The shortlist for this year's Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been announced. This brilliant prize rewards British, Irish and Commonwealth authors of historical fiction more generously than almost any other literary award. The winner receives £25,000 and each of the six (or sometimes seven) shortlisted authors receives £1000.The prize isn't announced at a dinner, like so many others, but is part of the great celebration of books and authors that takes place every June at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, in the Scottish Borders. Now in its eighth year, the WSP is established as a major landmark in the literary year. Check out the website at www.walterscottprize.co.uk Follow this link to read Claire Armistead's article about the award in the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/apr/04/hilary-mantel-historical-fiction-cringing?CMP=share_btn_tw
The Young Walter Scott Prize will be also be celebrated at Borders in June. Two awards will be made to young writers of historical stories, one for those aged 11 to 15, and the other to those aged 16-19. Do encourage any young writers to enter! Details on the www.walterscottprize.co.uk/young-walter-scott-prize.
Here is the shortlist for 2017:
A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
The judges said: ‘We loved the quiet, lyrical, beauty of this novel and its skilful recreation of Samuel Beckett’s years in France throughout the Second World War. It’s illuminating about Beckett’s individual heroism and humanity. The descriptions of France under occupation are always surprising and moving as he (and Baker) chart the horror, despair, starvation and uncertainty of those years with a writer’s eye. Central to the narrative is Beckett’s love for Suzanne, the young French woman he eventually married. The strain of five years of war, their escape from Paris, their long walk to Roussillon and their repeated separations takes a heavy toll on their relationship. But through all of this their quiet love survives.’
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry The judges said: ‘Intimate, lyrical, courteous, Barry offers the authentic voice of Thomas McNulty, a nineteenth century Irish-American possessed of a nineteenth century respect for both language and reader. In this tale of Indian War and American Civil War carnage, the voice is also, miraculously, the voice of love. The voice alone secures Days Without End a place on the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize. And the story of course. Neither comfortable nor pretty, it pulses with courage, loyalty and, amid the horrors, grace. This is a living novel. From its pages, Thomas shakes the reader’s hand and the hand of every ragged soldier on our ragged streets.’
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson
The judges said: ‘Charlotte Hobson's The Vanishing Futurist fulfils the ultimate requirement of a historical novel: it inhabits a moment in history and in doing so illuminates recurring truths about the past, present and future. The moment in history is the Russian revolution and the avant-garde theories of community, art and science which it spawned. But the charismatic founder of a commune, and the evangelical zeal of its members, are recurring phenomena throughout history, from early Christian times to our own day. The narrator's voice, disciplined yet passionate, is a perfect vehicle for this fascinating novel, with its fast moving plot and characters who are so real that I found myself leafing through the book in the hope of finding their photographs.’
The Good People by Hannah Kent The judges said: ‘This is a marvellously physical evocation of rural Ireland, which is deeply personal without ever being mawkish. With a cracking good narrative, Hannah Kent has conjured up an entire world that most of us would never see or know about, and has created three entirely different female characters who resonate long beyond the novel. The hold of the church and of superstition over the people is both totally believable and plausible.’
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
The judges said: ‘Pre-revolutionary New York, and a stranger arrives in town, where he finds a ferment of social jostling, politics and money that invites adventure. A great, unruly city is being born. Francis Spufford creates a world that is hypnotic and believable, brought to life in sparkling prose and pitch-perfect dialogue, and tells a gripping story that's full of tension and surprise, with characters who live on after the book is closed. His non-fiction writing has been much-admired. This first novel is an astonishing achievement because his novelist's voice is already enticing, rich and mature. An eighteenth-century treat.’
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The judges said: ‘It is March 30, 1924. Mothering Sunday. The day that servants were allowed to return to their families. Jane Fairchild is a housemaid and orphan with no prospect of a visit home but she has a rendezvous, nevertheless. It is that encounter and its consequences that are described in this short novel by Graham Swift. Jane’s life will never be the same as she begins a journey from servitude to independence. It is a perfect and life-affirming novel.’
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
The judges said: ‘Set at first in Switzerland as the Second World War swirls around its borders, this novel is simply magnificent, by turns cold and bleak, life-affirming and always very beautifully written. The images in The Gustav Sonata filled my eye, its story captured my heart and it made me marvel at Rose Tremain's remarkable skills.’
Last month I gave a speech on fairy tales to the Australian Fairy Tale Society. This is not that speech. Be very thankful! This is, however, some of the thoughts leading to it.
Many writers and tellers of tales throw fairy story re-tellings at me. What I’ve noticed is that fairy stories (and some of the retellings!) develop their own history, which is not always the history of that tale. Sometimes it’s not even close. Today, I want to think about why some things are close and some aren’t. This is not, then, the history of a fairy tale, or even a group of fairy tales. It’s how we look at fairy tales from different views and find different stories. All these variants are part of the history of the fairy tale.
It all starts with a specific bunch of people (often blokes) who collected tales and codified tales and analysed tales.
This beginning is long after the stories began to be popular. Very long after. It was after the first wave, second wave, third wave and (possibly) fourth wave of literary tellings of fairy and folk stories. I regard the first wave as the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, the second wave as the late Middle Ages and the third waves as the courts of France later still. The court tales may be one wave, or they may be two.
There are plenty of other ways of assigning periods to fairy tales. The important thing is that storytellers were collecting specific stories for their personal use long before the Grimm brothers were born. Marie de France told her lais and the seventeenth century tellers of works like the Pentameron came first.
What this means is that Europe has focussed on fairy tales on and off for a very long time. When we talk about nineteenth and twentieth century collectors, we’re marking a new phase in an old phenomenon. The critical thing about those nineteenth and twentieth century collectors is that they were as much focussed on collecting and collection as on telling. Their perspectives have given the twentieth century analysis of fairy tales a district flavour.
I did a course on märchen and other tale types at university many years ago, in another life. We focussed on types of tales and how they were told, how they were broken down into motifs, which cultures used what and how. This is one of the academic approaches to fairy tales. It builds on collections of tales and of motif and on codification of tales and motifs and it looks at form and content. This is one of the results of the nineteenth and twentieth century approach. There’s a track from collectors such as the Grimms and Andrew Lang, through the codifiers (Vladimir Propp, Stith Thompson and Andrew Lang being the ones we mostly looked at when I was nineteen) and to studies by some of the experts.
Not all of the experts, for this is not the only path. It’s like the roads in the tale of Thomas of Ercildoune: there is a fair one, a twisted and difficult one, and one that might go anywhere but actually leads to fairyland. When I was nineteen, the path to heaven (the difficult path) was through Propp and the motif indices. Now, of course, I’m a writer, and the path to fairyland is the only one.
My studies have taken me to quite different places than those I trod when I was in my teens. What this means is that, although I read work by recent experts in fairy tales and other folklore (Jack Zipes is a favourite of mine) and that they do fascinating things, I’m not longer up-to-date with their approaches and methods. This is a shame, for I’ve finally reached the point where I can see just where what I learned fits in a much wider perspective. I can see how European it is and how linked to a series of literary events, starting with those later collections.
So, where were we? Tales were collected. Tales were codified. Tales were studied.
Let’s bring that European perspective into it and see how it limits things. Vladimir Propp started with tales close to home, so many of the studies have a Russian bias. The Grimm brothers generally used easily accessible sources, so their tales also don’t reflect the universality I was once told they did. This is why the path to academic fairy tale study is thorny and difficult. It’s complicated, and it changes as our understanding changes. Culture is a dynamic creature and fairy tales are always affected by this dynamism.
Analysis these days is much work by many scholars: it’s a whole academic discipline. Quite a few scholars take the traditional path and work through Propp and others and then add their own work. I suspect there’s a comfort in the traditional and that people who love fairy stories want that comfort. What they do with that path is create a narrative about fairy tales that has a European base and bias. It sometimes acknowledges this and discusses the restrictions the bias imposes, and it sometimes doesn’t.
Others find joy in researching the path an actual story has taken, from its first being written down in a particular place and time until it reaches a form they can define as the standard form for that tale. Writers often use these studies like kaleidoscopes and create new visions of old stories simply by the twist of a wrist. My novel, Ms Cellophane, is a variant of Sleeping Beauty, for instance, set in Canberra and featuring a middle-aged woman whose curse is a failed career, rather than a spindle and whose evil fairy is her ex-boss. I alert readers to the fairy tale by the inclusion of a magic mirror. This turns it into my story, my re-telling.
There are modern writers who do their research (including doctorates) on a specific fairy tale (Kate Forsyth just tackled Rapunzel) where they write their novel and also write a book that explores the origins of the story. The dream is to play with folklore and to explore its variants. This fits into one of the academic views: that there is no single perfectly correct text. These writers shift their work closer to the academic norm by giving it a very thorough research underpinning, but are still playing with the kaleidoscope, in reality.
So many books I’ve seen recently take the tale of one particular tale and trace it back and across and around and find out what it’s done in its career. A lot of their research rests on the Grimms of this world and on the codifiers and on earlier academics. I think of it as the Fairy Tale Fortress.
Some are like the writers who want to add variants of their own. A few pursue a single ancient text. An ur-text. This led to scientists using biological descriptions to persuade the world that these ur-texts not only exist but go back thousands of years into our past. Their family trees for tales don’t allow for the complexity of the history of story, so I don’t place any faith in the ancientness of this tale or that.
One fascinating but very real problem with tales is that some cultures don’t divide material into fairy tales as we do. We can damage these cultures when we try to force their stories into a fairy tale model.
The first set of tales written down by an Indigenous Australian was David Unaipon’s collection and it has very little in common with the children’s writers of the same period who wrote their adaptations of Indigenous stories and their interpretation of the Australian landscape to create what they thought were New Australian Fairy Tales. Unaipon’s stories encode lore and law. They’re not simple re-tellings of interesting stories. When writers take what they think of as Aboriginal tales and tell them, divorcing the stories from their origins and their original function and their original owners they not only damage the cultures the tales come from. Doing this without understanding the role of the stories in the original culture says “our belief that fairy stories are universal to humankind is more important than any role these particular stories might have in your culture.”
David Unaipon Image courtesy: http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/
Songlines mean that tales in Australia change according to country. Some of these stories have been classified as fairy tales according to some definitions anda lot of people told them as fairy tales until quite recently. There are assumptions that rest under these classifications and some of these assumptions are worrying.
A single tale assumes a single teller, not the complex cultural negotiations that explain language and lore and land within Indigenous Australian communities. It assumes that the form is correct, even if the story has been transformed to match European tales. It assumes that the collector/s have the authority to tell the tale. It’s a vast and troubled subject and I’m not even a beginner in this field. One thing I know is that modern fairy tale studies are capable of destroying parts of the cultures by trying to translate tales into the European standards we know and love.
Whose tales are we telling? Do we have the right to re-shape them? When I gave my talk to the Fairy Tale Society, at this stage I explained that we can’t know these things unless we ask. Research, research and more research. Respectful research. Research that considers consequences.
We borrow fairy tales from many cultures other than our own. English-language cultures and the cultures related to many other European languages and also to some Asian languages (Japanese is one) see that this is a legitimate thing to do. This is a big question in the annals of cultural appropriation. I can’t even begin to address it here. All I can do is raise the subject, suggest that research is a powerful tool and that understanding is not an optional extra, and move on.
Let me move onto tales that were inspired by fairy tales rather than actually being folk stories of a particular kind.
Quite a few of the stories we think of as fairy tales are actually court tales, especially those from the 17th and 18thcenturies. They’re written for reading aloud or for publication, and some of the writers (Mme D’Aulnoy, for example) are very well known indeed. These stories are very different in form to the fairy tale studied elsewhere. They’re the opposite of the short märchen in so many ways. Culturally, structurally, in terms of audience and underlying themes. This is much studied, particularly in the volumes devoted to the history of a single story.
Less studied are the tales families own.
When I teach things Medieval, I like to point out that we often have personal versions of the fairy tale. Our own fairy tales. My family has a story about an ancestor that some of us tell and others avoid as being embarrassing. It’s a bit like Richard I’s ancestral one, in that they are more motifs than stories and help us develop a sense of the family. These snippets fit what we need to tell about ourselves. My family needed something quite different to Richard I. Richard I boasted about his ancestress the devil. Mine is much more ordinary, for my cousin told me that we claim royal ancestry. Both stories are equally untrue. Truth isn’t the point of them.
Quite a few important families in the Middle Ages had these kind of stories. They were used in different ways for different reasons and different audiences. The simple codification doesn’t show this clearly, but the moment you read the tales themselves, it’s there. Fairy tales have a deep cultural basis.
When we read the story of Melusine and think “What a nice story about a fairy!” it’s not immediately obvious that Melusine herself was one of these demon ancestors. She was written into a long tale in the alter Middle Ages. That’s the path that reached the English world.
Melusine has other paths: there are local stories in various parts of France that don’t owe their lives to Jean d’Arras’ romance about her. Following a clear path is easier, but it can lose us so many types of story. It’s about rural France as much as it’s about Australia.
This is a complicated subject. It can become even more complicated.
My favourite set of complications was when I applied all the factors I’ve talked about in this article to the various stories of King Arthur. That’s another story for another time. This essay has been quite long enough, and it’s only skimmed a part of the surface.
Sometimes when you are wandering in the annals of history, an odd little coincidence jumps out of the thickets of research and makes your day. One of those incidental satisfactions happened to me yesterday, when I was browsing through Tamia Haygood’s study of runaway servants in eighteenth-century Virginia. The notices posted in eighteenth-century newspapers advertising absconders, deserters and runaways are a wonderful resource – the detailed physical descriptions offer a vivid mental picture of hardscrabble individuals of that time. Take a prisoner escapee named James Goodman, for instance. He is “much Pock-fretten, has many Freckles in his Face and Hands, a wide mouth, down Look, speaks very broad, but did wear a brown wig…” Goodman had also been shot in the nape of the neck “and several small Pieces of his Scull taken out of the Wound”. He was on the lam with a wound that was “not yet well”. Then there’s convict servant Hannah Boyer. She “has a Scar in one of her Eye Brows, is not very tall, but is a very strong robust fresh-coloured masculine Wench.” Another woman has “a wry Look, and a swarthy Complexion” , and a runaway named Charles Kenwell “is a well-set Man, of a dark Complexion, almost like a Mulatto, is an Englishman, and has on his Arm the two initial Letters of his Name burnt with Gunpowder”.
I am always struck by the lives-in-passing that are evoked by these descriptions and by the way their subjects are raised from obscurity by the existence of these records. I often wonder how their stories unfolded. So I was thinking, as usual, the other day as I re-read an account of sentencing at the Old Bailey in the London Post, dated Friday May 28, 1773. I had photocopied the page in the British Library, because it contained a column fulminating about the excesses of the East India Company. Having finished with that particular research, I was about to bin the pages. But I lingered over a paragraph naming nine felons cast for transportation. They were:
Jonathan Boothman, for stealing a quantity of oats and several sacks, the property of William Hunter, in a boat on the river Thames.
Mary Gorman, for stealing a silk cloak and two hats.
John Lone, for stealing two bird-cages, a tin box of barley-sugar, and other things.
Sarah Etheridge and Charlotte Beard, alias Butcher, for stealing a green cloth coat, a pair of breeches, a neckcloth and a pair of silver buckles to the value of 39 shillings.
Grace Thomson, for stealing two shirts, two shifts, and other things.
Joseph Smith, for stealing a cardinal [red wool cloak], three shifts and other things.
John Vaughan, for stealing five turkies, two ducks, a hen, and nine eggs.
Robert Strahan, for stealing a coach-glass [stemmed drinking glass].
Some of these convicts might have had their sentences commuted to custodial ones. Petitions for reprieve from transportation on account of the small amount of value of the theft were sometimes successful – not that it was much of a victory to serve out a term in prison in filthy conditions rife with a “pestilent savour”, where you had a good chance of dying of “jail distemper”. But it was more likely that these nine felons were brought in irons to a lighter at Blackwall stairs, carried through to Long Reach, and there shipped on board a galley bound for Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland), where a steady supply of labour was always needed. There they would serve seven- or fourteen-year terms toiling in the tobacco fields. That tin of barley sugar taken by John Lone was bought very dear.
Transports going from Newgate to take Waters at Blackfriars from The Complete New gate Calendar.
Convicts brought to a lighter on the Thames in preparation for transport to Virginia, Maryland and Carolina.
At least some of these nine felons must have found themselves a few months later on a wharf in Chesapeake Bay exposed for sale. Between 1718 and 1775, more than 90 percent of the 50,000 British convicts supplied by the courts were sold by contractors to settlers in the Chesapeake colonies as bonded labourers and servants – the price of a British convict was generally £8 to £10. Until the importing of African slaves overtook the indenture system, British convicts were essential to the plantation economy, as well as other areas of occupation. In his book Thirteen Sermons, Jonathan Boucher, the rector of various Virginia and Maryland parishes, observed in 1773 that two-thirds of the Maryland schoolmasters were convicts serving out terms of servitude.
Notice of sale of indentured servants, Virginia Gazette, May 19, 1774. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
So, that’s the last I expected to see of any of the London Post’s unfortunate malefactors – until I found myself halfway down page fifty-eight of Tamia Haygood’s thesis. She was quoting from a notice of flight, placed in the Virginia Gazette on November 11, 1773, by grandees Samuel and George Mathews. To my surprise, I recognised the name of one of the runaways cited in the notice – Jonathan Boothman. I looked up the notice in full, and here it is:
RUN away from the Subscribers, at Mr. Lewis Ball’s, the 14th of October, at Night, five Convict Servant Men, who were taken the Day before from on Board the Taylor, at Four Mile Creek, viz. OLIVER MARTIN, 22 Years of Age, five Feet ten Inches high, of a brown Complexion, born in Ireland, is pert and looks well, and by Trade a House Carpenter and Joiner; he had on an old brown Coat, and red Waistcoat and Trousers. JONATHAN BOOTHMAN, an Englishman, 23 Years of Age, five Feet five Inches high, of a dark brown Complexion, and a thievish Look; he had on a white Cotton Waistcoat, and Trousers. PAUL PRESTON, a Pennsylvanian, thirty Years of Age, five Feet high, of a sandy Complexion, and good Countenance; he had on a blue Waistcoat, and black Everlasting Breeches. JOHN THOMPSON, born in New England, 35 Years of Age, five Feet four Inches high, of a black Complexion and surly Look; he had on a blue Waistcoat, another of Cotton, black Breeches, and Trousers. JOHN GAGAHAGAN, an Irishman, five Feet four Inches high, 43 Years of Age, of a black Complexion, is a well looking Man, and by trade a Grocer; he had on a light coloured Coat, blue Waistcoat, and Leather Breeches. The four first are Seamen.
That’s the coincidence that so delighted me, especially the added information about Boothman’s age and occupation (and I also like the detail of Paul Preston’s “black Everlasting breeches”). Of course I can’t say for certain that the twenty-three-year-old runaway in Virginia with a “thievish look” was the same Jonathan Boothman reported on in the London Post as having been convicted of theft, but it seems plausible. Boothman's theft of oats and their sacks took place from a boat on the Thames, so perhaps that suggests it was perpetrated by a seaman. Incidentally, those descriptions in the notice of “dark brown” and “black” complexions signify that these were men who worked outdoors in the face of the elements and might be recognisable to sharp-eyed Virginians as the missing convicts.
It isn’t clear from the notice in the Virginia Gazette whether these five convicts had just arrived on the Taylor, or whether they had been trying to escape on the ship, but they had probably just docked. A large fleet of English ships usually arrived each October or November, sailing up the many estuaries of the Chesapeake area and tying up alongside riverside plantations to collect the tobacco harvest. The Taylor might have been one of these vessels, dropping off a cargo of convicts and returning to England with tobacco.
Tobacco growing in Jamestown. Library of Virginia Special Collections.
Unfortunately, I can find nothing more of Jonathan Boothman. If he did escape beyond his owners’ sphere of influence it’s likely that he would have assumed an alias when he hired himself out for work. I hope he got away, but in Chesapeake’s heavily surveilled society runaways were easily hunted down.
Nor can I find any trace of the women who were sentenced in the same proceeding at the Old Bailey, although I was only able to make a fairly cursory search online. (Two thirds of British female convicts to Chesapeake shared just four first names – Mary, Elizabeth, Anne or Sarah – which can make research frustrating work.) The seven-week Atlantic crossing in which convicts were kept below decks in close, stinking conditions was bad enough for men and worse for women, who were in constant danger of sexual assault. If you survived the voyage and death from scurvy, smallpox or typhus, and the march to your settlement – historian Edith Ziegler describes a type of convict wholesaler in the American colonies called a "soul driver" who bought women for buyers in the back country and herded them to their destination on foot "like a parcel of sheep"– only then did the seven- or fourteen-year sentence begin to be counted, despite the months that had elapsed since sentencing. Many convicts died during their first summer in the settlements – malaria was endemic on Chesapeake’s hot, mosquito-infested plantations.
Labour in the tobacco fields. Photograph of historical interpreters by Dave Doody for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 2005.
If you had survived all of that, why wouldn’t you make a bolt for freedom? Runaways forged “Indentures Discharged” documents as well as the passes that were necessary to move about the settlements and obtain supplies and lodging on credit. Some of them disappeared among the Cherokee nation or north to New England. Jonathan Boothman, like so many of his fellow transportees, was not prepared to serve a sentence that made him another man’s property.
I’d heard of Pele’s Hair but never seen any until I came across some in the Geological section of the Museum of Natural History in Kensington, last year, and was fascinated. Before I show you what it looks like, you need to know the story – or one of the many stories. Pele is the goddess who inhabits the HalemaumauCrater of Kilauea, the most active of the five volcanoes from which Hawaii is formed.(The others are Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai and Kohala.) According to the folklorist William D. Westervelt's 1916 book ‘Hawaiian Legends of Volcanoes’, the Hawaiians tell how Pele came from far away with her little sister Hiiaka, and drove out an older volcano god, Ai-laau, to establish her home on Hawaii.
Here is a story told to Westervelt in 1905, of what happened when the young chiefs of Kahuku met the fiery and voluptuous goddess.It is a legend which explains the origin of a particular, ancient lava flowfrom which ‘two symmetrical mounds rise from the rugged splintered rocks. These are marked on the maps of the large island as “Na Puu o Pele” – the hills of Pele’.
Kahuku, the land now under past and present lava flows, was at one time luxuriant and beautiful. The sugar cane and taro beds were bordered with flowers and shaded by trees.Two of the young village chieftains excelled in the sports and athletic feats popular in those days. Wherever there was a grassy hillside and steep enough slope, holua races were carried on. Holua were very narrow sleds with long runners.
Maidens and young men vied with each other in mad rushes over the holua courses. Usually the body was thrown headlong on the sled as it was pushed over the brink of the hill at the beginning of the slide.The more courageous would kneel on the sled, while only the very skilful dared stand upright during the swift descent.
Holua sled reproduction
Pele, the goddess of fire, loved this sport and often appeared as a beautiful and athletic princess. She came to Kahuku’s holua course, carrying her sled, and easily surpassed all the women in grace and daring.When the two handsome young chiefs saw her, they challenged her to race with them, and soon began competing for her love. As the days passed, however, they found her so capricious and hot-tempered that they began to suspect their companion must be Pele herself, come from her home Halemaumau ('The continuing house') of the volcano Kilauea on the other side of the island, able to wield the terrible power of underworld fires wherever she went.The young men spoke privately about their fears, and tried to draw away from their dangerous visitor.But Pele made it hard for them. She continually called them to race with her.
Then the grass began to die. The soil became warm and the heat intense. Small earthquakes rippled the ground, and the surf crashed in violence on the shore.The two chiefs became afraid. Pele saw it, and was overcome with anger. Her appearance changed. Her hair floated out in tangled masses, her arms and limbs shone as if wrapped with fire. Her eyes blazed like lightning and her breath poured forth in volumes of smoke. In terror, the chiefs rushed towards the sea.
Pele struck the ground with her feet. Again and again she stamped in anger, and earthquakes swept the lands of Kahaku. Then the fiery flood burst from the underworld and rushed down over Kahaku. Surfing the crest of the molten lava came Pele, her fury flashing in great explosions above the flood.The two young chiefs tried to flee northwards, but Pele hurled the fiercest torrents beyond them to turn them back. Then they fled southwards, but again Pele forced them back upon their own lands.
With the molten lava at their heels they raced for the beach, hoping to leap into their canoes and take to the sea.At top speed Pele came after them, shrieking like a hurricane, tearing out her hair and throwing it away in bunches. The floods of lava, obeying the commands of their goddess,spread out all over the lands of the two chiefs – who sped on, drawing nearer and nearer to the sea.
But Pele leaped from the flowing lava and threw her burning arms around the nearest of her former lovers. In a moment, his lifeless body was thrown to one side and the lava piled up around it, while at Pele’s command a new gush of lava rose from a fresh crater and swallowed all that was left.
As the other chief stood petrified by fear and horror, Pele seized him too, and called for another outburst of lava which rose rapidly around them. Thus the lovers of Pele died and thus their tombs were made: to this day they are called the Hills of Pele and are still to be seen as markers by the ocean side.
This is such a wonderful story, such an intense personification of the fiery and unpredictable volcano!As for the moment when Pele rushes after the two young chieftains, shrieking and tearing out her hair ‘in bunches’ – well, this is Pele’s Hair:
It looks exactly like hair – like the wad of hair you might tease from an over-used hair-brush.
These tangled golden filaments are made of volcanic glass. They are formed when drops of extremely hot, liquid lava – the sort commonly produced by ‘shield volcanoes’ like those of Hawaii – are hurled up in fountains and teased out by the wind into into hair-thin strands of basaltic glass – just as when you stretch hot toffee into brittle strands! – light enough to float away and catch like straw in treetops, fence-poles and telegraph wires. A marvel of nature spun by Hawaiian storytellers into the hair of their terrifying and unpredictable goddess.
About a year ago, I posted on Getting Dressed as a Victorian Lady and today I'm sharing some videos about what lay beneath the luscious look of late medieval attire. First, women's clothing, a layer at a time -
And since there have been requests for some insight into the undergarments of men as well, here we have the nitty gritty about braies (long baggy briefs), chemise (long-sleeved baggy undershirt), joined hose (laced to the doublet) and the ultimate shoulder pads -
From top to toe, for your education and delectation - they do look splendid!
Last month I visited Glengormley, a northern suburb of Belfast, and walked in a park named after you. I was fascinated by the big model of an early plane, and even more fascinated when I found out about your wonderful life and accomplishments. I thought readers of The History Girls would like to know more about you.
Model of the Mayfly, Lilian Bland Park, Glengormley
I’m imagining you first as eleven-year-old Lilian, a wee girl growing up nine miles north of Belfast. You love watching the birds on Carnmoney Hill and imagining what makes them fly. You love ponies and freedom and adventure. You’ve got Big Dreams. Your name may be Bland, but your personality certainly isn’t.
There’s still a decade left of the nineteenth century and you can have no idea of the changes you’ll see in your life. It’s lucky that you’re going to live until you’re 92, as you’ve got so much to pack in. You’ll live in several countries and have more careers than most people could dream of.
Actually some of your careers don’t even exist yet. I mean, you’re going to be an aviator– that’s not actually a thing in 1889, but it will be by the time you attend the first British aviation meeting in 1909 and decide that you want to build your own plane. After all, if Louis Blériot can do it, why shouldn’t you? OK, you’re a woman and you’ve been told women don’t do that kind of thing, but that’s never put you off anything.
Less than a year later, in September 1910, you’ve done it! You’re the first woman in the whole world to design, build and fly your own aeroplane, and it all happens here in Ireland – in Carnmoney, County Antrim. While a few miles away, down in the Belfast docks, a huge team of men start to build the world’s biggest and most luxurious ship, the Titanic, you’re hard at work at your own little biplane glider. Your Mayfly is a lot smaller than the Titanic, and built mostly of bamboo, ash and elm, but its maiden voyage is more successful. 30 yards is a very respectable distance for a maiden flight in 1910.
I love the fact that you call it Mayfly. It’s a pretty name, but that’s not why you choose it: you say the plane ‘may fly, may not fly!’ That makes me think you’ve got a sense of humour, as well being really smart and hardworking. (But I also imagine you clenching your fist in determination that it will fly.)
Nothing deters you. You have to wait for ages for the fuel tank for Mayfly’s engine to be delivered, so in the meantime you improvise with a whiskey bottle and your aunt’s ear-trumpet. Because you’re not the kind of woman to wait around forever, and you want to be up there, in the sky with the birds, not earthbound.
Even without your amazing aviation achievements, you’re an all-round star. You keep your love of horses, and insist on riding astride like a man, rather than side-saddle. By the 1920s, most women ride astride but you’re a pioneer in this, as in so much else. I love thinking of you striding over Carnmoney Hill, camera in hand – you’re a great photographer – wearing breeches, covered in engine oil, smoking and never afraid to get your hands dirty. Because you’re more than a dreamer: you’re a doer.
And I don’t quite know how you manage this, but you fit in a career as a journalist too. You’re a sports reporter and photographer for London newspapers, and – back to the ponies here – you’re especially brilliant at capturing the galloping and jumping of horses. It’s all about speed and movement, isn’t it? It always has been, since you used to watch the birds on Carnmoney Hill.
Flying is still your main passion, though. You go on to set up in business selling your own biplanes and gliders. Your dad gets a bit worried about all this flying – it’s a dangerous activity – and he promises to buy you a new Model T Ford if you give it up. You think that’s a pretty good deal, teach yourself to drive the car, and soon you become Ford’s first agent in Northern Ireland.
Maybe driving’s a bit tame for you, though, after all that flying, and you’re soon off on a new adventure – to Vancouver this time. It’s a long journey by sea – I wonder if you watched the seabirds following the ship, and remembered the birds flying on Carnmoney Hill, and your own little Mayfly soaring through the sky?
Carnmoney Hill, north of Belfast, today.
But Canada’s an adventure too – you help your husband establish a farm, and I bet you’re as successful a farmer as you were aviator, horsewoman, driver, photographer, journalist and businesswoman. You don’t stay in Canada forever, though; you make a final journey back across the Atlantic and settle in Cornwall.
Wherever you are – Carnmoney, Canada, Cornwall – you live the fullest life you can. Girls in the 21st century can look to you for inspiration, as you once looked to the birds.
This below is the cover of my most precious book. It's TALES OF TROY by Andrew Lang, whom older readers may remember as the author of the coloured Fairy Books. It's a school text book, one of the Longman's Class Books of English Literature. It was published in 1915 which means that when Miss Cooke gave it to me in Ibadan, Nigeria in 1951 it was already an old book, possibly one of Miss Cooke's own childhood favourites.
It's important to me because it answers, at least for three of my own novels, the question all writers are asked: Where do you get your ideas from? This book, and reading it and learning a great many pages of it by heart by the time I was eight years old, coloured my view of Ancient Greece and made sure that those stories, and especially the tale of Troy and the war fought over Helen, permeated my childhood and have been favourites of mine ever since.
But the subject of this post is Henry Justice Ford. If you go to Wikipedia, there's a page for him but you have to hunt about a bit. He was born in 1860 and died in 1941. He married Emily Amelia Hoff, who was thirty-five years younger than he was. There were several famous cricketers in his family. He illustrated Andrew Lang's Coloured Fairy books and you can see some of those pictures in Wikipedia Commons under the link I've put at the end of this post.
The pictures I've photographed all come from Tales of Troy. These images are so firmly branded on my imagination that I see all my own characters in my mind as though they've been depicted by H. J. Ford. The features, the clothes, the landscapes...everything about these drawings seem to me a perfect representation of the things they're describing. For instance, Helen, below, will always look just like this to me.
The rather ornate, decorative, style which is marked by the influence of the Pre Raphaelites and also of the Arts and Crafts movement and William Morris, is one I find very beautiful. I think these illustrations have enough in them of menace and darkness to avoid the charge of being too pretty. The women in them are very lovely. Oenone has a breast almost showing (that's the picture with Paris stretched out on the ground at her feet) even though this is a school text book.
The text, of which I reproduce a sample (above) is as florid as you might expect. I thought this was completely wonderful when I was seven and I still love it, though I recognise the over the top elements of it as well.
Look at the clothes. I'm sure it's these images which have formed my taste for draped, flowing fabrics; maybe for fabrics in general. H.J. Ford is very interested in what people are wearing and I am, too. The men have splendid helmets and breastplates and the women have dresses that might as well be made of water for all the cover they give their wearers. There's a strong element of the erotic in these depictions of the Ancient World and I am surprised that Messrs Longman and co weren't aware of it. You may be sure that the pre - Great War young men and women who studied from this book will have pored over it with renewed enthusiasm for the Classics. Those thighs! Those arms! That uncovered breast....and the hair. Everywhere there is hair falling over shoulders and curling on skin.
I feel that H. J. Ford has not had the notice he should have had. I think it's time there was a revival of interest in his art. I live in hope that someone, somewhere (Tristram Hunt, at the V&A, are you a follower of the History Girls?) might mount some kind of exhibition of his work. I, for one, would love to see him hailed as a giant of illustration.
Today is the feast day of St Indract or StIndracht, who is said to have been martyred in around 700. What I find fascinating about this obscure saint, is not whether he really existed, but the way his story evolved throughout the Middle Ages, which reveals so much about the medieval mind-set.
For peace-loving men, saints attract a lot of trouble and in St Indract’s case it all revolved around food. Early writings about him, draw on an account (now lost) by William of Malmesbury (1095-1143). According to him, Indract was the son of an Irish King, who set off on a pilgrimage to Rome with seven or nine companions. Ireland was suffering a terrible famine and when Indract and his band travelled back through England, they were carrying bags of grain to relieve their people's suffering. They took shelter overnight at Huish Episcopi where a thegn named Horsa who was in the service of Ine, King of the West Saxons (688-726), decided that these royal pilgrims must be carrying gold in their sacks. Horsa and his cutthroats murdered Indract and his companions for this imagined gold, disposing of their corpses in a pit.
But throughout the hours of darkness, great beams of light shone up from the pit revealing the crime to King Ine. He had the corpses reinterred near the high altar of St Mary’s Church in Glastonbury Abbey, where they become the focus of a local cult until the old church was destroyed by fire in 1184. But legend has it that one body was never removed from the pit, and on the night of the 8th May, a light shines up from ground marking its resting place. Later writers give Shapwick as the place where the men were murdered and the bodies concealed.
By 1478, William Worcester claims that the number murdered by Horsa and his men was 100, not merely 10, and that the murderers watching the disinterment of the corpses, were driven into a guilty frenzy and ripped each other to pieces. This reflects the medieval superstition of the period that a murdered victim will reveal their killer if the guilty party is brought into the presence of the corpse or touches the body, when the corpse will bleed afresh or cry out.
The cult surrounding this Celtic saint seems to have mainly been limited to the south west of England and the original legend which William recorded might simply have been a story created to explain an earlier internment of unidentified bodies in the abbey. But it would have brought some welcome income from those who came to venerate the martyrs.
In 14th century, John of Tynemouth, a monk at St Alban’s abbey, recorded the same story of the murder, but with a new legend, which appears to have originated in Cornwall. John has St Indract travelling to Rome with his sister St Dominica, and their companions. But when they reached Temerunta on the banks of the Tamar, they decided to remain for a while. There Indract struck his staff against a rock and well full of salmon sprang up. Then he planted his staff in the ground, where it sprouted into an oak tree to give them shelter. But one of their number stole some salmon in addition to his allotted rations and their fish supply failed. In another version of the legend, the party quarrelled about a fish weir. But both accounts have the group splitting up and St Indract going off to Rome with nine companions.
Medieval Fishing & hunting c.1480
Salmon were vital to the medieval economy and many fish weirs were constructed during the Middle Ages. We know from records there were numerous disputes over ownership and the obstruction caused by these weirs, and cases brought over the rights to take the fish from rivers, so that the idea that a saint was involved in a bitter dispute over salmon, would have seemed entirely feasible to the medieval pilgrims and monks.
But salmon were also important Celtic symbols. Their ability to return the same spawning beds made them symbols of memory and wisdom. The salmon was said to have gained its spots when it ate nine hazelnuts from the nine trees of wisdom, which grew at the heads of the seven major rivers in Ireland and the two holy wells of Connla and Segais. In Irish mythology, it was said that if a man ate the Salmon of Wisdom which had swallowed nine hazelnuts in the sacred well, he would gain all the knowledge of the world. In the celtic tale, the poet Finegas finally caught the salmon after seven years fishing. He ordered his servant, Fionn, to cook it for him and on no account to eat any, but the boy licked his finger burnt by the hot juices from the fish and he gained the wisdom instead.
Atlantic salmon. Timothy Knepp
The oak tree was equally important to medieval life, for it not only provided wood for buildings and ships, but acorns upon which the household pigs could be fattened for free. But it too had sacred links. For both the Norsemen and Celts, groves of sacred oaks were the setting for not only for religious rites, but as places where old enemies would swear binding oaths of peace.
In the Middle Ages, oak leaves were worn as a protection against evil spirits and community meetings were often held beneath oak trees, so that people would be protected from those who might try to curse them, or from witches who would send their familiars in the form of animals to discover what was being discussed. Bede records that when St Augustine wanted to preach in a building on the Isle of Thanet, King Ethelbert of Kent ordered that the meeting be held under an oak tree in case St Augustine and his followers were ‘skilful in sorcery’ and might attempt to deceive and bewitch the king and his men.
Oak leaves and acorns on the choir screen, Lincoln Cathedral
It is interesting that the salmon and the oak, which were such important symbols in pre-Christian Celtic mythology, should still be significant enough to be woven into the hagiography of the Christian saint at late as the 14th century. A seamless blending of the pagan and the Christian in the medieval mind, complete with a sacred tree and a holy well.
One of my ongoing obsessions is the idea of travelling back in time to imperial Rome see what it was really like. One of the things my Time Traveller would surely NOT have seen is the so-called Bogus Roman Handshake made famous in books, movies and TV. This is the strange concept that men, usually soldiers, used to grip forearms or wrists instead of hands. It has been traced back to the late 19th century with the first staged productions of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur.
Sadly, I have not had much luck in my campaign against the #BogusRomanHandshake. I suffered a grave defeat when Game of Thrones showed two female characters employing it in season 6. (I know Game of Thrones is not set in ancient Rome, but the gesture would immediately be recognised as belonging to that world.) If a Time Traveller landed in the middle of the Roman Forum she would see something much more surprising than women greeting one another with a forearm handshake. She might have seen men in togas greeting one another with a kiss!
Eros & Psyche from Ostia by Lisle Muller
And I’m not talking about the double- or triple-cheek air-kiss so popular in modern day Europe, but a full on lip-to-lip smacker between heterosexual (or at least bisexual) friends or even acquaintances. Primary sources hint that a kiss was a common alternative to shaking hands. The late first century poet Marcus Valerius Martial (whose corpus is a kind of Latin version of Sex in the City) wrote this witty two-line epigram:
Basia das aliis, aliis das Postume, dextram. Dicis ‘Utrum mavis?’ Malo manum. Kisses you give to some, Postumus, to others the right hand. You ask me, ‘Which do you prefer?’ I prefer the hand. Martial 2.21 Not only do these two lines confirm my theory that the Romans greeted each other by grasping right hands, but it strongly hints that at that time a kiss might be equally acceptable. In the very next epigram, Martial writes: Previously Postumus used to give me kisses with half his lips; recently he’s started to use both of them. Martial 2.22 Although Martial presents himself as bisexual, with a strong predilection for boys, it is clear that these are not private erotic kisses but very public greetings between peers. And despite his leanings, Martial is quite choosy about whom he kisses. In one epigram Martial states that he won’t kiss a woman called Philaenis because she’s been performing oral sex on a man. (2.33) Martial’s repugnance is often but not always due to the sexual habits of the kisser. Sometimes it’s purely aesthetic. In his book of poems about Saturnalia gifts, Martial urges a friend to give his kisses closed – oscula clusa dato – after consuming his present of strong-smelling leeks. (13.18)
In one of my favourite poems, Martial complains about a man he calls Linus who dispenses freezing kisses of greeting in mid-December. It’s December, Linus, and so cold that you have a frozen beard and icicles hanging from the tip of your nose. Yet you insist on greeting everyone you meet with an icy kiss. For decency’s sake, man, put off your salutations till April! Martial 7.95 (paraphrased)
A few days ago I was reading for the first time a delightful book of etiquette for Christians. Clement of Alexandria converted to Christianity in the late second century AD. In The Instructor AKA The Paedagogue he cheerfully lays down what he believes a good Christian man or woman should eat, drink and wear. He lists the DOs and DON’Ts of attending a banquet, visiting the baths, going to the games, etc. His sober instruction provides a wonderful glimpse into urban life in the Roman Empire. In one paragraph Clement claims that some people make the church resound with their kisses. This is not the chaste, closed-mouth Holy Kiss referred to by the apostle Paul on several occasions (e.g. Romans 16:16 & 1 Corinthians 16:20), but a much more lascivious open-mouthed version. But there is another unholy kiss, full of poison, counterfeiting sanctity. Do you not know that spiders, merely by touching the mouth, afflict men with pain? And often kisses inject the poison of licentiousness. It is then very manifest to us, that a kiss is not love. For the love meant is the love of God. And this is the love of God, says John, that we keep His commandments, not that we stroke each other on the mouth. This passage immediately reminded me of Martial’s complaints about kisses of greeting. And the denarius suddenly dropped: the Roman custom of greeting your peers with a kiss is the source of the Holy Kiss mentioned in early Christian writings. In today’s Anglican church it is the equivalent to The Peace. So next time you squirm as your church asks you to ‘exchange the sign of peace’ and you have to shake your neighbour’s hand, count yourself lucky. In Roman times this might have required a kiss.
I first came across the Rattlum Snakorum, a Victorian paper novelty, at the Wellcome Trust’s library, while browsing some books of Victorian advertising for my second novel for children, The Mourning Emporium.
I used the Rattlum Snakorum in the first draft of the book’s London section, in which a sentimental Cockney bulldog called Turtledove acts as a Fagin-like protector for a band of homeless children whose names include Greasy, Tig, and Hyrum. Tuttledove sends his beloved ‘childer’ out on missions that he calls ‘doings’. These consist not so much thieving as shifting dodgy products.
When it came to Rattlum Snakorum, I used the original advertising copy in full:
‘Doings must get did,’ [Turtledove explains to my two Venetian children, Teo and Renzo, whom he aims to recruit as little salespeople.]
‘What kind of product?’ asked Teo.
‘Novelties from Her late Majesty’s farflunged Empire. Hoptical Hillusions, Diverting Nonesuches, and the like, you know?’
‘Show them the Rattlum Snakorum,’ suggested Tig.
Greasy handed Teo a gaudy confection out of packet. The be-ribboned box was illustrated with a picture of a girl screaming and half-a-dozen boys grinning hilariously while a long, thin black object hurtled around the room.
Teo turned it over and read out loud the label.
'JUST IMPORTED THE RATTLUM SNAKORUM OR FLYING RATTLESNAKE OF JAPAN No Danger Sting Extracted Very Docile 1/8 eachWarranted Harmless but Hideous The RATTLUM SNAKORUM will go in the watch-pocket, yet blow out four feet long and as thick as a man’s arm. Immediately it is released from the hand it flies at terrific speed all over the room, causing the greatest consternation and horror amongst ladies. Stroked the right way it purrs with pleasure, stroked the wrong way it sends forth blood-curling screams. The snake is always ready for mischief, and will cause more fun in five minutes than ordinary mortals derive in a lifetime. Invaluable for Parties, as the most bashful young ladies invariable clutch the nearest gentlemen round the neck for protection, and refuse to release him until the monster is removed from the room.
NOTE – Not too much fright, but just fright enough.'
‘Nice little earner,’ commented Turtledove.
‘Provided the box aint got damp,’ mentioned Hyrum. ‘Then it don’t do nothing and they wants their moneys back.’
‘I don’t believe I am inclined to do doings,’ said Renzo pompously, ‘It all sounds slightly sordid to me.’
‘Oh he don’t think he wants to do doings?’ Turtledove suddenly reared up at what seemed like twice his normal height. A back leg raised itself infinitesimally from the floor.
Renzo grovelled, ‘Well, perhaps, since you ask so nicely, and of course we are grateful for our sustenance. Pray tell what you would have us do.’
After writing this scene, I became desperate to see and play with a real Rattlum Snakorum, because I had conceived a plot twist where it might be usefully deployed. But for that, I needed to know how it really worked. So I contacted the lovely Amoret Tanner, writer and collector, and a Founding Council member of the Ephemera Society. Amoret specializes in paper ephemera, so I asked her if she happened to have a Rattlum Snakorum in her archives.
She replied, ‘I wish, I wish – what a splendid item and if I had ever seen it, it would certainly be in my collection. Just the sort of thing I enjoy.’
In the event, my Rattlum Snakorum scenes were cut from the book. But I was reminded of it recently when I saw a video on YouTube showing that some snakes can indeed fly, sort of.
This National Geographic video shows how the flying snake stretches it ribs out and makes its belly concave so that it resembles a parachute. The snake then glides through the air as if through water. The performance is hypnotizing but the landings are not so graceful.
I can imagine that the Rattlum Snakorum did not have many happy landings either.
Victorian printers were masters of paper engineering. Some of their arts are now lost. When I worked as a book packager, I was constantly trying to induce printers in the Far East to simulate Victorian technology for pop-ups, embossing, die-cutting and honeycomb tissue paper. But, despite the best efforts of the excellent print-sourcers Imago, and the tortures I inflicted on the lovely people there, many of these arts are now lost, never to be recovered.
Modern scientists have recreated the movement of the real flying snake using folded paper and many complicated calculations. As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Kings College, I helped one student writing his thesis on the kinetic properties of folded paper. From what I learned via my student, combined with my packager’s experience of Victorian paper engineering, I conclude that the Rattlum Snakorum used concertina’ed paper to simulate a similar manoeuvre to that deployed by the real flying snake: the act of throwing would cause the paper ribs to expand from their folds, and the beast would simulate a long glide, ‘growing’ as it flew, perhaps in the direction of an hysterical lady or two.
Chrysopelea, the flying or gliding snake, lives in the forests of Southern Asia, rather than in Japan – though German cartographer Sebastian Münster claimed to have seen some in Africa in the 1550s. His snakes came complete with wings. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).
But why must a flying snake be a thing of horror?
Joanne Rand, an American country singer, has recorded a moving song called ‘Flying Rattlesnake’. She uses the snake as metaphor for unlikely regeneration in a bleak situation. The music and lyrics are here.
Looking at what I’ve written here, I realize that the true joy of the Rattlum Snakorum for me lay in the peerless advertising copy. I did not believe for one moment that this novelty toy had any organic life. But as a researcher I had been captured by the grandeur of its promise to ‘cause more fun in five minutes than ordinary mortals derive in a lifetime’.
Now I definitely know how to enjoy myself, but today I do feel a very ordinary mortal because I’ve never truly experienced a Rattlum Snakorum.
Vanessa Lafaye’s new book At First Light returns to the world captured so beautifully in her 2015 debut Summertime. Set in the Florida Keys in the early 20th century, it is a prequel of sorts, but the novel stands alone. Again Lafaye has chosen to base her story on real history, this time an unsolved murder by the Ku Klux Klan in 1919. Here’s the blurb:
1993, Key West, Florida. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.
1919. Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching, including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood and struggling to do what's right. And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town...
Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise made as the sun rose on a dark day in American history. At First Light is a deceptively easy read. Lafaye’s effortless prose drew me in instantly. I could feel the sultry heat, smell the lush greenery (and the abundant filth!) and sense the pulsing tension of a town seething with poverty, corruption and racial resentment. Lafaye is brilliant at creating flawed but sympathetic protagonists and in Alicia Cortez gives us a captivating, complex female lead. The artful split narrative does exactly what it should – though I suspected I already knew the end of Alicia’s story and a ‘happily ever after’ was unlikely, I was desperate to know what happened. But the ease with which I slipped into her story belies the depths of this novel.
Billed as ‘an epic love story and an unsolved murder’, I’d say the latter – both the events leading up to it and the eventual act of vengeance – is the real heart of this tale. Lafaye has clearly done her research and the sections dealing with the Ku Klux Klan are compelling and unsettling. A major thread concerns well-meaning young man Dwayne, who struggles to find his place in a world heavily influenced by his white supremacist father. Dwayne is attracted to the Klan’s message, couched as it is as a righteous cause for the greater good. Parallels with modern extremism and political polarisation are strong but Lafaye leaves enough space for us to make our own links and cast our own judgements.
There’s plenty of ‘real history’ for the geeks too, some of which is explained in an enlightening Author’s Note along with some suggested further reading. I’m a fan of novels that fictionalise little known events and build something entirely new from slight evidence. Asking the ‘what if’ question is part of the fun of writing historical fiction after all. Lafaye has brought a divisive forgotten moment in American history to light and has done so with sensitivity and respect.
At First Light is much more than ‘an epic love story’. It gives us a glimpse into a turbulent America on the brink of Prohibition, the experiences of troops returning from the horror of the WWI trenches, the devastating outbreak of the Spanish Flu, the Jim Crow culture of the Deep South and deeply ingrained attitudes that, some would say, still exist today. Lafaye makes all that accessible and thought-provoking with a remarkably light touch that doesn’t get bogged down. The story moves at pace but never feels hurried, matching the languid, tropical atmosphere. A perfect summer read, if you want depth and darkness alongside your romance.
We all struggle with authenticity. How can we best approach the past, weighed down as we are by our tech-heavy, sanitised modern lives?
Last month, I wrote about sailing on tall ships, and how that has fed into my fiction. I am a great reader of swords, sandals and sails. When I came to write, I knew that some of my compulsive, eclectic reading of everyone from Patrick O'Brien to Conn Iggulden, CS Forester to Angus Donald, Alexander Dumas to Giles Kristian would leave echoes in my own work.
All three of my first books have involved the writing of battles, the bearing of swords or the rush of sea and wind. The second of my books, The Winter Isles, presented particular problems about my relationship to the central character, Somerled, which can be summed up like this:
Somerled: A violent 12th century Scottish warlord, with a sperm-spray of offspring in numbers only matched by Genghis Khan. A father of sons who try to kill each other. A boy of MacDonald myth, who is light of heart and deep of thought. A son of the wild Atlantic seas. A monstrous fighter.
Me: A scaredy-cat Londoner. A mother who frets if her children sniffle. A starter at shadows, a concrete-walker. Weak-armed and flubbery-tummied. Someone who once saw a decapitated squirrel and has never quite got over it.
As part of that initial process of thinking my way into his world, I persuaded a commissioning editor at the FT to take a piece on learning sword-fighting. Not namby-pamby fencing, with the silly little pointy swords - proper medieval fighting, with big, heavy swords.
This was my first introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Historic European Martial Arts. A global, internet-linked group of enthusiasts have, for the last thirty years or so, been reviving medieval fighting techniques using the remaining fighting manuals. An estimated 13,000 people worldwide are now believed to practice the sport.
For my day with the sword-master Dave Rawlings at The London Longsword Academy, we used an extraordinary manuscript. 1.33 is a medieval fighting manual, prosaically named after its position in the Tower of London armouries' catalogue. It is the oldest surviving combat fighting manuscript in Europe, and dates from early fourteenth century Germany. It shows an incredible series of instructions on how to fight - and much to my joy, some of the illustrations show a female fighter named Walpurgis.
A page from 1.33 showing the incredible detail.
Most of the techniques are for a sword and buckler, a small easily portable shield that is used to support the vulnerable sword hand. One lovely detail, pointed out by Dave, is that some child has had access to the manual on its wanderings across Europe, and coloured in all the bucklers...
Here are some of the things I learnt about fighting with a sword.
1. Swords are very, very heavy. Arm-trembling, shoulder-sapping heavy. This is not obvious when you first pick it up - but becomes clear seconds after holding it aloft. Muscles are a must.
2. When you first pick up a proper sword, you will feel a fizzing glee. There is something elemental and brutishly satisfying about handling one. Any sword is Excalibur to the one holding it.
3. Looking down your sword at someone who is looking down a sword at you is very, very scary. Even when it's a nice bloke called Dave who is definitely not going to hurt you.
4. You will think you look like Samantha Swords, the incomparably awesome champion Long Sword fighter who is a big name in the European Martial Arts world:
5. You look nothing like Samantha Swords. And that is something you will have to come to terms with, slowly and with much regret.
6. Practice. Practice. To build the muscles, and learn the moves again and again and again, so that they become a memory in the bone. Sword skill would take a lifetime to achieve.
I decided, alas, that I was a better writer of swords than a wielder of one.
Along with the HWA and a few other fabulous writers, I am curating a new monthly evening of historical fiction chat in London. The first one is on Tuesday. Look us up on https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/historia-history-by-the-river-tickets-33696646577
Being a huge fan of Sarah Waters I was curious about The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook's adaptation of her novel Fingersmith, a particular favourite of mine. Had I needed further incentive to see Park's film, which had an impressive 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the the critics were gushing with a chorus of praise, dubbing it a 'masterpiece', 'intoxicating' and 'an erotic triumph.'
When a favourite book is adapted there is inevitably a sense of disappointment on finding the screen version doesn't live up to that conjured in the mind of the reader. But as The Handmaiden had transposed Waters' narrative from nineteenth century England to 1930s Japanese occupied Korea, I was prepared for a radically different retelling and that is what was delivered.
Visually glorious and languidly paced, the film utterly seduced me as the young and impoverished Soo-kee, magnificently played by newcomer Kim Tae-ri, was sent to the remote estate of an aristocratic book collector, as maid to his niece Hideko. However, faithful to the original material, Soo-kee has been planted there by a con man on a mission to persuade the wealthy Hideko to marry him, with the ultimate intention of having her committed to an asylum.
Without revealing too much and spoiling it, I can say that this is a film of two distinct halves. At a certain point the perspective shifts from Sookee to Hideko, exposing things Sookee is not aware of. Problematically the film suffers at this point on, from the loss of the captivating Kim Tae-ri as protagonist and much of the seductive tension is lost when it descends to relentless girl-on-girl prurience.
I'm not averse to a little tasteful lesbian erotica in a film but this was of the sort that was so explicit as to make me want to gouge my eyes out with embarrassment. As for the scenes of hard core torture and finger-chopping, suffice to say I couldn't look at all. It's not that these scenes didn't have a place in Park's film, they made sense within the narrative as he set it up, and there was the triumphant pay-off for the two manipulated women. But something left me uneasy about the adaptation as a whole.
My reading of Fingersmith was (as well as being a beautifully written, cunningly plotted page-turner) as a feminist critique of the male gaze and the infantilisation of women. Park's film, however, seemed to undermine Waters' central themes. Whilst masquerading as a celebration of female wiles by allowing the women to spectacularly out-fox the men and putting them at the centre of the story, it also undermined the gender politics of the original by offering a lurid lesbian fantasy for the male viewer.
For me an adaptation must be faithful to the spirit of the source material and in this The Handmaiden failed. As for those panting critics, strangely all male – I suspect they were thinking with something other than their heads.
‘Where is the steed? Where is the rider? Where is the treasure-giver? ...
How that time has passed away, grown dark under the shadow of night as if it had never been!’
Anglo-Saxon helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial ship
Many years ago I studied Anglo-Saxon at university. I will never forget my professor with his thick white moustache thundering out the sonorous lines of The Wanderer. He expounded on the Anglo Saxon philosophy and way of life and on the elegiac mood of its poetry - how human life is like a sparrow flitting through a lighted hall, a brief moment of light in an eternity of darkness. Men and women found comfort in the mead hall, lit with candles and tapers. But if you lost your lord you would be thrown out from that bright ring of light, from the warmth and cheer, left to sit alone on the seashore with waves crashing and wolves howling.
Later in Japan I discovered another culture where men had been warriors, where death was preferable to dishonour and where without his lord a man was doomed.
Basho and Sora, straw hats on their backs
In 1689 the poet Matsuo Basho walked through the northern part of Japan, an area now known to everyone after the tsunami of 2011. He kept a poetic diary, interspersing prose with haiku poems, and called it The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He followed in the footsteps of Yoshitsune, a real life Japanese hero, akin to Richard the Lionheart - though, to be accurate, Basho actually travelled in the opposite direction, beginning at the scene of Yoshitsune’s last stand.
Five centuries before Basho’s great walk, in 1185, Yoshitsune had won some amazing victories, one of which involved riding his army on their horses straight down a vertical cliff-face to attack the enemy camped on the beach below, where they mistakenly thought they were safe.
He was a gallant and dashing young man, legendary for his exploits, and by all accounts very beautiful. His problem was that he was the younger brother of Yoritomo, who had named himself shogun and ruled a large chunk of central Japan. (As in the days of Alfred the Great, Japan was divided into several kingdoms.) Yoritomo was afraid that the popular Yoshitsune would try and overthrow him, so he ordered him killed. Yoshitsune fled north with his mistress, the dancer Shizuka Gozen, who was carrying his child. Eventually he had to leave her behind.
Yoshitsune fighting Benkei on Gojo Bridge, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)
He took refuge in the northern city of Hiraizumi, the capital of a lord called Hidehira. But a couple of years later Hidehira died. He had ordered his son to protect Yoshitsune but his son betrayed him and on the thirtieth day of the fourth month, 1189, made a surprise attack with an army of 20,000 soldiers on the castle where Yoshitsune was. Yoshitsune had only eight retainers. He wanted at least to die an honourable death, by his own hand, not be ignominiously killed by the enemy.
Yoshitsune had a retainer called Benkei who was enormously tall and strong, over 2 metres tall, more than 6 foot 7, a Japanese Little John. There are many stories and legends of how Yoshitsune and Benkei first met, fighting on a bridge in Kyoto. The small, slight Yoshitsune defeated the giant Benkei, who became his most loyal follower.
That day Yoshitsune’s followers all fought bravely, one by one killing themselves so they wouldn’t have to endure the shame of being captured or killed by the enemy when they were too badly wounded to fight on. Finally only Benkei was left. The enemy were all in awe of him. They were sure that if they got close enough to him to try and take a swing at him with their swords he would kill them. So they kept their distance and shot arrows at him but he continued to stand, blocking their path, so they couldn’t reach the castle, thus giving Yoshitsune the time to commit his honourable suicide in peace.
Basho on his travels writing haiku
Benkei stood at the bend of the river with arrows sticking out of him like a porcupine. And still the enemy dared not approach him. Finally one, less timid than the rest, plucked up courage and galloped by at a distance, creating a wind. Benkei swayed backwards and forwards, then fell. He’d died on his feet.
Five hundred years later Basho arrived and saw the bend on the river where Benkei had stood and sat down on his straw hat and wept. Then he wrote a haiku:
‘Natsugusa ya tsuwamono domo ga yumei no ato’
‘Summer grasses - all that remains of mighty warriors’ dreams ...’
Some three hundred years after that I too was there. I saw the bend in the river where Benkei had stood. There was nothing to see at all, just a grassy slope. And besides Basho’s poignant haiku the Anglo Saxon poem that was engraved so indelibly on my mind also came to me: ‘Where is the steed? Where is the rider? Where is the treasure-giver? ...’
There is a shrine to Yoshitsune on the top of the hill where his castle was. There are also several stories as to what became of him. Some say he didn’t commit suicide at all but galloped north, crossed to Mongolia and became Genghis Khan. You can pick whichever ending you prefer.
I live in an historic city which makes every trip into town a visit to a byegone era. It is a privilege and a pleasure for me and for many of the thousands who live here and the numerous visitors who pass through.
By MichaelMaggs (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The difficulty of balancing the every day, modern needs of a vibrant, thriving city with this historic beauty is an ongoing issue, of course. Traffic, roads, schools, housing, office space; all are constant concerns and conflict with preserving the valuable heritage we have been entrusted with.
Bath is one of the few cities in the world to have Unesco World Heritage status. And it has been proven that cities can lose this. Dresden, which went ahead with a modern motorway bridge development too close to the city centre, did so.
The new shopping centre that was opened in Southgate, Bath, in 2009 was aruguably an improvement on the hideous 1960s monstrosity it replaced. But it fails to do one thing that the old shopping centre maintained - the buildings are too tall and visitors can no longer see out over the hills around the city from the centre of the development - something that has always been a feature of the city.
Now the new Riverside development of thousands of flats (many bought by overseas investors and standing empty, but that's a whole other issue) are threatening the status all over again. Tall, brash and modern, and very close to the Georgian city centre, they can be seen from every vantage point, a raw eyessore. There has been little space planned in to plant cover which would soften the appearance over time.
Now the city council want to build a Park and Ride to the east of the city, concreting over beautiful green belt, another site that will be very visible from many vantage points; a gleaming sea of cars by day and empty tarmac by night.
I know a balance needs to be struck, and proponents of development say we can't live in a museum. But my inclination is to say, why not? There are other modern cities you can choose to live in if you want that. I think we are risking our beautiful city and its outstanding reminders of its past. The city in which I set my novel The Girl in the Mask, was built over and adapted by the Georgians. Perhaps people felt even then it was being damaged. But what was built was high quality, was outstandingly beautiful and has endured. Somehow, I don't think the Park and Ride and the Riverside are going to be drawing tourists in 200 years time.
At the end of September, I have a new book coming out. It's called Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, and it's about a boy and his uncle who go off plant hunting to the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century.
I say it's about plant hunting, and in a way it is. But it struck me when I re-read it recently that you could also say it's about conquering your fears. And you certainly needed to be able to do that if you were a plant hunter in those days - and in fact you still do, as we shall see later: because hunting for new plants meant heading off into remote and often inhospitable places, without the conveniences of good roads (or indeed any roads) or communications technology - and just dealing with whatever you happened to find. And you could find some pretty scary things: pirates, unfriendly locals, precipitous paths and swaying rope bridges, swamps, turbulent rivers, dense forests inhabited by leeches, snakes and animals which wanted to eat you - and so on.
Many of the plants we have in our gardens are not native to Britain - think of conifers, clematis, tulips, horse chestnuts, lilies, magnolias, orchids, jasmine. Of course, plants have been migrants for centuries; the Romans took favourite plants with them as their empire expanded, and later, monks in mediaeval monasteries were enthusiastic gardeners who swapped plants, as gardeners always do. But it was in the seventeenth century that plant hunting, in the sense of purposefully going off to explore new territories with the aim of finding new plants, really took off.
Looking back from where we are now, it's uncomfortably clear that plant hunting often went hand in hand with colonial expansion. So the Tradescants, for example, went to Canada and Virginia for plants because North America was being explored with a view to it being settled by the British and others from Western Europe. Sir Joseph Banks didn't set off with Captain Cook to explore the Great Southern Continent purely out of a Romantic desire for knowledge (though I'm sure that was a big part of his motivation); what Britain could get out of it was a big factor.
But the aspect of plant-hunting that really seized my imagination when I first began to read up on it some years ago (I read about the Tradescants in Philippa Gregory's hugely enjoyable Virgin Earth and Earthly Joys, and about the plant hunters generally in the excellent and very informative The Plant Hunters, by Toby Musgrave et al) was how insanely brave these people were: some of them didn't survive their adventures. I imagined a boy, an orphan; one of those children who's always getting into trouble because he's just got so much energy, and because he doesn't think ahead. My boy Jack wants to be an explorer, and can't believe his luck when his aunt, driven to distraction, declares that she can't manage him any longer, and it's the turn of her brother - who, in a move which is utterly uncharacteristic, has just decided to set off on a plant hunting expedition to the Himalayas.
Ton Hart Dyke
As I mentioned earlier, plant hunting can still be a dangerous activity. Tom Hart Dyke is a plant hunter whose family has lived for centuries in Lullingstone Castle in Kent. He was catapulted into the news when he and his friend, Tom Winder, were kidnapped while plant hunting in the Columbian jungle in 2000, and held for nine months. You can read here about their ordeal - and about how the experience led to him conceiving the idea of creating a 'World Garden', which he set about creating at Lullingstone on his return home.
I shall return to those insanely brave earlier plant hunters over the next few months. Indiana Jones - eat your heart out - who needs to hunt for ancient archaeological artefacts when you can hunt for plants? (Oops - just remembered a certain scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - not literally, Indie: not literally...)
And finally, a little hint as to what Jack and his uncle desperately want to find...
Research, as an idea, brings images of ancient bookshelves and peaceful reading. In my mind are places like the circular British Museum Library Reading Room (now an exhibition space) or studious retreats in settings like Gladstone’s Library at Hawarden in Flintshire. I may now have to change my mind . . .
The “new” British Library at St Pancras, London, displays a magnificent wall of leather-bound volumes, exhibits pages of historic books and manuscripts and hosts various themed exhibitions, as well as offering a busy café full of international students and visitors.
Meanwhile, away in Yorkshire, there is the less famous version: the British Library at Boston Spa, near Wetherby. In 1961, the science and technical information storage was moved here. In 1971, the library became a “lending” division for industries and companies and, by 1988, Boston Spa was dealing with eight million photocopies a year, and the work and quantity has carried on growing.
The site became briefly newsworthy when, in 2013, the British Library closed the newspaper depository in Colindale, (Hendon), sending the contents to their new National Newspaper Storage Building in the north. Five hundred and thirty-five articulated lorries were used to move the collection to the huge and almost windowless block where the archive could be kept in highly controlled conditions away from the damp of the ageing Colindale stores.
That “five hundred and thirty five lorries” or, more probably, “lorry-loads” is information I heard during a tour of the British Library, Boston Spa, an event specially organised by my local library’s Friends group.
So I can now, through this post, report that this vast modern library is unlike those historical fantasy libraries of my imagination.
Beforehand, I had wondered about the choice of location. Although Boston Spa is a distance from London, its location beside the A1 makes it a good transport link and, before the Beeching cuts, there was even a railway line.The site is quite close to York with its colleges and university but - possibly more important than academic needs - was the history of the place. The site is an old WWII aircraft munitions store where, originally, low-level buildings were spaced out between protective earth embankments, designed to limit the impact of explosions and contain any fire. Boston Spa’s own history suggests conservation purposes.
Moreover, as the land was, and probably still remains, government property, offering the site to the British Library for their important archive must have come as a relatively cheap and welcome solution for one Government ministry or another.
As befits such a start, security on the British Library site is still tight: our names and car numbers had to be sent in beforehand, and checked again at the entrance gates and in Library reception.
Books are there, at Boston Spa, but they are barely noticeable within the whole machine of the library.Our first look was inside the Digital Preservation Scheme, where the team at Boston Spa team have gathered a collection of computers spanning from the 1970’s through to the modern models, bringing sighs of nostalgia to the IT users in our group.
The computers are not there as historic exhibits: their purpose is to make sure that digital evidence (e-books, sound files, internet content, digital objects and so on) will be accessible for viewing fifty, a hundred or more years ahead. We all know – now – that floppy discs and hard discs degrade; we also know – especially after last weekend’s NHS computer crisis - that “old” programmes eventually cease being updated or supported.
When, back in the 1970s and 80’s, digital content began to be released, nobody thought about the future:books and magazines came to the Library for storage, but the diskettes or CDs within the back cover were largely ignored. Now the Digital Preservation team try to preserve the material, to keep the integrity of the information, and to make sure the legacy of the content remains unchanged. Wanting “old” information to remain viable, they transfer material into formats that can be viewed and/or played on computers both now and into the future.
However, the British Library team do not do this alone. Teams of knowledgeable enthusiasts – such as the wonderfully named Software Preservation Society- help with the work. They share solutions on the internet , collaborate and update their knowledge at annual conferences, write emulator software to “hold” old programmes, and do all that is needed to keep the history of the digital revolution alive for the future.
Then – wow! – the second stop on our visit looked like the future itself. We had entered the non-descript side door of a building, climbed a few flights of stairs, stepped through a heavy fire door onto an internal viewing platform.
We looked down and saw occasional crates of books on rolling tracks, arriving or leaving at a computer work station. The person sitting there was dealing with the request, but the process was not guided by any Dewy catalogue or similar scheme but by the ten-digit “shelf-mark” numbering on the crates. As each crate came or went, it was weighed and height-checked automatically and the item removed for borrowing was weighed and measured too. The computer, not the human, was tallying and registering the book or journal withdrawn or replaced; moreover, the whole system was kept in order not by a set shelf location but by the location of the crate number. The system was based, so I heard, based on a shoe warehouse somewhere in Europe.
Then, with a small personal push, the crate slid back into the roller-ways and sped off through a hole in the wall. We too, we went through a heavy fire-door on to the other half of the viewing platform and – wow!-we were in the book store. Tall, narrow metal cranes shot towards us and away, sliding at speed between the high stacks, collecting used book crates and zooming them off to a shelf far away within the vast, twenty-storey warehouse.
The great gloomy place, the odd flashing lights on the whizzing cranes, the speed of the automatic book-crate selection and the few lone humans needed to support the borrowing made the bookstore seem like a scene from a science fiction movie.
Moreover, we were warned we could not stay watching for long as the book stack is a low-oxygen environment. The atmosphere protects the books and reduces the risk of any fire spreading but it is not so preservative of people. If workmen have to go into the stacks to sort out any physical task, they must enter in pairs and come out again - for a true “breather” - within twenty minutes.
I must say there was no hint here of cosy, cushioned, book corners or the pleasures of idle browsing, but there was certainly a ghostly quality to the vast cathedral-like space.
Our next stop was the “mailing” building where requests arrive, apparently as paper dockets. The British Library is linked an international system for sharing academic theses, known as ETHOS, which now receives about a hundred requests a day for material as well as requests coming in from other sources. All documents are scanned as jpegs, to keep the integrity of the source, before being printed, given a covering sheet and being sent on to the person waiting at the St Pancras site or elsewhere, all within about 48 hours. There were various types and sizes of scanners here, ranging from standard computer scanners up to an A0 size scanner screen.
Even in our group of eight, there was not enough time to ask everything - and with so few staff about in some areas, I did not want to get left too far behind.
However, as is the way with such visits, other sights and facts stuck in my mind:
- the newspaper cages stacked with editions of the current year’s papers, waiting to go into the archive store;
- the narrow wooden box that held acollection of glass photographic slides, and which were used for the WW1 exhibition at the Imperial War Museum – and the fact that b&w photos are best scanned in grey-scale, not black and white if you want to retain detail;
- the dinner-table-top sized scanner seen copying pages from a vast book: descending, the glass protective sheet pressed on the open pages firmly enough to hurt if you didn’t get your hands out of the way;
- the suggestion that white gloves were not used to protectnewsprint but to protect the workers hands – and we never did get to see inside the newspaper storage facility;
- the shelves that were so full of identically-bound books on remote scientific topics that my head started to hurt;
- the changes in temperature and atmosphere as we moved from one place to another.
- the pleasant staff café with its very non-London atmosphere, menu and style
- the large, modern reading room, which we were could not enter in case we disturbed readers.
However, as I peered in through the nearest glass window, I did see a single row of the graceful metal-framed reading desks which had been retrieved from the one of the British Library’s Reading Rooms.
A bespectacled gentleman was sitting there, earnestly studying a copy of an old Bradford Telegraph and Argus. So “History” was of interest in the British Library Boston Spa after all, even though it had seemed the unlikeliest setting at times that morning.
And, in places, I did catch that special scent of books and ageing newsprint.
Like many writers, I often go for a walk if I'm stuck, if I need to think my way through a knotty plot problem, map out the next part of the story, or simply to get away from my desk. I live in a small town and five or ten minutes in any direction will take me out into the countryside. One of my favourite walks is to Guys Cliffe, an impressive gothic ruin on a sandstone bluff above the river Avon, about a mile upstream from the town of Warwick.
Guy's Cliffe is named for Guy of Warwick, the legendary English hero, who fell in love with the high born and beautiful Felice. To win her hand, he had to prove his valour by battling it out with dragons, a giant boar and the fiercesome Dun Cow which had been ravaging the land hereabouts. He wins the lady's hand but later goes on a pilgrimage to atone for his life as a man of violence. On his return, he became a hermit and retreated from the world to live in a cave above the Avon.
The Oratory reputedly founded by him became the chapel of St Mary Magdalene which is still on the site. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the chapel, outbuildings and surrounding land were acquired by a Sir Andrew Flammock who built a Tudor house, completed in 1556.
Guy's Cliffe on the Sheldon Tapestry, Warwick Museum
In the 18th Century, the property was acquired by Samuel Greatheed who built himself a mansion. He was MP for Coventry and an extremely wealthy man, having inherited a large plantation on St Kitts in the West Indies and the slaves that went with it. The house was started in 1751, after his marriage to Lady Mary Bertie and built in the grand palladian style.
The house passed by marriage from the Greatheed - Berties to the Percy family in 1826. They occupied the house for over a century, their graves can be found in the nearby village of Old Milverton's Cemetery, but the last Percy to inherit in 1933 never took up permanent residency. The house was used as a hospital during the Second World War and as a school for evacuees. In 1947, the estate was broken up and sold. The families who had owned it from the 18th Century were gone, although their names live on as streets in Leamington Spa: Greatheed Road, Percy Terrace, Bertie Terrace and Bertie Road in nearby Kenilworth. Plans to convert the house into a hotel came to nothing and it fell into disrepair. The Free Masons acquired the undercroft and part of the house as a Masonic Lodge in the 1970s. They still use this part of the building but in 1992, during the filming of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - The Last Vampyre, the building caught fire, leaving the suitably gothic ruin that we see today.
Now, Guy's Cliffe is often used for ghost hunts and ghost tours because, of course, there are ghost stories. Oppressive atmospheres, giant black figures, white ladies and even bad boy, Piers Gaveston, but perhaps he belongs to nearby Blacklow Hill and a different History Girls post.
Can you imagine spending two months of every year walking 150 miles (242 kilometres) over challenging terrain, scrambling up steep, rocky hills, trudging miles across moors, fording rivers, lakes and even stretches of sea?
For company, you’d have a large herd of long horned cattle: unpredictable, dangerous beasts. Most nights, you would sleep on the ground beside them.
At journey’s end, having sold the cattle, you’d earn extra money by working at the local harvest before walking all the way home again. You would do this year after year, in hot sunshine, clouds of midges and pouring rain.
To us, with our comfortable, mostly indolent lives, this seems almost unbelievable, but it’s simply a description of the droving trade which went on for centuries. Highland regions, such as the Welsh and Scottish mountains, were best suited to pastoral farming, but to make a decent profit the beasts had to be brought to market in more prosperous regions, where higher prices were paid for meat.
No railways existed until the 1830s. There were no road vehicles capable of transporting large numbers of cattle, and no useable roads for such vehicles in any case. A huge amount of freight transport went by sea and river, but the task of transporting several hundred unhappy steers by small boats was expensive and difficult. And once landed, the cattle were still a long way from the best markets.
The simplest solution was to walk the beasts to market, step by step. Pigs, sheep and geese were also droved, with the geese fitted with sturdy boots for the journey by dipping their feet in tar.
I researched the droving trade for my book, The Drover’s Dogs. My knowledge is slanted towards the Scottish trade, especially the journey from the Hebridean island of Mull in the west, to Lowland Scotland’s great ‘Tryst’ or cattle market in Falkirk in the east. (‘Tryst’ means ‘meeting place’ and, at the cattle trysts, sellers and buyers from all over Scotland met to do business.)
A ‘drover’ could mean a herdsman who walked alongside the cattle with his dog and perhaps owned a couple of the driven beasts, to a wealthy man whose main business was droving. Quite often, like Lachlan in my book, they were crofters themselves who drove their own beasts to market and earned extra income by taking some of their neighbours' cattle too.
The drover might buy his neighbours' cattle outright, or he might simply promise to sell the cattle at the best price he could, and pass on the money to the crofter, minus an agreed cut.
In about May of each year, a drover would start enquiring among his neighbours: Who wanted to send beasts to market and how many? Roughly around June, the drovers began herding the cattle together in one place. A man might gather together a large herd, and had to remember who the owners of them all were, and what agreement he'd made with them. Later, he'd have to remember how much the beasts sold for. Some drovers could read and write. Many were illiterate and probably used tally-sticks to help them keep account. They also, undoubtedly, developed accurate and sharp memories.
Highlanders didn’t have a good reputation throughout most of the period and drovers were reputed to be lazy, drunken, dirty and stupid. They were called lazy because they often slept late at their ‘stances,’ the overnight camping places chosen for the water, shelter and grazing they provided. Drovers were seen sitting over their fires, eating breakfast and chatting until mid-morning. And even once started, they dawdled along.
This wasn’t laziness. Hurried cattle lost weight and became less valuable. People who called the drovers ‘lazy’ had obviously never experienced or considered the hardness and danger of the drover’s life. To come from Mull, the cattle were first driven to Grass Point on Loch Spelve and loaded on to boats which carried them across the strait to the island of Kerrera. The cattle were unwilling. Drovers could be gored, trampled or crushed.
After disembarking on Kerrera, the cattle were driven the length of the island and then swum across the narrow stretch of sea to the mainland at Oban. Many men stripped off and swam with the cattle: another dangerous enterprise.
Once the mainland was gained, they walked the cattle up into hills and crossed Loch Awe and the sea loch, Loch Fyne. They were still only half-way. They had to skirt Loch Lomond, journey along the shores of Loch Katrine and even then there were miles to walk before they reached Falkirk. This is a lot easier to write down and read than it was to do it in 1800 or earlier!
In earlier centuries, the cattle might have to be defended against robbers, though this was less likely in 1800, when my story is set.
The drovers’ diet for this arduous journey was mostly oats, onions and whisky. Dry oats were mixed into cold water. The onions were probably eaten as we would eat an apple. For a little more protein, they might open one of the bullock’s neck veins and mix the blood into their porridge.
So the accusation of laziness doesn’t stand, but drovers were certainly dirty, at least while droving, since they slept rough or in the notoriously unsavoury inns of the Highlands. There was probably also some substance to the accusation of drunkenness. If I had to live like that, I would make the most of the whisky too.
But stupid? Many reasons probably underlay this insult. The drovers were usually considered illiterate, uneducated farm-hands. They were also Highlanders too and in 1715 and 1745 Highlanders had risen in rebellion against the British state. The last Jacobite uprising had taken place a mere 55 years before my story is set: within living memory.
The Highlanders first language was Gaelic and they were mostly Catholic, so they were divided by language, culture and religion from the English and from Lowland Scots who, at best, considered Highlanders to be ‘noble savages.’ At worst, they thought them a lower form of life: dishonest, dangerous, treacherous and stupid.
But a successful drover needed a sharp intelligence. Success depended on bringing the cattle to market in good condition and perhaps even better fed on grazing along the way than they had started. To manage this, a drover needed not only expert knowledge of cattle but a weather eye and close acquaintance with every stance along the way. Would the tracks ahead be muddy and impassable: was it worth taking another way through the hills? Was it worth hurrying the cattle a little to reach the next stance before another drove who might leave nothing to graze?
He had to be able to manage men, and have a phenomenal memory for places, people and the deals he’d made. Even if illiterate, he likely had great quickness with numbers. I'm reminded of an Italian woman I once knew who was illiterate in both English and Italian, but to assume from this that she was stupid would have been a big mistake. For one thing, she understood numbers, prices and weights very well, and added, subtracted and divided long lists of numbers with a speed and accuracy that made me dizzy. Lord help anyone who tried to short-change her. I imagine that, from long practice, the drovers had the same facility. In short, to be sure of finding a fool at a drovers' stance, you had to take one with you.
Drovers were also honest, or as honest as any trader can be. Most business at the time was conducted on a handshake and a dishonest man would soon have had no business at all. Again, I offer a modern parallel. I have family connections with a small island where a great deal of business is still conducted on trust because nearly all families are interconnected and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else.
Any incoming clever-clogs who try to take advantage of this trusting ‘naivety’ soon find that no locals will do any business with them at all. Suddenly, no credit is to be had and credit cards aren't accepted. If they need an electrician, decorator, plumber etc, it's impossible to find one who isn't solidly booked up. Word has gone round and that word can, and has, wrecked businesses.I imagine that any drover who tried to cheat the crofters would soon have found himself with no trade and no friends.
Although probably as old as agriculture, the droving trade prospered with the rise of urban living. Demand for meat grew with the population and wealth of towns. Prices rose in those markets that supplied urban areas and it was more profitable to undertake the arduous droves to those markets than sell or barter your cattle more locally.
The real hey-day came in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. Towns continued to grow and wars in Europe meant a steep rise in demand for beef from the Army and Navy.
A Welsh bank note
The increase in droving stimulated the development of banking. Returning drovers often carried large, heavy sums of cash across lonely moors and mountains. So banks set up near the Trysts. The drover could place his cash in their strongboxes and receive in return a paper ‘note’ which was lighter to carry and less temptation to robbers. On reaching the end of his journey, he took this note to another branch of the bank and ‘cashed it.’ Payment was sometimes accepted in these signed and co-signed notes, fore-runners of paper money. The one illustrated above seems to be a cross between paper-money and a cheque. The value of £2 seems to have been printed on the note, so I guess that banks had stocks of notes printed for them, with different values. But the note has also been signed in the bottom right-hand corner, like a cheque.
Many of these banks, such as Llandovery’s Black Ox Bank, took an ox or bull as their symbol, in honour of their connection with the droving trade. The Aberystwith and Tregaron, above, has a drawing of sheep.
The end of the droving trade was brought about mainly by two things: peace and steam.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, meant a great fall in the demand for beef. At the same time, agricultural improvements meant that greater numbers of cattle were kept alive over winter and larger, fatter cattle were bred, in greater numbers, close to towns where demand was greatest.
And then came steam which ‘carried away the droving trade.’ By the 1840s, railways had spread throughout west Scotland (and the rest of Britain.) Tracks could extend to depots almost at the dock-sides. Cattle could be shipped in the large holds of sturdy, iron steam-ships and then loaded into cattle trucks which were dragged away by steam-train.Drovers arrived at market to find that all demand had been satisfied by cattle who’d arrived more speedily by train.
The Sterkarm Handshake
The ancient droving trade had been a hard one, but it had been one way a highland crofter could earn hard cash to pay his rent. Its end pushed many crofters into hardship and emigration.
At this time of year, my daily walk takes in three of the “industrial” features of this lovely part of Hampshire, the Meon Valley: the River Meon itself, the long defunct Meon Valley Railway and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere.
The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing for trout at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – somewhat belie its powerful past. The railway once played its part in bearing passengers and goods from leafy Hampshire to noisy London (and had an important role in World War Two). And the forest – particularly lovely at this time of year, when the bright green foliage is just beginning to clothe the branches of the beech trees, yet is still sparse enough to allow the sun to light up the glades of bluebells – is but a small part of a much greater forest that has a long and important history.
Map by William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1645.
The RiverMeon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and, for much of that length, a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.
The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane, and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…
But despite the apparently gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power.
The River Meon in flood in the 1950s.
Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. In 1953, the flooding in East Meon was the worst seen for forty years.
More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, cloth processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2
Until the 17th century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port, and the area was heavily involved in the woollen industry and also produced iron, tanned goods and cloth. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and, in 1611, to ensure that Titchfield could remain a port, the Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, had a canal built directly from the sea to the town, and the Meon estuary was blocked off. Some say that, at one time, boats could come up the river as far as Soberton, where smuggled goods were unladen and hidden in the church vault, though one does wonder at the veracity of this romantic tale.3
There were mills all along the River Meon, from one end to the other, including ones at Titchfield, Funtley, Wickham, Soberton, Droxford, Meonstoke, and East Meon. Many buildings survive, although they are not necessarily original. The mills were mainly used for grinding grain, although at Warnford was one of the very earliest paper mills in Hampshire, and at Funtley there was an iron mill in the 17th century. The water mill below Bere Farm in Soberton Heath – Soberton Mill – was probably, in the 16th century, a fulling mill, where cloth was scoured (cleaned and whitened) and milled (felted and then rinsed), before being stretched. Later, into the 20th century, Soberton was used as a flour mill.
Chesapeake Mill in Wickham replaced an earlier watermill on the site.4 The present mill was built in 1820 using timbers from HMS Chesapeake, the former United States Navy frigate USS Chesapeake, captured by the Royal Navy in 1812. The outside of the mill is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are built from the ship’s deck timbers, still, apparently, blood-stained from the ship’s fighting days. The mill, used for producing flour, remained in operation until 1976.
Both Chesapeake and Soberton mills sit not only on the river but also alongside the defunctMeon Valley railwayline, now just a woodland track, on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) all the way from Wickham through Soberton to West Meon.
The Meon Valley Railway opened in 1903 and ran for 22.5 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, closely following the course of the River Meon. It was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The line passed through the Forest of Bere before heading across the water-meadows at Wickham on an embankment. The meanderingcourse of the River Meon, the constraints of the landscape and the railway’s ruling gradient meant that the railway needed five under-bridges within half a mile (1 kilometre), three to cross the Meon and two to cross roads in Wickham.
In the early days of the railway, it was used for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, including watercress (from the still active watercress beds at Warnford), fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. Local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the railway, and an inn was built next to Droxford station in the hope of accommodating tourists and travellers.
People were impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high quality of the stations and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Unfortunately, the expected London through-traffic never materialised, and after only fifty years passenger traffic was cut in 1955. The line was closed altogether in 1968, and subsequently, 17.5 km (11 mi) of the route was made into the trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.
However, the Meon Valley Railway did have an important role to play during World War Two. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.
Old loading gauge at Mislingford
(As an aside, I’ve a small tale to tell… I’m not really a particularly mystical individual, but I’ve often sensed “something” at this spot… Ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? In fact, there’s a timber yard quite close by, so maybe it has only ever been the noises from there, the clanking of machinery, and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…)
Droxford station in July 1975 Photo by Nick Catford
The railway’s most famous wartime role came on 2nd June 1944, when Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet met General Eisenhower, General de Gaulle and other Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. Their mission was the final preparations for the D-Day landings. The station was only a short car journey from Eisenhower’s invasion headquarters at Southwick, and, being mostly hidden, was considered a safe location for the crucial meeting.
If the river and the railway run alongside each other, so the railway line also runs alongside the remains of the Forest of Bere where it lies within the parish of Soberton.
Bere Forest was once very extensive, stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest over in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I also hunted here.
But the Forest of Bere was not just a royal hunting ground.
Evidence of a Roman bloomery, a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron, was found during excavations for one of the forest’s car parks in Soberton Heath. For centuries, the oak woods provided timber for building and acorns for pigs. Villagers of the southern part of the village (Soberton Heath) had rights to turn their cattle into the forest, including horses and pigs but not sheep. The deer that roamed the forest – which we often still see these days both in the forest and on the road – were not of course for the common people.
In the 13th century, oaks were cut in quantity to repair warships and build bridges, and for building work in Winchester. At the beginning of the 14th century the size of the forest began to decline, presumably because of the amount of timber being taken. In Tudor times, the timber was reputedly used extensively for Henry VIII’s shipwrights, including perhaps the building of the Mary Rose, which in 1545 would sink in the Solent at the far end of the Meon Valley, and can now be seen in all its wonderful glory at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. In the 17th century, Cromwell, Lord Protector, reputedly used a vast quantity of Bere Forest timber to repair his ships, then, in the later 18th, there was so much work for Portsmouth dockyard associated with the Napoleonic Wars that, by 1815, there was apparently no suitable oak left!! Replanting didn’t start until 1855.
Great quantities of timber were again felled during the First World War and then again over the period of WWII, this time for the building of aircraft, using beech wood. During WWII, two land mines were dropped on the forest – the enemy was probably looking for the railway – creating two large and very deep ponds. Alongside the involvement of the railway in the war effort, our lovely forest was also used, both to hide tanks within the trees, and to shelter people who, during the worst of the bombing, came out from Portsmouth to find a degree of safety.
It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me.