynote address at a conference the next morning. Returning to her guesthouse after dinner, she receives texts from her children: Are you all right? Then there’s a Facebook notification, ‘You are in a security zone. Let people know if you are OK.’ That’s how she learns about the attacks on the Bataclan, the cafes, the supermarket. It’s traumatic on many levels. The scale of the killing and maiming is horrific. Terrorists gunned down diners in a restaurant like the one she has just left. The university’s on lockdown; the conference is cancelled, including her keynote address. Alison recalibrates. Anxiety about the speech cedes to real new fears, new priorities. How to leave? Is it safer to stay? Her heart breaks for her French colleagues. For them, the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 has linked up with this new one. For Parisians, it suddenly feels as if the threat is endless. Once violence has entered your life and begins to repeat, all bets are off. Anything could happen next.

    For Alison herself, the Bataclan also brings back also the 2005 suicide bombings that took 52 lives in London. She was working in Bloomsbury at the time and walked along the route where, later, a bomb blast blew off the roof off a Number 30 bus. She’ll always remember the missing posters afterwards on the lamp-posts in Bloomsbury. Add to that her academic post in Oslo, where Anders Breivik killed 77 people in 2011. Too many times already, Alison has seen a community in crisis, has heard people say, wonderingly, ‘It could never happen here. But it just has.’ Alison thinks, on a deep level, you connect these events. It becomes cumulative. Because of Breivik, her fear is tuned not to a single group like IS but on the dark potential of all humanity. Her repeated encounters with terrorism have taken away any sense of entitlement to security. For Alison, who has been peripheral, a witness, it’s more a feeling of inevitability, an unacknowledged preparedness.

    Alison and her husband Jonathan are mid-air when the attack takes place at London Bridge. The moment their flight from San Francisco lands, Jonathan’s mobile tells the horrifying story of what has happened in a place that is close to their hearts. Southwark Cathedral is where Jonathan was consecrated Bishop of Croydon just five years before.

    As the wife of a clergyman, and an academic based between Norway and England, Alison’s moved around constantly. But Southwark Cathedral is where she has chosen to be a permanent member of the congregation. She attends at least twice as month. There’s something special about a Cathedral community. Southwark in particular is famously inclusive. Despite being a cathedral, it is as cosy and welcoming as a parish church.

    When she hears what happened there on the night of June 3rd, Alison’s feelings swerve back to the night of the Bataclan; a city in lockdown; police bristling with weapons; a tangible atmosphere of fear; the obsessive watching the news, always tuning in for the next announcement; the eerie silence of a bustling city arrested in its empty 5am persona even in the middle the afternoon.

    Alison feels deep personal concern for the people at the Cathedral, not just for their safety but knowing what it will mean pastorally. Andrew Nunn, the Dean, is so hands’ on. His responsibilities will be endless. Alison knows how close the cathedral community is to the Borough Market. The two are almost synonymous. It’s painful to learn that the clergy are excluded from their Cathedral by the police cordon. Over the following week, her sadness increases with every day of the lockdown. It is just the time pastorally when the door should be open. 

    The first time Alison returns to Southwark Cathedral is for the Trinity Sunday service, a week after the attack, when it finally opens for the first time for a large gathering. It feels really important to be there. Standing in the courtyard, hearing the bells that summon the worshippers, it feels like a reclaiming of the sacred space. The bells ring in a sense of hope. Inside, she listens to Andrew’s sermon, in which he explains the damage caused when the police, hunting for terrorists, used battering rams first to shatter the glass doors to Lancelot’s Link and then to force open the sacristy door. Something stirs in her when Andrew says that the door will not be replaced. Southwark Cathedral will not hide the violence experienced but incorporate it into the experience of the church. In the end, Alison thinks, that’s how healing happens: by acknowledging rather than hiding from pain.It’s fundamental to our Christian faith that Jesus through His suffering has made us whole. A broken Christ brought salvation to humanity.

    What stays in Alison’s mind is the way the sacristy door marks the entrance to the heart of the Cathedral. As an artist working in paint, print and drawing, a sense of place is the focus of all her practice. She prefers to be quiet and understated, privileging what is already there, listening to what people, places and things have to tell her. ‘What is it like to be here?’ is the theme running through her academic work too. It’s how she tunes into children’s experiences. Another fundamental aspect of her practice is the idea of acknowledging brokenness and turning it into something beautiful.
    Alison emails Andrew with an idea for a piece of art based on the damaged door, as a meditation on brokenness. He gets it straightaway, mentioning that a member of the Chapter had told him that, in the Japanese art form kintsugi, you draw attention to cracks with gold rather than pretending that they are not there. (Anne Rooney wrote a post about it here). Andrew and Alison agree that she will take a four-week artist’s residency in the Cathedral, two weeks on either side of the anniversary of the terror attack. ‘Broken Beauty’ will be the name of the project.

    For the first ten days she’ll work on the sacristy door, using a range of different materials including translucent Bible paper and scrim, printmakers cloth for wiping inked plates. As with a brass rubbing, she’ll run an ink-roller over paper pinned to the door. The areas furrowed with damage will not hold the ink, and so will appear as white. That’s where Alison will fill in the with slender rivers of gold paint. The effect will be subtle, won’t shout what is. Making it will not be performative, but the public can watch the process. It’s not about me doing it. It’s about the idea and the piece. Part of the work will be the sacristy door, but also impressions of other places where fabric of the cathedral has been damaged either through violence or degradation over the centuries. Taking impression with a new medium reveals new things the eye never saw before.

    Printmaking in progress in Southwark Cathedral May 2018
    On this anniversary weekend, the work will be displayed in one of the Retrochoir chapels, a quiet, dim and meditative space, which also has a prayer board where visitors can write requests. Two existing pieces will be displayed in the adjoining space.
    'Quilt' (detail). Constructing the quilt
    with monoprints on tissue paper (August 2017)
    ‘Quilt’ is inspired by Jesus’s saying, ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.’ It’s made of nine men’s white cotton handkerchiefs, overlaid with monoprints of dried seaweed roots that look like flowers or mourning bouquets. A seam of gold is sewn through each monoprint. Handkerchiefs, of course, are for soaking up or wiping away tears. Men’s grief, so often hidden, is made visible here. A personal thread runs through this piece: Alison’s father died on Alzheimer’s in 2012. He was a man who had a very well-kept handkerchief drawer.
    Heirloom (detail).
    The second piece, ‘Heirloom’ shows the artist’s intervention in a small collection of sand-dollars, a form of sea urchin. Intricately beautiful, these flat shells look as if they have been hand-etched by God, each with a little flower or star at its centre. They’re so fragile that it’s hard to find a whole one. Rather than discarding the broken ones she’s gathered, Alison painted them in the black Sumi ink normally used in Japanese calligraphy. The strong pigment is absorbed by the shells, tracing the natural fault-lines and patterns. Then she traced the broken edges in gold, creating a kind of natural kintsugi. The treatment reflects the process of bereavement, but also an acceptance that even the broken pieces – like us, after an attack – have value, and are beautiful. The piece acknowledges that we are not neatly put together after tragedy but that somehow there can be a beauty again, even if broken. Unlike genetics, this materiality is inherited in physical form. 'Heirloom’ explores the idea that the things we end up passing on are not necessarily those of monetary value but are the objects that preserve memory and are about who we are. The longer they exist, the more they are loved, the more damaged and fragile that they become, and the more they are – and should be – cherished.
    Heirloom (detail) May 2018 Alison Clark Southwark Cathedral 

    After the anniversary weekend, Alison will host two workshops in the Retrochoir. Attendees are invited to bring a piece of mending, sewing or knitting. Seated in a circle of chairs, people of all faiths or none can gather together to mend and talk. At a practical level, this quiet exercise will draw attention to a prayerful space in the Cathedral where people can seek solace. On a deeper level, the workshop will enact the process of repair to something that’s fragile and beautiful and cannot be discarded just because of damage. Acknowledging that painful truth is part of rightful mourning.

    Extract from Testimony - a memory project.

    I went to visit Alison in the Cathedral as she completed her prints this week. I was moved to see the work all together and also to think about the many hours she'd spent in the Cathedral absorbed in documenting the fabric of the place. This is the kind of art that does not prescribe a reaction but invites the viewer into a meditative space with infinite possibilities. Drawn in, the viewer engages and invests. Within each finished print are many stories. Looking at them, I 'saw' images of forests and clouds. Another viewer might of course find other things. From one angle, the gold paint blazes. From another, the gold effaces itself and the story of the stone and wood is dominant. Past and present are in interplay here, as they are whenever we consult our memories.

    Alison and I talked at length about the role of terror, art and memory. Afterwards, she wrote to me, 'I don’t think commemorating is what is happening here, or only if it is understood as ‘reminding’ not honouring. This is about remembrance - the exercise of memory. Anniversaries of terror events are about remembering. Another definition of remembering is to be ‘mindful’. In a small way, art can provide one avenue for individuals, organisations and communities to be mindful of past events and present realities.

    Alison also drew my attention to my own role as documenter: 'The theme of reminding is one of the purposes of history. To remind is 'to write history', 'to narrate'. Listening and documenting is one way in which contemporary history is made.'

    I wish I could say this was my own insight. When I started my Testimony project, I did not really know why except that it felt imperative. It is only over the last year that purpose and uses have emerged. Throughout that time, it's been a privilege to be part of conversations with people like Andrew, Michael, Gilly and Alison, and I am grateful, on behalf of this community, for all they have brought to the healing process.

    You can book here to attend one of Alison's (free) mending workshops on June 4 and June 7.

    Michelle Lovric’s website

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    Because so many readers enjoyed the conversations I have with other writers, this month I’ve asked US writer Brenda Clough in to chat. First up, an introduction, then on with the conversation. It’s not a lot of to-and-fro, because, on this subject and at this moment, neither of us chose soundbites. Brenda has some interesting things to say, too.

    Brenda:I've been publishing science fiction and fantasy since the 1980s. And I got into historical fiction in a science-fictional way -- with a time travel novel. You remember Titus Oates, right? British hero of Antarctic exploration. He's famous for stepping out into a blizzard with the carelessly British understatement, "I am just going out and may be some time," thus committing suicide to save his fellow explorers.

    One of the big problems of time travel is what we may call the butterfly effect. If you step through your time portal to the late Cretaceous and step on a butterfly, will the present be the same when you get back? Or would that butterfly have been destined to nourish some important lizard, who would otherwise have become the progenitor of the human race? You open the door of your time machine and the year 2018 looks really weird, changed! And if this happens with a butterfly, what would happen if you hauled back a person?

    So the easy solution to this problem is to go back with your time machine and choose a person to fish out of the past that absolutely will not have a butterfly effect. Someone who is in the historical record as not in the biosphere loop; whose body was entombed in the Antarctic ice ever since he died there in 1912. Bingo: Oates is the perfect candidate for a time travel experiment. He slams the door of his tent, walks out into the storm, and there you are, offering him a ride into the far future. But then, to write the novel (REVISE THE WORLD, from Book View Cafe), I needed to master the vocabulary and worldview of an Edwardian gentleman. I despise with a passion the kind of historical novel where the 14th century Benedictine novice in northern France is named Lindsay and sounds like she was born in Chicago in 2003, don't you? Oates had to sound and think like a guy born in 1880.

    So I learned how, and made him sound right. And it was fun! And then, because I had acquired a nifty new skill writing in tight historical voice, I turned to another pet notion of mine. It has long been on my mind that Wilkie Collins sadly dropped the ball. How could he have failed to realize after writing THE WOMAN IN WHITE that there were many many more stories to tell about his incomparable heroine Marian Halcombe? The lady was the Modesty Blaise of the 1860s, Wonder Woman in a crinoline! 

    Well, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. I wrote A MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN, starting in Serial Box. Deliciously, they're going to publish it in the grand Victorian style, in episodes. I am borrowing as possible from the sensational novels that Collins and Dickens pioneered, not only cliffhangers but secret documents, anarchists, unwed mothers staggering through the snow, enraged menfolk with riding crops, and unpleasant incarcerations in Newgate Prison. And I fixed what a modern reader would feel are the problems with those period novels. Marian deals more realistically with the commonalities of women of the period: menstruation, pregnancy, birth control (or the lack thereof). She chafes at the things that would annoy you or me -- the way she absolutely cannot hold a job, the way she has to act like a foolish female. She has to be a perfect Victorian lady who just happens to be able to kick ass through her petticoats and hoop skirt. I am a fan of the fast and fun ride in fiction, but it has to be historically accurate!

    Gillian:It reads to me as if your journey into history has been influenced very strongly by the stories you can tell. Mine has been influenced by the stories others tell.  That leads to profound differences in the way we see history, I suspect. Let's explore this for a bit.

    For me there's not a right and a wrong way of talking about the past: there are only consequences. When a writer explains that they've entirely 'got' the Middle Ages and have understood the cultural differences dividing us from them, the immediate consequence is (I admit) that I mentally classify that work as a particular kind of fantasy. Not one with magic, but an alternate world history, with changed values but similar events. This is because that claim changes the story if the writer doesn't know what they know ie if they think they know everything. The sources for that claim to hold don't exist for the Middle Ages: it's that simple.

    I own a pronunciation dictionary published in the late nineteenth century. This sort of document combined with early recordings give us an inkling of what some people would have sounded like at that time, in that place. We're getting closer to being able to interpret them that tightly. We simply don't have that kind of source for the Middle Ages.

    It's like a recipe, and the less we know about a place and time, the more interpretation the writer has to do. The more of the ingredient 'sources can't help you here - work it out' plays a role. The biggest problem for me, with the Middle Ages, is one that the best writers seldom fall into. Call it a  misreading of the recipe. "There's no secondary material on this. Scholars haven't written about it. I can't read Latin/Old French. Let me make it up. I can, you know." And they do, which is  a good thing... and can result in amazing works. They're set in made-up worlds, though. Not historical worlds. (I talk about things like this in History and Fiction, if you want to explore it a bit more.)

    Because I'm a Medievalist, my examples for this are often from the Middle Ages. Our historical knowledge for Western Europe is changing apace. Archaeological work used to be considered a useful discipline but not central. We looked at politics and stories to find out about the Middle Ages. Right now, archaeology is critical. It's driving changes in understanding daily life, for one thing, ranging from nutrition to how tightly wool was spun. This helps us (as fiction writers)  interpret a truckload of written evidence. It means we can bring some parts of the Middle Ages alive like never before. This is what my novel (to be reissued with a brand new introduction, later this year) Langue[dot]doc 1305 did. It's not most fiction writers know, but very like the one historians  knew that precise moment I wrote it.

    Why? (I'm full of questions today) I read an analysis of a stew that had once been in a pot (I love archaeology!) and compared it with what we know about cooking from other sources. I looked at reports of bone analysis and found out a lot about who died and where. I was doing that research for another project (The Middle Ages Unlocked, which Katrin Kania and I wrote at the request of writers) and I mainly worked on sources for the Languedoc for the novel, but my background knowledge changed the way I made decisions about plot and character: the novel became quite different to other time travel novels because of this. When we take understanding back into the secondary sources we read for fiction we're capable (if we do the work) of using history quite differently in our fiction.

    Historians a novelists alike have the problem of preventing cultural baggage determining the plot. Having a society without women, without minorities who did exist and with minorities who didn't, without basic amenities (cleanliness!) without a sense of what that society was like. This comes down to what I call cultural baggage, but learned initially as historiography and ethnohistory. It's only seeing others in the past through rose-coloured glasses or through hate-coloured glasses or not seeing them at all or only seeing them in predetermined ways.

    That's a new part to the question and a really good one to hand over to you on. There are two juicy subjects here, the first is what sources you used to build up those subjects so very thoroughly that they worked in your fiction, and the other is how you handle your baggage. for we all have that baggage and it's a constant battle to remember what it is and how it affects your work. I say this for myself, with my heartfelt anguish.

    Brenda:I rely a lot on written material. (Alas, it's really difficult and expensive to physically get to Antarctica and I probably never will achieve it.) With Titus Oates I was fortunate in that every man on Scott's expedition kept a journal -- not only was it a Thing at that period. Everyone was encouraged to. The scientists kept scientific journals, everyone else just scribbled in notebooks. Also everyone wrote letters home, which were very often kept and published later. I have read just about everything every man on the Scott expedition ever wrote. What I look for is word usage, rhythms of speech -- how they talked. Because I want the historical characters to sound like they're of their time.

    As to the things that -don't- appear -- profanity, for instance, was totally omitted, also everything involving sex. You wouldn't put cuss words in to the letters home, because they were almost certainly going to be read (even read aloud) by your proud mother or fond sisters, or shown to visitors at the tea table. Oates was one of the most dazzling cussers on the Scott expedition -- it's in the other explorers' journals. The very sailors on their ship were awestruck, British sailors who were probably foul-mouthed beyond anything we can imagine. Not a word of it got into his letters home to his mother. I had to make up his foul language from whole cloth (with much assistance from dictionaries of Edwardian profanity) because there's nothing to quote.

    The same things pertain in the period novels. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens never used profanity, because their works were being printed in magazines, and being read aloud by the family fireside. Women (especially in Dickens) were sock puppets, so good and proper than you want to slug them one. Even Marian Halcombe, a proto-feminist heroine, has her role carefully truncated by the author. She's a thrilling presence in the first half of THE WOMAN IN WHITE but in the second half she's a clinging vine, laid low by typhus and the Victorian proprieties. The literary conventions of the day simply required you to have the hero in charge. The only active woman with agency was the villainness (as in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET) and it was essential that she come to a bad end before the last page.

    Which is why historical fiction is so fine. We can -fix- it. Have you read Geraldine Brooks' MR. MARCH? It's the story of Mr. March, father of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy of LITTLE WOMEN. In the original novel, as you probably recall, Marmee (Mrs. March) is full of platitudes, a truly dull character. In MR. MARCH she's a creature of passion and drive, someone you could actually envision wanting to have dinner with. And I have handed back to Marian all the agency that Collins was obliged to strip away from her. Victorian England was weighted heavily in favor of money and marriage; if you a woman with neither like Marian you were toast. So I fixed it. A well-heeled husband of notable affection and appetite, and she's free to do anything. And, I will point out, a husband you love gives you lots of motivation, when anything threatens him. I hate to contemplate how often I've put Mr. Theophilus Camlet into dire peril so that Marian can rescue him.

    Gillian: I feel that we’re at the beginning of a conversation. I won’t try to sum it up or conclude it. Instead I’ll say “watch this space” and invite you back sometime.

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    Islands, with their closed communities, their remoteness, their uniqueness, have a special place in an author’s heart. Sometimes they become not just settings, but characters in themselves. I chose Skye for my second novel, partly because I wanted somewhere cut off (as it once was), and somewhere with its own folklore, its own beliefs. Others have gone a step further and created fictional islands: Atlantis, Azkaban, Atuan, Fraxos, Hedeby, Svalvard.

    Once I’d started thinking about books set on islands, and asking others to give me their recommendations, I realised that there are in fact hundreds of excellent books set on islands. These include plenty of classics (Swallows and Amazons, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, To the Lighthouse, The Old Man and The Sea) and so many crime novels that I’m beginning to think going to small islands is a serious health risk.

    There’s also a glut of brilliant historical novels set on islands. Here is a list of my top ten favourites, in which both ‘historical fiction’ and ‘island’ are given a broad interpretation. There will be many I’ve missed, so do comment below.

    1.Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys, 1966

    The novel in which Rhys gives voice to the ‘mad woman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress and the wife of a man who, though he is never named, we understand to be Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. He renames her ‘Bertha’, declares her mad, and relocates her from the West Indies to England. Written in the 1960s but set in the early 1800s, this is a key postcolonial work, which deals with ethnic and gender inequality, displacement and injustice.

    2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell, 2010 

    Mitchell transports us 1799 and to Dejima, a tiny artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki where the Dutch East India Company established a trading post. Mitchell had been backpacking through the west of Japan looking for lunch when he stumbled upon the Dejima museum. ‘I never did get the lunch that day,’ Mitchell said. ‘But I filled a notebook with information about this place I'd never heard of and resolved one day to write about it.’

    In the novel, a young Dutch clerk arrives to make his name but falls in love with a midwife, who is spirited away to a sinister mountain temple cult. It’s a fascinating work of ideas, longing, power and corruption.

    3. Secrets of the Sea House, Elisabeth Gifford, 2010

    Having fallen in love with the Hebridean island of Harris and its legends, Gifford came across an 1809 letter to The Times about a Scottish schoolmaster who claimed to have seen a mermaid. From this sprang her brilliant debut, a dual-timeline novel that tells the tale of a newly-ordained priest, Reverend Alexander Ferguson in 1860, assigned to a parish on a remote part of the island. Over a century later, Ruth, raised in children's homes after losing her mother as a young child, discovers the tiny bones of baby buried beneath their new house, the legs fused together like that of a mermaid. A beautiful story of love, hope, healing and stories.

    4. The Light Between Oceans, ML Stedman, 2012 

    Tom Sherbourne returns home from the Western Front trenches of World War I. He and his wife, Izzy, move to an isolated lighthouse on Janus Rock off the coast of South West Australia. One day in 1926 a boat washes ashore, containing a dead man, and a crying baby. What happens next leads to a gripping exploration of grief, temptation and love.

    ML Stedman said:‘The island of Janus Rock is entirely fictitious (although I have a placeholder for it on Google maps). But the region where the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet is real, and the climate, weather and the landscape are more or less as I’ve described them. I wrote some of the book there: It’s a very beautiful, if sometimes fierce, part of the world.’ And that is very much reflected in the novel.

    5. The Book of Night Women, Marlon James, 2013 

    Marlon James’ searing second novel, The Book of Night Women, is set on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the late 18th century.  It tells the story of green-eyed Lilith, born into slavery and orphaned at birth by her 13-year-old mother, one of the many slave girls raped by their white masters. Forced to grow up fast, Lilith begins to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman. By no means an easy read, but an essential one, it’s a story that culminates in slave revolt, blood and atonement.

    ‘I don’t consider myself a historical novelist,’ James has said. ‘But I am obsessed with the past. And I am obsessed with stories that weren’t told, or that weren’t told in a good way.’ As the African proverb goes: ‘Until the lion’s story is told, the story will always belong to the hunter.’

    6. The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge, 2015


    The Lie Tree, Hardinge’s seventh novel, opens with 14-year-old Faith Sunderly and her family leaving their home in Kent for the isolated (and fictional) island of Vale. Faith, forever spying, discovers they have fled to escape the growing scandal around her father’s recently published scientific findings. When her father is found dead, Faith sets out to find out what has really happened and discover the nature of her father’s investigations. This leads her to a tree that feeds off lies.
    Supposedly YA, but really for all ages, this is one of my favourite Victorian-era novels, and definitely my favourite one about lying plants.

    7. The Winter Isles, Antonia Senior, 2016 

    Antonia Senior plunges us in to the raw and often vicious world of 12th century Scotland where Somerled, son of an ageing chieftain, must prove his own worth as a warrior. It’s a compelling story of action, warfare, love and sacrifice and one which is clearly rooted in Senior’s love of the West Coast of Scotland.

    ‘All my favourite places are islands,’ she says, ‘From Corsica to Mull, Iona to Ponza. As a visitor they offer a manageable, enclosed world to explore. As a writer there is something magical about islands: a world within a world. There is often surface beauty, and a sinister underbelly. They are enclosed spaces, in which people are too close to each other - that strange interplay between isolation and oppressive familiarity.’

    8. Mussolini’s Island, Sarah Day, 2017 

    In 1939 a series of Sicilian men were taken from their homes and imprisoned on the island of San Domino in the Adriatic Sea. Their crime? They were gay. Out of this little-known slice of history, Sarah Day has created a fascinating novel.

    Francesco, a young gay man from Catania who grew up without a father, is one of those arrested and herded into a camp on the island. Meanwhile, a girl called Elena dreams of escape from her island home, imagining Francesco will save her.

    ‘It’s such a beautiful, peaceful place,’ Day says of San Domino, ‘and yet was used for such a dark purpose. As a visitor, arriving by boat, the island seems so idyllic, but as soon as you put yourself in the mind of a prisoner being brought there against your will, you realise how terrifying it must have been to arrive somewhere so isolated and stark. That context was really important to me when writing the book-an island can be a paradise or a prison, depending on who you are and the time in which you live.’

    9. Sugar Money, Jane Harris, 2017 

    Martinique, 1765. The charismatic but damaged Lucien and his more cautious older brother Emile are tasked by their French master with returning to Fort Royal in Grenada to bring back the slaves stolen by the English. Emile knows this to be a reckless mission, but, as with most things in their lives, it is something in which they have no choice. What follows is part adventure, part tragedy, and entirely compelling.

    Harris has created a setting we believe in and characters we desperately want to survive. There is nothing sweet about Sugar Money, nor should there be.

    10. Mr Peacock's Possessions, Lydia Syson, 2018 

    It is 1879 and Mr Peacock and his family are struggling to scratch a life for themselves on a tiny volcanic island off the coast of New Zealand. At last, a ship appears, bringing six Pacific Islanders who have travelled across the ocean in search of work. All seems well until Mr Peacock’s son, Albert, goes missing.

    This is a gripping mystery is woven from strands of real history. As Lydia Syson explained in her interview with History Girl Adèle Geras, the story came from her husband’s ancestors, Tom and Federica Bell, who in 1878 decided to take their six children to make their home on an uninhabited Pacific Island called Sunday Island. ‘The captain who brought them sailed away, promising to return in three months. They found their provisions were rotten and they never saw that ship again.’

    Again, the island setting is crucial to the story, as Syson herself makes clear. ‘The island – so beautiful, so fertile and yet so treacherous - was a gift in terms of setting, plot and metaphor.’


    Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. Her second novel, The Story Keeper, set on the Isle of Skye, will be published in July 2018.


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    Looking through my bookshelves for inspiration for today’s post, I found - as you do - Caxton’s translation of ‘The Book of the Knight of the Tower’. I pulled it out, opened it up, and immediately came across a wonderfully ridiculous anecdote, a cautionary tale about what happens when women eat delicacies without their husbands' knowledge. Yes.

    A young married woman had a pet magpie or ‘Pye’ which could speak, and would talk about everything it saw. In one of his ponds, her husband happened to keep a large eel, which he was saving to have cooked, as an impressive dish, to any important guest who might visit him. Then one day when her husband was away, the lady decided she fancied eating the eel herself.

    And it happened that the lady said to the Chamberer, that it were good to eat the great Eele, and they thought that they would say to their lord that thieves had eaten him. And when the lord came home, the Pye began to tell and say to him, ‘My lady hath eaten the Eele.’ 

    And when the lord heard this, he went to his pond and found not his Eele, and came home to his wife and demanded her what was befallen of his Eele? And she attempted to have excused her.  And he said to her that he was ascertained thereof, and that the Pye had told him.  And in the house therefore was great sorrow and noise. 

    The lord stormed off in an enormous huff. Recovering from her hysterics the lady called her Chamberer, went to the magpie’s cage and plucked the feathers from his head, scolding him: ‘Thou hast discovered us of the eele!’ – ‘You told on us about the eel!’ But the bird got his revenge, for:

    …from then forth on, if any man came into that house that was bald, or pilled [shaven] or had a high forehead, the Pye would say to them, ‘ye have told my lord of the Eele’. And therefore this is a good example, that no good woman should not eat for her licorousness [greed] the sweet or dainty morsels without the witting [knowledge] of her husband.  This damsel was after much scorned and mocked for that Eele, by cause of the Pye that so oft remembered it to such as came thither bald or shaven.

    Fabulous, yes? That’ll teach her to eat eels behind her husband’s back. The comedy is so slapstick (‘he went to his pond and found not his Eele’) it’s clear this story was always a funny one, the difference between now and then, however, being that nowwe enjoy the comedy and ignore the moral, while then the moral was the important part, and the comedy was there only to enliven it and make it memorable. The Knight of the Tower really did believe that wives had better not sneak delicacies their husbands never intended them to have.  

    The Knight of the Tower was Geoffrey IV de la Tour Landry, and he wrote his long book of advice in 1371-2 for the use and instruction of his daughters.  He was a widower, a careful and loving parent, and he worried about his growing daughters’ reputations and morals. He opens the book in traditional medieval style, pensive in a garden, mourning his dead wife in a passage of great tenderness:

    And of all good she seemed to me the best and the flower, in whom I so much me delighted: for in that time I made songs, lays, roundels, ballads, virelays and new songs in the most best wise that I could; but death which spareth none hath taken her, for whom I have received many sorrows and heaviness in such wise that I passed my life more than twenty years heavy and sorrowful.

    Seeing his daughters coming towards him, ‘young and little’, he begins to remember the days when he himself was a young man ‘and rode with my fellowship in Poitou’; how his friends (and he?) ‘had neither dread nor shame… and were well-bespoken … and thus they do nothing but deceive good ladies and damsels’.  

    There wasn't to be any of this! Like many a father before and since, The Knight of the Tower Landry decided his precious daughters needed to be protected from such predatory young gallants. ‘And for this cause… I have thought on my well-beloved daughters whom I see so little, to make [for] them a little book … to the end that they may learn and study and understand the good and evil that is past [ie: that has happened in the past] for to keep them from [that] which is to come.’

    You can’t help but like him, and I like him even more when he adds: “I have made two books, one for my sons and the other for my daughters.”  The one he wrote for his sons has not survived; down the ages people have commonly been less concerned about the morals and behaviour of their boys. The book of advice for girls, however, became an instant smash hit, copied many times.  “There are still at least twenty-one manuscripts of the French text in existence,” says the intro to the EETS edition, “and an English translation was made during Henry VI’s reign; Caxton made a new English translation which he printed in 1484, and a German version made by Marquart vom Steim, ostensibly for his own two daughters, was published at Basle in 1493.”  It continued in print right into the 19thcentury.

    It’s easy to see why it would have been popular, even for the young women who were supposed to be benefiting from it. It’s so lively! The text is studded with Awful Examples which are enormous fun to read. The chapter on ‘How women ought not to be jealous’ opens with a fight between two ladies, one of whom breaks the other’s nose with a staff. Chapter 15 (xviij) is titled ‘How a woman sprang upon the table’. In Chapter 19 (xix), ‘Of the woman that gave the flesh to her hounds’, a lady insists on feeding her two little dogs on ‘daily dysshes of soupes and fryandyses delycyous’ (delycyous is so much more delicious than delicious, don’t you think?) in spite of the warnings of a friar who tells her not to waste food which could be given to the poor. Naturally she then falls ‘sick unto the death’ and ‘there came upon her bed two little black dogs’ which lick her lips and mouth till they turn it ‘as black as a Cole’. Shiver! 

    Yes, there are nine chapters listing the nine follies of Eve (some of which I lifted for the use of nasty Brother Thomas in my medieval fantasy ‘Dark Angels’). Yes, there are plenty of pious examples taken from the Bible. But these are constantly enlivened by tabloid stuff such as Chapter 62 (lxij) ‘Of the roper or maker of cordes and kables and of the fat Pryour that was Ryche and a great lechour’. Who wouldn’t want to read that?

    In a last example, the Knight warns his daughters not to argue with fools or hot-tempered people.

    For it is great peril. Wherof I shall show to you an example which I saw happen in a Castle wherein many ladies and damsels dwelt. And there was a damsel, daughter of a right good knight. And she wax angry [lost her temper] in playing at tables [gambling] with a gentleman which was hot and hasty and most Riotous, and was not right wise. And the debate was of a dice, which she said was not truly made. And so much it increased that words were enhanced, and that she said he was a coward and a fool. And so they left their play by chiding and strife.

    The Knight was a witness to this event, for he tries to offer advice, which of course isn’t taken.

    Then said I to the damsel, My fair Cousin, anger yourself with nothing that he says, for you know well he is of high words and foolish answers … but she would not, and she said to him that he was worth nothing… and so the words arose, that he said, if she had been wise and good, she should not come by night into the men’s chamber and kiss them and embrace them without candles. And she said that he lied, and he said he did not … and there was much people that heard it and knew not what to think.

    People haven’t changed much down the years. Courtly love might have been the ideal, but here is a vivid glimpse into the lives of the privileged, bored, hasty-tempered and – we should remember –  often very young noblemen and women of the fourteenth century castle.

    Picture credits (where known)

    Magpie: detail from medieval illuminated manuscript, British Library Harley MS 3244, 1236-c 1250
    Garden of Pleasure, c 1487-95: Artist Unknown British Library, London, Harley 4425   f. 12v  
    Illumination from the Christ-herre Chronik, c. 1370
    Women fighting (unknown) 
    From a Book of Hours c. 1460 in the collection of the Walters Art Museum

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  • 06/04/18--16:30: Bizarre Silks by Joan Lennon
  • I've got some French Huguenot blood in me* and so when I saw there was a programme about them, presented by the wide-eyed Amber Butchart and called The First Refugees,** I gave it a go.  Which is where I stumbled across Bizarre Silks.  These unlikely looking fabric designs were made between 1695 and 1720.  They were big, bold, and bright, featuring strong diagonals and asymmetry, Oriental-style architecture, and giant flamboyant foliage.  The silk - much of which was being woven in Spittalfields by Huguenot immigrants - was the height of fashion, and big names such as James Leman were swept up in it.  (Leman's carefully preserved designs from the period are in the process of being made available to the public by the V&A.)

    a James Leman Bizarre Silk design from 1710 (Wikicommons)

    Bizarre Silk Mantua circa 1708 (Wikicommons)

    detail (Wikicommons)

    Man's sleeved waistcoat circa 1715 (Wikicommons)

    Here are some other patterns for Bizarre Silk fabrics:

    a design by Charles Baudouin 1707 (Wikicommons)  

    a design "after James Leman", described as "Geometric and Floral Meanders" 
    (circa 1708-1709)

    Sadly, the term Bizarre Silk wasn't coined until 1953 (first used in the title of Dr Vilhelm Sloman's book Bizarre Designs in Silks).  In its heyday, these exuberant fabrics were probably known simply as very, very desirable.

    * along with 1 in 6 people in Britain, according to the programme
    ** available on BBC IPlayer - well worth a watch.

    Joan Lennon's website.
    Joan Lennon's blog.
    Granny Garbage.

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
    Your IP : - Country : - City:
    Your ISP TRACKS Your Online Activity! Hide your IP ADDRESS with a VPN!
    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    Another in my occasional series of little books from the past.

    I can’t stand those cosy aphorisms that fly about on social media. You know the sort of thing – all about counting your blessings and the dead being only in the next room. Accompanied by pictures of kittens and rainbows and sunsets.

    The title page

    I’m also a inveterate declutterer, and recently I have been ‘editing’ my house to get rid of what I don’t need, no matter the sentimental attachment. I have sent dozens of boxes of books and ephemera to charity shops. I have recycled all the lovely sympathy letters people sent me when my father died in 2008. (Though I did read them again and think kind thoughts about every writer; I’m pragmatic, not heartless.)

    How many of these were sent to France?
    So why have I kept this? Well, it’s small and unobtrusive. It belonged to my grandfather, who died when I was nine and thus never grew out of being a magical and godlike figure to me. To be honest, I don’t think I ever opened it until now. It’s full of homespun wisdom, about – yes, counting blessings and being kind and temperate.  No kittens or rainbows though. In fact, it can be rather bracing. If you are sad it is almost always caused by thinking about yourself.

    The book was first published in November 2017, when it seemed as if the Great War would never end, and this is the second edition, from May 1918, when despair must have cut even deeper. It is very small – I wonder how many mothers and uncles and Sunday school teachers bought them to send out to the Western Front, and how the recipients might have greeted them.

     Isle of Man, 1927. Granda
    was there: was W.J. Gregg?

    Granda was too young to fight. His copy was a Christmas present in 1925, when he was a very young man – only 21, I think. I don’t know who the W.J. Gregg, who inscribed it To Charlie, with every good wish was. I might have sent it to the charity shop, along with so many others, but for that inscription, especially the informal Charlie. It makes it too personal, too much a part of family history. I have old photos, what my grandparents called snaps, of jolly parties of young men carousing in the 1920s. Carousing, you understand, in a temperate way, often at Sunday School picnics and outdoor church services. Perhaps W.J. Gregg was one of those. Was he William, Wilfred or Walter? William, I suspect. Probably known as Willie, as they so rarely are nowadays. Willie John maybe. Or Willie James. They were close enough friends for him to write Charlie, but distant enough for him to sign his own name formally.

    The caption that made me keep it


    Did Granda treasure the book? He certainly kept it, but then he kept everything, as that generation did. And after his death in 1978, Gran kept it too, but she treasured everything of his. It is in good condition, which might mean it wasn’t much read, or simply that he looked after it.

    As I will. I don’t believe the dead are in the next room, but I do believe something of them lives on in the things they owned and kept. Something of their own joy and gladness, perhaps.

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    The recent wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle has prompted me to write this post: a frank confession of my practically life-long interest in, and admiration for the Royal Family. I speak not as a Monarchist, but rather as a FAN. And when I say 'fan' I mean someone who has followed the dramas that have gone on in the House of Windsor since before the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.

    I began to be interested in the fortunes of the Princesses,  Lillibet and Margaret Rose, as I thought of them, in about 1952. I was living in Jesselton, North Borneo at the time and in that year I was 8 years old. My enduring love of newsprint and magazines dates from those days too: happy hours turning the pages of the Illustrated London News, which took some time to get to us, 'somewhere East of Suez' but which was a huge treat whenever I looked at it. My father used to get tissue-paper-thin air-mail copies of the New Statesman and Nation, as the Staggers was called back then, so we were very well-informed. We also had the Pathé News before each film was shown at the cinema. No television, of course...

    In 1989, I wrote a book called The Coronation Picnic about this time and here is a quotation from it, which perfectly describes me: "The scrapbooks lived in the bottom drawer of the chest-of-drawers ...they were Amy's most precious possession. They were filled with photographs  cut from newspapers and magazines, which together recorded the life of the Royal Family. Now, as well as pictures of a smiling Princess Elizabeth on the balcony of Buckingham Palace and a smart young lady in uniform, as well as wedding photographs and portraits of the new baby prince, there were sad pictures of King George VI's funeral, with his mother and his wife and his daughters, all dressed in black."

    In Jesselton, we celebrated the Coronation with a Launch Picnic. This meant going to an offshore island called Gaya where we swam and ate and what I remember of it most vividly was that the sea bed was completely visible through fathoms of totally translucent turquoise water, for the whole length of a twenty-minute trip in a motor launch. We went on such a picnic almost  every weekend, but I used the one just before the Coronation  as the background for my ghost story. In real life, there was a party for the children at the Club, featuring lots of cake and lemonade and small sandwiches. A brass band performed on the Padang, or field, which was part of the Club's grounds. The photos and film of the actual Coronation reached us some time later. I was very impressed with the pomp and the ceremony...the music thrilled me, too, and since that day, I've taken a strong interest in every doing of the Royals. It's the Soap Opera to end all soap operas and I regard every 'episode' as doing what the best soaps do: building up layers and layers of knowledge about the main characters and taking in life-changing events and dramas....the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was one such moment, and the most obvious, but every little scandal or tragedy or piece of celebration is grist to my mill. 

    My opinion of individual members of the Royal Family changes over the years, according to how they're behaving, but certain things remain forever as they were. I fell in love with Prince Philip when I was 8 and none of his very obvious character flaws, and not even his rather disastrous decisions when it came to educating his eldest son, let alone his 'gaffes' have done anything to put me off him. I think he's very, very handsome and gallant and very good to the Queen. They are still, after more than 70 years of marriage, happy together. The compromises each has had to make along the way is their business, but there can be no doubt of their mutual devotion. 

    The Queen is admirable. My friends and I knew, back when we were very young, that Margaret was the naughty one and Elizabeth the dutiful, good one. I was at boarding school during the Peter Townsend affair and we thought the whole thing terribly romantic and sad too.  We've learned a lot lately about what Margaret was really like but she was always touched with a kind of glamour for me because of her love of the arts, especially ballet.

    One thing, though, has changed completely. I look at photographs from the 50s and see how lovely the young Elizabeth was. She had been a kind of frumpish figure in my eyes but now I can see that I was quite wrong and she was always the prettier of the sisters and even though not as outwardly glamorous as Margaret, beautiful and serene and yes, well-dressed for most occasions.

    And so to weddings. On the day that Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, my daughters had the day off school and we watched the whole event on TV.   My elder daughter was 10 and the younger was 4 or so and I can report that this wedding did not turn either of them into followers of the Royal Soap Opera, though Younger Daughter did enjoy watching the latest Royal Wedding.  Everyone was  given mugs, or coins (I can no longer remember which!)  and the whole day had the feel of a holiday. I was 37. I can remember cringing at the awful interview when the couple became engaged,  with Prince Charles looking most uncomfortable and saying memorably, horribly: "Whatever love means". I could see that this marriage was not going to be plain sailing. I had mixed feelings about Diana Spencer. I felt sorry for her. I hoped she'd be okay,  but as the years went on (with happy interludes for the births of the two princes, William and Harry) the whole world, thanks to television and the  Press, watched as the Soap Opera went into a kind of hideous spiral culminating in the tragic death of a very pretty, glamorous,  kind but deeply troubled woman. The funeral was terribly sad, and no one who saw it can forget those two young boys walking behind the coffin. The designers of Soap Operas could hardly have hoped for a Narrative Arc more perfect than both Diana's sons finding what seems to be genuine happiness in their own marriages.   I also like the Lesser Narrative Arc which seems to have ensured the closeness of the brothers. 

    Above is the Royal Wedding that's closest to my heart. Charles and Camilla are the least loved, I think, in the family, but I have a lot of time for the Duchess of Cornwall. When she and Charles were married I heaved a sigh of relief. They were meant for one another, and ought to have got together decades earlier. (See Duke of Edinburgh's mistakes.) They love one another. They've loved one another since they were very young indeed.  Also, I like Camilla for a silly reason: of all the members of the Royal Family, she's the one who reads. I sent her a copy of my novel 'Made in Heaven' which has a whole section in it about her wedding to Charles, and her secretary wrote  me a lovely letter back saying thank you. Ask any writer: a thank you letter, especially one on headed notepaper, is a very rare thing indeed.  When this happened, I suggested in an email to Susan Hill that Camilla was just being polite and would never read it and Susan assured me she would. "She's a real reader," Susan said and they know one another, so I believe her.  I also admire the fact that she seems a good step-mother. It can't have been easy to make up for a loss like that suffered by William and Harry but they and Camilla get on well now, I believe and that's to the  credit of everyone.

    I'm a bit ambivalent about Prince Charles but he's made a beautiful garden at Highgrove and his Duchy brand makes very nice lemon shortbread biscuits. His sons seem to love him and to love Camilla as well.  This, in Soap Terms, counts as a very happy Narrative Arc.

    The media, I feel, might try and get us to take sides in the matter of which Duchess we like the best. Will we be Team Kate or Team Meghan? The Duchess of Cambridge is my local duchess, so to speak, and I really enjoyed her wedding to Prince William, with highlights such as Pippa Middleton's derriere, and so on. 

    I continue to think she's lovely and I'm not among the detractors who mock her as 'norm core'. She always looks elegant and pretty and seems to be managing her life in the public eye with admirable reticence. I also like the look of her daughter, Charlotte, who is going to be, I predict, a Handful in the nicest possible way. She's already a Star Waver and seeker of the camera lens...that's going to be fun to follow as she grows up. Her parents have kept her away from the Press's attentions most effectively so far, but the decades will roll on and little princesses grow up...so do little princes. That's going to be very interesting to watch.

    And so to Meghan Markle, who has brought something new and wonderful to the story. She's from Showbiz Royalty which has arguably more clout than our own variety. She's beautiful, talented and seems intelligent too. She's brilliant at interviews and knows how to present herself to the media in ways that our own un-show-biz Royals can only envy. I loved her in Suits and see no reason why she won't be just as good in this new part. She's taken it on for life, but I think she'll enjoy it and what the Wedding on May 19th showed an audience of billions round the world is this: Charles may not know what love means, but his son has no doubts whatsoever. He's madly in love and so is Meghan and that feeling between them made May 19th an occasion for the whole nation to rejoice. The Soap Opera Gods outdid themselves on that day. Everything looked wonderful, everything went exactly as it ought to have done. The whole congregation loved the service and so did we. Beautiful music, beautiful flowers, beautiful guests of both sexes, wonderful exchanges between members of the family and above all, Charles being kind and courteous to Meghan's mother who was there by herself. She was there alone because Meghan's family.....but that's a whole other soap opera, which may or may not become featured in the Windsor story.

    Also, the press will watch every outfit the Duchess of Sussex wears and the eagle eyes of the gossip columnists will be fixed on her waistline...watch this space for news of another pregnancy. The story goes on and on...

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    Norman priest's door at Church of St. Medard & St Gildard
    Little Bytham, Lincolnshire. The two birds on either side of
    the niche are probably the eagle of St Medard whose image
    may once have occupied the niche.
    Photographer: Simon Garbutt
    "Raine, raine go away, 
    Come againe a Saterday."
    A children's rhyme, which I remember chanting in the playground, but which was recorded as early as 1687 by John Aubrey, who commented then that it was probably a charm of 'Great Antiquity.'

    Today, 8th June, is one of those days of the year when we should all pay close attention to whether the rain stays or goes, especially those of us who live in France or England, because this is St Medardus or St Medard’s Day, and similar weather lore is connected to this saint as to St Swithin’s Day which falls on 15th July.
    "Quand il pleut à la Saint-Médard, il pleut quarante jours plus tard."
    (If it rains on St Medard’s' Day, it rains for forty days more.)

    In England the saying was - "St Medard drops drop for forty days." But another version ran - "On St Medard’s day it rains six weeks before or six weeks after."

    St Medard (456–545) was the Bishop of Vermandois. He was invoked for protection against bad weather, but he was also a saint that medieval people prayed to when they needed rain. He was a particularly pious child and legend has it that Medard was shielded from the rain by an eagle who spread its wings to shelter him, so the saint is also protector of those who work outdoors. A useful saint for the farmers and gardeners amongst us.

    Martyrdom of St Barnabas
    Medard was often depicted laughing with his mouth open, and for this reason was invoked against toothache. But he did seem to be regarded in the Middle Ages as a saint with a slightly malicious sense of humour, for another old piece of weather lore concerns him and St Faustus whose feast day falls tomorrow, 9th June.
    “St Faustus said to St Medard, Barnabas and Vitus are my neighbours and together we will give the country folk a good washing till Frederick the Hollander comes and closes the doors of heaven.”

    St Barnabas’ feast was celebrated on the 11th June and St Vitus on 15th June. But the feast day ‘Frederick the Hollander’, who would bring an end to the deluge, wasn’t until 18th July.

    Better known as St Frederick, patron saint of the deaf, Frederick was born in 780, and became Bishop of Utrecht. He was stabbed to death by two assassins after mass on 18th July around the year 838, though sources are not agreed about the precise year. It was claimed by his hagiographers that his murderers were in the pay of Empress Judith of Bavaria, because he accused her of immorality, though there is no evidence that she was particularly immoral, or that he had accused of such. Others claim his killers were hired by the citizens of Walcheren who hated missionaries.

    Frederick of Utrecht impaled by two daggers.
    1650, Cornelius Visscher
    There seems no obvious link in his hagiography to closing the door of heaven and stopping it raining, except that the bishop composed a popular prayer to the Holy Trinity, which was widely used through the Middle Ages, and the Holy Trinity was frequently invoked in Saxon and medieval weather charms. But more likely it was simply an observation that the weather usually improved around the middle of the July and St Frederick’s feast day was one ordinary people could remember.

    But if the thought of six weeks of rain depresses you, there is one ray of sunshine - it was said that if the weather changes on the feast of St Barnabas (11th June), then it will be fair for 40 days.
    On St Barnabas put the scythe to the grass. Barnabas bright – the longest day and shortest night.”

    Of course, in the Middle Ages, as now, rain could be both welcome or dreaded depending on how much had or hadn’t fallen. But if any rain fell on Ascension Day it was always considered a 'blessing from heaven.' Clean bowls and pails would be put out in the open to collect any rain which fell straight from the sky, rather than trickling from a roof or tree. It would then be stored to be used as a cure for many ailments, especially for eye problems. Sometimes parsley would be added to Ascension water which would be used to washed a baby’s eyes daily to strengthen its sight. As late as 1927, Ascension rain was caught and bottled in the village of Elmley Castle, Worcestershire. In Lincolnshire these healing properties were ascribed to rain that fell anytime in June, and while in Wales, babies washed in this water would be early talkers.
    Village of Elmley Castle, painted in 1912

    Rain was considered a bad omen at a wedding and a good omen at the funeral.
    "Happy is the bride that the sun shines on.
    Happy is the corpse that the rain rains on." 

    Mourners believed that if rain fell on the coffin or the corpse, it was sign the decease's soul would soon be received into heaven.

    In the Middle Ages, if there was a drought various charms were used to try to call rain down. Most have an origin in sympathetic magic or perhaps vestiges of offerings once made to local deities or spirits, such as sprinkling water on certain stones. In Tarn Dulyn, Mount Snowdon, water was thrown at the furthest stepping stone, which known as the 'Red Altar'. Hurling flour into a spring then stirring the water with a hazel-rod was said to produce a mist that would rise and form a cloud. Ferns of all kinds were associated with thunder and lightning and so widely-held was the belief that burning ferns would make it rain that in 1636, Lord Pembroke is reputed to have asked the High Sherriff of Staffordshire to ensure that no fern should be burnt during the visit of Charles I, so that the king would not be inconvenienced by a down-pour.
    Snowdon from Capel Curig 
    Phillip James de Loutherbourg, 1787
    Yale Centre for British Art

    But I’ll end with one of my favourite weather sayings that if it rains on the feast day of St Mary Magdalen on the 22nd July it is said she is washing her kerchief so that she can dance at the fair of her cousin St James on 25th July.

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  • 06/08/18--16:56: The Key to the Womb
  • by Caroline Lawrence

    I have been studying the remains and also the grave-goods of a 14-year-old girl from 3rd century Roman London as part of the inspiration for a new book provisionally titled The Girl with the Ivory Knife. Dubbed the Lant Street Teen, this girl’s grave was uncovered on Lant Street in Southwark when ground was being cleared for a new development near Borough Tube Station. 

    One reason she is of interest is that her DNA and isotopes have been analysed and tell us that she was of European ancestry with blue eyes, but grew up in the southern Mediterranean, perhaps even North Africa. (She was buried near other Roman Londoners of black African ancestry.) We know from her teeth and bones that she came to London aged about nine and died five years later, aged around fourteen. 

    Apart from the fascinating story suggested by her DNA and isotopes, her burial was notable for the richness of the grave goods. In a cemetery where other bodies were buried with maybe a couple of clay beakers and some glass beads, the Lant Street Teen had two exotic glass perfume bottles, a wooden box decorated with bone inlay and copper, a copper-alloy key on a chain and an iron clasp knife with an ivory handle in the shape of a leopard. The glamour of a knife with a handle of expensive ivory in the shape of an exotic leopard has slightly eclipsed the other items, in particular the little key. 

    One of my obsessions is with the apotropaic devices and charms of the ancient Roman world. We forget how terrifying it was to live in a world of invisible enemies. The Romans had no concept of infection apart from a vague idea of miasma or bad air. Most illnesses, accidents and other calamities were blamed on evil spirits or gods. For this reason, I believe that almost every manufactured item had an apotropaic aspect (i.e. to turn away evil) either as its primary function or in addition to its primary function. The girl’s knife, for example, obviously had many practical functions, but its fierce leopard-shaped handle made from piercing elephant tooth might have had the power to frighten off spirits.

    The box may have contained makeup which not only beautified but protected.

    Her clothing did not survive, but it almost certainly had built-in protection. In her book Dress and Personal Appearance in Late Antiquity, Faith Pennick Morgan points out that almost all embellishment on ancient garments was apotropaic. Borders, knots and sewn-in talismans were all designed to act as ‘flypaper for demons’, to confuse them and keep the wearer safe. Even colours had special properties. For example, red was considered repellent to demons which may explain why archaeologists have found so many children’s tunics in this colour. (Children were considered especially vulnerable, which is why they also wore apotropaic amulets such as the phallus-shaped charm.)

    The two small flasks might have contained perfume; good and bad smells were used to manipulate spirits. In ancient times, the uterus of a woman was considered by the ancients to be a living creature – almost demonic – wandering around and causing damage or death to a woman by harming or squeezing her other internal organs. Plato (Timaeus 91c) writes that the wombs and uteruses of women have in them a living animal that craves children. (Our word ‘hysterical’ comes from the Greek word for uterus.) Ancient doctors suggested that girls marry as close to their first period as possible so that they could bear children and control the wandering womb.

    If the restless womb moved too far down, doctors would place pleasant incense near the woman’s head to draw it up while at the same time wafting unpleasant scents such as burnt hair, pitch, cedar resin and squashed bedbugs (!) between her legs to repel the womb. If the womb had wandered too high and threatened to asphyxiate the woman by pressing on her lungs, then they would do the opposite, placing sweet-smelling things below her pelvis and ill-smelling substances by her nose. (see Magical and Medical Approaches to the Wandering Womb in the Ancient Greek World by Christopher A. Faraone)

    This brings us to the last item found in her grave, the key on its chain. 

    What might this have symbolised? 

    In Roman times, a key on a woman’s belt might well have showed that she enjoyed responsibility in her domain, the household. Sets of keys dangling from belts on a chain became an important status symbol in Late Antique times and gave us the word chatelaine. But the Lant Street Teen’s key seems too small and delicate to be a house or storeroom key. It feels more like the key to a small chest or box. Although we have the evidence that she was buried with just such a small box (above), there is no trace of a lock, which one assumes would also have been in copper-alloy. 

    Perhaps the key symbolised the unlocking of the Gates of Death so that the girl’s soul could cross the threshold into the afterlife. This suggestion is made in connection with an iron key found above the pelvis of a Roman womans skeleton from Cirencester. (The Western Cemetery of Roman Cirencester p24 & p88) There is another possibility for the Lant Street Girls key that I have not seen suggested elsewhere.   

    Many Romans believed the soul to be immortal, but another way of ensuring ‘everlasting memory’ was to leave something of yourself behind. Literature, a monument or a fine tombstone were all ways of making a mark. Another way of continuing beyond death was to live through offspring. In this day and age of empowered women we tend to downplay the craving for children, but this was often the deepest desire of many women in ancient times. 

    In her book about Dress in Late Antiquity, Faith Morgan writes that keys were found on womb amulets, symbolising control of the opening of the womb to allow conception and pregnancy, and the locking of the womb to prevent miscarriage. (p36) And in his fascinating article about the Wandering Womb, Faraone highlights the many gems of hematite (bloodstone) depicting a womb above a key. The womb is shown as a kind of upside down beaker and the key is usually the kind with teeth like a comb. (The picture above shows a big iron key probably for a warehouse door. On the amulet below you can see the key with crank-like handle and distinctive teeth beneath the opening of the womb.) 

    In this position the key clearly symbolises the locking or unlocking of the womb. Again, the womb is like a creature that needs controlling. Sometimes a magic name is carved on the other side of these magic womb amulets. This may be the name of the demon or spirit in charge of wombs. Sometimes a sentence on the back addresses the demon or even the womb directly. E.g. ‘Contract, womb, lest Typhon seize you!’ (Faraone Gems of Heaven p 66) 

    Reading about keys on womb amulets made me wonder about the small key found with the bones of the Lant Street Teen. Perhaps it was the key to the now-lost wooden box, originally worn with her knife on her belt. But perhaps she also wore it as a talisman to protect a growing baby in her womb. Dr Rebecca Redfern, who probably knows this girl’s bones better than anybody, told me that although the Lant Street Teen was young there is a chance that she might have been a young mother. And we have just seen that it was recommended that girls begin to bear children as soon as possible. Perhaps our girl even died in childbirth. In that case, the little key that protected her womb and helped her bear fruit would be a testimony of her achievement on earth. This is my own idea, and a far-fetched one, I admit, which may or may not end up in my fictionalised account of her life. 

    Whether the Lant Street Teenager had a child or not, she has now gained a kind of ‘everlasting memory’ in the ongoing mystery of who she was. 

    You can see the Lant Street Teen’s grave goods (though not her bones) at the current Roman Dead exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. The remains of other Roman Londoners shed light how they lived but also bring home how much we still have to learn.

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    The Sixties, that is. I don't think it really hit me that the 1960s now count as history until I saw Angela Davis on Channel 4 News and realised it was part of a feature on 1968 and that was fifty years ago.

    We have debated often on this blog what constitutes "history;" is it a generation ago, 25 or 30 years? Well 50 years certainly counts and this decade in my life was a momentous one on the national stage. In particular it was the time when young people became what is now called "woke" and social protest became effective, long before there were any social media to support it and help it spread.

    As Angela Davis said, "I couldn't afford international phone calls – I had to write letters." (For those of you who don't know or can't remember who she is we'll get to her later on). Here is a snapshot both public and personal of the years about which it was said "if you can remember [them] then you weren't there."

    It was the era of the Cold War, Apartheid, the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the Vietnam War and the reign of the Kray twins in London. It was also the time of the Beatles, flower power, psychodelia, the moon landing, the Civil Rights movement and the beginning of second wave feminism.

    At the beginning of the decade my boyfriend was Roger Rees, who went on to become a huge star of stage and screen, living with a male partner for 34 years. (RIP, lovely Roger). Briefly in the middle I dated Roger Scruton and smoked pot (unconnected, though it would be a sort of explanation). Two months before the sixties ended I met the man I married three years later. Being neither gay nor Tory, he suits me very well.

    1960 The Sharpeville Massacre opened the eyes of the rest of the world to what was going on in South Africa. For years and tears, till the end of Apartheid, we bought no South African fruit and veg. Harold MacMillan made his "Winds of change speech,"To Kill a Mockingbird was published and in London there was the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover.How well I remember the copy being passed round at school which fell open at the rude bits. When I read the whole novel I found it disappointingly dull.

    1961 Charismatic and (relatively) young John F. Kennedy became President of the United States.

    I can't honestly say I remember his election or inauguration but I remember the night of his assassination two and a half years later very well. My older sister and I were babysitting a friend's 8-months-old son and he would not sleep. Surely everyone who was alive and beyond babyhood then remembers that night? And I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 too. It was the period that shaped the consciousness of those who were young in the 60s. We really believed that WW3 was imminent and we were all going to die.

    In the early 60s I joined CND, while I was still a schoolgirl.

    1961 The Berlin Wall was erected as the effective division between not just the city but East and West Germany. I was amazed to discover it was as recent as that when researching my novel When she was Bad (written as Amy Lovell).

    Catch-22 and The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie were published. The Beatles first played the Cavern Club though, as a Londoner, I had yet to hear of them. I fell in love in Spain with an English boy called Tony but omitted to discover his surname and his parents whisked him away before we could exchange addresses. He had a twin sister called Tina. The trial of Adolf Eichmann began in Jerusalem.

    1962 The Cuban Missile crisis was in October/November. Earlier in the year Fonteyn and Nureyev first danced together and I was besotted with him (ever since his defection to Paris the year before and his arrival in the UK). I heard about Marilyn Monroe's death while I was on holiday with my parents in Spain. Max Perutz won the Nobel prize for Chemistry, which I didn't pay much attention to at the time, but I later met him In Cambridge as his daughter was a friend.

    1963 Please, Please Me, introduced me to the Beatles and in particular George Harrison. The Bell Jar was published but I didn't read it till a year or two later.  And Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, though it took a while for feminism to reach these shores. Martin Luther King made his "I have a dream" speech and, on St. Cecilia's Day, JFK was assassinated in Dallas (see above). I don't think we knew if we were on the verge of something wonderful or something terrible. I'm still not sure.

    "los Beatles" in Madrid
    1964 The Civil Rights Act was signed by LBJ, though begun by JFK and his legacy. Another set of three initial, MLK, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The death penalty was at last abolished in the UK – another fact that surprised me with its lateness when I researched When she was Bad.

    1965 Malcolm X was assassinated. T S Eliot died a more peaceful death but I was sad to see him go. The bombing of North Vietnam by the US and South Vietnam intensified, though I don't think I knew about it then, not till much later in 1967/68. I certainly didn't know about the marches to Montgomery now well-known from the film Selma. I spent the summer in Florence, determining much of the rest of my life. I'll be there again in a week's time. The Race Relations Act was passed in the UK.

    1966 The demonstrations against the Vietnam War really picked up in the US, where I spent the summer but I'm ashamed to say they didn't feature in my awareness.  I was living in a flat in NYC on the Upper East Side, wearing clothes bought in Carnaby Street ad eating Euphrates crackers with Philadelphia cheese and ground pepper, living a life incomprehensible to my parents.

    I took more notice of the conviction of the Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and the disaster in Aberfan that killed over a hundred children. And hearing about the flood in Florence that destroyed or damaged so much art. Never dreaming that fifty years later I would be writing about it in in an App on Michelangelo.*

    1967 Elvis Presley got married! If this had happened a few years earlier, I would have been devastated. At the age of fourteen, I had decided he would marry me. And indeed he did meet Priscilla when she was about that age, so it wasn't quite as delusional as some of my crushes. (OK, it was still delusional). But now I was older and wiser and graduated a month after this seismic event. It was followed by the "Summer of Love," which wasn't for me, though I loved the dresses and the music and the pacifism.

    1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated and Bobby Kennedy, who had been going to run for President, was killed two months later.  This was when I really became aware of what was happening in Vietnam, appalled by the pictures in the newspapers. I started a Postgrad linguistics course at UCL, taught be Michael Halliday, who died a few weeks ago. This was another profound influence on the direction my life would take.

    Angela Davis in the middle
    Angela Davis was a Black activist and feminist who we were just about to hear about in the UK, though she wasn't arrested till the following year. Her stencilled face with its distinctive Afro hair appeared on walls in the UK. (She was found not guilty and has had a distinguished academic career). She is still an activist.

    In France, "les evènements," the student riots, took place in Paris and beyond, protesting against capitalism, consumerism and American influence. They were accompanied by national strikes.

    Czechoslovakia was invaded by the USSR. We had Czech students stranded at UCL and I remember vividly the marches, occupations and the fundraising Czech Appeal to help students cut off from families and finds.

    1969 Richard Nixon became President of the United States. The Charles Manson "family" murdered Sharon Tate and four others and two more people the next day. The murders seemed even more horrific because Tate was eight months pregnant. She was married to Roman Polanski.

    The Beatles gave a last impromptu performance together on a rooftop. Monty Python got its first TV airing. My sister and I stayed up late to watch the moon landing. It was her birthday, a fact that neither of us remembered later until reminded. It kept being delayed so we set an alarm and got up again in the early hours to watch it.

    I moved into my first flat in London in Swiss Cottage, sharing with two others. Became a vegetarian. And at a Halloween party in Roehampton met my husband-to-be. 

    So those were the 60s, those were, remarkable in so many ways but viewed through the eyes of a teenager turning into an adult, a girl who had crushes on public figures and boys she met in real life, turning into a woman with a degree, some knowledge and and a serious relationship. What began as a sort of Adriana Mole view of the world turned to a commitment to civil rights, pacifism, feminism and socialism. When my first book was published in 1975, my publisher Rex Collings said drily, "I don't think we'll put on the jacket flap that you are a vegetarian, feminist, socialist" and he was probably right. But I am all those things and my views were formed in the decade I do remember, in spite of the pot. And I was there.

    * Buried Alive: the Secret Michelangelo took to his grave, is an App created by Time Traveler Tours & Tales  and can be downloaded for free on to iPhones and Android devices.

    When she was Bad by Amy Lovell is published by the Greystones Press and available in paperback and on Kindle.

    All photos are from Wikimedia Commons
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    2. CheHigh.jpg
    3. Mao Zedong portrait.jpg
    4. Kennedyb.jpg
    5. AABAP.gif
    6. Woodstock redmond stage.JPG
    7. Bruce Crandall's UH-1D.jpg
    8. Martin Luther King - March on Washington.jpg)

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    A mallard

    On the night of January 14, 2001, some of Oxford's most learned fellows could be seen marching around All Souls College behind a wooden duck held aloft on a pole. They were engaged in the bizarre ritual of "hunting the mallard" that occurs once every 100 years at the College. I was up at Oxford at the time, and one of my tutors was present and so I got the eye-witness account of the matter.

    After a commemorative feast the fellows paraded around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by “Lord Mallard” carried in a sedan chair. They were in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built. 

    And so, during the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied. Originally it was a live bird, by 1901 it had become a dead bird, and by 2001 it was a bird carved from wood. The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101. 
    All Souls College, Oxford
    In 1632 the archbishop of Canterbury chastised the fellows for drunken rioting at the feast.

    The ceremony supposedly dates back to 1437, when the foundations of The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed of Oxford (now known as All Souls College) were being dug. 

    The college’s founder, Henry Clichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, was trying to decide where to put his new building and in a dream he was told that if he built it in the High Street, next to the church, when he dug the foundations he would find: “…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele yfattened and almost ybosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college.”

    He dug where directed and heard: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes”. He said a few prayers, reached into the hole and pulled out a duck the size of: “a bustarde or an ostridge.” The bird flew away and the Fellows of All Souls chased it around the college. They caught it and ate it.

    A document detailing the event appeared in 1750, and was supposedly based on an original fifteenth century manuscript. 
    The mallard is the symbol for All Souls, and the Mallard Song (reproduced at the end of this piece) is the College song. Which is all very cute until you realise that All Souls is the most dignified of all the Oxford Colleges, as it only admits fellows. There are no rowdy, noisy undergraduates such as one would expect to bellow out the Mallard Song and engage in high jinks.

    All Souls loves its Mallard and the bird appears all over the College: there is a model of the duck in most common rooms, the ornate 19th century chairs in the Hall are carved with the college crest and a Mallard, there is a Mallard-shaped telephone near the Library, and there is a splendid and very accurately painted plaster Mallard drake on the wall of Hawksmoor’s college Buttery, which came from a Gothic pavilion built in the garden in 1753.

    My tutor gave us the insider's view of the Great Mallard Chase of 2001. She and the other Fellows partook of a 14 course dinner in the medieval Codrington Library, accompanied by superb wines (All Souls has the best cellar in the country - better than Buckingham Palace). I have reprinted the menu from 1901 below. Dr Martin Litchfield West as the Lord Mallard, and the Fellows sang, much as they have done for hundreds of years, the Mallard Song. The Victorians disapproved of the reference in the song to the Mallard’s “swapping tool of Generation”, mightier than any other in “ye winged Nation” (of birds) and dropped this verse from the song. It was restored in the 2001 ceremony, when the Fellows sat down to the Mallard Centennial Dinner, which did include a duck.
    Dr West with the plaster duck

    When everyone was in an excess of good spirits, four of the younger fellows hoisted the Lord Mallard up in his special sedan chair (the same one used in 1901 - but we're not sure if it was also used in 1801) and they chased a wooden mallard duck around the quad. In the days before Animal Rights (a very serious consideration in Oxford, given letter bombs to scientists and sabotage of laboratories), they chased a real duck. But this century, for the first time, a fake duck had to do. So, with the Lord Mallard hoisted high in his sedan chair the whole congregation of fellows chased this wood duck around the quadrangle bellowing out the Mallard Song. 

    Now, given that he was not expending any energy and was the centre of attention, the Lord Mallard was anxious to repeat the experience. "Again, again" he cried, and he was carried around the quadrangle again, and then for a third time at his excited urging. But, when he said "Again", wanting a fourth perambulation, the poor sedan carriers rebelled and dumped him on the ground. Then there were wonderful fireworks, including fireworks in the shape of a mallard. 

    What should be remembered is that All Souls College has no undergraduates and its fellows are considered to be among the finest minds in the world. Lord Mallard in 2001, who lead the midnight procession, carried high on a sedan chair, was Dr Martin West, one of the greatest classicists of his generation. 
    This gorgeous 19C oak bench is found in All Souls Hall.
    The Mallard Song (reproduced from the All Souls website: http://www.all-souls.ox.ac.uk/ )

    This is the text as reconstructed from the older copies:

    The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon
    Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on
    And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,
    But lett Allsouls' Men have ye Mallard.
    Hough the bloud of King Edward,
    by ye bloud of King Edward,
    It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

    Some storys strange are told I trow
    By Baker, Holinshead & Stow
    Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things
    That happen'd in ye Reignes of theire Kings.
    Hough the bloud, &c.

    The Romans once admir'd a gander
    More than they did theire best Commander,
    Because hee saved, if some don't foolle us,
    The place named from ye Scull of Tolus.
    Ho the bloud, &c.

    The Poets fain'd Jove turn'd a Swan,
    But lett them prove it if they can.
    To mak't appeare it's not attall hard:
    Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.
    Ho the bloud, &c.

    Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,
    Hee was swapping all from wing to Thigh;
    His swapping tool of Generation
    oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.
    Ho the bloud, &c.

    Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard
    in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,
    And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,
    Lett's dabble, dive & duck in Boule.
    Ho the bloud, &c.

    The second verse, which refers to English chroniclers of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was discarded in 1752, and the fifth was expunged on grounds of decency in 1821. The original verses were restored for the new millennium. No one knows which King Edward is referred to, or why.

    The 1901 Menu for the Dinner

    Potâge des Tourterelles du Siècle Nouveau.
    Tourbot, Sauce du Warden.
    Éperlans à la Custodes Jocalium.
    Vol-au-Vent du Ris de Veau à la Sub-warden.
    Filets de Boeuf de L'Estates Bursar.
    Châpons Rotis à la Roi Edouard.
    Jambon d'Yorck.
    Selle du Mouton.
    Mallard Swapping Sauce.
    Pouding d'All Souls
    Gâteau de Chichele.
    Sardines de Chichele
    Merluches Salade des Junior Fellows
    Dessert du Common Room.

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  • 06/11/18--22:00: Roman-ish gardens,
  • by Antonia Senior.

    A few years ago, we bought a house with a beautiful, large and overgrown garden. I had never lived in a house before, let alone had a garden. How hard can it be, I thought, to look after such a lovely thing? Ha Ha Ha.

    At the end of our garden is a railway line, which houses businesses in the arches beneath the train tracks. Beyond our bank fence, a long-bankrupt business had left a rubbish dump. Metres high mounts of rubble and discarded plaster and broken odds-and-sods. Beneath the rubble lurked foxes and worse.

    Network Rail agreed to clear the site, and I watched, grumpily as they took down my back fence to get at the horrors behind. But as the workmen began to clear things away, they uncovered some filthy, treasure. It turns out that the bankrupt business had been a theatre-set designer. Hiding back there were some extraordinary fibre-glass moulds from something ancient. The workmen thought I was mad, as I climbed over the rubbish pile pointing to things I wanted to keep - that and that and that!

    Here are some of them..

    For scale, these tragic masks are about the same height as me - 5ft 6 ish, and much wider. There were fibreglass columns and vases, and a lifesize horse which my neighbour bagsied, much to his wife's horror. And two, gorgeous moulds for art-deco style doors:

    These, I have convinced myself, are the doors King Creon shuts in the face of his recalcitrant niece, Antigone.

    The treasures joined the weeds and ivy in my garden, at the same time as I started to research my work-in-progress - the story of the exiled Julia, daughter of Augustus. We visited Pandateria, and saw the ruins of her villa, a luxury, holiday pad complete with extensive gardens. (In the same trip, we visited Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the incredible gardens of the Villa D'Este inspired by its ancient predecessor)

    So over the past two years, I have been spending some of my research time on Roman gardens at the same time as trying to become a gardener, watched over by my fearsome masks.

    The Romans loved their gardens. They feature in the literature from Virgil to Pliny. My favourite poem about gardens is in Horace's odes. We seem to catch him, in the very moment, stretching out in the shade and reaching for his cup. Which of us has not been Horace, this glorious summer? This version is a translation by Gerard Manly Hopkins, himself no slouch on describing the exact, quiet joy that nature inspires:

    Ah Child, no Persian-perfect art!
    Crowns composite and braided bast
    They tease me. Never know the part
      Where roses linger last.
    Bring natural myrtle, and have done:
    Myrtle will suit your place and mine:
    And set the glasses from the sun
      Beneath the tackled vine
    According to Linda Farrar's wonderful book, Ancient Roman Gardens, the Romans knew of about 475 plants in the first century AD, including wild plants. Our evidence is partly archaeological - Pompeii was a city of gardens, and the descending ash has carbonised ancient plant material in site. Gardens were extensively represented in frescoes.

    Commonly represented shrubs include laurel, myrtle, oleander and vibernum. In terms of decorative plants, the Romans loved roses, sacred to Venus. Lilies were acclaimed for their purity and perfume. Only the chaste could pick irises, according to Pliny. Periwinkles, poppies, chrysanthemums and daisies are visible in frescoes. Columella, the agricultural writer, talks of beds dedicated to violets.

    With the Romans in mind, I replanted one border last year with roses, underplanted with lavender and rosemary. Rosemary was loved by Pliny, and was associated with love and death - couples wore sprigs at their weddings and corpses carried rosemary on their journey to the underworld. In the Autumn, I'm going to go even more Roman, and put in some lilies and irises.

    I have one bed in a sunny spot which has become raddled with age and weeds. My plan is to rip up the existing plants over this winter and replant the bed on Ancient Roman principals. Roman shrubs and flowers, watched over by my masks. I just hope they have some ancient slug repelling magic woven into the fibreglass.

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  • 06/12/18--14:07: Article 0

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    by Deborah Swift

    The concept of dieting would have been alien to our 17th Century forbears. In those days, the plumper you were, the better. Plumpness indicated wealth and class, and women aspired to be plump and white, rather than thin and tanned as is the fashion now. The 17th Century was when sugar became a major component of most people’s diet.

    Still Life with Bread and Sweetmeats - Georg Flegel 

    The Nouveau Riche 
    The dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s had led to new land ownership, and consequently to a new class of non-aristocratic landowners and despite the English Civil War, (or even because of it) this new class of landowners and rich merchants was here to stay. With political stability and the restoration of the King, came an increased desire for luxury goods and London soon became the richest supplier of foodstuffs in the country. Charles II's marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662, coupled with his long exile in France led foreign food to become all the rage, especially French food.

    The ‘Kickshaws’ of French Cuisine 
    French cuisine soon piqued the English palate, as their recipes included strong tastes such as anchovies, capers and wine. At this time the culinary words coulis, roux, ragouts and fricassé were introduced, and fancy French dishes were nicknamed kickshaws, after 'quelquechose', the French word for 'something'.

    ‘Service à la Française’
    became the norm instead of the old medieval buffet style meal, with sets of cutlery laid out besides a personal plate and glass. Samuel Pepys was impressed to learn that his colleague the Earl of Sandwich was to employ a French chef, writing in his diary that the Earl had 'become a perfect courtier'.

    Feasting in Charles’ court was renowned for excess. Once he had four huge pigs, dressed like a horse and cart, with sausages as reins and pulling a huge rag pudding like a coach behind it. When he had guests, Pepys too had meals of gigantic proportions;
    'my dinner was great, and most neatly dressed by our own only maid. We had a fricasee of rabbits and chickens, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a lamprey pie (a most rare pie), a dish of anchovies, good wine of several sorts, and all things mighty noble and to my great content.' Pepys Diary 1663
    The East India company increased the cheapness of oriental goods such as sugar, spices and dried fruit. Of couse much of this bounty was based upon slave labour, but the human cost of sugar's production did not penetrate the consciousness of most Londoners.

    The pages of 17th Century drama are full of references to sweet food, Dekker talks of ‘biskets’ 'carowayes' and 'marmilade', 'sugar-plums', 'pippin pies' and gingerbread, or of ‘sucking pigs – a fortnight fed with dates, and muskadine’. In the picture right at the top of this post you can see many sugar-coated objects. Two are obviously pears, but the others could be an onion ring, or...well, what? Often the sugar coating was on actual meat, and obviously judging by the picture, the sugar coating was quite thick!

    There was also a fashion, as witnessed in Mary Fairfax’s diary for sugared flowers; she used violettes, marigiolds and roses, and even clover blossom in her puddings.  Below is a recipe for sugared roses.

    Recipe and Revolution

    This was the great age of 'Receipt' or Recipe books. Following the fall of the monarchy, many house chefs from the landed gentry were redundant or had lost their livelihood, and this is probably why so many new cookery books were published at this time. Literacy amongst women was lower than amongst men, so most 17th century cookery books were written by men, although the recipes themselves were often from the women of the house.

    The publication of one of the first cookery manuals, Le Cuisinier François by François Pierre de la Varenne in 1651 caused a culinary revolution in France. La Varenne refines existing recipes, and suggests ways in which menus could be balanced, paving the way for a much more considered way of dining.

    The first course consisted of  bowls of soups or stews, accompanied by prepared meats, the second of roast meats with salads and vegetables. Thanks to the French influence, the English realised that it was perfectly safe to consume vegetables raw, and began to enjoy 'salats' with their meals.

    Tomás Hiepes - Sugared Fruits And Pastries 1640
    The dessert (from desservir, French for ‘clear the table’), was often sugared fruit, and accompanied by 'sweet' entertainment such as music or dancing. Dessert often took place outdoors and in rich french households this course was laid out as a garden, complete with small buildings or statues in sugar-work. The idea spread to the English nobility with 'marchpane' (marzipan) sculptures. The towering sugared fruit was stacked as layers on dishes called 'pourcelaines', ornamental dishes on stands. With it, you would sip sweet, spiced wine, called hippocras.

    Of course the poor never had such fare. Sheep’s trotters, sweetmeats; every bit of the slaughtered animal was used, and the cheapest unsavoury parts such as cow’s stomach – tripe – and the extremities like ears and tails, were the diet of the poor.

    But for the well-to-do, the importance and status of costly food was such, that while the Great Fire of London grew ever closer, Pepys was desperate to save his bottles of wine and his parmesan cheese from the approaching inferno by burying them in his garden.

    I am currently enjoying dining with Pepys in research for my trilogy of books based around the women in Pepys's Diary. A Plague on Mr Pepys will be out on 5th July from Accent Press.

    Bibliography - 
    The English at Table - John Hampson
    Food in England -Dorothy Hartley
    More about 17th Century Food from Food Historian Ivan Day

    Find out more about my books at www.deborahswift.com

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    The Tale of Genji, Chapter 34
    Catching the scent 
    of orange trees that wait to bloom
    until the fifth month
    I recall from long ago
    the scented sleeves of one now gone

    Kokinshu poem number 139 (published 915 AD)

    Of all the senses, perhaps smell has the greatest power to evoke and transport, to bring sudden sharp memories flooding back of a person or place once beloved and long forgotten.

    A thousand years ago in Japan, while on another small island on the other side of the world Beowulf was fighting Grendel, the Wanderer was sitting desolately by the seashore bewailing his fate and monks were putting together the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Japanese poets were examining their senses and probing their feelings in a way that would not be unfamiliar today.

    In the Heian period, around the eleventh century, one of the most highly appreciated artistic skills among the noble class was the art of blending perfumes. While we developed oil-based perfumes, Japanese perfected the art of heating the woods which formed the basis of their scents so that they produced no smoke, only fragrance. 

    Wakamurasaki, Tale of Genji, Chapter 5

    In this society - depicted in the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji - noblewomen lived hidden away in their palaces, occasionally allowing a brocade sleeve to waft its scent from a carriage window as a hint of their beauty. Noblemen would exchange poems with them, decide on the strength of their poetic skills and the beauty of their calligraphy if they were worthy of pursuit, then creep in to visit them at dead of night. No matter how dark it was the ladies always knew exactly who the visitor was by his distinctive perfume. 

    In the perfume competition chapter in The Tale of  Genji the judge, Prince Hotaru, complains that it’s so smoky that he finds it very hard to judge the perfumes properly. The author, the court lady know as Murasaki Shikibu, describes one of the perfumes as ‘a calm, elegant scent,’ another as ‘full and nostalgic’, one as ‘bright and up-to-date with a slightly pungent touch’ and another as having ‘a gentle aroma and rather touching tenderness.’ 

    The exquisite world of the Heian nobles was as fragile as the scent of orange blossom. It faded away but the tradition of creating and appreciating scent lived on. 

    Kimono laid over rack above censer to scent
    Till the mid-nineteenth century women scented their kimonos overnight, laying them on a wooden framework over an incense burner, and draped their glossy long black hair over incense burners to scent it. 

    A woodblock print at the Tokyo National Museum shows a courtesan reclining languidly, her kimono suggestively parted at hem and neck, with an incense burner between her feet. We can imagine the perfume coiling up through her clothes and emerging from the loose folds of her kimono at her breast. 

    Young men about town, geisha and courtesans carried pieces of scented wood in their sleeves and rubbed powdered scent onto their hands and neck. 

    When I lived in Japan I once went to the great city of Kanazawa on the Japan Sea coast. A friend had put me in touch with a celebrated master of the Noh theatre. Japanese tend to be rather formal around each other, especially if they are famous as this gentlemen was. But they relish the chance to relax with foreigners who are not such sticklers for the proper Japanese ways of behaviour. 

    Preparing for incense guessing game
    He introduced me to the incense ceremony. It’s somewhat more recherché than tea ceremony and while tea ceremony ends with a cup of tea, the incense ceremony is more like a game. In fact it’s a bit like wine tasting.

    There’s a whole connoisseurship of the different incenses, much like wines. To the novice they may seem similar but to the trained nose they’re quite different. Some are musky, some more like sandalwood or pine or plum blossom. The most exquisite and expensive scent of all is kyara. Imported from Vietnam, it’s an ancient wood that takes thousands of years to develop and, so I’m told, costs many times more than the equivalent weight of gold.

    As with tea ceremony, the implements are works of art. There is an ash smoother, chopsticks to handle small incense pieces, an answer sheet holder and tweezers. The central piece of equipment is the incense censer which holds hot ashes on top of which you put a tiny fragment of incense.
    Listening to incense

    In a game there are five or six scents to choose from. Players kneel in a row or a square and pass the censer around, holding it in the prescribed fashion. You take turns to inhale long and slow and guess which of the scents it is. The referee writes down your guess. Then you go on to the next. The person who gets the most right is the winner.

    It’s a social activity yet also peaceful and contemplative. Instead of guessing you can just sit back and ‘listen’ to the incense as they say in Japanese or compose a poem or talk about the scent.

    The fragrance -
    more alluring than the colour -
    whose scented sleeves have brushed
    the blossoms in my garden?


    Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic and fragrant tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

    Top 2 images: The Tale of Genji chapter 34 (18th century Japanese painting, Honolulu Museum of Art) 
    Wakamurasaki, traditionally credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617 - 1691),part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke
    Both courtesy Wikimedia Commons

    Other images mine.

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    On 8 June, the BBC reported the sad news that US celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain had died as a result of suicide. Over the next few days, tributes to Bourdain poured in for Bourdain, who was widely respected not only for his writing and presenting, but also because he was passionate about social and political justice. Bourdain was a vocal advocate against sexual harassment and supported his partner Asia Argento in her sexual abuse allegations against shamed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. 'He taught us about food', said Barack Obama, 'but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. he made us a little less afraid of the unknown. We'll miss him'.

    Anthony Bourdain with then President Barack Obama

    Almost immediately the world's media began to speculate about Bourdain's death, detailing every single nugget they could find about its circumstances, asking why he died, how he died and what 'drove' him to 'commit suicide'. Suggested causes ranged from long term depression to a break up with his partner Argento, with whom he was said to be besotted. Argento was accused of cheating on the chef, and appallingly, blamed for causing Bourdain's death. Their mutual friend Rose McGowan wrote a letter on behalf of Argento, reminding the world how wrong-headed this view was: 'Do NOT do the sexist thing and burn a woman on the pyre of misplaced blame. Anthony's internal war was his war, but now she's been left on the battlefield to take the bullets'.

    Heated debates about Bourdain's death erupted all over social media. Some suggested he was murdered by Weinstein. Others wrote about the pressure on people to live perfect lives, especially since Bourdain's death swiftly followed that of the designer Kate Spade, who was equally successful, equally admired and apparently content, who died from suicide on June 5. After the detailed descriptions of death came the blame, and then the claims of selfishness; 'From every corner of the world you were loved. So selfish. You've given us cause to be so angry', said the actor Val Kilmer

    Suicide is a complex, sad event. And its language is important. Not just the language of blame and selfishness, which is unhelpful at best and destructive at worst, but also the language in which the act of suicide is itself framed. One debate on Twitter concerned whether or not Bourdain 'committed' suicide, a term that is widely used but judgement-laden. Those who pointed out that suicide shouldn't be a 'PC" issue; that we should be able to speak correctly according to terms - and that Bourdain had committed (or undertaken) an act - missed the point entirely.

    The reason why suicide is so emotionally and morally fraught is because of its history, as well as the way it has been philosophically framed. The word 'commit' is no longer appropriate in talking about suicide because it is no longer a criminal offence. People commit murder, assaults and fraud, but they do not commit suicide. To suggest that they do is to ignore the complex emotional history behind the phrase, and to frame suicide in a moralising way that provokes a lack of understanding for people who die from suicide, as well as people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. 

    Until 1961, suicide was a criminal act. The Suicide Act decriminalised suicide in England and Wales so that those who tried to kill themselves would no longer be prosecuted (the act didn't apply in Scotland, since suicide was never an offence under Scottish law). Assisting in suicide, or more precisely 'assisting, aiding or abetting suicide' became a distinct offence, which is why people will travel to Swiss clinics to end their own lives through voluntary euthanasia. I was reminded, when I read about Bourdain, of the news coverage of David Goodall, the 104-year-old retired Australian scientist who, in May this year, chose to end his life in a Swiss clinic: 'At my age, and even rather less than my age, one wants to be free to choose the death when the death is the appropriate time', he said.  

    David Goodall, bidding goodbye to his family before leaving for Switzerland
    The moral outrage that had accompanied Bourdain's death was missing in news reports. Was this because he was older? Because his death took place in an official space? Because it was more dignified? Or something else. Why isn't the decision to take one's own life an individual one, since our lives, in modern philosophical terms, are ours to do so as we choose? Why is suicide illegal?  

    The answer lies in religious belief, which for centuries was intertwined with the legal system in the UK. The early Christian theologian St Augustine and the Dominican Friar St Thomas Aquinas both argued that suicide was taking away a life that was not one's own, but God's.  Suicide, from the Latin 'sui' (of oneself) and 'cidiim' (a killing) was a rejection of God's power, sine only God had the right to create and destroy life. 

    Saint Augustine of Hippo, attributed to Gerard Seghers
    To commit suicide was therefore akin to committing a sin, as well as a criminal offence. And society was cruel to the bodies and the memories of those who died by suicide. If proven to be sane, they were denied a Christian burial and carried to a crossroads in the dead of night. There, their bodies would be placed in a pit with a wooden stake driven through their chests - in case their possessed spirits returned to contaminate the rest of the village. There would be no mourning, no prayers. 

    This tradition must have been extremely difficult for the loved ones in an age when religious belief was universal. It was also harsh in other ways: the dead person's family were stripped of any entitlement to the deceased's belongings for they were handed to the crown. Social historians Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy have written of cases where this happened in seventeenth-century England, when insanity and depression were still regarded as spiritual rather than mental afflictions.  

    Not all cultures have been so unforgiving. At the other extreme of suicide as a religiously outrageous choice is self-denial and self sacrifice as a supremely spiritual act. Suicide can be understood to be an act of honour rather than disgrace - most famously in Japan, where Samurai warriors would carry out Seppuku, a ritual form of disembowelment, rather than become hostages of their enemies. 

    Seppuku with ritual attire, courtesy of Wikipedia

    It is extraordinary to think that suicide in the UK was a crime until 1961. But attitudes to suicide are, as the case of Anthony Bourdain shows, filled with fear and anxiety, as well as anger. They are fraught with ideas of moral right as well as public accountability - who are we responsible for in life, and when is it acceptable to ignore those responsibilities? This is particularly controversial when a person dying from suicide has children.

    In the digital age, suicide can be private, but it can also be public. There have been many cases of YouTube suicides, when the death of suffering people is filmed, as well as encouraged, by anonymous viewers. This tragic combination of an individual need for support and a vocal yet unfeeling audience, seems to highlight the desolation of many people who are in search of a degree of empathy or understanding that is not forthcoming. Consider the Logan Paul debacle, in which a YouTuber visited a forest in Japan known for its use as a 'suicide spot'. When they came across a man hanging from a tree, Paul said 'call the police bro', but headed in for a close-up. The 'fun vlog' was posted on YouTube under the heading: 'We found a dead body in the Japanese suicide forest'. The video has since been removed as a result of protests. 

    Logan Paul

    Suicide continues to divide us in an age of digital spectacle. Paul was vigorously defended by YouTubers and viewers who felt that he was simply reporting the facts. That suicide was a reality and he covered it as such. Where are the lines between reporting and creating sensational events in the digital age, whether they are happy or tragic? And what kinds of languages are needed to talk about suicide in an age where performances of the self are much more instant, public and permanent than ever before? 

    Talking about suicide is important, both to respect the dead and their friends and families, but also to prevent people from feeling that suicide is the only choice. We are good at highlighting mental illness in the 21st century as being common and widespread; we are less good at doing anything about it. Mental health services are constantly being cut and the social stigma around self-harm limited many people from finding help. 

    There were over 6,000 deaths from suicide in the UK in 2015. The highest rate was in men aged 40-44 years old in the UK (in Ireland it was for men aged 25-34). Suicide rates for women are at their highest in a decade, though far more men die from suicide every year than women. We might say that it's a social problem as much as an individual one, since men are not traditionally encouraged to talk about their problems, or to get help for mental illness. 

    Whatever the causes of death from suicide, it's not a criminal or a wilful or a selfish act. It is a result of a person being in so much pain that living has become unbearable. That is not shameful, nor a sign of a person's weakness. And it isn't about blame. We need to move away from the language of 'committing' suicide because it makes a difference in how depression and mental health is framed and understood. 


    Samaritans mental health hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be contacted at any time from any phone for FREE on 116 123. 

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    I recently started volunteering on the SS Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous ship, the first iron ship in the world: once a rusty hulk abandoned in the Falklands, but now a thing of beauty back in Bristol's dry dock, where she was built.

    I've been interested in the Great Britain for quite some time. I even wrote a children's book set on the ship, Emily's Surprising Voyage - so I thought I knew a fair bit about it.

    But in these few weeks, working with experienced volunteers who've forgotten more about engineering than I'll ever know - one captained two ships in the Royal Navy, for heaven's sake! - I've realised that actually, I know very little - either about the ship, or about the man. I'm sure I'll come back to both in future posts, but there's something in particular that has struck me as I've listened, looked, read and learned.

    It's this.

    Brunel was in his time, and still is, famous for being as an innovative and incredibly successful engineer. His works are all around us: the Great Western Railway, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Paddington Station, the Great Britain - and there are lots more besides, both in this country and abroad. He worked at an astonishing rate, firing off ideas, eagerly taking on challenges and responsibilities that would have daunted most people. His statues are all around us too: instantly recognisable with his cigar, his stovepipe hat, and that slightly pudgy face, he pops up all over the place. In 2002, he came second in a BBC poll to find the people's choice of the greatest Briton.

    Yet as I started to  learn more about his career, I was struck not only by how successful he was - but also by how often he encountered failure.

    For example:
    • His first big project was the Thames Tunnel. This was - still is - a tunnel beneath the Thames, between Rotherhithe and Wapping, designed by Brunel's father, Marc. It was the first tunnel in the world to be built beneath a navigable river. Isambard became the resident engineer when he was only 21. He worked over twenty hours a day, often working alongside the miners who were pushing the tunnel forward, using highly innovative technology designed by the Brunels. It was an extraordinary project which fascinated the public - at one point an elaborate banquet was held in the tunnel, attended by the Duke of Wellington and other dignitaries. But not long after this, water gushed in through a weak point in the river bed. Several men were killed and Isambard himself was badly injured. The tunnel was never used for its intended purpose, though it was a great tourist draw.

    • After this, he went to Bristol, recuperating. A competition was taking place to design a bridge to go over the Avon Gorge. The judge was Thomas Telford. Undeterred by the disaster at the tunnel, Isambard entered. He didn't win. But he didn't give up. He somehow persuaded the board that his plan was the best after all - and he got the job. He put heart and soul into designing a beautiful and functional bridge and risked life and limb surveying it.
      But it all proved too expensive, and building halted - he was never to see his beloved bridge. It was only finally completed many years later after his death, as a tribute to him from his fellow engineers.
    • The Great Britain  herself was built to take large numbers of passengers at a revolutionary speed across the Atlantic. Isambard's vision was that passengers should be able to get on his Great Western Railway (affectionately known as God's Wonderful Railway) in London, alight at Bristol, then get straight onto his glamorous new ship, which would whisk them across the Atlantic to New York. But all did not go smoothly. When he wanted to install a revolutionary screw propellor instead of a paddle wheel, he ran into strong opposition - it would be too expensive, no-one really knew whether it would work, etc etc. But he persisted. The ship was a thing of wonder - but on its fifth voyage, it ran aground in Dundrum Bay on the Irish coast. Another disaster! The cost of refloating and repairing it was ruinous, and it had to be sold at a huge loss - which was when it was fitted out to sail to Australia instead, and began the most successful phase of its long life.
    The ship aground in Dundrum Bay

    • And then there was the matter of the railway gauge. The railways were in their infancy when Brunel began his career, but others had already made a start in the north of England - and they had chosen a narrow gauge for the lines. Brunel was convinced that a broader gauge would make for a smoother ride, and would also have advantages in terms of the design of the engines etc. He was probably right, and broad gauge was used in other parts of the world - but in Britain, the decision went against him, and all our railways now are narrow gauge. (This is why there is so much space between the platforms at Bath Station, for example: it was designed for broad gauge
    So, famous and successful and in demand as he was, all did not go smoothly for Isambard. But what fascinates me is that when something went wrong, he didn't just put his head in his hands and sit around feeling sorry for himself. (Which, I must admit, is my default reaction.) He simply lit another cigar, sat down at his desk, and cogitated until he had figured out a solution.

    Or, if a solution wasn't forthcoming or was beyond his control, he accepted reality and moved on to the next thing, and did the very best he could to make a success out of that.

    And that, I think, is deeply admirable - and a very useful example to try to follow!

    * From 'If'', by Kipling.

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    Near Wakefield lies the Bretton Hall estate, with its landscaped gardens, lawns and lakes. The grounds hold a changing collection of work by contemporary British and international sculptors: this is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, often known as the YSP.

    The place has a history: the house, Bretton Hall was a family home until the twentieth century. The state was inherited, in 1407, by the Wentworth family; during the sixteenth century, it was improved by a fine wood-panelled suite, complete with bedroom furnishings and hangings, created to welcome Henry VIII to the Hall. Although the monarch only spent three nights within the chamber, when Bretton Hall was rebuilt in 1720, the “royal” panelling was installed in the new Palladian mansion and remained there for over two hundred years. 

    Then, in 1947, Bretton Hall and its estate were bought by the West Riding Council: the treasured panels were given to Leeds City Council and are now, suitably, at Temple Newsam, an impressive Tudor mansion on the edge of the city of Leeds.

    That half-decade gave Bretton Hall a new identity: in 1949, Sir Alec Clegg, the Chief Education Officer for the West Riding of Yorkshire, founded a Teacher Training College there, to supply the need for additional teachers. The need was great, not just because of war casualties or baby boom but because various pre-war educational proposals, such as the now familiar primary & secondary school structure, were at last happening.  

    A new educational philosophy was in the air, too:
    There are two kinds of education: the education of the mind by imparting facts and teaching skills, and the education of the spirit ... the child's loves and hates, his hopes and fears, or in other terms, his courage, his integrity, his compassion and other great human qualities"- Sir Alec Clegg

    Through the thirties, there had been a growing conviction the arts were of value to all the population, including the working classes. Alec Clegg was a great friend of Herbert Read who had, in 1943, published Education Through Art, hismanifesto for much-needed educational reforms” which led on to the belief that the arts should have a place in the school curriculum.

    Clegg – and this philosophy - shaped Bretton Hall College. Over the decades, the institution grew and flourished, specialising in innovative teaching of design, music and visual and performance arts. The large estate offered space for the studios and ceramic facilities and workshops and theatre spaces that students needed. 

    Dotted around the park, where the River Dearne flowed through two artificial lakes, were several original 18C follies and ornamental structures. These, in their way, may have led to the park's new purpose: inspired by the Art’s Council’s open-air exhibitions in London, in 1977, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was established there, as a northern setting for contemporary large-scale sculptures and art works.

    Over time, Bretton Hall College, in its rather remote location, began to struggle. Changes during the eighties and nineties – educational, political and cultural - brought financial and other problems. Early in the new century, the remaining courses had been brought within the University of Leeds own School of Performance and Cultural Studies and in 2007, Bretton Hall College was finally closed. 

    Meanwhile, English Heritage had studied the Hall and its historic landscape. They found Bretton fragmented by accommodation blocks, studios, offices, outbuildings, car parks and by use as a countryside park and its upkeep much neglected. English Heritage declared the Grade 2 listed Bretton Hall and its grounds at risk and Something had to be Done.

    In 2009, Wakefield Council took over the site, promote the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as one of the region’s main visitor attractions. Bretton Hall was sold to a development company, who demolished some of the old and unwanted buildings and converted the Hall into a modern up-market hotel. The YPS already had a large administration, gallery and leisure space but a new Visitor Centre was planned and is due to open soon.

    Older areas of the park, such as the Bothy and the walled Garden are still used for ever-changing exhibitions. The old Deer Shelter now encloses the Skyspace, where the changing sky can be seen through a square frame: this often appears as an ident on BBC Four.

    Progress continues: the eighteenth century chapel of St Bartholomew, built by Sir Willliam Wentworth and de-consecrated in the 1970’s, was renovated in 2014. The white interior is currently filled by a most atmospheric, three-dimensional thread installation by the artist Chiharu Shiota.

    The YPS was not intended as a permanent collection: the exhibits and installations change. The YPS has housed work by Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Gormley, Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry and many contemporary British and international artists. Residencies have explored the architectural, historical or natural aspects of the Bretton Hall site.

    Yet one artist remains a constant presence: Henry Moore, who grew up in the mining community of nearby Castleford. His massive, curving figures rest well upon the rolling West Bretton landscape, with the wide sky and wind-blown clouds above. 

    However, though much at the YPS is beautiful or impressive, this forty-year-old gallery still faces problems. How will Wakefield Council, with cash-strapped funding, and other bodies afford the staffing and maintaining of the YPS  grounds?  Or manage new exhibitions and installations? Or run its education programme for schoolchildren and students?

    At this moment in history, the wider view of art for the people and by the people - as well as for the children and by the children - seems under threat: cuts to orchestras and music services, cuts to local museums and galleries, theatre and arts companies, curtailment of out-of-school visits, changes in student grants and in the provision of wider post sixteen and adult education. 

    Sir Alec Clegg’s belief that art - and the arts – should be central to education is disappearing under the onslaught of testing, curriculum changes, funding pressures, and the in-school training of teachers and a hard and harsh political climate.

    Why have I put this post here on History Girls? Because the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – while it lasts – seems to me to be a monument to a vision of Arts Education that is passing away into history. 

    Penny Dolan

    ps. Yet, for now, the YPS is still there, just off the M1, and worth a visit. People are free. but there's a charge for car parking.

    pps. Past Bretton Hall performing arts students include Colin Welland, John Godber, Kay Mellor, Mark Thomas, Mark Gattis, Reece Shearsmith, Richard OBrien, David Rappaport and Sir Ken Robinson.

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    Like many writers, I have a lot of books. They are threatening to take over the house. It is time for some sorting out and that inevitably means some will have to go. How am I going to decide which to keep and which to throw? The shelves need cataloguing. I'm not talking Dewey Decimal but it would be helpful if the books were in some sort of order. Relevant titles would be easier to find and that would save time. 

    As I'm a writer of historical fiction, I thought I might begin with those titles, collect them all together and put them in author order.  These are some of the titles I will be keeping. These are books that mean something to me. Books that changed my perceptions of historical fiction, that have stayed with me, some for a very long time. Books that I discovered as a young reader and as an adult long before I even thought of writing, let alone writing historical fiction. Some are books that I simply admire, that I go to when I think my own writing needs a boost, by writers who leave me in awe to wonder:  'How do they do that? I couldn't do that!'

    Here are ten of my 'keepers': 

    Margaret Atwood - alias grace

    Emily Brontë - Wuthering Heights

    Charles Frazier - Cold Mountain

    William Golding - To the Ends of the Earth Trilogy

    Cormac McCarthy -  Border Trilogy

    Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall, Bringing Up the Bodies and A Place of Greater Safety

    Annie Proulx - Accordian Crimes

    Mary Renault - The King Must Die, The Bull From The Sea

    Rosemary Sutcliff - Eagle of the Ninth

    Leo Tolstoy - War And Peace

    Celia Rees

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    Imperial history is full of scandal. Nero murdering his mother, Caligula sleeping with his sisters, Tiberius getting up to all sorts of things on the island of Capri.  Even so called good emperors aren't immune to it:

    "I know, of course, that he was devoted to boys and to wine, but if he had ever committed or endured any base or wicked deed as the result of this, he would have incurred censure; as it was, however, he drank all the wine he wanted, yet remained sober, and in his relation with boys he harmed no one." Dio Cassius on Trajan. 

    I want to examine one such Imperial scandal. An Imperial love triangle consisting of the emperor Domitian, his wife Domitia and his niece Julia.

    The Scandal
    Emperor Domitian

    Suetonius has this to say about it:

    "When his niece took another husband he seduced her....She became pregnant by him and died as the result of the abortion he forced upon her" 

    Juvenal says this:
     "The adulterer with a tragic incestuous twist, so busy reviving those stern decrees, a threat to everyone even to Mars and Venus! Meanwhile his too fertile niece gobbled pills, bought on an abortion and every embryo lump was the living spit of uncle." 

    Not an appetising image. A niece seduced by her uncle, made pregnant and then forced into an abortion that killed her.
    But how much of this is true? 

    Julia photo attributed José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro
    Julia was the daughter of Domitian's elder brother Titus. She was likely ten years younger than her uncle. It is quite possible, given that both Titus and Domitian's father Vespasian were away holding official positions in the provinces, that Domitian and Julia were raised together in Rome.
    One thing we need to get out the way is this charge of incest. If Julia and Domitian were involved it wasn't technically incest. Emperor Claudius had legalised marriage between an uncle and a niece in 49AD, purely so he could marry his own niece Agrippina.
    Julia had been feted as a wife for Domitian by his father, the emperor Vespasian.

    "He had been offered the hand of his brother's daughter while she was still a young girl." 


    A dynastic match indeed. It's interesting that Domitian is bashed in our sources for allegedly sleeping with Julia, but his father is not similarly bashed for essentially wanting Domitian to sleep with his niece. However, the dynastic marriage did not go ahead. Domitian dug his heels in and refused to marry Julia. Why?

    Suetonius tells it to us straight;
     "He persistently refused to marry her on account of his infatuation with Domitia."

    Domitia Longina was a very well connected young woman. She was the daughter of Nero's celebrated (and later executed) general Corbulo. On her mother's side she could trace her ancestry back to Rome's first emperor, Augustus.
    Vespasian, though having been declared emperor at the end of 69AD, was still in the East. As was Domitian's brother Titus. This left Domitian in Rome alone in 70AD representing this new dynasty. He was only 18 years of age with absolutely no experience in government.
    Sometime during this year he met Domitia and evidently fell deeply in love. She already had a husband but this was considered no impediment.
    They were married by the end of the year.

    Vespasian did not arrive in Rome to take his throne until late in 70AD. This holds out the possibility that Domitian gave into his infatuation with Domitia and married without his father's permission.
    Suetonius mentions that Domitian was 'persistently' pressured to marry Julia.
    Was the pressure placed on him to marry Julia, pre or post marriage to Domitia?
    Whichever it was, Domitian held firm.

    The Triangle
    Emperor Domitian and Empress Domitia.
    Image attributed Classical Numismatic Group

    Shortly after Domitian succeeded his brother Titus as emperor in 81AD something went badly wrong in Domitian and Domitia's marriage.

    "He planned to put his wife, Domitia, to death on the ground of adultery, but having been dissuaded by Ursus, he divorced her, after murdering Paris, the actor, in the middle of the street because of her."
    Dio Cassius

    Suetonius has the same story, Domitian divorced Domitia because of her adultery with an actor named Paris It was during Domita’s absence that Domitian is alleged to have moved Julia into the palace and lived with her openly as a couple.
    This separation from Domitia did not last long.

    Upon the demands of the people he became reconciled with Domitia, but continued his relations with Julia none the less.
    Dio Cassius

    Just how convincing is this alleged infatuation with his niece? It’s surely not surprising that she lived at the palace. She was a member of the Flavian dynasty. 
    Suetonius says Domitian loved Julia ardently. If this was true why didn't he marry her after the divorce from Domitia?

    Julia. Image by Twdk
    Julia was said to have died of an abortion procured when she fell pregnant with Domitian's child.
    Domitia and Domitian had no children, only a son that had died in infancy. Julia's child would have been one born of two Flavians, a much needed heir maybe?

    There is one further piece of evidence that undermines the story that Julia died of an abortion. A poem by Martial that would have been presented to the emperor. It was written shortly after Julia's death in 91AD


    Spring into light, O child promised to the Trojan Iulus,true scion of the gods; spring into light, illustrious child! May your father, after a long series of years, put into your hands the reins of empire, to hold for ever; and may you rule the world, yourself an old man, in concert with your still more aged sire, for you shall Julia herself  with her snow-white thumb, draw out the golden threads of life, and spin the whole fleece of Phrixus' ram.”

    The poem speaks of how Domitia was still hoped to produce an heir and that the now deified Julia would watch over him. How suicidal was Martial to write a poem wishing fertility to the empress that mentioned her husband's late mistress who died after becoming pregnant with the emperor's child?  It seems highly unlikely Martial would dare to produce such a work if the Domitian/Julia abortion story were true.
    I think it’s more likely that this was scurrilous gossip based on an affectionate yet innocent relationship between uncle and niece.

    I believe the real passion, the real love affair, was with Domitia. The woman he defied his father to marry. The woman he refused to give over despite family pressure. The woman he recalled from exiled after she’d cheated on him because ‘the people demanded it’.
    Was this passion reciprocated? There were rumours that she was involved in Domitian’s assassination in 96AD. Yet years after his death Domitia continued to call herself Domitian's widow. Surely a sign of deep affection.

    The Morality Laws
    Courtesy of Wellcome Images

    So what is really behind this story of an affair between and emperor and his niece? Is there more to it than just a bit of tittle tattle that apparently only gained traction in the years after Domitian's death?
    Domitian was a reforming emperor and one of his key reformations was in the sphere of public morality.

    Suetonius mentions many of his acts including:

    He struck the name of a Roman knight from the list of jurors, because he had taken back his wife after divorcing her and charging her with adultery.

    This sounds familiar doesn't it? It's exactly what Domitian did with Domitia. 

    Then there is this:
    He expelled one ex-quaester from the Senate for being over fond of acting and dancing.

    Recalling Domitia's over fondness of the actor Paris.

    Forbade women of notoriously bad character the right to use litters.

    So here we reach the crux: is the Domitian/Domitia/Julia story our sources attempt to portray Domitian as a hypocrite, enforcing morality laws he himself and his wife were breaking?

    I think it is a distinct possibility.

    L.J. Trafford is the author of a four book series detailing the Year of the Four Emperors
    See amazon

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