Articles on this Page
- 05/02/15--16:01: _A History of Violen...
- 05/03/15--21:30: _Welcoming the May i...
- 05/04/15--16:30: _Still Life - Joan L...
- 05/05/15--16:01: _Ways of Seeing (The...
- 04/14/15--17:30: _Beaux on the Stage
- 04/15/15--19:00: _The Sheriff Rides O...
- 04/16/15--22:00: _OCEANS AWAY AND OAK...
- 04/17/15--16:30: _Fashion On The Rati...
- 04/19/15--01:00: _'Sitting on a sofa,...
- 04/19/15--16:30: _Bridewell, Bedlam a...
- 05/06/15--23:30: _A VISIT TO CASTLE R...
- 05/07/15--16:30: _'The Sanctuary That...
- 05/08/15--19:49: _Food for Thought by...
- 05/09/15--13:30: _April competition w...
- 05/09/15--16:30: _Monsters and Mermai...
- 05/10/15--17:30: _Going the Distance,...
- 05/11/15--16:30: _Magna Carta: Law, L...
- 05/12/15--22:00: _THIS MONTH I'M ON A...
- 04/21/15--16:30: _The Big Haboob by K...
- 04/22/15--16:30: _WRITING LAST TRAIN ...
- 05/02/15--16:01: A History of Violence, by Y S Lee
- 05/03/15--21:30: Welcoming the May in Oxford - Katherine Langrish
- 05/04/15--16:30: Still Life - Joan Lennon
- 05/05/15--16:01: Ways of Seeing (The Paris Commune) by Lydia Syson
- 04/14/15--17:30: Beaux on the Stage
- 04/15/15--19:00: The Sheriff Rides Out: by Sue Purkiss
- 04/16/15--22:00: OCEANS AWAY AND OAKUM by Penny Dolan
- 04/17/15--16:30: Fashion On The Ration - Celia Rees
- 04/19/15--01:00: 'Sitting on a sofa, playing games of chance' by Christina Koning
- 04/19/15--16:30: Bridewell, Bedlam and Bluecoats - by Ann Swinfen
- 05/06/15--23:30: A VISIT TO CASTLE RISING by Adèle Geras
- 05/07/15--16:30: 'The Sanctuary That Made Heads Spin' by Karen Maitland
- 05/08/15--19:49: Food for Thought by Caroline Lawrence
- 05/09/15--13:30: April competition winners
- 05/09/15--16:30: Monsters and Mermaids in the Orchard - Michelle Lovric
- 05/10/15--17:30: Going the Distance, by Laurie Graham
- 05/11/15--16:30: Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy by Tanya Landman
- 05/12/15--22:00: THIS MONTH I'M ON ABOUT SIX-PACKS – Elizabeth Fremantle
- 04/21/15--16:30: The Big Haboob by Kate Lord Brown
A couple of months ago at the launch party for Rivals in the City, I read aloud a scene that takes place outside Newgate Prison. The year is 1860. A wooden scaffold has been built outside the prison gates, as it was before each public execution. The hangman, William Calcraft, is testing the gallows and trapdoor to ensure that they work. And the crowd is eagerly, boisterously, anticipating the day’s entertainment. All this is historically attested.
|The human face of Victorian execution, William Calcraft, ca 1870. Image via wikipedia.|
In the scene, I add a detail featuring ragged children “playing Calcraft”: taking turns pretending to be executioner and condemned. I invented this game, and have never formally researched “macabre children’s games, past and present” (although now that I’ve typed that phrase, it sounds like a fascinating topic). But the idea of the game rings true for me. Games of the imagination are how children process the world around them, and how they imbibe their culture. In my novel, the game of “Calcraft” has several functions: it’s a means of including children in the Victorian streetscape; a way of shifting and blending perspectives of the execution-day milieu; and, of course, a comment on the idea of a public execution in general.
|West view of Newgate Prison in the mid-nineteenth century. Image via wikipedia.|
After I’d read this scene aloud, one of my listeners expressed concern about the scene. Was it, he asked, appropriate to explore violence and death in a book that was written for children? Didn’t it glamorize violence and death, to see it represented in fiction? He was talking about the contemporary young adults to whom my book is marketed, but I wonder if the presence of children in the Newgate scene is what triggered his very real anxiety. It was an earnest question and I attempted to answer it with the seriousness it deserved. The party was hectic, though, and I compressed my response into a couple of brief points. Now, I think it’s time to answer the question more fully.
So is it, in fact, appropriate to explore death and violence in children’s literature? My first instinct at the party was to cite historical realism. During the Victorian era, people were much more pragmatic about death and suffering. Infant mortality was much higher than it is now; adult life expectancy was shorter. A death in the household also meant a corpse laid out in the parlour or spare bedroom. And in many cases, the women of the family washed and dressed that corpse themselves. The Victorians were less squeamish about death in general. People didn’t spay or neuter their pets; they simply drowned the unwanted litters. In Wuthering Heights, Hareton Earnshaw famously “hang[s] a litter of puppies from the chair-back in the doorway”. The shocking part of the scene is not the puppies’ deaths, but the fact that their suffering is a form of entertainment for Hareton. But remember: in Emily Bronte’s vision, even Hareton Earnshaw, Animal Sadist, is redeemable. With Cathy Linton’s love and support, it becomes possible to imagine a somewhat happy ending for Wuthering Heights.
Still, the defense of historical realism only takes us so far. After all, history contains an endless amount of truly gruesome detail. How do we decide which of those bits belong in historical fiction for young people? Let’s go back to human developmental principles. Children learn about death in bits and fragments, starting in toddlerhood. By the time they are eight years old, they are “consistent in showing adult ideas of death”. So the idea of death – with variations according to age and circumstance – is a normal part of children’s understanding. I’d go a step further, here: if a novel like Rivals in the City (which is written for teens) deliberately downplays the existence of death, it’s insulting the intelligence of its readers.
Knowing this, perhaps we can agree to acknowledge historically realistic deaths. But what about violence, and the much-feared “glamorization” of violence? Once again, let’s think about real, present-day children. Children understand violence because they are human beings. They negotiate conflict from toddlerhood. They can act violently towards others. They hear about violence on the news. They see instances of injustice all around them. The real question here is, What do they do with all this experience and all this unformed knowledge?
At this point, we must return to the specific scene or image that prompts the question. Is it an image or description of violence on the news, presented without context or consequence? I imagine that would be haunting, confusing, and possibly traumatic. Is it a video game, in which the hero-player is rewarded for acts of violence? In that case, I see how that trivializes the gravity of violent acts. In my novel, however, the threat of violence is mediated by a heroine, Mary Quinn. She is a former victim of violence who understands its impact. She has strong feelings about the uses and abuses of power. She offers readers a thoughtful perspective on the violence of her culture, and how to resist it.
If anything, I’d argue that this kind of ethically grounded violence is essential to children’s literature, and to the project of learning about the world and about oneself. I’m proud to be part of a long tradition of children’s authors who imagine the world as fully as possible, as humanly as possible, as respectfully as possible.
Y S Lee blogs every Wednesday at www.yslee.com.
BBC 4 documentaries - I love them. Even the ones where the voice-over narrator repeats what the expert has just finished saying, only less well. Even the ones where they get the background music totally wrong. Even the ones where they disappear from iplayer just after I've discovered them, but before I can show them to anybody else.
Luckily, I found this - Apples, Pears and Paint - on youtube here - so I was able to watch again, recommend it to you, and write about it here.
I've seen still life paintings before - everybody has - but I just hadn't paid attention to them. While watching the programme, I learned that still lifes (somehow "still lives" doesn't seem right) are most frequently lit from the left. That elements of the pictures often overlap the edge of the table, as if just about to topple. I learned that the vanitas element was there in the bugs and the blemishes, not just in the skulls. I learned that musical instruments in a still life were there because they, too, were emblems of mortality and transience - before the invention of recording, a sound only lasted as long as a bow or a breath and then it died. The story behind the 17th century Dutch still life industry was fascinating.
And then, the programme turned to the paintings of Juan Sanchez Cotan, of whom I had never heard, and I was blown away.
Two other Gersht works I really like can be seen here, and here - see what you think.
And thank you, BBC4.
Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
I became an expert in ventilation shafts for cellars:
‘The Emancipated Woman Shedding Light on the World’ |
1871, Lithograph by J. Lecerf
“Petroleuses!” writes novelist Lucien Descaves in his spirited introduction to that rare thing, a published memoir by an active Communarde, Victorine B. [Brocher]. “Until the last days of the Paris Commune, during the red week, this designation was fatal to the unlucky women who received it from a vindictive concierge, a perfidious neighbour, a passing hallucinator, from no matter whom. . . But much later, in exile, the word marked the shoulder not just of refugees, but even their friends.” (Souvenirs d’une morte vivante*, 1909)
|Paris Incendie, night of the 24-5 May 1871, Michel Charles Fichot|
by Marie-Louise Jensen
I've always been fascinated by the phenomenon of men sitting on the stage during performances and disrupting the play, and read more about it when I researched my short story, A Night in the Theatre, for our History Girls anthology.
I'm very far from being an expert on the Restoration period and the theatre (though I would love to learn more) but I understood a few things much better from what I did read.
So how and why did the Restoration theatre-goers (and later) put up with fine bucks on the stage making a nuisance of themselves and disturbing the action?
I think the first thing to bear in mind was how different the stage was. It was much bigger and had a huge, wide apron that sloped down towards the audience. So there was more space for this practice than there would be now.
Secondly, going to the theatre was a more general entertainment experience than just watching the play. It was not generally considered to be a high point for drama. You went for the afternoon, you socialized, you showed off your new clothes, you ate and drank and there were even prostitutes on offer. Not just the actresses, though some of those fell into the trade too, as is general knowledge and no end of displaying of charms and intriguing went on in the dressing rooms, to which 'gentlemen' were admitted.
Often the men in the pit were so noisy that you couldn't hear the play, let alone the men on the stage itself. Sword fights regularly broke out and everyone else had to scramble for safety.
For many, the play itself was fairly incidental. But not for everyone, and audience grew steadily more annoyed.
In the 1700s, a dramatic satire, called Lethe by David Garrick, was performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. There is a wonderful dialogue about beaux on the stage from the point of view of one of them:
Aesop: How do you spend your evenings?
Fine Gentleman: I dress in the evening and go generally behind the scenes of both play-houses; not as you may imagine to be diverted with the play, but to intrigue and show myself - I stand upon the stage, talk loud and stare about, - which confounds the actors and disturbs the audience; upon which the galleries, who hate the appearance of one of us, begin to hiss and cry "off off!" while I, undaunted, stamp my foot, so, take snuff with my right hand and smile scornfully - thus. This exasperates the savages, and they attack with vollies of suck'd oranges and half-eaten pippins.
Aesop: And do you retire?
Fine Gentleman: Without doubt if I am sober - for orange will stain silk and an apple may disfigure a feature.
Garrick finally banished spectators from the stage in 1763 - not before time!
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A couple of weeks ago, I attended a service in this tiny church in the Kent countryside. It's called St Botolph's, and it's in the grounds of Lullingstone Castle. It was a vile day with strong winds, scudding black clouds and heavy showers. Some of the ladies were dressed in wedding-type clothes, with smart dresses, fascinators and high-heeled shoes, which must have sunk into the lawn which had to be crossed to reach the church.
But we weren't there for a wedding. We were there to witness the installation of a friend of ours, William Alexander, as High Sheriff of Kent. Sheriffs - originally 'shire reeves' or 'scir-gerefa' - have existed since Saxon times. (There's one in my book about Alfred the Great, Warrior King - though I have to confess that at the time of writing it, I didn't make the connection between 'shire reeve' and 'sheriff'.) The office of High Sheriff was created in 992, in the time of Aethelred the Unready (or more accurately, the 'Unraed', meaning badly-advised.) By coincidence, I've just been reading about Aethelred. Unready or ill-advised, he certainly wasn't the best of kings, to put it mildly. Perhaps he thought up the idea of having a High Sheriff for each county as a last desperate effort to create a bit of law and order in a country which had, under his rule, become chaotically dangerous.
Whatever the reason, he created the office - and it's now the oldest secular office under the Crown. Then, the High Sheriff was the chief executive in each shire. He was responsible for administering agriculture and collecting farm rents, as well as for dispensing justice. He could raise the hue-and-cry to hunt down felons, and he could summon - wait for it - the 'posse comitatus': the full power of the shire, to fight in the service of the sovereign. (Who knew sheriffs and posses weren't invented in the Wild West?)
The office of High Sheriff has changed; many of its powers have been lost since the Middle Ages. But it's not purely ceremonial; lasting for a year, it's an apolitical appointment which brings with it the ability to do a tremendous amount that is useful: to play a supportive role in relation to public sector and voluntary agencies and their efforts in relation to crime reduction and social cohesion.
So, back to the little church. We all waited expectantly. Trumpets sounded. Then along came the procession - which was just about as long as the church itself. There was the present High Sheriff. There was the Chief Constable. There was the Lord-Lieutenant. There were two judges, one of whom, in a long wig, robe and knee breeches, looked as if he'd walked straight out of a Dickens novel. There were chaplains and church-wardens. And there was the High Sheriff Elect, looking a picture in black velvet and snow white ruffles, with silver buckles on his shoes and a sword at his side. Marvellous!
|William Alexander, lavender farmer and High Sheriff of Kent|
William had to swear a magnificent oath full of sonorous phrases, the gist of which was: 'In all things I will well and truly behave myself in my office.' He was presented with his badge of office, and then he spoke about what he hopes to achieve in his year - because, aside from all the ceremonial things he or she has to do, a high sheriff these days is expected to take on a project of some kind, usually to do with the justice system. William is interested in the rehabilitation of prisoners, particularly focusing on improving literacy and educational standards. (Sadly, I don't think he'll be allowed to charge all over Kent leading a hue-and-cry or a posse comitatus. But you never know.)
He also read extracts from the Magna Carta (of whose 63 clauses, 27 relate to the office of Sheriff) and from the Charter of the Forest. I'd never heard of this before, but apparently it was much more to do with the rights of the common man, as distinct from the rights of the nobles.
I'm fascinated by the Dark Ages anyway, and this felt like a visceral link back to an England (scarcely then an England, let alone a Britain) of over a thousand years ago. It felt archaic, but still important. It was like being a tiny part of a long, long story. It was a privilege to be there.
By 1941, the pressure on materials and labour resulted in the imposition of clothes rationing. A points system was introduced: eleven coupons for a dress, two for a pair of stockings, eight coupons for a man's shirt or pair of trousers, and so on. Every adult was allocated 66 points for the year. The clothes still had to be bought however, the coupons handed over with the money, and not everyone could afford 14 & 1/2 guineas for the military style suit shown here (£657.90p in today's money - Vogue doesn't change much).
Ration Book and coupons
Skirts, dresses, coats cut in more generous pre-war times were cut up and re-modelled. Worn out clothes were patched, darned, frayed collars and cuffs turned and when repair was no longer possible, cut up and used as patchwork. Make Do and Mend allowed women to be inventive and creative in their use of what was available to them. Embroidery and appliqué, not only covered darns, but gave old garments a bright new look. New materials were pillaged. Parachute silk was used for everything from wedding dresses to camiknickers. One group of women in a village near Redditch confronted a downed German pilot with pitchforks and broom handles, intent on getting his parachute which supplied enough silk to make knickers for all the women in the village.
|parachute silk knickers|
The silk escape maps issued to RAF pilots were begged from boyfriends and husbands to turn into scarfs.
|silk escape map scarf|
|Corporal J.D.M. Pearson, Laura Knight, 1941|
|Corporal Elspeth Henderson & Sergeant Helen Turner, Laura Knight 1941|
|Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring, Laura Knight, 1943|
|Night Life Now, ATS Searchlight Crew, London, June 1943, Lee Miller|
|Women with Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, Lee Miller, 1941|
If you were a pauper in Tudor England, how could you survive? Or would you survive at all?
Throughout the Middle Ages, there had been two principal supports for the poor – the church and the rich citizen. Almsgiving was part of general church policy, but the mainstay for the poor consisted of the monastic institutions, which provided medical care for the sick, temporary lodgings for wandering labourers and craftsmen seeking work, and more permanent housing for the aged and infirm. The more generous-hearted of the aristocracy and gentry handed out leftover food and sometimes discarded clothing and small coins to the poor of their neighbourhoods.
This system of aid was in contrast to a series of laws which regarded the poor as a blight on society, needing to be dealt with severely. These laws had developed during the period of social disruption following the Black Death, and were to be extended during the Tudor period. There was some compassion for those who were genuinely disabled or infirm, who might be given a licence to beg at certain locations within their own parishes, though this was hardly a generous provision for the poor, depending as it did upon voluntary gifts by other parishioners.
The paupers who did not fall into the category of the ‘deserving poor’ were labelled ‘sturdy beggars’, no distinction being made between those who were lawless vagrants through circumstance or choice, and those who were merely unemployed and seeking work. The harsh solution to dealing with such people was a period in the stocks or a public whipping (or both). The victim would then be forcibly returned to his parish, which was hardly a solution for those who had left home in order to seek work. Repeated offences could result in more severe penalties, such as the loss of an ear or branding.
Parishes were so reluctant to take on the responsibility for the poor that cruel practices were not unknown. There are documented cases of unmarried or vagrant pregnant women being hastily dragged off by the constables to a neighbouring parish before giving birth, so that the baby would become the responsibility of the latter.
With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the system of welfare which they had provided collapsed completely. What had been a minor problem throughout the country escalated in a few years to disastrous proportions. It was further aggravated by the early period of enclosures, when large landowners – and sometimes wealthy townsmen with an eye to a profitable venture – began to fence in and seize control of the ‘commons’, the pastures and village fields which were held in common by the peasant community of a village. Deprived of their only means of a livelihood, these unexpectedly impoverished peasants flocked to the towns, and especially to
, in the hope of finding employment.
Suddenly there was a huge proportion of the population which was dispossessed and poverty-stricken. Something needed to be done.
Unfortunately, the old perceptions remained. The poor were still classified as either sturdy beggars or the deserving poor, the latter being those who were old, frail, or disabled. Provision was therefore made with this distinction in mind.
Various issues had to be addressed. Medical care was needed for those who could not afford the services of a private physician. Given the terrible epidemics which swept through the country, particularly
, it was quickly recognised that this had a high priority. The monasteries had established two hospitals in London London, providing medical care for the sick and hospices for the permanently infirm: St Bartholomew’s north of the river, just outside the western City wall, and ’s south of the river, in Southwark. The city authorities persuaded Henry VIII to allow them to take over St Bartholomew’s and reopen it under the governance of St Thomas in 1547. It took a little longer to re-establish London ’s, which reopened in the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, in 1551. Both hospitals play a part in my Christoval Alvarez series. St Thomas
These two hospitals cared both for the destitute and for the working poor from Tudor times onward, and both are still major hospitals to this day, although they no longer retain their additional function as almshouses. Both were originally founded in the twelfth century, and St Bartholomew’s is the oldest hospital in
Europe, possibly in the world.
|St Bartholomew the Great gatehouse|
Further care for the deserving poor came in the form of the many individual almshouses for the old and infirm established during this period. A few were built by towns or guilds, but more were the gift of charitable individuals. Many are still in existence.
A particular group of the helpless poor were the children, especially orphans and foundlings, although it was recognised that there were also children whose parents simply could not support them. The frequent epidemics of killer diseases led to a large number of orphans living as street children. Unwanted babies were abandoned on doorsteps and in public privies. Children were exploited by beggars who used them to illicit sympathy. In times of hardship and starvation, such as the famine years of the 1590s, poor families could not feed their children. What was to be done about this growing problem of destitute babies and children? Those who managed to survive swarmed in the streets as beggars and potential criminals. It was an acute crisis.
King Edward VI wrote to the Lord Mayor of
, asking him: London
Remarkably, Greyfriars, located in Newgate, across the street from Newgate Prison, had not been torn down, though it was in a derelict state. The Lord Mayor assembled a committee of thirty solid and benevolent citizens who immediately set to work to raise funds, repair the buildings and appoint a large staff. The first children were admitted in November 1552, before winter set in. They were issued with the famous ‘bluecoat’ uniform of blue tunics and yellow stockings, still worn by the pupils of Christ’s Hospital school today.
The site, which can be seen on the Agas map of
London, was huge, incorporating a church, dormitories, quadrangles (like an Oxford or college), and numerous outbuildings, which provided everything necessary for this model orphanage: bakery, brewery, laundry, and so on. Moreover, there were to be two schools, a petty school for the small children and a grammar school for the older ones. These children were not to join the unskilled and indigent paupers of Cambridge when they left Christ’s. They were trained in basic clerical skills, some were later apprenticed to craftsmen, some very clever boys would even go on to university and rise to high positions in the church. London
The numbers were initially to be limited to 250, then 300, but they frequently rose to as many as 700. From the outset it seems to have been a kindly and humane home, for cases are recorded where children apprenticed to cruel masters ran away and came home to Christ’s Hospital. At a time when life could be unbelievably brutal, Christ’s was an extraordinary exception. The orphanage plays a major part in the fifth Christoval Alvarez novel.
Children could be given a home, cared for, educated, but what was to be done about the adult sturdy beggars, the authorities’ nightmare, the nursery of crime?
Bridewell Palace, located near the confluence of the Fleet Riverwith the Thames, was one of Henry VIII’s palaces during the early years of his reign. Later it was used for a time as the French ambassador’s residence and it was during this period that it formed the setting for Holbein’s famous trick painting of the two ambassadors (1533).
However, during the 1550s, when many of these social problems were being tackled in
London, Edward VI gave Bridewell Palace to the City of Corporation (1553), to serve a double purpose as a place of correction for ‘disorderly women’ and an orphanage. By 1556 it was functioning fully as Bridewell Prison, where the sturdy but troublesome vagrants and beggars – both men and women – were confined and spent their time employed in useful labour. London
The Prospect of BridewellJohn Strype (1720)
Its secondary function as an ‘orphanage’ served to supplement the much more extensive Christ’s Hospital, mainly providing training and apprenticeships for older boys, apprenticeships which came to be well regarded. The combined institution was run by a Court of Governors.
There remained one further group of troublesome citizens – those who were insane, or were believed to be insane. After the disruption of Henry VIII’s break with
Rome, many of the ecclesiastical institutions in (like the two hospitals) were destroyed or converted to secular use. Just outside the northern part of the City wall at Bishopsgate, in the parish of St Botolph, stood the London , which had served a variety of purposes since its foundation in 1247. From the late Middle Ages it was certainly housing some mentally ill inmates, but – as with St Bartholomew’s and Bethlehem Hospital ’s – the ending of ecclesiastical care had led to the collapse of the institution, which was sorely needed. St Thomas
In 1546, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Gresham, petitioned the king to grant
to the City. Henry VIII was reluctant, and insisted on retaining possession of the building, although he granted the City Council ‘the custody, order and governance’ of Bethlehem Hospital and of its ‘occupants and revenues’ in a charter which came into effect in 1547, the year of Henry’s death.
The mention of revenues is significant, because Bedlam, as it was popularly known, did not provide a free service. Those who could afford it paid for their insane relatives to be housed in Bedlam. Poorer patients might be confined there if the courts judged it appropriate and agreed to pay the fees or imposed the fees on the inmate’s parish. The position of Master was regarded as a sinecure, which yielded a comfortable income, and little seems to have been done to treat the inmates, apart from keeping them out of trouble. Contemporary thinking advised confining them in darkened rooms away from any disturbing stimuli and shaving their heads once a month to cool the brain. (Compare the confinement in the dark of Malvolio in Twelfth Night.) Documents of the period refer to them as ‘the poor’ or ‘the prisoners’, not as patients.
In 1557, the Court of Governors of Bridewell took over the management of Bedlam as well, and if inmates of Bridewell were transferred to Bedlam, the Bedlam fees were paid from
funds. In 1598 the Court of Governors made a long overdue inspection of Bedlam, finding it neglected and in a disgusting state: ‘it is so loathsomely and filthy kept not fit for any man to come into the said house’. This in the one fee-paying hospital in Bridewell Hospital . London
All through the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign, and the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, various acts were passed to try to cope with the growing numbers of the poor. The introduction of a parish-based Poor Rate in 1547 went some way to provide for the impotent poor through compulsory contributions from those parishioners who could pay, the relief being in the form of money, food or clothes. More destitute paupers might be accommodated in almshouses. However, the treatment of sturdy beggars grew ever more severe as their numbers increased. Where in the early part of the period the punishment might be three days in the stocks, it increased to greater and greater physical punishment, including burning through the ear or – for a second offence – hanging.
In this contemporary illustration a beggar is being whipped in the foreground. In the background, another is being hanged.
’s government finally tackled the problem as a whole, requiring, in the Poor Act of 1575, that all parishes have institutions similar to Bridewell, where sturdy beggars could be put to productive work, instead of simply suffering physical punishment. These institutions were required to keep a supply of ‘wool, hemp, flax, iron and other stuff’, to provide useful employment. The inmates did wire-drawing, knitted woollen caps, carded, spun and wove various fibres, and stuffed mattresses.
The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1597 further developed earlier provisions and established the position of Overseer of the Poor, responsible for the distribution of poor relief. There were to be two in each parish, appointed for a year. In addition to distributing poor relief, they were required to estimate the number of poor in the parish, use this as a basis for setting the poor rate, and then collect it from the parishioners. (Not a popular job!) This was followed by the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601, which further codified the duties of each parish. With a few modifications, it remained in force until the shift from a rural to an industrial society demanded a major overhaul. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed after the report by a commission set up in 1832. Interestingly, the whole act was not repealed until 1967!
Today our attitudes toward the less fortunate members of society have changed radically. Some of the treatments meted out in Tudor times seem extraordinarily harsh, yet life in general was much harsher then. Faced with the collapse of the social welfare provided by the monasteries, officials and private individuals struggled to cope with what must have seemed at the time like a serious threat to peace, safety and health. They did their best. The provision of orphanages and poor relief by city authorities and Parliament, and the establishment by individuals of almshouses for the destitute and free grammar schools to educate poor boys, demonstrate how well they succeeded. The fact that the Elizabethan Poor Laws survived in part down to our own times speaks volumes for their achievements.
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|St John of Beverly on the Minster.|
Photo: Graham Hermon
|William the Conqueror invasion of England|
The reason for the saint’s anger was that Toustain had violated the ancient right of sanctuary granted to Beverley by King Æthelstan (the first Saxon King of all England) in 938, who attributed his victory over the Scots to the intervention of St. John. In gratitude, he had a firth stool placed in Beverley and the sanctuary area extended for a mile and half in any direction from that stool. If someone was accused of a crime which carried the death penalty, they could temporarily save themselves by claiming sanctuary there. If their accusers attempted to seize them within this holy circle, they would face a huge fine, and dragging a man away from the altar or off the frith stool itself was punishable by death.
The word frith comes from the Old Englifh fiðu meaning peace, protection and safety. It has many different associations in Anglo-Saxon culture, but friþgeard, meaning sanctuary, was an enclosed sacred space where the gods were worshipped.
After the Norman Conquest, there were two kinds of sanctuary. The first was general sanctuary within any church, which could be claimed in some cases by grasping the door knocker or in others by touching the altar. But that did not always offer as much safety as you might hope, because although the church was supposed to feed and protect you if you claimed sanctuary, in practice you would often be hounded out, since your accusers would surround the building and blockade it. This happened to Hubert de Burgh who’d taken sanctuary in Brentwood Church, Essex and was starved into surrender on the orders of the boy king Henry III.
|Frith stool at Beverley Minster|
When period of sanctuary was ended, the fugitive could try to escape or, in Beverley, he could opt to
|Sanctuary Stone or cross marking the medieval boundary of |
the St John of Beverly Sanctuary
The third option to those leaving sanctuary from any church was to plead guilty and swear to ‘abjure the realm’ in order to escape the death penalty. If this was accepted, the guilty man was instructed to walk barefoot to a designated port along the king’s highway, dressed in penitential clothes and carrying a cross-staff as a symbol that he’d been granted safe passage. Once there he had to stand knee-deep in the sea during the hours of daylight until he could find a ship willing to take him out of the country. Obviously, the victim or victim’s relatives would try to ensure he never reached the ship alive and many felons ran off, the moment they were out of sight of the authorities, to become outlaws. But they would then be declared wolf’s heads, which meant anyone could kill them with impunity and claim a bounty.
But this right to sanctuary had some interesting consequences for other towns. The sanctuary at Beverley brought a host of criminals to the little town of Barton on the opposite side of the wide river Humber, where it opens into the North Sea. There was a ferry at Barton, but the strong tides and currents in the estuary meant it could only operate every twelve hours. So if a fugitive could clamber aboard just before it sailed, he could leave his pursuers fuming helplessly on the bank, while he was rowed to safety. If he could get hold of a horse, he could reach Beverley before those hunting him could cross. Large numbers of thieves, murderers and innocent men too must have hidden up in Barton and the surrounding countryside waiting for their chance to make it to the ferry, very like modern asylum seekers. Many were caught, but many escaped, including one resident of Barton in the 1300’s, Elias de la Hill, who had struck Richard de la Hill and found himself fleeing for his life to Beverley.
As for William the Conquerer, after he heard what had happened to Toustain, he wisely decided to leave Beverley’s sanctuary unviolated. Even he knew he couldn’t defeat a saint. The 1,000 year old frith stool is still inside Beverley Minster, though if you were thinking of committing murder I must warn you that the right to sanctuary there was abolished by Henry VIII in the 1530’s.
|7th Century Frith stool in Hexham Abbey|
Photo: Mike Quinn
The exhibition came out of the research of Zena Kamash, Lecturer in Roman Archaeology and Art, Royal Holloway, University of London. Long fascinated by the relationship of food and memory, she recently took part in a project called Memoria Romana. As I understand it, this is an ongoing attempt to look at Classical history in a more intuitive way.
That's what we authors of historical fiction do every day: we take the facts from archaeology and primary sources, then go into our imaginations and try to construct a version of the past that feels real.
For example, modern sources about food in ancient Rome usually trot out the same old 'facts':
1. Romans reclined to dine
2. There were three courses
3. Slaves waited on you
4. Romans ate basic food like bread, olive oil and wine
5. And disgusting food like stuffed dormice and flamingo tongues
6. Not to mention fish-gut sauce
7. When you’d eaten too much you vomited
Some of these are mainly false, some true and some partly true.
It’s a bit like saying all Americans have cornflakes for breakfast, supersize hamburgers for lunch and turf'n'surf for dinner. Or that all French eat croissants and café au lait for breakfast, a Gauloise cigarette for lunch and steak frites for dinner. Remember the 80s in the UK, when we scoffed prawn cocktails, fondue, chicken kiev and Angel Delight? Those foods already seem bizarrely retro, but a future historian might have us eating them for decades.
What scholars like Zena Kamash realise is that you can’t sum up a thousand years of Roman history into such a simple formula.
Food varies in time and place. One of the fascinating aspects of first century British cooking is the number of new foods introduced by the Romans. And it's fun to think about the British equivalents of Mediterranean foods: butter for oil and beer instead of wine. These are some of the topics addressed by Zena and other experts in conjunction with the Corinium Museum in Food for Thought.
But as well as looking at the physical evidence, Zena has gone creative. She knows that every Roman must have had their own way of eating, their own preferences, their own habits, their own cuisine, just as we do today. On her Not Just Dormice - Food for Thought blog she has shared her 'first food memory' and her favourite cuisine, and she has encouraged the other contributors and guest bloggers to do the same.
Accordingly, Zena notes that her 'earliest food memory' is going to her village shop to buy sweets and her favourite cuisine is Middle Eastern.
One of the contributors to the exhibition is Lisa Lodwick, an archaeobotanist who studies plant remains from Roman sites. Her earliest food memory is 'a dinosaur shaped birthday cake' and her favourite cuisine is '(modern) Italian'.
Dan Stansbie specialises in Iron Age and Roman Britain; he is especially interested in the relationship between food and ceramics. His earliest food memory is a chocolate birthday cake and his favourite cuisine is Modern British/Anglo Indian.
Miranda Creswell is also involved with the project. Her best food would be 'a simple Italian tomato sauce, and chestnuts'. Her earliest food memory is crunchy bread and unsalted butter, from when she lived in France. Doesn't the idea of unsalted butter on a baguette make you think of France, too?
My own earliest memory of food is probably the kosher dill pickles my Jewish father used to buy. Whenever I had an upset stomach, I would nibble one and immediately feel better. If I had to eschew all other cuisines and settle for just one, it would be Tex-Mex. That way, I’d still be able to enjoy chocolate, corn tortillas, chilli peppers, sour cream, avocado, cheese, beans, rice, beer and margaritas. Can you guess I grew up in California?
My English husband Richard says his first 'food memory' is of white bread soaked in warm milk with sugar sprinkled on top. His preferred cuisine is modern Italian.
See how much these two simple questions hint at a person's age, ethnicity and even racial background?
Amanda Hart, director of the Corinium Museum chipped in, too: 'Probably vegemite toast 1st memory and tuna avocado sandwich fave food. This is making me hungry!' she tweeted.
Guest blogger Martyn Allen's favourite food is curry. It makes him happy. His earliest food memory is 'sprinkling the salt sachet into a packet of Smith's Salt'n'Shake whilst standing under a tree in a pub garden. Crisps, trees and pubs all continue to make me happy!' he adds.
(To see more examples from the guest bloggers, go HERE.)
Notice how emotion has crept in. We know from Proust's famous madeleine episode how powerfully evocative the sense of taste can be.
All this food memory talk got me thinking about the characters in my new series of books set in Roman Britain. One writing exercise I often do to flesh out a character is to have them 'pack a suitcase for the weekend'. Or I imagine my character in the nude, as recommended by Sol Stein in his book Solutions for Writers.
It occurred to me that Zena's two questions are ones I could ask my characters as I develop them and help them 'come alive'.
Juba, the twelve-year-old hero of my work in progress, is dutiful and diligent. Aeneas is his hero and, like Aeneas, Juba is of a melancholy disposition. Romans believed that people of a melancholic temperament were cool and dry, and that they needed hot, moist foods to balance these humours. So Juba will like moist roast chicken, a dish often prescribed in Roman times for melancholy. He comes from a rich Roman mixed-race family, so maybe his first memory could be of an exotic and expensive food like flamingo tongues, clichéd though it is. Or – counterintuitively – something comforting like the Roman equivalent of French toast.
Vesuvio, Juba's 14-year-old brother, is slightly OCD. Named after the volcano that erupted in the year of his birth, Vesuvio is not choleric as you might expect, but phlegmatic, i.e. easy-going and with 'cold, wet' humours. According to the Roman medical writer Galen, he should eat bread, roast meat and fish. My intuition tells me he loves 'white foods'. So high-quality bread, roast chicken breast and oat porridge with a dollop of cream are his faves. Maybe his first food memory is of Roman libum or honey-cake, a scrumptious combination of ricotta-type cheese, flour, egg and honey with the unexpected addition of a bay leaf for flavour.
|Sally Grainger's recipe for Libum or Honey-cake & my husband's effort|
I had the idea of a younger sister named Ursula who like me is choleric (hot and dry) and will find herself perfectly at home in cold, damp Britannia. Galen tells me that she should eat cool, moist food like soft cereals, lettuce, cabbage and cold beans. Like me, one of her favourite foods could be bitter salad with an oenogarum (wine vinegar, olive-oil and fish-gut) dressing.
How about your characters? What is the first 'food memory' of each? And what is their preferred cuisine?
And what about YOU?
Caroline Lawrence will be talking about Roman Food: Disgusting and Delicious at the Corinium Museum on Saturday 31 May 2015 as part of their Roman Food Festival. And Dr Paul Roberts of the British Museum will be talking about Eating and Drinking in Pompeii and Herculaneum on Sunday 31 May 2015!
The winners of Kate Forsyth's The Wild Girl are:
To claim your prize, please contact Susie Dunlop - email@example.com - with your land address.
Many of the scenes in my stories are set in these Venetians gardens, so naturally I sent Mariagrazia my first children’s book, The Undrowned Child, as soon as it was translated into Italian by Salani in 2011. The book’s protagonists are greedy foul-mouthed mermaids, a monster in the lagoon, the ghost of an historical traitor and some extremely clever children.
Mariagrazia’s letter said: ‘Sometimes fruit needs time to mature … and so finally it seems that I will be able to present your book in Venice, or rather propose a reading of it and a workshop for children in the great garden of Thetis at the Arsenale.
|the Garden of Thetis|
The actor, musician and artist Oreste Sabadin, she told me, had offered his voice and his clarinet to perform a musical reading of some extracts of the book. And Mariagrazia’s daughter, the artist and photographer Francesca Saccani, would work with the children to paint watercolours of monsters and mermaids. Francesca and Anna Saccani had designed Wigwam’s first calendar.
I leave you to imagine how excited I was about this. Especially when I saw the beautiful poster.
Now the Italian edition of The Undrowned Child is called Il Grimorio di Venezia… roughly translated as The Magical Almanac of Venice. It has a rather provocative cover.
Don’t you think this mermaid looks as if she has really lived? Lived in ways beyond the realm of the intended 9-12 readers of the book? Or is it just that I need to get out more? (I’m sure you’ll tell me.)
|the original 'Papy'|
Getting back to exciting news that my book was to be presented in Venice … naturally I planned to be there, and secretly hoped to be asked to judge the best mermaid drawing, or even just to paint a mermaid of my own. I couldn’t help noticing that Oreste Sabadin was a ferociously handsome man.
I rehearsed my impromptu speeches and off the cuff jokes in the bath for a week; I’d chosen the outfit; I’d had my hair cut and my toenails were freshly gelled in the kind of courtesanly red that the Italian cover’s mermaid would have favoured, had she owned toes to paint instead of a tail.
As it happened, a last-minute logistical hitch meant that I was unable to get to Venice but I received reports of the event in image, word and sound. I am pleased to report that this was an occasion properly dedicated to the imagination, to innocence and to children - and to gardens.
My lovely friends, the artist Deirdre Kelly and the architect Rosato Frassanito sent me texts, emails, photos and videos all through the performance, during which Oreste read from the book, and played,
while Francesca created images in watercolour using, appropriately, brushes fashioned from vegetables.
The children sat around in a neat semi circle. I would love to show them but it’s never a good idea to publish photographs of children on the internet, sadly. With permission, however, I can show you a talented young Venetian friend of mine, Martina, who attended the event.
Sheets of paper were also laid out for the children, with generous dollops of colour and vegetable paintbrushes.
I was informed of everything minute by minute - even my own round of applause at the end.
So, sitting looking over the Thames, I could feel myself by the lagoon in Venice.
Many, many thanks to all involved.
Michelle Lovric’s website
You can learn more about the work of Wigwam, and find a schedule of their private garden openings and visits here
It also features illustrations by Francesca Saccani.
Photos by Rosato Frassanito and Deirdre Kelly, the collage artist, who is currently preparing a new exhibition of her work for the Scuola Grafica in Venice.
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For anyone who’s even vaguely interested in history or politics Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is a fascinating exhibition. For a historical novelist, it’s an inspiration.
I’d heard about it on the radio and was itching to see it, so when Mary Hoffman passed on an invitation for a History Girl to attend a private view I grabbed it. Travelling up to London I was ridiculously excited. There’s something magical about seeing historical documents and artefacts in the flesh – no reproduction, however good can convey the thrill of the real thing. And this was the Magna Carta. THE MAGNA CARTA!!! I’d been taught about it in Primary School. Bad King John who ‘shamed the throne that he sat on.’ King versus barons, democracy versus tyranny. The triumph of the People’s rights, cornerstone of the British constitution.
And yet, of the 63 original clauses, only three remain on the statute book today. One defends the freedom of the English church, another the liberties of London and other towns. The third is the most famous –
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
In Medieval England ‘free men’ were actually an elite minority but that concept of universal justice was hugely powerful and has inspired lawyers, politicians and activists (including Nelson Mandela) ever since. Chief Justice Lord Bingham wrote, “the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it had said.”
Curators Julian Harrison and Claire Breay and researcher Alex Lock are to be congratulated on creating a narrative that leads us from the granting of the charter in 1215 right up to the present day.
There are excellent reviews that give an overview of the exhibition here
However, I’m coming at it from a different angle and taking an author’s eye view.
At every school or library visit I can guarantee someone will ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I reply that I’m like a magpie, constantly on the lookout for bright little nuggets of information. And then there are the holes in history, the gaps that can be filled with ‘what-ifs?’ and ‘maybes...’ and ‘just supposes..?’ In Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy there’s material to fill several volumes. I’ll concentrate on just three that sparked off novel ideas.
First of all was a striking statue of one of the barons - Geoffrey FitzGeoffrey de Mandeville. A small label states that he was deeply in debt to King John after paying £13,333 for the right to marry the monarch’s first wife.
My brain started ticking right away. Geoffrey married the king’s ex-wife? King and queen were divorced? Why? How? What happened? I was so intrigued that I looked her up as soon as I got home.
It was Henry II who arranged the betrothal between Isabel (or Isabella) of Gloucester and his son John, but only after Henry had disinherited Isabel’s two sisters and declared she was sole heir to Gloucester. The couple were married, but as they were distant cousins the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the marriage null and void. The Pope granted a dispensation but banned them from having sexual relations.
A woman cast aside by her first husband, her second husband so deeply in in debt that his land was in danger of being seized by the crown, the king – her cousin - loathed by his subjects…there’s plenty of material in Isabel’s story.
Matthew Paris, a 13th century chronicler said King John‘was a tyrant. He was a wicked ruler who did not behave like a king. He was greedy and took as much money as he could from his people. Hell is too good for a horrible person like him.’
King John died (probably of dysentery) in 1216. But even then people were saying ‘what if?’ and ‘just suppose…’ Rumour had it that he’d been poisoned. There’s a thriller here just begging to be written…
As someone with an interest in American history the second thing that had me enthralled was the draft Declaration of Independence. Jefferson calmly and neatly lays out a set of charges against the tyrant George III but his language becomes inflamed and his handwriting briefly explodes into furious block capitals when writing about slavery -
Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner himself, so there’s an element of hypocrisy here. This particular passage was struck out of the finished declaration, but what if it hadn’t been? Just suppose Jefferson’s original draft had carried the day? Maybe things could have been different. How would the USA look now if they had been?
My third and possibly my favourite part of the exhibition - simply because it seems to say so much about human frailty and man’s capacity for blundering blindly towards disaster - was the copy of the Magna Carta that was damaged by fire in 1731 and then ‘restored’ in 1836 by Mr Hogarth.
It seems that Mr Hogarth first flattened the precious manuscript with a heavy weight, then soaked it in water and glued it to a backing sheet. Using blotting paper to dry the parchment he lifted off much of the ink. It was a total catastrophe, yet the Trustees report declared the work to be ‘satisfactory’.
As for the Trustees - I can’t help imagining their expressions when they saw what he’d done. Tight lipped, ashen-faced, declaring it ‘satisfactory’ and then burying it deep in the basement in the hope that no one would ever find it?
There’s definitely a book there. Mr Hogarth’s Bad Day perhaps, or Mr Hogarth Messes Up?
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy runs at the British Library until 1st September 2015. Go see it.
|Matthew Macfadyen as a smouldering Mr Darcy|
'But all those men from the past were doing manual work, even the posh ones were riding and generally doing manly things, weren't they?' I hear you say. But Macfadyen rightly points out that a character in a period drama wouldn't have done crunches. A six-pack is something that can only be achieved in the gym with specific exercises – it is a modern phenomenon.
He talks of being expected to sculpt his torso for his role as Mr Darcy and also having acted in a series about soldiers in the former Yugoslavia and working with the Royal Greenjackets – some of the fittest men he had ever encountered and none of them sporting a six-pack. Macfadyen is taking a stand against the vanity of it all and I thoroughly approve.
|Some gratuitous nudity – not a sculpted calf in sight!|
It is the female body that has been scrutinised for centuries and wilfully shaped to meet the desires of men and now our inherently narcissistic culture is forcing a similar set of expectations on men. It's tempting to say as women that we have been subject to the male gaze for long enough and now its our turn to shift the gaze onto men. But this makes me uncomfortable; I feel it is something we should resist as it is reductive and shallow.
If Macfadyen can manage to be a sex symbol and remain fully clothed then more power to him and, if truth be told, I'd take him over Turner any day.
Elizabeth Fremantle's novel WATCH THE LADY will be published in June.
To find out about her Tudor trilogy go to ElizabethFremantle.com
Twitter – @lizfremantle
Facebook – Elizabeth Fremantle Author
Throughout history, duststorms have proved devastating - the five year 'Dustbowl' of 1930 - 35 in the US, the sandstorm that preserved the 'Pompeii of the Silk Road' in Western China, or the Persian King Cambyses II whose entire army was buried alive by a vast storm. I first learnt about desert life, and the challenges of surviving in a harsh environment when the photographer Ronald Codrai visited the gallery I worked at in Chelsea some years ago. He brought with him a portfolio of stunning photographs, taken over many years in the Arabian Peninsula. Like his contemporary, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Codrai captured a changing world on film. Life altered rapidly in the region thanks to the oil industry, but his photographs of Bedouin preserved Cain's world of camel trains and trading routes, skilled falcons and hounds and a strong nomadic people whose way of life had changed little for a thousand years.
'Bedu' literally means an inhabitant of the desert. Whether defined by their beliefs and culture, or a wandering, migratory lifestyle, Bedouin traditions are valued here, and the qualities of chivalry, courage and patience. Famed for their generosity and hospitality, any guest of the Bedouin would be given food and water for three days, and protection. The tribes were ruled by sheikhs chosen for their wisdom and skill, and they have passed on a rich culture of storytelling, poetry and music.
By the 1950s only a thousand Bedouin were still living a migratory lifestyle in the region, and many had settled as 'hadar' town-dwellers. It is a fast changing world, but in Qatar some of the oldest residents can still remember a life spent travelling by camel, and this "longing for a simple past" was recorded in a recent anthology 'Qatari Voices'. These memories are to be treasured before they fade, just like the work of the photographers who recorded a vanishing way of life. Perhaps it is inevitable that the past is romanticised. On moving to the desert, I'd hoped it would all be more Kristin Scott Thomas reciting Herodotus by a camp fire than cleaning up dust. Inevitably, someone said last week: 'Call this a sandstorm? You should try being stuck in the middle of the Sahara'. If it involved Ralph Fiennes reciting the names of the wind, it does sound tempting:
My novel 'Last Train from Kummersdorf' will be reissued next month, and it made me think about its inception and the ingredients that went into it. I'd started to write it seven years before it was actually published, and it was a very different book then.
I began to write it because:
I went to see 'Schindler's List' and the images of heaped-up personal goods from murdered Jews suddenly fired up such fury and rage in me, I knew it would have to find an outlet in writing.
Because I read about the Battle of Berlin, how in the last stages lads as young as twelve were drafted in to fight, and the SS shot these kids if they cracked and begged to go home.
Because my mother is German, and one day - I think we were looking at an episode of 'Heimat' together - the Nazi Horst Wessel song was played and she began to sing along with apparent pleasure. I was horrified, but to her it was just a bit of her youth, and she didn't even connect it with the horrors of a society that had threatened both her parents' lives.
Because though I adored her when I was small, I found it harder and harder to understand her as I grew up, and I hoped, through finding out and writing about childhood in Nazi Germany, to somehow get to understand her.
So it was about things that I found intolerable, incomprehensible - and really needed to understand, because your mother is part of you, in a way.
I began with the boy, Hanno. He was the hardest to write. He's fourteen (almost fifteen) and he's been drafted into the 'Volkssturm', the Home Guard, to fight against the incoming Russians. This was an organisation that was largely characterised by the phrase in Henry Reed's 'Naming of Parts,''which in our case we have not got.' Hanno's entire unit has been wiped out around him, including his twin brother (I couldn't have done this now, not since the birth of my twin grandsons). Aching with loss, cut off from his mother and sister - who have fled to the West to escape the Russians - Hanno has no idea where to go or what to do now. In that state, he meets Effi.
Effi is a mass of prickles, and Hanno can't understand why she's so hostile to him, but they stay together, at first just because it's better than being completely alone. She is the daughter of a political refugee from Nazism, and got marooned in Germany when her mother insisted on coming back to be with her own mother, who was dying. The war broke out before they could get back, and then Effi's mother died of TB. Effi then went to her aunt, who was part of the Communist resistance to Hitler, and remained with her till she was also killed by a bomb. Now she is trying to cross the battle zone and get to the US army, because she knows her father is with them.
In writing about Effi's life in the then working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg, I owe an enormous debt to Bernt Engelmann, whose two books of mixed autobiography and oral history (published in Britain as 'In Hitler's Germany' told me about that left-wing resistance. I'd had no idea about it; I suppose the Cold War led to its suppression, so that all most people in England know about is the attempted coup of July 1944. But Communists and Social Democrats did what they could; admittedly, it wasn't much, but it included sabotage of munitions factories, at enormous risk, by those who worked there, getting Jews and others at risk out of Germany, and also reporting on conditions in the country.
Effi has learned to keep her mouth shut, and has a very different perspective on things from Hanno's - and of course, she wasn't difficult to write at all, because I could put my own thoughts and feelings on the page through her. She's jazz-obsessed, uses music as a way to get along in a dreadfully dangerous world. She carries a bag of things that might be useful to sell after the war's ended, and a harmonica which she uses to express her feelings, to torment other people when she feels like it. My brother sent me Sonny Terry's 'Freight Train rolling', so I could hear how Effi might imitate a train when she and Hanno are selling fake tickets. When she wants to be nice to Hanno, she calls him 'Swing Boy,' and promises him a great life when everything's over, listening to hitherto forbidden jazz. She wants to be a singer and have a lion, like Josephine Baker. She isn't callous, but she's tough, a survivor - I think it was good for me to write her.
|Hanno from the hardback jacket|
My mother was on the run, in the open, in April 1945, as some readers of this blog know, escaping from Russians who'd tried to rape her. When that trauma, which she repressed for many years, came back to her, I was a young child. I can remember it well, because she had nobody but the family to talk to, and I, as well as my father, became her therapists. I've met other people who found themselves, as children, the only available people to listen to their parents' trauma. I can see why it happened, but of course she shared the horror with me, which is perhaps why I feel partly as if I had experienced these things. It's a common phenomenon known to therapists, who call it 'reverse transference', I think. I've written about second generation trauma before on this blog, so shan't go on about it now.
The other issue was how you survive, when you're on the edge, in the open, with very little to eat. It was a situation my mother knew all too well, from the post-war period. You barter. You filch, even. You forage if you can, but in springtime, there's not much to eat except nettles. If a horse is killed, it's valuable meat. And every bit of food counts.
The crucial difference between the 'adult' version and the 'Young Adult' version, was determined by what happened in between the initial drafts and when I took the book up again. I had gone to Berlin and read my grandfather's file. Rachel Seiffert, in her debut novel 'The Dark Room,' writes about a grandson who sets out to discover the truth about a beloved, kindly, grandfather. It turns out that he was involved in the murder of Jews in Russia.
All the same, reading his file made me understand the pressure that there was on him to conform; that Germany under Hitler was truly a terror society. And just before I began to rewrite the novel, I was volunteering for the Refugee Support Group in my home town, and the stories I heard from refugees drove it home that those of us who condemn people who went along with the Nazis should be grateful they haven't had to make those kinds of choices. None of us knows what we'd do in a terror state; and it's not just an issue of onesself, but of the people who depend on one. 'I could have resisted,' my grandfather told my mother after the war, 'but there was you, and your mother to consider.'
The line between victim and perpetrator is not anything like as finely drawn as we'd like to believe - and I apologise to anyone who's read me saying this before on this blog. And so the novel's tone changed, very importantly, I think. It was no longer the vehicle for sheer anger (why did my grandparents' generation load up my generation with all this guilt and shame?) and really became a journey to understanding. If what I came to understand was bitter and dreadful, I think it has made me stronger.It was a great help that I actually went and walked round the area, with a reluctant teenage daughter in tow, when I first started to write, making notes about terrain, trees, plants, soil, animals and birds. I must assure my readers that I did give her a nicer time in our other days in Berlin, and she was glad she'd come with me - though not glad she'd had to trudge round those Zossen woods.
|the pond where Effi and Hanno go fishing?|
And however dreadful the events that surround this novel are, it turned out to be about hope, and new growth with a new generation; and about unexpected humanity and humour, love, even, in bad places. People often ask authors which is their favourite book, and I am usually cagey about replying; but Last Train from Kummersdorf is my favourite book, and I feel privileged to have been able to write it.
Last Train from Kummersdorf will be published by Faber and Faber on the 7th May
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