And the word is ...
This may be a term you use on a daily basis, but it was completely new to me. It refers to that peculiar habit of the human brain to see faces, patterns, or meaning where they do not really exist. Like the man in the moon, or a dragon in a cloud, or Madeline's "crack on the ceiling that had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit." I came across it by a roundabout route. It happened like this ...
A friend introduced me to The Public Domain Review - like the National Library of Scotland chapbook archive I warned you about, these are dangerous waters. Almost immediately, I was sucked in by an article on anthropomorphic landscapes.
Athanasius Kircher (1645-6)
Flemish School (early 17th century)
Herman Saftleven the Younger (1650)
Which made me think of what Juan Sanchez Cotan did with vegetables at the beginning of the 17th century (I've raved about him here) which made me half-remember paintings of people made out of plants, so I wandered off in search of "17th century portraits of people made out of vegetables" and came to Guiseppe Arcimboldo, who turns the finding a face where one shouldn't really exist into finding vegetables/fish/books where they shouldn't really exist. He fascinated his contemporaries with these insane portraits, and he fascinates us still. (Interestingly he started out working with stained glass - I think you can see the influence of building with units.)
The Jurist (1566)
I also love the amazingly modern-looking Librarian which you can see here (I couldn't get a jpg image to copy over).
And it was while I was hanging out with Arcimboldo and vegetable paintings generally that I stumbled across my new word. And did I then call a halt? Did I completely refrain from checking out modern pareidolic images and the various humorous things one can do with a set of stick-on googly eyes? Of course I did. I am, after all, a History Girl. Do you have a favourite (historical, of course) pareidolic image, anthropomorphic landscape or portrait made out of vegetables? If so, share a link to it in the Comments, and let the wandering continue. And here's to new words and the delightful strangeness of the human mind!
P.S. This has nothing to do with anything pareidolic, but if this self-portrait is anything to go on, wasn't Guiseppe gorgeous!
Joan Lennon's website.Joan Lennon's blog.Silver Skin.
I’m thrilled to be a History Girl, after being for several years a History Girl in waiting.
Actually I have been a HG in waiting all my life. I was a swot who loved school, and from the start what I loved most, apart from English (I was a writer in waiting too) was finding out about the past. Like most children at primary school in the seventies, I did a project on the Vikings, which happened to be an interest of my history-loving father too. I don’t suppose my P4 teacher relished being told by me that there was now evidence that the Vikings may have voyaged as far as America, as that wasn’t in her textbook.
|one of my bookcases -- true stories |
Many break-times found me in a certain little hideaway under the stairs, looking at an exhibition about the school’s evacuation to the north coast during the Second World War. There were photos and letters and old essays on display and for the first time I discovered the joy of the everyday artefact, and the power of old photos to evoke a vanished, but not terribly distant world. I never saw another pupil even glance at the exhibition – I think I’d have been very indignant; it had become my private place.
What made it all the more inspiring was that by then I’d also begun on another long-lasting love – that of old school stories, and the world conjured up by those serious bobbed, gym-frocked girls in black-and-white was closer to the world of Malory Towers and the Chalet School than anything else in my Belfast upbringing. Just belonging to a school that had such photos on the walls was a thrill to me.
I had the best history teacher in the world, and romped through the Anglo-Saxons, the Tudors and the Plantation of Ulster. I have especially fond memories of the bubonic plague; then as now I adored anything gruesome about disease and pestilence. (As long as it was safely in a book and preferably now extinct.) I was told off for describing (and drawing) my plague victims with too much verisimilitude – but I like to think that a historical novelist was born in that first form exercise book.
But it was modern history, which we studied for O Level, which captivated me most. This was history I could almost touch, history my granny could remember: suffragettes and the Great War and the partition of Ireland, and then another war. This was a world I knew from those old school stories, and from the war poets I’d fallen in love with in English Lit. This was a world that seeped through the Victorian and Edwardian streets of my home city, and those black and white photos in the school corridors. A world evoked by the neatly-wound balls of nylon string, made from old clothes, in my waste-not-want-not granny’s Utility sideboard, and by the snaps of her and her friends on Sunday School outings in the twenties, looking exactly like Angela Brazil heroines.
|Aunt Annie, Aunt Sadie (who died at 16) and Gran, in about 1917|
When I started to write historical fiction – short stories at first and then, last year, a novel set in Belfast 1916 – it was this period to which I kept returning. As I write my second historical novel, due next year and set in November 1918, I’m looking forward to sharing some of those enthusiasms here with the History Girls.
And I promise not to make my plague victims too gruesome.
Here is a photograph of one of the most delightful bookshops in London. It's the Persephone Bookshop, in Lamb's Conduit Street and it's the home of those beautiful, dove-grey jacketed volumes to which I am addicted. Persephone has published many women writers whose work would otherwise have disappeared. It has done this most beautifully, and each of their books is a pleasure to hold and to read.
The shop is tiny. Nevertheless, this has not prevented Persephone from hosting very interesting events. They invite a speaker; they offer a tasty lunch of vegetarian salads and cheese and crusty bread. There is wine. There is always a full house, as the Persephone women (and yes, it is mostly women) are enthusiastic and interested and an ideal audience in every way.
On September 13th, I travelled to London to hear Anne Sebba speak about her latest book, which I'd just bought. It's called 'Les Parisiennes; how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s'
It was the hottest day of the year. London is not the place to be in such weather, and Sebba was able to point out that the heat we were enduring was similar to that in the Vél d'hiv (Vélodrome d'hiver) where so many people were confined after the round up in July 1942 in grotesquely horrendous conditions.
Full disclosure: I know Anne Sebba a little. We've had tea together in Cambridge and I was a big fan of her biography of the Duchess of Windsor. Here she is, looking elegant just before her talk.
And a little further down the page is a photo of the cover of Sebba's book. The subtitle is important, because what this book does so well is show us the variety of women who were affected by the Nazi occupation; how they coped, what they had to do to keep body and soul together and above all how they managed to look after their dependants. Children need food. Elderly parents need care. And if you are a Parisienne, you are interested in how you look. You make an effort to be stylish. You use every clothing coupon in the best and most stylish way you can. You don't let the side down by appearing dowdy. You do whatever you can and in the best way you can: that's the message from this wonderfully rich kaleidoscope of experiences of women's life in those days. Dealing with what life throws up, day after day is what these women had to do. Sebba is keen for us not to make judgements, even on those who behaved, as we would say now, badly. But we don't know what we'd do if faced with their predicaments. Maybe we'd be brave Résistantes or at least rescuers, but no one knows until she's tested exactly how she'd behave.
Sebba has spoken to many, many people, asking them about their experience of those days and also the experience of their mothers and grandmothers.
Anyone reading this book will emerge with a clear timeline of how the events unfolded. The arrival of the Germans; the worsening of the situation under the Vichy government; the systematic and regulated horrors perpetrated against the Jewish community and the complicity of some French women in these things - some women, but by no means all. Sebba is at pains to be fair and to show that as well as 'horizontal' collaborators and those who made accommodation with the Nazis, there were others who resisted, either by becoming part of a network of Résistantes or by hiding Jews in their houses. The situations that many found themselves in were unbearable. And however many times we read about it, it's always deeply shocking and chilling to read how easily Jews, who had been part of the fabric of French society and culture for generations and who thought of themselves as French first and foremost, were turned almost overnight, it seems, into The Other: the ones who had to wear yellow stars on their clothes, and be rounded up and sent away, often to their deaths.
Paris was always the capital of fashion, culture and beauty and after the end of the war, de Gaulle was keen that the image of the city be restored as quickly as possible. That lead to anyone who returned from the camps in Nazi Germany, such as Ravensbruck, being thrust as far as possible away from the limelight. It was a long time before the uncovering of these wartime stories began.
If you look at the index of Les Parisiennes, you will see that Sebba's account takes in the whole of French cultural life. Colette, Picasso, Piaf, Nemirovsky, Genet, every designer you can think of, jewellers, actresses, singers, financiers, writers: they're all there, cheek by jowl with others who are less well-known but whose wartime deeds Sebba examines with clear eyes and an understanding heart. Her sympathy for those she's spoken to comes across very well and it is greatly to the credit of both the writer and her publisher, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, that this is such a lavishly produced book. The photographs are brilliant and bring these women before us in all their vanished glory. It's a fascinating book: full of the telling personal details that can only be achieved when the writer sits down to talk to the subjects of her work. It would make a magnificent Christmas present for anyone who's interested in this period.
(By coincidence, just at the time that I started reading Les Parisiennes, I was finishing a novel by the French Nobel prizewinning writer, Patrick Modiano. It's called THE SEARCH WARRANT and I do urge anyone interested in this time, especially readers of Sebba's book, to read it. It's not like any other novel I've ever read and it's also very short.)
I love dipping into a book by Philip Gooden called "Skyscrapers, Hemlines and the Eddie Murphy Rule
." It is a collection and history of those quirky laws that seem to govern every aspect of our life from Murphy's Law - "If anything can go wrong, it will"
to the hemline theory - "Hemlines go up with rising stock market and drop with falling one
". And the one I really enjoy, Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation -
"Any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one error."
(It has been pointed out that this statement does contain one punctuation error if you are British, though not if you are American.)
It is a delightfully funny and informative collection, but though it contains sets of laws from different genres of writing from crime to ghost stories, there isn't a list of "Historical Novelists' Laws
", which I think is a great pity, so I thought I might kick off with one law that might have appeared on that list -
1) The author will discover the most interesting historical snippet which would have been perfect to use in their novel immediately after they emailed the final draft of the manuscript to the publisher.
I can personally attest to the truth of this law. One of the themes running through my new novel, The Plague Charmer,
is medieval riddles and I use riddles as some chapter headings. I thought I had scoured every available source of genuine medieval riddles, but the day after I'd submitted the manuscript I discovered two little gems in a museum, recorded in 1460, which perfectly capture the bawdy medieval mind -
Q - What is the most joyful thing in all the world?
Q - What the most noble king of all the trees in the forest?
A - 'Tis a fart for it sings from its birth until it fades away.
A - 'Tis the Holly, for no one uses it to wipe his behind.
|Sir Gawain beheads the Green Knight|
For the medieval audience, this second riddle would have been a trick question, for they all knew the holly was the king of the forest, but for a very different reason than that given in the answer to the riddle. We will soon be approaching the end of October and the Celtic festival of Samhain
, which marks the beginning of the dark months of winter. At Samhain
the Holly King defeats Oak King in battle and conquers the land, only to see the Oak triumph at Beltane
and rule over the summer.
This ancient myth is symbolised in the medieval tale of "Gawain and the Green Knight
," in which the Green Knight comes to King Arthur's court bearing a holly bush. Sir Gawain chops off the Green Knight's head, but the Green Knight still lives on and, as the medieval audience knew, he would return as the year waned, to cut off Sir Gawain's head.
|Holly and Oak in winter in Gritnam Wood, New Forest|
Photographer: Jim Champion
Another myth involving holly was centred around May Eve, the first night of Beltane
, when the Bel-fire,
or fire of light, was kindled. This involves not a king but a goddess, the ancient blue ice goddess, Cailleach Bhear
, the old woman of darkness, who reigns from Samhain
. On this night she throws her magic staff under a holly bush for safe-keeping and is turned to stone. In that form she is guarded by the holly and its spirits until she can take up her queenship once more. That is why no grass grows under holly trees.
But the early medieval Church, always pragmatic in these matters, knew they could not suppress the 'pagan
' customs of bringing holly into the house and all the many local traditions that went into gathering it, so they Christianised the holly tree. The holly's old names, holeyn, holme, hulvar
were probably Old Norse in origin, but the Church decided they must be derived from 'holy
' and said that holly bore white flowers to remind the faithful of the white sheet in which the newborn Jesus was wrapped and the shroud in which his crucified body was laid. The prickles represented Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries, the blood or wounds. In Cornwall, holly was delightfully known as dear Aunt Mary's tree
. Aunt Mary being a reverent term for the Virgin Mary.
But as the Middle Ages progressed holly was to become victorious in a different battle, not between summer and winter, but between the sexes. Early medieval troubadours sang of holly
as the man and ivy
as the woman who each brought different but equal virtues and gifts to the marriage. But as medieval women increasing lost their rights, the holly became the strong, tough, protecting male, and ivy, the clingy little female who couldn't even stand up by herself without his support. As one carol written in 1456 puts it -
"Nay, Ivy, nay: it shall not be, I wys:
Let Holly have the mastery, as the manner is."
By the 16th century we even have a carol that describes how pigeons eat the ivy berries then shit on the ivy, something we are assured they would never do to holly. Although another 15th century carol is more encouraging or perhaps prophetic -
"Ivy, chief of the trees it is,
|Old Christmas riding a goat and crowned |
Holly was believed to be a shelter for good spirits who entered with it if the boughs were brought into the house, and therefore holly was always be hung before mistletoe at Christmas, otherwise bad luck would follow. Holly protected houses and byres from evil spirits, witchcraft, fire and lightening. So, a staff made from holly was a useful defence when crossing the moors or mashes to protect you from the mysterious glowing sprites such as the Will-o-the-wisp that might lure you into a bog.
Doorsteps were often made of holly wood to prevent witches crossing them and holly hedges, as well as keeping out animals and thieves, would also stop evil spirits from entering. It was useful plant to carry when you were herding livestock too, because if a beast suddenly bolted, and you threw holly after it, the runaway would trot meekly back to the herd, summoned by the power and authority of this royal tree.
But holly bushes can turn nasty. On a road near Claonaig, on the Kintyre peninsular, a holly bush is said to dance out of the woods to confuse travellers into loosing their way, which I imagine they could easily do, if faced with prancing holly bush. In which case, they might do well to remember the laws of survival in very cold climates which Gooden lists in his book -
1) You can survive three hours without shelter.
2) You can survive three days without water.
3) You can survive three weeks without food.
So, in the spirit of dear old Murphy's Law has anyone got a favourite law for the Historical Novelist?
(Karen Maitland's new novel - The Plague Charmer - will be published by Headline on
20th Oct 2016.)
by Caroline Lawrence
Every History Girl (and History Boy) longs to travel back to the past, to see what it was really like. And those of us who time travel via fiction are always interested in food. After all, food is one of the author’s most powerful tools; it is sensory, specific and emotive. It always transports you to another place and time.
So when I heard about a new restaurant in London that planned to serve ancient Roman cuisine, I was hugely excited.
I wondered if it would be like a restaurant I used to visit in Rome a dozen or so years ago.
|Magna Roma, Via Capo d'Africa, Rome in 2002|
Magna Roma on via Capo d’Africa near the Colosseum was the brainchild of Etruscologist Franco Nicastro. Going there was an extraordinary experience.
You entered rooms painted in Pompeian red and saffron yellow, with pilasters, frescoes and replica oil-lamps hanging from the wall. Candles flickered in a small lararium— a shrine to the household gods — and a serving-girl in a tunic ladled mulsum (honey-sweetened wine) from a jar sunk in the counter, just like many found in Pompeii. The creators also sourced shiny orange crockery like the famous ancient Roman pottery called terra sigillata. Nicastro even made an attempt at authenticity with the cutlery, using cleaver-like knives and big spoons with points at the end for spearing morsels. And not a fork in sight.
After your beaker of warm spiced wine you were offered a gustaticium, an ancient Roman amuse bouche. Small squares of libum, a cheese bread flavoured with bay leaves, spread with moretum, a soft cheese mixed with a pungent mixture of herbs and garlic. Moretum was eulogised by Virgil and Columella. Professor Nicastro encouraged his guests to scatter a few crumbs and sprinkle some drops as an offering to the gods.
For the gustatio (first course) you could try authentic dishes like chicken liver pate moulded into fish shapes and served ‘on lettuce waves’; fig-flavoured ham on bread spread with grape must; bread salad with cheese, egg, mint, honey and garlic.
The menu was a scholarly booklet in six languages, one of which was that strange breed of English you get from an educated but non-native speaker. The menu was beautifully illustrated and included a literary reference for almost every dish.
For example, a casserole of fava beans cooked with fish, leeks, vinegar and garum was accompanied by a reference to a poem by Horace who wrote about a bean casserole, joking that he feared he was eating the relatives of Pythagoras. (The Pythagoreans were vegetarians who believed the human soul was eternal and could migrate into any animal after death and even into beans.)
The notorious fish-sauce was present in many dishes served at Magna Roma. Although people call it garum, the world liquamen is probably more accurate. (For an excellent explanation read this post by Neill George at Pass the Garum) Made of fermented fish parts, garum was never meant to be splashed on food like Worcestershire sauce. Just a few drops were added — mostly during the cooking process — to bring out the subtleties of the tastes, like Thai fish sauce. Nicastro served garum with a melon salad, with roasted octopus and memorably with cuttlefish salad in cold egg sauce with laserpicium. Laserpicium was Nicastro’s attempt at reproducing the elusive silphium.
A sample meal might be a gustatio of mushroom and lentil soup seasoned with cumin, honey, mint and garum followed by mensa prima of partridge with grapes ‘to be eaten with the hands’ and for mensa secunda a patina of pears with caraway seeds. Or you could have bread mash salad with vinegar, honey, mint and egg for starter, Parthian goat with salted plums for main, chard with mustard for your veg and sweet celery for pud!
One desert was inspired by art rather than literature. The archeo-gastronomes recreated a kind of cheesecake based on a fresco from the villa at Oplontis, thought by many to belong to Nero’s wife Poppaea. A base of cottage cheese and honey was topped with candied fruit and encircled with a ribbon of almond paste, or marzipan.
The food at Magna Roma was strange and wonderful, unlike anything I had ever tasted before.
Nicastro would wander from table to table, chatting in Italian and English. He once stood over our table telling an anecdote about one of his teachers who had dug near the Colosseum in Mussolini’s time. When the excavators reached the Flavian level, the stench made them recoil. Hundreds of animals had been buried in a pit so tightly that the decomposition had not completed. They were exotic beasts from the opening games of the Flavian amphitheatre in the spring of AD 80.
When I tweeted about the new restaurant in London, many people responded with mentions of dormice, flamingo tongues, sows udders and fish sauce. If only!
Sadly, the new restaurant in London does not have the slightest feel of ancient Rome. Their main approach is ‘hay cooked meat’ as ‘from Apicius’, but I can find no reference to hay (faenum, fenum or foenum) or straw (culmus) in Apicius. Only faenum graecum which is fenugreek, a sweet herb often used in cooking to reduce bitterness and enhance flavour. (Apicius De Re Coq V.7)
The venue of Roma London is totally modern with some fun wallpaper and prints on the wall (and misleading images of two of the Greek muses on the toilet doors!) Foods unknown to ancient Romans such as tomato and potato are happily served and the emphasis seems to be on inspiration rather than authenticity.
So while there is nothing authentically ancient about Roma London, that might be good for its success. Nicastro’s Magna Roma Restaurant opened in 2002 but closed down after only a few years.
The taste of ancient Roman food is just too strange for most people today.
Caroline Lawrence is obsessed with Ancient Rome and is currently writing The Roman Quests, a short series for kids 9+ set in Roman Britain in the final years of the Emperor Domitian.
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A recent gloriously sunny morning at the Columbia Road Flower Market yielded not blooms but a book. Forgive my unctuous and outdated verbosity. My prose style has been contaminated by a little red book I found at an antique stall among the flowers. Published in 1890, it’s called Everybody’s Scrap Book of Curious Facts – A BOOK FOR ODD MOMENTS. This afternoon I have spent some very odd moments indeed with its compiler, Don Lemon.
His argument on his book’s behalf is this: ‘I have often found that when the mind was so wearied that even a sensational novel failed to fix the attention, short paragraphs about unusual things in science, art, or literature, were interesting enough to divert my thoughts from cares of business.’
Mr Lemon thus conveniently liberated himself from any editorial scruples or considerations other than shortness and diversion. His book is of its time. So to our time, it is imperialist, racist, sexist, credulous and rather humorous.
Here are a few things I learned from Mr Lemon:
The mostly costly leather in the world is known to the trade as piano leather. The secret of tanning piano leather is known only to a family of tanners in Thuringia, Germany.
Wednesday and Thursday are especially lucky for weddings in Bulgaria.
The well-proportioned woman wears a shoe one half the size of the glove her hand calls for.
The thin angular ear is said to denote bad temper and cruelty … Great philosophers and statesmen have been noticed to have large and sloping ears.
When to Pare the Finger Nails (not on Sunday)
In the Arctic region, a man who wants a divorce leaves home in anger and does not return for several days. The wife takes the hint and departs.
That the colon was introduced in about 1485 and the comma 35 years later
In the month of February 1866, there was no full moon.
The stork is partial to kittens as an article of food, and finds them an easy and wholesome prey; and the cats reciprocate by a love for young storks.
It may be consoling to red-headed people to read that out of 165 patients at the Kirkbride insane asylum only one has read hair.
Among Things that Never will be Settled: ‘whether a long screwdriver is better than a short one of the same family’.
Fair Rosamund was not poisoned by Queen Eleanor, but died in the odour of sanctity in the convent of Godstow.
A centipede is afraid of a tarantula, and when he lies down to sleep he always takes the precaution to build a cactus fence about him. A tarantula will never crawl over cactus.
It has been estimate that we get a complete new outfit of brains about every two months.
The list of thing that can be eaten from the fingers is on the increase. It includes all bread, toast, tarts and small cakes, celery and asparagus.
We must all make our apologies to the pig, who has been grossly maligned in regard to his food. Instead of being ready to eat anything, he turns out to be the most fastidious of animals.
Of all quarrels, the most senseless, the most bootless, the most worrying, is a quarrel with your circumstances.
The Guanches, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands, rudely embalmed their corpses, drying the bodies in the air and covering them with varnish.
In 1695 Limerick and Tipperary, Ireland, had many showers of a soft, fatty substance resembling butter. It was of a dark yellow colour, and always fell at night. The people gathered it and use it as an ointment, reporting many astonishing cures.
The Fijian cannibals’ emotions have reference for the greater part to food, so he worships the god Matawaloo, who has eight stomachs and is always eating.
Australia is a country full of absurdities in animal, vegetable and human life.
When I started to write this post, I typed in some of the ‘anthropology’ but found that I could not dare to propagate Mr Lemon’s observations of the Chinese, the Indo-Chinese, the Australian aborigine and the ‘Peruvian’.
Otherwise, I found the Scrapbook quite fascinating and fairly authoritative, and certainly an index of knowledge and attitudes if I need to set another book in the late Victorian era.
Meanwhile, if anyone needs to know anything about anything – or feels an odd moment coming on -I am happy to lend out my Everybody’s Scrap Book of Curious Facts, for the price of postage.
Michelle Lovric's website
For as long as I can remember I’ve loved watching anything with a period setting. Escaping into the past has always been one of my favourite ways to unwind. Watching history – whether original drama or literary adaptation – allows me to witness someone else’s version, and someone else’s vision of history. It’s influenced my writing too. My novels have been described as ‘cinematic’ and ‘visual’. When I write, I see the scene unfolding in my mind’s eye, exactly as if I were watching onscreen.
One of the compensations for October’s colder days and darker evenings is that autumn has become synonymous with the roll out of new big budget costume dramas (BBC’s Poldark and ITV’s Victoria are the best examples this year). There have been some fantastic series over the last few years, such as Wolf Hall, Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street, but when it comes to comfort telly, nothing beats the old favourites. I’ve decided to share mine with you this month – those that still make it into the DVD player whenever I need a fix. So, turn up the heating, settle down with a cup of something hot and escape…
Jane Eyre (BBC TV series, 2006)
There have been many adaptations of this Brontë classic, with many merits, but this is my favourite. The two leads, Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, bring Jane and Rochester to life with wit, chemistry and just enough menacing darkness to capture the gothic mood of the book without sliding into clichéd melodrama.
A Room with a View (Film, 1985)
This is the film that got me hooked on costume drama and I’ve watched it countless times. The acting is occasionally questionable, but that doesn’t matter. There’s something spellbinding about this adaptation of the E.M Forster novel. Twenty years ago I travelled to Florence, alone and by train, because of this film. I couldn’t afford a room with a view – that one is still on my bucket list.
Pride and Prejudice (BBC TV series, 1995)
Because it rightly deserves its place on just about every ‘best costume drama’ list you’ll find on the Internet. This classic, with Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett, stands repeated watching and I go back to it regularly, like an old comfort blanket. The definitive adaptation.
The Devil’s Whore (Channel 4 TV series 2008)
This stunning whirlwind tour of the English Civil War has a special place in my heart. The impressive cast is what puts this above others – Peter Capaldi’s Charles I is my favorite portrayal ever – along with dark, gritty production design that suits the story. It’s rich in depth and detail and, for me, improved on second watching. An entertaining romp through the complicated politics of the period.
Sense and Sensibility (Film, 1995)
1995 was clearly the year for Austen adaptations. Emma Thompson’s Oscar winning script and star turns from Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and others result in a perfectly pitched adaptation. This one wins when I need cheering up. While the BBC series penned by Andrew Davies (2008) is also extremely good, and probably more true to the book, this movie version pips it at the post, but only just.
Brideshead Revisited (Granada TV series, 1981)
Back in the days when TV producers were allowed to make long, meandering series this was a huge ratings hit, and rightly so. With time and space to do justice to Waugh’s languid, sweeping novel, this is one to get lost in.
North and South (BBC TV series, 2004)
Brooding Northern mills. Brooding Richard Armitage. There’s plenty of brooding going on in this adaptation of the Gaskell classic. A forerunner of more recent ‘it’s grim up North’ series like The Village and The Mill, this adaptation is notable for understated performances and strikes a good balance between gritty realism and sentiment.
Bleak House (BBC TV series, 2005)
Another BBC adaptation and another Andrew Davies script. I don’t always get on with Dickens but this one is pure class. An impressive cast makes light work of great dialogue, with memorable performances from the leads (this is where I fell for Gillian Anderson). And the whole is lifted further by stunning production design.
Remains of the Day (Film, 1993)
Another Merchant Ivory classic, based on the Ishiguro novel, it’s the performances from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson that make this. One for melancholy days under the duvet with a mug of hot chocolate. Pure, heartbreaking quality.
Gosford Park (Film, 2001)
Before Downton Abbey, there was Gosford Park. This sumptuous murder mystery has multi-layered depth, plenty of heart, and a clever, dry wit that Downton lacks. And it looks stunning too. Julian Fellows at his best.
Imagine a political group infused with Divine righteousness. They brandish a holy book, whose word is literal. They do not recognise the secular state. Politicians are necessarily the Devil’s spawn. They are the soldiers of the Divine, and those who disagree are worthless scum. Any ends justify the means of creating a Holy State in God’s Promised Land.
Sound familiar? Well, the promised land in question is England. The Divine is not Allah, but Jehovah. The centre of agitation is not the Middle East, but London, circa 1655.
This is a London dark with intrigue, fear and religious angst. The Civil Wars are over, but the peace is still to be won. And agitating in the shadows are the Fifth Monarchists – an extraordinary sect which has featured in a number of novels I have read recently, and indeed, one I have just written.
Just out is SG MacLean’s The Black Friar. This follows the fortunes of Damian Seeker, an agent of Thurloe – Cromwell’s spymaster. My review of The Black Friar will be in this Saturday’s Times, all being well. This is the second Seeker book, and I am a big fan of this series. MacLean captures the atmosphere of 1650s London brilliantly.
|Buy this book: it's brilliant.|
At the heart of this new novel are the Fifth Monarchists, the millenarian sect. They also feature heavily in The Tyrant’s Shadow, the follow-on to my first novel Treason’s Daughter, which is coming out next Spring.
For a novelist of the seventeenth century, they are irresistible. So who were they?
In the mid seventeenth Century, it was normal to believe in the second Coming of Christ. It was, in fact, inevitable. The question was about the responsibility of the elect – those predestined to reach heaven - to prepare the ground. The Fifth Monarchists took their millenarian responsibilities seriously. It was not sufficient to anticipate the Second Coming; a Godly Saint had a responsibility to act.
A useful historical analogy is the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: both believed that Marx’s vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat was inevitable. The difference between them lay in how to facilitate that end point.
The Fifth Monarchists initially believed that Oliver Cromwell was the Saint who would lead them to the Godly land. But he quickly disillusioned them. Cromwell, though Puritan, was nervous of anarchy and leant towards the moderate line politically. He wanted to nurture a puritan revolution in England’s soul; the Fifth Monarchists wanted to scour the nation’s soul into Puritan obedience.
The Fifth Monarchists were a heterogeneous grouping, with different dreams and political fantasies crowding under a broad umbrella. Much of their rhetoric centred around the Bible’s more muscular passages – they were long on brimstone and flaming arrows and short on minuted proposals to effect change. One demand was for a Sanhedrin – or a council of Godly men who could take charge of preparing England for Christ’s return. They were Republicans, but no democrats. They wanted a theocracy, but were sketchy on its detail.
|William Blake: The Angel of the Revelation|
There was a fear – possibly groundless – that once the Fifth Monarchists had turned on Cromwell, they would join forces with the disenfranchised Royalists. They had common cause in their hatred of Cromwell, the Lord Protector. That “foul, dissembling perjurer” as one leading Fifth Monarchist called him.
Both the Sealed Knot and the Fifth Monarchists loomed large as bogeymen to Cromwell’s regime. The potential of either fringe to act with wide support was overstated – a cynic might suggest that Cromwell and Thurloe used the threat of terrorism on two fronts to tighten their grip on the state. A more generous interpretation would be that both the Royalists and the Fifth Monarchist posed an intellectual threat to the new Commonwealth’s legitimacy that exaggerated their physical threat.
There were, however, a few slightly cack-handed plots against Cromwell. Some of the main Fifth Monarchist agitators were in and out of prison. In London, particularly, they were thick on the ground and clamorous in their dissent. Among their groupings, they allowed – God Forbid – women!
|Cromwell: "Vile, dissembling perjurer.."|
They had the façade of Saintliness and the hearts of revolutionaries – and that made them terrifying in an England struggling with a King-shaped hole in the constitution. Cromwell is said to have said of them: “They had tongues like angels, but had cloven feet.”
Numbers are hard to gauge. Bernard Capp, in his book, The Fifth Monarchy Men, says that one of the leading lights, Christopher Feake, claimed to have 40,000 followers – but this figure is almost certainly exaggerated. Vavasour Powell, Wales’ Fifth Monarchist leader, claimed to be able to raise 20,000 armed men – but only gained 322 signatures for his petition A word for God.
But sometimes facts are less important than fiction in the minds of frightened people. And in 1650s London, menace and bloodshed were never far away.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee for thy depth and breadth and scope,
For chemical elements and common allotropes,
For thy hundred ways of describing grace.
I love thee as the answer to everyday's
Most desperate need, to find perfect verbs.
I love thee for sounds: plops, ticks, clinks, whirrs.
I love thee purely for exalt, extol, praise.
I love thee for creatures' collective terms;
For a skulk of foxes and bears: a sleuth.
I love thee for phobias listed by names,
For eternal verities: the true and the truth,
For the right and the flawless, the flicks and the flames
I shall love thee ever, for thou art my proof.
(with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
As you might have gathered, I love this book – it is so much more than an ordinary thesaurus, it is a portal to subtle and enriching linguistic links that can't be found anywhere else. Thesauruses can be much maligned. Indeed Stephen King recommends rejecting them altogether, famously saying, 'Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.' And while I accept it as a bid to discourage overwriting and find it valid in the context of simply substituting one work for another from a drop-down menu, I think any writer who wouldn't take pleasure in diving into this universe of language with all its quirks and connections would surely be the poorer for it.
|Jack Shephard and Edgeworth bess escaping from Clerkenwell Jail|
Don't worry! This is a pre watershed blog. All above board. Well mostly. In between everything else I've been lucky enough to read an advance copy of a truly brilliant new novel, The Fatal Tree
by Jake Arnott. It's set in the early 18th century and is the story - mostly - of Edgeworth Bess, lover of cracksman extraordinaire Jack Sheppard.
This period of London history is ripe for stories, and the slang, known as flash, was the language of the street. I fell in love with it myself writing A Nest of Vipers, my novel about a gang of coney catchers (conmen) in London (Romeville). But there's only so much you can get away with in a story for 12 year olds. Jake Arnott lets rip with the flash (otherwise known as St Giles' Greek). And it is exhilarating.
I think if you're writing historical fiction slang is are a marvellous way into the time. I think lots of us writers rely on speech rhythms and patterns to get under our characters skins and slang dictionaries including the contemporary A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew
first published in 1698 is invaluable. I like Jonathan Green's Slang Dictionary
These are some of my favourites;moon-curser
a criminal link boy Who would offer to guide you round the streets of 18th century London at night, then mug you.glim stick
is rather lovely and means a candlewrap-rascal
is a red cloakcover -me decent
is merely a coatcacafuego
is someone who talks, well caca, and may properly be applied to one such as Mr Trumpslabberdegullion
is as it sounds, a flithy, slobbering fellowrides the horse foaled of an acorn
is simply being hanged, after which you might be...put to bed with a shovel
I could go on.
What are your favourites?
Catherine's latest book is Blade and Bone from Walker Books
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by Marie-Louise Jensen
Sometimes, in the course of research, I stumble across a tiny nugget of information that makes a little more sense of the world. This is one such instance. Incidentally, I cannot recommend the Handbook of English Costume in the 18th Century by Cunnington and Cunnington highly enough; it contains a wealth of fascinating information.
I don't think I ever wondered what a 'riding hood' was. I simply accepted it as a character name in the fairy tale. But I just came across it and it makes complete sense.
In the 1700s, it was fashionable for women to wear hoods; sometimes attached to a cape or scarf-like strips and sometimes not. The hoods were always soft, not stiffened and could be worn over a cap or elaborate hairstyle.
The style of hoods varied and changed throughout the century. One which was popular around the 1740s, was known as the Riding Hood, or Capuchin. This had a cape attached and was often lined.
Right there - the meaning of Little Red Riding Hood, which I'd never questioned, but which now suddenly means something quite different to me.
The timing of this fashion and the fairy tale is interesting. The story was first published in 1697, according to Wikipedia. Perhaps the riding hood was popular then already, or perhaps the tale was translated a little later into English, when the riding hood was in fashion, or perhaps it's a later translation that has prevailed.
I don't think Little Red Capuchin would have had quite the same ring to it, somehow. It's definitely the alliteration that is so memorable. Rather like 'Villa Villekulla' in the Pippi Longstocking stories: I was always dissatisfied with the translation of 'Villekulla Cottage' in English. It lacked the resonance of the original. I was so pleased when the new OUP edition opted for Villa Villekulla a few years back.
So Little Red Riding Hood it was and is, and we'll ignore the fact that the fashion was apparently frequently used by female thieves to conceal their ill-gotten gains in crowded city streets. And that it wasn't a fashion that was used especially for riding.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about Alfred the Great, called Warrior King. A few days ago, I had the great privilege of reading from it on the Island of Athelney - the secret place in the marshes of Somerset, where in 878 Alfred was in hiding from Guthrum and his Danish army. I had an audience of experts: the Badger class from North Newton Primary School.
And I do mean experts. When I'd gone into their classroom earlier, I'd seen that the walls were covered with information about the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. There were maps, there were pictures of warriors, there was information about what they wore, and there were stories. On the whiteboard was an Anglo-Saxon riddle which the children were trying to solve, and at the back of the room was a welcoming sign saying Waes hael, Sue Purkiss! When the teacher, Simon Day, took the register, he said 'Gode morgen, Jess/Josh/whatever' - and the children answered 'Gode Morgen' right back, without batting an eyelid. They were all thoroughly engaged - immersed even - in the period.
They had been reading Warrior King together, and when they'd realised that I lived quite close, they'd got in touch and asked if I would like to come and talk to them about writing the book, and then go with them to Athelney.
Would I! Athelney was where the book began. It's a magical landscape, where history touched by myth is almost palpable, and it was such a pleasure to share it with the Badgers, their teacher Simon, and their two teaching assistants, Vicky and Claire. They were all so enthusiastic; there wasn't a great deal I could tell them, because they already knew so much.
Here are the Badgers climbing up towards Alfred's monument, which was erected in Victorian times. The farmer had kindly cleaned the inscription, and moved the cows which would usually have been in possession. In Alfred's time the long green mound would have been higher: the land has settled, partly because of the weight of the monastery which the king caused to be built in celebration of his victory over Guthrum. (If he'd lost, would we all be speaking Danish now? Certainly the course of history would have been different. All the other English kingdoms had been overrun: Alfred was the last man - just about - standing.)
We looked out towards nearby Burrow Mump, one of the conical hills which rear up above the levels: another is Glastonbury Tor, visible in the distance. Simon told the children to write notes about what they were seeing, hearing, smelling; they discussed whether there was anything that would touch them, or that they could taste, and they agreed that they could feel the touch of a cool soft wind, and wondered whether the Mump would have been used as a lookout post; they decided it almost certainly would have been.
Then we moved across to the other end of the mound, where, some years before, the Time Team had uncovered stones which had been burnt at temperatures which would only have been reached in the heat of a blacksmith's forge; this must have been where weapons were forged for the decisive Battle of Edington. They also found a knife there - the Badgers reminded me it was properly called a seax
- made of steel, which was an expensive, high status metal made only for extremely high-ranking leaders.
So this was where Alfred's camp had been: and this was where I read from Warrior King
After this, we went on to climb Burrow Mump (small but quite steep), and had lunch beside the ruined church which was given to the National Trust by the landowner after the Second World War, to serve as a memorial to local people who had been killed.
After this, Simon got the children to look round at the countryside spread out for miles below us: vivid green fields intersected by willow-edged rhynes (ditches), leading to low hills on the horizon. He pushed them to describe exactly what they were seeing, and to use alliteration and kennings (descriptive phrases such as peace-giver
, for a king, or death-singer
, for a sword), just as the Saxons would have done.
Here are Simon, Vicky and Claire - inspirational teachers and teaching assistants. It was a privilege to see them at work; it was education as it should be: vibrant, creative, magical.
Thanks to them for inviting me - and to the Badgers, Waes hael
And just as a postscript - here's a picture taken not far from Burrow Mump during the floods almost three years ago. Perhaps this was more how it looked in Alfred's time: mysterious, haunting - and very, very wet.
Today’s post is about a play – and a novel - for young people based on a historical event and performed at a historical place.
As soon as I saw that the Kneehigh Theatre Company was at The Globe on London’s South Bank in September, I checked dates and booked tickets. Although the Cornish-based company occasionally tours to Leeds, I wasn’t sure if that would happen with this show. So London it was.
I particularly wanted to see how they would dramatise THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS,a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, the author of WAR HORSE. The story is another “animal & war” tale, written in his classic, thoughtful style which was why I could not quite imagine how the story – and the history behind it - could be translated for the stage and for a family audience.
I had hopes: Kneehigh has a wonderfully theatrical approach. Although their performances feel emotionally real, what the audience sees is not realistic in the TV or CGI sense of the word: the company uses a cast of multi-talented actor-musicians in a variety of roles as well as puppetry, music, song, dance and movement and seem able to tread between from moments of raucous humour to intensely moving sensitivity.
“946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS” is set during WWII. Ostensibly, the story is about a twelve year old girl trying to find her lost cat, yet it is also about the pity of war and the changes that war brings to ordinary lives and places. Michael Morpurgo, as ever, reminds us of the histories that one generation should share with those that come after.
The inspiration for Morpurgo’s book was both the requisitioning of Slapton, a remote, rural village in Devon in1943 and the disaster that happened there. The military had noticed that the wide, sloping beaches of Slapton Sands were similar to the Normandy coastline and therefore chose that area to stage Operation Tiger, an intentionally realistic, don’t-turn-back rehearsal for the D-Day landings.
During the preparations, as American troops flooded into the area and landing craft gathered along the Devon coast, the local villagers had to make arrangements to leave the homes, farms, livestock and land and all that everything that had been part of their lives for generations. Even then, the rehearsal did not go well. When German U-boats were spotted in the Channel, a mismatch between the British and American coding systems blocked radio warnings and the landing ships, full of troops and sailors, heavy equipment and vehicles were torpedoed. Many men were maimed, killed or lost at sea and, furthermore, the “realistic” nature of Operation Tiger meant that the “live” ammunition was used when troops engaged on the beaches.
Afterwards, Morpurgo found, that although there had been local rumours of the disaster, a news black-out was imposed. Morale had to be kept high for the proposed D-Day landings and so the tragedy remained an official secret for many years, both in Britain and in America. The number chosen for the show’s title - 946– is quoted as the number of G.I’s who died at Slapton Sands. A grim event, and I could not help wondering how Kneehigh would manage this uneasy subject.
A question asked of Bertholdt Brecht makes the opening line of the show:
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?”
”Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
Slowly, as a model farmhouse - complete with a smoking chimney - is carried on stage, we are shown a country backwater in miniature: a small Dorset farm, surrounded by tiny puppet sheep, a small black and white sheepdog and a delightful boy-puppet playing “keepy-uppy” with his football. In moments, that tiny scene expands to human scale. The small collie becomes a full-sized puppet collie, and we are inside the remote farmhouse with strong-minded Grandma, poorly Grandad in his wheelchair and, gradually all the family, especially Booey, the grandson and narrator. The grandfather is, very gently, dying. Grandma, clearly dominant, takes Booey out on a motorbike, recalling how she and her ailing husband used to travel, “Supreme!” she declares, a refrain that echoes throughout the play. Then, after the funeral, she announces she is setting off on a secret adventure, to do something she has waited until now to do.
If you have read any Morpurgo books, you will recognise his familiar time-slip structure when you see Grandma gives puzzled Booey her girlhood diary, briskly telling him that if he reads it – twelve-year-old Lily Tregenza’s diary - he will understand where she is going and why. As Booey starts reading the pages, time changes and Lily, played by Katy Owen, appears, furiously grabbing her diary out of his hands.
A frisky self-willed young girl, Lily is obsessed with searching for her cat Tips who has been in hiding since Lily’s father drowned her litter of kittens. (This is a “told” incident, thank goodness.) Lily, unable to forgive her father, would not say goodbye when he left for war. Thankfully for my emotions, the puppet cat Tips is quite large and not particularly cute or needy: she is a typical farmhouse cat, in fact, and not one that anyone else on the Tregenza family farm worries about, because it is wartime and, short-handed, they are struggling to keep things going. Lily attends the small village school, where lessons are now conducted by a teacher from France, the cruelly-nicknamed Madam Bloomers, who the “children” mock as she circles the stage on her bicycle. The “pupils” act their parts magnificently well, mixing naughtiness, name-calling and argy-bargy, along with acrobatically gliding around their old-school desks, and more. Even there, Lily does not change: she does not love school or rules and her liveliness and cussedness gives the play and story a nicely unsentimental edge.
Shortly, a group of evacuees arrive. Immediately, the cramped sharing of desks leads to arguments and fights between the village children and the incomers. They are, at first, instant enemies:
“They keep looking at us funny.”
“Well, look funny back!”
Gradually, Lily and Barry, a dim, kindly boy from war-damaged London, form an awkward relationship, with the headstrong Lily delighting in taunting the love-struck Barry throughout he play.
The whole “school cast” worked excellently, especially in a wonderfully raucous scene where Lily angrily suggests that Hitler and Churchill should settle the war between themselves rather than making everyone else fight the war for them, an idea demonstrated through a trio of children’s street games using rounds of scissors-paper-stone, a clapping pattern contest and a rather unequal skipping game at the end of which a Hitler figure is driven, snivelling, off-stage and a brash, triumphant Churchill celebrates with a tour-de-force on the skipping-rope.
Morpurgo was very involved with the Kneehigh Company’s adaptation, and I could not help noticing how subtly scripted the language was during these moments and the whole play. For example, the Nazi party is blamed, rather than the German nation as a whole, and although the children may be thoughtless, once they hear that their teacher’s husband has been drowned in a naval convoy, their behaviour immediately changes to sympathy, and for once the sight of school recorders brought peace and joy.
All the way through, the first half is full of activity and sound: the recorders sing tunefully, the tractor rattles around the stage, puppet hens squawk and small farm animals cause havoc. Even the elusive Tips appears for a cuddle now and then.
However, the schoolchildren’s biggest surprise comes when Adie and his friend arrive in the classroom, asking for directions for their jeep: the children meet two black American soldiers, at a time and in a place where they would have been an unusual sight. Lily is totally enchanted by Adie, especially when the two G.I’s visit the Tregenza farm.
Moreover, the soldier’s involvement, culture and cheerful friendship is emphasised all the way through by the music from the band on-stage, up in the gallery, descending to act their parts by ladders or skinning down the pole. 946 is full of “American” music - jazz, jitter-bug, gospel and more – and with never a single lute in sight.
I felt that the play is noisier and ruder than the original novel and once, rather mistook the book’s mood for me. When Barry’s larger-than-life bus-conductress mum visits the farm, her comic drag role rather overwhelmed the Ivy from the page, who I’d thought of as a helpful, extra pair of hands whose bustling ways had stirred the grandfather out of his mood of dejection. This book Ivy was hidden by the dramatically loud wails of protest about the awful green of her country surroundings. Yet, maybe the production needed that energy at that point, coming just before the imminent tragedy? As the second half starts to the sound of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, the stories start to interweave and darken and Kneehigh moves into the powerful arts of mime and symbolism:
- the stage, barricaded with lengths of wire, signifying the dangerous, restricted areas where Lily goes searching for Tips;
- the communication error is signified by two string-and-can phone-sets ( one colour British, the other American) the lines crossed but unconnected.
- an almost ritual acting out of the disaster, where G.I’s carry model ships forward to a rank of water-filled tin baths, like toys in the game of war.
- the fusillade of flashes and explosions and water spurting through the layers of mist and smoke: the fog of war indeed,
- religious symbols: as the people leave the village, both the vicar’s church candlestick and the teacher’s menorah are carried among the precious possessions: this is not a one-faith confrontation.
- a tiny parachutist puppet descends; immediately an injured German parachutist stands on stage, hands in position but without a trailing parachute. The remote far-off is made immediate and personal
- the children and villagers holding out photos not only of the young German’s family but also the “lost” faces of British, Indian, Black, Jewish and other peoples who suffered in this World War
The production offers much to think about, not only the fact that life was changed for all in that community by those times. Lily’s “journal” concludes, ending with runaway Tips being brought home and the plot returns to the “present” of the early scenes. Where has Booey’s Gran gone? Who will look after her when she comes back? Who will the old lady live with?The squabbling family are waiting at the airport to find out . . .
Emma Rice’s production sharpened all the emotions and strengths of the Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips book, lightening it with humour and bringing sparkle and life to both the past and “present” stories, and there is much in this busy production that I would have liked to include but could not. You'll find a flavour of the show here.
However, at the same time, I was aware that The Globe was dressed for a twentieth-century war story. The familiar painted stage - see below - was stacked with sandbags or “protected” by wooden planking. Each pillar carried a large aeroplane propeller that whirred into action at significant moments, the music and sound was amplified and at one point a glitter-ball rotated under the Shakespearean canopy. This production meant a big change for The Globe, which was created to be as authentic an experience of Shakespearean theatre as possible, a theatre where costumes were laced and tied and where the great Round “O” would respond to the sound to human breath. Now – though not all in a single move - there are zips and electricity.
Emma Rice of Kneehigh is now the Director of the Globe so it will be interesting to see how Shakespeare will be played here in future. Her Midsummer Night’s Dream, recently shown on television, was much more in the vibrant, cross-dressing Kneehigh style than in the “authentically historic” tradition. Is this change a loss and if so, does it matter? Or is it a matter of “bums-on-seats” accountancy?
I will be seeing this production again. 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is now on tour – maybe near you? - and will be coming to the West Yorkshire Playhouse during Book Week. At this, a term-time matinee) I will probably witness the show among an audience of school-children. What they will make of it all? How much of the history will get though to them.And what will they make of all this “singing about the dark times?”
Meanwhile, as I have mentioned events in the North, places may still be available at next weekend's HARROGATE HISTORY FESTIVAL, held at THE OLD SWAN, where you can spend a day or three celebrating historical fiction. Details here!
Official War Artists, like John Piper, played a crucial role in recording the impact of the Second World War on the life of the country. Artists painted and drew the Blitz and its aftermath, bombed out buildings, civilians in shelters, the public carrying on regardless. They painted men and women working in factories, on the docks, on the land. They painted and drew soldiers and sailors on active service. They created vivid, powerful, often poignant and intimate pictures of what it was like to live in a country involved in total war.
|Interior Coventry Cathedral - John Piper|
|With the 8th Army on the Sangro - Edward Ardizzone|
|In Defence of Albion - Paul Nash|
Some artists, however were given a 'bigger' job to do. These were the Camouflage Artists - the Camoufleurs. Artists and designers whose task it was to devise ways to conceal important sites, factories, air fields, power stations, ships, docks and naval installations, from German aircraft and submarines.
|Camouflaged Factory Buildings - Colin Moss|
The Camoufleurs were based in my town, Leamington Spa, described at the time as 'a pleasant but mildly dilapidated spa town'. The sudden influx of 'arty types' caused some consternation. Men with long hair and donkey jackets walking round the town in sandals with no socks; women with short hair and wearing trousers. It wasn't what the town was used to. So much so, that two of their number were briefly detained on suspicion of spying after being seen out in the countryside in an open top Rolls Royce, the driver wearing a fedora. Talk of drinking, wild parties and free love scandalised the natives even further but the Camoufleurs were here to do a serious job.
|The Big Tower Camouflaged, 1943 - Colin Moss|
the beginning of the war, their work was focussed on disguising strategic buildings from the air. A camouflage officer would fly over the prospective site, take notes and photographs and return to headquarters in the Regent Hotel. Here, notes and photographs were worked up into perspective drawings or three dimensional models if the site was of particular strategic importance. The models were taken to the 'viewing room', a converted Roller Skating Rink at the bottom of the town. They were viewed in a special chamber on a giant turntable which allowed the model to be seen from different angles under different lighting. A sun, set on a giant arm, could be moved and fixed at any altitude. There was also a moonlight viewing room to deal with the increasing frequency of night raids. The models and accompanying colour charts were then used as guides to camouflage the site with paint and netting.
|Spraying Paint on an Airfield for Camouflage - Robin Darwin|
There was also a Naval Camouflage Unit based in the Art Gallery in Avenue Road. Their task was to make vessels near invisible to German war ships and submarines. Designs were tested on specially made models in one of the two large viewing tanks.
|The Outside Viewing Tank - James Yunge-Bateman |
Quite apart from their camouflage duties, the artists painted and sketched what they saw about them. They painted murals in the British Restaurant (now sadly lost). They painted the people they encountered, the houses and streets they lived in, the day to day life of the town.
|Grace at the Sausage Hatch - Mary Adshead|
|Lansdowne Circus, 1943 - Christopher Ironside|
|The Parade - Dorothy Annan |
They recorded how the war was affecting the town. The arrival of evacuees escaping the bombing in nearby Coventry. The aftermath of Leamington's one and only bomb. Digging for Victory - Newbold Common given over to cabbages.
|Evacuee in Leamington Spa - Janey Ironside|
|Morning after the Blitz - Colin Moss|
|Cabbage Field with Townscape Beyond - Colin Moss|
Their camouflage work is now a footnote in history but the paintings that these artists made of Leamington are a unique record of life in a small Midlands town in the Second World War. One particular painting, held in Leamington Art Gallery, has special, personal resonance for me. My family came from Leamington and this picture of Clarendon Street in 1940 after a heavy snowfall, shows my aunt and uncle's house. The woman standing in the doorway could be my Aunty Olive, the little boy with her my cousin, Rodney.
|Leamington, 1940 - Stephen Bone|
I would like to thank Leamington Museum and Art Gallery for their recent excellent exhibition, Concealment and Deception: The Art of The Camoufleurs in Leamington Spa 1939 -45.
A somewhat more personal blog than normal from me this month as I find myself in that slightly bewildered, exhausted/exhilarated state that comes about when the second (and hopefully final) draft of a book has been handed in. Mostly, there's a tremendous sense of relief! And I know it's definitely done this time because I have stopped waking up in the middle of the night thinking of tiny, tiny changes to make to the script - literally swapping one word for another on page 342, for example. I'm free!
As somebody who cannot plan a story before starting it, writing a novel is always a leap of faith. Will I still be able to do I? Will ability kick in where faith is failing, and let me produce something worth reading? I know where I want the book to start and finish, and I know who my players are, but will I be able to steer them through a complex narrative? And, given that I can't plan, a book with a twisty plot - like my fourth novel, 'The Misbegotten', and like this one I have just finished - always cause me headaches. I knew when I handed this script in for the first time back in June that there was work to be done - and I was looking forward to getting my agent's and editor's eagle eyes on it. Often, I am far too close to the woods to see the trees by the time I reach the end of the story. It's all there in my head, but has it made it onto the page?
I am often asked by aspiring writers how I deal with the editorial process, and the general feeling is that it must be awfully hard. Well, it is - but not necessarily for the reasons people might think. I imagine that if you'd turned in what you thought was the perfect novel, hearing that your publisher would like changes made to it must be very hard. The key is never to assume it's perfect! I've done this enough times now to know that I have strengths and weaknesses, and every first draft I write will have strengths and weaknesses. Having a skilled editor to point out the weaknesses is a GOOD thing. I've also been asked whether a book still feels like my book once I've redrafted it. My goodness, YES. If it doesn't, something is very seriously wrong. An editor might point out a problem; it is up to the author to find the solution to that problem. Or to argue convincingly that there isn't a problem. Or to sidestep the problem by rewriting other parts of the novel in a certain way. It remains, absolutely, all my own work.
|My entirely shambolic work book, which helps me keep tabs on what I've changed and what this is doing to other parts of the book, and what still needs to be added/removed/rewritten...|
Another thing I also do at this stage of the writing process is to go back through all my research notes for little gems of historical detail I've missed, which I can drop in to add authenticity to my settings. This time around, that meant rural Wiltshire life in the 1920s, which has been a joy to learn about and to write. Equally, you have to leave some things behind, if they're not needed. However interesting I found the highly-skilled process of constructing a Wiltshire hoop-raved wagon...it brought nothing to the plot. I've weeded out every bit of too-modern sounding dialogue, written in unthinking full-flow, as I can find; I've checked which wild flowers would have been blooming in the months I've set my story, and I've agonised over whether a character would be 'fascinated with' or 'fascinated by' her lover's body. I have, in short, driven myself quite batty.
|A Wiltshire hoop-raved wagon. Would often have been painted bright blue, with the wheels and details picked out in scarlet; and would have lasted donkey's years.|
The sudden loss of this soul focus of my attention is a strange feeling. I've only been half in the room for the past six weeks, as I worked on the redraft. Time to call up some friends, and apologise for being glassy-eyed company of late... I feel relieved, as I said, and also a little bereft. I find myself wondering whether I should have found a way to work in the details of the hoop-raved wagon after all... But, once I've hit send I am strict about doing nothing else to the script until I hear back from my editor. And now, a few days on, real life is slowly returning to mind!
The book is due for publication in the UK next June. The script now goes off to a copy editor, who will fact-check it and pick out any glaring continuity errors (always a danger when some sections have been rewritten); after that it'll go to be type-set and then proof read, both by me and by a professional proof reader. And I must turn my attention to the next book... Normally, by this stage, I'll have had an idea about what I want to write next. This time, I haven't an inkling. This latest book has taken up a huge amount of my energy and brain-space for the past nine months - perhaps more than any of my other novels to date. I am - tentatively - extremely proud of it, and I think I need a few weeks to recover from it!
I'll leave you with a few fantastic facts about rural Wiltshire a century ago that I wasn't able to work into the narrative:
Wiltshire folk were superstitious about elder trees and wouldn't cut them down, as it was said that Judas hanged himself from an elder tree.
Vertical stones set on top of a wall around a well, and designed to keep children out, were called 'cock-ups'.
A treat for the children when the butcher's wagon came around was a lump of suet to gnaw on. Yuk!
Obby was short for Albert.
When it came to making wagon wheels, only heart of elm would do for the hubs; only ash for the shafts, and only oak for the spokes.
Folks would say that spring had come when you could step on nine daisies at once.
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On the afternoon of Sunday the 28th December 1879 a passenger train belonging to the North British Railway Company set off from Waverley station in Edinburgh, bound for Granton, on the south bank of the Firth of Forth. From there the passengers embarked on a ferry across the estuary to Burntisland, where a second train, known as ‘the Edinburgh’ was waiting to carry them across Fife towards the city of Dundee, situated on the north bank of the River Tay. Here there was no need for a ferry – only a little over a year before, the river had successfully been bridged for rail traffic. A great storm was hurtling down the valley of the Tay. When the train pulled into St Fort station - the last stop before the bridge - the passengers no doubt were looking forward to getting home at last on the other side of the river. But part way across the bridge the ‘high girders’ over the navigation span collapsed into the raging waters below, taking with them the train, its passengers and its crew. There were no survivors.
|The bridge after the collapse|
The Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 is well known to the people of Tayside and Fife
. Children in primary schools learn about it; over the years there have been various articles about it in the local press; several books have been written about it; and on the 134th
anniversary of the Disaster, on the 28th December 2013
, substantial granite memorials were erected to the victims at moving ceremonies on both sides of the Tay
. One might be forgiven for imagining that the last word had been written on the subject, and that there is no more left to say.
And yet there are two highly important – indeed central – aspects of the story about which there is still a vigorous debate and, as yet, no firm consensus. These are the cause or causes of the collapse, and the true number of the victims lost.
|The directors nervously cross the bridge before it opens|
At the time of the disaster, the bridge had been standing for barely eighteen months. The longest bridge in the world at the time of its constructions, it was hailed as an engineering triumph. Famous visitors from all over the world came to marvel at its size and splendour, including the Emperor of Brazil, Prince Leopold of the Belgians, and former President of the United States,Ulysses S. Grant. Even Queen Victoria herself ventured out of her self-imposed seclusion to ride across the bridge and attend a civic reception in Dundee. At the grand opening, the Piper of Dundee played and poems in its honour were read.
|The opening of the bridge|
In the following year, when the bridge fell, how many perished? It has long been accepted that all the passengers and crew without exception were killed, as the train plummeted into the river from a height of nearly 90 feet. What is not so clear is just how many passengers there were on the train at the time. Most commentaries on the disaster in recent years have opted for a figure of around 75, and there is good evidence for this number. For one thing it was the figure accepted by the Court of Inquiry set up immediately after the collapse. The Court in its turn based its conclusion on the evidence of station staff at St Fort station, where, for whatever reason, it was the normal practice for the tickets for passengers travelling to Dundee
to be collected. These officials reported that they had collected 56 tickets, to which should be added passengers with season tickets, those travelling beyond Dundee
and the members of the crew – a total of between 72 and 75.
Yet there was another source of evidence, arguably more robust. All deaths associated with the bridge were registered with the Parish of St Mary’s in Dundee, and the death certificates ultimately lodged in the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh
. These certificates number only 59 – exactly the same names and number as were recorded in the police list in the archives of the police in Dundee
. Of these 59, 47 were male, and 12 female. In the event, only 46 bodies were ever recovered. Moreover, from time to time the local press published the names of victims, and the latest of these, on 1st January 1880
, included only 56 names
In other words, the only incontrovertible evidence for the number of victims supports the conclusion that there were 59, rather than 75. Of course it is still possible that there were more, who in one way or another escaped scrutiny, but it seems highly improbable. The great majority of the known passengers were local – typically travelling back to their work in Dundee after visiting families in Fife
. It is a reasonable assumption that the same would have been true of any other passengers not recorded in the list of death certificates. Could it be that some 16 people were also lost without family, friends, or employers ever noticing? While there may
have been more than 59 victims, if there were, we do not know their names or how many there were. This is why the Memorials raised to the victims in 2013 firmly state that ’fifty-nine victims, men women and children, are known to have died’
in the catastrophe.
|Memorials on the Fife bank of the Tay|
Then, what about the other key question – the cause or causes of the collapse?
To understand that we need to know something of the history of the bridge and its construction. The rail bridge over the Tay was the first stage of an ambitious plan on the part of the North British Railway company to out do their great rival, the Caledonian, by replacing passenger ferries across the Forth and Tay rivers with two great bridges, able to carry rail traffic without interruption between Edinburgh
The Company engaged Thomas Bouch, an experienced railway engineer, to carry this out. Bouch’s original intention was to carry the railway line on a single line bridge supported for almost all of its length on tall brick columns. Unfortunately it became only too clear in the course of construction that the river bed, believed to be solid rock for most of its width, was only partly so – much of it was in fact composed of conglomerate under a thick layer of mud.
This realisation caused a rapid rethink, and Bouch came up with an alternative to support the remainder of the bridge with towers made from cast iron columns bound together with wrought iron tie bars. These tie bars in turn were attached to the columns by nuts and bolts which passed through holes in lugs, cast integral with the columns. It is generally accepted that it was these cast iron lugs which fractured, rendering the towers unstable, and initiating a progressive collapse of the structure, taking with it the train.
|Joints with Lugs|
It is here that the consensus breaks down. Broadly there are two schools of thought about the causes of the collapse – either the train brought down the bridge, or the bridge brought down the train.
In the first of these two camps we find Bouch himself. He was firmly of the opinion that what had brought down the train was the accident of a second class carriage coming off the rails, catching on one of the side girders, and ripping the whole structure apart. Some colour was given to this explanation by the fact that there was a known distortion at one point in the rails, caused it has been claimed by an accident in the course of construction when two of the ‘high girders’ were blown off their supports into the river. One of these was repaired and reused, leading to a ‘kink in the rail’ which could have unsettled a carriage as it passed over it. Bouch pointed to certain scrape marks on one of the side girders, which could have been made by contact with a carriage.
Against that there was the fact that the marks were too high up to be reached by a toppling carriage. Dugald Drummond, chief engineer for the North British, for his part was convinced from the state of the rolling stock, that all its components had remained on the track as it fell.
A recent and intriguing contribution to the debate has been the claim that the lugs failed due to metal fatigue, induced by the passage of trains over the bridge since its inception. But this explanation has not found favour with experts in the field, who have concluded that the operational life of the bridge was far too short for metal fatigue to have set in.
So what are we left with? If the bridge itself was the cause of the demise of the train, how did that come about?
Here we need to return to the conclusions of the Court of Inquiry, which amongst other things focused on the design of the bridge, with particular reference to the question of wind pressure, and the design of the lugs, crucial to the failure of the whole construction. Bouch came in for particular criticism for his failure to make sufficient allowance for the pressure of wind against the fabric of the bridge, although it was clear that even officials at the Board of Trade, including the Inspector of the bridge, Major General Hutchinson, were not accustomed to make any such allowance for lattice girders of the length and type involved. Nevertheless it is the firm opinion of modern experts that one of the key causes of the collapse was the extreme pressure of wind on the fateful night.
The second major factor was the design and method of manufacture of the lugs to which the tie bars had been bolted. The most obvious problem was that, in the process of casting, the holes in the lugs, which were to take the connecting bolts, ended up being conical in shape instead of truly cylindrical. This had the effect of concentrating all the stress of the connection on a narrow ring of metal. On top of that, as a cost cutting measure, Bouch had specified bolts which were one eighth of an inch smaller that they should have been.
Again, if only Bouch had chosen to use the kind of wrought iron ring clamps he had used on the Belah Viaduct in the North of England, instead of the fragile lugs, the disaster might well never have happened at all. Why didn’t he? Because they were too expensive.
Various other contributory factors have been cited as explanations of the fall. The great height of the bridge above the high water level, which arguably made it less stable, was due to fears of the authorities in Perth, up river from the bridge, that their seaward trade might be affected. That it was a narrow single line bridge at all was down to the directors of the North British – again a matter of cost. That Henry Noble, charged with the maintenance of the bridge after it came into operation, had tried to cure ‘chattering’ in the bridge components as economically as possible by hammering wedges of iron into them, may well have forced the bridge out of true.
|Belah Wrought Iron Clamps|
But in the end one comes down to the simple facts. The bridge collapsed in a fierce and unremitting gale for two fundamental reasons – the lack of a sufficient allowance for wind pressure in the design, and the fatal decision to rely on the cast iron lugs to hold the towers together, instead of the Belah clamps. Not surprisingly, Bouch, as the designer of the bridge, was devastated by the collapse of the bridge, the tragic loss of life, and the ruin of his professional reputation. He survived the fall of the bridge by less than a year.
The Tay Bridge Disaster was an engineering catastrophe, but above all it was a human tragedy. Most of the victims were young, 10 of them 18 or under, the youngest only 5. But consider the remarkable escape of six year old William Brown. William lived in Dundee with his widowed mother, one brother and two sisters. In late December, 1879, he was looking forward to travelling to Leuchars in Fife with his grandmother and his elder sister to visit his uncle Charles. But he had been very naughty – the exact nature of his crime is not revealed – he was given a severe beating by his mother, and forbidden to go on the visit. That was the last he saw of sister Elisabeth and their grandmother.
|Memorials on the Dundee bank of the Tay. The new bridge in the background.|
Published 20 October 2016, the new and updated edition The Fall of the Tay Bridge, by David Swinfen:
It’s strange the things that bubble up in your mind when you definitely should be doing something else. Today I was clearing the washing up and thought I was thinking about the current work in progress, but husband came in and asked what I was singing. I hadn’t realised I was singing, but once I’d managed to sync my mind cogs a bit, I realised I’d been giving a pretty enthusiastic rendering of ‘When Good King Arthur ruled this land…’
It’s a pleasantly macabre and Halloweenish type folk song which my mother taught me, and it has a pleasing call and answer form which made it fun to sing together. The version we know and have been singing in my family is recorded as ‘A Dorsetshire Ballad’, in the Oxford Song Book, Collected and arranged by Percy C. Buck in 1921. You can see it on archive.org. I hadn’t consciously thought about it in years, so I asked Mum where she had learned it, and apparently her mother taught it to her. Before that, in our family at least, it disappears into the mists of ages.
I found it rather disturbing when I was a child. The song tells of three servants (or sons of rogues, or sons of yore - apparently bowdlerised from sons of whores), who King Arthur exiles for not singing. They are thieves and come to sticky ends. The miller is drowned in his pond, the weaver is hanged in his loom (or yarn), and the Devil makes off with the little tailor boy. I vividly remember imagining the devil heading back to hell with the boy, still clutching onto his stolen cloth.
So I went searching for it down the internet sink-hole.
A very similar version, though the tune is different, was first published in Nursery Rhymes and Country Songs by M H Manson in 1877 and she collected it from her mother’s family, the Mitfords of Mitford in Northumberland http://www.tradsong.org/page12.htm I wish I could find out more about Miss M. H. Manson by the way. If anyone has any clues, let me know.
The song makes an earlier appearance in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree of 1872:
Shiner grasped the candlestick more firmly, and, lest doing this in silence should not imply to Dick with sufficient force that he was quite at home and cool, he sang invincibly—
“‘King Arthur he had three sons.’”
“Father here?” said Dick.
“Indoors, I think,” said Fancy, looking pleasantly at him.
Dick surveyed the scene, and did not seem inclined to hurry off just at that moment. Shiner went on singing—
“‘The miller was drown’d in his pond,
The weaver was hung in his yarn,
And the d--- ran away with the little tail-or,
With the broadcloth under his arm.’”
“That’s a terrible crippled rhyme, if that’s your rhyme!” said Dick, with a grain of superciliousness in his tone.
“It’s no use your complaining to me about the rhyme!” said Mr. Shiner. “You must go to the man that made it.”
Well, Mr Shiner, I would if I could.
The image at the top of the page comes from the Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libray and was published Dec. 12, 1804, by Laurie & Whittle, 53, Fleet Street, London
An earlier version still of the song appears as an Old Glee with Old Worlds in The Battle of Hexham, a play by George Colman the Younger, written in 1789. It’s very different, but the form and themes are close enough for us to call them cousins.
_When Arthur first, in court, began_
_To wear long hanging-sleeves,_
_He entertain'd three serving-men,_
_And all of them were thieves._
_The first he was an Irishman,_
_The second was a Scot,_
_The third he was a Welshman,_
_And all were knaves, I wot._
_The Irishman, he loved Usquebaugh,_
_The Scot loved ale, called blue-cap;_
_The Welshman he loved toasted cheese,_
_And made his mouth like a mouse-trap._
_Usquebaugh burnt the Irishman,_
_The Scot was drown'd in ale;_
_The Welshman had like t' have been choak'd with a mouse,_
_But he pull'd her out by the tail._
|King Arthur - detail from |
"Christian Heroes Tapestry" dated c. 1385
In Folk Songs of the Catskills by Norman Cazden, Herbert Haufrecht and Norman Studer, the editors suggest that the song Falstaff sings in Henry IV Part II is part of the same tradition:
[Singing] 'When Arthur first in court,'
--Empty the jordan.
[Exit First Drawer]
--'And was a worthy king.' How now, Mistress Doll!
There’s a suggestion that it grew out of a satire of a ballad by Thomas Deloney (c. 1543 – April 1600) called The Noble Acts of Arthur of the round Table.
When Arthur first in court began,
and was approved King:
By force of armes great victories wan,
and conquest home did bring.
There’s an American version too (by the way, did you know the American National Anthem is an 18th Century English drinking song?) Anyway, this one begins:
In good Old Colony times
When we were under the king
Three roguish chaps fell into mishaps,
Because they could not sing.
Now this version was quoted by Bismarck in February 1888 in his final major speech to the Reichstag which warned against European war. Here is a picture of him leaving the Reichstag after making it.
So there you have it. Falstaff, Hardy, the Mitfords, washing-up, my mother and Bismarck all in one single post. Now what was I supposed to be thinking about again?
2016 has been, to put it mildly, something of a year for politics. In the midst of all the madness, surely the nadir has to be the current US presidential election. Wherever you stand, the campaigning has hardly been an edifying spectacle: I have been burying myself in the deliciously imagined West Wing contest between Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits as an antidote to the bile.
| JFK and Joe Kennedy|
This is not the place, no matter how tempting, for a commentary on the candidates. Instead I have been having a delve into previous contests to see just how low previous bars have been set. The quote used in the heading is from 1960 and the Kennedy Nixon election, JFK's actual words being: "don't buy a single vote more than necessary, I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide". It sounds like an admission of dirty-dealing, it was in fact a spoof. Joe Kennedy, JFK's father, was a prime-mover behind his son's political successes (and possibly ambitions) and played a central role in the the election campaign, which was dogged by rumours of 'fixing'. JFK dealt with the issue by spinning it, reading this out as a supposed message from Joe on the eve of the election. The result we all know; the rumours of bribery and corruption within the Kennedy campaign, and mob involvement through Sam Giancana's Chicago crime syndicate, continue.
The question of who voted for who (and who made them do it) has bedevilled a huge number of US elections. One of the most hostile, impenetrable and still disputed elections was in 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote (by 250,000) and the electoral college but the Republicans simply refused to accept the result. Commissions were set up, officials were replaced, counts were challenged and both sides out-bribed the other until the result was over-turned and Republican Rutherford Hayes, who had previously conceded, was elected the winner. Here’s hoping Trump can't read the more complex history books. A more recent controversy was the 'hanging chad' debacle which muddied the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore, leading to a recount of the Florida ballot and a month's delay before the result could be called. The hanging chad was a small piece of paper caught in badly-punched ballot papers which meant the voting machines couldn't read them accurately. The problem came to light in Palm Beach where voters thought they were punching for Gore but were actually voting for the seriously odd Reform Party led by Christian fundamentalist and Holocaust-denier Pat Buchanan. Given the majority of voters in the area were elderly, Jewish and Holocaust survivors something didn't quite ring true. The joys of technology - suddenly the stubby pencils hanging on bits of string in UK polling booths look rather more appealing.
| 'Hanging Chad'|
Disputing the vote after the event is one thing - as we all know, most of the fun happens in the run up to polling day and personal attacks are, as ever, the meat and drink of dirty campaigning. Things went pretty well in the first two elections when George Washington was elected with 100% of the vote but it didn't take long for standards to slip. By the third run out to the polls in 1796 when Federalist John Adams beat Democratic-Republican (yes you read that right) Thomas Jefferson, things had got nasty. Jefferson's supporters accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite and Adams' side cast aspersions on Jefferson's racial background. Adams won but Jefferson became Vice-President and the two men spent the next 4 years openly loathing each other. For those readers blanching at the thought of a Clinton-Trump double act, that kind of cross-party crazy can't happen anymore, except in the West Wing where it is, of course, a good thing.
| Gary Hart on ''The Monkey Business'|
Sex scandals will always be the first running place of party spin-doctors and more than one candidate has fallen foul of changing moralities. Alleged illegitimate children (Grover Cleveland), bigamy (Andrew Jackson), infidelity...too many to list. Although Bill is the easy target, my favourite in the 'how not to have an affair in the public eye' has to be Gary Hart, the 1987 Democratic hopeful. As rumours of his extra-marital activities began to circulate, Hart took on the press in an ill-founded JFK-style challenge with the following words: "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anyone wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored." I'm pretty sure catching a presidential hopeful on a yacht called 'The Monkey Business' cuddling a glamorous blonde wasn't the Miami Herald's definition of bored: poor old Gary was neatly hoist by his own petard.
If some of the campaigns leave a bad taste, so do some of the winners. Polls are subjective things: Bill Clinton and JFK, for example, don't always fare well when judged on strength of government/economic achievement surveys but are always high in the popularity stakes. Polls can also act as a spotlight on the issues which bruise a country: some of the presidents who are regularly in the bottom five of the popularity rankings are men like James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore who are associated with the worst days of slavery and the horrors of the Civil War. Richard Nixon's legacy will never outrun the Watergate scandal and George Bush will always be associated with the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan and his inability to talk coherently about that, or anything else. And, we all have our own bete-noires - I bet I wasn't the only politically-earnest student with this romantic poster adorning my university breeze-blocked wall. Interestingly my American husband never saw it until he came over here.
Whatever happens in November, the only thing we can be sure of is that there will be fury and challenges and it's all going to get a lot worse before it gets better - that probably applies to after the campaign as much as before. As Abraham Lincoln once said: "Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their backs on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters."It's a good quote and still very relevant, I just wish Woody Allen didn't seem to have it nailed rather better:
"We stand today at a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice."
Good luck USA!
A Chest full of Treasures by Elizabeth Laird
Miss Winslow was a well-to-do farmer's daughter in Oxfordshire, and this chest contained the trousseau she took into her marriage in around 1810. Remarkably, many items still remain: lawn caps, lengths of exquisite lace, a deep-fringed silk shawl, net mittens. They've been joined by later arrivals: baby vests, strips of embroidery brought back from China by an adventurous family member, a black taffeta apron with fancy tassels. All these items were carefully hoarded by Cassandra Winslow's daughters and granddaughters down the generation. I inherited the chest and its trove of contents from my mother-in-law, who had loved to look through it. It impressed me mightily, and I will always treasure it.
We are all, of course, made up of multiple strands of inheritance. And the more we travel around the globe, mixing and marrying all over the place, the more diverse our family histories become.
To my husband's family, Cassandra Winslow's chest meant femininity, domesticity and elegance. But it was originally a military chest, made for an officer in the army or navy, as the label still pasted into it shows. Whenever I look at it, I think of a very different thread of family story.
My grandmother's grandfather was a poor farm boy in Ulster, so unhappy in his foster home that at the age of nine he ran away. He was quickly pressed into the navy, where he became a powder monkey, one of that band of urchins whose job it was, when a battle was underway, to carry cartridges of gunpowder up from the magazine in the bowels of the ship to the sweating gunners on the gun decks, a job fraught with danger. His name was John Allan.
John Allan's adventures in the navy, the battles in which he fought, the thrilling rescue of the army at Corunna, his years as a French prisoner of war, his eventual emigration to New Zealand with his sturdy sons, and their new lives as pioneer farmers, were the stuff of legend to me as a child. There's only one thing to do with material as rich as that, and that's to turn it into fiction, and so I wrote Arcadia
, the hardback cover of which featured a picture of my old linen chest, with the contents artistically draped over the edges. The novel is now sadly long out of print, but has, like so many other books, a shadowy afterlife thanks to abebooks.com and other such websites.
Why did I never write another historical novel for adults? I'm not sure. I tried, but somehow the siren call of young fiction drew me back. Old John Allan and his thrilling naval adventures were also the inspiration for Secrets of the Fearless,
my first historical novel for children. Others followed: Crusade, The Witching Hour
and The Prince Who Walked with Lions
There's something especially heart-warming about history seen through the perspective of one's own ancestors' experiences. One feels a close connection, a blood tie, that makes the history come alive, and that feeling, one hopes, flows through the pen on to the paper and into the imagination of the reader. I am delighted that researching one's ancestors has now become such a popular activity in the UK. The many online archives make discoveries easy, and help people to connect with our history in a way that can only enhance their lives – and the culture of our whole nation.
|Newark Castle today|
On a dark and stormy night of October 18th 1216, King John died at Newark Castle, a couple of months short of his 50th birthday.
His reign had been a troubled one for the country and seldom politically joyous. On his watch the vast swathes of land that had been ruled by his father and his brother Richard, and that constituted the 'Angevin Empire' had mostly been lost to the French. John had quarreled with the Church and his barons, alienating both so badly that at one point he was under threat of excommunication from the former and facing an overthrow by the latter. By the time he died John had managed to mend fences with the clergy and put himself and the realm under papal protection, but his situation with the barons was still extremely precarious and the previous year had seen John forced to put his seal to the Magna Carta, a charter of demands and curbs, which he regarded as flagrant infringement on many of his royal prerogatives, and which he rejected the moment he left the table. When he died, England was in a state of civil war. The rebellious barons had invited Louis, son of the French king Philippe, to come to their aid and become King of England. John died in the middle of a war to hold onto his throne, bring his rebel barons to heel and oust Louis from the country.
His heir was his nine-year-old son Henry, and given the situation at the time of his father's death, there was no guarantee that the child would grow up to claim his inheritance. However, he did have some staunch supporters on his side including the great magnate William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke who was about 70 years old when John died. William had risen from the moderate nobility to great heights by dint of his strong military abilities as both a fighter and a commander, his can-do, amiable but ambitious personality, and his ethos of absolute loyalty to whoever he served. Consistently rewarded by his Angevin masters, William was liked and respected by the majority of the English barons whatever their faction, and had useful diplomatic ties at most of the courts in Europe, as well as the ear of the Templars, whose ranks he was to join on his deathbed.
William Marshall had had his own difficulties with King John during the reign even to the point of having his two sons taken hostage by John who suspected William of plotting behind his back. William, however, had weathered the King's paranoia, caused in part by some moments of questionable judgement from William himself. Nevertheless, the bonds held and during the crises that swamped John in the latter part of his reign, William came to his rescue and remained staunch. William possessed the advantage of having and friends and connections on both sides of the divide. He had close relatives in the rebel camp - his son-in-law Hugh Bigod for example and his own son William. but he also had good working relationships with the barons still backing John as well as the important members of the clergy including Stephen Langton Archbishop of Canterbury.
|William Marshal's tomb effigy at the Temple Church, London.|
William was not at King John's death bed in Newark; he was in Gloucester, keeping an eye on the Welsh Marches, but his nephew John Marshal was attending at the King's bedside and William was quickly apprised of the King's final illness by a swift messenger. William immediately set out from Gloucester and rode to meet the King's body which was being borne the 100 or so miles from Newark to be buried at Worcester as per the instructions in John's will.
William is known to have sent to a royal storehouse to obtain palls to cover the bier and the tomb, thus helping to make the King's burial a regal and dignified occasion despite the difficulties of civil war. Around this time he also sent a household knight of King John's called Thomas of Sandford, (his younger brother was one of the Marshal's inner core of knights) to Devizes to fetch John's 9 year old heir, Henry, who was in the castle there with his mother, Isabelle of Angouleme.
Once King John had been interred in Worcester Cathedral between the tombs of Saint Wulfstan and saint Oswald following 'a magnificent funeral service', the mourners, including William Marshal and the papal legate Gualo Bicchieri, returned to Gloucester some thirty miles away, there to decide what to do with a country at civil war and cast adrift. William Marshal, together with other barons and churchmen had been appointed one of the arbiters and administrators of John's will.
|tomb of King John, Worcester Cathedral|
A meeting was held at Gloucester on October 27th, eleven days after the King's death. The Earl of Chester was summoned to it, since he had not been present at the funeral and was reckoned one of the most important men of the realm and a firm supporter of the former king. The barons who had remained loyal to John were also summoned to Gloucester.
William Marshal then set out straight away to join up with the party bringing John's son to Gloucester and met him not far from Malmesbury. William greeted the young lad and according to William Marshal's biography, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal (which should be read with caution but in its broad brush strokes is true), swore his oath of loyalty to the child, who placed himself in his care.
The young soon to be king was brought to Gloucester and a debate was held whether to hold back the coronation until the Earl of Chester arrived or hold it there and then. The decision was taken to crown young Henry there and then because the sooner he was anointed, the less chance and validation the opposition would have for filling the empty throne with their own candidate the Dauphin Louis of France whom they had already unofficially appointed as their sovereign.
The boy was duly prepared for his coronation and William Marshal dubbed him a knight, which was deemed an essential part of the ritual. Young Henry was 'dressed in his child-size robes of state; he was a fine little knight.' The barons there bore him into the abbey of St Peter where he was anointed and crowned by the Papal Legate. Supposedly much of the royal regalia had been lost during the crossing of the Wellstream Estuary shortly before King John's death when the baggage train had foundered. How true this actually is, is open to conjecture, but whatever the reason, supposedly the boy had to be dressed from what his mother had to hand, including a golden coronet of her own rather than anything that had belonged to King John.
|Gualo Bicchieri. papal legate crowns|
the 9 year old Henry III. Matthew Paris
Following the coronation, the new King Henry III was borne from the abbey and taken to a room to be divested of his coronation robes which were'very heavy' and something lighter robes were found for him to wear.
As the men were sitting down to the coronation feast, serious news arrived that Goodrich Castle was under siege from the Welsh. William Marshal sent soldiers and crossbow men to deal with the matter, but it enhanced everyone's feelings of insecurity and it was decided that rather than wait for the Earl of Chester to arrive, a leader needed to be chosen to rule the country as Regent for the young King right now. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, which as aforementioned, puts its hero, William Marshall in a very positive light, says that everyone immediately turned to William and asked him to take responsibility. It may not have been as immediate as that and William may have been more eager for the job than the Histoire makes out but the fact remains that someone had to take a leadership role and William Marshall was the man best suited.
The Histoire gives us a very moving and detailed account of that decision and its aftermath. William at first refuses the job because he says he is too old. However, he retires to deliberate with his men about what he should do because he acknowledges that 'it is is a difficult task to carry out the role of Governor.' His men advise him to take the job. 'People say that a man who does not finish what he set out to achieve has reached only the point where his efforts are totally in vain, and that he has wasted his time. Do it, for God will assist you and much honour will accrue to you.' However, one of his closest companions is concerned for the state William Marshall's health because he is ageing, and the new young King has very few resources to fight his enemies. He believes that the pain and trouble involved will take a heavy toll.
The Marshal decided to wait until the morning and ponder the details overnight. In the meantime the Earl of Chester arrived and the candidacy for the role of Regent was a contest between these two men. Discussions between the nobles ensued and it became clear that William Marshall was the man that the majority desired to follow. Although the Earl of Chester was later to protest to the Pope about this ( a fact not mentioned in the Histoire for obvious reasons) the Pope turned down the Earl of Chester's protest, saying that 'power prefers no partner.'
Although William Marshall was elected Regent, the Histoire tells us that he was still a little concerned about what he had taken on - and had apparently only done so when granted remission for his sins. Finally persuaded, he retired to a private chamber and there called his men together again and voiced his doubts. He said to them:
'Give me your help and advice, for, by the faith I owe you,I have embarked upon the open sea, where no man, wherever he sails or wherever he sounds the depths, can find a bottom or shore,and from which it is a miracle if he reaches port and a safe haven. But may God, if it please him, sustain me! I have been entrusted with this task, which is already close to coming to grief, as you know and sense. And the child has no wealth, which is very damaging and a source of grief to me, and I am myself an old man.' Then his heart became full to overflowing and his eyes began to fill with tears. Tears streamed down his face, and those present there, who loved him and were entirely devoted to him, began to weep out of pity for him. And he, after looking up, said 'Have you no more to say than this?'
His men rallied round after this and assured him that whatever happened, great honour would come to him from the task he had taken on. William did the equivalent of bracing his shoulders, taking a stiff drink, and wiping his eyes, left the room to get on with the job of ruling England, reuniting its people,dealing with the French and repairing the economy so that at least it worked after a fashion. By re-issuing a revised version of Magna Carta which was to enter the statute books for posterity he also laid the groundwork for the nation to go forward.
Come the moment, come the man. I quite often ask myself these days 'What would William Marshall do?' or 'Where is William Marshall when you need him?'
Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal vols II and III Edited by A.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and historical notes by D.Crouch. Quotes in Italics are from the Histoire in Translation.
William Marshal 3rd Edition by David Crouch
King John: Treachery and Tyranny And the Road to Magna Carta by Marc Morris
The Minority of Henry III by David Carpenter
Elizabeth Chadwick is currently writing a novel titled TEMPLAR SILKS about William Marshal's missing years on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 1183 and 1186. Her latest novels pictured below cover the life story of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
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